Sarah Strong’s ponytail spread out over the back of the bus seat like a wave of translucent golden light. Oliver could not take his eyes from it. He’d been watching the ponytail for an hour, ever since Sarah fell asleep, longing to rub the silken strands through his fingers while Benjamin Hampton droned on in the seat next to him. “The key to level six is using the dropkick,” Benjamin explained.
“Mhhhmmm,” Oliver replied. Just four hours into the bus ride to Orlando and already he was exhausted by Benjamin. They were band friends, Benjamin fourth chair trombone, Oliver third, their paths rarely crossing outside second period. Yet when Mr. Stokes sought roommate preferences for the Disney World trip, Benjamin immediately signed up for Oliver, and Oliver couldn’t politely object. It wasn’t as if there were more attractive candidates, Oliver being the quiet sort who didn’t easily make new friends. “I’m going to try to grab a little sleep,” he said, turning off the overhead lamp and noting how the hue of Sarah’s ponytail changed from gold to yellow-orange in the bus’s ambient glow.
He closed his eyes, feigning sleep, but slit them open in time to see the ponytail shift, like wind blowing over a field of sunlit grain, then disappear over the top of the seat. She was awake, only inches from him, yet a thousand miles away.
They attended church together for years. Or they had, until Sarah’s parents got divorced. She returned periodically when she stayed with her father, and Oliver remembered a conversation at the summer lock-in a few weeks before their freshman year.
“I can’t wait for the band trip to Disney World next spring,” Oliver offered. He’d never before found her attractive, but her features had sharpened that summer, her body ripened. He spread out his sleeping bag next to hers on the fellowship hall floor. It was 4 a.m., their counselors exhausted, oblivious to the hormonal energy still coursing through the room.
“I guess.” With her physical transformation, she had become more remote, distant in a way that only made her more alluring. “I’ve already been twice. But Space Mountain is pretty cool.”
“What happens?” Oliver had been on a roller coaster once, when he was seven. His older cousins coerced him into riding it. The experience was so terrifying he’d never ridden one again.
She rolled over onto her stomach, blonde hair falling over her shoulders and cascading toward the floor. A smile crossed her face, contrasting sharply with the indifferent scowl she’d worn the rest of the night. “Well the beginning is like a rocket launch. There are lights and a countdown and stuff, like you’re being launched into space.” She paused, as if she couldn’t quite remember the rest. “Then it’s just like a regular roller coaster, except in the dark, so it’s scarier. It’s just really cool.”
Oliver watched the motel courtyard through an opening in the room’s heavy curtains. “What are you looking at?” Benjamin asked, peering up from his video game. They’d spent the day at Epcot, after arriving in Orlando around 10 a.m. Tomorrow would be the parade, followed by free time at Disney World, then another all-night bus ride home.
“I told you.”
Sarah emerged from her room and padded down the courtyard walkway in sweats and flip flops. Oliver intercepted her at the drink machine, where she stood awash in Coca Cola red light. “Hey Sarah.”
The clink of her coins echoed at the bottom of the machine. She peered at him as if she couldn’t quite remember his name. “Oh. Hey Oliver.”
“I was thinking we should ride Space Mountain tomorrow. Remember how we talked about it last summer.”
Her gaze narrowed, then blanched. “Uhhmm. Sure. I mean, I guess.” She looked past him toward her room. “I mean I promised Lisa and Becky I’d hang with them tomorrow, so I don’t know how much time I’ll have.”
“I can text you,” he said. “It won’t take long.”
Her soda clanked into the dispenser tray. She picked it up and started to walk back toward her room. “OK,” she said, without looking back.
Three p.m. and Sarah hadn’t returned his texts. He looked for her after the parade, but she disappeared. “Give it up, dude,” Benjamin advised. “She’s ditching you.” They entered Tomorrowland, their time in the park running short.
The wait for Space Mountain was the longest yet. Oliver, devastated by rejection, fumed in line. As they approached the loading area, anger turned to apprehension, memories of abject terror from his first coaster ride overwhelming the misery of Sarah’s rejection. “I don’t know if I can do this,” he admitted. Benjamin shook his head sadly, as if embarrassed by Oliver’s doubt.
The ride was as Sarah described it, flashing lights simulating launch, a digital countdown as the coaster lurched upward. Oliver checked and re-checked the bindings as the “spaceship” climbed, powerful anxiety clutching his stomach and his chest. The ship crested then hurled into darkness, dropping precipitously, banking then falling again. The contraption corkscrewed, plateaued and careened through the dark down yet another impossibly steep slope. Oliver could not contain his shrieks, the shrill, girlish sound embarrassing to him but also a release, terror turning to exhilaration in the simulated chasm of space.
In the melee at the end of the ride Oliver separated from Benjamin, then wandered through the park alone in an adolescent daze before returning to the bus. Sarah was already there, sitting near the front with Lisa. “Sorry I missed your texts,” she offered in her lifeless voice.
“You were right,” Oliver replied, without malice or design, his body still thrumming from the ride. “It was cool.”
There was an empty seat far in the back, next to a sophomore oboist named Claire. Orange streaks from the artificial light shimmered in her curly brown hair. With alien emotion sprung from new wells he strode toward it.
Andrew Waters believes the apocalypse will happen on the Internet and wishes he could write like Raymond Chandler. He lives in Salisbury, North Carolina. His story, “The Girl With Rain In Her Hair” will be published in the Spring 2012 edition of “Pamlico Magazine”, the literary journal of UNC Pembroke.