The rumbling of fun echoed outward to all those outside the walls. It tumbled headlong into the ears and imaginations to pull eyes in the direction of the attractions. Even as the car stopped in the parking lot, after teasingly driving around the perimeter, turning away and then turning back again in the long search for an empty spot, people would hop up and down, anxious lest the theme park close, or fill up, or simply disappear, with an irrational fear that they would miss out on the seemingly endless flow of fun. Only they didn’t know it was fear that propelled them forward.
I wish I had known that then.
Maybe I would have done things differently, not that anything could have changed what happened.
Walking through the rotating blades of the turn-style entrance I felt in awe. The sense wonder grew with even the most mundane of things: the machine that sucked my ticket into a small slit like a mouth vacuuming in a strand of spaghetti noodle. The arch of the gated entry swallowed our upturned faces in its wide maw, drawing us all inside the park. Even the throng of others, usually a deterrent, a reason to shy away to a small safe corner gave rise to the excitement we already felt coursing through our blood.
My friends and I tried to contain our jackal grins. At first embarrassed by the giddy excitement spreading across our surface like spilled milk, but discovering the mess was bigger than the container of our heads. A long pause of appreciation for everything in front of us left us still. We gazed long at the wonders surrounding. But soon we found we had to share it, our reverent appreciation.
My head moved up and down the tall structures, the flashing lights, in a bobbing bow of worship until finally catching my friend’s eye. Our eyes met and we saw our own delight reflected in each other’s eyes. I knew we shared an equal devotion. Nothing had impressed us so completely before.
I ran to the left. One ran down the middle. Another swiveled, finding a diagonal alleyway. While she ran far to the right and it took more steps than we cared to for before each of us realized we’d nearly lost each other. In a panic, we rushed back to the point of entrance, sure that the crowds would swarm between us and leave us bereft and alone. But right away we recognized each other beyond the bobbing heads and swing armed gait of strangers, sighing with immediate relief.
The group smiled and as one we headed into the gathering swirl of shifting people. We dived between stroller toting parents and weaved around the slow paced elders holding hands. Their slow movement only further invigorated us to rush to each and every attraction. The cotton candy stand couldn’t wait for us to get there. The bags hung along in a row, waiting to be snatched by some other visitor’s hand. We had to get one for ourselves, and right away before that group in front. Once the spun sugar was plopped into our open palms, the arcade bells and whistles rang out, calling us forward. The dirty, grim coated joysticks and handle bars didn’t offend us. All we could think of was that other group, the one with five people strolling towards the arcade entrance, ready to take over the best machines and stay planted there for hours, a glare already planted on their face for any that might dare to wait at a safe elbow distance to snag the next round. We wanted to be the one to take the wheel; I already had my eyes on the two-person car game front and center of the crazy confetti faded carpet.
But we slipped ahead of that mangy five-person group with inches to spare and took hold of the game room, blasting our way through pixelated aliens, grinding against concrete walls in cars that only sparked and never broke down only to explode in one magnificent impact at the end of the race. Even the dim-lighted corner proffered a weightless sword of destiny with endless resurrections from the dead. Our sugar coated finger prints coated each game terminal. The ridges and swirls of our hands as they gripped the podiums and buttons built up in layers of sweet pink. We moved on, sauntering out with game-winning bravado.
The satisfaction was short lived. Not two seconds later and we were rushing for the Hurricane panicked that it would start without us. Sneakers streaked over the well-worn pavement, and my heart starting beating against my chest as I envisioned the tip of my shoe tripping me into the ground. Until I reached the que line I didn’t notice we were one short. Where did our fourth go? None were willing to leave the line, afraid to miss the next available ride, so we hoped that peering on our tip toes would suffice.
The thought must have crossed our minds on what we would have to sacrifice if she couldn’t be found. Within seconds of hypothetically losing her we turned against her. How could she be so selfish as to get separated from us?
But there she was bobbing her head up around the bald man behind the rest of us with a worried brow above peering eyes. We waved her over, too impatient to care whether the man and his children behind us would thing she were cutting. She looked around her as if waiting to see the watchful eyes of some authority figure to stop her from moving up the line. There was no one to stop her but it was clear her timid nature held her back.
We couldn’t stand it. What the hell was she waiting on? Time was running out. The line was running short. We were next, but she remained behind, stranded on an island separated by a wide family. We stared at each other waiting for someone to volunteer a solution. The line moved. The metal dividers inched closer, cutting us off from her. As the entrance to the ride opened in front of us, with the waving of the attendant’s hand the thought crossed our minds to wait behind for her, but we couldn’t. The open seats were disappearing, not one by one but in groups of two and three and four.
We rushed forward for the closest available set of seats. It wasn’t until the bar fell down that we looked around us for her, realizing there wasn’t a seat anywhere near. I craned my neck around the fire engine red enclosure, discretely covering one eye to peek out past our swinging car. I hoped I could see where she would sit without having to look her in the eyes but found them peering back at me from behind the metal railing outside the ride’s perimeter. I quickly looked away to quip with my neighbor instead, trying to forget her as she watched us.
Wobbling across the padded flooring at the rides end, still a little woozy, we wandered slowly back to her, wondering why she didn’t just meet us at the exit gate. So without a word to hold us back from what’s next, we rushed off once more, leaving the Hurricane in the dust.
She trailed behind us for the next two rides, slipping into her place in line just in time. On the last ride, she trailed behind me. The trails of air from her nostrils blew into the spot on my neck where the hair parted over my shoulders as we waited to inch forward. My shoulders shrugged it off, once, twice, three times, before I finally snapped. I whirled around, livid beyond reason.
