Ryan Farist ran like he was being chased by a pack of rabid Dobermans that hadn’t eaten in a week.
“Son, where the hell are you going?” Howard Farist dropped his wallet on the blacktop in his alarm, sending credit cards and loose change flying in all directions. Ryan had often wondered how his father had avoided serious back problems from sitting on that billfold. The damned thing was the size of a Big Mac, overstuffed and pressing against the back pocket of his dad’s jeans like sour, fermented milk attempting to escape its carton.
“They’ll catch up, Ry-Guy–we need to get a good spot in line,” Julie Meyer was a few paces ahead of Ryan, shouting over her shoulder and beckoning him with her arm. “I’ll take the fall for this one.”
Ryan would’ve followed that voice anywhere.
Julie had been hanging around the Farist house for as long as Ryan could remember, but it was only during the last year or so that he had really started noticing her. Nothing carnal, but about the time that Ryan blew out out the candles on his eleventh birthday cake, God reached down and lifted the lid on the cage of butterflies housed just behind his sternum.
Practical thought told Ryan that Julie was Major League, and he was just some schlub stuck in the minors. After all, Julie Meyer was fourteen and he was a lowly, bumbling eleven. But the part of his mind that had been conditioned to believe that anything was possible–the very same peanut gallery in the back of his skull that assured him he could attend Harvard or become an astronaut–sent messages to the control panel up front from time to time that gave him hope. If she would just wait for him, they could have a future together. The three-year age gap would seem a lot less prohibitive as they approached their later teenage years.
Never breaking stride, Ryan looked back at his dad and shrugged his shoulders. He could hear Uncle Reid attempting to mollify his uptight father, while Aunt Sonya and his mom doubled over in laughter. Ryan guessed that they were giggling either at his dad’s clumsiness or one of their old high school anecdotes. Reid and Sonya weren’t actually relatives, but they had known his parents since the four of them were shooting spitballs in fourth period English. The Meyer family–Uncle Reid, Aunt Sonya, and three-year old Julie–had all been present at Ryan’s birth.
The parental quartet’s most beloved pastime was reliving their teenage hijinks and shenanigans. Ryan’s favorite was the one about the time that his dad and Uncle Reid had to drive home during a torrential downpour in Uncle Reid’s beater Fiat Spider. Uncle Reid had manned the steering wheel while Ryan’s dad was in charge of pulling the fishing line attached to the broken windshield wipers. Aunt Sonya would usually interrupt at this point in the story and inform Ryan and Julie that it was a miracle that their fathers escaped their teenage years in one piece.
Ryan suspected that the parents were saving the reefer and booze stories for when he was older; Uncle Reid and his dad had been in a band together, for Pete’s sake. He had snuck into the living room a few weeks ago while his parents slept and watched his dad’s old Mӧtley Crϋe DVD. He knew that rock bands didn’t share prayer requests at knitting circle on Friday night.
Since their parents were inseparable, Ryan and Julie had grown up thinking of each other as cousins. Rockers didn’t pray, but Ryan did–he thanked the lord that he and Julie didn’t share DNA when he knelt at his bed every night. That would’ve made the butterfly feelings weird.
Ryan continued to beat feet, but didn’t catch Julie until she had reached their destination. Her long legs–uncovered and tan, thanks to the warm North Carolina summer–ensured that her top speed bested his.
Ryan sometimes thanked God for Julie’s shapely legs, too.
“Nice, we’re pretty close to the front,” Julie brushed a few rogue strands of chestnut hair behind her left ear and smiled. “I smoked your ass, by the way.”
Ryan and Julie wanted to be one of the first duos on the Miner’s Moxie chair lift. The stream where visitors to Smokestack Railway could mine for gold sat at the top of the lift, and Julie had told Ryan that all of the best nuggets would be gone if they didn’t get there quick. The Farist and Meyer families had been lined up at the entrance to the theme park when it opened, and the two children bolted as soon as they got through the gate.
Smokestack Railway sat in the Blue Ridge Mountains and was the top attraction for kids growing up in the North Carolina foothills. The Farists had been making regular trips up Highway 321 from Hickory to visit the park since Ryan was using whiz targets in the toilet bowl. He had once sworn off the place after a particularly stressful visit during a hailstorm that involved strong gusts of wind and a lost cowboy hat, but he eventually relented to the allure of pop guns and choo-choos.
