The first and only time I went on the coaster was the most interesting. Of course it always is interesting, and you're only supposed to go on once, so I guess the point is moot... but whatever.
My brother told me afterward that I had changed. He couldn't say how, but he insisted that it was true. I laughed him off, but inside I wondered about it.
Tell you about the coaster?
I guess I could.
It was a Tuesday when my mom announced that she had bought me a ticket to the coaster. No one has ever called it anything else, just the coaster. That's it. They had come out with it a few years before and everyone said it was amazing, but no one was supposed to talk about what happened to them in it. Apparently it's different for everyone.
I think my mother probably had her doubts. She probably thought it was a rip-off, not worth the fifty bucks that a ticket would cost you. But after three years of hearing how amazing it was, I had begun to beg her to let me ride it, and so she consented. She had been trying to show me that she favoured me as much as she did my brother, trying not to show favouritism. This was the best way.
I was exited of course, and she at least pretended to be enthusiastic. We drove far away, to a different country altogether, to visit the coaster. It took us several hours to get there. First we took major highways, but eventually we traveled off into side roads; the color of the sky never changed from its gray that threatened rain. We drove through an obscure field for half an hour before we got to the coaster's obscure location. I had only ever seen grainy photos, so the real thing impressed me even more when I saw it.
There was a large fence all around, with a small booth just outside it. The first thing I saw as we pulled up (besides the fence) was what was inside the fence: a giant building. It looked like a huge, light brown square with a normal-looking (but much smaller) building beside it. It had no other shape to it. As we stopped outside the fence and showed our ticket to the lady at the booth, and she let us in, I was craning my neck to see through the wire.
There it was. The single difference in the giant square. A black hole in the side maybe twice my height and not very wide; sticking out of it was a bit of track that lay on the ground, and on that was a single, purple roller coaster car. It only had room for one.
The fence opened and Mom drove the car into a small parking lot next to the smaller building. There were five other cars there. As we were getting out of our car, a man came out the door of the building. He smiled as he approached us. "You must be the Johnsons," he said warmly. "I'm Peter, and I'm going to be helping you get ready for the coaster today."
"Get ready?" I asked, but Peter merely smiled and led me and my mother away from the parking lot, toward the purple coaster car.
He said nothing when we got to it, only took a key out of his pocket and inserted it into a hole on the side of the small car. Something popped, and a door swung open on the car, revealing a single, narrow seat.
Two would be a squeeze. My mother obviously wasn't coming. As if to confirm this, Peter turned to my mother. "Only one goes in," he said.
She nodded. "I only bought one ticket."
She turned to me, a note of fear on her face. "It's perfectly safe," she said, and I wasn't sure if she was talking to him or me or herself.
I sat down inside the small car, and Peter shut the door behind me. I looked at the black hole ahead that led into the building, then at my mother. "I'll see you," I said, trying to sound brave since I was the one who had wanted this.
She nodded at me, smiling tightly. "I know. It's just a game."
"One last thing." Peter leaned in closer to me. "We ask," he said, smiling, "that you don't speak of what happens in there. Nothing bad will happen, don't mistake my meaning, but it's just... more fun that way." His smile grew wider, and he pulled back. "Have fun!"
Peter made a motion toward the smaller building, which was only about fifteen feet away. I saw a man in a window on the upper floor, giving Peter the thumbs-up, and then the man in the window leaned down and the car started moving, toward the black hole. I looked back at my mother, and smiled all the way in.
Then blackness swallowed me.
The ride was remarkably smooth. I could barely tell I was moving, and wouldn't have been able to sense the motion if it wasn't for a slight jerk forward every few seconds and a small grating sound from the track below. I was in total darkness, no light anywhere, and I couldn't tell what was forward and what was back. I began to get more nervous by the minute, a tingle of fear growing in my stomach. What if... I got stuck? What if I wasn't moving at all? What if the coaster was a scam and I was going to be kidnapped or murdered or both?
Or neither. Maybe it was just a roller coaster. Then again, I wasn't supposed to talk about what happened to me in here... no. It was a roller coaster. I would be fine.
But this reasoning didn't last for long. Just before I was about to cry out, I noticed a light ahead. A small light, but a light nonetheless, revealing the narrow brick tunnel I had been travelling through. I let out a sigh of relief and leaned forward as the light got bigger and eventually overwhelmed the darkness.
The light was off-white. Like the room it led into. The whole thing was off-white, the room made of off-white bricks, and it wasn't very big; the track ahead led only halfway into it before stopping; at the other end was a small door. The coaster jerked to a stop and the door swung open. I got out.
Only then did I notice the girl in the room with me. She was sitting on an (off-white) chair that was leaning against the wall to my left; she had dark red hair that was obviously dyed, and dark green eyes. She was wearing one of those hats that look like the top of a muffin. She seemed a little older than me, maybe sixteen, and she was wearing a tank top under a white shirt with only one sleeve, and jeans. The only abnormal thing about her was the enormous sword resting across her lap; her hand gripped the handle.
"She comes." Her tight mouth morphed into a grin; she got up, the sword swinging at her side, and grabbed a dark blue cloak that was slung over the back of the chair, draping it over her shoulders. "Ready for some action, girly?"
"Uh. What?" I looked around the room, wondering if this is some kind of joke. This isn't a roller coaster. This is more like a video game.
She appraised me, her mouth becoming tight; she seemed more nervous than before. "What's your name?"
"Julianne." I paused for a second. "And yours?"
"Roberta." Her eyes swung across the room, stopping at the door; she definitely seemed edgy. "Come on," she said without looking at me. "We are going." Her emphasis on the last word left me no qualms as to what was what. We were going, and that was the end of it.
"Wait," I said as she started towards the door. "What's going on here?"
She looked at me, shrugged. "I don't know," she said. "You're here for the coaster, right?"
