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The Scream

The heat was unbearable. The sun was stopped in the middle of the sky, refusing to move, firing missiles of heat down. You could almost see them as rippling waves that bounced off the black concrete paths, and feel them as they reflected up and hit you.

     If only there were grass, she thought, perhaps it wouldn't be so bad. In the huge theme park, everything was manufactured - angular, flat surfaces, and shiny polished metal. Signposts painted with bright, smooth paint in colours too painful to look at in the sunlight. But this country was Spain, and there was little of the lush green grass she was used to, only brown earth, and withered brown plants in its place.

     They'd tried to escape the oppressive heat, and crowds of determined people, forcing their way in front to queue for drinks and rides, or grab a seat for an unmissable show. The air was thick, and difficult to breathe making every movement an effort. They were made to carry a bag each, Anna the heavy shoulder bag with the sun tan lotion and camera inside, and Mary the mini rucksack, containing all the important things such as money and keys. Anna herself wouldn't have trusted her sister to look after it, but Mary was unable to manage the heavier bag alone. Their mother had the food bag, overloaded as if it were filled with several large rocks, as she hauled it to a bench by the large, wide lake where it was scarcely quieter or cooler. The lake was obviously purpose built for the park, a deep hole gauged out of the earth by a machine. The surface of the water was level as a sheet of glass, but more cloudy, lying there unbroken and unnaturally still. Flies and mosquitoes skimmed the inches above the top of the water in a heat induced frenzy.

     The lemonade was lukewarm and had lost its fizz from being carried around all morning. Anna swallowed it quickly along with her squashed sandwich so she didn't have to taste them. It was too hot to eat properly. She fell back against the wooden seat and closed her eyes, feeling the sun burn her eyelids, and seeing the searing orange glow beneath them. She hated the thought of leaving the waterside, unsure her legs would carry her any further, but dreaded having to stay there alone, open and vulnerable at the edge of the vast lake. When her mother stood up with the empty bag and Mary took her hand ready to walk on, chattering and pointing at various places she wanted to visit, Anna had no choice but to reluctantly start off towards the main path with them again.

<  2  >

     The main path stretched endlessly on in a circular route around the park, but other smaller tracks came off of it following the yellow arrows on the signposts. A big black signpost with gold lettering showed the direction of 'The Scream!' according to the glossy park guide, 'one of the fastest rollercoaster rides in the world, with a record number of loops and a final near-vertical drop to finish you off'. Mary stopped, glanced at the sign, and then at her mother, and Anna could tell from the look in her eyes exactly what she was thinking.

     "I don't think so, Mary," Mum said, as Mary opened her mouth to speak. "It makes me sick just watching it." Anna followed her gaze a little way across the park, where the metal roller coaster frame was visible, standing high above the groups of people with their heads back, watching the string of golden cars racing around the loops, the noise of the machinery an incessant roar mixed with the terrified shrieks of the passengers.

     "Oh, go on Mum," Mary pleaded. "I'm sure it isn't half as bad as it looks."

     Another pointed look up at the whirling roller coaster, and a smile crossed Mum's face. "Sure, it's not that bad. I think I'll still give it a miss though." Seeing she wasn't going to get Mum to try the ride, Mary scowled, and folded her arms. "It isn't fair," she shouted. "If you don't go on it, I can't either. You never let me go on my own."

     "You can go on with Anna," Mum suggested, and they both looked at her, silently hoping she would agree. Anna avoided their eyes, and became extremely interested in the way she had tied the laces of her trainers that morning. "I'd feel much happier knowing Anna was there to look after you Mary. Just in case you get lost, or hurt or something."

     "I won't," Mary assured her, but her attention was still on Anna.

     "No," she mumbled. "I don't want to go on the roller coaster. I'd be ill - you know I would."

<  3  >

     Memories of the journey to Spain almost a week before surfaced in her consciousness. The ferry crossing which was fairly brief in comparison to the rest of the travelling time, had been calm and comfortable, yet still Anna had sat unmoving in her chair, back to the window lest the up and down view of the waves should unsettle her stomach. But the plane flight from Gatwick had been a nightmare for her, especially the taking off and the landing, in which she had feared her head would explode from the constant pressure on her ears. She had tried to sleep whilst they were in the air, wired herself up to the in-flight radio with headphones plugged into the arm of her seat, but all this did not drown out the faint hum of the engine and help her forget where she was.

     Mary had been unsympathetic even then. "Did you hear about the man who travelled to Paris by train because he was afraid of flying?" she had whispered as they climbed the steps into the aeroplane. Anna shook her head, and turned away unwilling to hear the end. She dawdled up the aisle, forcing her mother and Mary to take the seats nearest the window, so she wouldn't be trapped at the end of the row against the wall. No sooner had Anna sat down, Mary was leaning over her, grinning wickedly.

