As Natalie scoured through her old boxes, she sought to retrieve a specific item that she remembered keeping there. The task brought her to the attic of her house, where a solitary beam of daylight shone from a tiny light on the ceiling. Dust particles swirled around the room, causing her nose to tickle and sneeze intermittently. Nevertheless, she remained resolute in her search.
Natalie extracted various objects from the boxes, such as papers, old gadgets, and books, among many others. Some of these items had aged over time, turning beige and emanating a stale odor. Although the surroundings were far from pleasant, Natalie refused to give up until she had found what she was looking for.
Finally, after rummaging through the last few boxes in the attic, she found it nestled at the bottom of one of them. It was an old polaroid that she hoped had remained in good condition despite its poor storage. Fortunately, the image was still intact, prompting a smile to appear on Natalie’s face. On the back of the polaroid was written “Cedar Point, Summer 2006.”
A flood of memories rushed into her mind, much like a cherished movie that she could never forget, even though it had been years since she had last thought about it.
During her childhood, Cedar Point, an amusement park located in Ohio, was one of her favorite places to visit. At the age of ten, she could recall the clanging of the metal rides, the sweet fragrance of cotton candy wafting through the air, and the boisterous shrieks of elated children running amok.
For her, it was a time of sheer perfection, and she felt immensely grateful for it. Her grandmother had saved up a little bit of money here and there to take her there every day throughout that summer. However, everything changed when someone else discovered her story.
That was why she scoured through the attic in search of that polaroid – to relive those moments and remember the man who had impacted her life so much.
Sixteen years ago…
“Grandma, look!” ten-year-old Natalie exclaimed as they arrived at the park for the first time. Children were flitting around, munching on caramel popcorn and blowing bubbles, and the little girl’s eyes widened in delight at the sight. She yearned to do all those things, but she was aware that they didn’t have enough money.
Tugging at her grandmother’s hand, she led her to their intended destination: the carousel. For some reason, Natalie was fixated on it. She adored horses, and riding on that attraction had been her long-time dream. Her grandmother, Gina, had promised they would go that summer, and Natalie was ecstatic that they had finally made it.
Since they lived in close proximity to the park, Natalie often heard the screams of the people on the roller coaster, spotted the exhausted children with their parents as they exited the park, and sometimes gazed longingly at the illuminated lights through her window at night. Although she craved all the rides, she had once seen a magazine with a photo of the classic carousel at the park, featuring stunning white horses adorned with plastic flowers, and she was entranced by it.
As they arrived at the ride, Natalie’s eyes welled up with emotion. It was everything she had ever imagined, straight out of a movie. Turning to her grandmother, she clutched her hand tightly and exclaimed, “Can you believe it, Grandma?”
Her grandmother beamed at her and leaned down. “Yes, I can. Now go ahead, I’ll give the ticket to the ride operator.”
Natalie let go of her grandmother’s hand and rushed to the ride, pausing to pick which horse she wanted to ride. They were all gorgeous, each in different colors with unique expressions on their plastic faces. For the ten-year-old, it felt like a monumental decision.
“Come on, Naty! The ride is about to start!” her grandmother called out, giggling at her granddaughter’s indecisiveness.
Finally, Natalie chose the horse with pink hair and a blue horse-riding seat. She would never forget that moment, nor the expression on her grandmother’s face as she waved at her every time the ride passed by.
It was the most exceptional moment of her life so far, the kind of moment that seems to pause time and stay with you forever. For a few fleeting moments, Natalie forgot that her family was struggling. She was just one of the kids who could enjoy this lavish place without any worries.
Regrettably, the carousel ride was over too soon, and Natalie reluctantly dismounted from the horse, feeling a mix of joy and sadness. Her grandmother was waiting for her and took her hand.
“How was it, Naty?” she asked, looking at her granddaughter with a gentle smile.
“It was amazing, but I wish I could ride it again,” Natalie replied, gazing at her grandmother with hopeful eyes. Gina let out a deep sigh.
