The Paratrooper tilted slightly as it reached the top of its loop, and Sarah clung to Caroline. Caroline laughed, tossing her thick, blonde hair. “Are you scared? Haven’t you been going on this ride since you were, like, six?”
The wobble had made Sarah a little anxious, but now she just enjoyed being close to her friend. Last summer she had to sit on the ride with Jonathan--at eight years old it was the first time he’d been allowed to go without an adult--and he screamed and bumped into her the entire time. Caroline’s presence gave Sarah an air of sophistication. It was the other girl’s first trip to Rehoboth Beach.
Sarah sent a private thank you to her mom, who had ironed out the logistics of this trip with Caroline’s mother. “Sarah will have just had her bat mitzvah, and I’d love to do something special for the girls.” Sheila Kagan’s eyes glinted warmly even though she was just talking on the phone. “Caroline’s such a sweet girl. She’s really brought Sarah out of her shell.” Her mom gave Sarah a thumbs up sign when Caroline’s mom said yes.
“See that white house over there?” Sarah pointed to the rapidly ascending structure, as the Paratrooper pulled them upward. “I used to fantasize about who lived there. Wouldn’t it be awesome to live at the beach?”
“The beach is so…” Caroline’s eyes went wide again, the way they had yesterday when she’d first laid eyes on the Atlantic. Having moved to Baltimore from Ohio last year, she’d never seen the ocean in person before. “It’s so…big!” Caroline had made the word sound big, too, like she was a powerful magician chanting a spell. When Sarah looked again, she tried to expand her mind out over the horizon--all the way to the other side in Europe. She closed her eyes, dizzy.
But Sarah wasn’t dizzy on the Funland ride anymore. She attempted to stretch her legs towards the raised platform as the tilted carousel slowly ground to a halt. “Wait for it…”
A few seconds later the ride started up again, this time taking them backwards. Caroline chirped approvingly. “Cool!”
Sarah clasped Caroline’s hand and laughed along with her. As the wind swept them back, breaking the heat of the summer evening, Sarah was weightless and free.
It had been so long since she’d found someone she could be herself with, someone she didn’t have to throw a wall up around. For years, girls like Lisa and Meredith could reduce her to tears with one withering glance. But Caroline was new to Sarah’s prison--otherwise known as middle school. On her first day of sixth grade last fall, Sarah had just ignored her. She’d gone along her normal, solitary routine for three weeks until Caroline reached out in the library.
“Is that a Tamora Pierce book?” Caroline’s eyes sparkled with interest. “I love her Song of the Lioness series.”
Sarah was reading “The Realms of the Gods,” the fourth in The Immortals series, and published earlier that year. She’d sped through Pierce’s previous works nine months before during the Blizzard of ’96, when two feet of snow kept school closed for almost a full week.
“I prefer Daine.” Sarah snagged a curl from behind her ear so it fell into her eyes. “I like her wild magic and that she can talk to animals.”
“Alana is so tough.” Caroline swept out the chair across from Sarah and sat down while leaning over the table. “We need more female characters like her.”
Sarah had never thought to take her love of fantasy seriously before. She read in quiet corners, shielding her book covers from the prying eyes of her peers who might deem her babyish. For the rest of the year, she and Caroline pored over the Tamora Pierce books and then moved on to others in the genre. Most were gothic tales about girls and ghosts in the countryside, the heroines of small stories taking place in this world. Caroline was right. Tamora Pierce’s characters were unique. So Sarah had dared to write about Daine’s journey from Tortall to Carthak for her bat mitzvah Torah sermon, comparing that journey to the one of the Israelites in the desert. She could see Meredith and Lisa in the congregation, their eyes glazed over--her mom insisted she invite them. But Caroline was absolutely beaming. It was like she gave off her own light. Sarah felt the energy gather under her and lift her high above the dais she was standing on.
Two weeks later, her parents picked Caroline up on the way to Rehoboth. Jonathan glared and whined. “It’s not fair! Why can she invite someone but I can’t take Pete?”
“Ask again when you’re a Jewish adult,” their father said.
