After almost being cooked alive in the hour-long ride, we clamber from the car and into the open. We promise to stay together, cross our hearts and hope to die, and wave off our parents so they can find a parking spot. “Wait for us by the fountain,”our father tells us. We stare at the ground, kick aside empty popcorn bags and snow cone wrappers left behind, and grumble yes yes, we will!
“Love you,” our mother says. Is always saying. We nod and walk away, pretending like we don’t know them.
After they’re gone, we’re free to experience the amusement park on our own. Necks craning, we oohand aahover Six Flags—St. Louis. How she looms across the lot—a sleeping volcano. Our hearts hammer, thundering in our ears, as we behold her splendor.
We deliberate on which ride we want to conquer first, promising ourselves and our little brother and sister that we’ll defeat every rollercoaster before the day is done.
Without warning, the volcano erupts: her chains creak and clank to pull cars uphill, galaxies of neon lights burn and blur against the day, carnival music rises out of silence until it roars.
The Ferris wheel rolls its swollen, ivory eye. The carousel—with horses, mules, and unicorns frozen in mid-gallop—begins a race that will never finish. Xcalibur and the Highland Fling shudder and spin, swearing to rattle brain after brain.
We marvel and grin jack-o’-lantern grins when we hear riders lose their shit—for that’s what we’ll be doing. Screaming.
Our patience runs out and we head for the entrance. We offer up crumpled tickets and wash upon the courtyard, shipwrecked on the shore of a new and exciting world. Here, in the sprawl of shops and stands, we soak it in: the rush and rumble of rollercoasters, the sugary scent of cotton candy, funnel cake, saltwater taffy.
Distracted, we’re shouted at by elderly patrons. “LOOK AT US!” they say, liver-spotted hands reaching out. Their withered, wrinkled faces look worried for our sake. We take a step back and realize they’re being escorted to the First Aid building by security.
“YOU WON’T BE YOUNG FOREVER!” they cry, just before they’re greeted by amedical staff and brought inside.
When our little brother and sister ask us what they mean, we force smiles. “Doesn’t matter,” we say, although that’s not what we believe.
We’re not sure how, but we can feel it: our bodies changing.
The sky remains the same sky, cloudless and cobalt, but years have gone by in Six Flags, quick as the bleach-burn of lightning. We can no longer ignore the stubble on our chins, can only blame so much on turkey legs and giant pretzels for shrinking our clothes.
And it’s not just us.
As we wait in line for Thunder River, we shamelessly spy on others and see the toll of time. Kids who jostle pinball machines at the arcade, who transform themselves into tigers and butterflies with face paint are—in minutes—now teenagers, sneaking vodka into Gatorade bottles, kissing each other under the wooden supports of TheBoss. Those kids who once practiced road rage on the go-karts are now applying for jobs as janitors, parking assistants, servers at a Dippin’ Dots stand.
“What’s wrong?” our little brother and sister ask us, aware that we’re troubled.
We look to each other, then down at our younger siblings. They’ve gotten older, too. Taller. They’re probably tall enough now to ride the Ninja. We let go of their hands, since that now seems childish somehow: a gesture we should’ve outgrown.
“It’s just—well—where did the time go?”
Life doesn’t slow down, not even for the little things. Lines for popular rollercoasters and live concerts are over and done in months, years, but only felt like hours. The trip alone from ride to ride, food stand to shaded patio is more of a voyage in our life than a simple stroll. We have celebrated the Fourth of July, excited by the flurry of fireworks, only to realize it was the New Year. We’ve forgotten birthday after birthday, our own age becoming an estimate rather than a truth we know.
But we’re not worried about time—we’ve got plenty of time left. We’re worried about the people. The rising population. The pressure. It’s all too much. Somedays we wish the brakes on Mr. Freeze would fail in a riot of sparks and we’d be freed from a few strangers and the madness they bring to our Six Flags. Our paradise.
Of course, tragedies like that never happen and no one ever leaves the park. We never will—we’ve gotten jobs, girlfriends and boyfriends since coming here, and we can’t abandon the life we’ve created. It wouldn’t be fair. As for the others, we’re sure they stay for the same reason we did when we were younger: there’s no place like Six Flags. A place where it’s alright to bare your teeth and just scream.
We marry our girlfriends and boyfriends on the Screamin’Eagle. Have kids way too soon and become parents. We take our babies on the carousel, always holding them tight, afraid to let go. Our babies are scared, then shy, then stoked to see a beloved LooneyTunescharacter: BugsBunny,TweetyBird, WileE. Coyote. We take pictures—so many pictures—and tuck the polaroids into our wallets and purses, where they’ll stay our babies forever.
It hurts that our little brother and sister have moved on. That they’re out in the park somewhere, living their own lives without us. Our kids would’ve loved to have met them. To have splashed in the pool at Hurricane Harbor together. To have been called “niece” and “nephew.”
Our kids turn into teenagers. They go wild and get henna tattoos. Believe they’re cowboys and cowgirls and are bucked off the mechanical bull. They let go of the lap bar and throw their hands up before the inevitable plunge. They rock the gondolas of the Ferris wheel back and forth—acting like they’re indestructible, bombproof, that nothing can touch them.
We rub our temples and pop aspirin like mints, feeling the throes and throbs of headaches. We dread the double shift at the bumper cars, the monotony of checking lap bars. We promise to join our kids on the next ride before work, only to sit on a bench under some shade and light our first, second, third cigarette. We drink too much. We argue with our spouses over what we argued about yesterday: how we discipline our children, what little money we have, how we never make love anymore. We say things we’ll later regret and storm off.
We always end up in the same spot.
At the park’s entrance, we steal pennies from the fountain. Decades ago, we were supposed to meet our parents here. Yes yes, we will, we had told them, but then left—wanting to ride the rollercoasters, buy the t-shirts, test our strength on the high striker. How long did they search for us? How often did they call out our names? Did they think we had forgottenthem?
Had they grown old? Were they taken to First Aid?
We shake the thought. Drop the coins back into the water.
No. Our parents are still coming. At any moment, they’ll walk through the gates or break away from a crowd and we’ll see them. Hug them. Apologize. Tell them we love them, too
We’re being taken to First Aid. Security says we’re no longer “fit” to live and work at an amusement park. “If you can’t contribute to Six Flags, then you don’t belongin Six Flags,” they say.
They’re probably tired of their job. Tired of putting away senior citizens.
“We didn’t get to say goodbye—” we say, struggling to steady ourselves as we’re dragged across flowerbeds.
In the courtyard, people look up from their maps, their Icee straws, their teddy bears and basketballs they won playing darts. They stare, long enough to understand what’s going on, but short enough to pretend that they don’t.
We’re asking everyone, anyone, for help. For mercy. That’s when we see them.
Boys and girls, so happy and alive—just like we used to be. They enter the park, awestruck by the glory and growl of machines the size of mountains, volcanoes.
Someone must warn them.
Kieron Walquist is an undergraduate student at Lincoln University of Missouri. His work has appeared in The Airgonaut, CHEAP POP, Daily Science Fiction, Vending Machine Press, and previously in Gingerbread House, among others.
Artwork: sugarmints, city lights