“I’m sorry, my dear. We can only afford one ride a day for now. But I promise we’ll come back every day until the end of the summer, and you can have another turn. That way, you can cherish the experience for a little longer. Does that sound good?” she proposed, and Natalie’s face lit up with joy.
“Really? Yay!” she exclaimed, jumping up and down while holding her grandmother’s hand.
True to her word, Gina kept her promise. They visited the park every day, and somehow, it never lost its magic. Natalie only rode the carousel, and soon she even learned the name of the ride operator, Jacob Salas, who always wore a red hat as part of his park uniform. Although he was in his twenties, he dressed like he was from a bygone era.
“Hey Natalie, why don’t you ride again while you wait for your grandmother?” Mr. Salas approached Natalie as her grandmother used the bathroom.
“Oh, I’m sorry, sir. We only have enough money for one ticket a day. My father died years ago, and my grandmother doesn’t work anymore, so my mother is the only person earning money for us. It’s not enough to spend on rides,” Natalie explained to Mr. Salas.
But Mr. Salas leaned in and looked into Natalie’s eyes. “You know what? I’ll buy you tickets for this ride as long as you want. How does that sound?” he grinned.
“Really?” Natalie widened her eyes in shock.
“Really!” Mr. Salas nodded and urged her to get on the ride again.
Natalie was swirling around in the carousel when her grandmother, Gina, returned and asked Mr. Salas about this. “Don’t worry about it, ma’am. She can ride for as long as she wants today and from here on out. It’s on me.”
“Why would you do that? It’s too much money,” Gina asked, holding her fingers to her chin in concern.
“It’s not. I don’t have that many expenses, and besides… no one in this park is having as much fun as that girl,” Mr. Salas explained.
Natalie was able to ride the carousel as much as she could that summer, thanks to Jacob’s kind gesture. He kept his promise and made sure Natalie had a great time at the amusement park. With the money she saved from tickets, Gina would sometimes buy them caramel popcorn or sodas, which they always shared with Jacob to repay him for his generosity.
As the summer progressed, Natalie and Jacob became close friends. They shared stories about their lives, and Jacob would often give her tips on how to win the games at the park. One day, they even took a polaroid picture together, where Natalie was wearing Jacob’s red hat and smiling wonderfully at the camera. It was the sweetest memory Natalie had of her childhood.
However, by the end of the summer, Natalie had grown tired of the carousel and the park. She said goodbye to Jacob one day, thanking him for everything he had done for her. Sadly, it was the last time she saw him. Despite that, Natalie never forgot the kindness Jacob had shown her and the wonderful memories they had created together.
Natalie found herself dreaming of that summer, and she started searching for the polaroid picture that captured one of her sweetest childhood memories. She knew she had taken it with her when she left for college years ago, but it had somehow gotten lost in the shuffle of life.
Life had taken her on a different path. She had earned a scholarship to a university in Philadelphia, where she met her husband, Anthony, who came from a wealthy family. It was daunting not to have to worry about money or anything, as her husband had provided for her and her family, buying them a house in Ohio, so they would never have to pay rent again.
Natalie had been surrounded by amazing and generous people throughout her life who had helped her in many ways. She had worked hard her entire life and thought she had repaid them with her eternal friendship, love, and loyalty. However, there was one person she had not compensated: Mr. Salas.
“Grandma, do you remember Mr. Salas?” she asked Gina after explaining how she found the polaroid of the three of them at the park.
“Oh, you mean that young man who let you ride that carousel? I haven’t thought of him in a long time,” the older woman replied. “I can ask around if you want.”
“Please! I want to know if there’s any way I can pay him back for his generosity to us back then,” Natalie continued.
“Oh, darling. I’m so proud of the woman you’ve become. It’s amazing!” Gina gushed, emotion thick in her voice.
“It’s all because of you and Mom. I hope you know that Grandma,” the younger woman replied, a smile coloring her tone.
“I’ll look for Mr. Salas. But hey, can you send me a copy of that polaroid? I can use it in my search,” the older woman suggested.
