Paul gaped as George pushed through the turnstile, in tow behind his younger brother. “You’ve got to be kidding me!"
George tossed an apologetic grin over his shoulder as Mike tugged impatiently at his outstretched wrist. “You’ll be fine, Paul, it’s not a big deal.”
Paul watched the pair settle in the car in front of him. He scowled bitterly as George pulled the lap bar down, muttering to himself, “It’s the biggest deal.” He couldn’t even be bothered to find it cute how fatherly George looked as he fussed over Mike’s seatbelt, making sure he was securely strapped in. It wasn’t often that George was the eldest in a dynamic; when he was, it was no-holds-barred affection and parental care. Even if Mike was less than a year younger.
Mike was swatting his hand away. “George, I’m not a child,” he groaned.
“Right!” Paul called over, knowing in the pit of his stomach that it was too late to do anything anyway. “He can go by himself. Swap me, Mike, come on now.”
Mike rubbed at his nose with a single finger, shooting quite a crude gesture to his pouting older brother. Paul gazed at George helplessly, as if to say, Do something about this, would you?
George only shrugged in response.
When the attendees came to check on the restraints, Paul knew it was over. He simmered in the fantasy accusation that they must have planned this escapade of leaving him to his death, all alone. A part of him contemplated simply turning on his heel and retreating toward the entrance, but the disappointment and annoyance on Imaginary George and Mike’s faces was enough to keep his feet steadily in place. They had paid a hefty sum of their own money to get him there today, and he wasn’t one to back down from a challenge. Guilt and pride swirled in his gut, and he wasn’t entirely sure which was more nauseating: the aforementioned concoction, or the sixty-five-meter drop that stared him in the face.
Paul hated theme parks. He supposed it was some deep-buried Freudian repressive episode, like maybe he fell from a height as a child and is now averse to the stomach-sinking feeling of dropping through thin air. Hated the view, hated the feeling, hated the speed. Everything about them unnerved him, and the two people that were supposed to comfort him through it had thoroughly ditched him.
When the second coaster met the end of its journey, the turnstiles clicked again. Paul’s gaze shifted around him. There was no one else in line—he really would be going by himself.
His hands shook as he climbed over into the seat. No turning back now, he reminded himself, wishing the phrase carried more consolation than it did. He emptied his pockets of cell phones and keys and placed them in the zipper bag on the seat in front of him, tossing his sweatshirt into the bin on the side of the ride. He had begun to sweat.
When Paul turned back around, there was a body next to him, already seated.
“Who are you?” Paul glared at the lad, wholly uninviting.
He smirked, giving Paul a curious eyebrow twitch. “Nice to meet you as well. I’m here on the ride just like anyone else, thanks.”
“I’m not going to chat with you,” Paul deadpanned. The only thing worse than having to tackle this fear by himself was having to tackle it next to a painfully cute stranger.
The boy held up his hands in mock surrender. “Don’t be so cross. You started this.”
Paul simply stared forward, his jaw clenched so hard he thought his teeth might snap. His hands ran mindlessly along the length of the lap bar; just something to keep him occupied. Paul noticed the lad staring at Paul’s hands in his peripheral, and watched a knowing grin creep to the man’s features.
“Oh!” He exclaimed, exaggerated. “I sense the issue here. It seems like someone is a bit afraid, is that so?”
Paul cut his eyes sideways, unintentionally revealing way too much. When the boy’s grin only grew, Paul sighed in defense. “It’s quite scary, thank you very much. I’ve never been a fan.”
He quirked an eyebrow. “Then why’re you here all on your lonesome?”
“It wasn’t my choice,” Paul snapped.
“Why didn’t you turn around?” Curious eyes bore into the side of Paul’s cheek. His leg began to bounce in irritation.
“Fair enough,” the boy answered. He stuck out a hand. “I’m John.”
