Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Ride

I'm not sure where to begin. The pills they keep giving me affect my recollection of events -at least, that's what I think. The doc says I keep repressing them (my word, not his) so that I won't have to deal with them. Oh, but deal with them I do. During the day it isn't so bad, but once the sun begins to set across the mountain ridge it won't be long before hell begins anew.

I don't know why I decided to do it. It was one of those kinds of things we all think about doing from time to time. For me, carpe diem was the operative motive. That's normal for those of us who find ourselves driven by impulse. Highway 54 has been abandoned for decades now, of course, but it's still passable. Sneaking onto the old road is as easy as calling the police station from the old pay phone by the road in front of  Braston's Laundorama and screaming that you're being attacked by coyotes -not that that's a real problem, but the cops here take everything seriously. When young Deputy Jansson got the call (with much disgust, if his expletives were any indication), he had to put down his girlie mag and drive out to Sharpe's Grove to save the poor old man from those oh-so-savage mangeballs. I then had only to cut the chain holding the gate together, open one side of the rusty thing, and then lock it together again with the padlock purchased an hour before at Red's Real Deal Hardware Store a couple of miles back down the main drag. Who would ever discover my trespass?

Old 54, replete with as many potholes as memories of midsize Mercurys driven by chainsmoking aunts, winds around groves of oak trees for about four miles before getting there. Remnants of billboards, once proudly exclaiming that the "world's fastest roller coaster" was now "just two miles ahead" adorned a long-forgotten landscape .

Everyone used to go there in the summer. It had everything, and I'm not kidding. Rides, of course, and the requisite funhouse. But it also had a swimming pool, a pond where dads could take their kids fishing, and a restaurant. And the smells! Peanuts, chilidogs, and cotton candy, which the breeze would carry all over the park until you simply had to buy it.  The fact is that the park has been on my mind ever since it closed when I was twelve. I can't express how much I miss the carefree summer afternoons spent with friends, sliding down the huge slide, or getting tossed from the bumpercar ride for actually bumping other cars -a real felony at the park.

It also had that ride that killed Billy when he fell out that late August afternoon. At first, we heard someone scream. Then people began running toward the far end of the park (near the pool) to see what was going on. Louie and I took off, wondering what had happened and kind of knowing at the same time. We couldn't get past the people who worked there, but we sure saw the blood. A lot of it. Blood was all over the place. What had happened was this: Billy was on the ride -I don't remember what it was called, but it had all these compartments and they swung way out as they went around in a big circle. Anyway, Billy saw this girl he didn't like, so he stuck his head out of the car to razz her as he went by, and hit his head on a tree branch which the park hadn't yet trimmed. Some grownup said part of his skull was sticking out of the rain gutter of the concession stand. All I know is that I puked when I heard him say that. The newspaper said that he was killed instantly from "blunt force trauma". That's a G-rated version of  his skull was instantly reduced to small fragments, and then there was no more Billy. After that the park was closed down due to several rides being deemed unsafe by state inspectors. Moot point, considering that (a) the owners were sued heavily by Billy's grieving parents and (b) the new highway was built to replace Old 54 not too long after.

The years passed, and my friends got on with their lives. People graduated. People took cubicle jobs. People married. People divorced.

And people died.

Billy died.

Why do I keep coming back to that? This is where I feel more fear than I can express. No rational motive could have led me to this place of misery, to such a sense of childhood stolen from all of us that awful afternoon. It was as though my heart was as abandoned as the park itself. And yet if the park -or I, for that matter- was abandoned, then what was this overwhelming sense of another presence which seemed magnified by thick gray clouds and rapidly diminishing sunlight? And what compelled me to actually wend my way along the main path, knowing where it would take me, my dread increasing a thousand times over with each step I took? That horrible ride, now sunfaded, sat in exactly the same position as it has been in in my mind for over forty years. The ride's compartments were in exactly the same positions as they were when the emergency workers helped the last customers off of the ride. Billy's compartment, the third from the top, had a stain on the side. I knew what it was. Not blood, but the paint after the blood had stained it indelibly. And then I noticed.

Something felt as though it were trying to grab my shoe from underneath. Not forcefully, but enough to notice. I tried to scream, but couldn't. It was beyond my comprehension.

I was standing in fresh, sticky blood.

And something flitted behind me and out of sight.

Feeling a bit rattled, I turned and ran -ran- until I turned the corner from that horrible contraption. Running as fast as I could, again I felt the presence. I was not alone. I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the full length mirror posted in front of the rest area -for a fraction of a second. And that small gap in time told the story. Leering at me was a boy, at first unrecognizeable in his striped tee shirt and cutoff denim shorts. My go-


I swooned.

