He’s nine years old.
He’s too scared to go on the Round Up, but he doesn’t want people to think he’s a chicken. It doesn’t help that his little sister is riding it over and over, gleefully standing between two teenagers and waving down to us as she whirls through the blue sky. He doesn’t want anyone to see him crying into my T-shirt.
We wander around the exhibition grounds for a while. He doesn’t want to go on the Crazy Bus, the Merry-Go-Round is “babyish” and he’s tired of the Tilt-a-Whirl and the Spider. His friends are going on the more daring rides — we call them “teenager rides” — and he’s feeling left out.
Mostly, though, he’s mad at his height. He had to stop going on his very favourite thing, a funhouse called Raiders, when a different employee took over line duty and told him he was too tall for it.
But that was a few hours ago, and he perks up when he notices there’s now a different person running Raiders.
I was joking, but he bends his knees and slinks over to the line like a cartoon bank robber tiptoeing between security cameras. He pauses as the employee looks at him and waits to see if he’s going to be turned away, but she motions for him to go ahead.
His little face lights up. He’s grinning as he climbs the rope ladder and walks across the bridge, being careful not to run and get banned from Raiders.
(Hilariously, that is exactly what will happen to his little sister just a few hours from now.)
He cruises down the slow, tall slide at the end, and lands expertly on his feet.
I flash him a thumbs-up as he hops down to the ground. He’s beaming. He heads straight back to the line, slinking lower so he blends in with the six- and seven-year-olds rushing up the ramp.
He goes back again and again until it happens: the employee who’s been guarding Raiders is replaced by the same lady who turned him away.
He notices before rejoining the line, and his shoulders slump. “She’s back,” he sighs. “I really wanted to go on a few more times.”
“I know, babe. I’m sorry.” I put my arm around him. We’re both sweaty and dusty from the August sun, the dirt, the hay from the animals.
He looks back up at Raiders wistfully, and then shuffles off towards the big-kid rides. He’s nine years old — halfway to being an adult — and he’s stuck right in the middle of everything. Too big for some things, but not ready for what’s next.
He is tall enough for the Zipper, but says he never, ever wants to go on it — not even when he’s a grown-up. He doesn’t want to go on more of the spinny rides with his friends and his sister. He’s feeling a little sick.
He is too tall for Raiders, according to some employees (but not others), but he doesn’t feel too old for it. He loves the rope ladder. He loves bumping his away through the maze of inflatable posts. He loves landing feet-first on the giant crash pad below the slide.
I convince him to try the Go Gator, which was always one of his favourites. He sits in one of the green kiddie cars between a four-year-old and a two-year-old. He is the tallest kid on the ride and barely cracks a smile as he moves slowly around the curving track.
When the Exhibition returns next summer, he’ll be 10 years old and heading into Grade 5. Too tall to go on Raiders at all. He knows that, I think, but we don’t talk about it.
The sun is setting now. We loop around the grounds again and head back to Raiders. (“Just to see!” he tells me.) There’s a different employee there. He pauses, considering. Is she going to be a stickler for the height chart, or is she going to wave him past without taking a good look at him?
He looks up at me and I nod encouragingly, gesturing that he should give it a try.
I smile as he crouch-walks his way up to the front of the line and is waved through.
The last bit of golden sunlight glows on his cheeks as he climbs the funhouse stairs and makes his way across the rope bridge. I tell myself to memorize the way he looks right now, the pure happiness shining on his face.