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Fun fact: I am running away. To live in an amusement park.
Related fact: I am not a runaway kind of person. Unless you’re talking about running away from a fight, or from awkward eye contact or something. Then, yes, totally, I’m your girl.
But if you made everyone in my sixth-grade class vote for “Least Likely to Run Away to Live in an Amusement Park,” they’d definitely pick me. If they could remember my name.
So it’s kind of unbelievable that I am here, standing directly in front of the Foreverland gates, in the middle of a Wednesday in the middle of the summer, when everyone thinks I’m at computer camp back in the city.
Life is full of surprises.
People say that like it’s a good thing, but honestly, the surprises are usually bad ones. At best, it’s 50/50. Of course, I’m a glass-half-empty kind of person—at least that’s what my mom tells me. So I might be wrong. But, just as an example, the suitcase I found this morning by the door—that was a surprise. And not the party-hat kind, that’s for sure.
This, here, my running away—I haven’t decided yet if it’s a good surprise or a bad one. Because I haven’t decided yet whether I’m really doing this. Yes, I took the Metro-North from Grand Central for an hour and a half, then the Foreverland shuttle bus to get here, but I haven’t really done anything that wrong yet. I haven’t done anything I can’t undo.
I crane my neck up to look at the FOREVERLAND sign hanging in the middle of the gate. Underneath, in smaller letters, it says: WHERE MAGIC NEVER ENDS! I look past the gate and see the sweep of coasters curving like mysterious symbols in the sky. I breathe in the tangy, plasticky smell of cotton candy from a nearby stand. If the color pink had a scent, this would be it. I hear the joyful shrieks of people riding high, cutting through clouds. It looks and smells and sounds like freedom and fun and, yes, maybe even magic. And it can all be mine … if I step inside.
Chances are, I’ll get caught right away. I mean, there are definitely people who could pull this thing off—fast-thinking, slick-talking criminal masterminds—but I am not one of those people. I panic when I order from the “12 and under” menu, even though I am twelve, because it feels like I’m just cutting it a little too close. This will never, never work.
I could just spin around, retrace my steps, take the train to the city, and be back before my parents get home.
I can think of about a hundred reasons why I shouldn’t take another step forward.
But I do.
I take another step. I walk through the gates. Right into Foreverland.
I head to the ticket booth, weaving around a swarm of little kids in mustard-yellow Camp Barrie T-shirts. The ticket line is really long. I knew the park would be busy, since it’s the middle of the day, but the park is even more packed than I’d expected. Which is great. Perfect, actually.
The bigger the crowd, the easier it is to get lost in.
And since getting lost in the crowd is one of my specialties, I’m all set.
Fun fact: I’m a wallflower.
Actually, I’m more like wall paint. I’m pretty sure flowered wallpaper gets more attention than I do.
I guess it’s because I’m quiet or maybe I have one of those faces that looks like a lot of other faces. Either way, lots of people forget they’ve met me. I know this is a thing that happens once in a while to people, but it happens all the time to me. It’s hard not to be insulted. Nobody wants to be invisible.
Except for superheroes, as my ex-best friend Priya would point out when I complained about this. Spies, too.
“You’re looking at this all wrong,” she’d say. “Think of the perks of blending in.”
This, right here, is one of those perks. When you’re running away to live in an amusement park, it comes in handy to have the kind of face people instantly forget.
I’m happy the park is crowded, but I’m not thrilled that the ticket line is so long. The longer I wait, the more nervous I get. It’s boiling hot out and I’m sweating up a storm, but I’ve got cold feet, all right—feet so cold they’re turning icy. My heart’s racing and my stomach gets that familiar churning feeling.
I do the one thing that I know will definitely calm me down.
I write an acrostic poem.