"You are, too?" I had started to think she was an employee.
"Of course." She fingered the sword. "They gave it to me before I came in," she said as she caught me looking at it. "Said I would need it. They wanted me to wait to go in, said the door would be locked until another person got here—ergo, you."
"Yeah." She started toward the door again, her hand closing over the doorknob. She glanced back at me. "You ready yet, Julianne?"
"Julie. I'm Julie." I followed her, stopping beside the door. She glanced over at me, half-smiled. "Ready, girly?" she said, and then she turned the doorknob and we both headed forward into the white light beyond the door.
It burned. I was wincing as we entered, and for an instant a verse entered my head, Inertia creeps I said she comes, and then we were inside. In another room. This one was much bigger than the other, and multi-coloured, and right ahead of me was a wall with a small entrance. But that was strange. I could clearly see above me that it was a large room with empty space. Why was there a wall and an entrance?
Roberta was beside me, and as I turned to her I saw that her hands were on her hips and she was shaking her head. "A maze," she said, sounding pissed. "An effing maze."
I looked back at the entrance. "Could be."
"No, it is." She turned away and leaned her head against the door behind us, which was now closed. "They told me this would happen. Peter told me that I'd see a maze in here and not to freak out." She hit her head against the door. "I HATE mazes."
"Let's go inside," I suggested, and immediately felt like an idiot. Roberta turned her head and glared at me. "No way, lady," she said. "I'm not going into a maze."
I shrugged. "Nowhere else to go, or do you see a third entrance...?"
She seemed to think for a minute. She banged her head against the door again, then turned around and faced me. "Fine," she said grumpily.
I approached the entrance, and she followed me. Hesitantly, I went inside. She was right. There was a hallway to the left, a hallway to the right, and no roof.
"It's a MAZE," she repeated, but I shushed her. "Left or right?"
She spoke grudgingly. "I'm left-handed."
"Left, then." I headed down the left hallway, with her at my side. When it ended, we were faced with a new one, with three others branching off it. We could go left, right or straight. We went straight. We were immediately faced with a new decision.
After a few minutes of this, we were deep in the maze and seemingly no closer to anything interesting. Roberta groaned and leaned back against the wall. "We're lost," I assumed.
"No," she said. "Do not say that. We are not lost."
"I think we are."
"No." She slapped the wall with the palm of her hand. "Please. I don't want to die in the effing coaster."
A sentiment which, admittedly, I agreed with.
We wandered for a few more minutes, and then came across something interesting: a small depression in the wall, inside which was a switch. I regarded it for a few seconds, and then turned to Roberta. "Should I?"
"What if it's, like, a bomb?" Roberta looked nervous. "It could be any number of things. Best not to try our luck, girly."
I was getting a bit irritated with this 'girly' business. "It's Julie, I told you."
"I like girly better." She smiled, but her smile was shaky. "Anyway, are you going to pull it or not?"
I pulled it.
Seconds later, a boy fell out of the sky.
Or, more accurately, out of a hole in the ceiling. He landed on his feet, but I still screamed when it happened and leapt backward. I landed on top of Roberta, who let out a muffled yell and struggled against my weight. I quickly got up and looked at the boy warily, ready to shove Roberta to safety if he turned out to be dangerous.
Roberta shoved me aside instead. "Who are you?" she demanded, holding her sword out defensively in front of her. I groaned and rolled my eyes. Of course, she was the one with the sword. And I had wanted to shove her out of the way.
He got up from his bent-over position and dusted his blue cloak off. When he got up, the first thing I noticed were his blue eyes—icy as crystal. His hair was black as midnight, short and choppy. His nose was a bit big for his face. He looked a bit older than Roberta—seventeen or eighteen.
"A better question is, who are you?" From below his cloak, he produced a sword that was equal in length to Roberta's, but not metal; it looked like it was made of shattered, jagged glass, glued together somehow, and it had a blue hilt. "I call it Iceblade," he said, grinning. "A fine name for such a strange sword. It will easily match your little trinket there"—he pointed to Roberta's blade—"and if you try to hurt me, Iceblade will need cleaning later." He looked almost bored, although he spoke with amusement, like we were toys that he was almost tired of playing with. No, more like puppies whose silliness was no longer amusing. From the bottom of my heart, I hoped Roberta would be careful.
"You don't want to toy with us, dog," Roberta growled, and I immediately lost all hope. "I could slice your head off."
"What, you? With that thing?" He gestured toward her blade. "That knife will be shattered by Iceblade. And you know nothing of a sword. I can see it in your stance, in the way you hold yourself. You've never held a blade in your life." He withdrew his own blade slightly. "Best not to antagonize me just yet."
She pulled her sword back slowly, carefully. "We're all just normal people," she asserted. "It's not like you have any experience with a blade, either."
He gave her a wry smile. "I took fencing in high school."
She didn't return the smile; instead she gestured to me. "This is Julianne or Julie or something, and I'm Roberta. We're here for the coaster." She appraised him. "And you are?"
He smiled yet again, a sort of wry half-smile that made him seem world-weary. "Isaac, called Ike, also here for the coaster," he responded. "Now, let's get the hell out of this maze and see what lies beyond."
He began to walk forward, but Roberta whispered, "Wait. Footsteps."
We all stopped and were silent. In the ensuing silence, I heard footsteps in the maze behind us. We all froze, our heads turning toward the noise in unison. From a hallway behind us came a girl, with short blonde hair and eyes that were milky all over. She was wearing jeans and a plain white t-shirt, and seemed to be feeling her way along the wall.
"Ah. Another member of our little party." Now Ike sounded amused, as he flipped his blade over his shoulder and approached her. "And who might you be?"
