The bright lights give off an obnoxious combination of red, yellow and white glow. A visual overdose is spread across every corner of the travelling carnival like a neon bed-skirt. Kids infest every intersection. Games booths are commanded by charismatic university students over loudspeakers.
Carnies are the sheriffs of this lawless little land, when they’re not smoking pot or copulating with each other, shuffling folks onto rides and pressing a green button. Ferris Wheels and Gravitrons spin to life and slow with circadian rhythm, primed for the moments leading up to pushing the Big Red One.
Shuffle people out, shuffle people in.
It’s all routine.
Parents, single or otherwise, bring their offspring here in what they perceive to be a family night. It’s not even close. I can hardly blame them. It’s a night to set their monsters on a civilization of bells and whistles.
Teenagers travel in groups, beating the younger, less agile kids at games, contributing to anarchy any way they can. Maddening carnival music finds its way to whatever wondrous nook I find myself in, reaching peak volume somewhere along the House of Mirrors.
Skylar walks alongside me, buried in a sweater and thick glasses, having opted for sneakers over style. Her hair is tied back in a ponytail which sways with her swagger from side to side. Unnaturally focused on her environment, sentimental even, she constantly smiles at things she sees- a landed robin picking up food crumbs or a baby who lays eyes on her over a mother’s shoulder.
“I’m glad you called me,” she says. “I didn’t expect you to, but hoped.”
In return for three fucking days of torturing myself, I decided to act.
We arrive at the merry-go-round. Steel fences double as leaning posts for adults loitering around them, savoring a moment of peace before returning to ritualistic mollycoddling. Our fingers wrap around the horizontal bar, looking off into spinning abyss of colorful thought.
“Can I ask you a question?” Skylar asks.
“Depends on the question.”
“What do you mean, what changed?”
She takes a deep breath, lips pursed.
“You never struck me as the guy who’d propose.”
“A lot changes in ten years.”
“Says the man who doesn’t believe in change.”
“I don’t know what to tell you, Skye. Somewhere along the line, it stopped being an issue. I had to change if I wanted to live to see thirty years old. I had to change because I was sick of the lying and the binges and the compulsions.”
“One night, I got hammered. Really hammered. I was with this girl Trisha at the time. We did a bunch of coke at her apartment and polished off a bottle of Jack. I crashed Trisha’s car. Hit one vehicle, which hit another. I ended up taking out a fire hydrant. That was rock bottom right there. Face-deep in the airbag and a cut above my eye.
“I pushed open the door, fell to the sidewalk and puked up all over it. Passed out. I woke up in the hospital. My brother was there. My uncle was there. Three doctors standing over me and a pair of cops.
“Crown wanted to put me away for six months but the judge didn’t throw the book at me because I had a clean record. I spent two days in lockup and got sent back to rehab. When I got out, I dumped Trisha. Just stopped calling her. She came to my house once, lost it on me and walked away.”
Skylar takes a moment to process. Her brow rises and falls for the duration.
“And then you met Claire?”
I fix my sights on the carousel. Christmas lights in constant motion. Momentary assaults of clarity coincide with mental highlights.
“I met Claire at- this is going to sound ridiculous. But, um, she mistook me for the superintendent, which was known to be a notoriously vacant position.”
Skylar says nothing.
“She had just moved in down the hall, and her pipe busted. My roommate at this time, real dick named Greg, who played guitar at three at the morning and was fucking obsessed with Sambuca, offered to help her on condition of a ‘happy ending’.”
“Oh, God,” she says. “Some men.”
“Anyway, there was no superintendent at the time, so I broke into the building’s storage and ‘borrowed’ some tools. Fixed the pipe.”
“You always were a rebel.”
“The first time I saw Claire smile, the first time I heard her voice and it peaked in pitch as it does when she’s nervous; the simple, knee-high white dress she was wearing. Golden locks. Beautiful girl. I was at a loss. Felt like an idiot.”
Skylar is silent.
“I feel like I’m talking to a wall here,” I tell her.
“What do you want me to say?”
“Congratulations, Len, you’re no longer the biggest fucking tool I know?”
“Now you’re just fishing for compliments. You haven’t lost that about you.”
“Here I thought I was a changed man.”
She bumps her shoulder to mine.
“Thanks. Want to start walking?”
We migrate away from the carousel, slipping back between the crowds, into anonymity. Pass the Ferris Wheel again, the game booths, the cotton candy stand housed in a commercially constructed log shack. The faint scent of popcorn filters through clear air before being pulled into the night.
Skylar reaches into her purse and pulls out a familiar brand. She sticks the cigarette in her mouth and grabs a set of matches. The fumes of sulfur engulf my senses before nicotine-laced fog takes hold of my nostrils.
“That’s so bad for you,” I mock.
“Shut up,” she says, “If I’m going to die young, you can bet I’m going to live the rest of it very fast.”
“Dancing. Stalking. Smoking. All these things were beyond you, Skye. Have to say, I like the new you. What’s next?”
She stops. Gray eyes drift upwards to a structure breaching the countryside backdrop. Something tall, in ultimate bad taste and shaped like a death trap. On a whim, she drops the cigarette, and starts toward a line for the roller coaster. Like she won’t live long enough to accomplish both.
