The hike, p.9
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       The Hike, p.9

           Drew Magary
 
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  “You’re here!” a voice called from deep inside the cave. It was a woman’s voice. Warm. Friendly. “Come on! Let’s go. Don’t keep me waiting forever.”

  Ben looked to Crab. Crab threw his pincers up.

  “No idea.”

  “You should stay here,” Ben said.

  “Why?”

  “In case I need you.”

  “It’s boring here,” Crab said.

  “People get bored because they’re boring.” Ben must have said this to his children a thousand times.

  “I’m not a person. I’m a crab. I’m allowed to get bored sitting here in a shitty cave.”

  “Just wait here so you don’t die. I bet death is even more boring than this.”

  “It better be.”

  “Shut up.”

  Crab planted himself down by the cave wall and covered himself in grime. He was impossible for Ben to see now.

  “What if we don’t see each other again?” Ben asked Crab from the darkness.

  “Then it’s been real, I guess.”

  Ben unstrapped his crampons and tucked them back into his bag, and then he began walking along the path into the growing darkness. It was damp here. You could feel it in the air and smell it in the rock. Fungi thrived in the cave. . . . They were probably growing inside Ben’s nostrils already. He clicked on his flashlight and saw the path curve to the right. There was a hint of light coming from around the bend. Or was that just his flashlight? He walked farther along as the cave bent gradually, painfully.

  Suddenly, a bat with a six-foot wingspan flew right over his head. Ben screamed and collapsed to the floor, crying and shaking. His body was no longer equipped to handle sudden shocks. The bat shattered him. He wept on the cave floor and begged, “Please, no more. . . . No more. . . .”

  “Hey!” the female voice said to him from deep inside the mountain.

  “Hello?”

  “What’s keeping ya?”

  “Go away. Leave me alone.”

  “Are you okay?”

  “NO.”

  “It’s not much farther. I swear. You’re doing really well.”

  “Go fuck yourself.”

  There was a long silence.

  “I’m gonna chalk that up to general crankiness,” the voice said. “But just this one time. Now get up and come on over here, you lug.”

  Tired as his body was, Ben had little choice but to obey. He got up and began walking again in a half crouch in case another bat came roaring his way. Soon, the prick of light he initially saw deep inside the cave became more definite: a warm, golden glow creeping along the walls and making the fetid tunnel feel drier, homier.

  He rounded the great bend and found himself at the entrance of a chamber that was easily a hundred feet high, a naturally formed ballroom of limestone walls and icicle-thin stalagmites and stalactites. Some of the jutting formations met in the center and formed columns that dotted the room. Past the chamber lay a small blue lake, its surface smoother than a television screen.

  In the center of the chamber was a rug the size of a football field, piled high with human goods: backpacks and old pants and shirts and pocket watches and whole boats and canoe paddles and suitcases and shoes. There was a CB radio on top of all the loot. To the side of the rug was a vigorous bonfire with a black metal cauldron perched atop it, bubbling away.

  On top of the pile sat a woman thirty feet tall. She had ruby red lips and long, curly chestnut hair, and she wore a gray burlap dress that crested right at her knees. She crossed her legs and kicked out her feet, clad in thick wool socks and boots big enough to house a little old lady. She looked to be in her thirties, although who knew how giants aged. When she saw Ben, her face lit up. She couldn’t have been happier to see him. It was as if he were paying his grandma a visit. She munched on a handful of peanuts as she spoke to him; thousands of peanuts in the palm of her hand.

  “You’re here! Why, look at you. You’re as cute as a button!” She pointed to a spot in front of her great pile of goods. “Stand over there.”

  “Why?”

  “Because if you don’t, I’ll just stomp on you and mash your little man-guts right into my rug, you goofball. What a question to ask. Go on. The light’s best in that spot. Let me get a good look at you.”

  Ben did as he was told. The giant uncrossed her legs and leaned forward, putting her elbows on her knees and resting her chin on her hand. She was attractive. He couldn’t help but think it. She studied Ben for an uncomfortably long period of time.

  “There’s a big scar on your face. Did you know you have a scar on your face?”

  “I did.”

  “How’d you get it?”

  “I slayed a giant.”

  “HA! I don’t think so. Nice try, though.”

  Ben looked over at the roiling cauldron. It smelled like curry.

  “You want some?” she asked.

  “What’s in it?”

  “People, of course! No bones, though. I promise you won’t choke.”

  Ben threw up. She shooed him off the rug.

  “The rug! The rug! Get off the rug, you big jerk!”

  He spilled out more used beef stew onto the cave floor.

  “Please don’t kill me,” he begged her. “I have a wife and children and . . .”

  “Oh, blah blah blah. You know how many times I’ve heard that? People with families are so arrogant. Just because they have a family, they think they matter. They’re all boring. For once, I’d like a man to beg for his life and scream out, ‘Save me, Fermona! I have no kids and my life is insanely fun!’ No one ever does that.”

  Ben opened his eyes wide. “I’m not the only person who’s been on this path.”

  “You’ve seen my front yard. Does it look like you’re the first gentleman to come knocking on my door? Only the choice cuts go in the stew.”

