Last Ride of the Day

By Norbert Daniels Jr.

Last Ride of the Day

It was a really nice day to be at an amusement park.

That’s what I thought to myself when I finally came up for air once I was done studying the park map. It’s a habit I’ve had for as long as I can remember. Every single time I’ve been to a theme park since I was a little kid the first thing I would do was grab the map and bury my nose in it. I don’t even think I knew how to read the first few times I did it. My parents always thought it was cute, me walking around, lost in my thoughts, unfolding the paper map until it was bigger than me. Plus I bet it was a bit of a relief that they could take things easy, considering that most kids in my shoes would dart out towards the first thing that caught their eye. At least for a little while. Once I was finished making my master plans they began to regret not following through with their New Year’s resolution to start jogging, just like all the other moms and dads.

Nice memories, but that was all in the past. I was in that glorious sweet spot in between needing adult supervision and being adult supervision. My friends and I all by some miracle managed to schedule our vacations at the same time. Just how big of a hassle it was to get us all on the same page made us realize we really didn’t have much time until we were boring adults. I mean, we were still college kids...kinda. Rob and Jane were in grad school, and Tracy and I were just about to start our last year in undergrad. Ben was the only one young enough so that “summer vacation” still remotely resembled its former glory. Lucky kid.

So in celebration of our impending demise we decided to do it up big one last time. For weeks we planned the road trip so legendary that we’d be immortalized as folk heroes. Camping in the great outdoors? Check. Beach parties? In no less than three states. Binge drinking? Please, we’re not amateurs. And that’s not even mentioning the hundred-mile hotbox, the every-man-for-himself bottle rocket wars and that time we got lost after skinny dipping and scarred some Boy Scouts for life. The only thing we didn’t do was accidentally run over a hitchhiker.

The trip was winding down to an end and we had one last stop before we went home: Ghoul Grove. Never heard of it? I don’t blame you.

During the planning stages of our little adventure we realized that there was something missing. What vacation would be complete without a trip to a theme park?

It occurred to us to go to one of the usual spots. Cedar Point, Six Flags, Disney World, you know the ones. But we already had a packed schedule at this point. With tickets, parking, food, motel and extra gas on top of what we were gonna spend on everything else, it was gonna be tight. We almost threw the idea out altogether. But I couldn’t let that happen. I made it my own personal mission to find us a place that would work.

And find a place I did. After spending all night on the internet searching, I found our destination. The name of the place was Ghoul Grove. I’ve been to more of these places than most people. My bedroom is so full of souvenirs it could either land me in a mental institute or a reality TV show. But somehow I’d never heard of this place.

At first I didn’t even think it was real. The website was ancient. It looked like it could have been someone’s twenty year-old GeoCities page. The site had green text on a black background with low-res animated GIFs of dancing skeletons decorating the sides. The two most likely explanations that came to my mind were A)This was some joke site someone made after spending three days learning HTML or B)The park shut down decades ago but the site was still chugging along for whatever reason. Maybe the site was connected to a bank account and drawing automatic payments the owner forgot to cancel. Or maybe the owners just kept it around for nostalgia’s sake, like the Space Jam website.

But after a little bit of investigation, those assumptions were proven wrong. Exploring the site I found some pictures of the place. The images were tiny as hell but I could just barely make out some clusters of pixels that vaguely resembled rides and kiosks. It was safe to assume that this park had existed at some point. But was it still running? I found the address on the “About” page and popped it into Google Maps. Thankfully Google’s satellites are much better at taking pictures than the site’s photographer. I got a clearer look at the place along with crowds of people frozen in time, enjoying the park. I made a note to myself to call the number on the website in the morning as a final check to make sure everything was square. Then I shutdown my computer and tried to take advantage the last couple hours of darkness.

