One such kid was Bobby and Bobby had come to AlaskaLand with his dad and Ms. Joy but when he got off the Ferris Wheel they were where now? Certainly not where they were supposed to be. Bobby wondered if it was only ever himself who was where he was supposed to be when he was supposed to be there. Or maybe it’s only kids who are ever supposed to be places, and parents and adults are only supposed to be wherever it is they are.
Repeat it back to me, his dad had said, what you are supposed to do after you get off the Ferris Wheel.
I am supposed to find you and Ms. Joy after I get off the Ferris Wheel.
Should you do anything else before you find me and Ms. Joy?
No, Bobby had said. I am not supposed to do anything else before I find you and Ms. Joy.
And if we get separated? Where is the rendezvous point?
Crap, Bobby thought. Why did his dad have to give him so much stuff to remember?
He stood a few minutes at the exit like a polite boy while couples walked by hands held off the ride, bodies linked like birdwings. A roller coaster climbed to his right. He glimpsed the shivering passengers, teenaged, shirtless to brag toughness with blue nipples. When it plunged, their screams ripped herky-jerky through chattering teeth.
An old man stood hunched over in front of him, yellow toothed, gripping a cane that came past shoulder high. Before Bobby had gotten on the Ferris Wheel, the man had shouted something to him, something Bobby couldn’t make out, words he had hurried away from. When the man saw Bobby now, he dropped the wrapper he had been sniffing to ask was he lost and did he need help? The man drooped his shoulders to lean in close and Bobby could smell metal on his breath. Tin foil. Damp with rust. When the man extended a hand pawlike in Bobby’s direction, Bobby shook his head and darted into the crowd of people, all stepping and speaking at odd-tempos.
After checking to make sure the man hadn’t followed, Bobby looked around again for his dad and Ms. Joy. All day they had been sneaking off to rub behind or in cramped rooms and walls. Photo booths, phone booths, restaurant booths. It was like, when they weren’t preaching how important it was to all stay together, they were trying to ditch him for some alone time.
Bobby figured if he wasn’t sure where exactly to go, it was best to cover as much ground as possible. Then maybe they could see him.
He pulled out his phone to scan the crowd moving around him with his MovieScore App: employees stalking by in polar bear getup, a couple trying excitedly to drag their kid into the Alaska Oil Pipeline Simulator while she sat crying on the sidewalk. A line stuck into the walkway, coming from a booth called “How Long Could You Last in The Alaska Wilderness?” where a machine shot rapid fire quiz questions about berries, alternative hunting techniques, and counterintuitive sources of warmth (Inuit had blown the curve with igloos). Bobby had scored fifteen minutes after the FaceMonitor caught him gag at skinning a moose.
He inserted earbuds while his phone processed the scene. Tense, instrumental chase music started to flow. Bobby tugged at the seams of his shirt while he tried to make-believe a scenario. He was tired of running from imagined animals, prehistoric and on the loose. What movie had they watched on the plane? When his dad forgot to warn Bobby before one guy stabbed another through the knuckle with a letter-opener starting Bobby to cry while everyone looked over like, Aren’t you a little old for that?
How can I be too old for it, if I’m doing it? he had thought.
That was it. A spy.
He pretended he had stolen confidential documents from the Ruskies and needed to find cover before the top trained sniper turncoat lined up his shot. He ran through the crowd, curving between legs and shoe corners.
Bobby tripped over his own feet and braced himself into a puddle of spilt warm soda. It dried sticky on his forearm. A fly the size of a walnut landed on him. He stared at it till the music grew to a beat so fast he felt his heart trying to outdo it and off he was, running again.
He ducked behind trash cans and hugged the walls tight while the MovieScore sharpened, grew loud and urgent. The candy store appeared next to him like a cathedral from the mist. It must have been fifteen stories high. He allowed himself a moment of awe before running into the door, both arms extended, using his full weight but still barely opening it enough to squeeze through. And when was that but when he saw her.
