Tracy Tasker was everything everyone wanted to be. She was a sixth-grader. She had a boyfriend. She wore a bra.
Before we saw her, I was everything everyone wanted to be, at the fair with no parents, my only order to keep Nathan off the scary rides. I told Nathan he could hang out with me as long as he didn’t act stupid, to which he told me “You have to watch me, Mom said,” to which I said “Who’s Mom going to believe when I tell her you ran off,” to which he said something stupid but I couldn’t hear it because: that’s when I saw her, Tracy, Rickey’s arm draped over her neck. They cut right in front of Nathan and me waiting in line for the Teacups, without slowing, like they knew the crowd would part for them because they were Tracy and Rickey. Nathan started to say something so I put my hand over his mouth. He bit me. “Knock it off,” I said, jerking my hand back. “You almost killed me,” he said, too loud, but it didn’t matter because they were already passed and we were up next in line.
I grabbed Nathan’s arm and pulled him out of line.
“But it’s our turn,” he said. He locked his knees to fight me but he’s like 50 pounds and his arms are made out of spaghetti. I just gave him a hard jerk and he stumbled across the dirt behind me, saying something else stupid which I ignored.
I could see the back of them, Tracy’s hot-pink tube top bright in the crowd. I kept my eyes on it and not the people staring at the yelling boy I dragged behind me.
They stopped at the Zipper, considering the long line. I prayed, but God wasn’t listening, of course, why would God listen to a child abuser? They joined the end of the line.
“What are you doing? We can’t go on that,” Nathan said. I didn’t answer, because I didn’t answer him anymore, it seemed. I just pulled him after me, tensing for a fit, but Nathan was staring up at the spinning cars flipping around as the Zipper rotated.
I positioned us in line behind Tracy and Rickey, praying - because I guess I thought God would eventually take pity on me - that Nathan would remain amazed enough by the scariest ride at the fair that he wouldn’t attract any more attention.
I examined Tracy. I put all my weight on my right foot and jutted my hip out the way she was doing, which wasn’t exactly easy considering I had to keep my death grip on spaghetti-arm so he wouldn’t ruin everything.
I cursed my mother, who bought my clothes from Evelyn’s Children’s Store instead of Penney’s because Evelyn’s was “classy” and Penney’s was “typical.” I considered praying that she would get in a car crash on her way to pick us up from the fair and die when the gas tank exploded, but I figured if God wasn’t listening about the normal stuff He wasn’t going to up and give me a miracle.
Rickey put his mouth up against Tracy’s ear and said something and she rolled her eyes, elbowing him away from her. I memorized how she did it. Rickey thought he was the cool one and was going to make her giggle and lean in. At least that’s what I would do if he did that to me. Or that’s what I would have done but now I knew better.
Then she looked over her shoulder. “Hey Natalie,” she said. She didn’t turn around or anything just gave me the Hey Natalie and then turned back to face forward because it was their turn to get in the car for the ride. That’s when I realized God might not grant miracles but he certainly punishes child abusers, because each car had four people in it and I hadn’t considered that when I got in line right behind Tracy and Ricky. “C’mon,” the guy at the front of the line said, holding the door open. What was I going to do? I dragged Nathan toward the car. The guy let go of the door and grabbed Nathan by the shoulder. “He’s too short,” he said, pointing to the line painted on the entry gate. “Gotta be forty-eight inches.”
As the guy dropped the security latch on the car I leaned away from the kid who took Nathan’s place beside me and looked through the mesh to see that for once Nathan was not acting stupid, standing right where I told him to wait.
When it was over, five minutes until the end of all time, the guy threw open the door and moved to the next car and we got out. Or Tracy, Rickey, and the jerk who kept prying my hands off his arm and telling me to shut up the entire time we were whizzing upside down and sideways through hell did. I wasn’t deaf. I mean I heard someone telling me to get out. Maybe a few people. Maybe even Tracy leaned back in to tell me to get out but I didn’t care anymore because there was no caring. There was no guilt about Nathan, who I could no longer see. There was no longing for my own tube top and boyfriend and incinerated mother. There was only the black at the sides of my vision and the saliva in my mouth.
I felt hands on my arms and figured it was God’s personal assistant yanking me out of the car to put me in the incinerator for my Oscar-worthy performance of the worst human on the planet. But God’s personal assistant was really on his game that day. The hands on my arms were Tracy’s and Rickey’s. The voices, almost even friendly voices, telling me it was going to be OK were Tracy’s and Rickey’s. The buzzing around in the background was Nathan and he was safe and it was over and I had new friends and I was the one they were worried about. God’s personal assistant, who I later figured out was actually Satan, had me in the palm of his hand. He had my whole world in his hands.
The vomit came up with blazing speed, forcing my mouth open wide, wider than I would have thought possible. The seven Tim’s Tiny Doughnuts and the foot-long Polish dog with sauerkraut and the caramel corn were still near-perfect versions of their original selves, easy to recognize against the hot pink of Tracy’s tube top. The sounds that followed, though, were not: screeching and retching and a deep-voiced F-word joined in one master soundtrack playing backwards, Satan’s County Fair Mix.
In the end it was just me and Nathan, who had morphed into God’s personal assistant’s personal assistant, offering up grace and understanding and paper napkins he’d grabbed from the hot dog counter. There was nothing in the universe at that moment that could possibly make me feel worse.
“Can we still go on the Teacups?” he asked.
Jessica Halliday writes fiction, poetry, and literary non-fiction. Her work appears or is forthcoming in The Sun, Better: Culture and Lit, Copper Nickel, Knockout Literary Journal, Weber Studies, and others. She teaches at Gonzaga University.