“In two miles take exit 19 for Valley Park Drive South.” Siri chirped from my sister’s phone.
“Charlotte, turn that off. I know where I’m going.”
“You sure about that? I mean…it has been a couple decades, Mark.”
“Please, like I could ever forget where Adventure Valley is. Come on, we spent every summer of-“
“There it is!” I swerved briefly into the oncoming lane as Charlotte thrust her arm in front of my face to point excitedly out the window. “There’s Adventure Valley! Oh my God, what ride is that? That coaster, it was called ‘Steel’ something, right? No, no, wait, that’s Mayhem Mountain, isn’t it?”
I gently pushed my sister’s arm out of my face and back over to her seat. I couldn’t fault her for her excitement while I was trying so hard to control my own giddiness. It felt like we were kids again, yelling and bouncing in the back seat of my parent’s car as the first shining rails and wooden planks of the park’s roller coasters came into view above the treetops.
“That’s the Steel Viper.” I told her. “Mayhem Mountain’s on the other end of the park. And that wooden coaster over there is the Excalibur.”
“Oh yeah! I remember those! I was always too much of a wus to ride the viper but I rode the shit out of the Excalibur.”
“Well, Charlotte, you’re an adult, now. I think it’s time to take on the Viper.”
“As long as the contractors have tested it and given it the okay, I’m in.”
That was really the question, wasn’t it? We didn’t know which rides had been inspected and cleared and which ones hadn’t. I sent up a silent prayer that Mayhem Mountain was counted among the rides that had. I’d left Brandon several voicemails asking about it since he was the one in charge of everything. But with how fast things had been moving since we’d bought the park, I couldn’t fault him for being a busy man.
If you’d told 12 year old me that my crazy, hyper, wild-eyed friend Brandon Decker would end up graduating cum laude from Northwestern business school I would have laughed in your face. Brandon? No way. Tyler, maybe, but never Brandon. In fact, half the reason I think he choose a business designation was because of Adventure Valley. When the park had closed in 1989 Brandon had gathered us all together in his basement and, with a gravitas and solemnness I’ve never seen in him before or since, asked us to make the pact.
At the time the promise had been the most serious vow that five 12 year olds could ever make. High off of an entire summer of Adventure Valley fun, we agreed, with all the ceremony of a meeting of parliament, that we would one day come together and buy Adventure Valley Amusement Park.
Of course, back then we’d planned to just buy it and ride the roller coasters into the ground. We decided which friends from school we would let in and which enemies would be barred from the gates. It had always been our park, and it was only right that we should have it.
It had taken twenty years but we eventually did fulfill our promise. With a hell of a lot of pushing from Brandon (and a sizeable offer of collateral from Tyler) the bank had agreed to give us the multi million dollar loan to buy, repair, refurbish and reopen the park. The size of the loan that the six of us were responsible for gave me nightmares for several weeks. How would this place ever turn a profit? It had been closed decades ago after operating in the red for several years. The county had experienced a high number of runaways and missing persons in the area in the last years of the 1980s. The entire region was on edge as the cases mounted and people in the area became depressed and suspicious of each other. It had absolutely killed park attendance.
But seeing the first cresting waves of roller coasters rails through the trees made me all but forget about my financial worries. This was Adventure Valley for Christ’s sake. If we opened the gates, people would come.
“There! There, there, there – that’s our exit!” Charlotte squeaked.
I pulled off the interstate and took a left under the bridge. Less than a mile later we came upon the acres of the park’s parking lots to our right. We turned in and drove all the way up to the front near the gates where several other cars were parked – a Lexus, a Mini Cooper, an old Chevelle and a Honda Civic – another rental car like ours.
“Looks like we’re the last ones here,” Charlotte said.
She was right. As we pulled up next to the Lexus I noticed a group of people standing next to the ticket booth, waving to us excitedly.
“Oh my God, is that Tyler? Jesus, he’s lost some weight, he’s so skinny now! And Brandon’s losing his hair. Holy shit, is that Koji? Koji got hot!”
“Calm down, Paris Hilton, these guys are my friends. They’re off limits to you, same rules as when we were teenagers. Besides half of them are married.”
I raised an eyebrow at Charlotte and shook my head in amused bewilderment. My little sister never had outgrown her boy craziness.
