No Country Club for Old Men was built at the bottom of a small mountain, much like everything else in Martinsville, Virginia. The town had more hills than convenience stores and the one leading up to Bob Woods’ country club was particularly steep. I biked to work and often tried to pedal the last stretch. I usually failed and ended up walking the rest of the way. Tonight was no different.
A little before ten I parked my bike beside the hedges lining the driveway leading up to the club. I wiped the sweat from my face with my shirt and looked up at the mountain. Spiked and bald at the top, the rest of it was ragged with trees, its bottom hidden by the club and the only palm trees in Virginia. The sounds coming from inside were loud; the day’s party was going late.
Woods had made it clear I was not to interact with any of his guests, so I went around the side and waited by the dumpster. It wasn’t my area of choice, but it was the only place away from doors and windows. I tried to pass the time by picking up on conversations drifting from inside, but I couldn’t make much of the excited chatter. With an occasional popping noise I imagined champagne bottles and overflowing glasses, the kind that looked like upside down China-hats. I envisioned people dancing and singing karaoke in one corner and drunkenly discussing politics in another.
The gaggle of laughter bunched together and began to move the length of the club, towards the front. They were finally leaving. I checked the time on my phone. It was near eleven; I had been waiting a full hour. I stuck my head around the corner a safe distance and watched the group as they exited. Woods’ guests were surprisingly mixed in age. There were some who couldn’t be much older than myself, and others well into their fifties and possible sixties. Their ages weren’t the most intriguing, however. It was how they all seemed to enjoy the same drunken high on life. Their intoxication was almost palatable in the night air; I thought I could smell the alcohol coming off of them. I watched as the last stumbled to their pretentious cars and fondled their wives or mistresses.
When I was sure I wouldn’t be seen, I rounded the corner and found Woods standing at the entrance. He had a drink in one hand and his wife’s fingers in the other. Mrs. Woods, however, stood to the side, as far away as she could without their arms forming a bridge. Though she stared blankly in my direction, I doubted she noticed me. Mrs. Woods couldn’t have been older than thirty-five and I only thought that high because of her husband’s gray hairs, not hers. Her face was done up like a doll’s and no matter the weather, occasion, or season, black leather pants always hugged her thighs and left little to the imagination. She ‘could get it,’ as my friends would say. And judging by the lifestyle of Bob Woods, she probably did. She puffed on a cigarette. Her husband watched his departing guests with a euphoric smirk.
I approached slowly. I hoped someone would notice and acknowledge me. No such luck.
“Another successful night, Mr. Woods?” I asked with a half laugh that held more anxiety than humor.
Woods looked at me suddenly, as if I had intruded on the privacy of his thoughts. He raised his brow and his eyes searched my face for recognition. He soon found it, and his countenance turned to one of annoyance. By now, this was routine. To him, I represented the end of his fun, even if only for a night.
I shifted uneasily as he stared at me. He let go of his wife’s hand and motioned for her to go and wait at the car. She did.
“I want the place spotless by morning,” he said. “And strawberries in tomorrow’s shake. The week’s pay is by the kitchen.” He tittered and took a sip of his drink. “Don’t spend it all in one place.”
“I’ll have everything exactly like you like it, Mr. Woods,” I said. “Is there anything else I can do? It’s no problem at all, sir.”
He grunted, began to leave, and then stopped. His smirk came back. “Tell me . . .” He circled his drink in the air. As if he were actually trying to remember my name.
His smile widened. “Thomas. Tell me, Thomas, how old are you, again?”
“Eighteen, sir,” I said.
“How does it feel? To be eighteen.”
From the look on his face, I thought a sudden pain had struck Mr. Woods. Then I realized he was trying his hardest to hold in his laughter. With that realization came another: the man was clearly drunk. More so than I had seen yet.
“It’s . . . it feels good, sir,” I said. I tried to think of something witty and came up with nothing. “I can’t drink yet, though, so that sucks.”
Great one, I thought. All of a sudden the cool August night felt hot and sticky.
Woods sipped his wine and mulled over this. He swayed to one side and then the other. As he did, I glimpsed the inside of the club behind him. Now it was my turn to hold in my reaction: the place was a mess.
When I looked back at Woods, his urge to laugh seemed to have passed.
“Good boy,” he said and patted me on the shoulder. He stumbled past me and off the porch. “Drink all you want,” he called back. “Tonight is for the young!”
The club was in a worse state than I had thought, or feared. I walked around to get an idea of what I was dealing with. As I did I remembered a comedy skit about chimpanzees catering a party. The result had been much like this. Champagne, wine, and vodka bottles littered the floor, some broken. The party had enjoyed a variety of appetizers, meats, and fondue, and remnants of each could be found in all parts of the club. A chair was overturned in the middle of the main room. Next to it was some rope, a blindfold, and a single high-heeled shoe. There was a pile of clothes in one of the hallways. There were three bathrooms. Two of them had vomit-covered floors. All three had known guests needing urinary target practice.
I sighed after seeing all of the devastation and began to gather cleaning materials from under the sink, which was, funny enough, empty of any dishes. When I had replied to the ad on an Internet job site some months prior, I hadn’t expected anything quite like this. Though I couldn’t complain (and didn’t)—it helped me save, and I didn’t have to pay taxes.
