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What I Found Speeding Downhill on a Rollercoaster

—Alyssa Wong

What I Found Speeding Downhill on a Rollercoaster

          Hillsborough was supposed to be a new beginning, but it looked like something dying. The

fog shadowed the dry brush hills through to late morning, and the tall scraggly redwoods concealed

the sun before it could set. Nothing was as green as it should be; the grass grew wild, yellow, and

pungent. Our backyard was nothing but arid stone, cracked earth, some weeds, and a couple of

snakes hiding from the unforgiving sun. I missed the magnolias.

          It had taken days for me to find her. When she saw me coming, she grabbed her friend’s hand and ran. For the first time in months, I chased after her, like I used to before I realized she had no intention of staying. “I need to tell you something!” I shouted, my voice high and small.

          And she’d never stopped before, but this time something made her slow down. Amy—who always lied, but I’d always let her, who’d also lied when she said I was her best friend, but I’d wanted

to believe her—pushed her tangle of brown hair out of her face and turned to face me.

          I’d always wanted freckles like hers. I’d always wanted her flippant voice. I’d always wished that I could let go of the person I’d called my best friend for years as easily as she did me. “I’m leaving,” I said, breathless, “Moving, I mean. This summer.”

          “Okay,” Amy said. Her nose crinkled petulantly, waiting for me to get to the point.

          “I won’t see you again,” I said, and wished desperately for her to see the words I wouldn’t say aloud. Just one friend. Just one friend, and the bullies will leave me alone. You only need to put up with me for two more months.

          It’d been a long seven months without her.

          Amy’s mouth twisted, then set. Maybe I imagined it, or maybe it was the only truth she’d ever told me. “Good.”

          It was okay to give up some things, though, I’d decided. No Amy. No magnolias. Standing alone on the top of this sunny, bald hill, listening to the hissing garden snakes, I felt, for once, that the emptiness within me had cracked open its steel gates. There was nothing here yet, nothing to fill what I’d let go of, but I could make something of myself here.

          The house that was now supposed to be my home was one of the ugliest I’d ever seen. It had dark wooden shingles on its walls and the same shingles on the roof, so the whole squat house was shadowed by its own peeling brown squares. Inside, the walls were paneled in worn-out wood, and the shadows stretched long and bleak under the dim, yellowed lights. The furniture was shoved against the walls and keepsakes overflowed from the towers of cardboard moving boxes. Our kitchen table was a plastic folding table that barricaded the kitchen door. At dinner, I’d eat slowly, staring out into the purple twilight and imagining a brighter world—where fairies and dragons and pirate ships fly through the skies!—and then, with a jolt, I’d hear my mom’s voice telling me that I’d been sitting at the dinner table for forty minutes, and that the rice had gotten cold. She’d microwave it again for me as everyone else got up and left, and I’d be the last at the table, slowly working my way through dinner.

          My bedroom used to be an office that at first smelled faintly of cigarettes. Scratched into the doorframe of the connecting bathroom were two girls’ names. I don’t remember what they were, only that I’d reached out and pressed my pink fingertips into them. I didn’t have my lava lamp anymore—it was still packed in one of the boxes—so to compensate for the darkness, Mom bought some glow-in-the-dark stars, but they didn’t stick to the popcorn ceilings too well, and I was always waiting for them to fall. When everyone else had already fallen asleep in their respective rooms, I’d lie in bed and watch the window as loud cars passed, shining blinding headlights through the window, feeling the coldness of the empty space around me seep in through my fingertips.

          A few weeks after we moved in, the neighbor three houses down from us passed by with a small, white dog on a leash. She had pink cheeks that stretched widely when she smiled—she was always smiling—and straw-blonde hair under a sunhat. A pouch belted around her waist was full of dog treats, although her dog was well-behaved and seemingly uninterested in treats. She greeted us and introduced herself as Mrs. Foster, and as it turned out, she was to be my second grade teacher when school began in August. I exchanged some pleasantries. Then, as I wandered back inside, I heard my mom asking her to make sure I made friends, and Mrs. Foster promising that she would.

           Summer ended, which meant I couldn’t stay curled up in a bed with my books anymore. I put away my fairies and adventurers, and my mom sent me to school with new notebooks, No. 2 pencils, and a lunch box packed with her best fried rice. School here was easier. Mrs. Foster was nice, and a better teacher than any I’d had previously. I was surprised to find that, although I’d always been on the smaller side, the students here were all significantly taller than me. Thankfully, the school was far too small for students to get away with bullying, so I was safe.

          With Amy, somewhere along the way, I’d forgotten what friendship meant. I was happy with her. I didn’t mind her lies because I could always see through them anyway. It was a little game we played. But Amy never forgot. So when first grade came around, Amy had a new best friend. She hadn’t bothered to say goodbye, and she had no intentions of speaking to me again.

