The Ferris wheel was closed that day. The big attraction that towered over the rest of the park, with its lights that blue and white lights that shone like a beacon after dark. The main selling point for us to visit the boardwalk at all, that we might hold hands at the peak of it as we overlooked the sand and water like we had years ago.
It was a cloudy day anyway. The view would have been obscured.
It was a Saturday afternoon in the summer. We were constantly turning sideways to dodge other bodies headed in every direction imaginable. I bought a tub of garlic fires and figured we’d split them, but you weren’t interested so I ate a few then chucked them while you were playing ski-ball, only for you to ask for some, and I had to admit to getting rid of them—we were all out of synch.
We threw orange rubber balls at wooden pop-up clowns. We played air hockey. You won.
We got in line for the windowless brick building with a banner stretched across the side, the words haunted house hand painted, crudely drawn witches and mummies peeking around the letters and the borders.
You were scared and I held your hands, but you dug your fingernails into the fleshy webbing between my fingers until it hurt, until I had to let go.
“They always scare forward.” I explained how any actors that popped out would come from behind us, because that was the design, to get people rushing toward the opposite end, not moving backwards. Practical advice, besides the reassurance I’d stay behind her to absorb the worst shocks.
It was dark inside at first. Too dark. I couldn’t find you. Too many people pushed up behind me, and maybe you got ahead of me. I figured you were near when the first mannequin fell from the ceiling on a noose, when the coffin opened (behind us, like I told you) for the ghoul to spring toward us, past the cackling old crone, though the cobwebs.
On the far side of it all, back in the light of day, there were laughs. Laughs segmented with the sharp tremors that suggest someone was really scared, but was trying to make light of it afterward.
You weren’t there.
I tried to go back inside, but the pimply faced boy in the electric blue polo and khaki shorts stopped me. I explained you were still in there, but he said there was no one still inside. When I insisted, a curly haired girl with freckles and braces went inside. Even knowing the haunted house was all a charade, I marveled at her courage to go in all alone. She emerged, a minute or two later, after the rest of the crowd had dispersed, but too soon for a thorough check. She reiterated there was no one inside, and a pudgy Chinese sixteen-year-old stood behind her with his arms crossed like some tough guy. What was I supposed to do?
I walked around to the front, in case somehow you’d stayed back, never gone in the house at all. No sign of you, just the door closing as the next group got started. I rushed back around to catch up with you in case she’d been with that next group, so I could meet you on the other side.
In those days before cell phones, you lose someone in a busy place and there’s only so much you can do. I got the man with a bull horn at the deep-fried Twinkie stand to let me call your name. After I’d tried and tried and tried, he put a beefy hand on my shoulder, took the bull horn from me, and said, sorry pal, before he went on, hollering at passersby about Twinkies and Oreos and Snickers like you’ve never had them before.
I stopped at the flash-frozen ice cream stand where we’d stopped years before, and by the Ferris wheel because we’d talked about it so much. Walked back and forth and back and forth before I found a cop and started talking missing persons. When he realized you were not a child, but a woman, he stopped taking notes in his mini-steno pad and switched to questions. Questions like are you sure she didn’t go home without you? and Did she seem angry?
Going to the cop was a mistake, because the most he did was to take down your name and a cursory description, though he made it clear there was no missing person report for an adult until twenty-four hours had passed.
I made the loop. To the car to each of our previous stops, stalling outside ladies’ rooms in case you’d snuck out of line for the haunted house, unnoticed, because of an upset stomach. That happened to you sometimes. Finally, I went through the haunted house again, looking all around for her, eyes on the floor most of all in case you’d fallen and twisted her ankle. Lingered until everyone was out and the lights brightened inside. Until a new teenager told me I had to go.
Days passed into weeks into months until it was a full year. I kept going back. Rode the Ferris wheel when it was operational again. Thinking from the greatest height I could see you. Thinking, when the wheel swung backward, it might take me back in time.
Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and is an alum of Oregon State’s MFA Program. He won Bayou Magazine’s Jim Knudsen Editor’s Prize for fiction and has work published or forthcoming in journals including The Normal School, Passages North, Iron Horse, Front Porch, and Bellevue Literary Review. He works as a contributing editor for Mossand blogs about professional wrestling and a cappella music on the side. Find him online at miketchin.com or follow him on Twitter @miketchin.