The dead girl’s name was Maria McReady, but I didn’t find that out until later. They flashed a picture of her on the evening news, her pixie face frozen in time for evermore. The newsman said it was her 5th grade class photo, and I remember thinking that come Monday, a seat would be empty at her elementary school and the kids who sat around it would be able to see right through the space she used to occupy.
I remember seeing her the day before, standing in line for the Cannonball Coaster in Crystal Acres Park. She had blue cotton candy crusted at the corners of her mouth and a chocolate ice cream stain in the shape of Africa smeared across her sundress.
I was only ten years old, and I don’t think I’d ever favored a girl with a first glance, let alone a second. But something about Maria was different. Her eyes were pale blue, flecked with gold, and when they caught my eyes and held them it felt as if she not only saw me, but understood me—all in a single glance.
When the old lady working the ride waved us through the turnstile, I stepped aside and offered Maria the front car. She responded with a smile that was beautiful despite its gaps—or maybe because of them—and hopped into the row ahead of me.
I stared at her, my breath caught in my throat, and I felt giddy and nauseous all at once. A few moments later, I heard a giggle and realized that I was the only one still standing. I dropped into my seat as the ride operator droned her instructions for what would be the last time that day.
Push bar forward, pull bar back.
The Cannonball Coaster came to life slowly, with a jerk and a shudder, as it had every day for the last seventy-five years. We inched up that mountain of a starting hill, advancing with a series of ratchet-like clicks. As we climbed, I stared over the side of the wooden car, over the crisscrossed pine scaffolding supporting the track, and could see the whole of Crystal Acres sprawled out beneath us. I could see from one end of the park to the other, from the gleaming cars in the parking lot to the rippling surface of Silver Lake where a paddle wheel ferry bobbed like a child’s toy and people scuttled like insects across its hardwood decks.
I remember how the shadow of the track slipped behind us as we crested the hill, the sun appearing at the horizon as if by magic, a fiery globe levitating in space. I remember the moment of suspended animation after the car’s final click, how the car nosed over the edge before plummeting like a stone to the earth, the wheels gobbling up the track as the G-forces peeled back my cheeks.
My stomach knotted as my butt rose off the seat and my thighs pressed against the safety bar. The Cannonball Coaster didn’t have a shoulder harness, didn’t have a seatbelt. It was a relic of a bygone age. All that prevented me from catapulting into space was a narrow steel bar smeared with the sweat of a thousand palms. And so I wrapped my arms around it, grinning like a fool as the wind whooshed through my hair.
Halfway down, I caught a glimpse of Maria. Somehow, her right leg had slipped around the safety bar, and her left was quick to follow. Before I could even blink, she was swept out of her seat and turned upside down, her white-knuckled fingers curled around the safety bar as her toes pointed straight up into the air.
I was struck dumb with panic, watching as her dress whipped furiously in the breeze. I continued to hug the safety bar, thinking that once we bottomed out, the force would dissipate and she would roll back into her car.
What my young mind failed to grasp was that the forward motion of the coaster would bounce her off the hood and send her flying my way. But some primitive part of my brain must have perceived this—some dark recess imbued with animal instinct—because my arm lashed out and seized a hold of her wrist as she sailed past.
By now the coaster was racing up a smaller hill and gearing up for the whiplash turn that would propel us around the track and into another freefall. Maria dangled off the side of the car, clinging to my hand, squeezing hard enough to grind knuckle against knuckle.
The force was pulling her backward, threatening to suck her into the coaster’s wake like a whirlwind of leaves behind a speeding truck. I’ll never forget the look on her face—the mortal terror blazing in those eyes, the tendons of her neck stretched taut, a blue vein ticking feverishly at her throat.
She couldn’t see the bend in the tracks… and maybe that was for the best.
The Cannonball Coaster leaned into the turn and screamed around the corner.
I held on as tightly as I could.
It’s funny how the years rush by, so much like a roller coaster roaring down the tracks. Time is a thief that robs a boy of his youth, stealing his dreams one at a time. Some people manage to hold on longer than others.
Me, I could never hold onto much.
I’m fifty now, an old man by any boy’s standards. My hair has long since lost its luster, retreated to the crown of my skull, and gone gray with the effort. My waistline has expanded, my gut spilling over my belt for a total eclipse of my feet. Dark crescents have hunkered down beneath my eyes and the lines on my brow have deepened into desert arroyos.
Crystal Acres is still there, though I’ve never been back. I hear you can still drive the go-carts, get lost in the mirror maze, or go for a cruise on the paddlewheel ferry. And, of course, you can still ride the Cannonball Coaster, now the oldest of its kind still in operation.
I was never the same after Maria died. Life slipped like water through my fingers and I found myself drifting through the world without purpose. It’s probably why I married young, mistook lust for love, and spent the last thirty years wondering where I went wrong, what it would be like to be happy, or if such a thing even existed.
Liz and I never had children. The doctors said there was nothing wrong physically; it was just one of those things. She wanted to adopt, I didn’t. She blamed me, I blamed her. And we’ve resented each other ever since.
I lay awake most nights, staring at Liz’s back and thinking about the choices I’ve made and all the paths my life could have taken. I think about Maria and the connection I felt the moment I first saw her and how I’ve never experienced that same feeling since. I see her face in my dreams, those pale blue eyes flecked with gold, and I think of the words she will never speak, the man she will never marry, the children she will never bear. I think of the hands that couldn’t hold her, and all that was lost in a grip.
And I can’t help but wonder, what if I’d held on tighter? I could’ve been the link to a chain of generations, the branch to a tree of life. I could’ve been strong instead of weak, could’ve lived life instead of fearing it.
Death together or life together. I wonder if you can understand?
My shrink says I need to forgive myself, that I did the best I could with what I had at the time. But I’ve spent the last forty years telling myself that, and, sometimes, in the blinding light of day, I almost believe it.
I wish I could say I was a coward by nature, one of those people who suffer from immobilization in the face of fear. At least then, I could tell myself there was nothing I could do, that my nervous system had literally frozen me to the seat.
Instead, my hand latched onto hers and I could’ve been her salvation, since only a second more elapsed before the ride operator hit the brakes and the coaster screeched to a halt. But by then I’d already made a calculated decision to loosen my grip … to save my life …
…and damn my soul.
And she knew it. An unspoken knowledge passed between us, and her expression in that last moment was not fear or sadness or disbelief, but disgust. She had stolen a glimpse into the depths of my soul, and her eyes were the mirror whose reflection I can never escape.
My doctor tells me that I’ve got to change my habits, that I’m a heart attack waiting to happen. But old habits die hard, and so I lie awake most nights, staring into the darkness, listening to the tick-tock of the death clock and thinking about Maria.
Some nights I can’t shake the feeling that she’s waiting for me on the other side of the darkness—across the chasm of all those years—reaching across the void between this life and the next. Only this time she will succeed where I failed … and hers will be the hand that never lets go.