She didn't look at him, although she responded to his voice. "Lena," she said, in a hard sort of voice that made me think she was probably a no-nonsense girl. "And I've been feeling my way around this maze for two stinking hours, and I'm tired of it. I want to get out of this coaster."
"Don't we all?" Ike gave her a rueful smile.
"It may be a while, though. You should probably stick with us," I interjected before he could say anything else. "We can help you." I paused for a second, and then said carefully, "Are you blind?"
She shot a hard look in the direction of my voice. "Yes. And I can get along just fine, thank you."
"Then you'll forgive us if we keep going." Ike's voice was just as hard as hers. "And you can find your own way back." He began to walk toward the next hallway, but she stopped him. "Wait," she said grudgingly. "I may need some help."
"And good on you for admitting it. Just follow us." It seemed Ike was already the unspoken leader of our group as he resumed walking toward the next hallway.
With minimal talking, we worked our way around the maze for what seemed like several hours. Ike mostly remained silent, and only gave wry responses to any questions put to him. Roberta was keen enough to stay silent, perhaps thinking that it gave her a leader-like quality. I was desperate for company and so, obviously, turned to Lena.
"Where are you from?" I asked her as Ike led us down another hallway.
"New York," she responded. "The state, not the city. I'm from Syracuse."
"Syracuse," I repeated. It was a nice word to say. "I'm from Ontario. In Canada."
"Eh?" she said, and we both laughed. "No, we don't say that as much as Americans think we do," I told her. "And we don't hunt beavers or live in igloos. I watch American cop shows all the time, and they're basically the same as Canadian ones."
"Although there's probably a lot more red than blue," she said, and I pretended to laugh even though I didn't get it.
"Why'd you want to go on the coaster?" I asked a bit later, and she sighed. "I didn't in the first place. My mother said it'd be a chance to get out of the house and have some fun. Of course nobody ever talks about what happens in there since you're not supposed to, but she thinks it's some sort of amazing roller coaster ride. She completely went crazy when she found out only one can come on. But she gave in, in the end."
I was silent for a few moments. "My mother," I said quietly, "needed persuading to take me. She thinks it's just a fad, one that passes."
"This sure is a weird place," Lena muttered, and I wasn't sure if she was saying that in response, or on her own. "Seems like one big trick. Like maybe this maze was designed to trap us for ransom or something."
Ike was apparently listening in the whole time, for he turned around and said, mockingly, "Silly rabbit, tricks are for kids." Lena sneered at him, he sneered back and for a moment I couldn't help but think how perfectly matched they were. Each able to respond to the other.
But then again, they had only interacted maybe twice. I was probably being an idiot. I shook my head.
Roberta had gone up ahead, and I heard her shout, "Hey, over here!" Ike immediately took off down the hallway where her voice came from, and I grabbed Lena's hand and guided her as I followed him.
We found her, a few hallways away, staring at a metal trapdoor in the ground. We all clustered around it, and Ike leaned down to inspect it. I whispered to Lena, "There's a door in the ground."
Ike gave me a glance. "But where does it lead," he said, and wrenched the door open.
Another wash of bright white light spilled out of the door, nothing visible behind it. Ike looked at Roberta, who I assumed he thought was his second-in-command. "Ready when you are," he said cheerfully, and I realized that he wanted her to go first: a test.
She glared at him. "I'm not afraid of a door in the ground," she said, although fear did flicker behind her eyes, a promise of events to come. "Hold my sword," she said, and then I realized she wasn't talking to Ike, she was talking to me.
I took the proffered sword gingerly, holding it with two fingers by the hilt. She rolled her eyes at me and sat next to the door, dangling her legs into it like it was a pool. Then she slipped inside and was gone.
Ike looked at Lena. "Her next," he suggested. "So you can help her."
I helped Lena get positioned next to the door, with her legs dangling in like Roberta's. Then, holding both her hands, I let her slide in. All but her hands disappeared as I leaned down and took her weight; I felt her hands gripping mine tightly before I let them go and she was gone.
I looked at Ike. "I'll go in after you," he told me.
"This could be a trap," I said distrustfully. "The trapdoor could be some kind of pit or something, one we can't get out of." I gestured toward the hole. "You first."
He grinned at me, like a cat. "If you really thought that it was a trap," he said, "you wouldn't have let Lena go through. You're almost... protective of her, I sense it already. Is it because she's blind? I imagine if she knew that, it would offend her."
I gritted my teeth. He was right; I did feel a bit protective toward her. But maybe it was because she was the only person here who I thought was completely normal.
I sat next to the door and placed both legs in the wash of light. My mouth tightened. It burned, just like the other door had.
Ike kneeled next to me. "I can give you a push, if you like," he suggested. His smile was feather-light, but his eyes were staring at me in a way that I found disconcerting.
"That won't be necessary." I shoved myself forward and was lost in the light.
At first, white.
Falling fast and hard.
And then I was landing feet-first so that the shock ran through me, on a surface that was cold even through my sneakers.
Spots danced before my vision, and I shook my head to clear it. After the impression of the white had faded from my eyes, I looked around me.
I was in a metal room now, with Roberta and Lena standing shoulder-to-shoulder nearby. The walls were made from a checkerboard of three-by-three squares of shining silvery metal, except for one wall, the one opposite me. That wall was made solely out of swirling white, purple and green light. It was dully bright, not very harsh, but I still looked away.
Roberta was staring at it. "It's so beautiful..."
Lena was also staring at it, even more intently, and I noticed that her eyes had changed—from milky all over to clear and blue. "I can see it," she said in bafflement. She looked sideways, at Roberta. "I can see you," she said, now in wonder. She looked all around, twirled in a circle. "I can see everything!" she sang.
Ike tumbled down behind me, brushing me as he fell. I turned and looked at him as he dusted himself off. "Lena can see," I commented.
