The hike, p.20
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       The Hike, p.20

           Drew Magary
 
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  “Eh,” she said. “What the hey.”

  And then she swallowed Voris in a single, easy gulp. There wasn’t even time for him to make a sound.

  Ben leapt up and grabbed the pickle jar off the pedestal, holding it up for the giant.

  “Fermona!” he screamed. “Have a chaser!”

  She grabbed the jar in her massive hand and downed it like a shot from a thimble, then made a disgusted face as the consumed Voris and the poison sloshed around in her great belly.

  “Ugh, disgusting,” she grimaced. Then she looked down at Ben and pointed an accusing finger at him. “You. You ruined me for human meat, you lout! I’ve spent the past ten years looking for more of those hot dogs.”

  “I know a place that has them,” Ben said.

  “Oh, really?”

  “Honest to goodness.”

  “How many of them?”

  “A lot. I swear.”

  “Look at you! You’re all tiny again. Bet you thought you were hot stuff when you were my height. Tell me where I can find this food and maybe I won’t throw you into the sun.”

  Cisco stared up at Fermona, making a cross on his chest and whispering holy praises.

  “Are you going to eat us?” Ben asked her.

  Fermona put her hands on her hips. “What do you think, Ben?”

  And then it hit him. “No, you’re not going to eat us.”

  “And do you know why?” she asked.

  He did. “Because we’re on the path. We were told to never leave the path, or we would die.”

  “Ah, but there’s a flip side to that now, isn’t there? Which is . . .”

  “If we stay on the path, we can’t die.”

  “There it is. Now you know. Besides, you and the little Spanish fella are both way more trouble than you’re worth. That one kept poking me with his little toothpick! There’s nothing worse than a man who puts up a fight. Now, where’s the food? Gimme gimme gimme.”

  “Back in the desert,” Ben said. “There’s a store that has them, straight down the road.”

  “Brilliant. You two: Huddle up in the corner together.”

  “Why?”

  “Just do what I say, stupid. Quit being annoying. This is gonna be great. Watch what I can do.”

  Ben ran over to Cisco and the two weakened men clung to each other as Fermona took her left hand and placed it directly above them, forming a makeshift awning. Then, with a gargantuan right hand, she punched through the ceiling of the crypt, broken pieces of mortar and heavy slabs of rock beating down onto the floor of Voris’s bedroom. Ben watched in terror as blocks of stone the size of air conditioners tumbled off the back of Fermona’s hand and landed within inches of flattening them. When the dust settled, Fermona shook off a few of the boulders and plucked both of the men off the ground with her left hand.

  Above, the desert sun blazed into the crypt and the room itself seemed to recoil from the light. The giant reached through the hole in the ceiling and climbed out of the desert glass building with Cisco and Ben still grasped firmly in her hand. Then she jumped off the roof, the meat of her palm protecting both men from the impact of landing on the sunbaked sands below. She set them beside the crimson pickup truck and put her hands on her hips, looking up at the sun and shaking her head.

  “I don’t know how you humans tolerate that thing beating down on you all day long.”

  “We are not as close to it as you are,” said Cisco.

  “Does this store you mentioned have hats?”

  “Not in your size,” said Ben.

  “Bah! Well, you two just remember that I put my delicious, alabaster skin on the line helping you.”

  “We will. Fermona . . .”

  “Yes?”

  “Thank you,” said Ben. “Thank you so much.”

  “Aw, that’s sweet. Now I kinda wanna eat you again.” Then she gave him a playful wink. “Just pulling your leg. I’m off.”

  And she stomped off down the desert road, in search of newer, bolder flavors.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

  THE VILLA

  Here was another curious development in an endless series of them: After Fermona left, Cisco and Ben watched as the asphalt road leading to Voris’s lair extended out of thin air, wrapping around the now-convertible office crypt and stretching out into the desert plain to the west. Ben and Cisco hopped in the pickup truck and followed the path for hours. Both men ate junk food with gusto. Cisco wouldn’t stop waving his hand over the air-conditioning vent.

  “How does it make the wind like this?” he asked Ben.

