The roller coaster loomed over the horizon, like the skeleton of some great prehistoric beast. The three, Gail, her boyfriend Mitch, and his best friend Tub, stood in the fractured shadows cast by the wooden frame. Mitch caught Gail’s hand, tugging her toward the line of people waiting to get on the ride.
“C’mon babe, I’ll be right there beside you,” Mitch said. He wrapped his arm around her shoulders and squeezed her upper arm, not hard enough to hurt, but hard enough that Gail had to duck and pivot to shake him off.
“I hate roller coasters,” she said. “I’ll wait here for you guys.” Gail glanced around, looking for a bench or some place she could sit. Her feet hurt and her face, reddened and sunburned, felt feverish. She longed to stretch out somewhere in the shade.
“Don’t wuss out now,” Tub said, “it’s the reason we’re here today, the best ride in the park.”
Tub stood shoulder to shoulder with Mitch, a wall of testosterone she’d have to walk through. Tub wore wire-framed glasses and a red ball cap he spun around backwards as he talked. A chubby kid, his nickname stuck even after he shot up to six feet his senior year in high school and shed the baby fat. Friends with Mitch since second grade, he’d come with them to the park that day, invited along on their date by Mitch.
She hesitated, certain if she refused, they would go on without her, not just on this ride, but to some undetermined place she couldn’t follow. Gail sighed and let Mitch take her hand, his palm damp and warm against hers. He gave her a dimpled smile, pleased as the three of them joined the queue for the ride. They passed a young woman standing alone against the fence that blocked off a paddock below the coaster track. The woman stood with her back turned to the passing crowd. She gazed up at the structure, watching the roller coaster. Gail thought she knew this woman, there was something familiar in the way she stood, one hip cocked out to the side, her hand resting on her hip. She wore a faded blue t-shirt the same shade as the one Gail had on. The woman’s dark brown hair lifted in the wind off the train as it shot past on the track.
“Hold on tight, and close your eyes if you get scared,” Mitch said as they wound through the maze of railing funneling the visitors toward the loading area. The air was still and hot and smelled like burnt motor oil and overworked electric wires. Cars clicked and rattled as they rolled into the station. The safety bars hissed as they released one group of riders and then, loaded with new passengers, thumped down before the train hurtled out for the next round.
Gail trailed along behind her boyfriend, pushed close in the press of people. When the line paused, she leaned forward, wrapping her arms around his waist and resting her head on Mitch’s back, against the soft cotton of his t-shirt. She closed her eyes and tried to block out the noise-the screams, shouted conversations, laughter, and the buzz of overhead monitors broadcasting advertisements for the park.
When the queue moved again a group of junior high-school girls, younger than Gail, drifted past, their voices high and piercing. “This is the ride,” one, a short blond girl with braces, said. “The one where that woman got decapitated.” The girls squealed as they moved on and were blocked from view by the shuffling crowd.
“What? Did you hear?” Gail asked as she spun around, trying to find the girls. They were gone, but she spotted the track watcher again, the woman they passed as they got in line. She merged with a group of boys moving in the opposite direction in the line and Gail studied the dark hair until the woman disappeared around the far corner.
Mitch shook his head, looking over Gail’s head at Tub. “Don’t worry about it,” he said.
“Sure,” Tub said, “the rides are always safest after something like that. They inspect and all, you know.”
“But what happened?” Gail asked. She froze as the line paused, then moved again. The people behind Tub bumped into him, jostling him forward into her.
“I don’t want to ride,” Gail said. She looked around for a way to remove herself from the queue. Almost to the front of the line, she would have to climb over the rails or squeeze past every person standing behind them. Mitch and Tub stared forward, not meeting her gaze.
“We’ll get in the last car,” Mitch said.
Dazed, she followed Mitch to stand in front of the last turnstile and when the train emptied, he grabbed her hand and pulled her into the car. Once seated, they pulled the metal lap bar down with a click, a sound that reminded Gail of a bolt thrown, locking her in place. They each lowered the padded safety harness from overhead until it rested on their chests. Tub took a seat in front of them and turned around, grinning as an attendant stepped up to check the bar and harness in the car.
“Here we go!” he shouted.
The train of cars rumbled out of the station and into the first curve, a gentle bank. Gail relaxed against the vinyl seat but grasped the padded harness that held her in place as they climbed. The train racketed forward, up an impossible hill. Her lungs ached as though a huge hand were pressing down on her chest as they crested the top and the cars dropped, gathering speed as the last of them flowed over. She closed her eyes.
“Whew!” Mitch threw up his hands as they dropped.
“Oh boy!” Tub laughed when his hat flew off. He snatched at it, but it soared out of reach, a speck of red against the blue sky.
The coaster twisted, corkscrewed, and dropped into a dark tunnel where the screams echoed from damp, glistening walls Gail saw through gaps in her fingers, clamped tight over her face. The train rose again into a series of hills that lifted her from her seat, floating, anchored only by the lap bar and safety harness. When she dared to open her eyes, she glimpsed a dizzy blur that was the thin wooden rail along the track, the only thing that seemed to keep the cars from flying off into the air. She moaned and clenched the safety harness as the train jerked to a stop before the last climb.
“Open your eyes, Gail,” Mitch nudged her. “Hands up,” he said.
“Oh yeah,” Tub seconded, “hands up for this one.”
She shook her head and refused to let go of the safety harness. The lap bar, once locked against her thighs, rose, leaving a gap between the bottom edge and her legs. Their car shuddered as the train hooked onto the chain lift and it pulled them along an almost vertical climb. Panicked, Gail grabbed at Mitch’s hand. When she looked forward, she saw the woman sitting in the third car from the front. The woman turned her head to look at her companion. A tight necklace of thick black thread circled her neck just above the collar of her shirt.
“Something’s wrong,” Gail said. She panted as the cars clicked up the track, her back pressed into the seat. Once solid, the safety harness shifted from side to side when she leaned against it.
“What?” Mitch shouted over the clatter of the chain.
“Wrong,” Gail moaned as the first car reached the top, 300 feet above the ground.
She clamped her eyes shut as they shot down the track. The train gathered impossible speed. Gail heard screams and shouts, incoherent words blown past in the darkness. The air beat against her and she couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move as the train stopped with a final jolt.
When she opened her eyes, she thought she must have blacked out. She didn’t remember the end of the ride, the car returning to the station, the three of them leaving the roller coaster. But here they stood, in the shadow of the giant wooden structure.
“C’mon babe, I’ll be right there beside you,” Mitch said.
He reached for her, and Gail whimpered, the words coming from her mouth like a recorded message.
“I hate roller coasters. I’ll wait for you guys here.”
She noticed the red hat was back on Tub’s head, the one he lost on the ride. As he told her “Don’t wuss out,” she prayed the memory would fade, the scene would once again refresh before her hand could creep to her neck, to the thick black thread stitched across her throat.
“Hold on tight, and close your eyes if you get scared,” Mitch said. They joined the line again.
© 2019 Terrye Turpin