Their Freefall At Last by Julie Olivia
Twenty-Three Years Before
Ruby & Bennett are Seven Years Old
“You’re going in. Big girls don’t cry.”
“But, Daddy …”
“Amelia, let’s not do this today, okay? Your mom is running late.”
I know because Daddy jumped our car right onto the curb, making Mama scream, “RICHARD!” But she still had a smile, which meant she liked that he was making a big deal out of it.
Daddy holds out my Buzzy the Bear backpack. I sniffle and grab it slowly because, if I don’t, they’ll think I have attitude. And if I have attitude, I might have to actually stay here.
Other kids laugh and run past us from Honeywood Fun Park’s gates, their backpacks jangling with key chains and untied sneakers.
I want to go home.
Mama is filling out paperwork at the sign-in table. She told me Honeywood Fun Park would be exciting. But so far, there’re too many new people, the morning sun is too bright, and the roller coaster I can sort of see through squinted eyes is way too tall.
Like, way too tall.
I now get what Daddy meantat dinner last night.
“I’m telling you, Amelia is not gonna ride the roller coasters,” Daddy said.
“She’s seven,” Mama said. “What seven-year-old doesn’t want to ride roller coasters?”
Sometimes, I wonder if I have superpowers because Mama and Daddy say a lot of things like I’m not there. But one time, I tested it by slamming my fork on my plate, and Daddy shook his head at me with the scary eyebrows, so I guess I’m not invisible.
“You promise not to be scared, honey?” he asked me, glancing down to my uneaten veggies and back up.
I nodded because not agreeing would only get more questions.
“It’ll be fun,” Mama said, showing me a piece of paper about the day camp at Honeywood, where they were sending me for my birthday week. She said there would be a scavenger hunt, arts and crafts, where we’d color pictures of Queen Bee, and we would be meeting the real Buzzy the Bear.
I was excited because I loved Buzzy the Bear and I loved scavenger hunts.
But then we got here, and I saw my first roller coaster. The crisscrossing blue bars were so high up that I couldn’t see the top through the sunbeams, and then a big train flew over the track faster than any of my Hot Wheels. It was so loud that I had to cover my ears.
I’m not excited anymore.
Daddy looks at me, his jaw doing that grinding thing. The thing that says he’s thinking about what to say, and it will probably be something not fun.
“Why are you scared?” he asks.
I point to the roller coaster, and Mama lets out a sigh.
Daddy rubs Mama’s back, and she leans her head on his shoulder. Even though he’s not next to me, I feel better. I like it when he hugs Mama. I like that when she’s stressed, he smiles. Like her being exhausted is funny. And sometimes, she smiles back, but that’s because she loves him so much. I can just tell.
He pinches the seam of his pants, tugs them up, and crouches down in front of me.
“Hey, look at me,” he says, tipping my chin up. “We need to have courage, remember? We’ve talked about that.”
“Use your words, Amelia.”
“You’re here to have fun. That’s what you wanted, right?”
Then, he lowers his voice to a whisper. “And you’ll talk to other kids? Make friends?”
I feel like making friends is all we’ve talked about ever since I brought my yearbook home a couple weeks ago. Daddy opened it, stared, then flipped to the back cover and stared again. Lots of staring and concentrating.
“Did they not have yearbook signing time?”
I didn’t answer.
He shut the book. “Amelia, who is your best friend?”
Our giant white dog lifted his head up when he heard his name. His lazy ear flopped over, and that would have been funny if Daddy wasn’t doing that jaw-shifting thing.
He clicked his tongue. “Besides Moose.”
I shrugged, and he sighed.
“Isn’t there someone you talk to every day?”
I felt bad that I didn’t have an answer then, and I feel bad again now.
I had a friend when I first got to school, but she invited someone else to be our third friend after the second week. I liked it at first because I didn’t have to talk much and I could just listen to their conversations. But then I started hearing about slumber parties I hadn’t been invited to, and honestly, I liked reading books instead, where I didn’t hear jokes I was left out of.