He looked down at me. "Fascinating," he said dryly. "I'm more interested," he continued as he started toward the swirling light, "in what's behind that wall."
As he passed Roberta, she seemed to wake up from her trance; she lunged forward and grabbed his arm. "No!" she said urgently.
"Why?" he asked, a genuine look of confusion on his face. Lena turned toward him, too, her euphoria briefly wearing off; she looked almost disappointed. I glanced over at her, and she shrugged. "It's not real, like everything else here."
I looked back over at Roberta and Ike. Roberta was hissing quietly at him, "You can't go through there. Peter told me."
"What? Peter told you what?" Ike looked angry, and Roberta terrified. "He told me..." She paused. "He told me that the first person to go through that wall would not come back."
That was enough for me. I pushed forward, stopping right in front of the wall. "So what?" I snapped, looking back at them both. "It just means that the ride is over. We'll be taken outside and everything will be okay. You're acting like we're going to die or something."
There was a profound silence in the room. It was finally broken by Ike, who said very quietly, "Why did Peter tell you so much, Roberta?" He took a breath and continued. "Why did he tell you about the wall; why did he tell you about the sword? I thought all our experiences were meant to be different, but he directly manipulated yours by giving you the answers. The point of the coaster is that there are no easy answers." By then he was shouting, and he looked furious.
Roberta answered in a small, hard voice. "Peter is my father."
I turned to her, startled, and saw that Ike was equally stunned. Roberta was already continuing on. "He runs the coaster, but he wouldn't let me ride it for the longest time. Said I wasn't ready, said no one was. He said he didn't want me affected in that way. Finally he agreed to let me ride, but only if he gave me the sword and a couple of hints."
"What other hints did you receive?" Ike had recovered from his stunned state and spoke with authority, but I could see the shock in his eyes. This was a revelation that could benefit us all.
She shrugged. "Well, for starters he hinted that I should only use them for my own benefit. So I've already screwed him over there."
Ike looked to the roof in exasperation. "Bugger," he said emphatically. "Well, that settles it. Lena's going in first."
Lena looked to him, startled. "Me?"
"Yes," he said patiently. "You are the one who wants to leave, right?"
Lena shook her head, looked around. "But. But I can see."
The simple gravity of this statement reminded me of how much I took for granted. "Lena, this room affects you in a way that it doesn't affect any of us," I said gently. "When you leave, you will be blind again. So unless you want to stay in here forever, it's time for you to go. You can leave the coaster, or you can stay with us; either way"—I looked up at the entrance we came through, which was now closed—"one of us has to leave so the others can go through."
We all looked at Lena—all expected, I think now, that she should leave, because of words she maybe hadn't thought twice about saying before. Lena looked almost on the verge of tears, but she still nodded stubbornly. "Fine. I'll leave."
She walked up next to me, stood beside the shining white-purple-and-green wall. She looked at me. Opened her mouth to speak.
Roberta interrupted. "It will burn," she said quietly. "Peter told me that too. The other doors were not that bad. This one will hurt very badly."
Lena nodded without looking at her. She only looked at me. "Your eyes," she said, and I instinctively brought my hand up to them, worried something was wrong. "They're brown," she continued. "I haven't seen brown in a long time." Her eyes were tearing up, and she wiped the wetness away angrily, as if she was ashamed. I felt a connection to her, strangely enough, to this girl I had only known for perhaps thirty minutes.
"Your eyes are blue," I told her. "Darker blue. Like the sky just before sunset."
She looked at me. "Hold my hand," she said, and she held it out and I took it and she walked through. As I let go of her hand, my own fingers brushed the light. It was like a liquid and Roberta had been right—it burned like flames, like an explosion of fire on my hand. I cried out and jerked my fingers away.
Ike spoke quietly from behind. "There. It's done. Can we all go now?"
I shook my head silently.
He let out an exasperated sigh. "It will only hurt for a moment."
He was wrong. My fingers still burned. I told him so. He didn't say anything, just walked forward and stood next to me. "Let's go," he said, almost kindly, and then he quickly and gracefully disappeared.
I was left alone with Roberta. "Do you think," she said fearfully, "that it'll hurt so badly, girly?"
I turned toward her. "I know," I said simply, wanting to be honest.
She whimpered, but went forward. She stopped at the wall, seemed to fight with herself for a moment, then pushed through. I heard her gasp as she entered, and then all was silence and she was gone.
I was alone.
And then I went through.
At first, all was pain. Everything was pain. My self, my being, everything around me, the very air was white hot fire that burned and crackled against my body. I heard someone screaming loudly and realized it was me.
Originally nothing was comprehensible to my eyes, just the light that was now pure white and blinding me. I could see nothing, and then I could see a blurry shape in front of me, and then—
I exploded through, coughing and gasping, onto a grimy, tiled floor. I was on my hands and knees, and I was burning wildly. I screamed, loudly, and then softer as the pain faded. As it dulled to an intense discomfort I was able to get onto my feet, albeit unsteadily, and gaze around.
I was in a large room, a wide and tall hallway that branched off four into shorter yet equally tall areas. The floor was tiled; the walls were painted a chipped and ugly yellow. Roberta was curled up in a ball nearby, whimpering softly.
Ike was in front of me. I went and stood beside him. His arms were crossed, and he was gazing at the closed door on the other side of the room.
"What now?" My voice was cracked and hoarse, my body still roiling from the pain.
His voice, of course, was unfazed. "Lena is gone," he said darkly. "Roberta was right. Whoever goes through first does not come back."
I was about to argue the logic of this—where would she have gone in the light? How would she have been diverted? Where, in fact, had she gone?—but I decided it was moot. Instead I said, "This is the weirdest roller coaster I've ever been on."
Ike cracked a smile. "You don't say."
