The Dragon by Sharon Harrigan

My daughter was already in the front car of The Dragon, hugging her seven-year-old doppelganger who, weirdly, shares her name. The Ellas, dressed in pink, bobbed in blonde, the colors of the dogwood blossoms this festival is named for, were blind to the scarred cheeks of the carnies, in whose hands we put their lives.
The other Ella’s dad, John, shot me a look when the carnie pulled out a screwdriver and wrestled with a loose screw on the track. But we didn’t take the girls off the ride. They made a show of lifting their hands above their heads and screaming in delight as they raced downhill.
The girls are too young to think of going downhill as a metaphor. Everything is what it seems: The Dogwood Festival is the start of spring, a sign that the season of barbeques and fireworks has begun.
When my husband took our Ella again the next day, she faced the Dragon alone, then went on the Scrambler with her dad. When it was time for the ride to end, it didn’t. The carnie had walked away—to get his fix of a pickle on a stick (deep fried) or candy apple or something more sinister. Ella said, “Thank you for letting us ride extra,” when he finally returned, glassy-eyed.
Ella hasn’t yet seen Hitchcock’s “Stranger on a Train,” when a young woman is strangled in the Tunnel of Love, and her murderer and husband try to kill each other on the carousel. She hasn’t read the Wells Tower story, “On the Show,” in which a little boy is sodomized in the bathroom and one of the ride operators is decapitated when he tries to retrieve a bag of heroin dropped from an upside-down customer’s pocket. She hasn’t seen “The Meth Project” ads that show the telltale ravaged faces of addicts.
“I’m not afraid of the Inferno,” Ella bragged to her friends the next day. “Or the Hurricane or even Insanity.”
I was never as innocent, or oblivious, as Ella. By the time I was her age, my father had died in a car crash and my five-year-old sister had barely survived. Were rollercoasters more dangerous than cars? I didn’t know anybody who’d died in a rollercoaster. Or even in a war. My uncle went to Vietnam but came back intact. My father got a medical exemption from the draft but then died anyway.
We have been at war all of Ella’s life: Operation Iraqi Freedom started when she was in utero, the nebulous War on Terror even before. Not to mention Odyssey Dawn, the war in Afghanistan. Yesterday, U.S. Special Forces killed Osama bin Laden. We had to explain to Ella that he was the mastermind of the World Trade Center bombings ten years ago.
My teenage son was not as naive as Ella at her age, because he saw the ashes and smoke from the bombings stretch across the river to his school in Brooklyn. He remembers his kindergarten teacher crying, then abruptly retiring after she found out her daughter died in the Towers.
I know people who left the city after the bombings. My sister takes refuge on the side of a mountain in Colorado, where the only predators she and her kids are likely to meet are mountain lions. Is the world a safer place now that Bin Laden, that Dragon, is dead? Does it feel safer?
We all have our Dragons. My neighbor Annie doesn’t know anyone who’s been kidnapped on the walk to school, but she fears it anyway and sometimes even drives the two blocks in her minivan, a tank making its way through the landmines of childhood.
A few days ago Annie brought her seven-year-old son Drew over and asked if he could walk with us to school. I told her Ella already left after spotting one of her classmates and his dad out our window. We often let her walk by herself even, a practice I don’t disclose to other parents right away. I don’t want them to think I’m reckless and hesitate to let their children have playdates at our house.
“Maybe Drew can catch up with them,” I told Annie.
“Please,” Drew begged. She looked down the block. They had already turned the corner.
“I don’t know,” she said, her shoulders lifting and head shaking.
“I’ll hurry,” Drew said, and took off running. Annie watched him until he disappeared. “I’m late already,” she said, “but I’ve a mind to call the school and make sure he got there.”
“They’ll call you if he’s absent,” I said. “Well, that was just heartbreaking,” she said. “What kind of mother am I?”
A typical kind. In this generation of hand holding and carpooling and homework helping. A generation of parents who have forgotten how much freedom we had when we were kids.
Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts With Worry, has started a movement to get kids outside by themselves. She has gained legions of fans and detractors. The New York Post declared her “the world’s worst mom.” Her “Take Our Kids to the Park and Leave Them There Day” encourages children ages seven and up to learn to play without adult interference. She explains why this is safe:
There is a 1 in 1.5 million chance that your kid would be abducted and killed by a stranger. . . If you don't want to have your child in any kind of danger, you really can't do anything. You certainly couldn't drive them in a car, because that's the No. 1 way kids die.
But we love our cars. How else could we ferry our kids to ballet-karate-theater-gymnastics-piano-swimming and back? Ella has only three afterschool activities a week, but many of her friends have six or more. Children are too overscheduled to go to the park, even if their parents weren’t afraid to send them.
There’s an exception to every rule. In my family, his name is Dan.
Dan, my husband’s brother-in-law, likes to say outrageous things, especially late at night, a glass of whisky in hand. When my son was only ten, he chided me: “You haven’t taught him to drive yet? What if you had an emergency and you needed someone to take you to the hospital?”
Dan explained his decision to have a third child: “What if something happened to one of them? We need a spare.” They leave their doors unlocked, and their dog, cats, and children are often found wandering down the street or in other people’s yards, even though they live in Oakland, not Mayberry. His wife is a public defender for juveniles. Maybe she sees so many children at her job in real danger, her own children’s world seems relatively safe.
The carnival has moved to another town. The Dogwood Festival is over, and the pink and white petals of our dogwood trees are washed up on our driveway like trash. I wasn’t worried that one of the carnies would hurt Ella. (In the Wells Tower story, “On the Show,” the child molester turns out to be not one of the down-on-his-luck ride operators but a wealthy pillar of the community who is acting as a livestock judge.) I didn’t think she would get hurt by a faulty ride or inattentive operator. (In the story, the person who is decapitated by the Zipper is not a child, but an intoxicated adult.)
The damage that hit me in the gut was the damage already done, to the carnies themselves. What had happened to bring them to this state, traveling town to town, probably sleeping in trucks, getting paid peanuts?
Ella is innocent of all this, too. She is carefree. At least for a little while, until she gets hurt or disillusioned and everything goes downhill. Though maybe by then she’ll know enough to not let go. She’ll squeeze her hands on The Dragon’s reins and, like Eragon, the dragon rider in one of her favorite books, she’ll fly.
Sharon Harrigan's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Pearl, Slice, The Rumpus, Mid American Review, Prime Number, Apercu Quarterly, and Rain Taxi and she is a contributing writer and columnist for Albemarle Family magazine. She has a B.A. in English from Columbia University and is an MFA candidate at Pacific University. Two marriages, two kids, unlimited stories.