Matteo—the same lifeguard whose abs a curious Kieran had earlier poked one-by-one, his first encounter with the legendary (and in my case elusive) six-pack—blanched, his suntan all but drained out of him.
“Dio mio, è accaduto di nuovo!” he exclaimed, pulling at his thick curls with both hands.
My heart rate rose, the first trace of irrational panic. “What do you mean, di nuovo?” I asked him. I grabbed Matteo by the shoulders and shook him, ignoring the frightened stares of the people around us, but he didn’t even register the shaking; he was there in body but not in mind. I shook him again, harder. “What do you mean, di nuovo?” I repeated. “For fuck’s sake, what do you mean?”
“The people,” he finally managed, his eyes fixed on the slide behind me. “Sometimes the people don’t come down the slide.”
“They don’t what?” Matteo didn’t hear me. “You mean they get stuck?” A little louder this time, but to no avail. “What do you mean they don’t come down the slide? Just get someone to open the slide, man! They’re stuck in there and could be hurt!”
Matteo shook his head. “Not stuck. The slide,” he droned, his voice a monotone and no longer his, “it takes people. Not always, sometimes. We … we look for them, but they’re not there. They go … somewhere. We used to dismantle it at first. Maybe they were stuck. But no. They were never there. Gone. Taken. Somewhere else, but not there. We sealed the slide once, but we found it open the next day. We dismantled the slide once, but we found it there the next day. We …”
The rest I didn’t hear. I let go of Matteo’s shoulders and ran to the huge blue enclosed water slide, where a few minutes earlier Laura and Kieran had gone in one end and failed to come out the other. I climbed to the top and looked down the slide’s gaping mouth. I listened carefully, desperate for the faintest sound of life. Of presence.
I stuck my head inside the tunnel and called out, “Laura! Kieran!” The only reply I received was my own echo. With nothing else left to do, I sat on the slide’s lip, my feet already down its throat, and I pushed off, using my hands to slow my descent so I wouldn’t crash into my wife and son.
After a laborious descent full of twists and turns, I came out the other end without having come across Laura and Kieran. They were gone. Taken. But I wasn’t. The slide didn’t take me.
Not always, sometimes.
I went down the slide twice more, each time coming out the other end. The fourth attempt I knew as soon as I had pushed off that I would not be coming out of the slide’s business end, at least not in the water park’s pool. It turned hot and damp and reeked of rotting meat inside. I tried grabbing onto something, but it was too late. The solid plastic slide gave a lurch and turned mushy and slimy. The descent into darkness was long, but in the end I got there.
The shallow pool I landed in was hissing and bubbling. Luminescent steam rose from its surface like a thin rug, carpeting the liquid itself and the shallow banks. I screamed in pain as the burning liquid (acid?) ate at my feet. I tried running to the nearest bank, but even walking required a herculean effort. When I finally made it to the (meaty?) bank, I collapsed to my knees. The agony and the overwhelming stench of rot sent my stomach into a lurch far more violent than the one the slide had given. I threw up and passed out in my own vomit.
I regained consciousness after a while. The agony in my feet had devolved into severe pain. I turned on my back to examine my feet; they had become a useless, unrecognizable mess. I almost fainted again.
Kieran’s voice brought me back to my senses. I could just about make him out in the dim light of the luminescent steam.
“Daddy,” he screamed, hugging me. I hugged him back and checked his body—he felt whole. Laura must have held him tight against her own body, protecting him from the slide and the acid.
“Mummy has ouchie,” he sobbed. “Help her.”
He grabbed the first finger he found and almost pulled my pinkie out of its socket when he tried dragging me to wherever Laura was. I winced but managed to stop myself from crying out. Using my free hand, I dragged myself behind him, letting him lead me to where Laura’s body was lying on its side a short distance away. Her legs—what remained of them anyway—were in a worse state than mine; the left was gone from the shin down. Most of her right hand was almost gone too, eaten by the acid. She had clearly stumbled on her way out of the pool and broken her fall with her hand. A mouth-tipped vine full of little sharp teeth had creeped down from the fungal tree above Laura’s corpse and was feeding on her face.
“Kiss mummy to make ouchie go away,” Kieran pleaded, his three-year-old mind not realizing mummy’s ouchie was there to stay.
I started dragging Kieran away from the carnivorous vine, unwilling to become its second course and let Kieran become dessert.
“Isn’t mummy coming with us?”
“No, bud. Mummy isn’t coming.” My eyes fell on the opening of the slide I had fallen through and reckoned that if I tried hard enough, I’d be able to reach its opening even from a prone position without needing to touch the acid pool. ‘All’ I needed was to find a way to climb up the slide.
I saw another corpse close by, some of its bones jutting out at weird angles. Something had gnawed on them and unwittingly turned them into sharp climbing picks perfect for a slide made from what appeared to be some bizarre type of alien meat. At least that was the theory.
“She’s gone.” My emotions almost overwhelmed me, but I resolved to stay strong for my son. I crawled to the new corpse and scavenged my new tools.
The bones came loose with a squelch. It was time to test my theory.
“Yes. Now climb onto my back and hold on tight.”
With Kieran on my back and his hands wound tightly around my neck, I dragged myself across the bank to the edge of what I could only think of as an oesophagus. Once there, I reached up with one of my makeshift picks and plunged the bone into the slide. The whole cave (stomach?) shuddered and roared. I plunged the second bone in as fast I could, then the first one again, a little higher this time. And thus began my ascent to what I was hoping would be freedom. Every stab was followed by renewed shuddering and hideous roaring.
“You’re doing a great job, bud,” I told Kieran. “Keep holding on tight and we’ll be out in no time.”
Progress was slow but steady. Long after I thought my arms would fall out of their sockets from exertion, I saw a light far above us. When we were close enough to the top to finally be able to breathe-in a hint of fresh air, the opening sealed itself. I went into a frenzy. I began screaming and stabbing the same place with one of the bone picks, over and over, until grey coagulated matter started oozing out. The slide gave another violent shudder, almost costing me my grip on the bone picks, and the opening unsealed itself. I climbed to the top as quickly as I could and, once at the top, I started dragging myself out onto the slide’s platform.
“You’re out. You made it out.”
Matteo was no longer in a daze. He was standing there, arms akimbo, his shadow extending behind him.
“No one has ever made it out.”
“A little help maybe …” I said, reaching out to him with my hand, my body still dangling down the slide from the waist down.
“Mi dispiace. Yi’zgr needs to feed.”
Matteo kicked my nose; it exploded in a mass of blood. And pain. I lost my grip and fell back into the meaty slide. Kieran’s horror scream of “Daddy!” was the last thing I heard; his slipping hands the last thing I felt; Yi’zgr’s lips re-sealing themselves the last thing I saw.
I blacked out.