“Gah-ahd! Would you stop it already?”
My tongue propelled the words from my throat faster than I intended. What I meant to do was simply turn to look over my shoulder. As if I were wondering what keep passing over the tiny hairs on the back of my neck. Maybe even ask; “Does anyone else feel a breeze?”
She shrank before me, eyes strangely enlarged with surprise. But I couldn’t stop there. After yelling something that aggressively you can’t just stop. So I continued.
“Why do you have to stand so close? It’s just not necessary, you know.”
I turned, my attention refocused by the six feet of space opening up before me in line. I rushed forward, nearly falling into the person ahead of me and leaning far back, overcorrecting to keep myself upright. As I leaned, in mortal peril of knocking into the stranger ahead of me, I fell back into the friend I’d left behind. She squeaked as if I’d stepped on her toes. And, maybe I had. I was too busy with the line to care.
Suddenly she’d disappeared. Her hair brushed over her shoulders with every duck under the metal dividers weaving back and forth to form the queue to Headless Horseman’s Coach. The squeak and rumble of heavy passenger cars each resembling a black carriage with pale horse rearing in front rolled by practically unnoticed. I turned from the rapidly fading figure of my friend and rushed deeper into the line.
We had caught up to the head of the ride’s serpentine line when we noticed it. Slowly the jingling, flickering noises of other rides began to fade. At first I thought it was a false hush created by the amphitheater like opening before the ride’s entry. Yet the longer we waited at the head of the line, the more we turned our eyes backward. It had seemed as if we had been waiting forever at the head of that line, doomed in perpetual anticipation, never gratified. I didn’t realize how sweet this moment was until it was over.
A few minutes more and the crowded line’s exasperation had built. Mutterings of frustration travelled up to the mouth of the ride. We still stared up at the blank façade before us, awaiting the arrival of the coaches that would take us through the thrilling Headless Horseman, until the group standing behind us made a strange discovery.
It seemed all the rides behind us had shut down. Every stall game, kiddy ride and booth blinked off, one by one like a wave, the arms of their light falling down in a long trail. Noises had faded away and groups of park attendants and sweet-talking game managers formed clusters around the corners of the park roadways.
As we stared over the weaving line behind us a few could even be seen looking up from their huddles to stare over their shoulders at us. Everyone in line turned to make eye contact with each other, hoping to find some answer in the face of someone next to them.
A skinny, blotchy-faced teen came rushing out from behind the false front of the ride. He stared at us all for a brief moment but faltered and then ran the other direction. We could still see him, just beyond the edge of the ride, near the trash can 15 feet away, bent over and heaving. He looked to be vomiting into the already rank garbage.
While we had watched the gangly park attendant start to lose more and more of his insubstantial volume someone began ushering people away, back first. The line had reversed itself and we were at the end once again. A woman and a man stood waving people out with sun-spotted arms using calm, authoritative tones.
“The ride is closed for the day, people. No use waiting around.”
“This way, guys. Sorry for the disappointment.” The guy confirmed his co-workers claims, waving by each person in line until there was a gap of empty space in front of us.
“Maybe if we ask really nice they’ll let us take a ride all by ourselves.” One of us prompted, cheerily. Her words went unanswered and disappeared into the arching entryway now behind us.
The woman stood staring back at us, her hands on her hips. She waited for us to come to her, hoping she wouldn’t have to trudge up to the head of the queue to gather the four of us still loitering at the ride’s entrance. When she could see we weren’t moving she shook her head, gathered her strength and walked up to us.
“Come on ladies!” she barked from the sidelines. “The ride is closed for the day. Now, head back out of the queue. We have to clear the area.”
The teen from the ride was still puking over the side of the trash can, his boney elbow protruding, in perspective, out of the attendant woman’s stomach. She turned, hearing him cough and sputter behind her. Her fizzy curls hid her co-worker from sight for only a moment before she turned back to the matter of the four troublesome kids before her.
“Come on. I mean it, now.” Her inflection exuded a hint of anger.
“What happened?” I boldly asked.
“It’s none of your concern.” She replied. The anger still held, but a touch of fear cut through it.
“If you must know, there’s been an accident. We have to clear the area first. You don’t want to see this.” She broke.
We looked around, still not wanting to leave our prime spot despite the fact the ride was closed, but we moseyed slowly over to her. Taking as long as we could, we weaved around and under the dividers to join the attendant on the outskirts.
Before she could stop us we ran for it, towards the fencing around the roller coaster. Spotting a loose plank, we scrambled to rush inside before she could stop us. Only two of us made it through. The attendant held back, torn between stopping us from going further, and keeping the other two from entering at all. We could hear her shouting.
“Girls, come on out. It’s not safe. Only park attendants are allowed.”
Ahead we could see something. Behind us we heard her shouting to the vomiting boy.
“Get your head out of the trash can! Get those girls out! They can’t be back there!”
As we neared the accident the smell began to reach our nostrils. Past the hot dogs and mustard and the sweet, faintly cinnamon-y scent of funnel cakes, even past the sour smell of the boy’s vomit came another, stronger odor.
It smelled familiar somehow, reminding me of the time I had fallen onto my knees and hands in my roller skates down the steep hill at my best friend’s house. At the time I held my head between my knees, inhaling deeply of the stinging smell of my bloody, asphalt covered knees.
Once we came up on it, all we could do was stare in silence. Up ahead the car of the ride had stalled mid descent, their backs turned. As I looked on I think I recognized the scuffed up tennis shoes beneath a garish yellow tarp folded double over the body.