  “I don’t know how I got here.”

  “Donnnnnnnn’t carrrrrrrrrre. You’re losing me.”

  “Why would you want to kill me?”

  “Why wouldn’t I? You’re eminently killable. Now, take off your clothes.”

  “What if I say no?”

  Fermona frowned and sat back on her pile. Then she took out a sheet of paper the size of a large window and began drawing.

  “Would you like to see your death matrix?” she asked.

  “My death matrix?”

  She turned the piece of paper around to reveal a simple line plotting:

  “You see that dot there in the left-hand corner?” Fermona asked him. “That’s you, right now. You’re practically off the chart already!”

  “Oh.”

  “Now, if you want to die any other way, you should, you know, play ball. And I think you can do it. I think you can nudge that dot jussssssst a bit up and to the right, okay? I believe in you. I’m not asking for much here. I just want to see you naked. Let’s go. Clothes off. Hop to it.”

  Ben walked back onto the rug and began to disrobe: his boots, pants, jacket, sweater, thermals . . . everything but his underwear.

  “Put all your stuff on my pile.”

  He left everything at her feet except his bag.

  “You forgot something,” she said.

  Reluctantly, Ben took the bag off his shoulder and tossed it on the pile of booty.

  “And your underwear, please.”

  “How could that possibly be necessary?” he asked her.

  “This is strictly for evaluation. You shouldn’t feel awkward about this at all. My gosh, you’re not . . . excited, are you?”

  “No.”

  “It’s fine if you are. It’s happened in the past, you know. Not a big deal.”

  “Yes it is, and no I’m not.”

  “Oop! Looks like someone’s dot has crept a little bit farther off the ol’
death matrix!”

  “Fine.” Ben dropped his underwear and exposed himself to the giant. She nodded solemnly and then gestured for him to put his boxers back on.

  “See? That wasn’t so bad now, was it? You’re gonna be super happy we did that. This is gonna be great.”

  “What is?”

  “Watching you fight! Now, you’re pretty scrawny. We’re gonna have to beef you up. You sure you don’t want the stew? It’s packed with protein. How do you think I got so big and strong?”

  “I’ll pass.”

  “Okay. Fine. Your choice. I’m not here to make you do anything you don’t want to do, apart from a few extremely dangerous and potentially lethal things.” She plucked a small burlap poncho off the pile and threw it at him. “There. That should be comfortable for you. I think you’re gonna really enjoy the time you spend in my hole.”

  “Your what?”

  “My hole! I have a great hole that just opened up a day or two ago. You’re lucky you stumbled upon me when you did. Now let’s get holing.”

  She clapped her hands and stood up, beckoning him into a darker, torchlit corridor that led them deep into the bowels of the mountain. He followed behind in his scratchy burlap gown. After a while, they came across a series of arched wooden doors on either side of the corridor. Ben swore he could hear muffled shouts coming from behind them. Fermona dug into her pockets, took out a set of clunky keys, and fumbled through them.

  “After all these years, you’d think I would know which key opened which door, but here we are. This is just the worst.”

  “What kind of name is Fermona?”

  “A beautiful one.” She finally opened the door. “You’ve had a long day. Come on in. This is one of the more spacious holes.”

  Ben stepped into the doorway and saw nothing but black. The giant gave him a firm kick and he tumbled twenty feet down the steep side of the hole and onto the barren floor, rolling his ankle and crying out in anguish. Fermona posted a torch on the wall above and looked down at him one last time. She was smiling. There wasn’t a hint of menace in her expression. She was the sunniest homicidal giant you could ever wish to meet. She batted a flap at the bottom of the door.

  “Food and water come through here. Make sure you eat, or else I’ll have to weigh you, and then kill you.”

  “Who am I fighting?”

  “That’s a surprise.”

  “What if I lose?”

  “Then I eat you.”

  “What if I win?”

  “Then I don’t eat you.”

  “And I go free?”

  “No. I just don’t eat you. Let’s not go crazy here, kiddo. Sweet dreams!”

  And she shut the door on Ben and locked it tight.

  CHAPTER FIFTEEN

  THE HOLE

  He had no concept of night or day. He had only the torchlight to go by, and if he stared at it long enough, everything around it started to flash bright white, and the flame itself became a black spot, eating deep into his brain.

  He had suffered depression as a teenager, and the worst thing about it was that he knew when it was coming. He could feel the dread wafting in, a soft breeze through a cracked window. One little taste of the hopelessness and he knew that more was on the way. It was unstoppable. In human form, it would have been twice Fermona’s size and just as charming. He was hopeless to resist it and, at times, he didn’t even try. It was seductive, the way it urged you to stop caring. It could overpower him so easily, which of course was one more thing to be depressed about.

  Like Teresa, Ben’s mother was a night nurse at a local hospital. Her very job was despair, and she could tell when the depression was hitting Ben. He looked just like any of the terrified family members she saw sitting in hospital waiting rooms. Sometimes, after a twelve-hour shift, she would come home and find him in bed. And then she would take his hand and just hold it. No words. No orders. Sometimes she would stroke his hair and run her fingers along his neck. That was usually enough to get him out of bed and head off to school with the depression still perched on his shoulder.