          Friendship meant protection from bullies. It meant the freedom to run in places the teachers don’t supervise and not having to give fifth graders a wide berth. It never meant happiness at all. For the rest of the year, I didn’t go to the bathrooms anymore because without her, I never knew when

others might run in, shut off the lights, and lock me in the dark.

          Sitting at lunch with my fried rice, I looked around at the other students, who were all too busy with their friends to notice me, and came to a realization: I didn’t need any more Amys. No more bullies. No more friends. Within twenty minutes, the cafeteria cleared out as students ran to play outside together. I lingered, chewing each bite of fried rice fully before swallowing. When the bell rang, I dumped the rest of my home-cooked lunch in the trash—Mom would be angry if she knew I hadn’t finished a single lunch in months—and then walked back to class alone.

          Mrs. Foster tried her best, of course. Every week, she introduced me to someone new, and they would try their best to be nice and friendly to me. But as tempting as it was to talk to someone, as delighted as I could possibly be when someone seemed like the sort of person I could befriend, I shut each one down. I didn’t need a friend, and I didn’t need Mrs. Foster’s pity. The closest any of them got was Lena.

          I’d been trying to teach myself the monkey bars after school because I always saw other kids swinging around during recess and wanted to be able to keep up with them. After slipping off for the umpteenth time, Lena swung herself up and tangled her legs in the bars, hanging upside-down and smiling at me. She introduced herself, we shook hands, and she asked what I was doing. When I told her I was learning the monkey bars, she unhooked herself from them and dropped down. “I’ll show you how,” she declared. I spent nearly two weeks trailing behind her and her friends, trying my best to fit in amongst them. But I was often tripping over myself to keep up, and I never fit into their conversations, so one day, when I found the three of them walking hip to hip and myself falling behind, I stopped and watched as the three of them continued to walk on, giggling obliviously.

          Amy and I had been best friends since preschool, when she found me playing alone in the sand and asked if I wanted to play with her. I’d been alone in a little wooden structure in the sand by the edge of the playground.

          I’d hesitated before agreeing, but her offer wasn’t one I could possibly turn down. From then on, it had been the two of us against the world. Together, we could run free across the playground. We were stronger than dragons.

          It was getting colder, and the pollard trees had shed their leaves, leaving only a knobbly lump at the top of the trunk. There was a row of them by the school gardens, where sunlight was plenty, so I often hung around there, where it was warmer and I was out of the way. The November sky was bright cerulean with puffy white clouds. Back at my old school, a sky like that would mean hot asphalt and seagulls galore. Here, a persistent chill hung over the school grounds, sharpening the scent of the redwoods and mowed grass. Fingers curled around the metal grid between me and the garden beds, I watched a few solitary bees hover from blossom to blossom.

          Footsteps drew my attention away from the bees, and I turned to find Mrs. Foster standing behind me. We exchanged pleasantries. “Have you met Kelsey yet?” Mrs. Foster asked. By now, I’d met nearly every single girl in Mrs. Foster’s class, and a few more. But not Kelsey. I shook my head. Mrs. Foster turned, and pointed at a girl playing by the edge of the playground. “That’s her. I think you two will get along—you have a lot in common.”

          I knew the drill by now. I wandered up to Kelsey and awkwardly tried to catch her attention. “Hey...?”

          She spun around, and standing before me was a girl with the largest smile I’d ever seen. When she spoke, she laughed so much it was hard to comprehend her words. “Hi! I’m Kelsey. What’s your name?”

          Completely caught off guard, I responded stiffly, “Alison.”

          She grabbed my hand, and I tried not to flinch away from her overexuberance. “Wanna play a game? We can pretend we’re fairies.”

          I held in a smile. “I like playing pretend,” I admitted.

          She pulled me towards the blue and green play structure. I stumbled to follow, but I was already laughing. I couldn’t help it.

          Before Amy, I used to watch people. There was Amy’s group, which traveled in formation as they sauntered across the grass. There were the boys, who kicked balls around and shouted a lot. There was one boy who didn’t play with the others. He was bigger than the other boys and got tired easily, so instead, he did puzzles in the sand. I tried to play with him for a while, but neither of us talked much, and I gave up. I don’t remember his name.

          I also used to watch the teachers. One of them was a great whistler, and I would linger near where she watched over the kids and watch the way her lips pursed when she whistled a tune. It took a few weeks, but eventually I blew through my lips and found a high, warbling note.

          The first time Kelsey got sick, I trekked through the playground alone. It was cold, so I bundled up and kept my chin tucked into the collar of my jacket. I circled around one play structure, then the other. I watched the other kids play, laughing and shrieking and chasing each other around, but everything was so quiet. I imagined what Kelsey and I would do, if she was here. We’re sisters, and it’s our job to prepare a feast for the whole village. My name’s Lucy. What’s yours?