Besides, I had one thing to be thankful for: there wasn’t an upstairs.
Four hours later I gathered the trash bags—five full ones—and took them out to the dumpster. I walked through the lobby, through the halls and the bathrooms, and, satisfied, headed for the kitchen to prepare breakfast when something caught my eye.
The door at the back of the club. It was open.
Woods kept all of his rooms locked and made it clear that even if they hadn’t been, they were off limits. Of course, that had been the perfect spark to my curiosity. But he’d never failed at locking every door, and in a lot of ways I was grateful. Without temptation, curiosity is like a flower in a desert.
That had just changed. One of the doors was ajar. And this was no normal door. It was solid steel like the wall surrounding it, protected by a security keypad. It only lacked a skull and crossbones sign warning: KEEP OUT.
And now it was open.
“He must have been shit-faced wasted,” I whispered to myself.
I didn’t think about it long. It seemed like a no-brainer at the time. I’d see what there was to see and leave. How could I have known the room would hold a great weakness for me?
I looked around at the empty country club and then pushed the door open. It didn’t creak. Inside was dark, the air different. Cooler, better-tasting. I felt around on the wall and found the light switch.
I stared, shocked, and then burst out laughing. A roller coaster. Four cars, each with four rows of seats. Yellow lightning bolts stretched over red metal. Its tracks disappeared into two black tunnels on opposite walls. Behind it a glass wall overlooked the left side of the mountain. Outside, the tracks led from the side of the club to a hole in the mountain, barely visible under the stars.
“Really?” I said, unable to stop grinning. “Woods, really? A roller coaster?” I spun around like a kid who had just been surprised with his first car and raised my hands to my mouth. This. Was. Awesome.
It took a few minutes before my excitement fell away and left only the decision before me. Compared to the rest of the country club prior to my cleaning, the room was relatively tidy. Still, there was the occasional sign of life: a champagne glass here, a piece of paper there, and a baseball cap in one of the roller coaster’s seats. My giddiness began to swell again. The roller coaster was not only functional, but I began to suspect Woods treated his guests with it. If I left without riding this beauty, I’d think of it every night I went to work. I’d look up at the mountain as I walked my bike up the hill and imagine a red roller coaster with lightning marks racing around inside. It would haunt me.
I checked the room for surveillance cameras and saw none. Confident I wasn’t being recorded, I went over to the control panel on the left side of a metal platform. There were two levers. One green with a dollar sign painted below it; the other red with the word refund.
I lifted my hand towards the green lever but, curious, pulled the red instead. I thought it was broken; it didn’t stick. I tried again, and this time held it down. For a second, nothing happened. Then the roller coaster’s engine roared and it started to roll backwards, towards the tunnel on the left. When I let go of the lever, the coaster slowly returned to its starting position.
“Weird,” I said.
The green lever didn’t require me to hold it down. The coaster made a slightly deeper sound as it started up again. Bulbs lining the tunnel’s entrance shone a brilliant white. Beyond, the walls glowed a hot red. The safety bars in each car came forward and clicked into place.
I tried to push the lever back into neutral. It didn’t budge. There was no stall button. I looked at the roller coaster crawling into the tunnel, my dream disappearing with it. Now or never.
I jumped the rail separating the control panel from the boarding area and ran to the mouth of the tunnel. The coaster had yet to gain speed and I slipped into the seat of the back car without much trouble. I wiggled my legs between the cushion and the bar just in time to look up and see the stars appear above me. The coaster slowly approached the mouth of the mountain. As I was taken inside, I wondered for the first time if this was a mistake.
And then, the coaster stopped. It puttered to a roll and then a full standstill, the engine winding down. Terror crept into my bowels, making me uncomfortable. The green lever had been broken after all, and now I was stuck here. Woods would find me like a raccoon with its paw inside a trap. And I’d be out of a job.
Such worries were short-lived. The coaster shot forward, pressing me against the seat. My breath caught and a sharp pain lodged itself in my chest. Lights stretched around me; I could make out nothing more than long lines of varying color. The coaster continued to accelerate. The wind picked up. The agony in my chest grew. It all became too much; I clenched my eyes shut.
Without warning the ride took me higher. Up, up. I opened my eyes. The crazy lights had disappeared and the coaster had found a cruising speed. Black surrounded me, and ahead, a blue glow. I squinted at it. There was something in its center. Something familiar.
A clock. Big and round, it hung from the ceiling of the tunnel, right above a crest in the ride. The coaster slowed as it rounded the top of this hill. My face came so close to the clock I thought I could reach out and touch it. I almost did, and would have if not for the world dropping out from under me.
I plunged into pitch-blackness. I screamed and fell, fell and screamed. The coaster jerked to the left and then to the right, bruising my shoulders against the walls of the car. My insides shifted as up became down in the dark. The dips came without warning. I was a slave to the will of the coaster; it did with me what it wanted.
I don’t know exactly when, but somewhere along the ride my screams turned to yells. I had been scared shitless since the moment the coaster fired off into the tunnel. And I enjoyed every minute of it.