     "His train crashed," she told her. "A plane fell on it."

     Mary trod heavily on Anna's foot to get her attention. "You have to go on it. You have to take me on it."

     Anna looked at Mum for support, but she was too eager to avoid an argument with Mary in front of all the people.

     "I'll buy you both an ice cream," she said, imploringly.

     Anna felt mean refusing to help her mother, but the fear of the roller coaster far surpassed her sense of duty. She watched Mary flicking impatiently through the pages of the park guide to find 'The Scream!' and found herself resenting the way Mary always got what she wanted.

<  4  >

     "There is no way I am going on that roller coaster," Anna said in what she hoped was a firm voice. In the distance she could hear the screams of the people in the shiny cars, as they circled the roller coaster course. "Mary can go on her own."

     Mary stared slyly at her sister, narrowing her eyes and turning the corners of her mouth into a half-smile. "You're not scared are you Anna? You're scared of everything."

     "Don't be silly Mary," her mother began in Anna's defence. "Of course she's scared. Any person in their right mind would be. But it's only a ride, Anna. Surely you can make it onto a ride without feeling ill for once, you're always afraid of things like that, it's getting ridiculous ..."

     I am ridiculous, Anna thought. I can get on the ride, but I'm not sure I'll get off it again. I could be going round the track forever, and never get off. How horrible.

     "... and I know Mary's older now, but if you go too Anna she'll be safe--"

     "Okay," Anna said. "I'll take Mary on. I'll do it." Mary put her tongue back in her mouth, and smiled like a cat with a helpless mouse caught in its paws. Despite the heat and the beads of sweat trickling down her neck, Anna began to walk briskly in the direction the yellow arrow indicated, not waiting for Mary.

     "Anna!" her mother called. She slowed, but did not turn.

     "Yes?" her voice coming out as a squeak.

     "What would you like, dear?"

     At first she did not understand. She'd completely forgotten what she'd been promised for doing the terrible deed, and now she remembered, she felt too guilty to accept it. She hesitated.

     "Anna? Your ice cream?"

<  5  >

     "Whatever," she replied, and continued down the path with Mary half running at her side.

 

Anna stood behind Mary at the end of the long queue which ran backwards and forwards between the horizontal metal bars.

     "If you think I'm going to go all the way up there and get on that stupid, stupid roller coaster just to please you, because you say I should, then you've got a big shock coming Mary."

     "Mum said you had to," was all Mary said. "You promised."

     "I did not!" Anna cried. "I didn't promise."

     "You lied," Mary said, nastily. "That's worse."

     Anna pulled herself up to sit on one of the bars, above the crush of people. "Look," she said. "I'll stay here and watch you while you're queuing, and make sure you're all right. When you get on the ride I'll go round to the exit and wait for you to come out. Okay?"

     "I suppose so," Mary answered, seeming to accept this compromise more easily than Anna had expected. They remained in the queue for a further half an hour. Anna thought she could not bear being unable to move amongst so many people for very much longer. She could feel the sun tan lotion wearing off her shoulders every minute that ticked past as the hot rays continued to beat down on them. At last the entrance for the roller coaster came into view, a large archway that appeared dark inside with steep stone steps leading upwards.

     The two girls climbed the steps into an enormous black room, lit only by six red lamps and a green exit sign. A stretch of empty track traversed the room, escaping out of it through two equally black tunnels, with several numbered gates opening out onto the track. A piercing white light from one of the tunnels preceded a deep rumbling noise, warning of the roller coaster's arrival. Like a monstrous beast bursting from its lair, glowing eyes and long twisting tail, Anna could actually feel the ground vibrating under her feet, as the previous circuit of the roller coaster came to a grinding halt in front of them.

<  6  >

     Anna didn't wait for Mary to enter one of the golden cars. Seized by a sudden uncontrollable desire to be out in the open again she raced for the exit, away from the huge metal monster as fast as she could, hearing Mary call after her. "Don't forget to wait for me outside!"

     Anna stood outside beside the exit door, and watched the rows of television screens displaying pictures of the roller coaster ride. There was a hidden camera at the highest point of the circuit, just before the final terrible drop, which snapped a photo of the passengers in each car as they realised they were heading down. Photos of the ride before Mary's were currently on the screens. The passengers in car no. 3 were all smiling as they faced the near vertical drop, whereas car no.6 contained only a boy and girl, both frozen with their mouths wide open and eyes wide with fear.

     Minutes passed. The screens flickered, and the pictures changed. Four men in a car, one with his eyes screwed tightly shut, gripping the back of the seat in front with his hands. A family of four, the children - both boys - waving at the camera. The screen at the far end showed a crowded car, with groups of people who did not appear to know each other. Then came a man and a woman with a car all to themselves. Two cars had a mixture of children in, numbers 1 and 2. Anna peered closely at the frames, but couldn't see Mary on any of the screens.