          I don’t like the name Amy. It doesn’t suit you.

          Hmm... I could be Lani?

          Lucy and Lani. I like that.

          We would run through the school in search of twigs or interesting leaves that could be pretend ingredients. We’d ignore the strange looks other kids gave us when we stirred a giant pot in the air. We’d tell each other that nothing could ever turn us away from each other, that we would protect each other and care for one another. She’d say I was her best friend, and I wouldn’t say it back, but the words would thrum in the back of my mind—best friend, best friend.

          But she wasn’t there, and on that one day alone, I rubbed my fingers over twigs, but didn’t collect them. I imagined a hot, bubbling broth, but didn’t stir it. Look what you’ve become, I scolded

myself. Once, you were fine alone. Now you’ve let someone else in, just so they can leave you again. It’s not her fault. But still. Eventually, I found a little vent just outside the classroom door from which hot air would periodically be expelled, and I pulled my knees in and waited on that vent until the school day ended.

          Kelsey was back the next day, and I smiled and gave her a hug. We played pretend. I reminded myself that I didn’t need her. This was just for fun. Next time she was gone, I’d be just fine. She wasn’t my best friend because that would be a lie.

          The house I was slowly growing accustomed to was isolated from everything else. There was only one road to get there, and it sailed the hills up and down, up and down, like a stormy sea. It made me nauseous the first time. But I got used to it quickly, as those four minutes of up and down were the only way out of the house.

          Before, I used to go biking with my dad. The supermarket, the library, the public swimming pools, school, friends’ houses—everything was well within reach. And if we went just a little further, we could get ice cream. Just a little further, and there was a trail over the top of a cliff by the bay where I’d crane my neck around and watch kite surfers crash through the waves far below, shooting out foamy white crowns in their wake. Dad would play music on his phone. I was a terrible singer, but he always encouraged me to sing because when I did, I was loud and happy. In our city, there were many bridges over canals. He loved to go racing down them, letting gravity accelerate us. He’d even throw his hands in the air and whoop. I would scream, half laughing at him, half terrified of the speeds at which we hurtled down on the narrow sidewalk. We were faster than the cars.

          If we hadn’t left, I’d’ve loved biking. The wind biting my cheeks, the ripple of my clothes against my skin. Feeling like I could go anywhere. Believing that when it was just me and the bike and the concrete whizzing below my wheels, I could be so happy. I could fly.

          Kelsey came to my house one day after school. She laughed the entire car ride over, exclaiming that the hills were like a rollercoaster. She loved when the car picked up speed going down the hill, and then slowed to climb back up the next. Like a rollercoaster, I repeated to myself. Those were the words I’d think later when I learned to drive, and again when I described my home. Truly, the stretch of asphalt folded like a ribbon, unwinding itself over the warm green hills. It was pretty fun, after all.

          I showed her the backyard. It wasn’t such a bald hill anymore; the rain had wet the cracked earth, and now it was a forest of spiky weeds as tall as we were. Some of them had purple flowers. Others bled white glue-like sap when cut. Strewn throughout were orange flags, bits of wood, and metal rods—Mom was planning to remodel. We pretended we were treasure hunters in the rainforest, swinging metal rods like machetes and knocking down the weeds. We borrowed gardening gloves from Mom and tore weeds out by the roots, tossing our fallen foes into a great pile to be composted. Below the weeds, we found shiny little pebbles—marble-like, in shades of milky white, vermillion, and coral. We said they were fallen stars, and emptied a jar of candy to keep them in. When we were tired, we drew up stools and sat beneath the Chinese pistachio trees, sipping chamomile tea through straws.

          After Kelsey left, Mom turned to me. “It’s good to see you and Kelsey are so close,” she said neutrally. “She’s your best friend, isn’t she?”

          I nodded. I sat on the edge of my chair, two empty chamomile teas beside me, back hunched and ankles twisted around each other. I swung my legs aimlessly as I snuck a glance at the stars we’d dug out of the backyard. “Yeah. She’s my best friend.”

          Just one, I’d thought just a year before. Just one friend, and the bullies will leave you alone.

          Well, I had one now. She laughed a lot and said everything in exclamation marks. Maybe she wouldn’t have befriended me if Mrs. Foster hadn’t set it up. I loved spending time with her—maybe

I needed to spend time with her, and that made me scared—but she was Kelsey. I had just one friend,

but she was Kelsey.


ALYSSA WONG is a writer and artist from California. She is an alum of the Iowa Young Writers Studio and Smith Creative Writing Pre-college, and an Editor-in-Chief at Mollusk Lit and her school literary magazine, Crystal Visions. Her writing and art has been published or sold by Apprentice Writer, The Greyhound Journal, HaluHalo, Scholastic Art & Writing, Bluefire, The Zoetic Tapestry Project, and more. See more at or on Instagram at @dragonfruitworlds.

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