We heard a gasp behind us, and turned simultaneously. Roberta had sat up, and was looking around wildly. "So it's this room," she said, her eyes wide.
Ike opened his mouth, perhaps to ask for an explanation, but she spoke first. "There will be something blocking the door," she said simply.
Ike nodded, as if he had been expecting this. "Yes, I think there will," he replied, and then he turned and began stalking across the hall. I started to follow him, but he snapped at me, "Stay there." As he neared the door, he removed Iceblade from his coat.
For a single, taut moment, Roberta and I watched Ike approach the door, sword in hand. Nothing stirred. I heard him sigh in relief—and then something leapt out of the wall at him.
Roberta screamed. I yelled aloud. Ike dove out of the way and struck back, aiming his sword at the creature's throat. I got a better look at it then—it was dark, dark brown all over, vaguely humanoid, shorter than Ike but with ropes of deadly muscle that far outstripped his.
Its eyes were huge, a dark blue color that vaguely shone through a haze of milk, and at last I understood.
"Oh, no," I whispered in horror. "It's..."
The creature knocked Ike to the ground with a well-placed blow to his head. He fell and stayed down, stunned, Iceblade lying useless beside him. He barely grasped the sword's hilt and struggled to get up, but the creature aimed another blow at him, and he barely blocked it in time, raising Iceblade in front of him with the last of his strength.
Roberta was frozen beside me, half standing, unsure of what to do, as we both watched Ike fight the creature that had been Lena. I looked over at her, and suddenly I knew what must be done.
I lunged over to Roberta and yanked the sword that was dangling in her hand from her; she seemed to barely notice. I lifted it in front of me and advanced on the creature from behind. It didn't notice me, focussed only on pushing Iceblade away from Ike and finishing him off. I positioned the sword behind the humanoid's back...
Things seemed to slow down as the sword met its mark—slicing across the creature's back, spraying bright red blood—and it yelled, loud and long and human, and fell on its back. I saw Ike lift himself up as I threw myself away. I landed facedown on the floor, the breath knocked out of me; the sword clattered at my side, one side dusted with blood, the other still silver and clean. I concentrated on taking deep breaths in, staring at the sword and trying to fill the hollowness inside me with air. I tried not to listen as Ike finished the creature off.
The sounds stopped suddenly. I heard Ike take a deep breath. I heard Iceblade fall out of his hand and land on the floor. I heard Roberta swear under her breath as she approached us.
"It was Lena," Roberta said softly.
Ike's response was almost too quiet for me to hear. "I know."
Later, after I had recovered, I returned the sword to Roberta. She was sitting against the wall, her head between her knees and her eyes closed.
"I'm sorry," I said as I placed it beside her. I don't know if I meant I was sorry about Lena or I was sorry for borrowing the sword, but she lifted her head—without opening her eyes—and smiled just the same. It was not a bitter smile; it was a smile unmarked by fear or pain.
"We all are, girly," she said.
All my suspicion that Roberta was somewhat unstable was, thus, affirmed.
I went to Ike next. He was standing, cleaning off the sword with a shred of his cloak. He didn't look at me as I approached.
"Good job back there," I said awkwardly, unsure of what else there was to say.
He smiled, a mosaic, the opposite of Roberta. "Likewise," he muttered somewhat amusedly.
I leaned against the wall beside him, gazing at anything but the creature's carcass. "What happened to her?"
"Damned if I know." His rubbing of the sword became twice as violent.
I was silent for a while, and when I spoke again I chose my words carefully. "This... this ride... is not a roller coaster, whatever it is," I said. "This is something different." My words ended like a question.
He, too, was silent for a long while. His response wasn't really an answer. "I know why they don't want us to talk about it," he said bitterly. "They're afraid we'll sue."
I opened my mouth, then closed it. "...none of this is real, right?" I asked hopefully, looking over at him.
He rolled his eyes, looked away, and then looked back at me, eyes blazing. "I just killed a girl," he said furiously. "They made me kill a girl. Or at least something that looked like her, something that had her eyes. I had to watch something die, and know that I had caused it. What if that had been you, who had to make sure it was dead? You can't be more than fourteen. It would have hurt you, very deeply and badly and irreparably. I don't care if it isn't real; no child should have to be a murderer."
He was breathing hard, but then gave a heavy sigh and seemed to calm himself down. The furor in his eyes dimmed. "Whatever this is," he said softly, "it isn't worth it."
He walked away then, throwing Iceblade to the ground beside him. I winced, expecting it to shatter, but instead it only made a hollow sound, like the sound you'd hear if you tapped one wineglass on another.
If I had fallen at that moment, I would have made that sound.
Ike tried many times to open the door, but it remained locked.
"Why would they lock it?" he demanded, talking a bit to us, but mostly to himself. "I killed the creature. The door should be opened." He turned on Roberta. "Did Peter give you any clues? Any hints?"
She shook her head, the epitome of calmness. "No. He didn't say anything about this door."
Ike made a sound of frustration and stalked away.
I turned to Roberta, who was shivering slightly. "So, you really don't know how to get through?" I asked sceptically.
She looked at me. "Do you?"
That shut me up.
Later, Ike resorted to banging on the door, shouting, and even stomping on the ground. I knew it had probably been days since I had eaten—we had been in the coaster for that long—but somehow, I didn't feel too hungry. Roberta said she didn't either, but I had taken to not trusting much of anything she said.
After a very long time of alternately banging on the door, shouting at us—well, mostly Roberta since she was the one with the answers—and stalking off in frustration, Ike finally gave up. "It has been days," he told us, seething, "since we went anywhere, and that corpse is starting to rot. So, I give up! Let one of you try and open it." He turned to me. "You first."
I gaped. "Why me?"
"Because you have a key around your neck." He gestured to the thin chain around my neck—it did have a key strung on it, but it was my house key for emergencies that I had taken to wearing years before. "That has to be a sign—I'm willing to believe anything now."