Paul eyed the outstretched hand warily, waiting a beat before clasping to it. It was warm and firm, calloused fingertips tickling the base of his palm. The man—John, he supposed—looked utterly delighted at the contact. “Paul.”
“I know,” John mused.
“What? How?” Paul spluttered, raking his brain for any social faux paus. Did he already introduce himself? Was he wearing a nametag? Did he already know John from somewhere else?
John let out an airy laugh. “I’m joking, mate. Lighten up a bit, will you?”
Paul could only frown in response.
After a few moments of blissful silence, John’s dreaded voice shook Paul’s conscious back into reality. “So, what are you so afraid of?”
Paul shrugged, knowing he couldn’t put it into words. Hard to classify what you’re scared of if you’re not exactly sure what it was to begin with.
“Ah,” John nodded sympathetically. “It’s because of the one who died on here, ain’t it?”
Paul looked wildly at the boy opposite him. “Someone’s died on this?”
John nodded. “Oh, yeah, y’know. I mean, it was only once. Poor bird was sittin’ right where you are, too. Odds are they’ve probably fixed it extra-good now. Good news for you.”
Paul’s face went white. “What?”
John eased off a bit. “Relax, love. It’s only a joke. Again.” A pause. “Well, someone actually did die. They just probably weren’t in your seat.”
“That’s not funny,” Paul pouted, his heart hammering arrhythmically.
“And, y’know, come to think of it?” John rubbed at his chin thoughtfully. “I’m not even sure if that was this ride. Or this theme park. Or this country.”
“Very helpful, thank you,” Paul remarked through gritted teeth. “You’re good company.”
“You’ll get used to it,” John replied smugly. “You’ve got the next minute-or-so with me and only me, so you better learn to enjoy it.”
Paul was about to respond just as sarcastically when the coaster jolted forward, causing him to yelp and grip the bar with skeletal knuckles. Though they chugged on slowly now, the abrupt start was enough to make him regret every moment of this.
A bright laugh sounded from beside him. “You’re all right, Paul. We haven’t even gotten to the main attraction yet!”
Paul audibly gulped, refraining from searching John’s expression for the tease that was almost surely there. As the ride rounded the first bend at a steady pace, John leaned over close, his breath ghosting on Paul’s ear: “We can hold hands, if you’d like.”
Paul wanted to pinch himself. He knew the comment was bait, a trap to call him queer or a sissy or simply laugh in his face again. But before he could stop himself, Paul was nodding frantically at the proposition.
His eyes had immediately squeezed shut in fear and shame, but when he heard and felt no response, he opened an apprehensive wink. John was blinking at him, half-dumbfounded, bewildered that his suggestion had essentially… worked.
“Here,” he said, a sudden tenderness lacing through his words. He nearly pried Paul’s fingers from the lap bar. “You’ll break the damn thing.”
John interlocked their fingers without another word, dropping their hands in the space between them. If Paul hadn’t been so humiliated at the exchange, he would have thanked him.
As the ride began to tick slowly up the first drop, John stole casual glances in Paul’s direction and offered him bits of theme park etiquette. “Remember,” He called over the increasing speed of wind, “Throw your hands up on the drop. It’ll be fun, I promise.”
Paul nodded shakily, affirming that he’d heed the advice.
John squeezed his hand encouragingly as the nose of the ride tipped over the point in the tracks. “And don’t forget to scream.”
As the ride dropped, Paul felt as though he might pass out. John yelped in delight beside him, yanking their entwined hands as high in the air as they would go. Paul couldn’t find it in himself to call out, the rush of the air, the jumbling of his internal organs, and the chill searing down his spine at John’s touch beginning to feel overwhelming.
John flexed his fingers in Paul’s grip, a wordless accusation, and Paul apologetically loosened his grasp. John winked at him then, and if the wind hadn’t been so deafening in his ears, Paul would’ve heard the lad say, “It’s a good thing you’re so cute.”