“Come on, Len!”
I shake my head.
“Don’t be a wimp!”
Sigh. I follow her into line, one bursting at the seams with teenagers, disgruntled fathers and their youngsters. A human train moves along at a snail’s pace as I shuffle between sides uncomfortably.
“I thought you hated roller coasters,” I remark.
“You hate roller coasters, Len.”
“I take it this is something else you’re actively embracing?”
“What can I say? I’m not going to die in a hospital bed, at least.”
One of the dads in front of us overhears Skylar and glares back at her.
“Don’t worry. I’m not contagious,” she clarifies, “Although, it’s not so nice to stare at sick people.”
The man mutters something and looks away.
I check whether my jaw is still attached to my cheekbones.
“What? Because I told him to mind his own business?” she asks.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you so confrontational with strangers.”
“I guess a lot does change in a decade.”
The line continues to push forward, twelve people at a time. From where we started, it’s progressed a little over halfway. The structure to our left shudders with the sounds of rumbling train-cars and their cheering occupants.
“So I think it’s my turn to ask a question,” I say.
“If the doctors came to you tomorrow morning and said they’d been wrong; you were going to live for another ten years, the whole shebang. Would it change anything?”
“I’m not sure what you’re asking,” she says, “Are you asking whether I’d keep doing crazy things I hate just for the sake of doing them, or whether I’d go back to my old life and revert back to who I used to be?”
“That phrasing works.”
She thinks on it, as if building the perfect answer in her brain.
“The doctor who came to my room with the MRI results couldn’t have been older than twenty-five. I don’t think she’d ever had to personally tell a patient anything like that. It took a while to stop beating around the bush and finally tell me. I know what a blood clot is. She proved living people shouldn’t hand out death sentences. Their delivery sucks.”
“”Do you always talk like you’re already dead?”
“In a way, I am. I did the denial thing, the anger and bargaining. I got to depression and I slept. A lot. Somewhere, in that huge clusterfuck of recurrent nightmares, there was a bit of serenity. But the doctors aren’t wrong, Leonard. Dying changes something in you. Even if they came to me tomorrow and told me they were, it’s part of me now. I’ll always live today like it’s my last.”
“I’m sorry,” I say, “I didn’t mean to upset you.”
Skylar wraps her fingers around the thick of my wrist.
“You have no reason to be sorry.”
How can she be so calm?
Why doesn’t her voice waiver, or her eyes tear?
Almost having inched our way to the stairs leading up to the loading platform, a couple juveniles hanging off the railing are approached by a security guard who escorts the punks out of line.
“If anything, Leonard, I have everything to thank you for.”
Ten steps to go.
I am not going to enjoy this.
“Why is that ?”
One of the trains comes to rest above us. Footsteps pound across the opposite end of the platform, a crowd spilling down a different staircase. Some are carried off into other corners of the carnival. Others rendezvous with their friends at the back of the line, ranting and raving about how great the ride was and vowing a repeat performance.
I can see the train cars now.
“I don’t know,” she replies, “With you, there doesn’t have to be a thing.”
“The thousand pound elephant in the room called death?” she asks. “For the writers among us, let’s call it ‘dying with dignity’.”
“You remembered,” I say, somewhat impressed.
She grins. “Of course I do. Leonard the aspiring writer. It was romantic. I loved that about you. But I haven’t seen your name much at the bookstore, so I wasn’t sure how to broach that topic.”
“I wrote a couple. Published none.”
“Yeah,” she says, “well, don’t give up on your dreams, sweetie. Your day job’s not doing you any favours.”
“Funny. My parents always told me the opposite.”
“And how are they?”
“I’m sorry. Natural?”
“Car crash. Nine years ago. And I’ve made my peace with it. Not sure Luke has, but he has way too many other, self-created problems to deal with first. And that’s kind of what I’m trying to say here, Skye.”
“Dying with dignity includes your family, too. Now, I’m not going through what you are, and it’s not my place, but I would want my family to not….be caught by surprise, you know?”
We’re almost at the gate now. The smell of sweat is pervasive, more than a hundred people crammed together.
“That’s the problem,” Skylar says, “Telling the world will make me look vulnerable. I don’t want to look vulnerable. Not many choose the timing, but some of us can control the circumstances. I’m not going to be kept alive by machines. That, to me, is not dignity.”
Another set of cars unloads and finally we’re standing at remotely opened gates. The operator sits in a booth to our right. Two college girls ushering people in and out like a revolving door every few minutes compare boyfriends and nail colors in their downtime.
“You ready?” Skylar asks as the next car comes rolling in and several wheezing people take their leave down the other side.
She chuckles, slaps me in the chest with the back of her hand.
“Suck it up, buttercup. I’m forcing you to do this one time. Not only will you live, but I’ll have you home to your fiancee by eleven.”
The gate opens and we take our seats. The cold steel car locks its occupants in with colder steel bars cranking down in our laps. To make matters worse, there’s not much protection on either side of me.
“I’m not going to lie,” I say. “I’ve never been on a roller coaster.”
A schoolgirl giggle escapes her lips.
“Double score for me.”
Leonard the Liar by Nicholas Gagnier is scheduled for release on Tuesday, July 24th and will be available on Amazon.com