The carnival is in town, and I walk through its myriad amusements to the rides at back of the lot. My arms are loaded with tacky souvenirs and sugary delights to take back with me; I’ve had a full day and want to get home.
I pass the Ferris wheel, the tiny rollercoaster, the funhouse, and I find myself at the gates of the Octopus – a sprawling, mad contraption with eight pneumatic arms ending in creaking, revolving carts. I hate this ride. The rotation, the speed, the height, and the perilous seats make me sick every time. It roars from nothing to a blur, veering on all three axes, threatening to break me into pieces with its force. Out of control and terrifying.
It’s been nearly a year since I’ve been on it. And I’ve never ridden it of my own free will.
This time is no different.
The operator catches my eye, grinning at the dread on my face as he seizes my wrists. My full arms make it impossible to shoo him away. It happens so quickly that my breath deserts me; I can’t protest, can’t scream that I don’t want to ride. I go limp at his touch and am unable to fight him off. Everything I’m carrying smashes on the ground.
He pulls me through the gate, shoving me roughly into a cart and locking the safety bar. I’m the only passenger, but he races back to the controls and fires up the machine. I squeeze my eyes shut and feel hot, fat tears of shame and fear already brimming as the Octopus spins up. I know what’s coming.
The arms zoom up and crash down. The cart twirls and twists maniacally. The tinny music fills the grey air. The scenery blurs. I start to scream, but the sound is whipped away by the slicing wind. My panic skyrockets higher and higher the longer I spin – the operator isn’t stopping the machine. The Octopus continues to pump and whirl, faster and more sickening as another eon crawls by. Loose limbs thrashing about, shoes flying off, I continue to scream as the tears come freely, reddening my face. I scratch my skin and pound my legs in a desperate attempt to relieve my anguish. I writhe and squirm against the iron bar imprisoning me, knowing that freedom would mean blood and broken bones. I don’t care – I just want the ride to be over.
Suddenly, I’m still.
The Octopus continues to fly, but I’ve stopped struggling. My body switches from violent panic to dead weight. A litany of shame suddenly bursts from my lips in horrible, quiet tones as the machine plummets me down, only to shoot back up again.
If only I hadn’t been here in the first place. If only I hadn’t been carrying so much. If only I hadn’t walked by the ride. If only I could have talked to the operator. If only I had fought back. If only I could break out of the seat. If only I had someone with me to keep me safe. If only I weren’t so stupid. If only. If only. If only.
The nauseating loop continues as I sink further into my seat, becoming part of the metal. I do my best to become tiny, to scrunch my senses and self into an invisible ball. I’m soaked in tears and snot, covered in bruises and cuts. I wait.
Not long after I reach this point of miserable acquiescence, the Octopus rumbles slowly to a stop. I hardly notice. The maniac music fades, and the cart comes to ground level. The lack of motion leaves me vibrating and dizzy, as if I were still moving.
When my seat rotates towards the operator’s podium, he’s not there. No one is at the controls.
Every molecule in my body is made of lead Jell-O. I slide easily beneath the bar that shackled me and land in a pile on the cold concrete, where I sit for a minute? an hour? a day? staring blankly into nothing while the world continues to spin. The ride is over, yet I can’t shake off the experience. I slip in and out of consciousness, exhausted on the ground. I’m empty of everything and weak from the violence of the ride. Delirium overtakes me occasionally, and I daydream about sitting here forever, forsaking everything for the respite of the motionless, unforgiving ground. Every time I’ve ridden the Octopus, I’ve lingered in this place for a very long while, unwilling and unable to move.
But this time, a figure approaches, blurred at the edge of my vision. I flinch automatically and my whole being tenses, thinking it’s the ride operator returning to force me back into the cart. Tears begin to flow again behind sandpapery, screwed-up eyes, and I feel the beginning of a new wave of defensive flailing coming on.
A hand on my shoulder, the lightest possible touch, a familiar voice: “It’s okay. You’re safe now. I’ll take you home.”
At first, I resist, fearfully pushing away the arms reaching for me. I don’t deserve comfort. I don’t deserve understanding. I don’t deserve a home. The hands stroke my hair.
“Yes, you do. I’m here. I want to help. I love you even though you took the ride.”
I relax, the entirety of my being melting into surrender.
Yes, please. Take me home. Take me away from here and never let me come back.
But even as I’m carried away from the Octopus, I know that someday it will call to me again and I will answer. I look over my protector’s shoulder and watch the machine get smaller and smaller, knowing that someday I will have to come back and ride.