“Wait, who’s that?” Charlotte asked as we got out of the car.
“What? That’s Scott! You know Scott.”
“Not Scott, Scott looks exactly the same. The girl next to Scott.”
“Oh.” I had put this off so long that I’d actually forgotten to tell my sister at all. “That’s Dani, Scott’s girlfriend.”
“Dani as in Danielle Burcher?”
My sister gave me such a horrified look that you’d think I’d betrayed her to her death. But it was fleeting and quickly replaced by a sly smile.
“Fine by me. I’m sure she’s not the same person she was in high school. We’re all adults now, right? Now come on, let’s go!”
A sigh of relief escaped my chest as I slammed the car door and followed Charlotte over to the entrance. Though I saw most of these guys every year, seeing us all here together, standing at the ticket booths of Adventure Valley, brought me a sort of happiness I hadn’t experienced in many years.
“Mark-fucking-Lantice. I can’t believe it.” Tyler had an edgy, commanding voice that probably made his many employees shudder and scatter. But I knew him like a brother so his bravado just made me laugh.
“Can you believe it?” I asked as I gave him a hug and a slap on the back. “Back at front gates. $15 a day doesn’t seem so ridiculous now.”
“Pfft, $15 a day, my ass.” Brandon said as he shook my hand. “By my math, it looks like we’ll be charging about $65 a day.”
“I’ll pay it!” Charlotte smiled as she gave Koji a hug.
“Are people really going to pay $65 a day?” Koji asked. “Even Disneyland only charges $85 and there you get access to two parks.”
“How could I forget,” Brandon shook his head. “One of our investors works for the mouse. Pity they won’t let you design any artwork for this place.”
“Come on, man, I’m not an artist, I’m an engineer.”
“Don’t you mean imagineer?” Charlotte winked at him.
Koji sighed and shook his head. “Yeah, I fuckin’ do.”
As Brandon and Charlotte teased Koji I made my way over to the side of the ticket booth where Scott and his girlfriend were conversing. I didn’t know why Scott was being so standoffish but I thought it might have something to do with the investment. Scott, the least well off of us six, worked at his dad’s collision shop and hadn’t had a whole lot of money to invest. I thought maybe he was embarrassed about the money but now, watching him lean against the booth with slowly shifting eyes, I realized it wasn’t that at all – Scott was just stoned. Same old Scott.
“What’s up, Burnout? My brother. I haven’t seen you in like 15 years, how about a bro hug?”
Scott smiled and pushed off the wall to come give me a quick hug. “Hey, how’s it going, man? Fuck, look at you. What your diet, man, rabbit food and lettuce? You’re not gonna get any ladies with that skinny body.”
“Your mom doesn’t seem to mind.”
“Hey, Mark. I’m Dani. Do you remember me? Dani Burcher?” Scott’s girlfriend gave me a shy smile and stuck out her hand so we could engage in a stiff handshake.
“Yeah, I think so. You were in my sister’s class, right? Charlotte Lantice?”
Dani had the decency to look embarrassed. “Yeah, but we weren’t really friends.”
That’s putting it lightly, I thought.
“We were freshmen when you guys were seniors.” She added.
“Yep, I do remember that.”
Maybe I should just get it over with. I called Charlotte over and the re-introduction of the two girls, while awkward, was over pretty quickly to everyone’s relief. We were all eager to get into the park. It was odd not stopping at the window for tickets and even odder to walk around the rusting turn-styles of the front gates. I delighted in reminding myself that we owned this place now.
Brandon gave us a tour of the park. Now so much of the geography – we all knew that inside and out – but of the hypothetical layout and reorganization of the park as he saw it.
“The Excalibur is going to need the most amount of work, according to Rich.” (Brandon’s head contractor). “A roller coaster made of wood exposed to the elements for all these years…we’ll keep as much of the original structure as is safe but we might have to rebuild most of it.”
“Do we have the money for that?” Scott asked loudly from where he walked behind us with Dani.
“Yeah,” Tyler said. “We have the money for that.”
“Ah, Mr. Moneybags. That Mini dealership treating you good?” I nudged him hard with my shoulder. Tyler stumbled but kept enough composure to push me back into a passing churro stall.
“Those six BMW dealerships are treating me very well.”
“Well enough to serve as the sizable collateral we needed.” Brandon added.