Another sharp turn and the coaster erupted out of the mountain and into the night. The wind was cold and harsh. I raised my hands against it, and yelled harder. The track circled and descended toward the back of the country club, slowing as it went. I coasted, and took the moment to look up at the sky. The stars were out in full form, the moon pregnant and high. I didn’t remember either being so bright before.
The coaster re-entered the county club. When it stopped, I pushed the safety bar forward and found it tougher than I thought it should be. With some effort, it moved, and the ones in the rows ahead of me all clicked forward in succession.
My first thought as I hopped out of the car and on to the platform was I had to go again. Then a sudden wave of dizziness took my balance and I grabbed the railing to steady myself. I leaned there for some minutes, waiting for the dizziness to pass. When I closed my eyes I saw the bizarre lights of the tunnel dancing against my lids and felt once again every flip and throw of the ride. The lights gradually abated and the world went from a spin to a twirl.
I awoke in a panic and then slowly realized where I was. I had fallen asleep with my torso hanging on one side of the railing and my legs on the other. I blinked the sleep out of my eyes, groaned, and then gained enough sense to wonder how long I’d been out for. I pulled my phone out of my pocket to check the time. The battery was dead. I grunted and put it back in my pocket.
I turned back to the roller coaster and felt a tingle in my spine. It had been, without a doubt, the best roller coaster I’d ever ridden. But I couldn’t ride it again, I decided then. That would be pushing my luck. With the appeal of sacred adventure now gone, I could think clearly. Just because there were no surveillance cameras didn’t mean Woods didn’t have a way of knowing when his roller coaster was in action. If he did, I could explain the first run as an accident, an unmanned accident. Two trips wouldn’t fly.
When I was satisfied nothing was out of the ordinary, I went into the kitchen to fix Woods’ breakfast shake. I had half a mind to leave it undone, but that would rouse suspicion. After fixing his smoothie, I covered it with saran wrap and put it in the refrigerator. I settled for one more sweep of the country club and then checked over the roller coaster with fresh eyes. Maybe it was my tired mind playing tricks on me, as I’d never noticed this before, but the lightning bolt on the side seemed to give the metal worm a smile. I shivered at the thought and quickly left the room.
I cogitated over whether to close the door or not. The chances of Woods remembering he’d forgotten to do so himself were slim, and leaving it open might make him wonder. Still, I wanted to leave the room untouched, or at least give that illusion.
I hoped it would be enough.
I left the country club at six in the morning. A Sunday, the boss wouldn’t come in until the afternoon, if he did at all. They were his days to rest, I figured; I had never been called to clean on a Sunday.
I don’t remember biking home, only the warm feeling of being back in my own bed. My sleep was deep, and I didn’t get up until noon. By then, the house was empty.
The fridge was mostly bare. The little we had was either molded or I couldn’t eat. My mother did most of the shopping. Whenever my father did stop by the grocery, however, he just so happened to pick up foods that didn’t go well with my allergies. He’d use ‘sudden cravings’ as an excuse, but I’d never seen him eat a peanut butter sandwich a day in his life, much less an almond butter sandwich. No, cravings had nothing to do with it. It was a subtle way to tell me this was no longer my home, just a rental. I shook the carton of milk, frowned at its vacancy, and checked the fruit pantry. Something, finally.
I took my lone apple into the living room and sat in front of the television. CSI was on. It had become my favorite show in the last year, but this was a rerun. Usually that wouldn’t matter, but today it wasn’t enough to hold my interest. In fact, there was hardly anything on worth watching and I went through our thirty-something channels three times before finally settling on an old cartoon. I surprised myself by cracking a smile some minutes in. Perhaps this wouldn’t be so bad after all. I used to love cartoons.
I bit into my apple and thought about the roller coaster. I had been too excited at the time to think about how peculiar it was. All of my friends had stopped going to amusement parks years ago and I expected even my own love for them to wane with age. Perhaps Woods was no different than any other insanely rich person and bought insanely expensive things for no reason. But as I thought about it, I became more and more sure that wasn’t the case. The security-code enforced door, the smell of champagne in the coaster room, the wild nature of Woods’s parties. It all came back to old people riding a roller coaster. And that made no sense, no matter how I spun it.
The second bite of the apple went down hard, and I absently hoped I wasn’t catching a cold. Bit off more than I could chew, I thought and began to laugh at this, but the pain stopped me.
I cleared my throat and used the muscles of my esophagus to scratch the deep itch that had settled there. There was enough time for one tardy thought before my throat began to swell: I was having an allergic reaction.
I held up the apple to my face, bemused, as if I had forgotten what I had eaten. Or, better yet, as if it had disguised itself as some other food. Because I wasn’t allergic to apples. At least, not any more. Unfortunately, reminding my body of this did nothing to quell the swelling in my throat.
I rushed to the sink to wash out my mouth. The reaction wasn’t bad, or else I’d already be suffocating. Nonetheless, it hurt to breathe; phlegm drowned my tongue. I took three Benadryl and waited.
Fruit (more specifically, fruit with a pith) had been one of my more tame allergies growing up. I had gone through the treatment to get rid of it four years ago. For six months I received weekly injections into my back and for hours after I felt as if I were wearing a coat of ants, the itching was so bad. I still had faint scars from scratching late into the night.
