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IR ONLINE FICTION: “The Fair a Block Away” by Ethan Veenker

I have a memory of us together in the teacup ride at the state fair a block away from my house, where the cups were advertising Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. It was freshman year of high school. We grabbed the wheel in the middle and spun, and our macaroni bowl turned and turned, and without a real warning it got fast, fast so that we slid around in our seats and our laughter twisted in the air and our fingers tied knots on the wheel. We slapped each other’s wrists and bumped our knees and pulled our heads—I couldn’t tell whose hair blew in my face or whose hand waved in front of me; it all flatlined, just a mess of limbs and screams. We melted, dripped onto the floor, mixed together, came up and leaked out the sides. There wasn’t a me and a you. It was just us, swirling in the macaroni bowl.

I met you bloody, a year before. You sat in the road, making a noise somewhere between a moan and a scream. What I don’t think I ever told you is that I saw you doing it before you fell. Seated at the window, drinking milk, I watched you glide down the street, standing on the seat of your bike, glinting light into my eyes when you leaned into a turn, smiling—you were smiling—and finally slipping, crashing so the bike toppled and tossed you onto the blacktop.

I found out later you were a talented gymnast, but when I called the ambulance I didn’t know your name. I dragged you and your bike out of the road and I remember the soft whimpers you gave as your ankle bounced along, the achy complaints of heat and pain, of being unable to tell where one stopped and the other began. The ambulance arrived and I hopped in. No one tried to kick me out, so I rode with you to the hospital.

Rattling in the ambulance, seated in the back, I watched as a paramedic worked over you, dressing your wounds and wiggling your ankle. You winced; it hurt, and the paramedic wrote it down. We bumped along, the sterile light flashing whitely off your skin in such a way you glowed, a bedridden silhouette within a gunmetal box speeding down the highway, the siren’s muffled cry seeping through the walls, matching your moans. Wires swung and medical supplies hung strapped to the walls, vibrating so I couldn’t make out their edges. Your head lay lolled to the side, eyes blank until a rogue bump would roll you enough so we made eye contact, and for a brief infinity we stared at each other until your head rolled back down.

I remember your eyes: brown, deep like a pit of fallen leaves, so that I couldn’t see your pupils. Your hair, also brown, tickled your shoulders and had a bit of dried blood matted in it. The paramedic asked if I was family, and I told him I was your cousin. I got to wait outside urgent care when we got there, after they rolled you out and in, and eventually they invited me up to your room. I got there before your parents, and I remember how glad you were that your ankle was only badly sprained. It would heal, and you’d be back on the uneven bars soon.

We learned we were both in eighth grade, about to go to the same high school. After your parents came and picked you up and introduced themselves to me, after they cried and fussed over and kissed you, after they offered me a ride home and we sat in the back giggling about the way you’d fallen, we were friends. I went over to your house the next day and we both worked on your bike, buffing out the scratches and replacing the chain. I asked if you’d teach me to ride and you said absolutely. On its side, I pushed the front end of the bike up and down, letting the light flash over my eyes.

I spent the night in your house a bit later, an immortal announcement of our friendship. I remember the shifts in your home I felt as the hours dragged on, as your parents went to bed and the television in the other room switched off. The A/C kicked on and all the rooms were silent except for yours, and it all happened so quick that I didn’t even realize. That foreign silence crept up on me, gripped me by the spine, and suddenly it was time for bed, for both of us, and we curled up on opposite ends of the mattress.

Leaning over in the night, I looked at your silhouette. Light leaked in between the blinds, and it accentuated your curves, made a glossy white band on your hair. It gave the whole room a somber glow, somewhere between blue and black, so that I could just barely make out the way your chest rose and fell. I think I wanted to kiss you, but I didn’t. I stared at you, watched you sleep with your back turned to me for a bit longer, and finally I rolled over and drifted off myself.

Tenth grade, you blew smoke and it burst on my face and it leaked into the air until it dispersed, just under the American flag that hung limply over us. It smelled of your perfume, lilacs stirred in an ashtray. You laughed and brought the cigarette back to your lips, brushing some hair away from your eyes. Short hair now, you’d recently had it cut.

We sat on the steps outside the high school, defiantly in view of administration. You passed me the cigarette and I coughed down a drag. We’d been kicked off the bus a few months before for smoking out the window, giggling off our pubescent nicotine highs. Now we waited for your parents to ogle us with their tired eyes and drive us home.

“It was weird,” you said, the hint of a smile behind your admission.

“Were you safe?” I asked.

“Of course,” you said, and you took another drag.

“What was it like?”

“I already said,” you glanced sideways at me. “It was weird.”

I imagined you with him, and it tugged at something within me, some desperate part of me unwilling to relinquish you to anyone. I wasn’t yet being honest with myself. I thought of the scene you described, where you’d met him. A house party in a lakeside place owned by some kid whose parents weren’t home, and there was a rap song playing on bass-boosted speakers that rattled family pictures on the walls. One fell off; shattered glass crawled along the floor, stopping in front of your feet, and you looked up and you saw him, and later in the night someone tried opening the bathroom door, but you guys had locked it. That’s what you told me, and my cheeks felt hot, and you offered me another drag that I blew into your face a little too hard. You wiped off the spit and gave me a weird look.

“We need to find you a guy,” you said.

“Oh, he’s your guy?” I asked back, quick.

You let the smoke wisp slowly from your mouth before looking at me, looking fully into my face. You took another drag and blew it from the side of your mouth.