“So,” Charlotte ran up behind us and threw her arms around Tyler and Koji. “Can we…ride some rides?”
“Are you kidding? Why do you think we’re here!” Tyler laughed.
“I’m just here for Mayhem Mountain.” I said clapping my hands and rubbing them together eagerly.
Brandon threw up his hands. “Alright, fine! I thought you guys would be interested in how your investment is coming along.”
Koji snorted. “All we’re interested in is the projected ROI and, more importantly, which rides have passed safety inspection!”
“Oh,” Brandon stopped walking and tried to look annoyed, and, failing that, he smiled. “A little over half of them are rideable.”
Suddenly everybody was talking at once.
“Is Steel Viper open?”
“Yep, that one’s on.”
“What about Snapdragon?”
“That one is good to go, too.”
“The water’s not on.”
“They’re doing the inspection this week.”
There was only one ride I really cared about – mine and Brandon’s favorite.
“What about Mayhem Mountain?”
“Fuck. Yes.” He answered to collective groans from the rest.
Mayhem Mountain had always been our thing. The others had always been happy to ride High Roller and Snapdragon into exhaustion, Brandon and I always split off toward the end of the day to ride Mayhem Mountain into the twilight hours.
“Ugh,” Charlotte shuddered. “I hate that ride.”
“It’s boring as hell,” Koji agreed. “I helped design something similar for Disneyland Hong Kong. We put it in Fantasy Land, for fucks sake.”
“Hey, that ride is awesome. It’s long and it goes upside down,” I argued. “Charlotte is even too scared to ride it!”
“I’m not scared of that ride, it just gives me the creeps. Something about it, just, I don’t know, seems off.”
“Alright, look. We’ll start at this end of the park and work our way towards the back. That way we can ride every ride that’s passed inspection – including Mayhem Mountain.” Brandon said.
“And Snapdragon,” Tyler added and the others nodded excitedly.
“Yes, every ride. And of course we can ride them, you know, as many times as we want.”
“Hell yes, brother.” Koji high-fived Brandon and we headed down the street toward Space Spin.
Our progress through the park was blissfully slow. Everyone wanted to ride every ride multiple times and one person always had to stay in the loading area to operate the ride.
It only took an hour or two to forget that I was a fully grown 35 year old man. Being back here, running through the line-ways with my friends, arguing who got the first row of the first car, it was like being 12 years old again.
Still, my eye was constantly drawn up over the buildings into the distance, to the back of the park where the high, gleaming rails of Mayhem Mountain shined in the unobscured sun. There would be no arguing who got front row on that coaster – it was me and Brandon. It was always me and Brandon.
Charlotte, Tyler and Koji were the most like children, constantly running ahead and arguing over which ride to get on next, yelling back to ask Brandon if this one or that one had been cleared by the contractors.
Brandon and I held back from the group a bit, discussing ideas and possible improvements for the park. Scott and Dani took up the rear of the group, quietly talking and lighting joints.
When we arrived at the Enterprise, a simple ride that consisted on spinning cars on a circular track, I offered to flip the switch while the rest of the group rode to excess. The Enterprise always made me sick when we were kids. Brandon offered to stay on the platform with me to chat while everyone else rode the ride.
I flipped the switch to turn the ride on and as the cars spun away from the loading area, the Enterprise’s signage came into view. I sighed. All day I had been trying to ignore the bright graffiti sprayed all over the park but the words painted over the signage for the Enterprise were impossible to ignore.
Where did the missing kids go?
And the rest of the graffiti in the park was much the same. Most said things like: “Where are they?”, “Runaway Row”, “Find Ryan Kinskey”, and “The Missing are now Dead”. Similar sayings could be found in town sprayed across a few dilapidated buildings in the industrial district.
Brandon’s eyes avoided the sign but I could tell he was thinking about it, too.
“Do you think the reason they shut this park down, I mean, do you see that being an issue for park attendance?” I asked as casually as I could.
Brandon was quiet for a few moments as he waited for the ride to slow to a stop so he could flip the switch again.
“Nah, I don’t think so. Low attendance issues aren’t actually what shut the park down.”
“They aren’t?” This surprised me.
“Nope. When we were negotiating the sale of the park, I was given access to the park’s financials in the 80s.”
“So they weren’t operating at a loss?”