Coming to, I was in a small pool of my own blood. The headache and nausea I felt were nothing compared to the taunts I got from my friend-turned-apparition. "Ahhh, what a wuss!", said Billy, or at least some of him. "One little bump on his head and he faints like a girl at a Beatles concert!" Though I was seeing double (at least), I remembered that ugly yellow-and-green striped shirt of his as though I had seen it the other day. Vomiting what appeared to be yesterday's chicken and salad only brought on more derision as Billy, now standing directly over me, chided me for throwing up the day I saw his blood. "I leave a guy alone for forty years, and the first thing he does the next time I see him is puke his guts out! Hey, remember when you saw my blood on the ground and you started crying like a girl?", taunted the hateful bastard. "You should have seen yourself when you saw me in the mirror. Haaa-ha you were whiter than paper!"

I asked him, "What do you want from me? How can you be here if you're dead? You're still a kid!" "Yeah," snarled an angry Billy. "How was my funeral? I bet you didn't even go." He had me there. I couldn't bring myself to see his lifeless body laid out in a box and listen to his parents cry. Besides, my own parents wouldn't have let me go, not that I would have asked. Billy ranted on, still a bratty little kid.

How did he know forty years had passed since his death? Had passed him by as he haunted an abandoned amusement park since that fateful afternoon?

My God.

How did he manage to endure all those years? Forty years -by himself- long after his folks had moved to Denver when his dad's transfer came through.

I primed him on that point, but he wouldn't budge. "Mr. Grownup there with his poor, bloody head", he continued to taunt as I began to wonder what my own fate would bring. The park was getting pretty dark now, though the clouds had dissipated since my arrival  -my reckoning -here. "Billy", I began, "I never meant to disrespect you-"  "Ha! Listen to Mr. Grownup and his fancy words" spat an angry Billy. "Billy", I tried again. My parents wouldn't have let me go to your funeral. We were good friends. I nev-" "Yeah, we were good friends until you abandoned me here. I haven't seen my mom and dad, or my sister, or even Bruiser (his dog, who was run over by a semi two years after Billy was killed, but I wasn't going to tell him that). It's so lonely here at the park, but they won't let me leave. And they hate me. Always scaring me and making me suffer more than you can know. It's so awful!"

"Well, they can't make me stay", I said, perhaps a little too cockily. I was scared beyond all comprehension, but I had to appear calm. Something similar to not showing an animal any fear supposedly increasing your chances for survival. "I'm outta here."

That's when everything kind of melts in my memory. As best I can recall (not that I want to, but I have to tell somebody), gray forms began pulling out of spaces that didn't quite exist and they kind of glided or walkd toward both of us. "Ha! Now you're stuck here too! They told me it would work, but I didn't believe them. Well, I sure do now!" said my "old" friend as too many forms to count had all but surrounded us. "WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU TELLING ME?!" I demanded of the corpse out of sheer mortal terror.

"Why, don't you know, Mr. Grownup?" replied a triumphant Billy. "These are the ones who make you stay where you died! And you're not going anywhere!"  And now they won't hate me as much because they said they wouldn't if I made you come here. Now they'll hate you instead!


The radio squelch was unmistakeable as I began to vomit anew, head pounding, and hearing indecipherable voices coming from God Knows what direction. "Holy- hold still there, bud. We're gonna get you off of that thing. Just stay with us, okay? Central, the patient is male, approximately fifty years of age, bleeding profusely from the anterior right location of the skull. Appears to originate in the prefrontal cortex. Awaiting Team 3 with heavy equipment. Will ascertain whether pupils are fixed and dilated. Over." "Hey, Ryan. What would compel an old dude to drive all the way back here and climb into that old ride? And what the hell did he do to himself?"

A week went by in the hospital. I'm pretty certain that I went through every kind of test they had. I was even given something called a "mental status exam". They thought I had intentionally climbed into the old ride and hit myself in the head with a tree branch. Turns out I did. Several times, in fact. I have no idea who discovered the lock I put on the gate at the entrance to Old 54. Probably that Jansson. Since that afternoon, the meds they keep giving me don't make the hallucinations go away. (Hallucinations my ass!) All they do is make me even more vulnerable to them.

As for Billy, well, he isn't trapped at the amusement park anymore, but I am. Billy is in the psych ward of the hospital.

And he was right. The gray beings aren't nice. They're mean and they don't care what kind of meds you take. They keep you in the park.

For a long, long time.

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