I worked hard to be able to eat an apple, I thought. This shit shouldn’t be happening.
The swelling began to abate but my throat still itched. I went to the bathroom to brush my teeth and tongue. I flipped on the light and froze.
“What the fuck is this?” I said, only I didn’t make it past the. If the boy looking at me from the mirror was shocking, the sound of the voice he made was horrific.
And he was a boy. I leaned in. My lips were swollen from the apple and that, ironically, was the most normal of what I saw. My mustache had been reduced to a faint fur. My skin looked soft and my jaw had lost its edge.
“What the fuck is this?” I said, this time completely. I blinked, rubbed my eyes, and looked closer. The image didn’t change. I took off my shirt and started to hyperventilate when I saw my body. My skin spread across the ribcage of my narrow chest like a thin blanket covering a bed of poles. Knobby shoulders led to weak, rod-like arms. I twisted to look at my back. There was acne there, but no whelps from the time of the treatment.
“No, no, no,” I said, over and over. “This can’t be happening.”
I pulled down my pants. If my mustache had been disheartening, the view down there was plain pathetic, in more ways than one.
Am I dreaming, I thought. This could only happen in a dream, but I knew I wasn’t asleep. In a dream, thought is muddled, and reality becomes fickle. But when I’m awake I know I’m awake, no question about it. This was real. As fucked up as it was, it was real.
My breathing slowed; I forced myself to think. An allergic reaction had never done something like this, and I couldn’t imagine losing thirty pounds in ten minutes because of an apple. Was it some drug? I hadn’t seen Carl for at least a week, and even then he did most of the hard stuff. I was just along for the ride.
And then, it came to me. The only thing it could be. It made as much sense as vampires and werewolves causing global warming, but I was running out of options.
“The roller coaster,” I whispered.
A world of fantasy and intrigue unraveled before my mind’s eye, but I had no time to dwell in it. I needed to find help. Meaning I needed to find someone who’d believe me. Only one name came to mind.
“Carl, you shit, wake up!”
I took off my shoe and hurled it at Carl’s bedroom window. I was aiming to break the thing, but the sound it made as it bounced off was satisfying enough.
Carl lived on the other side of Martinsville, which meant he wasn’t far away at all. Still, I had put on a hoodie and biked the distance as fast as I could. Small towns meant large gossip. I didn’t know if anyone would recognize me, or what they would think if they did, and I didn’t want to find out.
I waited. A minute or so later I could hear Carl moving inside. A corner of the window curtain pulled back and a single, skeptic eye scanned me over.
“Who are you?”
“It’s Tommy,” I said. And then added quickly, “Tommy’s little brother. He sent me over here.”
“Tommy doesn’t have a little brother!”
“He does, too. Now open up, dipshit!”
“Go home, kid, before I come out there and kick your ass!”
The curtain fell, followed by the sound of lethargic, fading footsteps.
“Carl,” I yelled. “Carl!” I hated the pitch of my voice. I couldn’t remember ever sounding like such a child.
“IF YOU DON’T OPEN UP I’LL TELL BRENDA ABOUT THAT HOOKER WHO GAVE HER CRABS!”
My words sounded ridiculously docile in a thirteen-year-old voice, but they did the trick. I couldn’t help but smile when Carl’s curses drifted from inside. I bit my lip to straighten my face when I heard the lock unlatch.
Carl opened the door and waved me in. “I’ll kill him for telling you that. Now get in here you little shit.”
I shuffled forward and Carl grabbed my arm to pull me the rest of the way. He slammed the door behind us. The house smelled of weed. Clothes, magazines, and paper plates were strewn all over. There were shirts on the kitchen table and dirty dishes on the floor.
“Quick, what do you want? I’m busy.” He gestured over to the small coffee table in front of the television. Marijuana bowls and ash.
“It’s crazy,” I said. “You won’t believe it.”
Carl regarded me with careful scrutiny. For a moment I thought he had a mind to send me packing. “You’re not Tommy’s brother. You’re Tommy.”
I blinked. “How did you know?”
“You look just like him. You, I mean. You look just like you.”
I shook my head and laughed. “You’ll believe anything, Carl.”
Carl went over to his collection, plucked a red bowl from the pile, and picked through a group of small plastic bags on the floor beside the table. “What can I say? It’s a gift. But how’d you do it?”
The way Carl was looking at me (it reminded me of how a lion might look at a dangling piece of meat) said he was really asking what’s the name of the pill and where’s my share?
“It’s not a drug, Carl. It was a roller coaster.”
Carl smiled a devil’s grin. “Of course. Your weakness.” He carefully stuffed the bowl, lit it, and spoke between puffs. “Your drug, in a way. I’d offer you a hit but you’re, uh, a minor now, it seems.”
“Very funny,” I said. “You might be able to help me.”
“Mi casa es su casa,” he said. “Clear a space and tell me everything.”
Carl sat in the chair beside the couch and turned on the television to a basketball game. He wasn’t the biggest sports fan and neither of the teams playing was local, but Carl’s attention span was backwards. He needed distractions to really focus on something, especially something as bizarre as what I was about to tell him.
