End of the Line
by David Lavallee
Illustrations by Nathan King
He had been standing in line for what seemed like ages. Looking at his watch, he was reminded that it had died. Checking the time was a nervous tick, and no matter how often he looked, it would always be three thirty-three. The park was flooded with people, and their raised voices mixed inharmoniously in the scorching August air. From time to time he would attempt to eavesdrop on a nearby conversation, but it demanded too much concentration. His focus was elsewhere. The slide captured his attention.
Adamson’s Water Park attracted hoards of customers during the summer season. It housed a wave pool with an artificial white sand beach. People from all walks of life fought for a spot along the fake shore. Most days, young men and women dominated the landscape, driven by a primal need to showcase their bodies. Families and older couples retreated to the picnic tables. Circling the park, a slow-moving river carried laid-back patrons who rested on tubes. It served as an escape for anyone wishing to dodge the crowds. A number of small water slides attracted children, and anyone looking for a safe thrill. A step up from those, Adamson’s provided larger slides for the more adventurous. They each scored a seven on the ride intensity scale established by the Society of Amusement Park Standards (SAPS). But none of these rides compared to Free Fall. Free Fall scored a ten plus, which is the highest intensity rating in the world. Riders disappeared into a dark tunnel, dropping so fast that the name of the slide became terribly appropriate. It was impossible to tell where they came out on the other side. Free Fall towered over the park, casting a long shadow from entrance to exit.
“Let’s just forget it, Tom. The line’s too long. We’ve been waiting forever, and my stomach’s upset.” Mary rubbed her exposed mid-section. Tom checked his watch again. “Stop that! Why’d you even wear that thing?” Mary asked.
“I…I guess I didn’t think. Force of habit,” Tom replied. For a moment, he considered Mary’s plea to give up waiting. Just for a moment. “We’ve waited this long. The choice was made back there.” He pointed past hundreds of people. Mary scowled.
They were at least a couple of hours away, and they had already waited for one. Free Fall only allows for one rider every thirty seconds, and that is when everything operates smoothly. Some people decide in the final moment that they want to turn back, but that is not an option. Once the Point of No Return is crossed, all riders enter into a contract with the park that says they have to go down the slide. If they panic and cause a disturbance, the slide operators have the authority to force them down. The park depends on a steady flow of bodies. This is the reason minors are forbidden from Free Fall. Only adults with the power to choose for themselves are allowed to cross the final threshold.
“I don’t think I can go through with it. My stomach is really starting to turn over,” Mary said.
“I think it’s in your head. You don’t want to go down the slide. I get it. Wait until we reach the Point of No Return, and then leave if you have to.” Tom wiped the sweat from his forehead and felt the radiating burn of a distant sun. Then he looked at his watch again.
Mary often faced the accusation from Tom that she never seemed to follow anything through to completion. She always had an excuse to give up. When Tom first proposed, she claimed that she needed more time to decide. A year later, when he proposed again, she told him that she no longer believed in the institution of marriage. “Can’t we love each other without wearing shackles?” She protested. Tom heartily disagreed with her newfound philosophy. “There’s freedom in binding,” he assured her. But all she could say was, “That makes no sense!”
During the next half hour, Tom and Mary observed their surroundings. A pigeon pecked at a dropped pretzel, and Tom wondered if it was true that birds were unable to pass gas. He recalled a conversation from his youth in which another boy claimed to have fed a seagull some Alka-Seltzer. The boy stuffed it in some bait and watched the bird eat without a care. He laughed with delight to see the bird crash into the ocean, dying from the inside. Mary watched a little girl eat a strawberry ice cream cone. The ice cream dribbled down the cone and covered the girl’s hands. Why doesn’t she wipe it up? Mary thought. The girl ate, showing little concern for the sticky pink fluid that flowed down her sleeve. An old clown caught their attention when he accidentally popped a balloon animal. Neither Tom nor Mary had ever seen a clown fail at such a simple trick, and though they despised clowns, it made them feel sorry for the elderly man behind the red nose. They felt worse when his audience of captivated children began to sob. One girl screamed, “It’s dead! He killed it!” The clown fled the scene, forgetting his bag.
The couple moved closer to the Point of No Return. No one could mistake it. The park went to great lengths to ensure that their customers knew the arrangement. In bold blue letters it read, NO TURNING BACK. MUST GO FORWARD. ABSOLUTELY NO EXCEPTIONS. Along the way, they posted many smaller signs describing their ride policy. Tom read one of them aloud to Mary. “Free Fall is the most thrilling water slide in the world. Because of this, it attracts hundreds of thousands of committed riders. Adamson’s Water Park is focused on providing the most people with the most fun. We created the Point of No Return as a means to maximize fun. We understand that many would reconsider riding Free Fall once they reached the top. This would create massive delays and much disturbance, which would severely tarnish the experience of the other riders. The Point of No Return is exactly that. If you cannot commit, please consider any of our other fun water slides. If you are serious about having a good time, pass the Point of No Return and prepare to have a blast.”
“What did you eat that made your stomach upset?” Tom asked.
“Nothing but an egg and some toast. I eat it all the time,” Mary said.
“Maybe it was a bad egg. We’re only a few minutes away. Are you in or out?” Mary held her stomach. Tom moved close to her face, as if to kiss her, and whispered, “I want you to go up with me.”
Adamson’s used to station low-level employees at the threshold, but found that they were often too lenient with riders. They lacked the authority to prevent people from breaking their contract to ride. Once people had discovered that the Point of No Return was less than it claimed to be, the occurrence of disruptions skyrocketed. Free Fall experienced massive ride delays, which forced the park to get more serious. The entrance is now guarded by a park manager and a member of the security unit. Since the change, only one person has come back through the threshold: a sixty-three year old woman who dropped dead of a heart attack.
“I don’t know, I don’t think I should do this,” Mary said. Tom rolled his eyes and looked away. They were only a few paces away from the final threshold. “I really can’t.”
“And why can’t you? Is it because your stomach hurts, or because you’re afraid?” Tom asked sternly. He stood at the entrance of the Point of No Return. The two park officials looked at him, arms folded. “Just come with me!” Tom yelled.
“I can’t! Go, but I’m not. I shouldn’t,” Mary said as tears formed in her eyes.
“Sir, are you riding Free Fall, or are you turning around? You have to decide immediately,” said the park manager. Tom peered back at Mary, who now had tears streaming down her face, and then took the final step through the threshold.
“Ma’am, are you going to join him?” asked the security guard. The couple gazed at each other, separated by an impassable gulf.
“No,” Mary said. “I’m pregnant.”
(To be continued…)