Shana stared at the popsicle melting in her hand.
The sun was beating down hard and was uncomfortably hot against her neck and arms. Sweat dripped down her armpits and the back of her tank top.
It was a creamy strawberry flavor and was a soft champagne shade of pink that reminded her of the pastel shades of the buildings at home. She loved strawberry. But she didn’t want her stepdad getting the satisfaction of watching her enjoy it. So she just sat on the fountain watching it melt in the sweltering heat. She was getting soaked by the constant splashing of the fountain but she didn’t care. She was determined to be miserable.
Her mother had told her to shut her damn trap and go with her stepdad for a day in the park. But it didn’t mean Shana had to enjoy the day.
“You want to find a ride to head to?” Her stepdad, Steve, offered, holding out a map of the park.
Shana grinned like a feral dog.
She threw her popsicle into the trash from her seat on the fountain. Watching Steve’s face carefully, she stabbed her finger on the map, splattering popsicle juice across the page.
“Crypto Mountain,” she declared. There was hardly a need to point it out on the map. It dominated the skyline, parting clouds and tearing holes in the bright blue fabric of the sky.
It was a favorite for dumb teens who rode it on dares or to show off to the new girl. It was one of the fastest in the nation, and legend had it, the sidewalk leading away from it was stained with the vomit of the unprepared. People said that the janitor hired to clean the area always quit within the week.
Shana started strolling towards it. She’d only lived in the trashy small town of Morgue a couple of months-long enough to be ignored by the obnoxious teens who peered at every new, pretty face, but not long enough to know her way around or recognize faces. She hated Morgue with a passion. It was surrounded by dairy farms and the houses were covered in graffiti. The town was in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by rows and rows of cornfields and wheat that made for an ugly, drab horizon. The only thing cool about the town was the name. Morgue was a gruesome, kickass name.
The park was two hour’s drive south, near the beach and well into the 100’s, temperature-wise.
Shana pushed her way through crowds, finally reaching the base of the ride.
“Fast pass,” she said in her thick French accent, pulling open a gate and stepping up to the station. Steve hurried to catch up.
He was a portly man and he arrived huffing and puffing, his face beet red.
“Are you sure about this?” He asked in a slight Boston accent.
Despite herself, Shana felt a nervous thrill go through her, making the hair stand up on the back of her neck. She had chosen this ride to make Steve suffer, but now that the time had almost come to get on, she was beginning to wonder if it would backfire. She went to go and turn around and go back, but a pleasant female voice announced the arrival of the carts.
So instead, Shana mockingly said. “You can turn back if you want.”
Steve gave a shiver, looking up at the ride, apparently too nervous to speak.
The ride was sleek and black with three cars per train. It was painted with green flames and lines of binary code. A black skull figurehead sat atop the front of each train.
Shana strode straight into the front seat.
A couple of middle schoolers complained loudly at the front seats being taken. “We were going to sit there!” One girl said in a high voice. “We always sit there-!”
“Mange merde,” Shana shot back in an undertone. Her palms were clammy, her nerves were running high, and these little nonentities thought they were better than her.
The locking mechanisms clanked into place and the ride started up the first curve. Each clank brought Steve and her closer to the peak.
Clank, clank, clank.
You could see the ocean from the summit of the ride. The late afternoon sun made the ocean glitter a crimson red like a dozen whales had been slaughtered, and their blood had tainted the water. Shana forgot her fear for a moment, watching the waves crash and send spray cascading onto the cliffs.
The cart started going down. Slowly at first, then picking up speed. The train screeched across the tracks and wobbled as they sped straight down. Shana felt vomit come up the back of her throat. She clenched her fingers so hard against the headrest they turned white. Was the train supposed to screech against the rails so much?
That’s when she knew something was wrong. The train wasn’t supposed to rock so much. Shana could hear voices shrieking over the intercom in a panic.
The ride was going astray. Sparks flew. The train was still a hundred feet in the air, hurtling uncontrollably downwards.
I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die. S’il vous plaît. S’il vous plaît!
The train was lifted off the tracks.
Then it exploded. Like a dozen whales slaughtered, Shana thought dimly.
Everything was gone.
Shana woke with a start.
Her popsicle was melting in her hand.
Is this the afterlife? She wondered. Where am I?
The sun was uncomfortably hot on the back of her neck. She looked all about her, taking in the colorful spires and food stands. She was back at the park. Shit! What was happening?
“You want to find a ride to go to?” Steve asked.
Shana paled. It was before the ride. Like that movie, Groundhog Day.
But how could that be? It was scientifically impossible. She should be dead.
This could be a dream, and I’m dead, she thought. She pinched herself. Nope. She wasn’t dreaming.
