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This novel contains graphic sexual content and strong language. It is intended for mature readers.
I met him at a carnival, of all corny places. The summer I turned eighteen, in that chaos of neon lights and cheap thrills, I met a man so sweet, so beautiful, he seemed to come from another world. We had one night: intense, scary, real. Then I ran, like I always do. Because I didn't want to be abandoned again.
But I couldn't run far enough.
I knew him as Evan that night. When I walked into his classroom, he became Mr. Wilke.
I don't know if what we're doing is wrong. The rules say one thing; my heart says screw the rules. I can't let him lose his job. And I can't lose him.
In the movies, this would have a happy ending. I grow up. I love, I lose, I learn. And I move on. But this is life, and there's no script. You make it up as you go along.
And you don't pray for a happy ending. You pray for it to never end.
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Leah Raeder writes pretentiously lyrical YA and adult fiction of various genres. She loves zombies, velociraptors, and other world-ending things.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
WHEN you’re eighteen, there’s fuck-all to do in a southern Illinois summer but eat fried pickles, drink PBR tallboys you stole from your mom, and ride the Tilt-a-Whirl till you hurl. Which is exactly what I was doing the night I met Him.
It was the kind of greenhouse August heat that feels positively Jurassic. Everything was melting a little: the liquid black sky, the silver-gel-penned stars, the neon lights bleeding color everywhere. All summer there’s a carnival a mile from my house, in a no-man’s-land rife with weeds and saw grass, a sea of flat earth. It felt like the edge of forever out there. I cracked a tallboy and it echoed like a rifle shot. I took a swig of that pissy weak stuff, savoring the coolness. I was sitting on a picnic bench, watching the roller coaster go up and down and up again, the joyous screams phasing in and out like a distant radio station. Roller coasters scare me, and it has everything to do with me losing my stuffed bunny George when I was five. George fell from a hundred feet in the sky when I threw my hands up in cruel, careless glee. Mom sewed new eyes on, but I cried and cried and said he was dead until she let me bury him in the backyard. We made a coffin out of a Froot Loops box. Mom, so drunk she was crying, too, gave the eulogy.
So maybe part of why I was out here tonight was because I was tired of being a kid, stuck with kid fears and kid memories. Senior year would start in two weeks. I wanted to go in already an adult.
I pounded the last of the beer and crushed the can on the bench.
My name’s Maise, by the way. Maise O’Malley. Yeah, I’m Irish as hell. But you probably knew that from the drinking, right?
I went into the carnival. Apparently, a breaking news bulletin had just gone out about my legs: three pairs of wolf eyes looked over instantly, then moved down, up, down, the old broken elevator gaze. It’s always the older guys, too. But I’m kind of screwed up from growing up without a father, and I like when they try to daddy me.
Try being the operative word, as Mr. Wilke says.
But we’ll get to him.
I smiled at no one, sauntering past stalls stuffed with popcorn and pretzels and corn dogs, snow cones and cotton candy. The air was drugged with sugar and salt. It made my head spin. A bell rang nearby and someone whooped triumphantly. I passed the rigged games—milk bottles, darts—where people stubbornly threw money at the carny, desperate to win some giant lice-ridden teddy fresh out of a Taiwanese sweatshop.
Mr. Wilke says I’m both cynical and worldly for my age. I choose to take them both as compliments.
I wasn’t ready to face the roller coaster yet, so I rode the merry-go-round for a while, going for the full Lolita effect as I lifted a leg high and slowly, slowly draped it over a painted horse, reveling in how uncomfortable I made all the parents. One man kept glancing in my direction until his kid pulled his sleeve and snapped, “Dad!” I raised an eyebrow coolly. Too bad I didn’t have any bubble gum.
Finally the beer had charged up my blood. I marched over to the YOU MUST BE THIS TALL sign. The line was short. It was getting late, for a weeknight.
Then I saw the name of the roller coaster.
I almost turned around right there. Stupid, yeah, but PTSADS doesn’t care how stupid a trigger is.
If you need me to spell that out, it’s Post-Traumatic Stuffed Animal Death Syndrome. I thought it was pretty funny. Mom and the psychologist did not. The psychologist said I had substituted George for Dad and I actually had post-dad syndrome. I told her George was a fucking bunny.
“You getting on?” the carny said. He had so much acne he looked like a halftone comic, like when you peer really close at a newspaper and everything that looked solid is just little dots.
I gave him my ticket.
The assholes on this ride had decided to take every single car except the front. Again, I almost turned around. I did turn, actually, and saw a guy behind me, so I turned back and got into the empty car because I was not going to chicken out in front of the entire universe. Best-case scenario: I close my eyes for four minutes and get a free blow-dry. Worst-case scenario: I fall from a hundred feet in the air, and there’s no sewing my eyes back on.