     Someone tapped her on the shoulder, and made her spin round in fright. Mary stood there in her denim shorts and red t-shirt, face looking pink and flushed, frown line indentations etched on her forehead.

     "Mary! Don't do that!" Anna said crossly.

     "I've lost it." Mary said despondently, avoiding her eyes.

     "Did you enjoy the ride?" Anna asked, not listening to her.

<  7  >

     "Yes, I did. It was good," Mary replied flatly. "But Anna ... Anna I've lost the bag."

     It took a moment to sink in. She stared at Mary's face, and the glistening tears beginning to form in the corners of her eyes. She looked down at Mary's shoulder where the tiny rucksack had hung for most of the day, and at her hands, balled up into little fists.

     "You lost the bag?" Anna spoke the words very slowly and deliberately, unravelling the implications of them in her mind as she said them. Her mother's purse. The money. The keys. The tickets. The passports.

     The tears were running freely down Mary's cheeks now, forming wet tracks like those made by tiny snails. "I'm sorry, Anna. I didn't mean to lose it. What are we going to say to Mum?"

     "Where did you lose the bag?" Anna said, trying to keep calm, but with a sense of urgency in her voice. "Where did you last have it?"

     "I had it on the ride," Mary sobbed. "In the car. I put it under the seat so it wouldn't fall out when it went upside down and I forgot to pick it up when I got out."

     The roller coaster ride came to life in Anna's head, encircling her mind. The rucksack tucked away under the seat of the first car, was swung up into the air as the ride hit a sharp bend in the track, the pocket of the bag flapping open, and wads of paper money raining down upon the spectators below.

     "It must be still in the car, then," Anna said sensibly. "You'll have to go back and get it."

     Mary's expression turned to one of horror. "I can't!" she cried. "They won't let me back on now without queuing up again!"

     "Well, what else are we going to do?" asked Anna. "Do you really want to go and explain to Mum what's happened?" She glanced in the direction of the ice cream van, parked a long way from them, the other side of a tall fence.

<  8  >

     "No, of course not," Mary answered. "But you were supposed to be looking after me. You should go back and get the bag."

     All of a sudden, Anna saw it. How the blame had gently shifted from Mary's shoulders to her own. Once again, Mary had twisted everything to make it seem as if it were her fault. "Which car were you in?" Anna said, her voice beginning to shake.

     "Ermm ... the first one, I think," Mary replied thoughtfully. "Yes, the first car with the face on the front. I sat on the left hand side at the front of it."

     "Stay here," Anna said, and thrust her own shoulder bag into Mary's arms. "Don't move. Just look after this bag, okay, and I'm going to go and find the rucksack."

     The woman selling the ride photos at the desk did not notice Anna as she disappeared through the doorway and slipped back up the exit tunnel. She thought she saw admiration in Mary's face, as she left her standing by the televisions, but reason told her this was unlikely.

     There were people going the opposite way to Anna along the tunnel. They shouted at her for skipping the queue, and she had to explain to them about the bag so they would let her past. She arrived in the roller coaster room again just as the previous ride finished and the cars rumbled in to unload. The sea of people surged forward as the numbered gates swung open to allow passengers to get on. Anna squeezed herself into the midst of them all, feeling like a tiny stone buffeted and thrown against the rising waves. She swam against the current, fighting her way to the front, blindly clawing her path through the waters.

     And she was stepping through the gate, up to the edge of the track and into the leading golden car. It was carved in the shape of an open mouth, thick red lips stretched in a silent scream, white teeth showing beneath and a black gaping hole. The seats were black plastic, hard and uncomfortable, with folding metal bars tucked above and to the sides of them to hold the passengers in. Anna bent down and reached beneath the left hand seat, feeling about on the floor with her hand for the rucksack strap. She found nothing. She checked the right side, in case Mary had made a mistake, leaning right back under the seat and groping around, hoping to feel the soft leather under her fingers. The rucksack was not there.

<  9  >

     Anna began to panic. She sat up in the seat for a moment, and tried to think what could have happened to Mary's rucksack. Why wasn't it under the seat? Too late, Anna realised a metal bar had come down over her legs, leaving her unable to get out of the car. Looking around at the roller coaster, she saw that the same thing had happened to everybody else in the cars. Attendants were walking up the length of the roller coaster, pulling more bars down over the passengers heads to secure them even tighter. Anna called to them to let her out as they walked past, but they were Spanish and didn't appear to understand her.

     Desperately, Anna tugged at the bar above her legs, willing it to move. She tried to wriggle out through the thin gap below it, but found there wasn't nearly enough room. The bars around her head stopped her from turning around to attract someone's attention. She was shaking like the ground in an earthquake, all rational thoughts crumbling into the widening gap of black fear. She could hear the car beginning to hum with the flow of electricity, and knew she had no time left to escape. She would have to endure the ride.

