The Wheel

The Wheel

Coney Island: Astroland entrance and the "Wonder Wheel" ferris wheel.
Astroland Wonder Wheel” (2007) by Peter Hahndorf, via Wikimedia Commons

The year was 2005. The summer was hot, the tourists were stupid, and Coney Island spun like liquid sugar in a cotton candy machine. Andy was twelve and her brother Marcus was ten. He was tugging her by the wrist towards the Ferris wheel. Everything was bright and winking as they passed a carnival game with a man trying to convince customers to play.

“Three tries to get this ball into a bucket. Three tries and you can win a big prize!”

Andy felt a trickle of sweat slide from the back of her knee down the soft fuzz of hair on her calf.

She glanced at the prizes, a series of dead-eyed stuffed animals in a net above the man’s head. She longed to cut them down and set them free; it had been a while since anyone had won that game. She could smell the dust. Even if she’d wanted to play, she didn’t have any money to waste. At the next stall, a girl wearing a plaid mini-skirt was selling temporary tattoos and pumping Missy Elliot.

Automatic, supersonic, hypnotic, funky fresh (Ha!)

Work my body, so melodic, this beat rolls through my chest (Yup)

Beside her, Marcus sang along loudly, proud that he knew the words well enough to say them on time. Andy hated his singing and hated the eyes of the people who watched them as he got louder.

“Shut up!” she told him

And he pinched the inside of her palm as a response, so she jerked her hand away.

Marcus teased her as they walked.

“You’re scared, you’re too chicken for the wheel. You know I heard one time someone shook the carriage so much—”

Andy turned her head and tried to walk away from him, but still heard when he added,

“that it swung off and smashed to the ground.”

Andy pictured a can of tuna she’d seen on the side of a highway once. That was back when her parents still took them places. Now they were always exploding into fights when Mom wasn’t sleeping or staring at the TV. You haven’t moved in three days. You need to shower Lydia. Are you listening? Dad was always working. He had barely answered when Andy asked for his permission to go to Coney Island alone with Marcus, but he’d left them some money on the table before leaving that morning, so they had taken that as his blessing.

Andy looked at the wheel and felt nauseous. There was something evil about it, the way it loomed over everything, like a clown that had once towered over her when she was little. It looked rusty. Every so often a shriek pierced the air. She didn’t feel as confident as she had when they left that morning.

“Can’t we just go to the beach?” she pleaded.

Marcus shook his head. She knew she was doomed to ride, especially when they arrived at the ticket booth.

“Two tickets!” Marcus said, pushing his half of the money through.

The money disappeared and two green pieces of paper slid out on their backs, pushed by long fingertips. Marcus snatched them up, and he and Andy joined the line to the wheel.

“Still scared?” he teased.


Andy refused to talk to him after that, so Marcus struck up a conversation with a group of older kids standing in front of them.

In front of them, a woman with roses twisting along her forearm in a faded tattoo bounced a toddler on her hip. The line shifted forward. A man, maybe the baby’s father, stood behind them and made faces at the baby, who periodically reacted or squirmed toward him to be held. Eventually the woman gave in and passed the baby over; it immediately grabbed a fistful of the man’s hair. The woman, the man, and Andy all laughed. When the couple looked at her, Andy’s breath caught like a hard stone in her throat and she turned on the spot to stare at a poster. The line shifted forward. Andy didn’t turn around until she felt that the heat had safely faded from her face. Marcus glared at her because he hated not getting attention. Andy looked pointedly at the floor. The line shifted again so Andy, Marcus, and three older kids were finally at the front.

Marcus handed Andy one of the tickets when the gate opened again.

“I’m gonna ride with these guys,” he said, and then he sprung into the carriage with them. The ticket collector closed the gate behind him, so Andy would have to ride with three strangers.

It was the meanest thing he’d ever done to her, and she felt a cresting wave of weight funnel into her throat and push with a deep ache behind her eyes. From the carriage, Marcus looked at her, and she could see regret already on his face when their eyes met. They both knew he wouldn’t shout a “sorry!” in front of those older kids though.

Andy threw him her angriest look as the carriage moved up and then she walked through the gate into the next one. She slumped in the corner and three girls climbed in after her. They were sisters, and they were bickering about something. When they noticed Andy, which took a surprising amount of time, they got quiet and this was much worse.

From the top of the Ferris wheel, which always felt like it was rocking dangerously, Andy looked down at the carnival. The airplanes on a nearby ride rose and fell and whizzed below. Things were brightly painted and swaying. Rihanna’s new song, “Pon De Replay,” was carried to her ears and then left soon after on the wind. On the beach, people were tanning or swimming or playing volleyball. The ride seemed to stretch on forever as she edged further from the strangers beside her.