By the way Carl mumbled at the television when a bad call was made and how he emptied and restacked his bowl so meticulously, one would think he didn’t even realize I was in the room. But he interrupted several times with his questions and commentary. He offered both without looking at me; his eyes were only for the television, the weed, and his bowl. I had his ears, though, and I imagined the better part of his brain, and I could live with that.
“I think I’m thirteen,” I said when I was done, fully aware of how ridiculous I sounded. “I’m the same height and I can’t eat apples. I got my allergy shots when I was fourteen, and my growth spurt when I was twelve. Five years, Carl. Jesus.”
Carl turned off the television, sucked the last bit of green in the bowl to a white ash, and then emptied it on the table. Finally, he turned to me and said, “Un-fucking-believable. He probably charges those people at his club a fortune to use it. What if he’s, like, a hundred years old or something?” His eyes widened. “And the chick, his wife—she could be a gilf.”
“What’s a gilf?”
A smile spread across Carl’s face. The kind of smile you give after someone pulls your finger and right before you let them have their prize. “Grandma I’d like to fuck. Yeah!”
I frowned. Carl laughed and slapped me on the shoulder. I winced and resisted the urge to wine.
“So you think that’s it? The roller coaster made me younger?”
He spread his arms wide, as if I had asked why the sky was blue. “I don’t see no other explanation. You know I believe in shit like this.”
“This is different than aliens and ghosts,” I said.
He shrugged. “Not to me. Whatever it is, we gotta get you back to normal, dude. Riding that coaster when you get to my old man’s age might help with the ladies, but you’re not getting any like this. Ideas?”
I told him about the refund button. I had no clue how it worked or what it did, only it made the coaster go backward and would need someone to hold it down. It was all I had, and it was worth a try.
Carl nodded. “You got to have a way to take it back if the customer’s not satisfied.” He paused. “This might be a stupid question. But you considered asking your boss what to do?”
I shook my head. “I don’t want him to find out. He told me specifically his rooms were hands-off. I need this job, Carl, or I’ll never move out.”
“You won’t be moving anywhere if you stay like this,” he pointed out.
“What if he calls the cops or something?”
“Shit. Let’s go, then,” he said. He scooped the pile of ashes off of the table and into his hand, stood, and went to his room. His sudden motivation brought me to my feet as well. He tussled through clothes in his hamper, smelling one, putting it back, picked another, and over again.
“That hoodie makes you look like an eskimo.” He threw me a shirt with a picture of a weed plant on it. On Carl, it would be taut. On me, it was almost regular. “Here, wear this.”
“He’s probably over there now,” I said. “And if he closed the door . . . Carl, what am I going to do?”
Carl slipped on a wrinkled blue sweater as he walked into the living room. “You can’t worry about that, little dude. Maybe he noticed the door was open, maybe he didn’t. Either way, he’s gotta go home sometime right? And when he does, we’ll go and check it out.”
I nodded. Carl was right. “Okay,” I said. “Okay.”
“Let’s wait at your house.”
“Can’t,” I said. “My parents will be home soon, and my father would just try to make this about him. They’d both freak.”
“Yeah,” Carl agreed, yet continued to grab a small backpack from the corner and stuff his bowls, lighters, and bags of weed inside. “No imagination. Then we’ll hang out at the mall. If I stay here, I’ll just get wasted and forget. Besides, I wanted to get out the house today.” He paused and smiled that same mischievous grin.
“Don’t,” I said.
“We can stop by the toy store.” He didn’t stop laughing until we were in his car and on the road.
We walked around the mall until our feet hurt, and then walked some more. Carl had been joking about the toy store but, the rest of the stores visited and spent, we went there anyway. Interest snuck up on me the same way the cartoons had. I soon found myself studying the aisles instead of skimming.
Carl waited near the front. Never impatient, he stared at me with something akin to wonder.
“What?” I said as I put my purchase on the counter.
“Trading cards?” he said.
As the day went on, I thought more and more about the roller coaster. How Woods came to possess it, would the refund work or just make things worse, did Woods know I had ridden it? I voiced all of these questions and more to Carl in rapid succession.
“Dude,” Carl said finally, “don’t be so pre-teen.”
That shut me up. For the first time, I really considered the implications of my change. I still had my memories from an eighteen-year life. Though I was confident I could still drive, play the guitar, and screw, my brain was that of a thirteen-year-old’s. At that age I had been talkative, inquisitive, a tad nerdish, and allergic to everything. How long would it take until my eighteen-year-old self would be totally lost? On the shores of that question rolled in a wave of new thought: would it be worth it to not fix this? When graduating high school I thought I was becoming a man, the world at my fingertips. Yet it seemed like a cab driver needed a college degree these days, and an Internet ad for cleaning a rich man’s country club was the only job I could find in this city. I could go through high school again, redefine myself. Get good grades and . . .
I shook my head of such thoughts. Because that’s all they were: thoughts. I couldn’t let them become considerations. This wasn’t a fantasy world, where the people around me—my parents, the government, any rational person who had ever known the name Thomas Lee—would simply accept I had shaved five years off my age. They’d send me to the doctors, or to therapy. They’d think it something I’d done on purpose, used some fucked up kind of puberty-reversing drug because I couldn’t deal with the real world.
