It was a stupid and dangerous thing to do, which Jeremy and Tod realized. But they had done it a couple of times anyway, not only on the Millipede but on other rides in other parks. Riding daredevil pumped up the excitement level at least a thousand percent, especially in pitch-dark tunnels where it was impossible to see what was coming next.
“Rocket jockeys!” Tod said when they were halfway through the line. He insisted on giving Jeremy a low five and then a high five, though they looked like a couple of as**ole kids. “No rocket jockey is afraid of daredeviling the Millipede, right?”
“Right,” Jeremy said as they inched through the main doors and entered the pavilion. Shrill screams echoed to them from the riders on the cars that shot away into the tunnel ahead.
According to legend (as kid-created legends went at every amusement park with a similar ride), a boy had been killed riding daredevil on the Millipede because he'd been too tall. The ceiling of the tunnel was high in all lighted stretches, but they said it dropped low at one spot in a darkened passage—maybe because air-conditioning pipes passed through at that point, maybe because the engineers made the contractor put in another support that hadn't been planned for, maybe because the architect was a no-brain. Anyway, this tall kid, standing up, smacked his head into the low part of the ceiling, never even saw it coming. It instantly pulverized his face, decapitated him. All the unsuspecting bozos riding behind him were splattered with blood and brains and broken teeth.
Jeremy didn't believe it for a minute. Fantasy World hadn't been built by guys with horse turds for brains. They had to have figured kids would find a way to get out from under the lap bars, because nothing was entirely kid-proof, and they would have kept the ceiling high all the way through. Legend also had it that the low overhang was still somewhere in one of the dark sections of the tunnel, with bloodstains and flecks of dried brains on it, which was total cow flop.
For anybody riding daredevil, standing up, the real danger was that he would fall out of the car when it whipped around a sharp turn or accelerated unexpectedly. Jeremy figured there were six or eight particularly radical curves on the Millipede course where Tod Ledderbeck might easily topple out of the car with only minimal assistance.
The line moved slowly forward.
Jeremy was not impatient or afraid. As they drew closer to the boarding gates, he became more excited but also more confident. His hands were not trembling. He had no butterflies in his belly. He just wanted to do it.
The boarding chamber for the ride was constructed to resemble a cavern with immense stalactites and stalagmites. Strange bright-eyed creatures swam in the murky depths of eerie pools, and albino mutant crabs prowled the shores, reaching up with huge wicked claws toward the people on the boarding platform, snapping at them but not quite long-armed enough to snare any dinner.
Each train had six cars, and each car carried two people. The cars were painted like segments of a Millipede; the first had a big insect head with moving jaws and multifaceted black eyes, not a cartoon but a really fierce monster face; the one at the back boasted a curved stinger that looked more like part of a scorpion than the ass-end of a Millipede. Two trains were boarding at any one time, the second behind the first, and they shot off into the tunnel with only a few seconds between them because the whole operation was computer-controlled, eliminating any danger that one train would crash into the back of another.
Jeremy and Tod were among the twelve customers that the attendant sent to the first train.
Tod wanted the front car, but they didn't get it. That was the best position from which to ride daredevil because everything would happen to them first: every plunge into darkness, every squirt of cold steam from the wall vents, every explosion through swinging doors into whirling lights. Besides, part of the fun of riding daredevil was showing off, and the front car provided a perfect platform for exhibitionism, with the occupants of the last five cars as a captive audience in the lighted stretches.
With the first car claimed, they raced for the sixth. Being the last to experience every plunge and twist of the track was next-best to being first, because the squeals of the riders ahead of you raised your adrenaline level and expectations. Something about being securely in the middle of the train just didn't go with daredevil riding.
The lap bars descended automatically when all twelve people were aboard. An attendant came along the platform, visually inspecting to be sure all of the restraints had locked into place.
Jeremy was relieved they had not gotten the front car, where they would have had ten witnesses behind them. In the tomb-dark confines of the unlit sections of tunnel, he wouldn't be able to see his own hand an inch in front of his face, so it wasn't likely that anyone would be able to see him push Tod out of the car. But this was a big-time violation of the rules, and he didn't want to take any chances. Now, potential witnesses were all safely in front of them, staring straight ahead; in fact they could not easily glance back, since every seat had a high back to prevent whiplash.
When the attendant finished checking the lap bars, he turned and signaled the operator, who was seated at an instrument panel on a rock formation to the right of the tunnel entrance.