“Oh they were. But this park has operated in the red since opening day in the 70s. Half of their revenue was being fed back into something called ‘county services’, whatever that is. The bank couldn’t tell me and believe me, I tried to find out.”
“County services…” I mused.
“Yep. Bizarre. And according to the paperwork the park was closed because the owner didn’t want to live here anymore. And he couldn’t be bothered to wait for a decent offer on the property so he just sold it to the bank for next to nothing.”
“So he was a rich guy.” I leaned back against the railing to stretch my back. “And an idiot.”
“Yes – to an extreme in both cases. The owner of the park was Abel Bissette.”
“Abel Bisette? Related to that French billionaire, I’m guessing?”
Brandon nodded. “Michael Bisette. He built this park for his son in the 70s. Abel was never really what we would call ‘business inclined’. I’ve always heard him described as ‘simple’.”
“I can’t believe the son of a billionaire lives in this area.”
“Well, not anymore. He moved on decades ago.”
I shook my head in disbelief. Who would ever have thought that our simple little park was owned by a famous billionaire’s son? Hell, I may have even sat next to him on rides and had no idea!
“You guys want to go again?” Brandon yelled to the others as the ride again came to a stop.
“I’m ready to move on,” Koji yelled back. “Anybody want to ride again?”
“Nope!” a chorus of voices replied.
It was near 5 o’clock when we finally arrived at Mayhem Mountain. As the sun began to set a familiar panic and urgency welled in the pit of my stomach. It took a moment for me to realize that we didn’t have to leave when the park closed this time – because the park didn’t close. We could stay until sun-up if we wanted to!
As I eagerly approached the turn-style for Mayhem Mountain Tyler spoke up behind me. “Listen, can we run into town and grab something to eat before we ride Mayhem?”
“You really want to ride Mayhem after we eat?” Asked Koji.
“There’s only one loop,” Dani rolled her eyes.
“Two,” I said. “Don’t forget the inline roll.”
“Yep, two.” Scott answered. “Plus it’s a two minute ride. If your food isn’t sitting well, you’ve got a long wait ‘til it’s over.”
“Look,” I said, “Let’s ride it a couple times and then go eat. When we come back we’ll see how we feel.”
Everyone nodded and we started walking through the line-ways up to the platform. When we reached the loading dock, I was excited to see our favorite green car sitting on the track.
“Front seat!” Brandon and I yelled simultaneously as the train cars came into view and everyone behind us groaned.
“I’m staying here,” Charlotte said. “I’ll just work the launchpad thingy.”
“Still scared after all these years, Char?” Scott teased her.
“Shut up, Burnout.”
Scott laughed and tousled her hair before running and jumping into the first car behind Brandon and I. Dani got in next to him and then Tyler and Koji took the second car. We pulled the shoulder restraints down and they locked in place.
“Ready?” Charlotte asked.
“Yep!” Brandon yelled back, “Send the car through!”
Charlotte pulled the lever and the brakes disengaged. As the car moved forward I turned to Brandon.
“Did we get the green car on purpose?” I yelled to him as the coaster clacked around the load platform and began the clattery climb up the first lift hill.
“Yep! We sent cars through here all morning but I made sure Rich knew to leave the Green Machine in the loading bay.”
As the train climbed up the lift hill I made no attempt to hide my utter glee. I looked out over the expansive park and couldn’t believe it was mine. Every track, every car, every turn-style, every screw, from the front gate to the overflow parking lot in the back, it was all ours. How I wished I could go back in time and tell a young me waiting in the two hour line for Mayhem Mountain – one day, you will OWN this place.
And as we crested the hill and the train fell into the first drop, I realized I essentially had gone back in time. At least, I was screaming like a 12 year old, as was everyone else behind me.
We dipped into the first tester hill and then banked hard and up, to the second lift hill. We dropped from there, down into the vertical loop, banked around a set of gift ships, up briefly and then down a small hill into the inline roll. When we arrived back at the loading bay we were all screaming and whooping. Charlotte didn’t even have to ask, just smiled at us and sent us through again.
We went twice more before we finally got off the ride. Koji walked over to check out the control panel while the rest of us taunted my sister.
“You sure you don’t want to go, Char? It’s awesome.”
“Nah, I’m good. I have no problem being the carny for this ride.” She laughed.