The door to my car opened.
It was the guy. He raised his eyebrows questioningly, and I shrugged. He got in.
At least I might die next to a hot guy.
Revised worst-case scenario: I throw up on him, we both die.
“You’re pretty brave,” he said, lowering the bar over us. “Must be a veteran, sitting up front.”
“It’s my first time,” I said. Well, first time on my own terms.
He smiled. It lit his face like a camera flash. “Mine too.”
Then Deathsnake lurched forward, toward doom.
It’s a trick, the way it starts. There’s a loud, creepy ratcheting, like some massive clockwork grinding beneath you, but the car just farts along inconspicuously. People behind us were talking about stupid shit. Some girl told someone to put away his phone and I prayed that he wouldn’t and that it was expensive. The guy next to me looked out over the fairgrounds as we ascended, and I peered past him, but my attention was split. Beyond him, a confetti of lights and fey music, all the ugly carny weirdness rendered magical thanks to distance. But my eyes kept catching on his face. From below it was traced with red neon, from above with metallic moonlight, sketching out a bold, almost sulky chin, lips that looked too soft and sensitive for a man. His eyelashes were a fringe of furry gold. I couldn’t see his eyes from this angle.
He looked over suddenly and I whipped my head away. “What a view,” he said.
“Tell me about it,” I mumbled.
I could feel him smiling.
“Oh, shit,” someone said behind us.
And we dropped.
I’m not going to do the whole roller-coaster/falling-in-love metaphor. I didn’t fall in love with him up there. Maybe I fell in love with the idea of love, but I’m a teenage girl. This morning I fell in love with raspberry jam and a puppy in a tiny raincoat. I’m not exactly Earth’s top authority on the subject.
But when we crested the first peak and the world sprawled beneath us like a tangled-up string of Christmas lights and then we plunged toward it at light speed, the guy and I reached for each other’s hands spontaneously and simultaneously.
And I felt something I’ve never felt before.
You can call it love, or you can call it free fall. They’re pretty much the same thing.
When Deathsnake glided to a stop, we both looked like we’d stuck our fingers in electric sockets. Einstein hair, Steve Buscemi eyes. The guy had screamed more than I did. I mostly laughed, at his screaming, at my fear, and finally at how good it felt to be alive right then and there. Not once had I thought of George or my mother or my sad life.
The guy—who I mentally upgraded to The Guy, capital letters—offered me a hand out of the car. We still had shit-eating grins plastered on our faces.
“Thanks,” he said.
“Helping me lose my roller-coaster virginity.”
I don’t think he meant to flirt, but he blushed anyway. He looked at me a little closer.
This is the part where they realize you’re jailbait.
“How old are you?” he said, right on cue.
I love what that does to their faces. Old enough to . . . fill in the blank.
But The Guy only smiled. “I don’t want your parents to think I’m some creep.”
He could have said, I’m a teacher, and everything would have been different.
“I’m here by myself,” I said. “All that matters is whether I think you’re some creep.”
“Let’s test that hypothesis.” And I headed for the exit.
I knew exactly what he was seeing from the rear view. The cutoff jean shorts, the creamy legs sleek and slender as a filly’s, the tight tee, the cascade of burnished chestnut hair. I was, perhaps, very slightly, flouncing. Normally I’m cool and collected. But I was giddy from the heights and this beautiful man paying attention to me. I still hadn’t really seen him head-on, so in my mind he became a pastiche of male models and movie stars.
“How do you feel about centrifugal force?” I said over my shoulder.
“Totally against it.”
“Great. Next up is the Gravitron.”
The line here was longer, and when he caught up we turned to each other, and I did a double take.
There was the sensitive mouth I’d seen earlier, the lips that looked made for poetry and murmuring sweet French nothings in cologne commercials. Je te veux, mon chéri. But now there was a whole face to go with them, and that face—oh my god. You know when a swimmer gets out of a pool, and they’re radiant and flushed, mouth open a little, eyelashes dewy and sparkling, squinting like they’ve just come back from another world? He had that look, permanently. Like he wasn’t really from here. He was some beautiful thing coming up from a beautiful place, squinting amiably at our brightness and filth. I could give you the technical specs—cheekbones high and chiseled, straight patrician nose, tall forehead, boyishly handsome—but it was the expression that made him beautiful.
He’d said something to me and I was just gaping like an idiot. “What?”
That smile again. Like a flashbulb going off, freezing you in the moment.
“Did you know you can walk on the wall while it’s spinning?”
“It’s nuts. You’ll feel like a superhero. They won’t let you do it now, but if you hang around till closing and slip them some cash, they’ll look the other way.”
My eyes must have lit up at this. The Guy leaned in suddenly, tilting his face.