“A gentleman always lets the lady win,” Ryan said, before he remembered that girls were gross and that he didn’t want to let Julie in on his true feelings. “But since I could hear you farting every third step, lady might not be the right word.”
“Whatever helps you sleep at night, Ry. I don’t think you could hear my ass, but I bet you were looking at it,” Julie bounced her eyebrows in a knowing pantomime. “It’s ok, buddy. You can sneak a peek every now and then.”
Ryan flushed and stirred dirt around with his Converse sneaker. He didn’t want her to know he liked her, but he also didn’t want to be known as ‘buddy’. That word sounded too much like buckaroo or kiddo. You didn’t call guys that you planned to marry ‘buddy’.
“Do you think we’ll get the big one this time?” Ryan asked. “I’ve never gotten anything bigger than a dime.”
“I’ve got a good feeling about this one. I’m thinking I might get rich after today,” Julie brought her fingers to her mouth and went to work, not that there was much left to gnaw–she was a nail chewer-extraordinaire. “Hey, you ever think about what you wanna be when you grow up?”
“… not really. What made you think of that?” Ryan went against the peanut gallery’s wishes and played coy. Only little kids wanted to be astronauts. He deliberated on what a more mature profession might be while he waited on Julie to respond.
“Nothing specific. Dad just keeps telling me that I’ve got to start giving it some thought, now that I’m getting ready to start high school,” Julie said. “You know how I’ve always kept a diary? Well, I’ve been trying to write stories lately. Maybe I’ll be an author. I’ll let you cut the line at my book signings when I’m famous.”
The chair lift queue was moving steadily.
“You two stay together!” Ryan turned and saw his father waving his arms like one of those inflatable tube men that every used car dealership had out front. The group of parents stood about thirty people back from them in line.
“He’s in good hands, Mr. F!” Julie shouted, as she flashed a thumbs-up to the rents with her right hand and mussed Ryan’s hair with her left. She turned to Ryan. “Your dad cracks me up.”
Ryan bristled at being in Julie’s hands. He dreamed of taking her in his sweaty, calloused hands when he came in to their starter home after working on their white picket fence. Grover–he had always known their dog’s name would be Grover, just like he knew they would have three children–would come up and assault their shins with his overactive tail while they embraced. Ryan would take a long gulp from the ice-cold beer that Julie handed him when he walked in the door and ask, ‘Say, hon, where are the kids? Let’s round em’ up and grill some burgers‘. Mary, Jennifer, and Austin would come running down the stai–
“… I said, Earth to Ry-Guy, come in, Ry-Guy. We’re up, dude.”
Ryan’s daydream vanished and he became reacquainted with his surroundings. He was at the front of the Miner’s Moxie chair lift line; Julie was already sitting on the bench seat. A heavily-pimpled teenager was wiping snot off his upper lip with his left hand and herding Ryan with his right.
“Get on with your sister, little man,” Pizza McWhitehead said, as he forcefully ushered Ryan into the seat beside Julie. “When you come back from the top, can you give me her number?”
“She’s not my–“
The greasy teen slammed the steel safety bar down and the lift started to move. Ryan took an anxious breath as his feet left the ground and began to dangle. He was a slight boy for his age, and he had always felt that the safety bar was insufficient. He made a mental note to write a letter to the miners and inquire whether or not their equipment was up to code.
The children were halfway to the top when Julie spoke up.
“I need your help, Ryan.”
“My help?” Ryan was briefly caught off-guard, but quickly realized that this might be a golden opportunity to prove that he was capable–that he was not just a ‘buddy’. He puffed out his chest and replied in an unnaturally deep voice: “What do you need? I’m sure I can handle it.”
“I think about the future a lot, especially with Dad hounding me so much lately. Every time I wonder about what my life will look like in three, five, ten years, I realize that you’re going to be a big part of it,” Julie locked eyes with Ryan, sending the butterflies into sheer panic. “You’ve had a hand in making me who I am today, and you’re going to help me become the best version of myself down the road.”
The depth of her statement knocked Ryan for a loop. He looked away, first out at the mist lazing around the caps of the Blue Ridge Mountains, then down at the uneven terrain below. He guessed that they were maybe fifty feet up. His dad had told him that the lift reached one hundred and nineteen feet at its apex. He heard a click in his throat as he swallowed.