But I’ve really been wanting to watch A Bug’s Life, and it’d be nice to have someone other than Moose, who barks at the screen the whole time.
“Amelia?” Daddy asks, tucking a strand of hair behind my ear. “Do you hear me? Are you gonna make friends today?”
“And you’re gonna speak up if you have questions?”
“Tell the truth.” His mouth twitches into a smile, and he winks.
I get that fluttery feeling in my chest, like a bird taking flight. I like Daddy’s winks, and he normally only winks at Mama.
“Okay,” I whisper.
“I’ll make friends.”
I almost smile. Almost. But then another roller coaster roars, and I grip Daddy’s hand.
A man with a thick mustache sitting behind the sign-in table laughs.
I don’t see what’s so funny.
“And what’s your name?” he asks.
“Sullivan,” I answer.
Daddy always taught me to say our last name first. It’s faster, and it won’t bother the other people waiting behind us. There’s nobody behind me right now, but it’s best to be safe than sorry.
“Come again?” Mustache Man leans over the table with his ear cupped in his palm.
“Amelia Ruby Sullivan,” Mama says for me, which is good because I don’t like talking louder. It always feels like I’m yelling, but if I don’t, nobody will hear me.
The man chuckles, looking only at me and not Mama before disappearing behind the table, then reappearing with a sticker, like some magician. Maybe he’s part of the park, too, but I don’t remember any magicians in Honeywood. And so far, the park is exactly like the books and movies they’re based off of.
The ground is that bumpy stone kinda walkway, and there’s a fountain with a statue of Buzzy the Bear in the middle. Tall trees line the park edges, and every wooden building looks straight out of the Birds, Bees, and Bears books I read all the time. I even know the music playing through the speakers. It’s the theme from the Honeywood movie.
“Here’s your name tag,” Mustache Man says. “Stick it on your shirt, okay?”
I watch Mama sign some stuff on a clipboard before running a hand over my head.
“Don’t forget to eat all your lunch, Amelia.”
Suddenly, my body feels twitchy, and that awful bird in my chest wants out.
They’re actually leaving.
“And the carrots,” Daddy adds. “Especially the carrots.”
“Y-yes, sir. But, Mama, can I—”
Mama holds out a single finger, her eyebrows turning in with worry. “Amelia, please, I’m gonna miss my flight.”
I nod fast and lower my head so she can’t see that I’m about to cry. I know it would only make her upset.
Mama works a lot. Daddy once said the airport was her first home and we were the vacation home. Mama looked really sad after that, but she didn’t say he was wrong. She doesn’t normally argue with Daddy, especially not when he winks afterward. She once said his winks could resolve wars, whatever that meant.
With a final kiss on my hair from Mama and a pat on the head from Daddy, they turn to leave, clacking every step of the way until they disappear out the iron gate.
“Amelia?” Mustache Man asks.
I sniff, turning back to him.
“You see the woman waving? That’s Mrs. Stanley. You’ll be in her group, okay? And, hey, I promise you’ll have a good time.”
I follow his finger point to a small group huddled in a blue-duct-taped square. The woman standing with the clipboard has one of those bowl haircuts with bangs all the way around her head, and she’s already squinting at my name tag when I walk over.
“You must be … Amelia Ruby.”
I nod because I know you should never correct adults.I only go by my first name, Amelia, but the sticker lists both my first and middle names. Even if I wanted to correct her, she wouldn’t hear me anyway.
The bangs-hair lady, Mrs. Stanley, says I can take a seat anywhere. I scan the crowd. Everyone here already has someone they’re talking to, so I choose the far corner of the taped-off square, where nobody is. I plop on the ground, and I can feel the stinging behind my nose again.
Big girls don’t cry.
I. Do. Not. Cry.
“Are you about to cry?”
I jump at the voice.
A boy is beside me, staring at my very wet eyes.
Where did he come from?
