We eat funnel cakes and cotton candy, sugar sticking to the Cherry Coke Lip Smacker we share. We run our tongues over it, eyes twinkling at the taste. We buy wristbands and stand in lines, laughing at inside jokes and saying don’t look now, though we both hurry to catch a glimpse before it’s too late. We wander up and down the midway. We wave to classmates and neighbors who wait to ride the Bumper Cars. We watch people toss impossibly small rings and pretend we don’t know the odds.
Becca and I, we hold hands with the boys who brought us. Sporadic burnt-out bulbs circle the carousel. Still, the organ music buzzes in our blood and we feel flush, intoxicated by the whole occasion. The boys shoot over-inflated basketballs, while we exchange secret glances.
The county fair, a big event for small-town teens. It makes us imagine we’re in another world, until we feel familiar gazes on our backs, and our boots sink in sand on the midway’s well-worn path, the same sand we traipse through in corn rows and our own backyards.
The four of us ride the Gravitron, spinning so fast the centrifugal force holds us in place against the padded walls, but I don’t want to be held here unable to move freely and I’m not sure I need padded walls. Then, as if to confirm it, while the boys on either side of us shimmy up the walls and holler back and forth, not words but the cries of animals, Becca slides her hand across the space between us, grinning. When she interlaces our fingers, the floor drops out from beneath us. My stomach, thrilled and terrified, plunges with it. I feel the heat in our hands and then, aware we are not alone, in my face. I release her, pull away, afraid someone will see. I want desperately to rise up and out of sight, away from it all, away from them. My whole body aches with want or maybe with the weight of being held here, spinning inside this wheel. Spinning, but never getting anywhere. As the floor rises up, returning to its normal position, the boys move down the wall, sliding back into place beside us.
On the Ferris wheel with my date, I hold the stuffed bear he won shooting hoops. Its faint synthetic smell fills my nostrils and makes my throat burn. Chin tipped to the sky, I see Becca’s heels swinging from another cart with another body. She passes over my head and out of sight. My fingers twitch in the coarse hair around the bear’s neck, and this guy’s arm hangs heavy around mine, his hair prickling my skin.
We jump off the ride. The guys complain the Ferris wheel is boring, especially if we’re not putting out. We shoo them off to swing a mallet and test their strength, and Becca and I rush back in line.
The wheel stops when we’re at the top. She rests her head on my shoulder, and at that moment, the two of us alone, above it all, she says, “It feels as if anything can happen.”
As we rise into the sky once more, Becca and I overlook the fairgrounds, all those animals, the games people play, the rides they take. The people below us look small, but up close we know the size and weight of them.
Even at this distance I’m not sure we’re safe, but I play the odds, lean into her, linger in the mingling sweet scent of our lips.
Tomorrow, people we don’t know will load the rubber ducks and Coke bottles and dart boards, the roller coaster and Ferris wheel and even the Gravitron on their trucks and drive away, as if nothing has happened. But for tonight we’re still here, our heels swinging in unison, suspended above it all.
Jen Ippensen lives and writes in Norfolk, Nebraska. Her work can be found in Midwestern Gothic, Collective Unrest, and Every Day Fiction among other places. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Nebraska-Omaha. You can find her at www.jenippensen.com or on Twitter @jippensen.