The Kagan family had spent one week per year at Rehoboth Beach for as long as Sarah could remember, but she suddenly saw the place through new eyes. She skirted past the open floors in the middle of the Brighton Suites hallways, where she and Jonathan used to dangle paper cup phones attached by tape and string. She didn’t order the chocolate chip funny face breakfast at Sammy’s Kitchen, but went for eggs and toast off of the adult menu. Today, as they got off from the Paratrooper, Sarah asked her dad if she could take Caroline to Royal Treat by herself.
“Sure, kiddo, whatever you like,” her dad said. His eyes had that crinkly look adults get when they think they’re amusing. “Guess you’re not really a ‘kiddo’ anymore.”
The few blocks from Funland to the ice cream shop seemed to stretch out for miles as Sarah trekked off on her own with Caroline. They grabbed their sundaes and snagged seats on the porch of the old Victorian house. The sky shimmered orange above them. “Do you really feel like an adult?” Caroline teased. She had chocolate sauce smeared on her lips.
Sarah listened to the wooden floorboards creak as guests came in from outside. “I am a genteel lady,” she mimicked a southern accent. “And these fine people are my guests.”
“Not me,” Caroline said. “This is an inn where I’ll stop to water my horse before continuing on my way. I have to help Alana find the Dominion Jewel. Look, there’s the tavern.” She pointed to the counter in front of the old staircase where people were giving their orders. “And you can hear the horses outside. Clop, clop, clop.” Caroline drummed her closed fists on the table.
Sarah dipped her spoon into her bowl. “I don’t want to be an adult if I have to give up my imagination. Like Lisa and Meredith. All they do is talk about makeup and boys. A couple of years ago they were totally different. For spirit week they showed up wearing homemade Disney nightgowns. Like, they added sequins and detachable parts. It was so cool.”
Caroline’s hand slid over hers. “They’re just scared, so they have to pretend to be someone else. Not like Alana or Daine or characters from books, but mirror people. Mimicking what the world wants to see. We don’t have to be like that.” Her hand pressed more firmly. “We can be free.”
They finished their sundaes and Sarah’s dad came to collect them. He’d bought glow sticks on the boardwalk and he took them to the beach. “Let’s play catch!” Caroline suggested. The sky was pitch black and the waves crashed blindly on the shore. The girls couldn’t actually get the glow sticks to travel far, so they were constantly darting forward and grabbing them along with handfuls of sand. “I’m ready for the major leagues,” Caroline joked as her neon green projectile whizzed briefly through the air.
Sarah laughed, and reached her hand down to scrabble for the fading glow stick. Caroline’s feet crunched beside her a second later. “What’s up with your mom?” Caroline asked.
Sarah snapped her eyes up to the lighted boardwalk, where her father reached for her mother with placating hands. Behind them, Jonathan was clutching a plastic bag and an ice cream cone. Obviously, Sarah’s mother and brother had just returned from their annual pilgrimage to the local magic shop.
“I don’t know,” Sarah said. Gripping the glow stick, she trudged up the beach.
As she reached the wooden steps that led up to the boardwalk, she heard her mother’s voice. “The nerve! Who is she to tell me if a toy is appropriate for my child?” Sarah’s mom took a jutting step forward, as if threatening her father.
“Sheila, calm down. She knows more about these products than we do. I’m sure she was just being cautious.” Her dad kept his head ducked, as if in the presence of an alpha dog.
“Oh please!” Sarah’s mom scoffed. “She’s a glorified salesgirl working in a dinky magic shop. She’s probably going back to bagging groceries after this.”
The boards creaked under Sarah’s feet and her parents turned to her, squinting like characters from an interrupted play. For a moment, no one spoke. Then Sarah’s dad schooled his face back into his casual expression. “It’s getting late, girls. Time to get going!”
Sarah ignored him. With a burst of energy, she turned her body and threw the glow stick back onto the beach. She clamored down the steps and past Caroline as she chased it. The sundae churned in Sarah’s stomach. A memory flashed in her mind--a moment a couple of months ago when she freaked out about the printing company running late on her bat mitzvah invites. “It isn’t fair!” Sarah whined. “Now they won’t get sent out on time!”
