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She Wanted Something Else



It was 1924, a Tuesday morning in April. The amusement park had just opened for the season, but the midway was empty because all day it had looked like rain. A tall woman in a long, gray coat walked past the merry-g0-round. A little boy straggled behind her, and two little girls with braided hair ran in circles around them.


At the end of the midway they stopped in front of the roller coaster. The little girls gave their tickets to the attendant and climbed into the first car. The attendant came over and locked the rail into place across their laps, and because there weren't any other children in line for the ride--or even in sight--on this damp, chilly morning, he went over to the control house. With a grinding of gears, the roller coaster began to move forward. But then it stopped. There were more grinding sounds, and this time the teeth engaged; with a surge of power, the cars began to climb the first wooden hillside.


Rose Ann pulled her hand away from Sybil's and moved to the edge of the seat. She looked over at their mother, who stood on the platform with Russell beside her. Behind them were the bright colors of the empty midway, the rides making crazy profiles against the sky. She gripped the guardrail and looked in front of her at the scaffolding the tiny train was climbing. They reached the top of the hill and with metal wheels squealing on metal tracks, fell downward.


It was the "World's Highest Roller Coaster," guaranteed to make their stomachs jump into their throats or the attendant would gladly refund their money. They began to climb the next hillside, but halfway up the cars slowed to a crawl. Then their car, the first one, tipped over the peak, and they stopped again, looking down the slope they would soon be at the bottom of. When they started to move, Sybil shrieked and burrowed her head into Rose Ann's side so she wouldn't have to see. She was younger, more gullible. If they said her stomach would be in her throat, Sybil would oblige.


They raced halfway up the next hill, and then the cars slowed again. At the top, just as before, they stopped only long enough for the girls to get a good look at the plunge they were about to take. Sybil didn't lift her head from Rose Ann's lap, but Rose Ann sat perfectly still, looking down the track.


On the last and highest incline, the one they called "Pike's Peak" in the advertisements, there was the same pause as the car was balanced on the apex. To the north, Brooklyn was a frozen arrangement of geometric shapes; to the south, the Atlantic Ocean was untouched open space. Below them, the amusement park was a tangle of color. Rose Ann made Sybil sit up and look at the view. Then, daring herself to do it, she unhooked the guardrail and stood up in the car. She leaned over the side shouting at the top of her voice, "Look at me!" Then again because she wasn't even scared: "Look at me!" From way below, where the danger was blurred by her nearsighted vision, their mother waved back. The gears began to shift, and Sybil whimpered and covered her eyes. Rose Ann sat down, but too roughly, making the car tip sideways. At that moment Sybil happened to shift her weight, and the little wheels locked safely into the track. Rose Ann fastened the guardrail, put her arm around Sybil, and the train moved forward. But it stopped again, to tease them, and then with ferocious speed the two little girls were thrust earthward.