William Painton stood near the hoopla stall, scratching a circle in the dirt with the toe of his shoe. What if he could dig down in the dirt quickly, he thought, so quickly that he could jump in the hole he’d dug, cover himself with dirt and hide … and no one would know where he was … and Benny would go away and leave him alone.
“What d’you say, Painton? Hey! I’m talkin’ to you!”
William continued to draw the circle. Okay, the idea of the hole was far-fetched. But maybe Benny would get bored if he just ignored him. Yes, that was a good plan. Keep scratching the circle.
Benny strode over and punched William on the arm. The younger boy yelped.
“Did you hear what I said, Painton?”
“Sorry, Benny. What?”
“You little worm. I said you was a coward.”
“I … I’m not.”
“What d’you reckon, boys?”
Behind Benny, the three Carter brothers took a step forward as one.
“Yeah, I reckon he’s a coward,” said Petey Carter, jabbing his finger at William. His two brothers nodded.
“See?” said Benny. “We all think you’re a wimp. A wuss.”
There was nothing William could say to that, so he said nothing.
Benny hit William on the arm again. He yelped again.
“I can’t go on it, Benny.” William’s mind raced until it caught up with an idea. “The … the doctor says—”
“Doctor, schmoctor! Painton, if you don’t go on it, you know what’s gonna happen to you, don’t you?”
He went to hit William yet again but stopped his fist an inch from William’s arm.
“I haven’t got any money, though,” William bleated.
From somewhere close by there was an almighty SWOOOSH and screams. William’s lower lip started quivering.
“Not a problem. We’ve got the money, ain’t we boys?”
Benny took off his baseball cap and held it out to the Carter brothers. They hadn’t signed up for donating their pocket money and glared daggers at William as they dropped their coins into the cap.
Benny counted the coins, pulled one out of his own pocket and grabbed William by the sleeve.
“Come on. DOOM time!”
He put on a diabolical laugh that the Carters copied as they hurried across the fairground, pushing William in front of them.
There was a queue at the ticket booth, and while they waited, four of the group looked up at the loops and sickeningly steep curves and drops of DOOM. Involuntarily, Benny and the Carters gulped at the sight. William was suddenly finding his shoes fascinating.
“Someone’ll have to go with him, make sure he actually gets on and stays on before it reaches the first bend,” said Ned Carter.
“You been on it before, Benny?” asked Titch, the youngest of the brothers.
“Me? I … yeah, loads o’ times.” Benny laughed, but without the confidence of before.
“So, you go, then,” suggested Petey. “We’ve only got enough for two tickets.”
“Suits me,” said Benny, forcing a grin now.
The queue had been moving briskly and it was their turn. Benny bought the tickets, shoving William through the gate, under the sign that read “DOOM—YE MAY NEVER RETURN!” The Carters moved a little distance away, their faces a picture of relief that they weren’t going themselves.
The only car still empty was the one at the very front of the train. The other people had filled up the cars from the back; they weren’t stupid. Benny pushed William in and plonked himself down next to him. The attendant jogged along the train, making sure everyone was settled and strapped in. He leaned over and locked the safety bar across Benny and William’s chests.
Benny glanced sideways at William, hoping to find that he was a quivering wreck, but he merely looked uneasy, his eyes darting this way and that, as if searching for an escape route.
“PREPARE TO MEET THY DOOM,” a deep voice blared from the loudspeaker directly above them.
The train jerked suddenly and started trundling along the track, very slowly.
“The calm before the storm,” someone behind them murmured.
They picked up speed and drifted around the first curve, Benny and William leaning into it. Benny’s grin from earlier was more like a grimace now.
“This is great!” he shouted, but with a wavering in his voice. “What d’you reckon, Painton?”
William was staring in front, his jaw clenched. Benny saw it and panicked inside.
William was thinking, concentrating on a moment—a moment that hadn’t seemed so significant until now.
His father had been in the army and in Afghanistan. Before his last tour of duty, he took William to one side.
“Make me proud one day, son,” he said, giving William a long hug before getting on the bus taking him to the barracks. It was the last time William would see his father.
William filled his head with the moment now, feeling the warmth of the hug again.
The cars sped round a sharp curve with an almighty SWOOOSH. Benny gripped the safety bar, his knuckles turning white. By his side, William had unclenched his jaw and was sitting calmly with his hands on his lap.
The train slowed, climbed, steeply, more steeply still. Some of the people started screaming; they knew what was coming.
Slower, slower, slower, reaching the peak, a moment of suspension, then … then … then they were falling, falling from the sky, hearts in mouths, the bottom of the dip rushing towards them, and the screams, some of excitement, most of fear, from the people behind them, and from Benny, his face distorted with horror, and then vomit, the toffee apple from earlier, and William in another place entirely, a faint smile playing on his lips, and then the bottom of the dip, reached, and relief, until the next curve, and then the loop, getting nearer, nearer …
Benny stumbled out through the gate. The Carters were waiting.
“How’d it go, Benny?” Ned piped up.
“Yeah, great! Fantastic!” Benny’s ashen face belied his enthusiasm.
“Where’s Painton?” asked Petey.
They all turned towards the gate and there was William, hands in pockets, taking his own sweet time.
“See you on Monday then, fellas!” he smiled, strolling past the group and away across the fairground, whistling a jaunty tune as he went.