  “Refrigerant. Freon,” Ben said.

  “Who is this Freon?”

  “No, it’s a chemical. It makes the air cold.”

  “This is a miracle.”

  “It’s thirty bucks at the store, brotherman.”

  “This future you live in . . . would I like it?”

  “Honestly, it’s probably not that different from the world you know. Some people are happy. Some people are angry. There are wars. I don’t know if time makes much of a difference. The world changes, but people act the way people always do.”

  “Do you think I might be able to pilot this truck?”

  “No.”

  After hundreds of miles, the road abruptly came to a thick ribbon of wetland jungle. The trees rose up from the edge of the desert, reaching for the sun and forming a thick, impenetrable canopy. The path cut into the dark center of the rain forest, the canopy shrouding them in green shadow.

  The jungle road grew choppy and narrow, the vegetation pressing against the truck, poised to ensnare it. A lemur jumped onto the hood, causing Cisco to cross himself, and then it jumped off onto a nearby tree. Unseen animals and insects made unidentifiable sounds around them as they rolled on. After a few moments, the truck emerged on a pristine white beach, the sand made of nothing but pure ground seashells. The sun was slowly melting into a ravishing Caribbean-blue sea, waters that could soothe any man who laid eyes upon them. The lavenders and pinks of the nascent sunset bounced off the sands and made them shine like mother-of-pearl.

  The path broke into three directions on the beach. To the right was a villa, made of treated beech wood, with a lush courtyard and a pool filled with water that was cleaner than an operating room. There was even a parking spot outlined in the sand for the red truck. To the left, the path stretched down the coastline as the beach curled around a small bay.

  Directly in front of them, leading to the water, was a small round cocktail table, covered in a white tablecloth, with a single place setting and a bottle of champagne (always champagne) chilling in a silver bucket. The setting had no flatware, only a large turquoise charger plate with a corked glass vial sitting in the center. Past the table, the path opened wide to greet the water.

  There was a place card behind the plate. Someone with elegant penmanship had written the name:

  Ben

  He got out of the truck and picked up the card, feeling the fibers of the thick paper stock. Cisco unsheathed his sword and scanned the beach for potential predators, but there was nothing. Ben wasn’t as paranoid as the Spaniard. This was a place where they could remain undisturbed. Voris was gone. This was their reward. They would be safe here.

  Cisco peered over Ben’s shoulder and looked at the place card. “What does it mean?” he asked.

  “It means I have to go into the sea,” Ben said.

  “But I go the other way.”

  “That’s right. The path wants us to split.”

  “I do not want to do this.”

  Ben clapped a hand on the explorer’s shoulder. “I don’t either, old friend.”

  “You must drink from that vial?”

  “At some point, yes.”

  “Do you know what it will do to you?”

  “Yeah. It’s gonna turn
me into a fucking crab.”

  “That cannot be possible.”

  “You’ve seen the things I’ve seen. Why doubt this?”

  “Is that what you want? To be a crab?”

  “Cisco, what I want hasn’t mattered for a long time now.” Ben walked over to the steps leading up to the villa and beckoned the explorer to follow. “Come on. There’s no rush. We may as well enjoy ourselves.”

  The villa was an open-air, three-bedroom suite. In the center of the courtyard was a large table that featured a buffet of fresh offerings: mangoes, pineapples, olives, rows of sliced mozzarella cheese and beefsteak tomatoes, chilled lobster tails, huge slabs of carved roast beef, whole filets of smoked salmon longer than park benches, carafes of every last possible squeezed citrus.

  Also, there was beer. Cold, cold beer. Cans and bottles. Ben didn’t bother with the food. He wanted the beer. He grabbed two bottles, knocked off the caps, stripped down to his boxers, ran out of the villa, and plunged into the bay. A little bit of salt water got into the beer, but that made it taste even better as he stared at the sunset reflecting off the ocean’s glittering skin. A shirtless, awkward Cisco came running to the surf behind him, staying upright in the water because he couldn’t swim. Ben stood up and the men clinked bottles.

