A Short Story: End of the Line (Part 1 of 2)

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.

"Some people decide in the final moment that they want to turn back, but that is not an option. "  By Nathan King
“Some people decide in the final moment that they want to turn back, but that is not an option. ” Illustration by Nathan King

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…)

How Many Hours Have I Been Writing?

There is a belief, or at least a generally agreed upon assumption, that it takes about 10,000 hours to truly master something.  A man named Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book called Outliers which discusses this very thing.  “Ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness”, Gladwell writes.  He then goes on to write about The Beatles performing in Europe over twelve hundred times for periods often exceeding four hours, and all before they ever came to the U.S.  He also cites Mozart and Bill Gates as people who, more than being brilliant, simply spent hours, days, and years practicing something.   Basically, if anyone ever wants to be a master they have to put in an enormous amount of time.  This all makes me wonder, how many hours have I devoted to the mastery of the written word?  Am I even close to the magic number?

I first want to break down ten-thousand hours.

10,000 hours = 416 and 2/3 days

That means if all I did was write, it would take over a year to reach my goal.  To put it in perspective, consider that a person working forty hours a week clocks-in about two-thousand hours a year.  It would take five whole years of working forty hours a week to reach the magic number.   Even with a lot of practice it is difficult to hit ten-thousand hours in less than ten years.

Now that you understand that ten-thousand is hard to reach, I will attempt to calculate my hours.

Since we’re already here, let’s begin with the blog.  This will be my 185th post.  I figure it takes between 45 and 120 minutes to write most posts.  There are some that have taken nearly 4 hours, but they are rare.  As a conservative estimate I will choose 80 minutes as an average.

185 * 80 minutes= 14800 minutes

That’s only about 247 hours!  It would take me 10 and 1/4 days to re-write all of these posts.

The next thing I want to look at is the number of hours I invested in college writing.  I went to school for 4 years, which is a total of 8 semesters.  As an English major I had many courses that featured a significant amount of essay writing.  I took about 5 courses each semester.  A very conservative estimate for the number of essays in each course would be 4.  So that’s 20 essays per semester.  The average length of an essay is between 4 and 8 pages, or 6 pages.  Figuring an hour per page it took me 6 hours to write.  Some quick math tells me that is 120 hours each semester.

8 * 120 hours =  960 hours

And since one of those papers took 40 or so hours to write I will increase it to 1,000.

1,000 hours of writing in college.

Throughout the last 10 years of my life I have written a few stories.  They have ranged from 3 to 25 pages, and I’ve written about 20 of them.  I’ll estimate that 15 hours is the average time it takes to write them.

20 * 15 hours = 300 hours

I did a fair amount of writing in high school as well.  There were speeches, essays, and a creative writing class.  I think 500 hours over the course of 4 years is a reasonable estimate.

I also need to include miscellaneous writing from my life.  Things I have typed or written down that weren’t blog posts, essays, or short stories.  Journal entries, movie scripts, emails, love letters, IMs,  Facebook messages etc.   I think all of these can account for 150 hours a year.  And let’s make it span the past 14 years since it was in 5th grade that I discovered a passion for writing.

14 * 150 hours= 2,100 hours

So how many hours have I devoted to writing?

4,150 hours!

That’s about 173 days.

Unfortunately this means that I am only about half way to ten-thousand hour mastery.  I’ll see you when I’m 50.

I need to write about reading.  Any good writer understands that reading is a critical component of writing.  I didn’t include the hours spent reading in my calculation because I wanted to focus on the specific act of writing.  It becomes much more complicated when reading is factored into the mastery of writing.  That being said, the amount of time I’ve spent reading is probably between 3,000 and 4,000 hours.  

A Universe of Infinite Chimps

Imagine for a moment that there is a parallel universe that is entirely populated by chimpanzees.  Let’s say that this universe has hundreds of billions of galaxies. In each galaxy there are hundreds of millions of stars.  Circling these stars are even more planets.  Now let’s say that each planet is capable of sustaining life, and the only form of life is a chimpanzee.  Let’s see now, that’s going to be about… near infinite chimps.  Excellent.

Now imagine that another universe entirely populated by typewriters collides with this one, and each chimp has one at his disposal.  So we have a trillion trillion trillion chimps beating away at a trillion trillion trillion typewriters.   Do you have this picture in your head? Good.

Oh wait!  I almost forgot.  Another universe collides with the chimp universe and it is a paper universe.  Then a universe made up entirely of ink enters through a million wormholes and supplies the chimps.  Ok, now we’re on target.

Now to my point.

None of these chimps will write an accidental novel.  This is a probability illustration, and it is supposed to say something about time and infinity.  If you have an infinite number of chimps punching an infinite number of typewriters, eventually one of them will hit all of the right keys to write a classic piece of literature.  I challenge this theory, and here is why.

The chimps would starve to death.

But in all seriousness, excellence is no accident.  And if a chimp produced Shakespeare’s work, it wouldn’t mean anything.  A writer is intentional and each word is influenced by the words surrounding it.  So, even though this isn’t the point of the theory, I just wanted to point out that an infinite number of chimps couldn’t produce good literature.


The Irresistible Resolution

For anyone who has come here via Facebook, it must be clear to you now that I have returned.  The temporary hiatus proved beneficial as it allowed me to purge my mind of status update shaped thoughts.  As many of you know, this was one of the main reasons for my departure.  I felt that Facebook was shaping my mind to an unhealthy degree.  Now, I believe I will be able to handle this beast of a social network without investing too much of my time and concern.  It is simply a means through which I can communicate.  Communicate, I shall.

It is time to usher in the new year.  2011 is upon us, and I think it is appropriate to declare my resolution.

I will pour my energy into the pursuit of work within the field of writing.

To a degree, I have been doing this all along.  But I have not been giving it my all.  Doubts and a dash of complacency have prevented me from fully embracing this irresistible goal.  This cannot continue.  In some capacity, I must work with words.  It’s where my heart is.

So here I am, posting this for all to see.  The future is uncertain, but my heart and mind are set.  I am willing.  Now send me forth.