Originally published in Issue #15, June 2014
When I push Kayla’s wheelchair out of the hospital, the air is so thick with smoke my eyes water. She’s asleep, an oxygen mask over her mouth. I lift her easily into the car. Thirteen years old, but she doesn’t even weigh sixty pounds. I fold the wheelchair and wedge it behind her seat. I buckle her in and kiss her forehead. She radiates heat. The skin over her bald skull is soft, like a ripe peach, and so pale it’s almost translucent. A web of blue veins stands out against the pallor.
A security guard is jogging through the parking lot, heading my way. I stomp on the gas and pretend I don’t see him flagging me down. I drive toward the hills, the sun an orange blob bleeding through the haze.When I see the roadblock ahead, I do a U-turn and backtrack to the old canyon road Dad used to take when he wanted to drive “the scenic route.” The scorched hills still smolder here. Charred-black telephone poles stand along the country road, some of them burnt through and dangling from the phone lines like crosses awaiting a crucifixion. Firefighters—yellow ghosts in the gray fog—sift through the burnt remnants of roadside buildings. In the distance, planes take turns dropping clouds of chemicals on a burning hillside.
Kayla stirs, her eyes glossy like she’s been smoking marijuana. “Smells like campfire,” she says, her voice dreamy. She doesn’t even ask why she’s not in the hospital.
“How you doing?”
“Fine.” The word is thick with saliva.
“Guess what?” I say. “I’ve got a surprise for you.”
“Yeah?” She sounds genuinely intrigued, but she slips off to sleep anyway. I didn’t bother to change her out of the hospital gown, which looks like a baggy paper sack full of bones. Her head, a skull with skin stretched over it, seems perched so precariously on her shoulders that it might roll off.
My parents have known for a long time that she’s going to die, but they never explained that to me. When I asked them what “hospice” was, I felt like I’d been duped. Like I was a kid who still believed in Santa Claus long after everyone else his age knew the truth. Like they’d just expected me to figure it out.
I went into her bedroom, lay on her bed, smelled her scent in the pillow. Looking around her room, that’s when I got the idea. On her bedside table, there was a photograph of the two of us in the front car of the Inferno, the rollercoaster at Mom and Dad’s amusement park. Mom had snapped the picture just as the train was pulling forward. Kayla is smiling with her whole face.
We’re through the worst of the burned areas when she wakes up again. She says nothing at first, just looks around, the hills fading into a gray fog.
“It looks kind of like the end of the world, doesn’t it?” she says.
“Yes,” I say. “Very apocalyptic.” We’re driving through a small evacuated community, just a few stoplights along a lake. One of the lights turns red, and I stop, even though there are no other cars around. A grocery store stands empty next to a bar with all its neon beer signs extinguished to an ashen gray. The lake reflects the sky, a cloudy slab of iron.
“It’s kind of like we’re in hell,” Kayla says.
The light turns green, but I don’t press the gas yet. I wait.
“There’s no such thing as hell,” I say.
“If there’s no hell, then is there a heaven?”
“Of course there’s a heaven.”
“Will I go there?”
I try to laugh, but it comes out sounding forced, uncomfortable. “Of course you will. Someday. But not right now. That’s a long way away.”
It’s Kayla’s turn to laugh.
The light turns yellow, and before it goes red again, I nudge the gas and roll the car forward. I press down on the pedal, picking up speed.
“What scares me,” Kayla says, “is I don’t think there’s any heaven or hell. I just think it’s blackness. Not even blackness. Just, you know, nothingness.”
“That’s crazy talk,” I say. “Your soul has to go somewhere.”
“There’s no such thing as a soul,” she says matter-of-factly.
“Kayla,” I say. “Listen to me. There is a heaven. And things work differently there. If you die before me, I’ll already be there. Everyone you ever loved will be there because time isn’t the same in heaven.”
“Will you be an old man and I’ll be a thirteen-year-old kid? I won’t even recognize you.”
“No,” I say. “Time’s different. We’ll just be, you know, us. Ageless. Our true souls. Who we are at all times.”
“That sounds nice,” she says. Her eyes start to sag, and she settles into the seat. “Make sure you go to heaven then. Don’t do anything that would keep you out. Don’t kill anybody.”
“No more talk about heaven and hell and all that stuff. Okay?”
She’s doesn’t answer. She’s asleep again.
