I turned 18 the summer before my senior year, in June. Marla and Gates decided to take me to the carnival late at night to celebrate, oblivious to my resistance. I know it's weird to say but I don't like to leave the house very much and I didn't feel any different being 18 anyway so what was the point in celebrating? Birthdays are just arbitrary days people use as an excuse to eat cake.
But I cared about my friends too much not to humor them. They deserved to eat cake. We were such an unlikely group, and I know everyone says that about their friends, but we really were.
Marla was an aspiring actress, all curves and confidence. Guys were always after her and most of the time, she was dating older, model-looking guys. Gates, meanwhile, was everything I dreamed about being: reserved, fashionable, and skinnier than your average toothpick. She also happened to be very intelligent and a complete geek—a very pretty, fashionable geek.
I think I fell somewhere in the middle and yet very far away from their line, like we formed the three corners of a very obtuse triangle. I wasn't exactly stupid but I didn't like school. I wasn't particularly pretty or striking. I had never had a boyfriend and I was quite certain guys just weren't interested. I didn't have many interests or ideas of things I wanted to do in life. Mostly, I kept to myself.
I guess you could say I was a waste of space.
"Rose, if you don't keep up, we'll just leave you to fend for yourself," Marla called back to me as we ran across the straw-covered parking lot to the fair entrance.
"I'm coming!" I called back, waving them on.
I didn't want to rush things. I had a feeling about the night. The air was warm but I shivered as I tried to focus on the wavering carnival lights in the black distance. Chills were vibrating down my spine, amplifying the excitement as it began to settle in. I had to give it to my friends; this was a pretty cool way to celebrate my birthday, even if I didn't believe in that kind of thing.
They paid for my ticket (but I slipped five bucks into each of their bags to pay them back) and we headed in. I loved the carnival: the noise, the size, the rides, the crazy people, the greasy food, the lame games where you could win a giant stuffed animal or a fish that would die in a week. It was perfect.
"So, Rose, how different do you feel now that you're an adult?" Marla asked as we walked along side the main stretch of rides. The colorful lights only made her look more beautiful. She was blonde with blue eyes and yet romantic and exotic-looking with a pointed chin, giraffe eyelashes, and full breasts. There was hardly a crease or shadow on her smooth, flat face.
"Pretty normal," I said with a shrug.
Clearly it was not the answer Marla had been looking for because she thrust her hands deep in her jacket pockets and kept staring straight ahead, a dour look on her face. She was to turn 18 in a month and I think she was expected something more. She wanted so badly for things to feel different. Despite her cheery, lovely exterior, Marla dealt with a lot including, but not limited to: parental divorce (although she only lived with her mom anymore); boyfriend troubles (in all fairness, brought on by herself); trouble at school (mostly as a result of said boyfriend troubles); and losing five acting jobs in the last year.
"We should go on Deathwish," she said after her moment of sulking, pointing to a large, spinning ride that looked like it would induce puking within thirty seconds. I glanced at Gates. She was clearly opposed to the idea as well. "Don't be such babies," Marla whined. She grabbed our hands and pulled us forward to the endless line.
The waiting was excruciating. We watched batch after batch of thrill-seeking teenagers entered the ride with smiles and leave pale-faced and shaking. Gates and I were holding hands, our knuckles white with taut skin. We were staring like ghosts at the monstrosity before us, knowing exactly why it was called Deathwish. We were both wishing for death over having to ride it.
Marla had her arms crossed and was watching a group of boys in front of us wrestle each other. I recognized them from school but I barely knew their names. They were showing off for Marla, obviously aware she was watching them.
"Marla," Gates said calmly, tugging on Marla's sleeve. "Can I ride with you? Maybe your bravery will rub off on me and I won't as scared."
"Sure, sweetheart," Marla said absentmindedly, still staring at the boys.
That's when I realized it was only two to a seat and I sure as hell wasn't going alone. "Oh, I'll just sit this one out then, yeah?" I said, slipping out of the line.
With lightning-fast speed that came out of nowhere, Marla grabbed my wrist and pulled me back. "Oh, no you don't," she said loudly. Then she tapped one of the boys from the line in front of us and smiled pleasantly.
"Hey Marla," the guy said, smiling at Marla like it was his lucky day. I think his name was Scott.
"Hey," Marla replied with incredible ease. I didn't understand how she was able to talk to boys like that. "So there are three of us and one of us has to ride alone. It's Rose's birthday today and since you have an odd number of people too, why don't you spare a body to sit next to her?"
"Oh, happy birthday, Rose. I'll see what I can do," Scott replied with a wink and turned to his friends, settling them down. "Who's ridin' with who?"
