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Hold on Tight



Estimated reading time — 8 minutes

The air was cotton candy and popcorn. The mood was light. Children did as children did, running and jumping and laughing and crying and fighting, at varying intervals, sometimes all at once. It was summer. The carnival was in town.

Along the riverbank, the traveling carnival crew had worked for three days to set-up the booths, stages, fences, and rides that composed the Corellan Carnival, an event that was looked to with glee by the entirety of the town at the dawn of August each year.

The carnival wasn’t much, really, when you looked at it. Three rides, a few vendors, and a couple of those terrible games that you knew were rigged but played anyway. But to the small town of Corella, it was everything. One of the only events that brought out every face in town.

That included Daisy Duthie and her son, Alan. Daisy lived the lonely life of a soldier’s wife and had the unfortunate task of being both mother and father, at least some of the time.

One of those times was tonight. For weeks, Alan had asked and asked if he could ride The Plunge, the carnival’s roller coaster. And after he’d get assurance that “yes, he could and yes, he would” he’d ask again within hours, either because he wished to confirm or because he forgot the answer.

Alan, an inquisitive, adventure-seeking type (he also claimed to know “all the dinosaurs” and “where to find them”) had just turned six and was finally tall enough to gain entrance to the ride. He’d made sure of it by measuring himself, sometimes two or three times a day against the benchmark line he drew into a wall in the kitchen. He couldn’t wait.

Daisy, on the other hand, couldn’t wait to be done with the whole thing. She hated all rides, let alone a carnival roller coaster, and prayed that by some miracle, her husband, a lieutenant would return and relieve her of Father Duty. But it was in vain.

On the first night of the carnival, Daisy had to work late. It was still a Thursday after all and there was no way she could get out of work to go to a carnival, even if she wanted to. Alan was prepared for this and knew that he’d have his chance to take The Plunge tomorrow.

He waited up for his mother to get home that night. He wanted to know if she drove past the carnival, how long the line for the ride was. When the browbeaten women of 34 walked in the door, Alan knew that something was amiss.

“What is it, Mom?” he asked, sparing even a greeting. He held his breath that whatever it was, wouldn’t stand in the way of him riding that ride.

“I’m just a little sick is all. Been a long day. Why aren’t you in bed?” she said, tossing off her shoes and plopping on and into the couch.

“I will, I just couldn’t sleep. I CAN HEAR EVERYTHING!!” Alan said excited. It was true, the carnival, down the hill, along the river, was within a stone’s throw of the Duthie house. “But I’ll go to bed now, I was just waiting for you to get home.. We can still go tomorrow, right, Mom?”

“We’ll see, Alan. You’re a good boy, I promise we’ll get there, tomorrow or Saturday.. Now go brush your teeth so I can tuck you in and go to bed.”

The next morning, Alan prepared breakfast for his mom in the hopes that it would make her feel better. It wasn’t much: a glass of orange juice, toast, and a Pop Tart, but Daisy was delighted.
But it didn’t help. Daisy had a fever and couldn’t stand to get out of bed for more than a few minutes at a time. Not only was the carnival out of the question, she even called out of work.
Alan, although growing restless, didn’t seem to mind. He loved his mom and knew that she did everything she could for him. The least he could do was wait for her to get better.

Still, that didn’t stop him from staring out the window and down the block to the lights and spectacle of the second night of the carnival.

On the third day, Daisy felt compelled to reward this good behavior by taking the trip down the block, no matter how bad she felt. And she felt even worse than the day before. But she couldn’t get out of bed. Having fallen asleep again shortly after heating up dinner (for Alan, she wasn’t hungry), the boy stirred back and forth, wondering if and when to wake her.

A million questions racked his brain as he pondered the dilemma. Maybe Mom is really sick and I should let her sleep. Maybe she’ll be mad if I wake her up and we won’t go anyway. Maybe the carnival won’t come back next year and I’ll miss it for good!

Finally, around 9:30, Alan put on his favorite shirt and his nicest shoes and darted out the door. His mother, startled out of her slumber by the slam of the door, called after him. She planned on yelling at him but couldn’t, she knew she owed this. She got dressed.

After they left the house, Alan ran off again. Daisy, struggling to keep pace behind him, found her yell: “Wait for me at the light, Alan Joseph!” she yelled, straining every muscle in her throat.

The boy sagged his shoulders and turned around, upset: “Hurry up!” he moaned, forgetting her fever.

The pair arrived a minute or two later and went to buy tickets. There, Alan saw a boy, Timothy, he knew from school. The parents exchanged pleasantries (and Timothy’s mom, who Daisy liked, asked if she was feeling ok) while Alan relayed the news to his friend: he was taking The Plunge!

Timothy, who was leaving told him to hurry, that the rides were closing soon. Alan tugged at his mother’s shirt with his little candy-stained paws and got to the line. Only, there was no line. Only a distracted man sweeping beneath the seats.

“Sorry, ride’s closed.” he burped when he noticed the pair.

Alan started to cry. This he was not prepared for. To get so close to The Plunge only to be turned away? It was a terrible shock to his little body and shattering to his fragile heart. And his mother’s too. She looked for empathy and for recourse.