The next morning, or afternoon if I’m being totally honest, I made the call. Curled up in the corner of my couch not taken up by clutter with my third bowl of Cap’n Crunch I waited on hold with the phone balanced between my cheek and my shoulder. When I was just about ready to give up and call later, the music shut off and the voice of a sweet old lady answered.

“You’ve reached Ghoul Grove, the spookiest theme park in America. How can I help you?”

Relieved that I’d finally reached a human voice, I asked all the questions I had. Did the website I saw belong to them, was the info up to date, how crowded did they get, that kind of stuff. Thoroughly satisfied with those answers, I thanked the lady and said goodbye.

It was decided. Our last stop on the road trip to end all road trips would be Ghoul Grove.

*        *        *

We rolled into the parking lot a little after 1pm. It was a good thing that this was the last leg of the trip because we were beat. I’ll admit, we looked pretty ridiculous stumbling out of the two vans. Five disheveled young adults stretching and yawning as their legs struggled to remember how to carry their half-dressed bodies across the asphalt and into the waking world.  

Following one of our customary five-minute car-side hygiene sessions we’d mastered over the course of the trip, we made our way toward the gate. We’d already agreed that this would be a pretty chill stop for us. We weren’t expecting a big crowd or amazing attractions, so this would be a nice relaxing note to end the trip on. Just four or five hours here and then we’d power our way through the rest of the drive and be at Rob and Tracy’s place before sunrise.

I started my ritual the moment we walked through the gates. I could tell that it was a pretty small place by how little unfolding the map needed. Even with no plans to stay the whole day, it was pretty evident that we had more than enough time to see everything the park had to offer before we left.

It was a really nice day to be at an amusement park.

There was a nice overcast going on, so I didn’t have to worry about baking in the sun. At the same time it was just cool enough to avoid getting sweaty and grimy but warm enough to be comfortable in my t-shirt and basketball shorts. The park was sparsely populated, but not so much that I’d call it dead. I guessed that with this level of attendance I might even be able to get on some rides twice in a row without having to get off and wait in line. It was the perfect day.

It was pretty impressive how much commitment went into the park’s theme. All the buildings and kiosks were painted such a viscous, oily black that I was sure if I so much as touched it I’d be consumed like a mammoth in tar.

Every single employee past the gate was decked out in full makeup and/or costume. They didn’t wear uniforms, but it wasn’t hard to spot them. Manning the rides, games and kiosks were workers who looked like they just walked out of the makeup room for a zombie movie. Their skin was so dry and pale it looked like it would blow away in a cloud dust when touched by the gentlest puff of air. Their teeth were rotted and chipped while their nails ranged from being several inches long to looking like they had been ripped out at the base. I was really taken aback by all this, but I was put at ease when I heard the one working the nearest snack bar listing off the ghoul-ified names for corn dogs and nachos in an obviously scripted and over-acted manner.

After a few minutes the group decided to split up. Rob made it his business to force Tracy to take as many pictures with the employees as possible. The last I saw of them was when they chased down an out-of-place-looking employee in a cartoonish skeleton mascot outfit carrying balloons. Ben, now with a stomach full of spine-on-a-stick and batwings with hot white melted marrow, wanted to try his hand at winning a human-sized skeleton that looked like the ones you see in science classes on sitcoms. And finally Jane went to the bathroom since she was unsatisfied with the grooming that could be done while looking into a side mirror.

I decided that I would go to the biggest coaster in the park and ride it until I got sick of it. This isn’t a habit quite as set in stone as my map ceremony, but it was still one of my favorite ways to start off a visit whenever it was practical.

According the map, my destination was on the far end of the park. It was called the Bone Rattler, which wasn’t the worst name for a ride I’d ever heard. I estimated it would be about a ten minute leisurely walk and made my way towards it.

The place was easy enough to spot. There was a big sign that said “Bone Rattler” in a font where each letter was made of bones. Once I made it to the ride I was actually surprised how many people were in line. It wasn’t a ridiculous number, but still much more than any of the attractions I passed along the way. After about five minutes the coaster came down and started unloading its passengers. Once all the cars were empty and the people in line were allowed to get on, a hoarse voice wafted over the intercom.