“No,” you said. “But we need to find you a guy.”

Senior year, one of my last times with you, we were at the state fair again. You were there with him, a different him, a new boyfriend of a few months, a guy that creeped his hand down your waist until he could squeeze one of your ass cheeks, at which point you’d laugh and slap his arm. I watched this happen several times as I walked along behind you both.

It was late in the evening, the summer sun shrinking behind the horizon and leaving the fair drenched in a timid state of dusk, a time of confused darkness just blank enough for the fair’s lights to switch on all at once, a switch so sudden and vibrant that a buzz filled the air thereafter, electronic and shaky. The ferris wheel, in particular, lit up within the fairgrounds, towering above the wave of sleepy fair goers that piled into each ride, swamped the lemonade and fried ice cream stands trying to find the right time to close up shop for the night. The whole place moved, crawling all over with people who filed into currents, currents that rushed alongside one another and collided, funneled into small tents where local country artists sang Lynyrd Skynyrd songs and thanked the people for coming out to hear them.

I stepped along, squeezing between the currents and trying to stay behind you. You had to use the restroom, so your boyfriend waited outside for you. He still stood there by the time I caught up, glancing up at me with an expression I couldn’t recognize. He beckoned to me.

“Come over here, I saw something,” he said.

It was such a stupid ploy, as if something he saw would interest me, but I was distracted, exhausted, eager to hop out of the current. I followed him around the side of the small stone building that marked the bathroom, where the trodden dirt lanes of the park gave way to tufts of wild grass and a brief scurrying of mice, and he pushed me against the wall and kissed me hard, slamming his teeth into mine, holding my wrists back against the bricks. His eyes shut. His tongue forced itself into my mouth. I didn’t know how to respond at first, so tired and glazed over by the sleepy buzz of the fair. I wiggled my tongue a bit. His hand crept up beneath my shirt, and I suddenly realized and kneed him in the groin.

High on my realization, I slapped him, a bright red mark on his cheek, and I ran back around the corner, practically running into you, words falling out of my mouth, tumbling and crashing into the back of my teeth and catching beneath my tongue until you gripped my shoulders and told me to stop, and asked me what was going on. I wasn’t sure how to verbalize what I’d realized.

“Can we go?” I asked.

“Now?” You looked confused. You asked where your boyfriend was.

“He’s around the corner, he kissed me and I slapped him, and I want to leave with you. Just the two of us, we can leave him here and you can get him later, or never, or never, hopefully, and we can leave. Can we please leave? Just the two of us?” A childlike wail squeaked out of my throat.

“He kissed you?” you asked. Just then he came around the corner, muttering about me, the crazy bitch who’d slapped him and pushed him back there.

“Yeah, he kissed me,” I went on, “but that doesn’t matter, because we can leave. Don’t you understand that? We can walk to my house, and you can start gymnastics again, and I can sit in the risers and watch. Don’t you get it?” I was having trouble speaking through my realization. “I want to be just with you,” I said. “None of him, or this. I just want to be with you somewhere.”

Something flashed across your face, a wave of realization like a slow rolling shutter from top to bottom, a change in expression and in emotion and in relation. You gave all at once a look of knowing, of pain, of disgust.

“He didn’t kiss you,” you said. You went to him. You walked away. The current swept me up, and eventually I walked to my house and stood next to my desk, rolling my fingers, tapping my nails against the wood.

I went back to the fair, sometime later after graduation, alone. I rode the roller coaster, a small thing. I don’t know if you remember, but it was short, a straight line with one loop in the middle. As the train pushed off and rode along the decline, it didn’t build up enough momentum and we all ended up in the middle of the loop, hanging upside down. My hair tumbled down a foot and dangled.

Normally, when I think about how I’m this human being with organs and nerves and vessels and such, I just accept it. Walking along, feeling all the different tendons and muscles pushing and pulling, I can believe that we’re like that, that we’re that complex. Hanging upside down, though, that all changes.

I felt less like a body with these interlocking systems and more like a hollow mannequin sloshing around with blood. I felt it trickle up my body, down to the earth, streaming just under my skin and around my eye sockets. I felt sick. My head hurt. My arms and legs grew completely numb. Everything was in my head.

After a bit longer, maybe five or ten minutes, the train crossed some fragile line and crawled down the loop. We didn’t make it to the other end but we were oriented correctly at least, and the sudden shift left me reeling. My body again felt skeletal, and all the blood in my head washed down to my toes, flowing across my bones and seeping into my muscles, and it hurt like a bitch. My whole body had fallen asleep and was now being called back to work by way of needle incision in every square inch. My organs, too, weirdly suspended and closer to my head than normal, had their own little drop. It was too much, and I puked over the side as the workers started getting us down.

I didn’t go back that year, or the year after that or the one after that, but I still live on that street where I met you, where the fair is a block away, and I still hear the music and the screeching wheels and the excited people drift through my walls, like a single fine line of noise all coming from one specific point in space.

*

Ethan Veenker is currently a sophomore at the University of Tulsa, where he is double majoring in English and Creative Writing. He is currently a section editor at the student-run newspaper, The Collegian, and has worked as a writing editor for the student-run literary and fine arts journal, Stylus. He works as managing editor for Fresh Prints, a forthcoming Tulsa-based ‘zine he started with some college friends. He is also currently working as an intern at the Tulsa Artist Fellowship. His idol is Raymond Carver. He enjoys reading, writing, drumming, and Animal Collective. This is his literary debut.

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