Andy finally stepped off the wheel with an attitude prepared. Anger had surpassed betrayal now. She was too angry to cry, so she would shout at him. She would threaten to tell Dad, unless Marcus came to the beach with her and stayed there all day. Dad didn’t like to hear their whining voices after work. He would yell, and Marcus did anything to avoid Dad’s yelling.

She would take his cotton candy money too. She glanced around the exit and felt another surge of irritation. Marcus wasn’t standing there. He was supposed to be standing there. He was supposed to be leaning on the grate looking bashful and sorry. She whipped her head from side to side, her anger growing. Surely, he wouldn’t have left with those older boys for the whole day? What was she supposed to do? She leaned on the grate, not wanting to look stupid standing there. She hated him. Hated.

Andy looked around, feeling more stupid by the second. There was no way she could have gotten off the ride before him. There were no other exits. She glanced around to double check. No, this was the only place he should be. She felt a bubble of something other than anger, but she shoved it down. She was angry. It was right to be angry.

Andy stomped over to the cotton candy machine and stood in line, waiting. He would see her here, when he came back with his tail between his legs. It was still close to the wheel. He would see her.

She ripped the cotton candy into pieces and let it melt on her tongue. She waited. She walked circles around the wheel. She bumped into the woman with the rose tattoo. She recognized one of the older kids who Marcus had ridden the Ferris wheel with, but she was too embarrassed to ask where he might be. How long had she been waiting?

Andy wanted to ask her parents for a watch for her birthday. Not an expensive one, just a kiddy one so she could tell the time. She envied her older cousin Lily’s cell phone, which could call and text and tell time, but she was way too young, and her family was way too poor, to ask for that. Marcus would remind Dad about her birthday, Marcus was good at remembering birthdays.

Another bubble of something rose in her chest and she pushed it down again. Marcus would jump out from where he was hiding soon. He’d apologize. She had the strange urge to shout for him.

Had she missed him somehow when she went to buy the cotton candy? The sugar glass burbled in her stomach like a witch’s brew. She felt green. She went up to the ticket booth.

“Excuse me have you seen my brother?” she gestured to the place where the top of his head landed when they stood side by side to compare heights. He was as tall as her temple. Her voice sounded weak.

“What does he look like?” the ticket seller asked Andy, a little impatient. There was a line forming behind her.

“Curly hair. He looks like me, but he’s a boy. He’s funny and maybe he wanted to go on the haunted house ride?”

The ticket seller shook her head, “I don’t know, I’ve seen a lot of boys today.”

Andy noticed a beetle edging its way across the window of the ticket booth. It twitched its wings and it paused when it reached a dead fly crusted into the sill. Someone pushed past her to shove his money through the window. “Five tickets.” Andy allowed herself to be moved aside. Or maybe she stepped aside herself.

She walked to the front of the park, in case he was waiting for her there. Had they ever set a place to meet if they got separated? They might have said the hot-dog stand. She checked there. There was a boy with curly hair. Marcus! She stepped forward, and then he turned around. He wasn’t Marcus. She imagined her guts crawling up into her mouth and splattering on the ground. Everything was too loud. She kept thinking about Marcus’ story of the rocking people who got smushed at the bottom of the wheel, like tuna run over by a transport truck.

I’ll take you to the candy shop (yeah)

Boy, one taste of what I got (uh-huh)

The sun was much lower in the sky now. She thought of what her Dad would say if she showed up at home without her brother. She pictured a home without him. No. Marcus was already home, trying to wake Mom up. Sometimes he got worried about Mom and crawled into bed to watch TV with her. He said he was trying to make sure Mom didn’t forget about them. A group of tourists crowded around her. Andy could tell they were tourists because they blinked slow and stupid. If they’d been from New York, they wouldn’t have dressed up so much for Coney Island. What if she couldn’t find him all night? Where was he?

Andy felt a surge of sick heat hit the backs of her knees and she sunk to the floor in front of the hotdog stand, with the pigeon poop. She was supposed to go tell someone now. She pictured Marcus’ face, his laugh. She smelled blood. People were looking at her. She stood up.

“Are you okay, honey?”

Andy gulped, she didn’t want to cry in front of a stranger. She couldn’t say the word “brother” or the word “missing.” Across the road, a man was stumbling around in a long black trench coat, slurring nonsense words and shouting.