As soon as he entered, she had turned away to examine gummy straws, but Bobby recognized the scar on her calf—the one he heard a different story about each time he asked. When he looked back at the door, he saw the old man limp by with a cane, examining crushed soda cans like they were a dropped pair of eyeglasses. How had that old man caught up? Bobby had been running so fast. It seemed as though nobody else noticed the old man until they bumped into or near tripped over him. When he squinted over and pointed a finger at Bobby, Bobby spun around.
The music started Bobby an earache first then a headache. He briefly forgot where it came from, then pulled the buds out and put them in his pocket. “Mom?” He reached out and pulled the tail of her denim shirt.
“Bobby!” she exclaimed, turning toward him and kneeling down. “Are you here with your father?” She glanced around.
“Why aren’t you in Florida?” he said. The strangeness of seeing her here began to taint his initial relief.
“Just because that’s where you saw me last doesn’t mean that’s where I’m supposed to be.” Her eyes darted around the door and windows, picking at the ceiling like they were a toothpick cleaning it. “Are you all by yourself?”
“I’m supposed to find Dad and Ms. Joy after I get off the Ferris Wheel.”
“Oh my,” she said. “You’re lost.”
“Dad and Ms. Joy,” Bobby said. “After I get off the Ferris Wheel, I’m supposed to find them.”
“Well they’re not here.” She held her arms out to the store. “They’re not in these candy jars. They’re not in my pockets. They’re not in your earwax.” She bent down. “Come on, let’s get a bite and then I’ll help you look.”
“I’m supposed to find them after I get off the Ferris Wheel,” Bobby said. He looked at the door. Over the tops of buildings, he could see a looping roller coaster. Her spindly fingers enclosed his thin elbow, bone against bone.
“After lasts a long time,” she said. “Did you try calling them?”
“I don’t know,” Bobby said. “No.”
“Speak with conviction,” she said. “Hand me your phone. I’ll call.”
He handed her his phone. She put it in her purse.
“Come on.” She pulled him toward the door. “It’s not polite to starve a woman and here I am, dizzy with hunger.”
It was when the oil ran out that came the kids and when the kids came, came AlaskaLand. What else were they going to do with the state? Give it back to the Russians? Not in this economy, his dad always said.
Bobby had been bugging and begging his father to take him since the first commercial he saw so when his class optioned it as a field trip Bobby felt like God himself had lined up and tapped the dominos. His father even volunteered to chaperone so they could spend time together even though the two things he hated most were crowds and the parents of Bobby’s every classmate, and he wasn’t saying this to make Bobby feel guilty he was just making conversation.
But then Bobby got barf sick two nights before the plane took off and had to spend the week instead drinking homemade ginger ale and watching TV while Ms. Lauren paced around their house talking into her headset, pumping a grip-strengthener, selling her monthly quota of whatever the company sent her that month, which happened to be four-fingered bowling balls.
The month before it had been home soda making kits.
“I’m talking a seventy-five percent increase in accuracy,” she said into the headset. “Are they regulation? Are they league approved? Would you ask Galileo if gravity was league approved? Would you ask Isaac Newton if string theory met regulation? When revolution comes along the world finds a way to fit around it. Take Jesus, for instance.”
Bobby turned up the volume. She walked in and glared till he turned it back down. “Subtitles,” she whispered with a hand curled around the mouthpiece.
Once she left the room, he turned the TV back up then even louder, maybe louder than it had ever been, than any TV had ever been. Ms. Lauren squeaked up behind him. “Of course. You have every right to feel that way,” she said into the headset. She reached over the couch but Bobby pulled the remote away. “I understand,” she said. “But what if I made you a between-you-and-me type deal. Now I know you’re asking yourself, how could this deal get any better? What I mean is that I’ll throw in an extra ball for free, assuming you purchase two. Got a wife? A kid? You can set up the whole family.” Bobby scooted down the couch and Lauren lunged, grabbing the top of the remote. Bobby giggled but she wasn’t laughing.
She had begged Bobby’s father not to go to AlaskaLand once it became clear Bobby could no longer go with him. But Bobby’s father said I already gave them my word and paid the nonrefundable and besides I could maybe teach these kids a thing or two while we’re sitting on the plane, like how to make root beer.
They won’t let you bring a home soda maker on an airplane, Lauren had said.
Okay sure but I meant in theory, Bobby’s father had said.