Shana remembered the panic of the moments before and shivered.
“Shana? Are you there?” Steve touched her shoulder lightly.
“What?” Her head bobbed up. “Oh, yeah.”
How could she get out of the loop? Get to the next day?
That couldn’t be too hard. She just needed to avoid any risks.
“Here,” Shana suggested, stabbing her finger at the map.
It was a smaller coaster, a water ride. As long as she didn’t go on the ride that crashed, she should be safe. Right?
“Wild Water? Sounds fun.” Steve folded up the map. “Want to finish that?” Shana looked down at her strawberry popsicle.
“Yeah, why not?”
Shana licked at her popsicle as they weaved their way through the crowds in silence.
Finally, Steve spoke up. “So how are you settling in at Morgue?”
Shana shot him a dirty look. “France was a lot better.”
Steve nodded, rubbing his head awkwardly. “What did you like about it?”
Shana could see he was talking to fill the impossibly large gap between them, but she still didn’t want to allow it. She didn’t want to like him. He could never replace her father.
“Everything,” she said bitterly.
They had reached Wild Water. Its line was long, filled with a myriad of assorted people. Safety procedures blared on televisions hanging over them. Flies buzzed over their heads. The rank smell of sweaty bodies filled her nose. She couldn’t wait to get drenched by the water. She gave a sideways grin. Maybe, despite the hovering panic and confusion of her death, Shana could still enjoy herself.
“Alright, do you still have that fast pass thing?” Steve asked.
Shana thought hard. Maybe if she could draw the day out and go on a few rides as possible, she could survive. That meant ditching the fast pass. Shana sighed inwardly. Whereas she had been determined to have a bad time to spite her mom and Steve previously, now she felt a twinge of regret.
“Yeah, I do…” Shana shoved her hands in the pockets of her jean shorts. “Aw, shit. I must have dropped it in the crowds!”
Steve shrugged. “I can go back for it.”
“No,” Shana snapped, “I don’t need your help.”
So they waited in line. It took an hour and a half to get through the line. By the time they reached the end, Shana’s pale skin was bright pink and covered in sweat. The sweltering heat made her shirt stick to her skin.
Shana and Steve stepped onto the raft, wiping sweat from their brows.
Shana started to get a churning feeling in her stomach. What if she was wrong? What if this was too dangerous to get through?
But it was too late. The raft was spinning off into the water. It spun wildly as it coursed down the rapids. Shana sighed in relief as she was doused in cold water. The heat had been killing her.
The raft rounded a corner, gaining speed.
Shana could see the end. Maybe she could make it out of here. All that was left was a large climb to bring the rafts back to the top. They were still going at a decent pace.
Shana heard a crack. Her seatbelt had cracked!
The raft lurched as they hit the walls of the ride. Shana was thrown forward, her seatbelt falling away from her. She crouched in the center of the ride, her nose bleeding heavily.
She was so screwed.
Another lurch and Shana fell off the raft.
The rapids and currents were strong, pushing her under with a vise-like grip. It was as if a rope was attached to her feet, with the other end attached to a freight train. She could see the grinding gears of the ride’s mechanics ahead of her. The current dragged her towards it.
Her popsicle was melting in her hand. “The bumper cars? Sure thing.” Steve grinned, looking at the map he was about to pull out of his pocket.
“Stop grinning. It’s annoying.”
Nope. Structural collapse of the ceiling, crushing her under its concrete weight.
Her popsicle was melting in her hand. “Food court? You’re hungry already?”
“Yes, I’m hungry. Just because you eat a pound of beef at every meal doesn’t mean I do!”
Didn’t work. A gas explosion from the kitchen nearby gifted her with third-degree burns, and she died fifteen minutes later.
Her popsicle was melting in her hand. “Just sit on the fountain? Why?”
“Because the rides are for little kids and I hate you!”
No. The lions from the zoo just a block over broke loose.
Her popsicle was melting in her hand. “Leave? But we just got here!”
“And it’s too hot! Shut up and deal with it!”
No, car crash on the highway.
Her popsicle was melting in her hand. “Shana? Are you sick or something? You’re worrying me.”
She was curled up in a ball. Tears of frustration and confusion streamed down her face. She had lived and died twenty-three times already. What was happening? What was she doing wrong?
She was never going to see her mother again!
A tsunami reared its ugly head from the beach. Then nothing once again.
Her popsicle was melting in her hand. “Steve, there’s something I need to tell you.”
Nope. A phone call to the insane asylum. Shana panicked, picking up a knife in a food booth.
Her popsicle was melting in her hand. “Shana, what’s going on? Does this have to do with Pierre’s death?” Shana was looking around, tears leaking down her face. She had stopped worrying about how this loop was happening. It was, and she was trapped. Doomed. For the thirty-seventh day in a row.