The boys quickly partnered up, leaving one boy looking bewildered. I didn't recognize him but out of anyone in the group, I was glad he was left alone.
"Parker, you're with the birthday girl," Scott shouted, pointing at me and laughing. I couldn't tell if he was making fun of me.
Parker looked at me and smiled slightly but I could tell he didn't want to ride with me. He slipped past Scott and Marla to stand next to me like a gentleman. He leaned up against the fence of the ride.
"Hey," I said, trying to mimic Marla's tone and confidence. Gates shot me a funny look and linked arms with Marla.
"So, it's your birthday," he stated and then his voice became hesitant and awkward. "Sorry, what's your name? I don't actually know you."
"Oh, uh, I'm Rose," I said. "I'm sorry you're stuck riding with me."
"I'm not stuck. I'm choosing to ride with you rather than go on my own."
"Thanks, I'm a step up from an empty seat."
"No! I mean, it's you're birthday and your friends are leaving you alone to fend for yourself on this ride? I'm scared shitless. I can only imagine how you feel." He chuckled and shook his head.
Parker was sort of handsome in a clean-cut, primetime drama actor way, like he could have been in 90210 or Gossip Girls. He had a defined bone structure in his face and body, tall and toned with short hair. He spoke like a cowboy a bit but in an awkward preppy/jock cowboy way. The skin-tight shirt he was wearing was showing off his slender, lightly-muscled physique a little too well, like he knew he was a gorgeous human being and he was flaunting it. Yet, I suspected no arrogance in his personality based on the way he talked and moved.
"Scared shitless," I said. "Something like that."
Although, the longer we stood in line, the better I felt. Maybe it was because I was going to be sitting next to a strong, handsome boy but it also might have been because my body was numb from shaking so much in fear.
The ride swirled before us like a giant, gyrating deathtrap. There were three rings, each spinning within each other and lined with pods that swung within their own pods that also slid along the outside edge of the ring they were attached to.
In essence, I was sure I would die.
We worked our way up the line in silence until Marla and Gates got ushered in. The ride manager shut the gate behind them, leaving Parker and me for the next round. Marla gave me a sharp look as she and Gates were belted in, their pod's cage closing over her. I smiled sarcastically and gave her a little wave.
Hoping to coerce him out of riding, I looked at Parker with the saddest eyes I could muster. Before I could even begin my plea, he spoke up.
"Let's get out of here," he said. It wasn't a question. I nodded anyway and he grabbed my hand, pulling me out of the line.
"Rose! You get back here!" Marla screamed from her pod. Gates was chuckling beside her.
Parker pulled me through the hoards of people, until we came out in the parking lot. I was confused. I didn't think he meant leaving the fair.
"Where are we going?" I asked.
"Trust me," he said, glancing at my worried face. "Please?"
I took a deep breath and nodded. It was so unlike me. I pulled my wrist back. "Let's go then," I said. If I was going to follow him, I was going to do it by my own volition.
He grinned and led me to a pick-up truck. He patted it twice before unlocking the driver's side door.
"What are you doing?" I asked, perhaps a bit mistrustful.
"Getting my jacket," he replied, pulling a brown leather jacket off the seat before locking up his car again. "You're freezing."
I hadn't noticed it in the excitement of things, but I was shivering in my knit shirt dress and leggings. Perhaps not the most sensible attire but Gates had picked it out. She had a fantastic sense of style and I let her dress me whenever she felt like it.
Parker wrapped his jacket over my shoulders. It smelled like fire smoke and felt as soft as skin. As I took it in, he opened the back of his truck and pulled himself into the bed, patting the spot beside him. I sat beside him, holding my hands uncomfortably in front of me. I didn't really know what to say, since we had just met.
"Can I trust you?" he asked suddenly. I could tell he had been struggling to find the confidence behind those words.
"I guess so," I replied, trying to read him.
"I need to tell you a secret," he said, speaking between short breaths while staring at his knees. "It's something I can't tell any of my friends. And I just feel like… I can trust you."
"I won't tell anyone if that's what you mean." I knew sometimes it was nice to get something out to a complete stranger but this just seemed odd.
Parker took a deep breath. "My friends wouldn't understand. They think life is all about girls and booze. But I'm so unhappy." I didn't know what I was getting myself into. "I promised myself I would tell someone today. I'm sorry to do this on your birthday."
His blue-green eyes were glassy with tears. I hesitated but finally reached out and touched his hand to tell him it was okay. Finally, he gathered enough strength to look me in the eyes. Tears were leaking silently down his cheeks now.
"Rose, I tried to kill myself yesterday," he said.
And thus began my life as a secret-saver.