When Lauren got a grip on something, you couldn’t take it from her. Her hands were like alligator jaws, which gave Bobby an idea. He let go of the remote and quickly latched his hands around hers, squeezing them as hard he could. Now she had the remote but couldn’t let it go. Like this they danced around the kitchen, her still on a call, shouting over the TV. She guided them both over to the sliding glass back door and opened it with her elbow, using a shoulder to shove Bobby outside. He tripped, hands sliding off hers. She spun around and turned the TV off then slammed shut and locked the door. He sat down, hot and cross legged, and stared out at the yard, catching his breath.
Once he got bored, he decided to try and count how many blades of grass were out there. He thought that might impress his dad, if he could tell him how many blades of grass were in their yard. When he looked at them all, shivering in the sunlight, somehow separate but still together, he wondered if you could rub the green right off them.
He started and stopped counting a few times before giving up. He thought about calling his mom. She had restricted visitation. When Bobby’s dad wasn’t in town it was get a warrant or get off my yard, so her coming to pick him up was out of the question. Also, he just realized he didn’t have his phone with him. Not that he just realized it per se, but rather, he had realized long ago that he didn’t have his phone with him, and only just now realized that the thing he didn’t have with him was also the thing he used to make calls.
He probably wouldn’t be able to get ahold of her anyway—a disconnected line or straight to voicemail.
Bobby remembered when they told him his mom almost but didn’t quite have a personality; she borderline had one, which he thought was strange because it seemed to him she had enough personality for a whole family, which is why his Dad said she was better off by herself.
Bobby knew he had been in the wrong. He knew it hadn’t been polite for him to turn up the volume while Ms. Lauren was on the phone, so to make up for it, he tried to be as polite as he could out here on the back porch. But as the sky grew dark and Bobby thirsty from drinking nothing but soda all day, he thought he saw something shuffle through the bushes, so he huddled against the glass door and tried to see in through the pulled shut curtains. Around a bunched corner he got a glimpse of Ms. Lauren’s hand dangling off the side of the couch, now watching the TV herself.
From the woods behind their house, the cicadas sang like chatting aliens, growing excited as night set. It reminded Bobby of the year he had a pet gecko. He could never control all the crickets he bought from the pet store; some leapt free before he could corral them into its cage. Later, in bed, he would hear the escaped crickets chirping from the dark corners of his scattered laundry.
The bushes rustled again, and Bobby tapped on the glass. He meowed like a cat, too, though he wasn’t sure why. He just felt like doing it. Eventually, he fell asleep against the door, only waking when she opened it. “Oh my,” she said, looking down.
“I’m sorry I turned the TV up,” Bobby said drowsily. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
“Come in,” she said, “you’ll want to be sat down for this.”
Bobby came in and sat down.
“I don’t know what or how to quite say, but something happened when you were out there.”
“Something with my mom?” Bobby said. Whenever adults sat him down and spoke serious but gentle it was always to tell him she was in the ER or it had been weeks since anyone had heard from her.
“No,” Ms. Lauren said, “something with you, something to you. You’re not Bobby anymore.”
“I don’t know what or how it happened, but as soon as I opened the door it smacked me in the face like a no-see-um. Not Bobby anymore. Not at all, not at all.”
“Who am I?”
“I haven’t figured that out yet,” she said. “Don’t worry, I’ll look hard. I want to figure it out as much for my sake as yours, much less your dad’s. But you can’t rush these things.”
Bobby glanced at his arms. He still felt like Bobby. He was still shaped like Bobby. He sniffed himself. “I still smell like Bobby,” he said.
“That’s what makes this so difficult,” she said. “Are you hungry?”
“Would you like some sausage and lentils?”
Bobby shook his head. “I don’t like lentils. I want cereal.”
“You don’t like lentils? Have you ever eaten them?”
“No,” she said. “Have you ever eaten them before. Bobby may have, sure. But just because you have Bobby’s memories doesn’t mean you’re Bobby. Have you had lentils.”
“That’s what I thought.” She ladled out a bowl. They smelled like muddy water. “Eat up,” she said.
“Can I have cereal instead, please?”