“Come on, Charlotte, just one time. One time and we’ll leave you alone.” Tyler urged.
“No, no, no, no, no. No way. Not interested. I’ll ride anything else, though!”
“Hey, do you guys know what Track B is?” Koji asked.
“Track B? What do you mean?” Brandon walked over to Koji at the control board and raised an eyebrow. “That’s weird.”
“It’s probably just the track they use to get the cars into the storage bay,” Scott said with a shrug.
“No,” Koji said. “That’s called a transfer track. Track B has to be something else.”
“Yeah, well I’ve been on this ride enough times to know that there is no other track.”
“Yep,” Tyler agreed with me. “He has.”
“So…should we try it?” Brandon tested.
“Fuck no.” Said Charlotte. “If you don’t know what Track B is that means the contractors don’t know about it either. Which means it hasn’t been inspected in at least 20 years. That’s suicide.”
“Look,” Koji said, “if Track B exists than even the most incompetent of engineers would have found it during an inspection.”
“And Rich cleared this entire ride,” Brandon nodded. “It’s probably just the ride in reverse. We’re good.”
“Well, we’re in,” announced Scott from the other side of the track, though Dani didn’t look quite on board with the idea.
“Mark?” Tyler asked.
“Yeah, I guess I’m in. What the worst that could happen: we get funneled into a repair bay?”
“Alright, then I’m in too.” Tyler said hesitantly.
Koji shrugged. “Here goes nothing.”
He flipped the switch over to Track B and a moment later a loud metallic scraping some distance away filled the park. The sound lasted almost a minute. I studied the familiar silver roller coaster under the pink sky of the setting sun but I saw no physical changes to the track. I looked over at Brandon and a shrug of his shoulders told me he didn’t either.
“Shall we?” Scott asked gesturing to the train cars we’d just disembarked. I gave Charlotte a questioning look but she shook her head emphatically no. So it was just the six of us again.
“It’s only right you two take the bow of the ship.” Tyler gave a mock salute. “Oh Captains, my captains.”
I laughed and hopped into the right side of the front row. Brandon crawled into the seat next to me. Tyler and Koji got in behind us and Scott and Dani took the back. We pulled the shoulder bars down and they locked into place.
“Are you sure about this?” Charlotte asked when everyone was settled.
Dani said something from her place a few rows back but all I heard was Brandon yelling “Pull it!”
The brakes released and the train rolled away from the platform and into the twilight of dusk. The lights had lit up on the track while we’d been arguing and the roller coaster looked absolutely beautiful. I was filled with awe and reverence at what this place truly meant to mean and my friends. It was a symbol of our youth and innocence and blissful ignorance of the world. It was our own little bubble of happiness.
The coaster again climbed the lift hill and from the top Brandon and I studied the track but in those few seconds I saw no difference. Brandon looked over and I shook my head at him disappointedly. By the time we reached the vertical loop halfway through the ride it was clear that there was no Track B. But it was hard to be upset because I was still on Mayhem Mountain and still found it an impossible challenge not to smile.
We banked around the now brightly lit gift shops, up the small tester hill and then back down to the inline roll. Except…the inline roll was suddenly above us. We’d missed it. Instead the track now descended into a large, square hole in the ground behind the gift shops – and we were headed directly into it.
I was in too much shock to scream or even move. The black hole swallowed us in an instant and we descended into complete darkness. I felt a comfortable pressure leave my shoulders and realized that the shoulder bars had released. I gripped the front lip of the ledge of my seat and heard the terrified screams of my friends behind me as the coaster suddenly spun into what felt like an inline roll. I was too scared to do anything but hold on for dear life though some part of my brain registered that the g-forces of the roll probably would have been enough to keep me in my seat if I had let go. Probably.
We came out of the inline roll and dropped again – hard. As the roller coaster dropped the room suddenly lit up around us and I saw the track below arcing up into a light tester hill. As we hit the bottom of the hill the shoulder bars lowered mechanically. The car went over the small tester hill and then braked to start up another tall lift hill. I took my first breath since dropping through the ground and looked around, tuning out the screams of Dani and Tyler behind me.