But he just stared at my eyes, as if searching for a stray eyelash. A free wish.
“What are you doing?” I whispered, hoping I didn’t have beer breath.
“Green,” he said, and leaned back. “I wanted to know the color.”
“Why? So the police can identify my body later?”
Thankfully, he laughed. We handed over our tickets.
“Five bucks says you scream,” I said.
They lined us up against the wall. Lights went off. Marquees blinked on. The giant steel saucer began to spin. They were really going for the UFO effect here.
“Someday they’ll make spaceships like this,” I said. “So the astronauts can walk around.”
“Like in 2001: A Space Odyssey.”
“The movie. You’ve never seen it? It’s a classic.”
That was the first time I felt the difference in our ages.
“How old are you?” I said.
“Old enough,” he said, and we both laughed.
My bones stuck to the wall like magnets. I tried to raise my arm, but it weighed a hundred pounds. The boards we stood against rose off the floor, our feet levitating. A girl near me giggled uncontrollably. The saucer was still accelerating, flattening my insides, making me feel both weightless and infinitely heavy. I tensed my legs and raised them straight out, sitting in midair. The Guy grinned at me. His gaze lingered on my legs, and the edges of his grin softened, and even though my stomach was a pancake, something in it fluttered. Little two-dimensional paper butterflies.
The UFO reached maximum velocity. I let my legs slam back down. I wanted to feel like this all the time, like I was rushing through the universe, everything intense and pressed right up against my skin. The Guy gave a wild, jubilant yell. The giggling girl sounded like she was drowning. At that moment I knew every single person on the ride wanted it to go faster, faster, blood pooling at the backs of our skulls, until we were tingling and dizzy and flew apart into a million particles of happiness.
I had trouble getting my balance when we came down. The Guy rooted in his pocket for something. He took my hand.
He pressed a five-dollar bill into my palm. “You win.”
I felt weirdly sheepish. I didn’t want to take his money. “I was just kidding.”
“I’m a man of my word.”
Yes. You’re a man, a very pretty one who’s being very nice to me, and I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.
“Fine. Let’s support the economy,” I said, waving the bill at the game stalls.
We decided the least-rigged game was the water gun race, because it had a winner every round. I paid up and sat next to a little boy whose mom stood behind him, maneuvering his arms like a puppet. On my other side was a fat drunk guy who smelled like sausage. He leered at me.
This would be cake.
I grabbed my WWII-era machine water gun and took aim at the bull’s-eye dead ahead. The carny counted down. Three. Two.
I brushed Fatso’s bare leg with my calf.
The little boy lost before it even began. He started crying, and his mom snapped at him and seized the gun. She only managed to squirt out a tragic, flaccid little stream before her kid burst into wails and she pulled him off the seat.
“And Seven drops out,” The Guy announced, as the carny stared at us with sullen boredom. “A sad day for Team Seven. Six has the lead now, but Five is gaining fast.”
I hit my bull’s-eye flawlessly. My marker rose smooth and steady.
Fatso had pretty good aim, too. We were neck and neck.
I rubbed my calf along his hairy shin.
“But wait! Five is falling behind! He seems to be losing focus. Can he pull it together?”
I hooked my foot around the back of Fatso’s leg. Dragged my toes up his meaty ham hock.
Ding ding ding!
“Winner! Number Six by a landslide.”
I turned a huge smile on Fatso. “Sorry, mister.”
He wasn’t mad at all. His piggish eyes gleamed. “I got another game you can beat me at.”
“Dad,” I said brightly, “this man wants to play a different game with me.”
Fatso heaved himself off the stool, his hands up in the surrender/I-didn’t-touch-her position, and backed into the crowd.
“You’re a dangerous girl,” The Guy said softly.
I made a gun with my fingers and blew imaginary smoke away.
My choice of prize was a weepy-eyed velvet pony. It was the look on its face—soulful, hopeful, earnest—that appealed to me. I crushed it to my chest, getting my smell all over it as we strolled aimlessly through the crowd. Mostly older, drunker people now. Two veiny guys yelling, inching into each other’s faces. A man chasing a woman who kept saying it was too late, he blew it.
“I’m thirsty,” The Guy said. “You want something?”
I shrugged, which apparently meant yes. He bought two plastic cups of beer.
“How old are you?” he said again as he watched me drink.
“When’s your birthday?” he said fast.
My reply was just as quick. “August seventeenth, nineteen ninety-two.” I’ve memorized dates for getting into clubs since the dawn of time. Last year I was born in 1991.
He relaxed, smiling, sipping. “Congratulations. You can do everything now but be the president.”
I thought about why he was so fixated on my age. What he was thinking of doing.
“Are you in college?” he said.
His eyebrows rose. I laughed.
“Kidding. I never went.”
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