“I don’t believe you like cereal,” she said. “No, I don’t believe you like it at all.”
When Bobby and his mother got to the restaurant, she asked for a booth in the back.
“Certainly,” the host said. “Right this way.”
When they sat down, Bobby heard his phone ring in her purse.
“Mom,” he said. “Can I answer my phone?”
“Now, now,” she said. “It’s not polite to talk on the phone during dinner.”
Bobby looked down at the menu. The entrees were all named after dinosaurs, but the description of each item was foreign and indecipherable, vowels stacked to form sounds Bobby didn’t think a mouth could make. On screens around the restaurant, simulated footage played of a meteor hitting a prehistoric earth—Bobby recognized the hugged-close continents from school—sending out huge sonars of extinction-hungry ash-riddled waves. From space it looked like the Earth had a huge boil needed lancing. A German couple stared with nervous curved eyebrows at the screens as if they thought this was maybe a news channel.
“Mom, after we eat, are we going to find—”
“It’s not polite to ask questions during dinner either,” she cut him off.
Bobby looked back down at his menu. His legs weren’t long enough to touch the floor so he had to lock his elbows on the table to keep the seat cushion from sliding.
“Well,” she said, putting the menu down and smiling at Bobby. “I certainly know what I’m having.”
A busboy walked over to fill their water glasses. She watched him the entire time though he kept his eyes down. The busboy didn’t look older than fifteen, dress shirt floating around him like a sail.
“What can you recommend for my son?” she said to him.
“The iguanodon is excellent, sir,” the busboy said.
“Now is there actual iguanodon in that?” the mother asked.
“No ma’am,” he said. “It is the duck.”
“Thank you,” she said, and pulled out a dollar to hand to him.
“Please,” he said, holding up his free palm as if she could shoot him with it. “I cannot yet take tips because I am still training.”
“You won’t take this?” she said. “This dollar that I offer you?”
“Please, ma’am,” he said. “I will get in trouble. I cannot accept tips while I am training.”
“You’re embarrassing me in front of my son,” she said.
“Please, give it to your server.”
She stared at him for a moment, still holding the dollar out. Right as he started to back away, she tore it in half and dropped it in the candle. All three of them watched it burn. It smelled like lit hair.
“Ma’am,” the busboy said, after it was finished. He bowed slightly and walked to the next table.
After he was gone, she wet her napkin in her water glass and wiped down her hand. “Your elbow is sticky,” she said. “It got stick on me.”
Bobby rubbed his arm and felt the dried soda on it. His phone began to ring again. He stared at her purse.
“Oh for God’s sake,” she said and pulled his phone out. Bobby reached for it, but she dropped it in her glass of water. It sunk between the ice, spilling some over the side.
“There,” she said. “Now that’s that.”
“I need to find Dad and Ms. Joy.”
“Is that all you’re going to talk about?” she said. “Dad and Ms. Joy. Dad and Ms. Joy. It’s not polite to mention people who aren’t at the table.”
“I’m sorry,” Bobby mumbled. He looked across the dining room and tried to make eye contact with somebody, anybody, but whenever he did, the other person would just smile and turn away.
And when was that but when he saw them. His dad and Ms. Joy, coming through the restaurant door. Bobby sat up straight. Shocked still. They frantically held out a photo to the host. The host looked at it, around at the tables, back at it, then shook his head and called over the busboy, who had been passing by on his way from the kitchen. The busboy looked at the picture, then shook his head too. His Dad and Ms. Joy gave the place a once over before running back outside. During the span of that glance, Bobby and his dad had made eye contact, and Bobby had sat up as high in his seat as he could, face broad and hopeful, but his dad’s eyes bounced quickly to the next table over, not pausing for even a breath. Bobby wished he could sing like a cicada, audible for miles.
Bobby leapt from his seat and ran through the restaurant, dodging waiters and pitchers of water. He shot through the door and down the walkway, “Dad!” he shouted. His dad, consulting a you-are-here map a dozen or so yards ahead, turned and again made eye contact with Bobby before scanning through the fog of crowd back to the map, where Ms. Joy was trying to point something out to him. Bobby started to shout again when his legs jumped out and sent him rolling across the concrete.