I looked down at the key, then at him. I nodded. "Sure."
I approached the door, feeling a hint of fear. If I couldn't open the door, Ike might get angry, and I didn't completely trust his stability either. And there was nothing special about me. Nothing that might hint that I knew how to open the door any more than Ike did. I was nothing. I was nobody...
While I was thinking this, I was pulling at the doorknob. At first it didn't budge.
Then, slowly, it did.
I jerked the wooden door open, feeling a gasp at the release of pressure when I let it go. Beyond it was a small room with yet another door at the other end, and the room had shelves and shelves of weapons.
Ike looked into the room grimly. "Well, that's that," he said. "Come on. Apparently we're going to fight a war."
He walked into the weapon room immediately, and Roberta trailed behind him, the hood of her cloak up over her head. I shot a last glimpse at the tiled room—avoiding looking at the corpse—and then I walked away and shut the door behind me.
Ike put Iceblade in a sheath under his cloak and grabbed another sword from the floor. "So I can fight with two," he explained when he saw me looking at him.
Roberta let her own sword clatter to the stone floor. "I don't want it," she said, eyeing the bloodstains on it distastefully, and then she scanned the shelves, sighing appreciatively as she sighted an axe. She grabbed the axe and swung it over her head; I stepped back a foot and my back clattered against a shelf. I jerked away, afraid that one of the daggers in the row above me might fall on me.
I stopped and eyed the daggers, appreciating the gentle curve of one, the perfectly straight and rigid sides of another, and then reached up and grabbed two, thrusting them around brutishly, weaving them through the air in complex patterns. Ike eyed me appreciatively.
"I like daggers," I told him, a bit surprised.
"And daggers like you," he said in response. "I can still tell you've never held one before, but that's the best form on a newbie that I've ever seen in my life."
I smiled at this, and whirled the daggers around in my hands, stopping only to jab one of them into a wall, where it stuck, vibrating slightly. Ike raised his eyebrows at this. "It's like you were made to handle a blade," he commented.
I nodded slightly, still looking at the dagger. "Yes, I think I was."
And then I grasped its hilt and yanked it out of the wall. Holding both of the daggers in my hands, I faced Ike.
"Fight me," I told him.
He laughed shortly. "In this room? It's five feet big wide. With weapons on every side just waiting to fall on you. Let's not—"
I threw one of the daggers. It whistled past Ike's face and flew across the room, lodging in the wooden door. From across the room, Roberta turned toward me, her mouth in the shape of an O.
Ike looked startled, and then pleased. His mouth curved into a smile. "All right, then," he said. "We fight."
We returned to the other room to begin our mini-battle. As I advanced on Ike with my daggers in front of me, I noted the graceful motion of his sword as he lifted it in defence. Metal on ice, our blades collided. He held me back for a good fifteen second before my daggers had forced Iceblade back. My dagger was at his throat; Iceblade was suddenly pushed against my stomach. Our faces were close together, our breathing hard and matched.
He spoke softly. "An impasse already."
"Yes." His breath was feather-light on my cheek.
I pulled away, grateful for the loss of pressure on my stomach, and faced him from a few feet away. He half-smiled mockingly, raising Iceblade up again over his chest.
This time I advanced slowly, like a cat, circling, eyeing his every motion, noting how and when he breathed. He turned with me, his eyes never leaving me.
Then I lunged. One dagger I pointed toward his stomach, one toward his neck. He couldn't block both at once; instead he threw himself away and while I was turning around I felt the ice of his blade on my back.
"Good." His voice was a purr. "Very good. But you want to be more careful. Compensate for my movements. Concentrate."
Yes, he's right. And so I whipped around—Iceblade grazing my stomach as I swirled—and knocked him to the ground. Before he could raise his sword, I knocked it out of his hand and had my daggers at his throat.
He looked up at me, stunned. Then he slowly grinned, widely and more honestly than I had ever seen him smile. "I think," Ike said slowly, "that you're going to be quite safe when you fight whatever's behind that door."
My throat contracted. My voice caught. "I think you might be right."
Roberta, Ike and I faced the door together, shoulder to shoulder, all wearing vests made of mail that were slightly too big for me, but fit Roberta and Ike just fine. "Well," Roberta said unsteadily, holding her axe tightly. "Let's go."
I reached forward and slowly, hesitantly, but surely, grasped the doorknob and turned it.
The door opened with no resistance. More white light. I did not hesitate. I stepped through.
Into a room with someone at the center.
The room was like a cylinder in shape, a pattern like stained glass forming the floor and ceiling. Light shone through in the most spectacular way through the swirls of red and blue and green. At the other end was a wooden door. The humanoid in the center had its back to me, and was wearing a blue robe. It had long, white hair that fell down its back.
It turned toward me, and I saw that it was a man with a sharp nose and very black eyes. Out of one of the arms of his robe protruded a very long, very red sword that looked like it could shatter Iceblade in an instant, like my daggers would not be anything but water next to it. He smiled at me, and it was the most horrible smile I've ever seen—cruel and heartless and cold.
He did not speak. He stood there.
Blocking the door to the other side.
Roberta walked up beside me. "He could be nice," she said slowly. "You never know."
"I'm not taking any chances." I glanced over at Ike, who was just stepping out of the door. "We're fighting this guy," I said.
He glanced at me. "I wouldn't expect anything less."
All three together, we advanced toward the man, me still treading carefully on the stained-glass floor even though it seemed as solid as rock under my feet. The man looked at each of us in turn, his alien eyes reflecting the colors of the floor. He scrutinized us carefully, as if summing up our strengths and weaknesses.
And then he was not in the center, he was a blurred shape flying through the air. I leapt sideways and knocked Roberta out of the way just in time. He shot past us and, recovering quickly, turned and dashed to the other side of the room for Ike.
