She saw her own heartbreak coming, and she did nothing to stop it. Like an astronomer who spotted a meteor and failed to warn the world of its impending arrival, choosing instead to watch and see where exactly it would make impact, how fierce the flames would be. And though the chances were slim, she clung to the faint thought that said: maybe she was wrong, and it would sail right on by, shatter some other planet into rubble and dust.
Standing with her brother, June surveyed the scene in front of them. To their left, a strip of boardwalk games and fast food stands. To their right, the towering roller coasters, a carousel, and above all, the Ferris Wheel, the future scene of her biggest regret. The smell of hotdogs and funnel cake mingled with the sounds of bells and old pop radio hits to create an overstimulating and not quite pleasant environment. They gazed around at their surroundings until finally their eyes landed back on each other.
“So,” she said, “This is really the place.”
“It is,” Emerson replied, wiping a sweaty palm on his shorts. It left a damp handprint. “The very same amusement park where I met Colleen for the first time,” he said, awe and nostalgia coating his voice.
June had heard the story so many times that she could tell it better than Emerson. Three years ago, during his sophomore year of college, Emerson and his buddies (his word, not June’s) took a weekend trip to this park to blow off some steam (again, his words). While in line for the tallest roller coaster, they struck up a conversation with a group of girls in front of them. By the time they reached the front of the line, three of the four girls and one of Emerson’s friends had decided it was simply too scary and hopped out of line. Colleen, unbothered by her friends’ ditching, sat with the boys instead, next to Emerson, and that was that. They spent the rest of the day together, exchanged numbers, and had dated ever since.
Emerson liked to include other details, about a photo booth and a dolphin show and smudging each other’s noses with the powdered sugar from a shared funnel cake, but June preferred to keep it short and simple.
“What time will she be here?” June asked casually, as if she hadn’t given Colleen specific instructions about where and when to meet them.
Emerson glanced at his watch. “Soon,” he said. “We’d better get back to the entrance.” June nodded and together they turned and walked back the way they’d come. June resisted the urge to stop and buy cotton candy.
Together, Emerson and June wove through the crowd, fighting against the current. At this time of day, just after sunset, there were more people arriving than leaving. Those who had wanted to depart before dark were already gone, and the night crowd was entering en masse. June wished that Emerson wouldn’t notice if she slipped away, took the car, and never returned. She was beginning to think that might work when she spotted Colleen, wearing a bright yellow dress that was highly impractical for an amusement park, yet also stunning against her brown skin. Colleen’s curly hair was pulled back from her face with a floral headband, also yellow. A pang went through June as her brother ran towards Colleen and swept her into a hug. Over his shoulder, Colleen smiled sweetly at June, more radiant than the setting sun.
June made her way to the couple at a normal pace and gave Colleen a quick hug after Emerson released her. “Glad you could make it,” she said stiffly, internally kicking herself for sounding like a bored party host.
If Colleen noticed, she didn’t mention it. “I haven’t been here in ages!” she said. With a curious glance at Emerson, she added, “Not since the day we met, I don’t think.”
June and Emerson each forced a smile, June’s too eager and Emerson’s too casual. Linking her arms in each of their elbows, June took the lead. “Well, what are we waiting for? These rides aren’t gonna ride themselves.”
When planning for today, June and Emerson had discussed several options. He and Colleen could spend the whole day together, or they could make this quick, or the amusement park could be the first stop in a series of destinations. June managed to convince him that short and sweet was the best; after all, drag it out too long and Colleen would surely become suspicious. Admittedly, June wouldn’t have chosen the amusement park, with its sticky pavement, creaky rides, and shrieking children, but Emerson had insisted.
With that in mind, June pulled the two of them to the Ferris wheel. No point in putting off the inevitable. “Most people save the wheel for the end of the night,” she said, aware that she sounded ridiculous, like some sort of low-budget tour guide. “So, it’s best to get in line during the first wave.”
As they got closer, June dropped their linked arms and trailed behind the couple by a few feet. She pointed to a nearby bench. “I’ll wait for you here.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to come?” Colleen asked, her expression warmer than June could stand.
June shook her head. “You know I’m terrified of heights.” For good measure, she threw in a wink and said, “Besides, who would want to be the third wheel on a Ferris wheel ride? This isn’t a sitcom.”
Colleen laughed, that sweet bell-like sound that June loved, and Emerson looked at her in wonder. June turned away before she could do something rash, like knock Emerson into a trash can and take his place next to Colleen.
As they joined the line, June focused her vision on the lights of the wheel and ran over the plan in her head. They would be seated in a reserved carriage, a blue one, Colleen’s favorite color. As she gingerly stepped inside, Colleen would spot a folded piece of paper fluttering, caught in the opposite door. Emerson, standing just behind her, would say, “I wonder what that is? I hope it’s not important,” and Colleen would pick it up, curiosity piqued. She would unfold it and hold it out to Emerson excitedly, saying, It’s a skip the line pass for the Hurricane Loop! The ride where we met! If he could keep his cool, Emerson would say, How lucky is that!
They would sit and an attendant would check that their door was closed, secured. The wheel would lurch forward and begin to rise, and Colleen would gasp at the sight below, the park illuminated in sparkling green and gold lights. And she would steal a glance at Emerson, only to see that his eyes were locked on her, and in that moment she would know. That brief flicker, just before it happened, when she knew, would be woven into her mind’s tapestry forever. It would feel like a freefall even though the carriage held steady. She would turn her eyes back to the skyline and slow her breathing, pretending not to know, while she waited for him. His left hand would graze hers while his right hand went to her cheek and turned her to face him, and it would be at that very moment he would ask:
Colleen, will you marry me?
What came next, June couldn’t be sure of. Would Colleen exclaim Yes, yes, of course, yes and pull him into a passionate embrace? Or would she choose, perhaps, something more subtle, a nonverbal yes, a small nod and a kiss on the forehead? Or would she fall silent, expressionless, searching for the right words, the gentlest way to let him down?
While all this magic was happening hundreds of feet in the air, June sat on the grimy bench and watched the passersby. A small child cried over a dropped ice cream cone. A teenaged couple with their hands tangled together walked by as if in a daze. A group of college-aged young adults passed by noisily, thumping each other on the shoulders and singing along to the park music. Strollers rolled, kids ran, parents trudged along wearily. June wondered what brought them here. Could any of these carefree people be at the same sort of crossroads as she, with two divergent futures dangling in front of them?
After what felt like an eternity, June saw them approaching, Colleen in her yellow dress and Emerson in his too-casual tank top and shorts. They weren’t close enough yet for June to see their expressions, but she could see that they were standing closer together than before, Emerson clinging to Colleen as if for dear life, his arm around her shoulder, his fingers threaded through hers. Colleen’s arms were swinging at her sides, carefree and unburdened, on this, the newly-minted happiest day of her life. As they came into clearer view, Colleen’s sun-bright smile shone into June’s eyes. There was not even a hint of hesitation or regret in that smile.
As June watched the meteor approach her, its mark, the one it had always been destined for, she stood and walked toward them with arms wide open. She pulled them into an embrace and murmured “Congratulations,” even as the world burned around her.