I’ve seen this boy at the lunch line in my school. He’s the boy with the crooked teeth, who’s always laughing.
The boy with the hair.
No other boys in our school have hair past their ears, but this boy does. It’s messy and tangled, and it kind of looks like that one time I knocked over the black paint at day care. I liked how it looked on my paper with curly strokes and a wildness I couldn’t have purposefully painted if I tried. This boy has the same pretty look to him.
Can boys be pretty?
“No,” I whisper.
“What?” he asks, slipping down the brick wall to sit next to me.
“No,” I repeat a little louder. The words wobble out of me. “I’m not crying.”
He blinks at me. “My mom says it’s okay to cry. And that I should help if someone is crying.”
“My daddy says big girls don’t cry.”
His face scrunches up. “Well, my mom says everyone cries.”
“Do you cry?”
He blinks at me, as if waiting for me to respond, but when I don’t—because I cannot believe boys cry—he rips his name tag off his shirt and folds it in half. He starts tearing it into tinier pieces, and he looks like he’s concentrating pretty hard on it. His mouth twists to the side as he thinks, and there’s a little freckle beside his lip. I kinda like it. It’s not gross, like my billions of freckles. Then, I notice he has a scratch on his ear. No, a small hole.
Are his ears pierced?
When he looks back to me, I instantly look away. Mama and Daddy tell me it’s rude to stare, and here I am, being the rudest person ever. But this boy has holes in his ears. He reminds me of Captain Hook in Peter Pan. I always rewatch his scenes the most.
I peek at him. He’s still looking at me. I jerk my eyes away again.
“I like your hair,” he says. “It’s like fire.”
“It’s not fire.”
“But it looks like it.”
“I like oranges,” he says. “I promise I won’t eat your hair though. But I could. It’s that orange.”
He’s been leaning in closer the more we talk. And by the end of his orange speech, he’s really, really close to me.
“You’re quiet,” he says.
He shakes his head. “It’s okay. My mom would like you. She says I should be more quiet.”
“She says I tell too many people she waxes her lips.”
He has a toothy grin, but it’s kind. I giggle. “Why does she do that?”
“I don’t know.”
He twists his mouth to the side, and the little flapping bird wings in my heart barrel through me.
He goes back to ripping his name tag.
“I like your hair too,” I blurt out because I miss his talking. “You look like a pirate.”
His eyebrows scrunch in, and I shake my head.
Oh no.That was rude.
“I mean … that’s not …”
But then his mouth twitches into a smile, like my daddy’s does. Except my daddy’s teeth are straight and white, and this boy’s bottom teeth are out of his mouth more than the top, and one of his front teeth is missing.
“I am a pirate.”
My mouth falls open, and the energy inside me bubbles up into another giggle.
“No, you’re not.”
“Yes, I am.”
“Where’s your boat?”
He shrugs and rips another piece off his name tag. “At home. In the woods.”
“You can be a pirate with me if you want.”
“No thank you,” I say because Mama would want me to be polite and Daddy wouldn’t want me to steal and drink boobs or whatever it’s called.
“Why not?” he asks.
“They’re the bad guys.”
“Oh.” He squints into the sun. “Well, you can be my parrot then. They’re not bad, like, ever.”
“Parrots don’t talk as much.” Another rip of the name tag. “And you don’t talk much either.” His head jerks to me. “Is that okay?” His eyebrows are pulled in again. “I don’t mean that you’re my sidekick or anything. Mom says girls should never be sidekicks.”
I think I like his mama.
“It’s okay,” I say. “I like parrots.”
And, slow as a wave brushing onto the beach, he smiles back to me with his crooked little teeth.
“Good,” he says. “I like parrots too.”
Then, out of nowhere, like energy finally releasing from me, I call out, “Caw!”
The boy laughs, head back, hair shaking, gripping his stomach. I’ve never seen such happiness, and it’s infectious. Suddenly, I’m laughing too.
“You’re funny,” he says.
“All right, children!”