  Three times a day, Fermona would stop by the hole to open the door and dump some turkey legs and water down for him. Her visits were all he had to look forward to. She was going to murder him and suck on his bones, but at least she was pleasant about it. Neighborly, even.

  On the seventh day, she opened the door and looked down at him.

  “How are you?” she asked.

  “Not good.”

  “Talk to me.”

  “My head hurts. And my knee. And I miss my family, although I know that bores you.”

  “No, no. I understand. Perfectly normal to miss your family when you know death could come for you at any moment.”

  “Right, yeah.”

  “Tell me about them. Your family.”

  “Well, my wife’s a nurse.”

  “Noble profession. God bless her for that. Not easy work.”

  “Um, my daughter loves foxes.”

  “Ooh, I bet she’s a little spitfire. Hang on. I might have something for you.”

  She left the door open and Ben tried scaling the wall of the hole to reach it. He was a bit stronger now, after a week of food and rest. His hand was scarring up, too. But it was no use. After four steps up the side of the hole, he lost his grip and fell back to the floor. Fermona poked her head back through the flap.

  “Did you just try to escape?”

  “Yes.”

  “That’s fantastic. You’re getting your strength back. You should be ready soon. Here . . .”

  She threw down a plush fox toy. It was fat and round, like a beach ball, with two little ear flaps and four little balled paws. He could see the fox smiling at him in the darkness. Flora had a fox like this. She kept it in her bed at night, along with fifty-seven other small stuffed animals, each one arranged in a precise order. She slept with a Greek chorus observing her. Ben clutched the fox to his chest and wept.

  “Thank you.”

  “Don’t mention it.”

  Fermona closed the door and he lay back down on the ground, closing his eyes. The flashing white from the torchlight grew wider and wider behind his eyelids, glowing bright.

  • • •

  He opened his eyes and found himself lying on a hospital gurney. Cheap, thin sheets were covering him. How’d you get here? You were just in the cave, weren’t you? Cave? What cave? There’s no cave. Don’t you know where you are? You’re at Ridgeview Hospital. Ridgeview, Minnesota.

  He sat up on the gurney. There was no scar on his hand. But why would there be a scar? You never cut yourself. You’re thirty-five years old and perfectly fit.

  Over on the other side of the room was a fat, bald doctor in a white lab coat, presiding over a table littered with assorted trinkets sealed in very small Ziploc bags. He looked over at the wall and saw a bunch of stainless steel doors, each one about the size of an oven.

  I know what kind of room this is.

  The doctor turned to Ben, looking surprised.

  “Ah! You’re awake. Good. Now you can give me a positive ID.”

  “A positive ID?”

  “Yes, of course. You never did come and lay eyes on him, did you?”

  “No. I didn’t.”

  “Come on over here. I’ll show you.”

  Ben got up. He was wearing a dress suit with no tie. The doctor waved him over to the table and showed him a handful of blackened objects spread out on a cloth: a gold ring, a watch, a pair of charred shoes.

  “Do you recognize these objects, Benjamin?”

  “Yes.”

  “Do they belong to your father?”

  “Yeah. They do.”

  “Do you want to see his body?”

  Ben shook his head. “I don’t think I want to.”

  “Just for a second. Look at
his teeth. Help me out.”

  “I can’t . . . I don’t . . .”

  “You don’t want be here, do you?”

  “No.”

  “That’s all right. No one ever does.”

  The coroner walked over to one of the steel doors and opened it. Ben felt the blast of icy air come from inside the refrigerator. The doctor reached in and pulled out a sliding steel tray. The corpse was covered in a blue sheet, with two blackened, crumbling feet poking out at the front. The toes were nearly gone. There was barely anyplace to hang the ID tag.

  “Would you like to see the whole body, or just the face?”

  “The face,” Ben said. The coroner reached for the top of the sheet to turn it down. Ben braced himself, like he was ready to fend off a punch.

  His father’s head was pure anthracite. Nothing but dark bone. There were some stray hairs left, but the old man’s face had been fully incinerated. His teeth were his only remaining discernible feature, with one gleaming white incisor—the product of a dental implant—parked between its yellowing, nicotine-stained partners.

  “Well?” asked the coroner.

  “Cover it.”

  He did as Ben instructed.

  “Is it him?”

  “Of course it is.”

  “He died quickly in the blaze. Became highly intoxicated, dropped his cigarette . . . probably didn’t suffer for very long, if that counts for anything.”

  “It doesn’t.”

  “How do you feel right now?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “It’s okay. It’s okay to be glad. You’re glad now, aren’t you?”

  “Don’t put words in my mouth.”

  “He was a piece of shit, you know.”

  “Yeah. I know.”

  “Remember that boat he got after the divorce? That lousy boat of his?”

  “Yeah.”

  “Remember those ‘fishing trips’? You would beg your mom to switch shifts at the hospital so you wouldn’t have to go on them. He’d send you out on that crappy white Boston Whaler to bake in the sun while he threw down can after can of Schmidt beer out on Halsted Bay. That old man barely ever put a hook in the water.”

 
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