We were in what can be described as a cavernous room and I only assume it stretched to the farthest reaches of the park above. There were lots of vertical loops, high drops and sharp curves that put the track perpendicular to the ground. Throughout the entire sublevel building lamps dotted the wall every 30 feet. They put out a dreary, yellowed glow for as far as the eye could see. But many were burnt out and in parts the track disappeared into darkness.
But in the dull, yellow edges of the light I saw something that registered in me a horror beyond death. Far away from us, in a section of shadowy track, I saw the high crest of a peak hill which reached almost the ceiling of the giant room. And then the track just…ended.
Suddenly feel the horrible reality of the world outside my mind began to bleed in. Dani was screaming uncontrollably, Tyler was crying, bawling even, Koji was yelling at Brandon who was looking straight at me, hitting my leg hard and repeating my name. As the cars continued to climb I finally gave him my attention. I didn’t want to be alone in the fear anymore.
“What is this?” was all I could think of to say.
“We have to get off this ride. We have to get off this ride, Mark.”
“I fucking know, man.”
“We’re going to die.”
“I fucking know, man!” I yelled as we reached the top of the lift hill and dropped over the other side. I squeezed my eyes shut until I felt the shoulder bars once again release and I bit my lip to keep from crying. I opened my eyes and choked as I watched the track ahead up us bend up into a vertical loop. I reached up and tried to pull the shoulder bar down but it was locked in place.
“Hang on! Hang onto the seats!” I yelled as loud as I could.
As we approached the loop I felt the brakes engaging, slowing the car, and a tow cable catch beneath my feet. We were being pulled up through the loop, but too slowly for gravity to keep us in our seats.
As the train began to invert I felt my feet rise from the floor of the car. My hair fell over my face and my butt left the seat. I closed my eyes and tried to block out the screams of terror from behind me. I concentrated on my death grip of the ledge of my seat as we rounded the track. We remained upside down for what felt like eternity. Finally the pressure began to ease, my butt dropped to my seat and my feet to the floor. The white noise subsided from my ears and I heard Koji’s screaming.
“Tyler! Fuck, fuck, he fell out. Fuck, he fell, he’s dead, man, he’s dead.”
“He hit the track down there.” Brandon yelled at me, wide-eyed and crazy looking. I was finally seeing the Brandon from my youth. The shoulder bars descended again, this time locking in tighter.
We came out of loop and sped up and down several tester hills. I tried to study the track ahead of us as we went through the safer parts. I thought I saw water reflecting off the metal rails somewhere in the distance. Brandon sobbed in his seat.
“Mark, what are we gonna do? I don’t wanna die, man. I don’t wanna fucking die.”
“I don’t know. I don’t know what to do. I’m sorry, I’m fucking scared, too.” I answered him.
We banked around a corner of the room and the shoulder bars released again. This time we dove into a curve that put the left side of the train parallel to the ground – and it was a long drop. I gripped the edge of the seat tightly as before but this time I kept my eyes open and was able to catch Brandon as he began to slip out of his seat.
By the time the train righted itself, I couldn’t tell who’d been lost. Most of the screaming behind me had turned to loud sobbing or silence. The shoulder bar didn’t reengage and I felt the car’s brakes slow the train down again. I didn’t have to loop to know what was coming next.
It was another inverted loop – this one was tall and large and I could tell we’d be upside down for longer. Someone behind me began screaming again, Dani I think, as I tried to take measured breaths and position my hurting hands back under the lip of the seat. Brandon did the same and looked over at me as the car started up the loop with tears streaming down his face.
“I don’t wanna die in here, man.”
I shook my head back at him because I could think of nothing to say.
I felt tears leave my own eyes as we reached the tipping point of the loop and my feet again left the floor. Before we were even completely upside down I felt my back begin to slip down the seat. I thought if I lost my grip, I could try to grab for the shoulder bars when I fell out of the car.
The car suddenly stopped and I opened my eyes to see we were completely inverted. I grunted loudly at the pain and immense effort it was taking to keep my grip on the seat. The car started to move again slowly and I heard Brandon say something to me. I looked over at him just before he slid out of the car. One second he was there, next to me, and the next he was falling, falling away from the car.
I saw Brandon try to grab the shoulder bar on the way out but we couldn’t keep his grip on it. I watched him fall and I saw him break his back on the track below and he stopped moving. I stared down at him as the car continued to move slowly around the loop and he stared back up at me, dead, or dying. By the time the car hit him on the way out of the loop, he was completely gone.