The peanut gallery was on their feet and screaming at him.
(TELL HER HOW YOU FEEL!)
“I… I think I know what you mean. It’s been great getting to grow up with you. I feel like there’s no one else who knows me like you do,” Ryan said, as his hand went unconsciously to the tuft of hair on the back of his head that he always twirled when he was deep in thought.
(TELL HER TELL HER SHE NEEDS TO KNOW!)
“I like spending time with you, and I want to be there for you…”
(THIS IS IT THIS IS THE BEGINNING SHE’S GOING TO WAIT FOR YOU!)
“Always. I’ll always be there for you.”
The butterflies were launching kamikaze attacks against his ribcage. He thought that this must be how professional poker players felt when they pushed their stack to the middle of the table.
The chair lift continued to climb.
“You’re sweet, Ry. That’s why I’ve always known it had to be you. We have a connection.”
Ryan flashed a toothy grin that pushed his ears up higher on his head. He was twisting his hair hard enough to create a bald spot, but that was the furthest thing from his mind. He wondered if Julie would plant a kiss on him then, or if she would wait until they were on solid ground.
“It’s the writing thing. That’s my future. I’ve been doing a lot of research and I think I’ve got it figured. It comes down to this–any writer worth a shit experienced some sort of trauma when they were young. Something that altered the makeup of their brain before it was done growing. I mean, look at Stephen King. He saw his buddy get splattered by a train when he was a little kid. Now the guy cranks out two books a year, and they’re all gold,” Julie’s eyes were lit up like a Broadway marquee. “All gold. This guy on Reddit calls it the Genesis Theory. He says it’s foolproof. He says the key that unlocks the door to the word pool that all great authors draw from is being horrifically scarred before entering adulthood.”
Ryan’s hair twirling slowed. Miner’s Moxie did not.
“I’ve tried to force it for a while now. Like the stray cat that you and I caught out behind the Dollar General, for example. I told you that I got Mom to take it to the shelter, but I actually kept it in my closet. I waited until Mom and Dad went out for dinner and a movie, then I put the mangy thing in the oven and twisted the dial all the way to the left. That should be pretty traumatic, right?”
Julie put a hand on Ryan’s left thigh and looked over the side of the lift. Ryan thought she looked as though she were gauging something. He also thought he might puke.
“I didn’t feel anything–I knew right away that it wasn’t going to be my genesis. I even turned the oven light on and watched, didn’t miss a thing. And the noise, Ryan… it was so loud, but crisp. Does that make sense? It sounded like somebody stuck an M-80 in a porcelain vase and plugged it up. When it was all over, the only thing that crossed my mind was what a pain in the ass it was going to be to clean up. There was calico hair stuck to the heating element,” Julie placed her free hand on Ryan’s right thigh. “Inspiration hasn’t hit me yet, so I’m beginning to realize that I need to think bigger.”
Ryan did not feel the excitement that he thought might wash over him the first time a girl touched him in such a way. Even when Julie began to rub her hands up and down, up and down, warming the tops of his thighs and sending an unfamiliar tingle to his crotch, there was no elation. All he felt was confusion and cold, harsh terror.
“Julie, I… I…” Ryan stammered. “The cat? Why would you–“
“Hush, Ry-Guy. Just be in the moment. It’s just you and me here, like it’s always been,” Julie said, and kissed him on the cheek. She pulled back softly and raised an eyebrow. “Actually… yes, I think that’s right. Ryan, can you tell me you love me? I bet that will do the trick.”
“Yes,” he said, and a single tear slipped down his cheek. He realized he had broken one of his rules–he had let Julie Meyer see him cry. He closed his eyes and pictured Grover, the kids, and the white picket fence. “Yes, Jules. I love you.”
“Good, that’s good. And I’ll always love you, Ry. Thank you for this.”
She gripped down on Ryan’s kneecaps and pushed. He slid right under the safety bar with ease, just like she thought he might. Beside her in the treetops, a Carolina Chickadee called.
She guessed that was just about the most beautiful sound she had ever heard.
Julie Meyer leaned over the side of the lift and watched intently as Ryan fell end-over-end and crumpled like a rag doll on impact. She looked back at the young couple in the chair lift behind her and realized she should probably scream.