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“This is fun isn’t it?” I prodded him with the rolled up paper stick of my cotton candy, feeling the sickly pink sugar melt in my mouth, sweet for a moment and then tauntingly vanished.
He shrugged and looked down at the ice cream cone in his hand, a little white snotty dribble leaking over the brim and across his fingers. He reached up and licked the vanilla away, but more with the mechanical motions of a bad actor than like someone taking in the declicious mix of corn syrup and artificial flavors.
I laughed, “Sorry to force ice cream on you…” The words were meant to be wry, light hearted, but they came out somehow differently, and I turned away quickly, as though something in the distance had caught my eye.
The giggles and shrieks of little children bounding by now seemed like the hollow laugh track of an old sitcom, something I’d seen before I grew too adolescent to be willing to be swayed by such things.
Meanwhile, he only walked by my side, the frozen treat slowly deteriorating in his hand, his eyes glazed over as though he were in the middle of math class.
Then I spotted the giant slide; not one of those dinky plastic things the city council plants in middle of a park when the young, rich parents moving into the neighborhood complain about its lack of “family friendly air,” but a true, giant twisting metal monstrosity, a real beauty in the architecture of sheer, immature, childish amusement.
“Oh, you’re going on that!”
He looked at me blankly.
I hadn’t been planning the words, but when they came out, they rang true; the perfect next line in my script.
Without waiting for him to say more, I snatched the ice cream cone out of his hand – as if he’d been so attached to the damn thing anyway – and shoved him towards the slide.
“What are you doing?” He sounded dazed and disoriented, but at least there were words emerging from his mouth.
“You’re going on that slide,” I declared defiantly.
“I’m…seventeen,” he responded, eyebrows raised. The hint of sarcasm I might have imagined in his monotone voice spurred my enthusiasm.
“Oh don’t be like that, you’re never too old for something that awesome, now go! Or I might think youre afraid!” I shoved him again towards the enormous twisting tube, and he began to walk slowly towards it, like an old creaky wind up toy.
I watched him go, the achingly wide smile on my mouth slowly dissolving, leaving behind a sore, stick residue. I was worried about him, of course, but I didn’t know what to do. He was seventeen, too old for slides, and I was seventeen, too young to be helping him meaneuver this crisis.
He was now climbing up the long, green ladder, followed closely by kids seven, eight, nine years old.
Sure, this carnival had probably been a mistake, but it seemed to ring true at the time in the “best friend” playbook. He’d spent too long in my house, on my couch, where he’d had too long to dwell on the shouting, and the fights, and the accusations, and that awful moment when parents walk quietly together into their child’s room and say those words, “We have to talk.”
And he couldn’t go home, not to that yawning, gaping, empty maw where there was nothing left but broken promises and rapidly unwinding balls of yarn that could never be retrieved.
He was at the top now, looking down, only boy in front of him. And for a painful fleeting moment, it reminded me of someone standing at an open window, preparing to jump. I was invaded with a sense of hopelessness – what was I supposed to do? What had I been thinking, bringing him here, with happy, laughing children, and cautious hovering parents?
But then he bent down, folding his wiry body into the opening, and for an instant I saw the odd resemblance between him and the boy that had gone before him. Was it the curve of the jaw, the hair, the eyes?
And then he was gone, and I hurried forward to greet him at the end, following the ageless routine of so many parents and babysitters. Soon his long body, that had grown too quickly and awkwardly emerged into the portion of the slide without a top, and, without thinking, I whipped out my phone and snapped the picture of his face, his moment.
By the time he came out of at the end of course he seemed unchanged. But I would not let him forget. I clicked “Save” on the picture and snapped the phone shut, clutching it tightly in my hand, determined not to let it go.
Maybe I would sent it to him later, when he’d returned to that empty, gaping house and that walls that screamed silence; maybe this was what I was supposed to do. And maybe he would open it and see the text message, click “View Now,” and be confronted with the unmistakable evidence: his face, struck by the afternoon sun, having just traversed the twisting tube, his features contorted with wild, unexplainable, absolutely childish glee.