“That’s a great idea!” Natalie said and took a picture of the polaroid with her phone.
A few days later, Gina called her and revealed that Jacob still lived in Ohio. Moreover, someone had even given her his address and phone number.
Natalie wasted no time and called Jacob as soon as possible. After exchanging pleasantries, she delved straight into the conversation.
“Jacob, it’s been ages since we talked. How have you been? What have you been up to?” Natalie asked.
“Things have changed a lot since my days at that park. I almost wish I could return there sometimes,” Jacob replied wistfully.
“I know what you mean. So, tell me, what’s been going on?” Natalie inquired.
Jacob then opened up about his life since they last met. “Well, I got married later that year and had four children with my wife before she decided to abandon us. I’ve been working two jobs to keep us afloat. Two of my kids are teenagers who work after-school gigs to go to Cedar Point every once in a while,” he revealed.
Natalie’s heart went out to him. “I’m sorry to hear that. It must be tough.”
“It has its challenges, but I’m hanging in there,” Jacob replied with a sense of resilience.
Natalie then brought up something that had been on her mind for a long time. “Mr. Salas, when I was a little girl, you gave me the thing I wanted the most: to ride that carousel to my heart’s desire, and I can’t even begin to tell you how much I still value what you did,” she said, her voice breaking with emotion. “If you could have anything right now, what would it be?”
Jacob thought for a moment before replying. “Oh wow. I want so many things for my kids, honestly. But as an amusement park lover, I would take them to Magic Kingdom. But just the trip alone is so expensive, and the park tickets are something else. However, I’m saving for it, so it’ll happen one day, even if my kids are adults by that time,” he revealed honestly, with a tinge of hope in his voice.
Natalie was deeply touched by his words. “You’re such an amazing dad. Your kids are lucky to have you,” she said.
Jacob chuckled. “I try my best.”
As they talked for a few more minutes, Natalie couldn’t help but think of her grandma, who was always optimistic despite their financial struggles. “He’s like Grandma. She was always cheerful and tried to downplay how much we were struggling,” she thought to herself.
Finally, they said their goodbyes, promising to keep in touch.
Natalie couldn’t contain her excitement as she hung up the phone with Mr. Salas. She knew exactly what she had to do. She immediately called her grandmother and explained the situation to her. They both agreed that something had to be done to repay Mr. Salas for the kindness he had shown Natalie all those years ago. Her grandmother promised to help coordinate with Mr. Salas’s son to get all the personal information needed to purchase plane tickets.
A week later, Natalie called Mr. Salas again. “Check your email, sir,” she told him, her voice filled with anticipation.
A few minutes went by, and then Jacob exclaimed, “No! No! Young lady, I can’t take this. It’s too much!”
“It’s not enough compared to what that summer meant to me. You bought tickets for me once, this is how I’m repaying you. Enjoy it. Do it for your kids because the memories of those carefree rides last a lifetime, and believe me, there’s nothing like it,” Natalie insisted, tears of joy streaming down her face as she heard Mr. Salas crying in the background.
She then heard cheers and knew he had told his kids, who all came to the phone at some point. “Thank you! Thank you!” they yelled.
Natalie had bought them all plane tickets to Orlando, Florida, with reservations at a Disney Resort and access to Magic Kingdom, Epcot Center, and Animal Kingdom. As she heard them cheering on the phone, she felt immense pride in herself.
“Yes, her husband was rich, but she bought all that with her money, and she had made an entire family happy in the process. Her efforts and luck led to this beautiful moment in time.”
“Make sure to take pictures and send them to me,” Natalie commanded jokingly.
“Young lady, you are… I have no words. I will send many pictures. Thank you!” Mr. Salas stated gratefully, and they hung up.
Natalie put the phone down on her coffee table and stared at nothing in particular in her living room. She was overwhelmed with emotion as she thought deeply. She realized that she had been wrong years ago. Riding the carousel was not the best moment of her life. This was.