     The front car gave a lurch forwards, and the five other cars followed jerkily. Anna was strapped helplessly to the seat, and paralysed by fear, unable to twist her head or do anything except seal her eyes shut against the red lights fading behind her as the roller coaster advanced into the tunnel.

     At first it was like being on a train. The rocking motion of the car over the uneven track, and the rhythmic pounding against the underside of the car. She felt like a baby being rocked to sleep with the approach of night and the enveloping blackness of the tunnel. Feeling the sudden warmth of the sun on her chilled limbs, Anna became aware that they had emerged into the daylight, and were now slowly ascending a steep section of the course. The car was tipped at such an angle, Anna lay almost horizontally against the back of her seat. She prayed for the climb to go on and on, never reaching its peak so that she would not have to suffer the speedy descent. She was rigid with terror at the very thought of it.

<  10  >

     Anna felt the car teetering on the brink at the high point of the track, sure they would either tumble backwards or forwards, she snapped open her eyes for a split second, long enough to see the two silver runners of the track sliding down the other side of the mountain, before her breath was torn from her lungs along with the forming scream which fizzled to nothing, as they plunged head first towards the ground.

     It was not a straight drop. There was a violent bend in the track half way down and Anna was thrown sideways against the protective metal bar, the sick sticking in her throat, and the car swung round into a corkscrew spin, winding down, down, only to level out literally metres above the concrete.

     Anna gulped in air and the car began to rise again, a ceiling of azure sky visible behind the black frame. She could hear the creak of the cable pulling the car against the gravity, straining with the tension. Please don't let it break, her mind called out. Plummeting down the other side, she became conscious of the deafening shrieks and cries from the cars behind her. One person screamed and the others copied, one by one like falling dominoes, cries of mock horror and pretend fear. Anna's fear was real, embedded deep inside her like an icicle in her heart. She was suffocating, incapable of taking in oxygen with the scream wedged in her throat. The roller coaster pulled out of its dive and into the first loop, Anna hanging disorientated the wrong way up, her legs jammed into the metal bar, the blood rushing to her head. There was hardly time to catch her breath before the roller coaster launched into the second, moving faster and faster, the world spinning, dizzy. The third and final loop rushed by Anna barely noticed - to her they seemed to all run into one horrific spiral.

     The chain of golden cars were going up again for the last time, unhurried, creeping inch by inch. Hurry, pleaded Anna to herself, get it over with, let me die soon. She was filled with apprehension, dreading the near vertical drop. High in the air, Anna could see the entire expanse of the theme park spread out beneath, miniature people scurrying from place to place like hungry insects. She saw the tiny camera half hidden at the top, and the faint flash as she sped past it, already on her way to the bottom. The wind flew past her ears, catching hold of her hair and making it stand out behind. Her stomach left her body, suspended in the air as she proceeded on without it. Her fear abandoned her and at last she could scream, as loudly as was possible the rest of the way down.

<  11  >

     Anna was crying as she stepped out of the golden car, returned to the safety of the big, dark room and the warm, friendly glow of the exit sign. She wiped the tears away with the back of her hand, ashamed of being so afraid of a theme park ride. She was trembling all over, finding it difficult to walk straight, her mind and body exhausted. She managed to stumble down the passage leading outside to where the television screens were positioned. Only five minutes before, she had stood on the very same spot, worried about the fate of Mary's rucksack. Now, she didn't care what had happened to it at all.

     Mary and her mother were standing beside the doorway as she came out, smiling at her.

     "Enjoy the ride Anna?" Mum asked, genuinely interested. "Mary told me you decided to try it on your own."

     Puzzled, Anna looked at Mary, calmly licking the surface of an orange ice lolly. Mary stared solidly back at her, no trace of any emotion on her features. Anna's eyes settled on the brown leather rucksack slung over her sister's shoulder, almost as if it had never moved from its current position.

     "Mary?" Anna said, disbelieving.

     "I'm sorry I changed my mind about going on the roller coaster," Mary told her, green eyes wide and innocent. "It was just too scary after all."

     Anna felt the ground rushing up to meet her. The combination of Mary's grinning face, the swirling colours of the theme park, and the painful heat of the sun was too much.

     "I bought you the picture," Mum said somewhere in the distance, thrusting a glossy photo in a cardboard frame before her face. "It'll remind you of the holiday when we go home tonight ..."

     Her legs gave way from under her, and she couldn't stop herself falling. Down again. Would she ever stop falling? The world went black as her eyelids folded closed.

<  12  >

     "You don't half look frightened in the picture, Anna," commented Mum. "Anna?" She stared down at the floor. "Anna?"

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