“No, this doesn’t have anything to do with Dad’s death. And I don’t need your pity.” Shana snapped. Tears were rolling out of her eyes.
“Look, Shana. I know that things are tough for you right now. And I know that Pierre can never be replaced. He was a great guy.” Steve ran his fingers through his salt and pepper hair. “But I want you to let me try. I love your mom, and despite what you might want to believe, I love you too.”
Steve touched her shoulder. “I know what you’re going through.”
Tears leaked down Shana’s face. She wiped them away. “Shut up,” she hissed. “You don’t know anything about me and you never will.”
Then an earthquake.
Her popsicle was melting in her hand. It was the fortieth day. Shana had started to lose hope.
She climbed a tree. She hid in the car. She ran as far away from the park as possible. She huddled behind a food booth. She stole a gun from a park store and climbed a building. She went on every single ride in the park and tried every activity. She screamed her hate at Steve because she knew he wouldn’t remember it.
Her popsicle was melting in her hand. It was the grand one hundred, Shana thought sarcastically. A hundred days. A hundred deaths. She was going to spend eternity in this park, she thought. May as well get comfortable.
Steve tapped her shoulder. “Want to find a ride to head to?”
Shana sighed. If she was going to spend eternity with Steve, she had to let go of her resentment.
“Sure.” Shana pointed at one of her favorites that she had completed before being mugged and murdered in an alley. “Let’s head to the Spinning Dragon.”
It was on the far side of the park.
“So how did you and mom meet?” Shana asked as she shoved her way through the crowd.
Steve looked at her, taken aback by the question.
“Er, we met online. In a writing forum. After chatting online for a few weeks, she asked me out for a coffee, and I accepted. Océane- er, your mother had the most beautiful writing. She could describe a scene so perfectly that you couldn’t help but fall in love with the characters and setting. And the author.
When we finally met in real life, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Your mother was the loveliest figure I’d ever had the luck to see.”
Shana smiled sadly. Her mom was far from lovely. She had frizzy, greying hair, and her features were slumped and scowling. Several moles dotted her face. She was short and squat and sometimes reminded Shana of an angry Ewok.
But her eyes made up for half of it. They were a shimmering, twisting green, like the color of a wave about to crest, with flecks of golden sand swimming about. If you stared into them for too long, you could hear the sound of the beach, smell the seaweed, feel the shells under your feet.
There was one beach back home in France that her mom always talked about. It was the beach where she would always meet her dad. The waves were always huge and great for surfing. The sand was soft and fine. The water was crystal clear and the sunsets were to die for. It was surrounded by huge white cliffs that ensured that no one knew about it but her mom and dad.
Together, they would watch the sun be drowned by the horizon, it’s blood lighting up the sky in a final flare before the stars marched out of their hidey-holes.
“I’m sorry I’ve been so shitty to you, Steve. Dad’s death and the move to Morgue were tough.” Shana admitted.
Steve smiled down at her. “I’m glad, Shana. I’m glad.”
“Thanks.” Shana paused, then added, “Dad.”
Shana spun round and round until late afternoon on the Spinning Dragon, laughing and joking with her dad. And for the first time since the loop began, Shana felt at peace.
Océane sat at her sleek computer desk. She and Pierre had spent nearly all of their lives moving in and out of the Program. They had lived a happy life in the Program country of France.
Océane had first discovered that they lived in a Program when visiting the beach. It was quite a peculiar beach because it was one of many Entry points across the Program’s world.
If you swam in the warm waters of that beach during sunset when the water turned blood red, you could escape the Program.
Now Pierre had passed on.
So these days, she spent most of her time in the Programs to avoid facing reality. She had learned how to hack the Program twenty years ago and she now acted as a puppeteer, pulling at the strings of code to manipulate the outcome.
Océane typed the few last lines of code, then stuck the Entry Needle into her arm. She woke to bright, sweltering heat.
Damn. She had forgotten to turn down the temperature before putting herself back in.
She watched, disguised as a young boy, as Shana talked with Steve.
“...and the move to Morgue was tough,” Shana admitted.
Steve smiled down at her. “I’m glad, Shana. I’m glad.”
“Thanks.” Shana paused, then added, “Dad.”
Shana had disliked Steve from the beginning, so Océane had to pull a few strings and create a loop. Satisfied that peace had been made, Océane made to leave the Program.
Maybe she could keep Shana in the loop a couple more days, she thought. It would be entertaining for her to burn to death a couple of times, and she wanted to try drowning her, too.
Because as the puppeteer behind the Program, she could do anything.