I must have been mulling over this for a while because Carl said, “Little dude, I didn’t mean you had to shut up. Don’t get all emo on me. You’re not old enough yet.”
“What’s happening to me, Carl?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know, little dude. Whatever it is, it’s already happened. Let’s just make it unhappen and then figure shit out later.”
When we arrived at the country club it was a little past midnight. I told Carl to park down the hill, just in case Woods was still there. When we reached the club, the inside was dark, and quiet. There were no cars in the driveway. I looked around its side, by the dumpster, just to be sure. We were alone.
“You work here?” Carl asked.
“Worked,” I said as I unlocked the door. “Unless we fix this.”
I stepped in and turned on the light. The club was mostly as I had left it, with no evidence of Woods. I immediately went to the refrigerator. The shake I had made was still there, untouched.
“Is this the door?” Carl said from behind me. “Looks like one of them bomb shelter doors.”
He stood in front of the steel wall. The door was still ajar, just as before.
“Yeah, that’s it,” I said, finally allowing myself some relief. “Woods hasn’t even been here today. He must be recovering from last night.”
Carl slapped me on the back. “Told you not to worry, little dude. We’ll have your balls hanging again in no time.”
I knew the room, like Woods’s shake, was without change, but the coaster looked different to me. Enlightened about some of its powers, I found what remained unknown gave it an ominous look. The lightning bolt reminded me more of a grimace than the smile it had imitated the day before. Its red metal coat shined like the scales of a snake. What had been a feeling of excitement upon our first acquaintance was now apprehension. I had the ridiculous thought that it had tasted my youth . . . and liked it.
I looked to Carl. He was following the track’s path with his eyes, tilting his head back slightly to take in the view of the mountain. The moon was out and as full as the night before. Carl seemed unimpressed. He had imagined a machine as spectacular in vision as the power it held. Instead, I had shown him something old and simple.
“Here’s the button to send it forward.” I said. “And here’s the button I think might fix me.” I held down the refund button. The metal giant sputtered as if trying to pronounce a new, exotic word and rolled a few feet backward. When I took my finger away, the engine stopped and the coaster slowly rolled forward, back to its start position. Carl nodded; there was a spark of interest in the way his lip curled.
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s get this over with.” I started to climb into the coaster.
“Little dude, wait,” Carl said. “What if this doesn’t work like that? The whole backwards thing?”
I had considered this and tried not to think about it. Of course it was a possibility. I had no proof the button worked, only dumb logic. How could I be so sure I wouldn’t come out on the other side five more years younger? Or, worse, ten? I couldn’t.
“Do you have a better idea?” I asked, sounding more irritated with Carl than the situation.
Facing the coaster when Carl stopped me, I only now turned to look back at him. He was smiling.
“What?” I said.
“Yeah. It’ll be awesome. Like walking on the moon.”
I stepped away from the coaster. “You’re serious?”
“It’ll be that much easier to get in the club. And the chicks dig older dudes.”
“You said just now it might not even work like that!” My voice was rising. Somehow the idea of something bad happening became more real with Carl’s offer.
Carl shrugged. “An adventure’s an adventure. If it makes me younger I get to mooch off my parents for the next five years. Not to mention spook their socks off. And maybe I can try to be the smart kid in school this time around. You know, get B’s and shit.”
“And if it does something totally different?”
“An adventure’s an adventure,” he said again.
I was shaking my head without knowing it, incredulous. I studied his face for the fear I felt and found none. An undeniable shame flushed warm blood into my cheeks as I considered accepting Carl’s offer. Anything that happened to him as a result would be my doing. But he made sense. If the refund lever turned out to be a rouse and he ended up like me, then, at least, we could go to the authorities together. Any white rooms and test tubes could be braved, together.
I took a few more steps back and gestured towards the roller coaster with a bow. After you.
“Awesome,” Carl said. He ran forward and jumped into the middle car. After he secured the safety bar, he gave me a thumbs-up.
I sighed, managed a smile, and pulled the refund lever.
Carl threw his hands up and yelled his assent as the coaster rolled in reverse. It stopped just inside the tunnel and then shot off with a screeching whoosh! I heard Carl scream with glee. Outside, the mountain efficiently swallowed the silhouette of a coaster.
The ride was a lot shorter than I remembered and, much to my surprise, I could hear Carl’s hoots and hollers the whole time. I listened carefully for changes in the pitch or duration, anything to suggest which way his age might have shifted, but it all sounded the same to me.
I didn’t let go of the refund button until the coaster returned to the starting position.
“Woo! Awesome!” Carl yelled, pumping his fists. As soon as the coaster stopped he pushed the metal bar up and leapt out of the car. He groaned and stumbled but somehow kept his smile. I hurried over to him.
“Did it work?” he asked.
It had. Without the help of puberty, the changes were hard to pinpoint, but as a whole they eradicated any doubts. Carl’s frame was thicker, as if five years of age equaled a few months in the gym. Before, his mustache had been thin, a gap between it and his goatee of curls. Now the hair was coarse and dark and connected from mouth to chin. His skin had changed from a smooth, blotchy texture to one that was clear and slightly rough. His jaw was more defined. The muscles of his temple worked as he spoke, new veins snaking over them. His voice remained the same.