  “Merry Christmas,” Ben said.

  “How do you know if it’s Christmas?”

  “I don’t. But Merry Christmas anyway.”

  “And to you as well.”

  They chugged their beers. Cisco pointed to the branch of the path winding around the bay.

  “Tomorrow morning, I will go,” he said.

  “So soon? You should stay here a while and rest up. You look like shit.”

  “No. My God and my queen are calling me. I will not rest here a second longer than I have to.” He turned to Ben. “But you know, there’s something to be said for never seeing you again.”

  “Well, I love you, too, Cisco.”

  “No, I mean this. I do not want this friendship to linger. I do not want it to wither and die. It will end here, as strong as it’s ever been. And this is a good thing. I don’t want to be around long enough to disappoint you.”

  “I think it would be more likely to be the other way around.”

  “It’s not possible. You have brought your family honor.”

  “Cisco, honor doesn’t mean jack shit to me.” He sat down in the surf again, letting his toes poke out of the water. Then he wiggled them as a way of saying hello to himself. “You know I can’t even remember what my kids look like anymore? I remember my drawings of them better than their actual faces. I try to picture them now and I know I’ve gotten it wrong. And it’s been years. Even if I get back to them, they won’t be the kids I knew, and I won’t be the dad they knew. They probably won’t even have the same hair color anymore. We’ll all be perfect fucking strangers. I’ve wanted to go home for so long, Cisco. But now I know home isn’t gonna be anything I recognize. I don’t even know what I would say to my wife if I saw her now.”

  “You don’t have to say anything. It’s love. Love doesn’t require an explanation.”

  “I don’t know, man. I’m scared to death. I bet I’m more comfortable walking along this goddamn path than I would be back home. It’s ruined me. Do you know how fucked up that is? I don’t know what to do with myself anymore. The only reason I’m still alive is out of sheer habit.”

  “It is honorable.”

  “There’s no honor in surviving. It’s what you’re supposed to fucking do. Half the people who survive stuff don’t even know why or how they did it. I know I don’t. ‘Honor’ is some bullshit word men made up to jerk themselves off. You can get away with anything if you just say you did it with honor.”

  The Spaniard didn’t respond. Instead, he went back to the villa, opened up two more beers, and brought them to the bay. They drank a dozen between them as the sun finally tagged in the two moons, and a far less predatory brand of night took shape over them: cool and open and inviting, macaws jabbering from the jungle behind them.

  There were clean towels and razors and clippers in the villa bathrooms, so the men washed and shaved (Cisco retained a lengthy goatee) and retired to bed. When Ben closed his eyes, the sleep walled him off from everything. No dreams. No visions. No part of his past came back to make amends. There was only rest.

  In the morning, Cisco insisted on leaving. The explorer was still skinny and fatigued from their escape out of the desert, but this was all still a grand adventure to him: a new and mystical continent that he would soon divulge to the rest of Europe. No matter how hard Ben tried to convince him otherwise, Cisco remained adamant about seeking his fortune.

  They stood at the three-pronged split in the path and said good-bye. Ben handed him the keys to the pickup truck.

  “Are you sure?” Cisco asked.

  “Yeah. Everyone drives where I come from. No reason you can’t figure it out, too. You’re probably already better than most Maryland drivers.”

  Cisco hopped up in the cab and gripped the steering wheel, closing his eyes and savoring the power.

  “Remember,” said Ben, “the pedal on the left makes you stop. The pedal on the right makes you go.”

  “I wish I had a gift to leave you with,” said the explorer. “But I know you won’t be able to take anything with you.”

  “I don’t need it,” Ben said. “Like you said, no reason for this to linger. We end our friendship here today with it as strong as it’s ever been. And when I get back, I’ll look you up in a history book.”

  “Maybe your ‘America’ will be named after me, and the FILTHY GARBAGE PERSON Vespucci will rot in the depths of . . .”

  “That’s altogether possible, yes.”

  Cisco gazed at him.

  “What are you doing?” Ben asked.

  “Getting a good look. The last time you see a person is the thing you remember best about them. God be with you, Ben.”

