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Author: Leah Raeder


When you’re eighteen, there’s f**k-all to do in a Southern Illinois summer but eat fried pickles, drink PBR tallboys you stole from your mom, and ride the Tilt-a-Whirl till you hurl. Which is exactly what I was doing the night I met Him.

It was the kind of greenhouse August heat that feels positively Jurassic. Everything was melting a little: the liquid black sky, the silver gel-penned stars, the neon lights bleeding color everywhere. All summer there’s a carnival a mile from my house, in a no-man’s-land rife with weeds and saw grass, a sea of flat earth. It feels like the edge of forever out there. I cracked a tallboy and it echoed like a rifle shot. I took a swig of that pissy weak stuff, savoring the coolness. I was sitting on a picnic bench, watching the rollercoaster go up and down and up again, the joyous screams phasing in and out like a distant radio station. Rollercoasters scare me, and it has everything to do with me losing my stuffed bunny George when I was five. George fell from a hundred feet in the sky when I threw my hands up in cruel, careless glee. Mom sewed new eyes on, but I cried and cried and said he was dead until she let me bury him in the backyard. We made a coffin out of a Fruit Loops box. Mom, so drunk she was crying too, gave the eulogy.

So maybe part of why I was out here tonight was because I was tired of being a kid, stuck with kid fears and kid memories. Senior year would start in two weeks. I wanted to go in already an adult.

I pounded the last of the beer and crushed the can on the bench.

My name’s Maise, by the way. Maise O’Malley. Yeah, I’m Irish as hell. But you probably knew that from the drinking, right?

I went into the carnival. Apparently, a breaking news bulletin had just gone out about my legs: ten pairs of wolf eyes looked up instantly, then moved down, up, down, the old broken elevator gaze. It’s always the older guys, too. But I’m kind of screwed up from growing up without a father, and I like when they try to daddy me.

“Try” being the operative word, as Mr. Wilke says.

But we’ll get to him.

I smiled at no one, sauntering past stalls stuffed with popcorn and pretzels and corndogs, flavor ice and cotton candy. The air was drugged with sugar and salt. It made my head spin. A bell rang nearby and someone whooped triumphantly. I passed the rigged games—milk bottles, darts—where people stubbornly threw money at the carnie, desperate to win some giant lice-ridden teddy fresh out of a Taiwanese sweatshop.

Mr. Wilke says I’m both cynical and worldly for my age. I choose to take them both as compliments.

I wasn’t ready to face the rollercoaster yet, so I rode the merry-go-round for a while, going for the full Lolita effect as I raised a leg high and slowly, slowly draped it over a painted horse, reveling in how uncomfortable I made the actual dads. One stayed seated when the ride ended, waiting for his erection to go away. His kid pulled at his sleeve, oblivious. I raised an eyebrow coolly. Too bad I didn’t have any bubblegum.

Finally the beer had charged up my blood. I marched over to the YOU MUST BE THIS TALL sign. The line was short. It was getting late, for a weeknight.

Then I saw the name of the rollercoaster.


I almost turned around right there. Stupid, yeah, but PTSADS doesn’t care how stupid a trigger is.

If you need me to spell that out, it’s Post-Traumatic Stuffed Animal Death Syndrome. I thought it was pretty funny. Mom and the psychologist did not. The psychologist said I had substituted George for Dad and I actually had post-dad syndrome. I told her George was a f**king bunny.

Anyway, Deathsnake.

“You getting on?” the carnie said. He had so much acne he looked like a halftone comic, like when you peer really close at a newspaper and everything that looked solid is just little dots.

I gave him my ticket.

The ass**les on this ride had decided to take every single car except the front. Again, I almost turned around. I did turn, actually, and saw a guy behind me, so I turned back and got into the empty car because I was not going to chicken out in front of the entire universe. Best Case Scenario: I close my eyes for four minutes and get a free blowdry. Worst Case Scenario: I fall from a hundred feet in the air, and there’s no sewing my eyes back on.

The door to my car opened.

It was the guy. He raised his eyebrows questioningly, and I shrugged. He got in.

At least I might die next to a hot guy.

Revised Worst Case Scenario: I throw up on him, we both die.

“You’re pretty brave,” he said, lowering the bar over us. “Must be a veteran, sitting up front.”

“It’s my first time,” I said. Well, first time on my own terms.

He smiled. It lit his face like a camera flash. “Mine too.”

Then Deathsnake lurched forward, toward doom.

It’s a trick, the way it starts. There’s a loud, creepy ratcheting, like some massive clockwork grinding beneath you, but the car just farts along inconspicuously. People behind us were talking about stupid shit. Some girl told someone to put away his phone and I prayed that he wouldn’t and that it was expensive. The guy next to me looked out over the fairgrounds as we ascended, and I peered past him, but my attention was split. Beyond him, a confetti of lights and fey music, all the ugly carnie weirdness rendered magical thanks to distance. But my eyes kept catching on his face. From below it was traced with red neon, from above with metallic moonlight, sketching out a bold, almost sulky chin, lips that looked too soft and sensitive for a man. His eyelashes were a fringe of furry gold. I couldn’t see his eyes from this angle.

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