He popped up quick, feeling the road burn on his forearm, and saw he had stumbled over the old cane-bearing man. The old man didn’t even notice at first, sniffing the bottle he was examining on the ground before putting it in the plastic bag hanging below his armpit. Bobby looked over at the map. His dad was gone.
Bobby panicked glances in all directions but the crowd was too thick. There were any number of alleys and store corners they could have ducked into.
“Boy,” the old man said.
Bobby froze, wanting to return to the restaurant, but all the instructions he’d been given throughout his life clashed inside his head: respect your elders, don’t talk to strangers, respect the less fortunate, respond when an adult speaks to you. Be polite. Above all, be polite. He wished he could close his eyes and transport back to Florida, back to his bedroom and the hum of lost insects.
“Boy,” the old man said, “do you have any empty cans or bottles?”
Bobby shook his head.
“There’s something off about you, son. I seen it when I first seent you. Yes. Your face looks writ on cardboard.”
“I tried to tell you,” the old man said, shaking his head. “I did it, I tried.”
Bobby opened his mouth to try and ask what, but his mouth felt too parched by all the language it held inside.
“I tried to tell you not to go on that Ferris Wheel,” the old man said, as if he could read Bobby’s mind. “You can never know quite what you’ve got a loose grip on. What can get lost up there.”
The old man sighed and looked away, as if to say the conversation was done. He caned over to a trashcan, and Bobby walked back to the restaurant. His mother still sat at the table. She had finished eating, an untouched hamburger at Bobby’s place.
“I ordered for you,” she said when he sat back down. “But it’s probably cold by now.” She looked deeply upset by this.
Bobby closed his eyes. I’m glad I’m not Bobby anymore, he thought. Nothing matters once you’re no longer Bobby. Bobby, he thought, if I find you, I think we will be friends. Yes. If I find you.
“What happened?” she said, gasping, reaching out and placing her hand on his arm, turning it to see the spotted blood from where he had braced his fall. She fingered through her purse, pulled out a Band-Aid and placed it over the scrape even though it was far too small to cover but a fraction of it. “I knew there was something pulling me up here, something I couldn’t figure telling me where I was needed,” she said. “And I’m glad I did, yes I’m glad I did. But isn’t that what mothers are for? Now, who wants dessert?”
When Bobby’s dad returned from chaperoning, it took a week to convince Bobby he was actually Bobby. Bobby’s dad was on the verge of taking him to a shrink when he told his dad what Ms. Lauren had said. But even when confronted, she stuck with her claim, that this Bobby wasn’t the Bobby.
“Don’t I know how to pick ‘em,” his dad said as they stood by the window and watched her drive off with her stuff.
“Maybe it can just be me and you for a while,” Bobby said, “maybe that would be nice.”
“Maybe it would be,” his dad said.
“But the thing is...”
Bobby looked up at him.
“...I’ve already met someone.”
“She works up there, in AlaskaLand,” his dad said, which made her sound magical. “But she doesn’t want to anymore. She’s tired of it, of all the children around all the time, no offense. But it’s not that easy to just up and leave a place, what with her having nowhere to go and such. So she’s going to come stay with us for a bit. Son, she could use a warm bed and home cooked meal.”
“Okay,” Bobby said.
Bobby’s dad knelt and put a hand on Bobby’s shoulder and one hand in his own back pocket. “But guess what?”
“What?” Bobby said, and his father, grinning, pulled out two tickets. It took Bobby a few moments to realize what they were.
“She needs us to come help her move down this Saturday,” Bobby’s father said. “And since she still works up there, she was able to get us some tickets for cheap.”
“Are you sure it’s okay?” Bobby said.
“Sure it’s okay. I don’t mind going again,” Bobby’s father said.
“But wasn’t Mom supposed to come visit me on Saturday?”
Bobby’s dad frowned. “Look, son. Nothing is official, but you may soon be seeing a lot less of that mother of yours. How would that sound? Maybe just Christmas and your birthday?” He patted Bobby on the shoulder and looked at him, eyes losing focus for a second, as if Bobby were a stranger he was looking through—a look Bobby would see oftener and oftener in the week before they left till eventually Bobby’s mere presence seemed to surprise him. Then his dad blinked twice and gave a forced smile. “We can talk about it when we get back.”
