Python

Arriving as the park opens is too late and they’re stuck at the back of the line, directly beneath the sun. A man appears pushing a cooler decorated with pictures of frozen treats. Dawn orders two but can’t find her wallet. Jun has to pay again. The Popsicle vendor likes Dawn.

“You’re beautiful.”

Dawn ignores him.

“You don’t like me?”

“I like women.”

He takes Jun’s money and pushes his cart to the next family, and Jun follows him with her eyes. In the weeks prior, ads for the new coaster seemed omnipresent on all of the local TV stations and bus stops. The top of the coaster was visible from everywhere Jun looked, and the faint screams of the people on board became a constant din.

Jun points to the track where a full car sits in the middle of a turn.

“Something is wrong,” she says.

A park employee talks to a group in the line and the conversation ends with them shaking their heads. Two of them exit the line and the remaining guests watch them. A nearby family calls him over, their faces concerned.

“Are you okay?” says Dawn.

“I want to talk to you.”

“Not here.”

“It’s always on your terms.”

“Don’t make me a dick,” says Dawn. “I didn’t do anything.”

“I want to believe you.”

Jun hadn’t asked questions. She’d only guessed this morning before she awoke and Dawn was kissing their ball python on the mouth, still dressed.

“Why’d you come home so late?”

“I was out.”

She lay with the snake on her breasts and let it slip beneath her shirt. “I don’t remember who was there.”

They inch forward into the roped-off section as the line grows behind them. Ahead, a man helps a small boy measure himself against a wooden cutout of an octopus holding its arm at a certain height. Other rides start to wake up, the screaming intensifies, growing louder then fainter, as cars near them then recede in circles. People fan themselves with illustrated maps. Jun takes one and opens it to the ad. She reads aloud.

“The Python. Fastest in the east.”

Dawn smirks.

“Terrifying or thrilling depending on the rider.”

“We should have come earlier,” Dawn says.

“You don’t want to be here.”

“No, I do.”

“You don’t seem like it.” They look at each other.

“I said I do.”

Jun continues. “The Python reaches speeds of 125 miles per hour or more.”

“Or more?”

“They keep it a mystery on purpose.”

“Oh, do they.”

“What?”

“Was that a stab at me?”

“No.”

Dawn holds her stare for a second, then breaks away. She looks around for a trashcan and Jun takes the Popsicle wrapper from her without asking and puts it in her pocket—a motherly gesture. She studies the lines around Dawn’s eyes and looks from one eye to the other, then kisses her on the forehead.

“I thought of calling you,” Jun says.

“When?”

“I don’t know.”

“No, when? I’m wondering what time it was.”

“Sometime. Why?”

“It doesn’t matter? Just sometime?”

“Does it matter to you?”

Dawn takes her bandana off and reties it. Some strands escape the fabric around her ears and she tucks them inside, wiping her forehead on her sleeve. Jun hates the bandana. It makes Dawn look masculine.

“You’re amazing, you know that?” Dawn says.

“You’re not serious.”

“You’ve been rude to me all morning.”

“Who’s this person you’ve been seeing?”

“I’m not seeing a person. I’ve decided I love snakes.”

That shuts her up.

Dawn expected her father to be furious when she told him she was a woman. Instead, he was condescending. Be serious. You thought I’d be fine with this? Jun was there to hear it all.

Dawn rubs her eyes with the palms of her hands. They’ve been on line for what seems like hours.

“You’re not lying to me?” Jun says.

“I’m not lying to you.”

“You didn’t fuck anyone?”

“No.”

“But you wanted to.”

Dawn squats on her heels, fanning herself with a map. Each time she swings it away from her face, another wave of heat hits her between the eyes.

“It’s too hot,” she says. “I’m going to be sick.”

The speakers come alive. “We apologize for the delay. A mechanic is on the way to investigate a technical malfunction. The Python should be moving again shortly. Thank you for your patience.

Sirens approach, growing closer until the sound is all around them. A ladder rises behind the coaster like a giraffe. Dawn watches a firefighter negotiate the harness of a crying teenage boy.

“Should we leave?” Jun says.

Dawn stops fanning herself and looks up. Jun stands over her, smiling. “You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

“Stop it.”

She stands and looks back. Outside the roped-off area, a family sits in a circle on the concrete, eating sandwiches. One of them naps with his head in a girl’s lap and his hat over his face. “It just keeps growing but we’re not going anywhere,” she says.

“I wish we were alone.”

“Do you want to leave?”

“I don’t know, should we?”

“Is this fun to you right now?”

The full car pulls into the triage and the floor rises under the feet of the wilted riders. They disembark like soldiers home from war, wobbling into the arms of relieved families. The car pulls away and an empty one replaces it, stopping in the triage. But the ropes at the front of the line remain in place. After a moment, the second car pulls away.

“What’s happening?”

“They’re testing it to make sure it doesn’t kill us.”

“Is this ride even safe?”

“We’ll find out, won’t we?”

Jun shakes her head. “This is so ridiculous.”

An older man slips boldly under the rope and approaches the edge of the platform, looking down the track. Instantly, the loudspeakers come alive.

Sir, please step away from the edge.” Dawn looks up. A man standing behind a Plexiglas window looks down on the line. She hadn’t noticed him before and now she wonders what else he’s seen. “Ladies and gentlemen, stay behind the ropes,” he says.“We’re testing The Python. I repeat: we are testing The Python.

Two teenagers in uniform appear next to the man and each take one of his arms. They lead him away from the edge of the platform to a corner of the waiting area as the rest of the line watches.

“He’s in trouble,” Jun says.