“Last ride of the day.”

That announcement threw me off. I knew that the park didn’t close for another seven hours or so. Were they doing maintenance on the coaster? Is that why it was the last ride of the day? I debated internally for a moment whether or not to get on, worried that if the ride was due for repairs I’d be risking getting stuck on the thing. Wasting the entire amusement park visit suspended upside down seemed like a pretty awful note to end the trip on. But all doubt left me the moment I got an up-close look at the carts. They were the most beautiful things I’d ever laid eyes on. The carts had brilliant woodwork furnishing it that looked like it was done by a master artisan. Embedded on the outside were amazingly realistic-looking bones and skulls. I had to ride this, this...piece of art.

I got into a cart toward the back. I was lucky enough to be able to get this one all to myself. Brimming with excitement, my heart leapt to the sound of the pneumatic hisses that signaled the process had begun. The ride started.

Despite how much I’d hyped myself up, it felt like a pretty average ride so far. Not bad, but not amazing either. Then we went into the tunnel.

At one point the rails dipped and we were all in the dark. We were riding at a level surface for some time while we were in there. On the walls were glowing skeletons. We also heard unseen speakers playing audio of “spooky” laughter along with the sounds of various pops, cracks and rattles. Now this was pretty entertaining. I was wondering how long it would go on, though.

Then the ride slowed down and I heard the familiar sound of the coaster slowly climbing a slope. Like the sound a fishing pole makes when you reel it in, but deeper, slower and louder. Eventually I felt my own cart traveling in the upward angle and mentally prepared myself for the next part. But after a few seconds I realized something: I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. It was pitch black inside except for the glowing skeletons. Something wasn’t right.

As time went by, fear began to spread from the front of the coaster all the way to the back. What had moments ago been giggling and cheering had transformed into nervous murmurs. I could even hear a couple people having panic attacks, slapping their hands on the carts and demanding that they be let off. Even I started to lose my cool as the once amusing audio grew louder and increasingly distorted. The sound was burrowing its way inside my skull. The further up we went, the more the walls seemed to close in around me. It was getting hard to breathe. This wasn’t fun anymore. I needed to get out of there.

I was an instant away from joining the growing crowd of panicked pleaders before I saw the light. I could see where the tunnel ended. I never thought I’d be so happy to see the sun. I could tell the sight was having the same effect on the other passengers as a wave of relief swept through the coaster. Just as I started to feel silly for actually being scared I heard the screaming.

Screaming is what you’d expect when you reach a peak on a roller coaster. The coaster goes down the slope really fast and everyone has a good time. But that wasn’t the kind of scream I heard. It was like nothing I’d ever heard. It was primal. As if it were appealing to some ancient survival instinct, I perfectly understood that these were screeches of mortal terror. The moment the sound rang out from the passengers in the front--the ones who had just exited the tunnel--the rest of us broke into a fevered panic. We didn’t know why. We didn’t know what the people in front saw. We just knew that whatever it was, we didn’t want to see it. In a frenzy I tore at my seatbelt. I pried at the metal safety bar. I grasped at the walls. I could hear my own heart beating over the wails and sobs echoing through the tunnel. It was drumming so fast the beats slurred into a single, unbroken throbbing percussion.

As the light approached I knew I was out of time. My cart was now on the other side of the tunnel.

We weren’t at Ghoul Grove anymore.

I didn’t know where we were. We were so high up that I couldn’t see the Earth below me. How did we get so impossibly high up? All I could see was the rails in a descending spiral toward the ground, if there even was a ground. In that instant it was like time froze. It was when I could no longer hear my heart beating that I realized I was yelling, and time started moving again.

We plunged into the abyss faster than what should have even been possible. My throat stung as my howls shredded my vocal cords and acidic vomit burned its way through my esophagus. I could feel my brain smashing against the inside of my skull as we hit a section of rail that twisted like the threads of a screw.