Sarah’s mom had remained composed. “Yes, they will,” she said. “Just keep calm and carry on.”
When the invites were put into the mail a week later, Sarah turned to her mom. “How is it so easy for you to be an adult?”
“Magic,” Sarah’s mom responded.
That night, Sarah dreamed she was back at Funland but she was alone. Some unseen person was taking her through her favorite ride, the Haunted Mansion, but it wasn’t running. She stepped around the cars on their track, and wandered through the spooky living room with the organ-playing ghoul and the mad scientist’s lab with Frankenstein’s monster. She saw where the wiring hooked up to the machines and what really made them switch on. “The magic’s gone!” her dream self wailed. She woke up disappointed.
A few hours later Sarah pushed hard to be allowed to take Caroline to Penny Lane on her own. “I don’t know...” her mother demurred and Jonathan was complaining loudly in the background. “You mean they get to go on their own?!”
“It’ll only be for an hour or so,” Sarah persisted quickly, worried she might get roped into letting her little brother tag along. “Then we’ll come straight to the beach under the Dolles sign. It’s not like I’ve forgotten what our umbrella looks like.”
“Let the girls have their fun, Sheila.” Her dad stood up for her and Sarah was home free.
Penny Lane was actually an alley between two streets, but it was crammed full of colorful shops. “It’s like Diagon Alley!” Caroline gushed. She’d brought a new fantasy book on the trip. Though just published in America it was already famous in Britain. Sarah had glanced at the first few chapters about the boy wizard with curiosity; somewhere in her bat mitzvah gift stash she had a copy of her own. “Mark my words, Harry Potter will be huge,” Caroline had promised.
They grabbed croissants at Café Papilion and sat down at a table outside. Overhead some seagulls squawked, the telltale sign that the edge of the earth was near.
Sarah bit into the hidden chocolate. “I’m Daine, sitting in the Carthak aviary, trying to figure out what’s wrong with the emperor’s birds.” Somehow the words sounded hollow in her ears. She wasn’t using her imagination, like Caroline did with her story last night, or Meredith and Lisa did with their costumes long ago. She was just parroting Tamora Pierce.
The girls left a little while later and Sarah ducked her head when passing the magician’s shop.
The boardwalk had filled up since the time that Sarah and Caroline had turned into Penny Lane. They darted past couples sharing Thrashers fries and kids racing to the arcades at Funland.
A block before they were due to turn onto the beach at the Dolles sign, Caroline tugged Sarah’s arm. “Look.” A few feet in front of them, three girls a year or so older walked in a tight line. Their hair was glistening wet from the ocean and their shorts, thrown over swimsuits, stuck to their legs. They were deep in conversation, occasionally throwing off soft giggles, but Caroline shook her head. “Not them. Her.”
Sarah turned her head and saw another girl. She was keeping pace with the others but a wide space of air stretched between them. The fourth girl tilted her head towards the others as if peering through a window. Given her damp hair and purple army shorts, she was one of them--but she was not, somehow. The group had cast her out.
“Before I left Ohio, I had friends like that.” Caroline’s voice was deadpan. “Julie, Abby and Patricia. We were like soul sisters, for like two years. And then, one night we had a big fight and suddenly…” Caroline’s arm snaked around Sarah’s, reeling her in close. “We’ll never be like those girls,” she said fiercely.
Sarah swallowed down her shock. She’d spent nearly every day with Caroline since November, and yet her friend had never told her this story. They’d mostly talked about school, or Sarah’s bat mitzvah, or their fantasy books.
“Yeah,” Sarah stammered. “We’ll never be like that.” She rested her head on Caroline’s shoulder. They had just a few more moments on the boardwalk, where the ground beneath their feet was firm.
Rachel Mauro spends her days as a library professional in Washington, DC. Her work has appeared in Minerva Rising Literary Journal, District Lines Vol. V, Flash Fiction Magazine, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, B'nai B'rith Magazine and elsewhere. When not writing, she's usually talking about novels and short stories on her 'BookTube' channel.