“It did,” I said. “Wow, it really did. Are you all right?”
Carl shook his head like a dog drying itself and stood up. “Just a little woozy. How do I look?”
“Aw, you’re just saying that.”
“Really, look for yourself,” I said.
While Carl checked out the new him in the bathroom I let myself accept—for the first time since entering this nightmare—that things would be all right. I would ride the coaster back to eighteen, and then convince Carl to reverse his own transformation. The less evidence out in the world, the better. We’d clean up the place, scrub the coaster, and be out by morning. I might even keep my job. I smiled. Yes, things were looking up.
“I’m so sexy, Little Dude,” Carl said when he was done. “I’m also sober. I think that ride cleaned out my system.” He paused. “I don’t know if I like that part much. You ready to ride?”
“I am,” I said.
We took our positions, him behind the control panel and me in the roller coaster. It felt wrong sitting in its seats once more, knowing what it had taken from me. Old thoughts resurfaced and my brain began to fill with doubts. Was it a trick? Had changing Carl been a lure to get me back here so it could steal more of me? Was it hungry for my soul?
Stop it, I thought. You’re thinking like a thirteen-year-old. What powers this… this thing has, it only has that. It follows rules, even if those rules are weird as shit.
“Ready?” Carl asked. He could see my fear. Hell, could probably feel it.
“I guess so,” I said. “Make sure you hold it down the whole time.”
“Got it, Little Dude about to be Regular Dude. Take off in five, four, three, two…”
It was like a hand reached up from the tracks and yanked me backwards. The coaster chugged towards the exit. Suddenly I wanted nothing more than to be free of the machine.
“Don’t worry, little dude! Puberty’s a ride away!”
When I was outside, I turned against the night wind, sought out Carl at the control panel—to give one last worried look—and screamed. Carl, oblivious to the figure coming up behind him, waved with one hand and held down the lever with the other, a big goofy smile on his face.
The coaster stopped inside the mountain, just enough to block my view of the country club. My chest heaved up and down with every breath as I attempted to process what I had just seen.
My yells were in vain. And the coaster wasn’t moving. I waited in silence for what seemed like an hour but couldn’t have been more than a few minutes. I gasped as the coaster finally rumbled beneath me. It was going the wrong way.
The coaster shot forward and out of the tunnel the way it had come, sped around the bend back into the club, out the club, and into the other side of the mountain. It happened fast, yet I had more than enough time to see that the man standing behind the control panel wasn’t Carl. It was an older man. A man who always had a champagne glass in his hand, and this time was no different. I screamed.
Perhaps the tempo of my heart, the sharpness of my breath, and the energy of that last scream did it. Or perhaps the seizure-inducing strobe lights of the tunnel overloaded my senses. Or maybe I had simply fainted from fright. Whatever it was, I passed into a dreamless sleep even before the first dip inside the mountain.
I awoke with fear but without knowledge of its source. I was cold, my head hurt, and my fingers were numb.
“Mom?” I said.
I tried to sit up and couldn’t. Something held my hands behind my back. I looked over my shoulder; I was tied to the leg of a table, rooted in the floor. I began to whine.
“Shh, shh,” a voice said.
I whirled around. Mr. Woods was crouched in front of me. His smile made me think of a monster. In one hand he held a drink. In the other, a gun. I yelped and scrambled to get away. I only slid sideways.
“Oh, this?” Mr. Woods said. He held the gun with the muzzle pointing to the ceiling, as if before a jury. He stuffed it in his back pocket as he said, “I won’t be needing it. Not anymore.”
Things were fuzzy for me. It was hard to get past the fear of the dark, this place, and the man with the circus smile and the gun, but I knew there were important things for me to remember. The memories were there, but accessing them was like trying to read a book with a lot of hard words.
“Where’s Carl? What did you do to Carl?” Against all I could do to stop it, I began to cry.
“Carl’s dead,” Mr. Woods said simply and without remorse. “You didn’t really think I was going to not only let the two of you ride my roller coaster for free, but also leave here with proof it exists, did you?”
“Please, let me go,” I said.
Woods ignored my cries. “All my clients sign a contract. And they pay a fortune. A small fortune, but you can imagine how much a hundred small fortunes a night can add up. And then again, maybe you can’t. Do they teach multiplication in the… what is it, second grade?”
“What are you going to do to me?”
Mr. Woods sipped his drink. He gestured flippantly towards his backside, where he had pocketed the gun. “I would kill you. But a few things complicate that. Number one is, I don’t kill children. It’s unbecoming. Lucky for you there’s a number two, because technically you aren’t a child, are you? No, I don’t quite consider you as such.”
“I won’t tell anyone,” I said. “I promise. Please, just let me go. I don’t want to be here.”
“You will soon,” he said, almost soothingly. “My wife . . . she wants a baby, but can’t have her own. Adoption isn’t an option for me. It means background checks and snooping in my business.”
He paused either to sip his drink or to let what he was saying sink in. I didn’t need the part of my brain that was still eighteen to know I should be afraid.