I jump at the loud adult voice. I almost forgot where we were. There are more kids around us now, and Mrs. Stanley is outside the taped-off square with her clipboard held up to her glasses dipping at the end of her nose.
“Before we get started … it looks like we have two birthdays coming up!”
No, no, no.
I slide down the brick wall. I don’t want people to know it’s my birthday because then they stare and sing “Happy Birthday” and I hate it.
“Amelia!” Mrs. Stanley looks around. “Wait, where’d she go?”
This is horrible.
“Amelia?” she repeats.
“Here,” I say, but the word comes out like a whisper, and nobody looks my way.
I glance to my right, where the boy is now staring me down with blinking eyes. I wonder if he’s embarrassed to be sitting next to the birthday girl who can’t talk loud enough. I would be.
But then he cups his hands to his mouth and yells, “She’s over here!”
Mrs. Stanley finally finds me. I give a small wave, and her wave is somehow smaller. Adults do that wave a lot.
“Everyone say, ‘Happy birthday, Amelia!’ ”
“Happy birthday, Amelia!”
Even though everyone else yells it, the boy next to me whispers, “Happy birthday.”
I feel giddy, like I’ve emptied a bottle of glitter into my stomach, and I can’t shake it off.
“Thanks for not yelling,” I say, smiling.
“You’re welcome, Parrot. Why didn’t you tell her where you were?”
“She couldn’t hear me. Nobody can.”
His bottom teeth poke out between his lips before they pull into a wider grin. “I can.”
“Perfect!” Mrs. Stanley says, tapping her clipboard. “Okay, and our other birthday is … Ben Shaw!”
The boy twists his head away, shooting his hand into the air. “Here! And my name is Bennett. Not Ben.”
I gasp. This boy corrected her? Doesn’t he know you can’t correct adults?
“I’m sorry, Bennett.” Mrs. Stanley uncaps the pen with her teeth and scribbles something on her clipboard. “But look! Both of our birthdays are already sitting together! Everyone say, ‘Happy birthday, Bennett.’ ”
“Happy birthday, Bennett,” we all say, including me, and I try to say it as loud as I can, just for him.
She claps. Some other kids do too. But I just stare at his pretty smile and soft hair.
“You don’t like your name?” I ask him.
His face scrunches. “Ben is my dad’s name,” he mumbles.
It’s the first time his face looks weighed down, and I don’t think I like it very much. Not seeing his crooked teeth makes him seem like the bad kind of pirate instead of my good pirate.
“I can call you Bennett,” I say. “If you want.”
Bennett’s teeth peek through his lips again, like the crack in a doorway to his smile. I return the look because I like being the one who nudged that doorway open.
“Okay,” he says. “And I can call you something else too. If you want.”
I open my mouth to tell him to call me Amelia, just like my mama would want me to do, but then I stop. If this boy can get other people to call him something different, then I can too. I like the idea of having a secret with the pirate boy.
I glance down at my name tag displaying both my first name and my middle name, then say, “Call me Ruby.”
His hand shoots out and grabs mine. I gasp because I definitely didn’t try to shake his hand, but then I realize he’s just holding it. My body might explode. I’ve never held hands with someone other than my parents before. Bennett’s hand is warm.
“Do you want to sit next to me on rides today?” he asks.
“Oh. I …”
I pause. I can’t say I’m scared. Not when he thinks I’m a super-cool parrot with a cool new name.
But I think I take too long to say something back because he quickly adds, “You don’t have to. I just figured since we’re birthday buddies, y’know?”
“Birthday buddies,” I say, giggling because it sounds funny.
Birthday buddies with Bennett.
His mouth tips into another grin, and when it does, it’s the biggest one yet. So big that it makes his eyes squint. Like he’s staring right into the sun.
“Yeah,” he agrees. “Birthday buddies.”
I don’t think roller coasters would be so bad with my birthday buddy, so I squeeze his hand and say, “Okay.”
I have a feeling it won’t be the last time I agree to something Bennett says.