Ike was faster. He raised Iceblade in front of him and blocked the man's blow. The clang of their swords together resounded through the room; while the man was distracted, I lunged toward him and aimed my daggers to his back.
As quick as lightning, the man turned and blocked my blow, and then whipped around and blocked Ike's. We struck against him as one, blocking his blows, dealing blows of our own; it was the first time I had fought, but I instinctually knew what to do.
Fighting was amazing, adrenaline-pumped, instinctual. Against an opponent of this man's talent, Ike himself would have been badly matched, but I was able to predict his moves and counter-act them almost instantly. My blows were weak, true, but I knew where to hit, where his weaknesses were, and I could defend myself easily, my small daggers working tirelessly to my advantage.
It was almost magical.
Eventually Roberta joined the fray, screaming wildly and chopping through the air with her new-found axe. It wasn't the most graceful of weapons, and she flung it around without thinking to aim; but the axe found its place in the man's shoulder, and he cried out, a horrible yell like the scream of a thousand cats, like nails on a chalkboard. With one careless sweep of his hand he sent Roberta flying towards the wall; her head cracked against it and she lay still.
I felt a pang of fear, then anger. I advanced toward the man again with everything I had—slashing, hacking, getting my daggers in wherever there was a weak spot and dodging every single blow. It seemed like hours that we fought him, Ike's Iceblade as graceful as any ballerina, me less graceful but still effective with my twin daggers.
But everyone gets tired.
Eventually, I needed to stop. I knew I needed a break; I was panting too hard as I slashed at the man, my vision was blurring and my thoughts were muddling together. Our adversary saw my moment of weakness and used it to strike at my chest.
My haphazardly-fitted mail vest would not hold against a blow that direct. It gave easily under the pressure of his sword; I felt it enter me before I ever felt pain.
Time contracted to a single point, my vision jumping to Ike's face as he realized what had happened, Roberta still slumped against the wall, the opponent not smiling, but his eyes glowing in triumph. It was a curious feeling, the sword inside my chest; first I could observe it like a spectator, as if I wasn't even there, but then the cold, the terrible cold, seeped through and shocked me. It wasn't painful yet, but the cold was almost unbearable. Like freezing to death from the inside.
And then he twisted the sword.
The pain came.
I wanted to black out. I wanted to scream. I wanted to cry. All three happened in moderation: tears began to spill out of my eyes; spots, areas of blackness danced before my vision; my mouth opened, but no sound came out. The pain was unbelievable.
But truly, I didn't even notice these things until afterward. The only thought in my head:
and then the man yanked the sword out of me, bringing more pain, and disappeared into the shadows, and I fell to the ground with a dull thud. I did not feel Ike's hands on me, carrying me to safety, I just felt the motion of being picked up and the searing pain it brought to me, and as my vision blurred I caught sight of the one who had given me this pain, and now he was smiling, and my only thought was I'm going to kill you, so help me I'm going to kill you, and then I thought of Roberta and distantly wondered if she was all right, and then everything was gone.
I woke up lying on my side, my hair falling over my face. I instinctively lifted my hand up to brush it away, and then I groaned and turned over on my back, keeping perfectly still as the pain washed over me again. It wasn't as bad as I had remembered it, just a dull ache now, in my whole body but centered in my chest.
I stared at the ceiling above me, the stained-glass patterns of red and green and blue, the now-dim light shining through them, and it helped calm me. I can't say how long I looked at the ceiling, whether it was second or centuries, but I was interrupted eventually by Ike leaning over me, looking worried but trying not to let it show.
"Are you feeling better?" he asked. I opened my mouth to respond, but this simple action caused the ache to flare up again. I groaned slightly, and said, "Compared to before."
He nodded, as if expecting this. "You fought well," he said quietly. "Even I was badly matched against him, but you, you held your own."
I stretched my face into a grin that turned out more like a grimace. "He almost killed me," I whispered.
"Julie," he said, and then Roberta was shoving him out of the way and leaning over me, too. "You're lucky," she said, her face morphed into an unreadable expression, "that Peter gave me a medical pack, girly. Or else you would have died."
At this I tried to sit up, almost yelling with the pain, but still managing it. "Why," I asked through gritted teeth, "on earth would a medical pack work here? Nothing dangerous is supposed to happen."
"And that wound wasn't something that could be healed with a first-aid kit," Ike pointed out, coming back into view and kneeling in front of me. "This isn't a roller coaster; this is more like virtual reality. Look at your chest."
I looked. I looked again.
"There's nothing there," I whispered. And there wasn't. Not even a hole in my clothes. Not even a bloodstain on my skin.
"I know," Ike said grimly. "Roberta put some kind of cream on you and said it was a heavy-duty healer, and I took her to the side for five seconds to ask if she knew what it was supposed to do, the healer that is, and when we came back..." He gestured toward my chest. "I've never seen anything like it."
"This isn't a roller coaster," Roberta chimed in. "I think we all know that by now." A grin was spreading across her face, and she slapped me on the shoulder in a friendly way, causing the ache to flare up again. "And a lot can be said for your luck, girly!"
By now I was too tired to even protest her calling me that. "Let's go home," I said, and then my eyes shut and I passed out again.
When I woke up, Ike and Roberta were still kneeling beside me, even though it seemed like ages that I had slept. "You want to leave?" Ike asked, his voice incredulous. "But that man... he's still in the shadows. We still need to fight him. Kill him."
I tried to sit up again, and found it easy, no ache surfacing on my skin or underneath it. "I think," I said as I crossed my legs, "that we passed his test."
Ike and Roberta looked at each other, eyebrows raised, and then at me. "Well," Ike said, "if we did, that's news to me."