“I’m good, thank you,” the words came out in a gasp. She’d find him herself. The stranger’s eyebrows came together and Andy sensed the adult’s impulse to intervene. She smiled. One corner of the mouth, then the other. She willed her lips not to shake.

“Where are your—”

Before the adult could finish that question, Andy sprinted back into the park. She kept the smile on her face, but people still looked at her funny so she slowed to a walk. She passed the same mini-skirt girl. She wiped her wet cheeks.

And Sugar, we’re going down swinging

I’ll be your number one with a bullet

Marcus liked Fall Out Boy and Marcus liked macaroni. Marcus liked transformer toys. He liked Kim Possible and The Proud Family. He liked watching Prison Break with Mom when Dad wasn’t home to tell them no. It’s fucked up that you’d let him watch this crap, Lydia. Are you listening? Did you notice that your son was watching that? Andy passed two strangers talking to each other in low voices, their hands exchanged a small clear bag with something in it, and a wad of money. Marcus knew how to make scrambled eggs. Marcus learned how to ride a bike before Andy did, and he could ride it with one hand. Marcus could whistle and blow bubble gum. Marcus hated cucumber and he could get Mom to eat on the days when everyone else gave up. Marcus liked hot wheels and his tamagotchi had only died twice since he got it. There was a needle mixed in with the broken glass on the pavement.

Andy stumbled into a man who smelled like pee and dodged under his arm and his leering grin. She found herself on the beach. She wanted to go somewhere that nobody would look at her or hear her. She couldn’t say those words. My brother is gone. My brother. My.

A woman shouted in Andy’s face when she knocked into her. Andy stared back blankly until the woman walked away. Andy closed her eyes and walked into the water still wearing her tennis shoes. Marcus liked to swim doggy paddle. Marcus with those stupid goggles that stretched his stupid face. Mom taught them both how to doggy paddle before she stopped going outside. Andy walked in the water towards the pier. It got too rocky so she clambered up the beach and into the shade. There were fewer people here. Someone was asleep under a tarp. It smelled like rotten fish.

It was her fault. She was the one who had been so sure that the money on the table was for Coney Island. Dad never actually said it was okay. Dad didn’t talk much these days but she should’ve made sure. She should’ve known it wasn’t safe for a little kid like Marcus. He was just a little kid. The sun sank lower in the sky and the waves bit at the shore.

When bad things happened at home, Marcus always slept in her bed, and the sound of him sleeping made it all easier. When they woke up things were usually better. When Dad forgot to buy food and didn’t come home, Marcus went around to the neighbors asking for leftovers. The sand was crusted on Andy’s shoes. They would be hard to wash. Dad would be angry.

The man under the tarp woke up and looked directly at her with pure black eyes. Andy felt sick. She and Marcus were supposed to be home now, Dad would be home now, and she should have gone to a police officer. She couldn’t stand it. She scuttled backwards towards the pier when the man wasn’t looking. She crawled into the dark space underneath the pier and listened to her own breaths. It got dark outside. She realized she wasn’t alone under there.

Andy fell asleep and woke up crying and cold.

His face with a smile on it. Gone. Lost kid on a milk box. Eggs in a bowl with a fork. Hot wheels. She shook. What if he was. He liked those toys. Dead eye prize in a net. He can blow gum and snap. Can you hear me, you bitch? He fed Mom. He rode his bike with one hand. He liked shows. Your son saw that. A bug on the sill. Gone.

If he was gone, her Mom would die and her Dad would leave.

Some people were calling her name; a search party with flashlights fanned out along the beach.

It was so dark and she was very cold. She could not go home. Not if he was gone. More voices. Under the pier was rustling with other people. Angry shadows around her. Shadows like people on Prison Break. Her teeth felt glued together. If Dad found her, she’d have to tell him. She felt the sharp jab of a finger in her back and she ignored it. Some of the voices were far away, and some were closer.



A voice that sounded like it was full of sand spoke right behind her ear, “Are they looking for you?”

In her head she screamed. Run! Toward her name and away from the sharp finger. She couldn’t move. It was like her whole body had pins and needles.

“Andy!” another voice sounded closer.

A hand grabbed her by the hair and lifted her into a sitting position. The hand smelled bad.

“I said are the police fucking looking for you?”

She didn’t answer.

 “Hey! We can’t have some missing kid here. Do you know how much shit we could be in?” the voice said.

Andy tried to squirm away from the face so close to hers, but the hand was tangled in her hair.

“Andy, please!”

That was Marcus. Marcus’ voice. Marcus.

He was safe. He was here.

She opened her mouth and screamed.

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