“Now listen, because this part concerns you,” he continued. “How far back can you remember?”
When I didn’t answer he grabbed my shoulder and shook me. I closed my eyes and screamed.
“How far back? What’s your first memory, boy?”
“M-my mom,” I sobbed. “She took the bottle a-away f-from me, and never g-gave it b-b-back.” The last word stretched between sobs and tears.
“How old were you?”
“Precisely. If you stay the age you are now, you’ll forget a lot but your brain will be developed enough to still remember what’s important. And one day you might want to talk. And someone might actually believe you, or think enough of you to investigate. And I hate investigations.”
Pause. Sip, sip. Another pause.
“But a toddler can hold memories about as well as a bed sheet holds water. And if you do manage to get some words out, no one will take a three-year-old seriously. By the time you’re old enough to give a damn, your old memories will be replaced with new ones. You’ll think yourself a Woods. And you will be.”
“Please, Mr. Woods. I want . . . I want to see my mom.”
“Sure you do. And in a few hours you will. I’ll try to make sure she’s not, how shall I say, under the influence.”
Woods emptied his glass and began to stand. I put all my energy into the struggle, but it was no use. I screamed for my mother, for Carl, but no one could hear. Woods was patient, and calm, and completely set on what he was about to do.
Shirley Griffin was often bored. Her husband, Charles, liked to take her to his business dinners, parties, and anything requiring something on his arm. When they had been young, his money had excited her. The power of his friends had been sexy, enticing. She drank and flirted, and Charles didn’t mind; she knew her limits. Now, the conversations had grown stale, and as she entered her golden years, all the nights seemed the same. She expected No Country Club for Old Men to be more of this, and drank to numb the night away.
“Thank you all for coming to gift night. All of you have been given the generous opportunity to change your lives. By a loved one, a friend, or a spouse. You may be wondering what could be so life changing in this little old country club on the side of the mountain. The answer to that is behind this wall.”
Mr. Woods entered the security code and opened the steel door. Laughter followed. Soon, however, people began to realize this was no joke and murmurs cascaded through the crowd.
“Is that a roller coaster, dear?” Shirley asked her husband.
“Yes, I believe it is.”
“I need more wine.”
Shirley felt a tug at her skirt and looked down. There stood a little boy, looking up at her with full, brown eyes. Deep sorrow came from those eyes, and Shirley swallowed away the feeling it gave her with a quick sip from her glass. Nonsense, she thought. She put on her best smile.
The little boy wore a sailor hat, some sunglasses, and it almost looked like he had lipstick on. Woods stood nearby, his wife holding the boy’s hand. The boy leaned away from the woman, as if he were trying to get away.
Shirley kneeled down. “And who is this little guy?”
“We just adopted him,” Woods said.
“His name’s James, just like his new father,” the woman said. She looked disinterested, as if she constantly dreamed about being somewhere else.
“How old are you, little guy?”
The little boy seemed to think about it before responding, as if saying the wrong answer would be a very bad thing. When he finally did, however, it couldn’t have been correct. Shirley looked at her husband, bemused, and then laughed.
“Why, I think he said eighteen! Imagine that!”
“The boy has ambition,” Charles said.
“He sure does,” Woods said. “Ambition. If you excuse me, I must prep the main attraction. You will be joining us, won’t you?”
“Well, I wasn’t really—”
“I assure you, Mrs. Griffin, you won’t want to miss this. It is the secret to my success. And your husband paid a pretty penny to make sure you enjoy tonight.”
Woods winked at her, turned, and then disappeared into the crowd. His wife started to follow, but little James planted his feet and began to whine.
“Not now, James! Come on!”
“We can watch him, can’t we Charles?” Shirley said. “Just for a little while. He’s so cute!”
James grinned and jumped up and down. Mrs. Woods looked at him with disdain, shrugged, and then let go of his hand. She left to find her husband.
Shirley watched the woman leave and then turned her attention to the boy. He was looking up at them intently, moving his arms this way and that. “I think he’s trying to say something, Charles.”
“Roller coaster,” the boy said. The words were perfectly formed, as if he had reserved all of his linguistic ability just for them.
“You want to go on the roller coaster?” Shirley asked.
The boy nodded his head vigorously. “Please,” he said. “Pretty, pretty please.”
“Charles?” she said.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea, Shirley. It doesn’t seem like a ride for children.”
James started to cry.
“No, don’t cry,” Shirley said. “Charles, you upset him. It couldn’t hurt. How bad can an indoor roller coaster be?” She lowered her voice. “And I don’t think they let this boy have any fun.”
Charles sighed. “Whatever you want, darling. Just don’t blame me if we get kicked out.”
“No one will know,” Shirley said. “Will they, James? It’ll be our little secret.”
James wiped his eyes with his little hands and smiled.
Sneaking the little boy onto the coaster was easier than Shirley had thought it would be. The coaster was packed with people and Woods had surprised everyone by jumping in the front seat with his wife after sending it in motion.
Shirley held the boy tight. She expected him to become scared and cry or scream or do a million things once the ride started. But, much to her surprise, he remained quiet. In fact, he didn’t make a sound the whole time.