The hike, p.22
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       The Hike, p.22

           Drew Magary
 
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For weeks and weeks he crawled along the road, only “sleeping” in a crab’s way of resting while alert. He scoured murky puddles for fresh worms and other food, but it was hardly enough in the way of sustenance. His claws, once so nimble, were starting to feel stiff and brittle. His already lousy eyesight was getting lousier. Soon, he was moving mere feet per day, like he was stuck in clay.

  Back before the hike, he and Teresa would take the kids to the beaches in Delaware every summer, and they’d occasionally stumble upon a crab shell sitting perfectly still on the beach. It would look like a living crab at first, but then the kids would get closer and give it a poke, and their stick would go right through the shell. Then they’d turn it over and it would be hollow. Here now, dragging himself along the interminable path, he felt like his insides were ready to fall out of him, leaving only a petrified exoskeleton around for passersby to grind under their boots. Maybe I’ll turn into a rock. Maybe they’ll turn me into a fossil and I’ll be trapped in layer after layer of sediment for billions of years, and dinosaurs will come and go again, and asteroids will pummel the planet, and humans will re-evolve out of microbes before they set me free.

  The storms became less frequent and the sun pounded down on the prairie, sapping the grass and leaving it dull brown. He stopped for hours at a time, growing delirious in the stultifying heat, not even remembering why he was on the path or why he was still bothering to follow it.

  And then, one day, he walked into a wooden leg.

  “Ow.”

  It was a varnished pine table, sitting right in the center of the path. Ben looked up but could barely see two inches in front of him. He crawled under the table, into a patch of gratifying shade, and saw a pair of feet. Old-lady feet. Black Mary Janes. Nude panty hose. Then he heard a voice call to him.

  “Would you like to be human again?”

  I know that voice.

  “Mrs. Blackwell?” he asked.

  “Yes, I am Mrs. Blackwell. Would you like to be human again?”

  “Yes?”

  “‘Yes?’ You don’t sound terribly convinced.”

  “I’m sorry. I have a fuckin’ headache, and I don’t even know what day it is.”

  “It is any day, Benjamin. There are no days or dates to keep track of here. You’re losing time. You’ll be dead of dehydration and starvation in just a few moments if you don’t answer my question.”

  “Yes,” he said softly. “Please . . . make me human again.”

  He heard a cork pop and felt a shower of clear liquid rain down on him.

  “Drink up,” she said.

  He sucked the liquid out of the dirt. It took a moment, but once the potion began to circulate, Ben could feel the transformation. His insides became swollen and bloated. His field of vision exploded and coalesced into a clear panorama as his head grew out of the little crab shell, pushing through it like a newborn through its mother’s birth canal. His hands—real, human hands—pressed against the inside of his shell and broke the claws to pieces. He was wearing his father’s ring again. The tiny crab lungs that were drying out in the heat expanded and now he was purging the last of the water trapped inside those lungs out of a human mouth—coughing, hacking, on the verge of vomiting. His vestigial limbs fell off. Thick, sturdy legs grew out of his paddle fins. Long bones. Elastic skin. Scraggly, mannish leg hairs. Feet! Yes, he had feet now. He could float in the sea and wiggle his toes with a bottle of beer in his hand again.

  He was lying on the ground now, under Mrs. Blackwell’s table. Still emaciated. Still starving. There were tiny bits of crab shell lying all around him. He could barely move.

  “Do get up,” she told him. “We have business to tend to.”

  “I’m dying of thirst here.”

  A bottle of chilled water landed on his head.

  “Drink,” she said.

  He did as instructed.

  “Now get up.”

  He fumed. Always following orders from this path and the people running it. So sick of this bullshit. So he didn’t get up. Instead, he reached from under the table and grabbed Mrs. Blackwell’s stupid leg. Immediately, a hungry Rottweiler with a killing face poked under the table and growled at Ben.

  “Let go of me,” Mrs. Blackwell ordered.

  That cowed Ben quickly enough. He drew his hand back and rolled away from the dog in a fright, gathering dust all over his naked body. Mrs. Blackwell threw a pair of black workout shorts and an orange T-shirt at him, along with a pair of socks and sneakers.

