"The Gap" by Graham Irvin

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There are monsters out there. They eat you. They swallow you. They will take your family, too.

               Listen to this: Everything fun is haunted. Nothing is pure. Nothing only gives one thing.

 

You’re going to laugh because it won’t seem that serious. The pirate ship, the wave pool, The Great Beast. There is a body count for each and unless you have local friends, unless you have the season pass, it might not make it to your ears. We don’t release the news. We close for one day, maybe two, enough to clean the blood off the platforms, you know, check with lawyers, and then we’re back open.

               You are always next to a ghost.

               It sounds like some Scooby-Doo shit, saying that, like I’m only messing with you. But it’s real – at least how many are dead from the rides here, from The Good Time.

               It used to shock me, what these people pay for that illusion. For the magic in the air, in the grass, in the never-full trash cans.

               I don’t think about it now. It’s necessary, I guess. They need it so much they’ll accept anything. They’ll drive cross-country to wait in 3-hour lines, eat $15 slices of pizza, drink 8 flat beers from The German Part of the park.

               What I am stuck on, mostly, is how far they can miss. How far off the experience can be. Not just have no fun. But become a ghost. Get eaten by the monsters.

 

Think about this:

               That same family who drives 14 hours to get here eats all that pizza, drinks those flat beers, waits in the lines, then loses their only child on the oldest wooden roller coaster in the Southeast. Because she’d been in the hospital for a year with heart surgery after heart surgery after heart surgery after being on a breathing tube after fainting during soccer practice. Or was it because they’d been too stubborn to listen to a doctor? They had to have known it was dangerous for her. It was summer, too; the heat couldn't have helped.

               Or was it because she looked too unlovable in that bed?

I don’t mean they didn’t love her or that she shouldn’t have been loved. I mean a kid looks a certain way in everyone’s mind, and it’s rarely tied to a hospital bed with plastic tubes pumping fluids she should already have and enough machines to tell an entire floor don’t worry, she’s still alive.

               They’re rarely that kind of weak.

               What those parents knew of a child, before they had her, was no preparation. They’d known it wouldn’t be easy, but it was never supposed to be this.

               Can you blame them for having to jump across that gap every time they looked into her face? What our new life could have been, what our new life should have been, what our new life can be if we only break the rules a little, if we only just try something fun for once.

               So after sitting there, 5 years into that horror, after buying her princess dresses to cover up the heart monitor wrapping over her shoulder and elbow-length evening gloves to cover the catheter in her arm, after giving her stickers to decorate the safety railing of her hospital bed, after giving her the stuffed sad-faced gorilla with gauze around its head that she kissed to cheer up (she knew what sick meant, she knew what get better meant), of course they stopped listening.

               Of course you can wear your princess dress, sweetie.

               We’ll even see the real princesses.

               Of course we’ll go on any ride you want.

               Was it cheaper than the medical bills? Driving down here for one day? Was it on purpose? Euthanasia for her and, by extension, the entire family? How could they go on living? How could they forgive themselves?

               But, before it happened, the mother and the father were beside themselves. They were finally starting to relax, to calm down, to let loose, because she was laughing in a way they had never heard. They didn’t see a cause for an alarm; this was what they had always been missing. They were looking at each other, falling in love again, lifting their hands for all the big drops. They were finally making the right choices. Finally making The Happiness. They were so pleased with themselves to provide this perfect moment that they didn’t look over at their dear sweet daughter, didn’t see just how tight the belt was across her chest.

 

And back in the station their faces still tingled from the thrill, and when they stood to leave she didn’t. She sat there. Unmoving. Asleep?

               She was just there, and the park can’t have medical workers on the premises – you know, we can’t have a paramedic next to the 6-foot-tall dancing dog, suspension of disbelief, can’t have the guests aware that something might go wrong, and how could her doctor make it to that local hospital all the way down here? 14 hours away? On such short notice?

               I already told you the answer.

 

There was also that horny little boy who must have just discovered his body. Just discovered that he needed to focus his attention on any other body so he wouldn’t have to deal with the terror inside his own. That he was changing, that his body could be split open and desired by others.
               That is what we learn here.
               There is something inside to look at.

               That boy dove down beneath the bodies in the wave pool to watch the legs kick and slap each other. He had a system worked out. He could let the motion of the water push him into the bodies, could grab for balance to come up for air. Could fake poor swimming skills. 