I couldn’t hear the screams anymore. All I could hear was the blood rushing through my ears and leaking out in scalding spurts.

Then it all started to fade.

My body was exhausted. I’d lost the ability to understand the sensations of touch and time. My vision was already hopelessly blurred due to the speed at which we were moving, but now the color I’d been able to distinguish was draining. Everything was going white. With my ears damaged beyond repair I didn’t even feel the motion of the coaster anymore. It felt like I was floating.

And then I drifted off.

*        *        *

When I woke up we weren’t descending anymore. The coaster was making a slow push across the level rails that were only a couple feet off the ground. For a moment I was hopeful that this was my chance to escape the ride. But then I took a better look at my surroundings.

There was nothing.

As far as I could see there was nothing but flat wasteland. The ground was parched as if it hadn’t seen a drop of moisture in centuries. I looked above and saw nothing but an opaquely grey yet somehow cloudless sky. But this didn’t even matter. There could have been a five star hotel open for business inches away from the track and I still wouldn’t be going anywhere. I tried to break myself free but was so weak I was exhausted in under a minute.

My hearing came and went in spotty cycles. I could hear faint rattlings of people also trying to escape coming from both behind and the front of me. Their low, hoarse moans suggested that they’d all lost their voices from screaming.

The environment was so barren that the only way I could tell we were actually moving was the feeling of the faint vibrations of the coaster as it lurched ahead.

I constantly faded in and out of consciousness. When I dreamt it was always of the tunnel. My only indication of the passing of time was the deteriorating bodies of myself and the other passengers. Every time I woke up we were all a little bit more worn. Hair turned grey. Nails grew. Eyes sunk deeper into their sockets. Fat and muscle evaporated. It had to have been months. Years, even. None of us had eaten or drank since before we got on the ride. How we were still alive? Why were we still alive?

After Satan knows how long, I awoke to find the cart had stopped moving. The seatbelts were unfastened and the safety bars were up. This was it. The end of the line. But there was still nothing. On either side of the coaster were chain link fences, dusted with ash, reaching to the skies. I could see some of the other riders had already left their seats and began to walk ahead. So I followed. We looked ridiculous stumbling out of the carts. Disheveled fiends huffing and groaning as our atrophied legs struggled to remember how to carry their emaciated bodies into the land of the dead.

I don’t know how long we walked. All I know is that it was the hardest walk I’ve ever taken. Whenever I was able to stand I would be clinging to one of the fences with everything I had. When I couldn’t stand, I crawled on my belly, moving an inch a minute. This was how everyone made the trek. We didn’t know why or where, but we kept going.

After an eternity of dragging my body forward I spotted something in the distance. This was the first time on the entire pilgrimage I’d seen anything at all. If I had any moisture left in my body left I think I would have cried. I put extra effort into making my way forward, though I don’t think it actually helped much. I was so excited to finally be free. Maybe this was all over.

When I got closer I could recognize that it was a pavilion. It was painted such a viscous, oily black that I was sure if I so much as touched it I’d be consumed like a mammoth in tar. I slowly made my way towards the eerily familiar structure. Once I was within a few yards, my weak eyes alerted me to a feeling of horror I hadn’t felt since the tunnel. Outside of the pavilion was a giant sign that read “Bone Rattler” in a font where each letter was made of bones. Looking to the inside of the pavilion my worst fear was confirmed. It was the roller coaster that I stepped on so long ago. And the other passengers were climbing inside. I didn’t want to go in. I’d lie here on the ground until the end of time before I did that. But it wasn’t up to me. My body moved all by itself. As my mind screeched at it to stop, my legs worked better than they had this entire journey and carried me into the exact same seat that had served as my prison before. Sitting in the cart, resigned to my fate, I heard the first voice to reach my ears in what could have been decades.