  “Get dressed.”

  “WHY DO YOU KEEP FUCKING WITH ME?!”

  “Do you want me to sic the dog on you, or do you want to find out what’s next?”

  “Fine. You complete assholes.”

  He slid the shorts and T-shirt on and finally got on his feet. She was sitting behind the table, hands folded neatly in front of her. The table was covered in food: deli meats and cheeses and platters of charred roasted vegetables, the stuff of a starving man’s daydreams. There was also a fully loaded handgun lying among the spread.

  Behind Mrs. Blackwell was a train. This was the beginning of the line. There was a red caboose at the back, with a fenced-in porch for viewing. The caboose was coupled to a series of six rail coaches: a sleeper car, a café car, a quiet car, a first-class car, and two standard passenger cars. At the front was a single diesel locomotive.

  Ben didn’t bother asking permission to eat. All the food was in his hands and mouth within seconds. He spied the Rottweiler at Mrs. Blackwell’s feet. It was sedate now, gentle as a puppy. He wanted to kick the thing into another dimension.

  “Had enough?” Mrs. Blackwell asked.

  “Jufft uh thecond.” His mouth was full.

  She was growing impatient and tapping her foot. “Let’s be on with it.”

  “Jufft talk while I eat.”

  “You should be paying full attention.”

  “Fine.” No more eating. Mrs. Blackwell gestured to the train with her thumb.

  “The train leaves in two minutes. It will take you to the Producer. Despite your conduct here, you’ve proven a good, strong lad. The Producer thinks you’re ready for him now. Alternatively, you can pick up that gun, step off the path, and shoot yourself.”

  “Why would I do that?”

  She leaned in. “I can’t tell you how long you will be on that train.”

  “Why not?”

  “It’s entirely at the discretion of the Producer. Could be fifteen minutes. Could be years. You’ll survive, of course. By now you’ve learned that nothing on the path will ever kill you, not even old age. As long as the path goes on, you go on.”

  “What’s on the train?”

  “Nothing is on it.”

  “Well, is there food?”

  She rolled her eyes. “Yes, there’s food. But now there’s no time. So your choice: the train or the gun.”

  Ben swiped the gun off the table and felt it in his hands. Just the right weight. He aimed it at Mrs. Blackwell. The dog turned feral immediately. He lowered it back down.

  “Tell you what,” he said to her, “Death lasts millions and billions of years, too. So I’m not gonna shoot myself today, Mrs. Blackwell. I’m gonna keep little mister gun here, and I’m gonna get on that train, and when I get to your Producer, I’m gonna shoot him in the fucking face.”

  She gave Ben a sarcastic grin. He ambled past her and climbed up the steps at the back of the caboose. Out on the porch, he extended a single middle finger at her.

  She shook her head as the train pulled away from the buffer, rattling and swaying until it picked up enough speed to run smoothly. Ben walked toward the front, through the empty caboose and into the passenger cars. He had ridden on a train like this countless times through the Northeast Corridor, and he recognized all the familiar accoutrements: the cheap fabric seats, the bathrooms with the heavy sliding do
ors, the little pull-curtains, the overhead bins with floppy doors that always hung down just low enough to bash him in the head, the white cord that could make the whole train grind to a halt. Rudy would like this train. His older son loved trains. The boy even sounded like a train. He made WOO-WOO! sounds whenever he was playing in the basement.

  The train was devoid of passengers. The coach cars and the first-class car and the cute sleeper car were all empty. He could sit anywhere, sleep anywhere. The train belonged to him.

  Except for the café car. It was the last car he entered, located at the front, right behind the diesel locomotive. When Ben slipped through the door and walked around to the open café, he saw a creepy old man with pancake makeup standing behind the counter. It was Voris’s clerk. The Regenerator. Ben took one look at the ghoulish old man and stepped back.

  “Can I help you, sir?” the clerk asked. Behind him was a standard selection of chips and drinks and crummy frozen pizzas. And a tip jar.

  “You can talk now?”

  “I could always speak.”