To my right is a sloping hill, once dense with pine trees, now full of blackened snags. I used to love this drive, looking out at the scenery, rolling down the windows and inhaling the clean air. All it took was one spark, infecting the dry brush and spreading like a disease, killing all the trees and grass and burning down houses. That’s what’s happening inside Kayla—the fire is spreading, scorching her healthy cells, and no amount of medicine is going to extinguish the flames.
I know she’s dying. I know it as well as I know there is no heaven and there is no hell. It’s a nice idea: good people live forever in paradise. But if there’s a heaven, then there must be a hell. If that’s the case, maybe I’m already dead. Driving through a burning world with my dying sister—what hell could be worse than this?
Through the smoke, the rollercoaster stands like the skeleton of some
strange dinosaur. The paint job, cartoon flames on a black background,
is faded, but the structure is imposing. The area is closed, but only out of
precaution—the fire hasn’t spread this far.
I nudge Kayla.
“Hey, check this out.”
“Woah,” Kayla says. “What are we doing here?”
I thought she would have recognized the scenery of the drive and figured this out, but apparently she is more out of it than I thought. I stop at the gate and get out to enter my code. I wasn’t sure the electricity would still be on, but I’m in luck.
I taste smoke, but the air is breathable. It won’t be good for Kayla, but she can handle it for the length of the ride. I don’t want to bring her oxygen canister on the Inferno; I want her to be able to shriek with joy as we race down the track.
My phone rings. Caller ID shows it’s my mom. Kayla looks at me through the windshield. I wave and smile, like nothing is wrong.
I turn the phone off.
Driving through the gate, I ask Kayla how she’s doing.
“I’m hurting a little,” she says.
“We’ll just take a quick ride, and then I’ll get you back to the hospital.”
I drive to the Inferno. When Mom and Dad bought the park, I was twelve and Kayla was nine. The first time we rode the Inferno, she was scared. I reached over, took her hand, and told her everything was going to be all right. As we flew down the hill, she threw her arms in the air and shrieked with joy, a healthy, high-pitched screech that was all happiness and no fear. We rode it at least twenty times after that, maybe fifty, enough that I got bored. But I kept doing it every time Kayla asked because I loved to hear her scream with glee.
The lift hill looms over us, fading in the smoke like the peak of a mountain covered in clouds. The hill is a hundred and forty feet tall, and it starts the coaster on a four-minute ride, up and down hills, through three tunnels, culminating in a 540-degree helix—a whirlpool of G-forces. There are no loops, nothing inverted, no overbanked turns. But it’s fast. Sixty miles an hour, all the time shaking you like you’re hanging onto a jackhammer.
And it’s loud, like pieces of metal and chunks of wood in a clothes dryer, clanking and crashing and drowning out the sound of your own pounding heartbeat. What Kayla and I always loved is that the Inferno isn’t some hightech coaster gliding along a smooth track. Forty years old and one of the biggest wooden rollercoasters in the world, the Inferno is a pure thrill ride, everything a rollercoaster should be. After I flip the breaker and power up the chain dog, I wheel Kayla into the base station and open the door to the front car.
She smiles, but I can see she’s hurting without the morphine. By the time I get her back to the hospital, she’ll be in agony. But I know she wants to do this.
“You and me,” I say. “Like old times.”
She smiles and nods.
A tear spills down her cheek, gray in the muted light. I lift her into the seat, jog to the panel to press the button, and then run back and jump in the car as it begins to move. I pull down the security bar, locking us in. We listen to the clink clink clink of the chain as it pulls us up the hill.
The rides below—the Octopus, the Grand Carousel, the Viking Ship—grow smaller and smaller and begin to disappear in the gray. We are in a cloud. Flakes of ash float around us like pollen on a summer day. Kayla’s chest heaves. Each breath makes a wheezing sound. She is crying.
I take her hand.
“I would do anything for you,” I say.
“I would do anything,” she says, her voice cracking, “for you.”
She looks at me with pleading eyes as we crest the hill.
Then we thunder down the track. The G force pushes us back, the bones in my shoulder blades pressing against the seat. The car shakes like an airplane in heavy turbulence. The first tunnel grows bigger as we fly toward it, a black hole so dark it seems like there can’t be anything on the other side. When Kayla starts screaming, I tell myself they’re shrieks of joy.