Chapter 32:

On a Stairway


The line was far too long, even for a conversationally-skilled adept like Umi or an eternal optimist like Katie. The wet, sticky concrete stairs to the fat blue tube shot down at least fifty feet below them, ground they’d covered over half an hour of wait time- and jutted upwards almost three times that length. Frankie wasn’t scared of heights, but the proximity of all the swimsuit-clad strangers nearby unnerved her.

Katie… can we… go back down…?” Frankie whispered. She didn’t dare ask Umi and let her down.

“I wanna ride this one sooner or later… please, just hold on for me, okay? I’ll- pay you back.”

“How? How could you possibly pay me back? This- this is hell, Katie. This was exactly what I was talking about. Just think, any second one of these people’ll unscrew this whole staircase-“

“Stop it!” Katie whisper-shouted, shutting up the panicking Frankie as she slapped her hand on her trembling shoulder. “Don’t say things like that. Don’t do that to yourself.”

“You can’t- you can’t pay me back for this in a million years, Katie.”

“I’ll-“ she looked around to see if anyone was watching, as if it were a crime to say it- “I’ll let you have full control over our funds for the rest of the day. They’re in my bag right now with our clothes.” She held up the gift shop handbag. “I won’t try to take them back. Just don’t do anything bad.”

“…” Frankie couldn’t consider a single reason she’d need the money for, but convinced herself she’d come up with one soon. “I’ll take it. Just hand it to me when we’re done and this is all over.”

“It won’t be much longer, I promise. I’m sorry, Frankie.”

As they drew closer and closer to the top, it still felt miles away. As Umi stopped to talk to one guest, Frankie spotted another behind them- what must’ve been the most suspicious man she’d ever seen.

He wore a bowler hat with his swim trunks, and sunglasses to top it all off. She thought he was talking on the phone at first, because his hand was to his ear, but as he lowered it, she saw it was something more like a walkie-talkie. A small, strange device for a guest to be carrying, in a water park no less. He didn’t seem to have much hair, and while he wouldn’t turn his head towards her, the man was looking all over the place as if he was being watched. It might’ve seemed a little comical to anyone else, but to her, this was cause for high alert. Until they reached the top of the line, Frankie watched this man and nothing else.

“What have you been… um, looking at, Frankie?” Umi finally asked just as they approached the entrance to the long spiralling tube. She didn’t respond, watching as the line shifted around near the front as groups formed to go on the four-person raft, him ending up just in front of them.

“Okay, next.” The bored young lifeguard announced plainly, shoving a family of four down the slide as a new raft exited the dispensary to the side of the contraption. Their eyes then met Umi’s, as she stepped up- causing them to snap to energy.

“Oh! Umi! Hey, what’s up? Daily Gigawhale ride, huh? Gosh, to be in your place! This thing’s just dang stale to me at this point. Glad you still like it. Who ya got with you today? Some new friends?”

“Hey, Sky. Couple young ladies I’m helping out. One wanted to go down the slide at least once.”

“Ah, how nice! Well you all just step on up now- er, you too sir, fill the boat.” They motioned to the suspicious man. “You can drop your hat and glasses in the elevator here, we’ll ship it down- same for your bag, miss.”

Katie placed her bag in the chute, along with the man as he set his belongings next to hers. As he turned back around, Frankie and him made eye contact for the first time. He must’ve been at least forty-five. His head was bald, and he had the most strikingly evil blue eyes she’d ever seen on a person. His expression was hard to identify. Not aggressive or emotional- but serious. Strangely serious. His sharp gaze and slightly-open mouth were that of someone caught in the act- though showing no fear towards the discoverer of this act. He looked like a confused college professor.

As they got on the boat, the older two were in the back, so he happened to be placed right behind Frankie. Umi did think to object, but considered doing so an extremely rude gesture to the man. As they prepared to go down, Frankie was so focused on the man’s presence behind her that she didn’t even have time to be scared of the oncoming forty-four-meter drop she was about to endure head-on.