  “I thought we killed you,” Ben said.

  The clerk gave him a crooked, leering smile. “The Producer wanted me back.”

  “Who’s driving this train? Is it Voris?” It shouldn’t have been possible. But of course, it was highly possible. It was the most possible thing now.

  “No one is driving the train,” the clerk said. “May I get you anything?”

  Ben sprinted out of the café car and through all the seated areas to the dingy caboose at the back. Out on the porch, he scanned around for a good place to jump off, but the train was hurtling down the track too fast, maybe over 150 miles an hour. They weren’t on the prairie anymore. The dry grasses had given way to a barren salt flat, the sun lingering over the bleak whiteness. He turned back toward the sliding door of the caboose, accidentally bashed his head on the steel threshold above, and passed out.

  • • •

  When he woke up, he was in a bed with truck sheets. In a house. Football posters on the white walls. What happened to the train? Train, what train? There’s no train. You’re home. With Mom and Dad. Remember? It’s Saturday. You get sugary cereals today.

  Ben felt around his body. He was small and pale. Seven years old. His father ambled in, smelling like a portable toilet.

  “Mom’s doing a weekend shift,” he told Ben. “You’re coming with me.”

  “Where?”

  “It’s a surprise.”

  They piled into his old man’s speck of a sedan and got on the road to nearby Shakopee. Ben could see the Ferris wheel from the highway.

  “That’s right,” his dad said, reaching into the glove box for a warm Schmidt beer. “Valleyfair. You’re riding the Corkscrew today.”

  “Dad, I don’t want to.”

  “Nonsense. Your mom’s not around. This is the best time for you to finally ride a roller coaster.”

  “I don’t like roller coasters.”

  “Yes, you do. Every time we’ve come here with your mother, you walk right up to that line and then puss out at the last second. Time to sack up.”

  Ben started clawing at the door. “NO.”

  “Relax.”

  The Corkscrew was a twisting black contraption that ran loops and took passengers upside down over and over again—an understandably frightening prospect for a young boy with a limited understanding of centrifugal forces. They parked in the hinterlands of the Valleyfair lot, the coaster a scorching one-mile walk away. The old man was already drunk. They got to the line and when Ben tried to escape, his father grabbed him by the shoulder and held him close. Ben twisted and squirmed and begged his dad not to force him into the machine. Other people started to notice.

  “You’ll be glad I made you,” his dad said, a cloud of stale-beer air all around him.

  “I don’t wanna go,” said Ben, shaking.

  “Don’t be a coward.”

  “I’m not ready.”

  His father knelt down and leaned into him, more for structural support than affection. “Listen to me,” he said. “Just pretend you’re driving it.”

  “What?”

  “Pretend you’re in control of it. It’s a set track. You have no real control over where it goes. But if you pretend you do, it won’t seem so bad. Does that make sense?”

  “No.”

  “Just trust me.”

  He nudged Ben forward and the boy whimpered. He was clinging to his drunk old man now. More people stared, wondering whether or not to say something. (They didn’t.) The old man dragged Ben into the shiny black car and lowered the shoulder harness over him.

  “No going back now,” he told Ben. Ben began to sob as the operator pushed the button and the car began its long, terrifying journey up to the top of the track along the thick black girders. Ben could hear the chains rattle as they grabbed the cars and dragged them forward. He could hear all the clinks and clunks. His old man whispered in his ear again, “Remember: Drive the thing.”

  They were eighty-five feet in the air now. The chains stopped their rattling and the ambient sounds of the park below faded away. All that remained in that empty patch of sky was pure, horrible silence. The cars crested at the top of the coaster and then, with the utmost cruelty, the ride paused at the edge of the drop, so Ben could see how far down he was going to fall. Now he was crying his eyes out, and his father did the exact wrong thing by laughing and giggling and shouting, “Isn’t this fun?” It was not fun. Ben was about to die. The cars released and he let out the primal wail of an infant. The Corkscrew threw him back in his seat and then lifted him back up and then ripped his stomach out again.

