The Olive Garden
THERE WAS NO montage. It was a slow night on the warm asphalt, under the neon glow and screeching metal of cheap rides. Hours of eating deep-fried food and drinking lime-infused beer from sticky cans between visits to each of the seven rides. There was no dragging in and out of lines. There was just wandering. Telling stories.
Gus pointed at a pregnant girl with a barbed wire tattoo. “She joins the cult.”
“She does not,” I disagreed.
“She does. She loses the baby. It’s awful. The only thing that starts to bring her back to life is this rising YouTube star she follows. She finds out about New Eden from him, then goes for a weekend-long seminar and never leaves.”
“She’s there for two years,” I countered. “But then her little brother comes to get her. She doesn’t want to see him, and security’s trying to get him out of there, but then he pulls out a sonogram. His girlfriend, May, is pregnant. A little boy. Due in a month. She doesn’t leave with him, but that night—”
“She tries to leave,” Gus took over. “They won’t let her. They lock her in a white room to decontaminate her. Her exposure to her brother’s energy, they say, has temporarily altered her brain chemistry. She has to complete the five purification steps. If she still wants to leave after that, they’ll let her.”
“She completes them,” I said. “The reader thinks they’ve lost her. That she’s stuck. But the last line of the book is some clue. Something she and her brother used to say. Some sign that she kept a secret part of herself safe, and the only reason she’s not leaving yet is because there are people trapped there she wants to help.”
We went back and forth like that all night, and when we finally stopped, it was only because riding the scrambler left me so nauseated I ran from it to the nearest trash can and vomited heartily.
Even as the recently eaten chili dog was rushing back up, I had to think the night had been some kind of success. After all, Gus grabbed my hair and pulled it away from my face as I retched.
At least until he grumbled, “Shit, I hate vomit,” and ran off gagging.
Hate, I found out on the ride home, was a less embarrassing way to say fear.
National Book Award nominee Augustus Everett was vomit-phobic, and had been ever since a girl named Ashley in his fourth grade class puked on the back of his head.
“I haven’t puked in easily fifteen years,” he told me. “And I’ve had the stomach flu twice in that time.”
I was fighting giggles as I drove. In general, I didn’t find phobias funny, but Gus was a former gravedigger turned suicide-cult investigator. Nothing Grace said in our interview had made him bat an eye, and yet cheap rides and puke had nearly bested him.
“God, I’m sorry,” I said, regaining control of myself. I glanced over to him, slumped back in my passenger seat with one arm folded behind his head. “I can’t believe my first lesson in love stories actually just unearthed multiple traumas for you. At least you didn’t end up also … you-know-what-ing …” I didn’t say the word, just in case.
His eyes flashed over to me and the corner of his mouth curled. “Trust me, I got out in the nick of time. One more second and you would’ve gotten Ashley Phillips’ed.”
“Wow,” I said. “And yet you held my hair. So noble. So brave. So selfless.” I was teasing, but it actually was pretty sweet.
“Yeah, well, if you didn’t have such nice hair, I wouldn’t have bothered.” Gus’s eyes went back to the road. “But I learned my lesson. Never again will I try to be a hero.”
“My parents met at a carnival.” I hadn’t meant to say it; it had just slipped out.
Gus looked at me, his expression inscrutable. “Yeah?”
I nodded. I fully intended to drop the subject, but the last few days had loosened something in me, and the words came pouring out. “Their freshman year, at Ohio State.”
“Oh, not The Ohio State University,” he teased. Michiganders and Ohioans had a major rivalry I often forgot about due to my total ignorance of sports. Dad’s brothers had lovingly referred to him as the Great Defector, and he’d teased me with the same nickname when I chose U of M.
“Yes, the very one,” I played along.
We fell into silence for a few seconds. “So,” Gus prompted, “tell me about it.”
“No,” I said, giving him a suspicious smile. “You don’t want to hear that.”
“I’m legally obligated to,” he said. “How else am I going to learn about love?”
An ache speared through my chest. “Maybe not from them. He cheated on her. A lot. While she had cancer.”
“Damn,” Gus said. “That’s shitty.”
“Says the man who doesn’t believe in dating.”
He ran a hand through his already messy hair, leaving it ravaged. His eyes flickered to me, then back to the road. “Fidelity was never my issue.”
“Fidelity across a two-week span isn’t exactly impressive,” I pointed out.
“I’ll have you know I dated Tessa Armstrong for a month,” he said.
“Monogamously? Because I seem to remember a sordid night in a frat house that would suggest otherwise.”
Surprise splashed across his face. “I’d broken up with her when that happened.”
“I saw you with her that morning,” I said. It probably should have been embarrassing to admit I remembered all this, but Gus didn’t seem to notice that. In fact, he just seemed a little insulted by the observation.
He mussed his hair again and said irritably, “I broke up with her at the party.”
“She wasn’t at the party,” I said.
“No. But since it wasn’t the seventeenth century, I had a phone.”
“You called from a party and dumped your girlfriend?” I cried. “Why would you do that?”
He looked my way, eyes narrowed. “Why do you think, January?”
I was grateful for the dark. My face was suddenly on fire. My stomach felt like molten lava was pouring down it. Was I misunderstanding? Should I ask? Did it matter? That was almost a decade ago, and even if things had gone differently that night, it wouldn’t have amounted to anything in the long run.
Still, I was burning up.
“Well, shit,” I said. I couldn’t get anything else out.
He laughed. “Anyway, your parents,” he said. “It couldn’t have been all bad.”
I cleared my throat. It could not have sounded any less natural. I might as well have just screamed I DON’T WANT TO TALK ABOUT MY SAD PARENTS WHILE I’M THINKING FIERY THOUGHTS ABOUT YOU and gotten it over with.
“It wasn’t,” I said, focusing on the road. “I don’t think.”
“And the night they met?” he pressed.
Again, the words came gushing out of me, like I’d needed to say them all year—or maybe they were just a welcome diversion from the other conversation we’d been having. “They went to this carnival at a local Catholic church,” I said. “Not together. Like, they went separately to the same carnival. And then they ended up standing in line next to each other for that Esmeralda thing. You know, the animatronic psychic-in-a-box?”