"Let's just try leaving," I urged. "You'll see what I mean."
Ike tried to help me up, but I waved away his attempts and stood up easily on my own, only a slight twinge in my chest and the memory of agony to show that I had ever been stabbed at all. We approached the door, and this time I went ahead of them both.
As we neared it, the man materialized in front of it again. His face was covered in shadows, but his eyes were bright and shone through the darkness. "So," he said in a raspy sort of voice. "Do you children want to enter, or exit?"
I glanced at Ike, who shook his head, not knowing. I turned back to the man. "What do you mean?"
He stepped forward out of the shadows. "Do you want to leave?" he asked. "There is much more waiting for you here. And the door becomes two doors, one for each individual choice." He gestured toward each of us in turn.
"I think," Ike said quietly in my ear, "that he is asking if we want to leave the coaster."
I heard Roberta breathe in quickly, with a hiss. "Yes. Yes," she cried out, pushing us both aside and facing the door's guardian. "I want to leave," she told him in a cracked whisper. "Please. Please let me leave."
He looked at her, face impassive. He did not ask her if she was certain.
He reached behind him and opened the door. White light spilled through, and Roberta, ducking under his arm, threw herself into it and was gone.
I swallowed. Not even a good-bye. She was that desperate to escape.
The man closed the door behind her and turned back to us. "And what of you?" he asked, looking at Ike. "Will you stay, and taste the wonders that are left for you? Or will you leave, and go back to your family?"
Ike looked at me. He looked at the man. He looked back at me. I shrugged, as if to say Your choice, but inside my heart was pounding.
Ike looked at me again, and then he said, "I think I'll stay here."
But I knew exactly what they meant.
He would stay, of course, because that was Ike. I smiled at him slightly, and then turned to the man, not waiting for him to ask. "I want to leave," I told him, a question that answered itself.
He nodded impassively. "As you say, so it shall be done."
He opened the door and the light shone through. I turned so that my back was facing the light, my front was facing Ike. "I," I said quietly, "will see you soon."
He grinned once, like a cat (as usual), but somehow softer, more vulnerable. "No," he told me. "You won't."
Then I stepped backward and was lost in the light.
This time it didn't burn; I was just washed in light for an instant, and then it was over. I found myself in a tunnel exactly mimicking the beginning, with a single roller coaster car exactly mimicking the first. The only difference was that my internal compass told me it was facing in the opposite direction.
I looked behind me. No door there Just a wall. A single light shone above me, providing enough light to climb into the car, and ahead was darkness, ages of it.
I got into the car.
I let it carry me away.
After the darkness began to melt away and I exited the tunnel, I saw that I was on the other side of the giant building, and that the sky was the same color it had been when I went in—the same foreboding gray. I felt confused for a moment, but brushed the feeling away. It must be a coincidence.
I saw my mother, with her hands clasped together, and Peter, smiling as usual, waiting outside the tunnel, on either side of the short leftover track. As the coaster rolled to a stop and I stumbled out, my mother put her hand on my shoulder to steady me.
"Did you have fun?" she asked, smiling at me.
I looked at her, confused. "Weren't you worried?" I asked.
"Worried about what?"
"Me. I was in there for days, Mom. Days. Weren't you worried at all?" At this point I was beginning to feel a little hurt.
Now it was her turn to look confused. "Sweetheart," she said carefully. "You were in there for fifteen minutes."
I stood there beside her for what seemed like an eternity, remembering. Ike's sarcasm, his cat-like smile. Roberta's unpredictability. Lena, in general.
Did it even happen?
"Peter," I said, turning towards him now. "Do you have a daughter named Roberta?"
I expected him to say No, but I got a surprise. "Yes," he said, his salesman smile melting into worry. "Why? Did you see her in there? Is she all right? What happened to her?"
I felt a bit of fear. Roberta wasn't out yet. No need to be afraid, I told myself. They can just go in and get her. "She," I said, "is not supposed to talk about that. And neither am I."
Peter looked at me, scrutinizing carefully. And then he nodded, and began to talk again about how the coaster was designed as he led us toward the parking lot.
As I looked at the parking lot—which was now a lot farther away—I saw Roberta—she was out, after all—with a blanket around her shoulders, being soothed by a woman in her early forties. Roberta looked at me briefly. Shuddered. Looked away.
I turned away from her and listened to Peter blab on and on about the coaster's design. I didn't allow myself to look at her, coward as I was. I heard the sound of a car door slamming, then a car being ignited and pulling away. When I looked up again, both she and the woman were gone.
My brother always told me about my change after that. He told me I was quieter, took more time to listen to people, but jumped at the slightest noise and couldn't watch action movies without leaving the room once or twice per half hour. I told him he was imagining things, but inside my mind would wander: back to Roberta, who couldn't handle the coaster—was she scared by action movies, too? Back to Ike, who hadn't wanted to leave—was he still in there? Back to Lena, who had supposedly died in the coaster—had Ike and I really killed her? Or was that a lie, too?
My parents both asked me about the coaster on separate occasions. I told both of them what I had told Peter: "I'm not supposed to talk about it."
And I always wondered why we had been told not to speak of our experiences. Maybe it was to make the coaster more alluring for potential riders. Maybe it was to hide the fact that I had experienced the worst agony of my life in there. Maybe it was so they wouldn't get sued, as a friend of mine once had suggested to me.
Maybe that was just a fabricated excuse, mercifully handed out by the coaster's creators to hide the fact that most of us survivors didn't want to talk about it.
One thing no one can argue with, especially me: I was changed by the coaster, whether mentally, by the nightmares that plagued me frequently afterwards; physically by the twinge in my chest that often bothered me; or emotionally, by the ties that, irreversibly, tied me to Roberta and Ike and Lena.
One thing I know.
If I had been given the choice, I would have ridden the coaster again.