As the ride dragged on, Paul uttered a series of observations through gritted teeth: “Oh, wow. Ope. Yeah, that’s a drop. Okay. That’s all right. That’s probably enough for now. Oh, here comes another.” The utter lack of enthusiasm was grounding, somehow, and the breathless cackles that arose from John as retorts were only an added bonus.
When they finally pulled to a stop, Paul was panting heavily, a trickle of sweat streaming down his brow. He felt his hair sticking out every which way, whipped into a frenzy, and hurried to smooth it out with his free hand.
John absolutely heaved with laughter beside him, struggling to catch a breath. “You didn’t scream! Not even once!” He exclaimed in hilarity. “Just—'Ope. Oh yeah, that’s a big one.’ What the hell, Paul? Have you never, ever been to one of these before? That’s, like, day one training.” He reached up to wipe a tear from his eye.
Ordinarily, Paul would’ve boiled at the boisterous mockery, but relief and adrenaline surged throughout every vein in his body. Instead, his blood was lukewarm, and he shook his head with a half-hearted chuckle. “Glad I could be of so much entertainment,” he grumbled, though not without amusement.
It was now that both boys realized they were still holding hands. Simultaneously, they withdrew from the comforting veil of the roller coaster and proceeded awkwardly, reaching to straighten flyaways or tee shirts or what have you.
The lap bars released, freeing the two boys from the confines of Paul’s worst enemy. Paul jumped to his feet in an instant, immediately trying to distance himself from the tracks.
Well, he thought, as he watched John clamber out after him, maybe not his worst enemy, after all.
When John was fully out of the car as well, he offered a mock salute in Paul’s direction. “Well, Monsieur,” he drawled in a phony accent, “it was an honor to take your Theme Park Virginity today. Hopefully this won’t be the last of those endeavors.”
Paul rolled his eyes as the lad laughed at his own explicit joke. Paul watched as he turned to go, trying his best to ignore the willful internal pull in the other man’s direction. Paul bit back a sigh, his left hand ghosting over the palm that was now empty and cold. What a strange feeling, watching this complete stranger saunter off into reality.
Suddenly, John halted his step, turning back slowly. There was a strange expression on his face, almost as though he couldn’t believe what his body was doing. Paul’s eyes immediately jumped up to meet his as his lips formed a Hail Mary of a question. “Paul?”
“Hmm?” Paul hummed noncommittedly, wanting to seem distracted. He bent back down to reach at the zipper pocket on the seat in front of them for his phone and keys, his mind half-supplying that he’d almost forgotten his contents for good.
“Do you, ah—” John cleared his throat, scratching at his jawline. “Got a number?”
Paul’s brow furrowed, stuffing his belongings into his back pocket. “Like a song?”
John blinked. “I-What?”
Paul hoped his shaky chuckle was enough to conceal the misunderstanding. “Only joking,” was his poor attempt at reconciliation. God, he was a human disaster when it came to casual banter sometimes.
John watched him with blatant pleasure, arms crossed over his chest. Eventually, he tried again. “So, do ya?” His eyes sparkled curiously.
Paul smirked, but he could feel a softness seeping through the cracks of his haughty gaze. “Are you asking me out?” The line between flippant and flirtatious had long since been blurred.
It was as though John had taken on an entirely different demeanor at the blunt allegation. His lashes fluttered as his gaze dropped to the ground, a faint smile twitching at his lips. “Would you say yes if I was?”
“I might,” Paul mused, the sudden shyness of the man in front of him tugging at something deep in his chest. “Depends on where you’re takin’ me.”
“Not to a theme park,” John quipped.
Paul couldn’t hide the adrenaline thrumming through his veins—from the rollercoaster, still, he was sure—and tipped a nod in John’s direction. Paul clasped his hands behind his back, attempting to suppress a toothy grin by pressing his lips into a firm line.
“I’m looking forward to it, then.”
There were far worse things in the world than roller coasters.