I take my brand-new notebook out of my backpack, uncap a Flair pen, and scribble:
Then I fill it in:
A kind of weird way to
Calm down, but weird is
Relative. It’s not nearly as
Odd as that
Sixteen-year-old I read about who
Turns her fingernail clippings
Into sculptures, as a way to
Acrostics are my superpower. The only word I can’t immediately turn into an acrostic is my name. It’s my acrostic Kryptonite—it just makes my mind go blank. I tried to write one for my name this morning on the train. On the very first page of my new notebook, I wrote:
Just the bare skeleton of the acrostic. No meat on it. And it stayed that way. I couldn’t fill it in.
I inch forward in the line. The closer I get to the ticket window, the more my heart speeds up. I scribble another acrostic:
Remember that the trick to
Lying is to say as little
As possible. Nothing
Xcept for what’s necessary.
Okay, the last line is cheating a little, but Xs are impossible to work with in an acrostic … I mean, there’s x-ray, xylophone, and … I’m out.
Then it’s my turn. I slip my notebook into my backpack, take out my money, and walk up to a ticket window. A grandma-type lady with short gray hair is asking me, “How many tickets?”
“One,” I croak. “Youth. Ummm, ticket?”
Ticket Lady is wearing these red reading glasses attached to a beaded chain around her neck, and now she’s peering at me over the tops of these glasses.
“How old are you?” Ticket Lady asks.
My heart is thundering in my chest and my palms are so clammy, my money’s getting damp. I try to calm down by taking a deep breath, but I just end up making a gasp-y sound, like a person being strangled.
Here’s the thing: I’m not even lying. But I’m short for my age, so I know Ticket Lady will think I’m lying. And that’s enough to make me short-circuit.
Some people are calm under pressure. I’m calamitous under pressure.
Now Ticket Lady has taken her fingers off her keyboard, and she’s leaning over her counter to look at me, which is definitely a bad, bad sign.
Please don’t ask where my parents are, I think. Please don’t ask—
“Where are your parents?” Ticket Lady asks.
Fun fact: I am a terrible liar. The worst. Pinocchio is smoother than I am.
My heart is pounding so loudly, I worry that she can hear it. She knows; I’m sure of it. She knows I’m here alone, and she probably knows it’s because I’m running away, and in about five seconds she is going to call the police.
“My parents? They’re, um, coming?” I say. “In a few minutes?” All my answers come out like questions.
This happens to me all the time, and it drives my mom nuts. She’s always lecturing me: “When you make your voice go up, like this? It doesn’t command respect? You see what I’m saying?”
I do now. I see exactly what she’s saying because Ticket Lady, who is officially suspicious, is asking me, “So you’re unaccompanied?”
“No!” I say, way too loudly. “My parents are here, it’s just—I, um, I couldn’t wait to come in, and my toddler—I mean, my sister, who is a toddler—she had an accident … a, uh, urination accident? So they went back to the—to our car? Which is in the lot. The parking lot.”
It’s like my mouth has been hijacked. I have zero control over the words coming out of it. It’s a cruel twist of fate that when I should talk, I clam up completely, but when I need to be quiet, I’m Little Miss Chatterbox.
Ticket Lady is looking at me like she’s trying to decide what to do. Now, I think, might be a good time to give her money.
I put forty-seven dollars in sweaty, crumpled bills on the counter and push them through the slot in the window.
Ticket Lady frowns, then looks behind me at the long line, which I am holding up. After a few seconds, she pulls my money through the window and stabs at a few keys on her keyboard, and then a tiny printer starts sputtering. My ticket.
I’m not the beaming type, but I beam.
“Have a magical day,” she says. Her lips are pursed tight, like she is still really skeptical, so I don’t think she genuinely wants me to have a magical day, but that’s okay. I’ll take it.
“Thanks!” I say. “You too!”
I walk over to the turnstiles, where a bored-looking teenager with hair down to his shoulders takes my ticket. He inserts it into the ticket-eating machine, which gobbles it up, and then the light on the turnstile turns green.
“Have a magical day,” he mumbles in a monotone.
And just like that, I’m in. I am in Foreverland. And it’s exactly how I remember it.
Copyright © 2020 by Nicole C. Kear