Stepping off the bus to go home is no different tonight than any other. The city streets have melted into a pleasant neighborhood with garden-themed street names. You’re nearly to your house when vice grips pin your arms to your sides, an icy hand claps your mouth. The shadows slide open like side-show curtains as you’re dragged into the blackened yard.
Your muffled screams fall into the nothingness. Anemic streetlights blink out, replaced by the garish orange and blue, red and green of an old-fashioned carousel. You step on as music builds, squeezing into every corner. It’s dizzying and frightening, but you hold tight. You scan the empty seats, deciding on the one closest to the gate.
The ride goes round and round as you consume the flashing memories of the life you’re about to leave behind. The time you stargazed with that boy from English. He pointed out the Seven Sisters just before stealing a kiss. You floated on clouds for weeks afterward. Until his best friend gave you a better kiss behind the bleachers at school. You never did learn your lesson. You’re leaving behind a scattered mess of scratched bedposts and bitter, hardened hearts.
The scene fades into the image of your Mom. She was on the couch when you left this morning, nursing a brandy and an empty bank account. “We should have sold the house last spring,” she’d slurred the remainder of her dignity. You hugged her tight, just before heading to work, remembering how you’d guilted her into keeping the place. Pictures in frames and hand-me-down quilts wasn’t enough for you. You wanted – no, deserved – the house itself, goddamit.
Memories shift and melt into an image of you at nine. That time you fell off your bike and the cafeteria lady walked you home. You made her a card with glitter heart stickers. She loved it, of course. Later, in fifth grade, you’d catch glimpses of that card in her front apron pocket as she served chicken nuggets. By sixth grade you’d forgotten her name. By seventh, lunch ladies were a joke you’d whisper to make your friends laugh.
But then you’re five again and suddenly it dawns on you what it was you wanted to say that day Daddy left for Afghanistan. But you never got the chance, did you? His unit called him up early and he was gone by the time you came home from school. You curled up beside his photo and cried for nearly a year. Daddy loved everyone but he loved you most of all. His sweet pea. His brave soldier girl.
And now here you are, encased by hands that’ve never shown love. The barrel-chested man who pulled you off the sidewalk reminds you of someone you saw on a popular Friday night sitcom – the funny one with a cranky grandpa and stubborn grandma who smells like floral water.
Weird, the thoughts that wander through the neighborhood and settle in like the knife at your throat. Like the way your best friend convinced you strength was all you needed in a situation like this. One college self-defense class later, and you knew she was right, didn’t you? So, you push and push and push until he’s nearly stolen the last of your courage. Burning lungs and aching muscles fight and claw and reach and hit and push push push push.
All it takes is strength, she said. Strength enough to make order of the faces you’ve loved as they pass by, to admit the wrongs you’ll never make right. There are too many slicing words you wish to cram back in your mouth. Too many shovels full of guilt and anger piled onto the backs of those you love.
All it takes is strength, she said. Strength enough to hold open your palm as the wind steals the rose petals of missed opportunities.
All it takes is everything.
But the ride goes round. You hold tight to the bucking horse between your thighs, jump at the sharp pinch of metal gliding across your skin, and know you did your best. Your pounding heartbeat slowly becomes the fluttering of butterfly wings as you draw your final breath.
This isn’t your fault, you remind yourself as Sitcom Man drags you – or, the you of ten minutes ago – into the wooded space behind your house.
You stand awhile amongst the spindly pines and wait as the carousel pauses for a small group to climb aboard. This time, you throw your head back to laugh as red and blue lights overtake the pale gold of morning. Police dogs crowd the space, leaving no more room on the ride. Spin round and round.
You slip through the daylight, cascade with the stars.
In front of your house your mother falls to her knees beside the coroner’s van. Her wailing/rocking/fists in hair/terror-filled spittle flying is almost too much. You don’t look away. Sitcom Man is there, cuffed and head bowed against the neighbors’ storming hatred. Rage earthquakes tremble the manicured lawns.
Cut the lights as the carousel makes its final stop. The music dims. In the distance, the carnival is shuttering its curtains. You gather what’s left of your self in hand and hold it close. You turn to leave, make your way down the narrow steps.
Pity, you think, there are still two waiting in line to get on.
Sitcom Man’s wife, hand clutching her cheek, stares into the void of her life. “Is this really how it ends?”
Beside her, their daughter looks on as the ride comes to its close. You recognize something of the sadness in her eyes. Her steel bones have rusted and bent her into an old woman before she is old enough to drink. Still, she has tickets spilling out of her pocket. Tickets you ran out of not that long ago. There’s still time for her. A life to be lived and enjoyed and made better than it is right now.
So you place a hand on the girl’s shoulder, guide her away from the carousel. Away from the fading lights and the brooms sweeping up shattered dreams.
Emmalyn Danvers is the pen name of a not-lost but wandering spirit. She is a librarian, lover, & perpetual observer of the world. She prefers a little coffee with her cream, dancing amidst thunderstorms, and dark literary fiction that will twist your soul.