  “You too, old friend.”

  Cisco stomped on the gas and nothing happened.

  “Cisco, you have to turn the key first.”

  “Oh.”

  The Spaniard turned the key and jerked the gearshift. The truck moved forward in jerks and spasms at first, eventually smoothing out and rounding the bay beach, finally turning out of view around the cape. And Ben found himself alone once more, but he knew he wouldn’t be that way for long. There was someone he had to meet, presumably on the opposite side of that sea.

  But that could wait. For now, he feasted. He drank all the beer and ate all the lobster and showered three times a day, gaining pounds on his frame at a visible pace. Every night, he sat in the bay with his beer and said howdy to his toes and looked up at the freakishly assembled stars and the two moons and then retired to a night of rest that felt like a bath in amniotic fluid. Maybe he could stay at this villa forever. Would that be so bad? He had gotten good at being alone again. There was nothing to confront here at this beach: no monsters, no past, no future. Everyone left him alone, the ultimate desire of any middle-aged man. The safety of it all wooed him. Coddled him.

  A week later, he had another night vision. Only he wasn’t in his past this time. No, this time he woke up exactly where he had fallen asleep: in the villa, in the smooth white queen bed. He saw someone come out from behind the bedroom door, and there, standing in the moonlight, was Teresa, clad only in a sheer white robe that just barely reached past her hips. She let the robe hang open, her body like a cello. Ben got out of bed and came to her. He put his finger on her chin and traced it all the way down, never touching fabric. Then he reached under her robe and hoisted her up, wrapping her tan legs around him, kissing her so hard that their faces went perpendicular.

  Ben turned and laid her on the bed. He wanted to be inside every last part of her. She cupped his face in her hands and asked, “Now do you remember?”<
br />
  “Yes. Oh, God, yes.”

  “Then come for me.”

  “I will.”

  “Come for me now.”

  All his joints cracked in unison.

  He woke up alone, between the white sheets. The sun was rising over the jungle canopy back east. In the courtyard, the buffet had been thoroughly scavenged. All the beer was gone. Despite the temptation to retire permanently in this oasis, it was time. A week of any vacation is plenty. He walked out of the villa and to the round table overlooking the surf. Then he uncorked the vial at his place setting and held it up for a lonesome toast.

  “Bottoms up, Mr. Producer.”

  He felt a burning in his throat, and not a liquor sort of burn, more like a shot of pure acid. He flopped down onto his belly and began to convulse. His head retracted into his neck. His muscles drew so tight that it felt like his entire body was cramping. His field of vision split into eight thousand separate parts and then coalesced back together into a single, myopic blur. Everything smelled: the ocean, the sand, the air. Every odor amplified and rushed into his brain like it was a subway car. His limbs grew stiff and immobile. His fingers froze and began to conjoin.

  He could feel other, small limbs growing from his rib cage. Two, then four, then six: each one stiff and sharp, each leg perfectly engineered for sand skipping. A pair of paddle fins grew out of his butt and started waving around. Two hairy antennae sprouted out over him and hung in front of his eyes, like fishing lines. His skin turned to armored plates, all fitting snugly together. Within moments, he felt the nerves from every new limb connect to his brain and he gained control over his body, able to move everything and have it all feel totally natural.

  “Hello?” His voice sounded deeper. Packed down.

  He skittered over to the sea and let the water flood his gills and fill his lungs. He could still breathe. He felt light and dexterous, able to move in any direction with equal speed.

  Then he peeked out of the water and looked back at the table where his place setting was. It looked huge. Everything looked huge. A crushing wave came and now Ben found himself pulled away from the villa, the beach, the split in the road. It whisked him out into the sapphire waters and tossed him around like a beer can. After a few moments, he figured out his paddle fins and righted himself, barely able to discern the difference between right-side up and upside down. He could only see three feet in front of him, and what he saw was little more than murk. The water felt so hot. Boiling. He could feel the sun behind him, and he knew it was time for him to move away from the shore, out of the warm shallows and deep into the wide, cold ocean.

 
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