“Here we go,” Tod said.
“Here we go,” Jeremy agreed.
“Rocket jockeys!” Tod shouted.
Jeremy gritted his teeth.
“Rocket jockeys!” Tod repeated.
What the hell. One more time wouldn't hurt. Jeremy yelled: “Rocket jockeys!”
The train did not pull away from the boarding station with the jerky uncertainty of most roller coasters. A tremendous blast of compressed air shot it forward at high speed, like a bullet out of a barrel, with a whoosh! that almost hurt the ears. They were pinned against their seats as they flashed past the operator and into the black mouth of the tunnel.
He was only twelve then. He had not died. He had not been to Hell. He had not come back. He was as blind in darkness as anyone else, as Tod.
Then they slammed through swinging doors and up a long incline of well-lit track, moving fast at first but gradually slowing to a crawl. On both sides they were menaced by pale white slugs as big as men, which reared up and shrieked at them through round mouths full of teeth that whirled like the blades in a garbage disposal. The ascent was six or seven stories, at a steep angle, and other mechanical monsters gibbered, hooted, snarled, and squealed at the train; all of them were pale and slimy, with either glowing eyes or blind black eyes, the kind of critters you might think would live miles below the surface of the earth—if you didn't know any science at all.
That initial slope was where daredevils had to take their stand. Though a couple of other inclines marked the course of the Millipede, no other section of the track provided a sufficiently extended period of calm in which to execute a safe escape from the lap bar.
Jeremy contorted himself, wriggling up against the back of the seat, inching over the lap bar, but at first Tod did not move. “Come on, dickhead, you've gotta be in position before we get to the top.”
Tod looked troubled. “If they catch us, they'll kick us out of the park.”
“They won't catch us.”
At the far end of the ride, the train would coast along a final stretch of dark tunnel, giving riders a chance to calm down. In those last few seconds, before they returned to the fake cavern from which they had started, it was just possible for a kid to scramble back over the lap bar and shoehorn himself into his seat. Jeremy knew he could do it; he was not worried about getting caught. Tod didn't have to worry about getting under the lap bar again, either, because by then Tod would be dead; he wouldn't have to worry about anything ever.
“I don't want to be kicked out for daredeviling,” Tod said as the train approached the halfway point on the long, long initial incline. “It's been a neat day, and we still have a couple hours before Mom comes for us.”
Mutant albino rats chattered at them from the fake rock ledges on both sides as Jeremy said, “Okay, so be a dorkless wonder.” He continued to extricate himself from the lap bar.
“I'm no dorkless wonder,” Tod said defensively.
“Maybe when school starts again in September, you'll be able to get into the Young Homemakers Club, learn how to cook, knit nice little doilies, do flower arranging.”
“You're a jerkoff, you know that?”
“Oooooooooo, you've broken my heart now,” Jeremy said as he extracted both of his legs from the well under the lap bar and crouched on the seat. “You girls sure know how to hurt a guy's feelings.”
The train strained up the slope with the hard clicking and clattering so specific to roller coasters that the sound alone could make the heart pump faster and the stomach flutter.
Jeremy scrambled over the lap bar and stood in the well in front of it, facing forward. He looked over his shoulder at Tod, who sat scowling behind the restraint. He didn't care that much if Tod joined him or not. He had already decided to kill the boy, and if he didn't have a chance to do it at Fantasy World on Tod's twelfth birthday, he would do it somewhere else, sooner or later. Just thinking about doing it was a lot of fun. Like that song said in the television commercial where the Heinz ketchup was so thick it took what seemed like hours coming out of the bottle: An-tic-i-paaa-aa-tion. Having to wait a few days or even weeks to get another good chance to kill Tod would only make the killing that much more fun. So he didn't rag Tod any more, just looked at him scornfully. An-tic-i-paaa-aa-tion.
“I'm not afraid,” Tod insisted.
“I just don't want to spoil the day.”
“Creepazoid,” Tod said again.
Jeremy said, “Rocket jockey, my ass.”
That insult had a powerful effect. Tod was so sold on his own friendship con that he could actually be stung by the implication that he didn't know how a real friend was supposed to behave. The expression on his broad and open face revealed not only a world of hurt but a surprising desperation that startled Jeremy. Maybe Tod did understand what life was all about, that it was nothing but a brutal game with every player concentrated on the purely selfish goal of coming out a winner, and maybe old Tod was rattled by that, scared by it, and was holding on to one last hope, to the idea of friendship. If the game could be played with a partner or two, if it was really everyone else in the world against your own little team, that was tolerable, better than everyone in the world against just you. Tod Ledderbeck and his good buddy Jeremy against the rest of humanity was even sort of romantic and adventurous, but Tod Ledderbeck alone obviously made his bowels quiver.