               There’s a good chance he was down there pulling himself off. If not there, then he was waiting until his parents took him back to their shared hotel bedroom on the 8th floor to do it. But we’ve seen it before, seen it from older men and boys just like him. He didn’t know why but he was looking for it. Looking for something to grab, something to touch. Something to remember.

               Maybe the space where the Lycra bikini touched hip bone.

               Maybe an ingrown hair to tongue.

               Maybe some loose board shorts and their shadow on a thigh.

               But he wasn’t holding his breath for a big euphoric release; it was a wave that came and pushed together those bodies. A wave came and made those legs into sheets of ice and knocked his vision black and he froze down there and wasn’t found until after lunch. A call came on the radio when the lifeguard saw the body – bloated, with swim trunks knotted around the knees.

 

Did he deserve it or something? Was this a punishment for his groping hands, or maybe a mercy killing for the pain they would later cause? It doesn’t make sense, so you ask a question and try to make sense. You try to bridge the gap.

               I don’t want to get overly sentimental. I’m stuck with only myself for so long, just pushing a button, taking breaks to walk the park, slipping through the tunnels to the breakroom. It starts to feel like everything is watching and guessing.

               Who will the monsters eat next?

               Which monster is the most hungry?

 

Like every other time, I didn’t know the full story until later. Sometimes it’s more clear. Sometimes they scream it directly in your face, I’ve been told. 
               This kid had just turned 16. His dad was out of the picture and his mom and aunt had decided to treat him, and themselves, for the big day. They pooled the money for the trip and drove down; it was everyone’s first time at the park. You could tell they were loving it just by looking at them standing in the line.

               They all sat down in those plastic seats of my pirate ship ride and pulled down their lap bars. Except the mom’s didn’t lock. It kept popping back up. It wouldn’t stay down. I saw the bar go up once or twice but thought she was just clumsy. Thought it must have been some other problem.

               We all clear? I asked, and pressed the button before she could raise her hand. It always takes a few seconds to warm up; there’s never been a problem. It’s kind of a warning.

The way she turned back to me, the look on her face was different. That excitement everyone feels, that fear of the drop, wasn’t there.

               I need off. This thing's broke. She kept pulling it down and it kept popping back up and sometimes her hands would slip and it wouldn’t even make the failed clicking sound.
               They were all looking back at me when I started to hit the emergency stop button. They were all looking at me when it didn’t stop. They were staring into my eyes when the ship began to swing. I radioed management.

               I need maintenance real quick, something’s wrong with the kill switch on the ship.

               But the plastic hull was pushing higher and higher, and I knew it was pointless.

 

Just like the look on their faces, there was different fear in their voices. It was not the fear of a drop, or the fear of heights from a safe distance. It was a fear of just how uncertain and certain they were. What could happen and what they weren’t sure would happen, and even with the mom’s hands and the son’s hands and the sister’s hands pulling down, there was still so much against them. It took a full minute for the ship to flip completely over and you could hear all of the fear the entire time. The fear that is breaking a boundary between imaginary and real. It was leaking into all the other passengers. They knew what they could see, what could happen. The look in the mother’s eyes was some horrible mirror they couldn’t hide from.

               They had been betrayed.

               That fear leapt over the gap and told them about all the ghosts, about what their bodies would look like inside the monster, about what the gears here were meant to do.

               But they weren’t sure it was actually going to happen until it happened. They needed to see her fall to be sure.

               And of course the son couldn’t hold her and the sister couldn’t hold her and they both
watched the mom fall 60 feet to her death, with their hands in the air. They had to finish the rest of the ride knowing where she was and just how little she was moving.

               I made the radio call to say maintenance was no longer the most important thing.

               We need EMS we need medical we need them fast it’s bad it’s really bad what do I tell them what do I say when they step off the ride how do I take this back how do I disappear from this I can’t do this alone I need some help I need someone here to take this from me make it not mine I don’t want it anymore.

               And when the ship settled into the station I pressed the release button for the seats and fell back into the guardrail and sunk down onto the metal floor. I pushed my hands hard over my ears.

 

Even though I don’t operate rides anymore, and even though I pressed that button and watched it then didn’t watch it, and even though I could have helped, they said I’m not to blame.

                  But I could have helped. I could, couldn’t I? I could have stopped the monster.

                  Now, I sweep. Now, I make sure the trash cans always look empty. I’ll go back to college in a couple months; it won’t be so bad. I just really need this money.