Right before getting into his mom’s rental car, Bobby felt equally urged to run away or hold her tight.
“Hop in the front seat,” his mom said when he tried to climb in the back.
“I’m not allowed to ride in the front seat,” Bobby said.
“Have you ever ridden up front before?” she asked.
He shook his head.
“Nothing bad ever happens on your first time. That goes for everything.” She opened the door for him.
“No, no,” she said as he reached for the seatbelt. “That will just make it worse.”
“Where are we going?” Bobby asked.
“North, sweetie,” she said.
“We’re already pretty far north, aren’t we?”
“Yes, sweetie. Yes, we are.”
The crowd flooded around their car like a murmur of birds, each person attached to or trying to follow some other. A formation led by none and all. Bobby’s mom honked her horn to push her way through.
Once they got onto the highway, Bobby saw TeleBillboards displaying his school picture, name, and the last place he had been seen.
“Sweetie, look,” his mom said, reaching over to pinch his cheek. “You’re a celebrity. Now you can’t say I never did anything for you.”
The farther north they went, the emptier the rides grew, but they never stopped running, even if in crowd-less silence—a quiet sticky like wet cement. There were still employees waiting to tear tickets, give safety speeches. But once a ride started, nothing but the sound of wheels grating against tracks. Not even a terrified scream, not one child feeling his life collapse to a single moment.
In the rearview mirror, Bobby saw a police car approaching, red and blue lights winking.
She pulled over and rolled the window down. It took the cop a few minutes to catch up. He approached the driver’s side with one hand on his hip, panting sausage-and-onion breath.
“Ma’am, you can’t drive up here,” the cop said, leaning into the window. “May I see some ID?” He looked at Bobby, then Bobby’s mom, then back at Bobby. “Hey, is that boy there Bobby George, and are you Cyndi Lee formerly Cyndi George?”
“Yes, no, no,” she said, opening her wallet and showing him her Driver’s License.
“Ma’am that looks an awful lot like Bobby George there,” the cop said, looking up at the TeleBillboards.
“Look closer,” she said, “look closer, does that look like Bobby George to you?”
The cop looked closer.
“Look,” she said. “Look closer.”
The cop leaned in till half his body was in the car. His legs hung out the window like he was being eaten by a giant mechanical shark. Bobby faced straight ahead and could feel the cop’s eyes a quarter inch from his own, the cop’s breath starting tears to fall across his cheeks.
The cop gripped the dash and side of Bobby’s chair to shove himself back out of the window.
“No,” the cop said. “No ma’am I don’t reckon that would be Bobby George there.”
“I’m sorry we couldn’t be of assistance,” Bobby’s mother said.
“I guess you figure it’s like they say, always in the last place you look. Now turn around, you can’t drive up here. Evening, ma’am.” The cop tipped his hat and walked back to his car, honking his horn as he passed them to do a U-turn through the grassy median.
“Find a good radio station,” Bobby’s mother said, switching the ignition back on. She waited until the cop was out of sight before starting to drive again. Bobby reached over and turned the dial until he heard nothing but static. His mother sang along as they continued north to parts of AlaskaLand that didn’t even have employees, much less guests. Just bright shining paint, looking freshly unwrapped from a package. They could hear the squawk and craw of south-pointed Alaska sandhill cranes, flying like boomerangs above them.
They kept driving until they reached the edge of AlaskaLand. The sky and land stretched out past it to such flat vast expanses that Bobby could look at it and understand what it meant to feel emptiness as an object. He reached over and grabbed his mom’s hand.
On both sides of the car, lines of orange-vested workers scraped through permafrost to lay steel and wire. One such worker walked over to them.
“You can’t be here, ma’am,” he shouted over the machinery, barely audible through their closed windows. “This here’s a construction site.”
“This is what I wanted to show you,” Bobby’s mom turned toward him and said gently.
The construction worker continued to shout, banging a hand against the door. “It’s dangerous, ma’am. Turn on around.”
“How are you going to ask us to leave,” she said, “when this is the first place we’ve ever felt at home?”
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