The sweeper told her that he didn’t have the key to launch the ride anyway. Eventually, the man (a boy, really, he couldn’t have been much more than 16) who did have the key returned.

“We can let him on. It’s alright.” he said, clearly taken aback by the scene. “But you gotta ride with the little man.”

Alan, as happy as he was by the sudden reversal of fortunes, didn’t like hearing that last bit. He was almost seven. But in a matter of seconds, his grievance was forgotten. He was finally going to take The Plunge.

Daisy, pale in the face except for her stuffy red nose, looked distraught, not to mention disheveled. Sleep-deprived, exhausted, sick, and now, confronting fears: she hated roller coasters!

Alan reassured her that it would be alright, over before she knew it. She cupped his tiny hand: “Hold on tight.” advice directed as much to him as to herself.

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The man tightened the belt. Daisy thought it felt loose, he said they’d be fine. With the push of a button and a turn of a key, they were off.

The cart began to build speed after a trio of shot inclines and subsequent descents. Then, with almost no warning, they were moving. Herking and jerking, riding and gliding, they rolled and they made turns: both sweeping and sudden. They looped and whizzed and finally built up to the climax, the big drop, The Plunge.

Daisy, not at all enjoying herself, hid terror behind her eyes. Something was wrong, that she knew, or at least she felt it, deeply. Instinctively.

The cart they were riding was rickety and it just felt, wrong. This is why she hated roller coasters, she had no idea if her terror was justified or if she was just overreacting. It was the same story every time.

Alan for his part was in bliss, laughing and yelling and fearing nothing. Not deigning to fight his mother’s grip, he tried in vain to put his hands in the air.

Daisy turned and looked at her boy. It meant the world to see him smile. She was sure she’d shed a tear of joy if she wasn’t so damned scared.

Finally as the cart was looking down on the entirety of the carnival and the river to their right, Daisy mustered the only words she could: “Hold on tight.”

And then in an instant, it was over. The tumbling crash of metal relieved only by the smooth splashing of water. Alan, for his part, holding on until the very end.

Many months had passed without the removal of the carnival set-up. There was an ongoing investigation being conducted into how such an egregious accident could happen. Some theorized it was deliberate, others cited mismanagement, one rumor was the ride simply wasn’t designed to run for so many hours without a rest.

The only thing that people seemed to agree on was that the ride was haunted. That the mother and child, unrecovered from the river, would doom any who trespassed in the park to that same fate.
It was nonsense, of course. There were no ghosts. And Nick and Vin were going to prove it. They had managed to bring out a collection of the town’s most daring youth, despite the chilling air of mid-December.

There plan had brought out Little Tim, a scooter-obsessed vagabond, Max and Jess, the only couple that had lasted more than a few weeks in their sixth grade class, Max’s little brother, Rube, a former classmate of Alan’s, and Dom, who though no one could ever seem to remember him, always managed to get himself involved in whatever mayhem was being plotted.

This time, the plan was simple: Tim’s older brother had the only other key to operate the ride. He was away at college. Tim was to go into his room and grab it. Vin knew where their dad kept the pliers: he’d cut a small hole into the wire mesh fence. Everybody else simply had to show up.
At midnight, they would take the plunge.

One by one, the group of deviants made at the gathering spot: beneath the willow tree, the only one in town. That was the usual meet-up spot whenever something bad was about to go down and they didn’t want to stay there too long and risk blowing the spot.

That’s why they had to leave Rube behind, who was nowhere to be found. Turned out he went home and fell asleep. He was sick.

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Vin, squirrely little madman that he was, got to work on the fence. Within minutes, they were in.

There was a thin layer of snow on the ground and it was only after succeeding in their trespassing that anybody made this observation. Oh well, they were already past the point of no return.

It was dark and cold and as far as anybody could tell, not a single car had passed by. They decided to explore a bit. It was crazy, just months before, the carnival was a part of their lives every summer, a happy memory. Now it was creepy, distant.

When Tim had his fill of exploring, he ran over and put the key in the ignition. As the other remaining cart moved into position, it let loose a hiss. At the sound of it, the others came running.
Soon, all of them were on-board and buckled in. They were off. It was at this point that Nick realized just how cold it was, feeling it waft past his face as he ascended into the river air. He wondered if he was scared, then he wondered if the others were scared.

Nobody talked at first, except for Max, who had to prove to Jess that he wasn’t scared. But the ride passed by without incident. As they were on their way back to the starting point, Tim asked “You guys heard that, right?”

Nick asked what he was talking about, Vin said he didn’t hear anything, Max told him to shut up.
“No, I’m telling you. I heard something.” he repeated. Then, without warning, the cart began to move again.

“Stop it.” Nick turned around to look at him, seriously this time.

“Wasn’t me.” he plead. Terror swept across all six faces. This time they all heard it, right before they took The Plunge. Max, no longer so tough, began to cry.

They rolled around into the finish once more and began pulling at the restraints to get off. Nothing. In a moment, they were off once more.

This time, they were all screaming, hoping they’d be found, hoping they might live. This was more than any of them had signed up for, even Dom. Who started crying too.

At the top of the descent, as they readied for the plunge, they heard the voice again:

“Hold on tight… Hold on tight… Hold on tight…”

And they did.

Credit : Mike Landy

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