The shoulder bars re-engaged and we went through a dreadfully long period where nothing happened. We were secured in our seats by the restraints as the coaster spent what felt like several minutes racing over hills, banks, curves, even an inline roll.
Without the adrenaline pumping through my veins, I felt the shock begin to wear off. It was replaced by a panic and fear unlike I’d ever experienced. And I decided that was the point of this section of track: to build and facilitate an unbearable fear.
I felt the brakes engage finally and I looked ahead to find the loop we were surely entering but there was none. We were high, almost to the top of the ceiling and we slowed to a stop on a straightaway. Directly ahead was a drop and at the bottom of the hill, a series of four different tracks, with a transfer stack just before they split off. Each track had five or so feet of color – red, orange, green and blue – before racing off in different directions.
I felt an urgent shaking of my shoulder and turned around to hear what Koji was saying.
“Which track are we connected to?”
I looked at the transfer stack.
“Where does green go?” It was hard to hear him over the sound of Dani’s sobbing from the second car. I tried to trace the green track through the building, constantly losing it and finding it again. I wasn’t sure, but it seemed to end at the lift hill I’d seen earlier. The hill with no track at the top.
“It ends at that hill,” I yelled back at him and pointed. Dani cried louder.
While we were stopped I rubbed my hurting hands together. As I looked down at them I noticed something new in the car. At some point a small, blinking panel had flipped over in the wall at the front of the car. It had four colored buttons and an old analog timer. The timer was so old and damaged that though the numbers were clearly changing I couldn’t see how long we had.
“We get to choose,” I said and explained what I was looking at.
“Can you see which track ends where?” Koji asked.
I followed all the track as best I could but the rails circled and slid in between each other. It was hard to tell which track went where.
“I think the blue track ends in that big pool in the corner. The red track ends in a wall and the orange one just drops into a hole in the floor like the one we came down here through. I think.”
“There’s no way out, dude,” said Scott from the second car. His voice was unsettlingly calm. “They’re just telling us how we’re going to die.”
“We can still find a way out of this.” I answered quietly, more to myself than to him.
“Choose the pool,” Scott said, and I could hear the tears in his voice. “I’ve heard drowning isn’t an awful death. I’ve heard it’s calming at the end.”
“No! Choose the hole in the floor,” said Koji. “It’s possible it drops down into another cavern like this. There might be more track which means more time to figure out how to live.”
“You don’t think we’d be the first to choose that option, do you?” Scott asked him. “And no one that went missing ever came back. There’s just more death in that hole.”
“I don’t want to die like this,” Koji begged. “And at least it’s a chance.”
Dani was still whimpering in the back and offered no suggestion. It seemed the decision was up to me and I had to make it fast.
I knew I didn’t want to die by dropping off the track. I didn’t want to drown. Perhaps the quickest death was the wall. More than likely we would all be killed instantly. Less suffering, less time to think about our fates. But the truth was, I wasn’t enough entirely positive which track ended where. It was all educated guesswork and my time was up.
“The orange. Let’s go down to the second floor, if there is one.”
Scott and Dani said nothing and Koji choked out the last words I’d ever hear him say.
“Push it before it chooses for us.”
Before I could think about it any longer I pushed the orange button and committed us to whatever death it led to. We heard the metallic scraping of the track transferring below. Once the orange track was securely connected, the brakes on the car released and the train rolled slowly toward the drop. Dani started screaming again.
As we dropped down the hill I got a better view of the orange track. There was a vertical loop ahead that didn’t look as high as the others we’d been through. If fact, it looked like there was a chance the fall wouldn’t kill us. If it wasn’t an optical illusion and if the shoulder bars disengaged for that loop we might have a shot at living through this. I yelled back to everyone behind me.
“Let yourself fall out of the loop, the one up there!”
No one responded to me, which didn’t matter because I didn’t think I’d have the courage to let go of the seat anyway.
We raced along the track in and out of banks and curves. And one point we passed along the pool and I looked down. Below the water’s surface the track ended above an even deeper pool. I could see the shadows of several coaster cars at the very bottom.
I suddenly felt the brakes engage and I realized we were coming to the loop. I tested the shoulder bar by pushing up on it but it stayed locked. I was somewhat relieved in that moment to know I wouldn’t have to make the decision to fall out now or gamble on the orange track. But suddenly – the restraints released.
