Summer. 1914. By blurred lines and bokeh lights, a man and woman danced upon the brick-tiled lanes of Steeplechase Park as if they owned the place.
After-hours chatter. Faint carnival music. Sweet nothings whispered from lip to ear. He, the pinnacle of white excellence. A Harvard senior with impeccable grades, stunning looks, and an affinity for horse-racing and skirt-chasing. She, the first of her kind. A Stanford sophomore who came out of nowhere and impressed everyone — mahogany-like skin and frizzly hair like a bowl of noodles, a mind so unnaturally engineered for the natural sciences.
He didn’t think much of her at first, but now, he couldn’t quite think of anything else. The curve of her neck. The pinch of her nose. The inquisitive gaze to which she assimilated the world. Most unforgettable of all however, was her laughter. She was difficult to impress, he learnt, no thanks to her calculated instinct and glorious wit, but it seemed like he had the key to her heart.
A giggle here, a chuckle there. Their chemistry was unmistakable. He was utterly intoxicated by the sound of her merry voice.
“Please keep your hands and legs inside the carriage.” The conductor warned firmly as he guided the duo.
Crude and rattly, the compartment had definitely seen better days. A box of popcorn discarded in the corner, a flub of a fairy floss wedged in the window. It smelt like iron. A bit like rubber, even, but neither of them had the pleasure of noticing. Their safety was kept in place by a flimsy door and an easy-to-snap handle.
He, navigated the complexity of her. While she, acknowledged the simplicity of him.
“I can’t believe I’ve never been on a Ferris Wheel before.” — He offered.
To which she returned — “And I can’t believe you’re afraid of heights.”
As the cart lifted into the moonlit wake, his unease bubbled. He leaned back into his seat, tensed and ready, as if holding the reigns of a stallion.
“Come now, you can’t hold this against me. Height is one of the natural human fears.”
“Alongside darkness and loud noises. I’m aware.”
Checkered trousers clipped at the ankle, white country socks and a pair of black Chelsea boots. He couldn’t help but realise how sophisticated she looked, with her round spectacles and Oxford blazer — how contrarian it was to the typical threads of femininity, and how unnervingly attractive it was.
“Emilia Bard, I feel like I’ve known you forever.”
Bard’s heart ached at the irony of his words. “Likewise, Luke Kennedy.” She echoed, a faint smile forming upon her lips.
The lovers’ cart paused as it reached its apex. From their high vantage, they could see the entirety of the theme park. Admittingly, it was a lot less splendorous seeing it from above — the colourful rooftops fading into insignificant shapes, like a film camera out of focus. Only overtime staff were present, clearing up rubbish for the following day - and of course, inconsiderate couples like themselves making sure to use every cent of their ticket fee.
“Luke, do you believe in fate?”
Luke was taken aback by the question. More so, he was stirred by Bard’s unmoving ferocity, her dark eyes looking all the more commandeering.
“No, I don’t think so.” He said, after a moment’s thought. “I think that despite everything that seems outside of our control, we humans have free will. I believe we can choose our paths.”
“You don’t think some things are just meant to be?”
“I think people like to believe that there’s a greater purpose to their lives. That we have some destiny to fill. It’s comforting, in some ways.” Luke shook his head. “But in reality, we’re just the sum of all our past choices, and we we live with the consequences of them.”
“Past choices. You really think so?” Bard mused, twirling the idea like a cherry knot. “Have you ever considered that… there are forces at work that you can’t see or understand?” she chanced, her voice lowering to a whisper, her warm breath against Luke’s cold cheeks. “What if our paths are predetermined, and we’re just following a script that’s already been written?”
Luke stiffened at her sudden shift in tone, but quickly recollected himself. This was a challenge. It had to be. “I don’t believe that.” He quoted, determined to save face. “I think that we make our own destinies. We have the power to shape our lives and create our own futures.”
He grabbed her hand, intended as a romantic gesture of sorts, but pulled back reflexively upon how scalding it was.
She was burning up like a matchstick.
“You’re always so sure of yourself, Luke. Smart. Idealistic. Overconfident. It will get you killed someday.” Bard darkened — she was standing on both feet now. “Nothing we do will ever change that. Trust me, I’ve tried.”
“Bard, sit down. It’s not safe to stand here.” Luke gripped her hands. Red and feverish. Scorching to the touch.
“A couple of centuries from now, Luke, we figure out science itself. We reach the end of it. The singularity, as we called it.” Bard faced upwards, as if addressing the stars themselves. “And let me tell you Luke, it is not pretty. Nor is it ugly. It’s just… nothing. And it is so, so lonely.”
Luke pulled — yanked even, but Bard was as stiff as stone.
“No one can remember me, Luke. Not my parents. Not my friends. Not even my colleagues who strapped me into our temporal suicide machine. The cost I pay for my hubris… to be like Neil Armstrong, but for time itself.”
“I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
Of course you don’t. Neil Armstrong hasn’t been born yet.
“I’ve met you dozens of times, Luke Kennedy. One-hundred-and-sixty-seven times, to be exact. Each and every time, I do things marginally differently in hopes of influencing something. I’ve done this to everyone. To you. To your grandmother. To Jesus Christ of Nazareth. To the German soldier who shoots you in the head.”
“W-what? Bard, that’s not funny.”
Bard stared directly into Luke’s crystalline eyes, filled with a dread that fair outpaced his fear of heights.
“A few months from now, you will be conscripted into a great war. The war to end all wars, as they say. You’ll go off and fight for your country, for what you believe is right. But you’ll be unlucky. You’ll be caught in the middle of a skirmish, surrounded by nought but chaos and destruction and that’s where it will happen. A single bullet, fired from the barrel of a gun, will end your life. It will be painful, but quick. And all your hopes and dreams and the futures you so fiercely believe you deserve, will sink away like a pebble in a stream. Your last thought will be of your mother.”
Luke inhaled, acknowledging the graveness on Bard’s face. The sweet, witty girl of his dreams had disappeared, replaced by a pretty face of unkempt insanity — spouting sacrilegious premonitions like a divine comedy.
“Oddly poetic is it not?” Bard laughed - a hysterical one - as she challenged the sky once again. “That the pinnacle of science turns out to be a matter of philosophy. That none of the choices we make are our own. That free will… is a social construct.”
“I still… No, that can’t be right. What does this have to do with-”
“It doesn’t, Luke Kennedy. Nothing has to do with anything.”
He opened his mouth in protest, to argue that the cards were still in the hands of man, that the universe could not possibly be a rigged roulette. But before he could say anything, Bard already had her back against the door — her delicate fingers tugging playfully at the handle.
“Wait! Bard, don’t you dare-”
Like a bird shot out of the sky, she toppled. Wind tore at her hair and clothing, whipping around her like a failed parachute. Luke tried to scream her name, but his voice was suddenly cut short, as if he were suffocating — like the universe had caved in.
A sickening thud echoed through the amusement park like a death knell. Luke felt a shockwave of grief ripple through him, but he didn’t know why. He couldn’t remember her face… or their name. He couldn’t even remember why he was at the theme park to begin with.
For a long moment, Luke sat there in the Ferris wheel, his mind filled with an empty haze. And then, slowly, he began to climb back down to the ground, feeling as though he were in a dream, and walked. He didn’t know where he was going or what he was doing, only that he needed to get away from the Ferris wheel, from Steeplechase Park, from the the memories that seemed to be slipping away from him like sand in an hourglass.