Matterhorn by Titus Burley

Screams from inside the mountain. Distorted in pitch because of the speed with which they moved. Grimacing faces flashing in and out of view as the carts of death careened along a doomed circuitous track. A passage of courage or some collective form of voluntary madness? The unearthly wails from within suggested the latter.

Surrounding him, looming monstrous, were stinky bodies scorched red by the afternoon sun. Glistening visages and limbs slick with sweat, stifling in their proximity, moving in a slow, forward shuffle, dragging him along with them like some unrelenting human riptide.

Mortality. Inevitable death. Numbered breaths. Panic set his heart to pounding like a rabbit cornered by a slavering beast. Was there not some way to escape? Ten years old. A boy. So young to die.

When had meekly giving in become valor? Wasn’t it better to bolt? To claw one’s way out of the queue and run? To throw one’s shoulder against the mighty tide and break free? Centuries of victims – from the drugged to the sober – accepted the rope, bowed before the guillotine, obligingly boarded the death train.

30 Minutes From This Point declared the sign. A countdown of minutes that would become seconds. He fought back the tears, refusing to cry. No one else would understand this courage. No one but God… if God were watching and listening that is. So many people in this line, hundreds, and in the surrounding acres, thousands, and in the city, millions, and in the world, billions. Why would God amidst the ceaseless pangs of earth hear his particular cry for help?

Faith. The faith of a mustard seed. Faith that would move mountains, or completely remove them. Daniel in the lion’s den. Shadrack, Meshack, and Abednego in the fiery furnace. If it be thy will, let this cup pass from me.

His brother was to blame. Richard. That bastard. Michael didn’t know the meaning of the word but his brother spat it like a curse whenever someone angered him or created an obstacle to victory. And Richard, at thirteen, was all about winning, about asserting his will and getting his way. “Competitive,” his parents had always said of his older brother with a chuckle. Blinders they wore; laughing away a character trait that would lead to the torment of others – himself in particular.

The mountain had of course been Richard’s idea – his obsession for weeks. And not for himself, but a vicarious compulsion exclusively focused on Michael. “We’ll make a man out of you yet, chicken.” Great. This coming from a guy who thought it knee-slappingly funny the day before an airplane flight to Acapulco to predict during a game of Yahtzee that if Michael rolled three sixes – exactly what he needed on his last frame to make top and get the 35 point bonus – that their plane would crash. What lurked in the heart of someone to say something so twisted? When the trio of sixes had tumbled out of the shaker cup Michael had flung the plastic cup at his brother’s head in point blank rage understanding in that precise moment why Cain slew Abel. Only siblings could generate a fury that defied reason. So he had won the battle but lost the war. He had prevailed in Yahtzee but was so torn up by fear that even touching down crash free in Acapulco could not allow him to fully enjoy the dream family vacation. For there remained a return flight that the dice had predicted he would not survive.

Yet he had survived and a year later Richard’s mission to “toughen you up and get you to be less of wuss” had led to another vacation horror. They had split off from their parents an hour ago with an agreement to meet in front of The Golden Horse Shoe Revue at 1 p.m. for lunch. Like that would happen. He could see the park personnel presenting his mangled carcass to his parents, pulling back the sheet to verify identity. Dental records would no doubt be required for certainty.

Richard would probably survive with minor injuries. Even at ten, the inequities and unfairness of life rang loud and clear in Michael’s ears – and perversely, like some mad banshee raving, that unfairness found its soundtrack in the screams which loomed closer with every step. The zigzag forward movement of the queue took them out of the sun and into a tunnel, a claustrophobic cavern that appeared to be hewn out of real stone. But how could that be? For this mountain was a manmade construction, one that until ten years before had not even existed.

Another sign estimated only ten more minutes of wait time. Could it really be that those around him grew giddy? Gleeful in their anticipation? It defied logic that people paid money for this. Intentionally chose this fate. Why would anyone except for a noble cause volunteer for agony and pain?

To cope, Michael focused on miracles. They happened. Like those astronauts who went to the moon. Surely they expected to die. Even at their most stout hearted moment, a niggling fear of obliteration must have tugged at the corners of courage. Yet somehow they returned intact. Heroes. Men of incredible valor.

“I will go out like an astronaut,” Michael decided. Live or die, he would screw his courage to the sticking post as he had heard someone once say on TV and even if he had to close his eyes tight and grip the handrails until his knuckles turned white, he would meet this executioner.

“Scared?” asked Richard, nudging him. “You look like you’re about to barf.”

“I’m fine,” Michael muttered.

“Don’t embarrass me ever again like you did with the height requirement sign.”

Michael had tried to slump down enough that his head would not reach the marker, but the teen working the line who had been dressed like one of the Von Trapp kids on a picnic with Maria in The Sound Of Music told him to “Stand up straight, kid.” Thus achieving the height requirement, he had sealed his fate and likely signed his death warrant.

“And don’t even think about changing your mind,” continued Richard. “People younger than you do this all the time. It’s time to stop being a sissy and be a man.”

“Can’t you just be quiet until it’s over?” Michael blurted.

“Sure. Just don’t crap your pants. You do that and I’ll disown you as a brother.”

And so the forward march of progress, the inevitable trickle of the sands of time, the one step after another process of movement brought them to the Matterhorn Mountain loading dock. Four people who had survived the experience removed themselves from the bobsled and stepped rather shakily toward the exit. Michael and Richard and two strangers – a shaggy haired youth and his pixie haired girlfriend who had anonymously shadowed the siblings during the forty minute wait for this moment – were buckled securely into the bobsled by another Von Trapp family looking Disneyland employee.

“No turning back now,” said Richard, flashing what Michael had always considered his brother’s version of an evil grin.

Michael swallowed back the bile rising in his throat and closed his eyes tightly as the sickening grind of gears caught their bobsled in its grip and began carrying them upward to the point where they would be released into a twisting, topsy-turvy, plummet into a sure abyss.

Happiest place on earth?

Not at that moment.

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