As we started up the loop I gripped the lip of the seat tightly and turned my head back to look down. It looked like we were very high and I only hoped the ground was the loosely packed dirt that it looked like. I had to choose now – the fall or the hole. I choose the fall.
As I began to slide up the seat I yelled at the others to let go and fall out of the car. And then I closed my eyes – and let go. I felt my head crack the shoulder bar on the way out.
It wasn’t like a slow motion fall – it was over before I realized that I’d actually let go. One moment I felt an intense pain as my head hit the bar and in the same moment I realized I was on the ground. I hadn’t even had the time to realize the possibility of hitting the track below or get run over by the cars. I opened my eyes in time to watch the cars speed over the track above me.
The pain didn’t hit me all at once. I had one long, blissful second before I felt it. And then I was in agony.
I’d hoped my body was so in shock that I wouldn’t feel much of the pain but I felt it all. I concentrated on keeping my eyes open and trying to catalog the damage. There was blood on my clothes but I didn’t know what part of my body it was coming from. I heard screaming as well but I didn’t know if it was in my head or coming from my friends as they approached the end.
I didn’t want to move, didn’t think it was safe to move, but I knew I had to, if only to pull out my phone. With trembling fingers I pulled the thing from my pocket and brought it to my face, trying to focus on the screen. But it was shattered and refused to even turn on. I threw it away from me and then I realized the silence.
Their ride had ended.
With a great amount of effort I rolled over onto my stomach and dragged my broken body across the ground toward where I thought I remembered seeing the hole. I crawled for what seemed like hours and maybe it was. Sometimes I tried to stand or even kneel but the pain in my back and ribs was too great. I passed out several times from shock and pain but eventually I made it to where the track disappeared into the ground. I pulled myself to the edge and looked down inside the hole.
The track ended just below the surface.
It was a natural shaft with walls made of rock. I didn’t know how deep it went and I didn’t want to. It was a fate I’d only narrowly escaped. But then I thought my friends were down there and maybe someone survived.
“Koji?” My voice echoed loudly down the shaft. No answer.
I reached for a nearby screw and dropped it down the hole. It took half a minute to land and when it did it was with a tink as it hit something metal. The small sound echoed up the shaft and out into the cavernous room and I realized this place was built with acoustics in mind. I rolled over onto my back and studied everything I could see from where I was, staving off my bodies desire to pass out again. I felt nothing but numbness when I finally saw what I was looking for – a long, panoramic window in the far wall. I knew what Track B was for and I finally let myself slip away into the darkness.
I remember very little of my rescue. There were lots of people in uniform and my sister yelling and pain – lots of pain. I was in and out on the way to the hospital but I remember I passed through the room behind the window at some point. And from my stretcher, through the chaos, I saw in that room a single chair facing the window. It was covered in a deep layer of dust.
I was never visited by anyone official, let alone asked to give a statement. Charlotte stayed by my side at the hospital for months while I recovered. She wouldn’t say much about that day although she finally did tell me something. She that that they wouldn’t let her ride with me to the hospital and that someone offered her a ride. On that drive she’d been spoken to by two people that had convinced her to never speak of what had happened and to convince me of the same. Whatever they threatened her with had her begging me to agree. And I did – at the time.
I am still to this day learning to walk without aid. I never saw Mayhem Mountain again. The loan defaulted and Adventure Valley was bought up by an unknown LLC which bulldozed it and built a block of apartments over the top. They’re still empty to this day.
I don’t like the dark anymore. It reminds me of the horror my friends experienced as they looked down and saw the track end before they disappeared into that hole. I try not to think of what they must have felt as they fell down the shaft in complete darkness, strapped to a roller coaster, waiting for the terrible end. I wish I’d chosen the pool, if only to save them from that fate.
As for the billionaire’s son, he was only ‘simple’ in the fact that he was a man of simple tastes. And he still is.
I looked him up once, only a few years ago. He owns several amusement parks now, all sizable but small enough to be popular only in their specific regions. In fact, one is not very far from where I live now.
I’ve thought about going many times, just to check, just to see. But then I realized that I probably didn’t need to search all the rides in the park to know.
Because I know that somewhere in that park, some ride in some corner…has a Track B.