. . .
Tom pressed on the gate that divided them, but it would not budge. “Mary! Mary! Why didn’t you tell me? I can’t ride this. You have to let me go!” Tom pleaded with the guards.
“Sir, you know our policy. We can’t let you through. You have no choice but to go down the slide,” said the park manager. Mary raised her hand and motioned for Tom to go. Then she held her stomach and walked away with her eyes toward the sky. Tom watched her disappear into the crowd, from behind bars. “Please, sir, I need you to move forward.”
Twenty minutes of steady upward flow left Tom alone with his thoughts, and that much closer to the top of the slide. At first, he tried looking for Mary through the barricades. All of his cares were on her, and more specifically, her news. His misconceptions about her refusal to join him had washed away in a moment of truth, leaving behind only anxiety and endless questions. But with each step up, each step nearer the mouth of Free Fall, Tom’s concerns drifted toward himself. So by the time he had spent twenty minutes on the other side of the Point of No Return, Tom had all but forgotten about the unborn.
A bald man with a muscular build stood ahead of Tom. The back of his head was red, and beads of sweat took turns trying to cool his scorched skin. Tom stared, and probably knew this man’s head better than anyone else in the world. It was something for his eyes while he waded in his emotions.
Behind Tom, a young woman whistled the tune of Oh My Darling, Clementine.
“Maybe you shouldn’t whistle that song,” Tom said.
“Excuse me?’ She replied.
“Don’t you know what happens to Clementine?” He asked.
“Who cares? Geez, if it’s bothering you, I’ll stop,” she said, with the slightest hint of sarcasm. “It’s just a tune to a song no one knows, anyway.”
“I’m sorry if I upset you. Please, keep whistling,” Tom said. The young woman shook her head.
“You kind of spoiled the mood. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. We’re almost there.” She pointed past the bald man’s head and to the final stretch of the climb.
The summit of Free Fall can only be accessed by a gondola lift. Three passengers at a time are transported the remaining distance. Hovering hundreds of feet in the air, they are provided with a spectacular view of the entire park. When Tom stepped into the gondola, the heavy stench of rotten eggs assaulted him. The odor was so terrible that it nearly prevented him from imagining the cables snapping and the box dropping forever. He wondered if the water slide would smell the same.
The young woman clung to the metal bar lining the inside while the bald man knocked on the windows.
“This is it!” yelled the bald man.
“It’s almost over,” said the woman.
Tom said nothing, but thought of Mary somewhere distant.
Finally, and with a screech, the door opened. Tom’s nostrils burned.
The bald man burst out of the gondola and jumped head first into the black abyss that was Free Fall. For only a moment, the others heard his deep voice until it faded into nothing.
“That’s ill advised.” Tom hadn’t noticed the old man, or his southern twang, until he spoke. He wore an unbuttoned plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up past his elbows. A half-smoked cigar rested on his gums, and he twirled it with slender, gray fingers. His silver hair fell to his shoulders and waved in the breeze. He looked out through sunglasses that were darker than death at night, and motioned for the young woman.
“I’m having second thoughts!” She yelled. The old man blew smoke out of his nostrils and smiled from ear to ear.
“The time for chosin’ is over, little lady. Now you lay down there and that’ll be that,” said the old man.
“What if I don’t want to?” She asked.
“Well, then we have us a problem.” The old man stepped toward the young woman. “Most people want out. It’s plain old-fashioned human nature. I know it. You know it. But we’re beyond that nonsense now.”
When the young woman tried to jump back into the gondola, the doors shut and the cables took it away. Tom saw her eyes widen as she shivered and shuffled toward the entrance of Free Fall.
“That’s right. Remember, you’re supposed to enjoy this,” said the old man. He helped her get into the proper position, with arms folded across the chest. Ash fell on her forehead. She didn’t make a sound when he pushed her down.
“Alright, last of all, it’s you. Step up here, and that’ll be the end of it,” said the old man.
Tom didn’t move. He simply gazed into the old man’s crackled complexion. Deep lines crisscrossed his face, disappearing down into his sunken chest. If he wasn’t dressed like a man, Tom thought, he would be only a wrinkled thing. A great terror rippled out of his heart, filling his veins with despair and washing his mind in dread. All wrong. It’s all wrong, Tom repeated to himself. He was a child, huddled in a dark corner.
“I’m sorry. Please let me go back,” Tom said.
“Son, I don’t have the patience for this. It’s time for you to go down the slide, so let’s go,” said the old man.
“No,” Tom said breathlessly. The old man threw his cigar to the ground.
“I have all authority to throw you down this slide! Now come here!”
The old man reached out his long arms to grab Tom. Tom wrapped his hands around the old man’s wrists and tried to toss him back, but he could not resist the forward momentum. The old man wrapped his hands around Tom’s neck and opened his mouth, as if to swallow him whole. Tom desperately swiped at the old man’s sunglasses. Two empty sockets glared back at him, and the old man smiled as his grip tightened. Locked together, they both fell into the dark pit of the slide. Tom let go of the old man, and everything else, as he plummeted without ever touching the sides.
A twisted figure splashed down at the bottom. He stood up in shallow water and turned around. There he waited, a long time, for the other one to come out. Reaching blindly, he found something. It was a watch — ticking away.