Sitting behind the lap bar, Tod first looked stricken, then resolute. Indecision gave way to action, and Tod moved fast, wriggling furiously against the restraint.
“Come on, come on,” Jeremy urged. “We're almost to the top.”
Tod eeled over the lap bar, into the leg well where Jeremy stood. He caught his foot in that restraining mechanism, and almost fell out of the car.
Jeremy grabbed him, hauled him back. This was not the place for Tod to take a fall. They weren't moving fast enough. At most he'd suffer a couple of bruises.
Then they were side by side, their feet planted wide on the floor of the car, leaning back against the restraint from under which they had escaped, arms behind them, hands locked on the lap bar, grinning at each other, as the train reached the top of the incline. It slammed through swinging doors into the next stretch of lightless tunnel. The track remained flat just long enough to crank up the riders' tension a couple of notches. An-tic-i-paaa-aa-tion. When Jeremy could not hold his breath any longer, the front car tipped over the brink, and the people up there screamed in the darkness. Then in rapid succession the second and third and fourth and fifth cars—
“Rocket jockeys!” Jeremy and Tod shouted in unison.
—and the final car of the train followed the others into a steep plunge, building speed by the second. Wind whooshed past them and whipped their hair out behind their heads. Then came a swooping turn to the right when it was least expected, a little upgrade to toss the stomach, another turn to the right, the track tilting so the cars were tipped onto their sides, faster, faster, then a straightaway and another incline, using their speed to go higher than ever, slowing toward the top, slowing, slowing. An-tic-i-paaa-aa-tion. They went over the edge and down, down, down, waaaaaaaaaay down so hard and fast that Jeremy felt as if his stomach had fallen out of him, leaving a hole in the middle of his body. He knew what was coming, but he was left breathless by it nonetheless. The train did a loop-de-loop, turning upside down. He pressed his feet tight to the floor and gripped the lap bar behind him as if he were trying to fuse his flesh with the steel, because it felt as if he would fall out, straight down onto the section of the track that had led them into the loop, to crack his skull open on the rails below. He knew centripetal force would hold him in place even though he was standing up where he didn't belong, but what he knew was of no consequence: what you felt always carried a lot more weight than what you knew, emotion mattered more than intellect. Then they were out of the loop, banging through another pair of swinging doors onto a second lighted incline, using their tremendous speed to build height for the next series of plunges and sharp turns.
Jeremy looked at Tod.
The old rocket jockey was a little green.
“No more loops,” Tod shouted above the clatter of the train wheels. “The worst is behind us.”
Jeremy exploded with laughter. He thought: The worst is still ahead for you, dickhead. And for me the best is yet to come. An-tic-i-paaa-aa-tion.
Tod laughed, too, but certainly for different reasons.
At the top of the second incline, the rattling cars pushed through a third set of swinging doors, returning to a grave-dark world that thrilled Jeremy because he knew Tod Ledderbeck had just seen the last light of his life. The train snapped left and right, swooped up and plummeted down, rolled onto its side in a series of corkscrew turns.
Through it all Jeremy could feel Tod beside him. Their bare arms brushed together, and their shoulders bumped as they swayed with the movement of the train. Every contact sent a current of intense pleasure through Jeremy, made the hairs stand up on his arms and on the back of his neck, pebbled his skin with gooseflesh. He knew that he possessed the ultimate power over the other boy, the power of life and death, and he was different from the other gutless wonders of the world because he wasn't afraid to use the power.
He waited for a section of track near the end of the ride, where he knew the undulant motion would provide the greatest degree of instability for daredevil riders. By then Tod would be feeling confident—the worst is behind us—and easier to catch by surprise. The approach to the killing ground was announced by one of the most unusual tricks in the ride, a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree turn at high speed, with the cars on their sides all the way around. When they finished that circle and leveled out once more, they would immediately enter a series of six hills, all low but packed close together, so the train would move like an inchworm on drugs, pulling itself up-down-up-down-up-down-up-down toward the last set of swinging doors, which would admit them to the cavernous boarding and disembarkation chamber where they had begun.