  But somewhere along the ride, while praying for it to end without killing him, Ben began to lean into the curves. The track would twist and he would angle his body, like a motorcycle racer speeding around a turn. When the time came to go upside down, he reared way back and pretended to push an afterburner button, like a jet pilot evading incoming fire. He stopped crying. He was focused. He was driving. When the ride came to a stop, his tears were gone. He dashed out the exit and circled back to get in line again.

  He rode the coaster ten more times that day. In the car ride back, before his old man got pegged for yet another DUI and the cops had to drive Ben the rest of the way home, he burped and told the boy:

  “I’m sorry I made you cry, kid. I’m fucked up.”

  “I know you’ve been drinking, Dad.”

  “No, I mean I’m fucked up. But I got my reasons. I know I never did anything good for you, Ben. But just remember that everything bad can be made good if you know how to use it.”

  • • •

  He woke up. Something had turned inside him. All those years of resignation and hardening and evolved indifference—they fell off him. There was that urgency again. That frenzy.

  He stood up on the porch of the caboose, looking at the growing line of track behind the barreling train. He had no control over the path. It had dictated everything to him. But that was over now. Drive the thing. Yes, he would drive it. He would drive it right back to Teresa. He would come for her. I put the path here. This is where I wanted it to go.

  The clerk, who had walked to the caboose all the way from the café car, tapped Ben on the shoulder.

  “You need to come inside before dark,” the clerk said.

  Ben turned and smashed the clerk’s face in. Then he pounced on the old man and began choking him, bashing his head with the butt of his gun.

  “Stop!” the clerk cried. “You need to come inside.”

  “How do I get into the locomotive?” Ben demanded to know.

  “It’s very dangerous!”

  “I DON’T FUCKING CARE.”

  “Through the café car,” the old man wheezed. “There’s a ladder you can climb to get into the cab.”

  “Who’s driving it?”
r />   “I told you: No one is. It drives itself.”

  “Not anymore, it doesn’t.”

  “The Producer won’t let you. . . .”

  “I am the Producer.”

  The clerk smiled at him. “Now you’re catching on.”

  Ben let the old man go and marched through four of the passenger cars before encountering a dogface in the first-class cabin.

  “I’ve been waiting for this since . . .”

  “Fuck you.” Ben punched the dogface square on the chin and knocked him into the seats.

  He ran to the café car, slid the front door open and stood on the coupler attaching the locomotive to the rest of the train. It was topping off at 200 miles an hour now, the outside air a vicious beast roaring between the locomotive and the café car. On the back of the locomotive was a ladder reaching up to the roof. Ben grabbed the rungs and pulled himself up, adrenalized like a boy thirty years younger. On top of the locomotive, he saw the track bending to the right along the great salt flat, heading into a darkened mountain range.

  There was a tunnel at the base of the mountains. At this speed, it wouldn’t take long for the locomotive to go sailing into it, sweeping Ben off the top of the train. No matter to him. He was a bull now. In the darkening sky, he saw a red triangle forming up high between two luminous moons that were now hanging up and to the left of the mountain tunnel. The triangle looked as if it had been drawn by lasers. He crouched down and slid along the top of the locomotive as the wind did everything it could to peel him off. But Ben had hands again. It felt good to have hands. Hands were useful.

  The tunnel grew closer and the great triangle in the sky widened as Ben made it to the front of the raging locomotive and found a ladder running down the side to the door of the cab. Just as he climbed down and looked through the window to see an empty engineer’s seat, a great black Smoke with white fire eyes flew beside Ben and gave him a silent, angry stare.

  Ben didn’t hesitate. He furrowed his brow, leaned into the Smoke’s body, and began inhaling deeply, sucking the ghost up like a bong hit. He could see the Smoke panic, its eyes growing wild with fright. Ben didn’t stop. He sucked every last bit of ash out of the sky, including the Smoke’s pathetic, glowing eyes. Then, he turned to the window and spat the Smoke back out of his mouth as hot fire, using the flame to melt down the glass and form an opening. The wind cooled the melted glass in place right away, and Ben slipped into the engineer’s seat and saw the red triangle still expanding up in the jumbled night sky.

 
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