“I wonder if they’ll make him leave.”

“Can we go, Dawn? Please?”

They move backwards through the line.

Jun sits on the wall by the water fountains watching people file left and right according to their gender. Outside the women’s bathroom, a little girl eyes a small boy waiting in line with his mother.

“Are you a boy or a girl?” she says.

“A boy.”

He turns around and hides in his mother’s legs.

“It’s okay if he’s coming in with me,” his mother explains. “Sometimes boys can use the girls’ bathroom.”

The girl is embarrassed. She turns to look at her own mother, who smiles.

“Can I use the boy’s bathroom?” the girl asks.

“No.”

“But the boy can use the girl’s bathroom.”

“That’s different.”

Dawn comes around the corner drying her hands. She’s taken off her bandana and run wet fingers through her short hair.

“Feel better?” Jun asks.

“Much.”

“What took you so long in there?”

“What do you mean?”

“Were you on your phone?”

“No.”

“Really? I saw that you liked some things on Instagram.”

Dawn wipes her face with the wet towel.

“No response?”

“Okay, so I was looking at Instagram.”

Walking back to the entrance, Dawn reaches for Jun’s hand. It’s an automatic gesture, something they do without thinking. Jun takes Dawn’s fingers and then, aware of it, pulls away. Their hands drop between them. Dawn watches the side of Jun’s face.

“You won’t even hold my hand?”

“Please don’t,” Jun says. “I’m really not in the mood.”

“For what?”

“Dawn, please.”

“What did I do?”

“I wish you would be honest with me.”

A car horn from behind interrupts and urges them out of the way. They step to either side of the walkway as a medical cart transports an overheated woman toward the clinic. Her family follows closely behind, all of them overweight. Dawn realizes then that Jun’s face isn’t angry.

“I want to tell you,” she says.

“Tell me what?”

Dawn is quiet.

“Tell me what?”

She shakes her head. “I can’t,” she says.

If Dawn were telling a story about a former lover, Jun would interrupt and say, “Now, which one is that? It’s so hard to keep track.”

On the New Year’s Eve when Dawn first kissed Jun, Jun fucked a stranger in the bathroom of a bar. She regretted it, but Dawn thought it was funny—so unlike Jun.

Just inside the entrance, families study their maps against signposts pointing the ways to themed areas of the park, named after African countries. Jun stops before the turnstiles to the parking lot, under Liberia.

“Are we done here or do you want to see something else?”

“I thought you wanted to go home.”

“It’s not about what I want.”

Dawn shakes her head.

“It’s not about what I want. This is a partnership.”

“I’m fine either way.”

“Tell me.”

“I’m really fine either way, Jun.”

“So you don’t care if we leave?”

“I don’t care if we leave.”

Jun exits, sighing. “Fucking waste of money.”

On the way home, 93.3 “The Buzz” reports the Python is moving again with delays. A boy was hospitalized after having an asthma attack on the ride.

“Maybe that’s the teenager,” Jun says.

Dawn nods.

“Are you not talking now?”

“I just don’t have anything to say.”

“You just said something.”

Dawn giggles, then stops herself.

“What, I’m not funny anymore?”

“You are.”

“I thought you liked that about me.”

“I do.”

“You know what I like about you?”

Dawn shrugs. Jun thinks, changing lanes.

“Uh, I think you’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

“So I’m just pretty?”

“No, I also think you’re really smart.”

“Go on.”

“You’re a nice person. You’re nice to people.”

“Okay.”

“And you’re really sexy.”

“You already said that.”

“No, I said you were pretty.”

“Oh, okay.”

Dawn looks at the side of Jun’s face as it passes in and out of late afternoon sun through trees. She traces the line of Jun’s jaw with her finger, then leans over to kiss it and rests her head on Jun’s shoulder.

“I’m still upset,” Jun says.

“Okay.”

“But I’m not angry. I want to believe you.”

“You can believe me,” says Dawn.

Jun turns the radio down. They ride in silence.

“Let’s enjoy the rest of our night, okay? Let’s order Thai food and watch Blade Runner,” Jun says.

“That sounds perfect.”

“I love you. I’m sorry.”

Dawn says, “It’s okay,” then she senses that Jun is waiting, “I love you.”

The sun drops below the trees and the air cools. Jun opens her window and lights a cigarette, blowing smoke into the wind, and Dawn does the same. They turn down back roads into town. Dawn takes her shoes off and rests her feet on the dashboard.

Yesterday, she stayed home from work and lay on the couch watching the python in its tank. She began with two fingers like bunny ears pressed to her labia, spread them to the sides, and found the small button between them, pressed it and rubbed it. A nervous warmth bloomed in her stomach and spread out over her like another body. The python wound its way around the tank and stopped in the shape of a question mark.

Pulling onto their street, Jun sees a sports car idling in their driveway with its lights on, and she slows to a creep. She turns off the headlights.

“Who is that?” she says.

A figure on their porch rises and steps toward the curb, pausing before entering the headlights, his face  in shadow. In the streetlights, Dawn sees that he’s holding something.

“Stop,” she says.

“Is he a neighbor?”

“No, stop. Stop, please.”

“Who is that?”

Jun parks in front of the house next door and rolls up the windows. She gets out, locking the doors as she stands, keeping one arm on the roof. The man steps into the street. He extends his arm toward Dawn, smiling darkly, and hands her a wallet.

“I think you forgot this,” he says.

Contributor

Sarah Gerard

SARAH GERARD is the author of the novel Binary Star and the forthcoming chapbook, BFF. Short works have appeared in The New York Times, Joyland, The Paris Review Daily, and other journals.

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