“Tropic Zone” -A Short Story

For all of my New York friends, this story should be fun to read. It is set there (sort of) and will likely go into the next collection of Worked Stiff: Short Stories to Tell Your Boss. As always, feedback is appreciated.

 

 

 

Tropic Zone

 

Part I: An All-Time Low

 

I looked in the mirror and saw failure there in my parents’ bathroom. I was caressing this notion that every new day was a call for the willing to drum up the possibilities, every day a new adventure.

My father hadn’t felt that at all, he knew his fate. No, Dad kept his nose to the grindstone and put his shoulder in the work, simple work. He didn’t ask for much and he took little. Mom and Dad owned the house outright. They paid their bills on time, had great credit scores, according to those who cared and must have slept like babies with full bellies every night.

Not me, though, I reached for the stars, thought I was reaching for something all too real, something my father would never understand. Before I left home years ago, I took one long gaze at that distant horizon, pointed with one finger and marked the destination of no return. I had set out like a champion with the wind at my back. Only, half way there I must have called it quits, or got distracted, I wasn’t really sure. I was obsessed with multitasking.

Twenty-four summers into my short life, I had two college degrees and no job. I figured about forty thousand in the hole plus another ten after sliding across Europe for a summer during that last year of undergraduate. Then there was the crushing credit card debt. I must have bought things, just material and times shared. Well-being items that I somehow needed during my stay at both universities. Albums, dinners, train tickets, dates, beer, and the occasional pot before a hot night to cool things down a little. I seemed to always take two steps to the right, one forward, two back, and a half in the diagonal just to be sure I was altogether still stepping.

I thought I did everything right, dreaming the big dreams, never being complacent, reaching for that horizon. After almost failing that first semester, I became addicted to completion. I found myself enjoying the act of checking off the classes as the semesters neared their end. When I sought the graduate degree, the act was simply to solidify the notion that I was a winner, a doer, an expert with the expensive caps and gowns. I would never be complacent like my father and had the pieces of paper to prove just that.

What I was missing was a job, a real job. Dad had one. The guidance counselor in high school who reviewed my SAT scores didn’t talk about that. My English Lit professor who gave me my first A didn’t make any mention either and the recruiters for graduate school surely didn’t say a thing. Quotas, they all have quotas-sales goals. This was a fake world. I was living in a Disney Land for academics, but the easy dream was over and I was hiding from it in my parents’ bathroom.

Upon returning home penniless and bored, I found nothing but the same terrible fear while sleeping on my parent’s couch. My old bedroom, once decorated with honors’ ribbons, debate trophies, and golf tees, had been turned into a seldom used weight storage area, a man cave of sorts created by my father a few years back.

My mother could only repeat the previous mantra of you can do anything dear which was less than helpful. I remembered a professor in one of my classes in those big lecture halls who spoke for hours about the importance of networking and wished I paid more attention. I was supposed to make friends. Friends could get you a job. There was no other way.

Only a few offerings called but they seemed menial and underpaid. I denied the positions but sure wish I hadn’t, that was all there was. Was it? How I wished I was working somewhere, anywhere except fast food, or the movie theater, or anything in the service industry. Heck, they probably wouldn’t even take me, unless I scratched everything off of my resume and wrote GED instead.

I ran into Tammie the other day, a kind of plain girl who was on my bus route through middle school. We hadn’t seen each other in years but Tammie was a wife, a mom of two, drove a minivan, and worked forty good, hard hours as a dental hygienist. I envied her, she hadn’t left. Tammie hadn’t been out there shaking and baking in the world and tasted its immediate splendor. She wasn’t tainted and appeared happy. She didn’t have crushing student debt and a I told you so father. My old acquaintance from my youth would probably continue to make more than I could even hope.

“I can get you in down at the plant,” my father said. He worked at a wastewater treatment plant for the past twenty-two years.

“What would I do there? I’m not even sure I understand what you do there,” I responded, trying not to look him in the eye.

“I could get you in as an operator or a tech, the way I started. Pretty easy, you run machines that carry out a process, not great money but…it’s a place to start,” my father said while sipping coffee and not looking up from the paper. Good, I didn’t have to let him see me die on the inside.

“Your mother is worried, I figure you’ll land on your feet soon but she keeps tossing and turning at night wondering when. Now I know you’re not lazy and you have been trying, but the economy isn’t what it used to be. Have you thought about teaching?” he asked. My father still had the mind that teaching remained what it used to be- a semi-honorable profession with control and pride. There was no control there, the bureaucracy took it over and flipped it on its side, the pride stripped away the same when as when a rat gets trapped in those humane traps. No death, only capture, and marvel.

“Yeah, sure Dad, but even that only pays so much and I would have to get a certificate. My student loans are going to be due in a few months now and that alone will be a grand per month, not to mention an apartment, car insurance…”

“I understand, but you have to start somewhere, start a career.” I could feel his eyes upon me on that word, career, that way he did over his bifocals, past his paper, through my soul.

“But I spent so much time and money getting these stupid degrees, it seems asinine to throw that all away and not find work using them,” I pleaded like the fourteen-year-old he remembered.

I was looking for a job in the want ads one day, that’s when I first saw the words, that’s when I first saw my strange fate:

Actors Needed-No Experience Necessary

1-Year Commitment-Pay 30K

All Expenses, Room and Board Included

Send Life Story in 500 words or less and 5 candid pictures to:

Tropic Zone

121 Belleview Dr.

Ridgewater, NY 13082

No headshots, no resumes required

The first thing I did was do an internet search for Tropic Zone, sharpening a real skill I learned in college. No dice except for the Wikipedia version of the actual Tropic Zone on the globe, which was not in New York State. I found this along with other encyclopedic digital demonstrations. I couldn’t even find 121 Belleview Dr. on the map either. The town of Ridgewater only claimed to have four hundred seventy poor souls living in the surely beautiful, yet totally boring destination in upstate New York. This puzzled me at first, everything was on the map. I figured it had to be fake, a hoax, another one of those unreal jobs that asked for your credit card twenty minutes into the blatant lie of an orientation. Better luck next time, you aren’t a good fit or I can’t believe you don’t want in on this amazing opportunity! There were so many, I thought I had heard them all. There were more scams and fake jobs out there than real ones.

I figured what the hell and printed off five pictures from the last year on my phone. I could sum up everything in the five hundred words required. All the hatred, doubt, and sheer loathing rolled easy into one nice long paragraph. I took the photos from the printer and fanned them out on the table so I could look at them as I wrote, stare with pity and remembrance. The words came quick in my sarcastic and slightly funny tone. I did have a penchant for writing according to my two English degrees but never considered myself a writer, more of a critic or an editor. Yeah, I could be an editor. I described my childhood in a few sentences, my adolescence, my parents, and my education. I printed that off as fast as I wrote the thing and stuffed my life into a large envelope and sent it off the next day, the only harm done was the postage.

 

Part II: In the Zone

 

That damn drone whistle blew past my ears another time and I realized that I was standing right in front of where one of them came down, it was hovering like an industrial spider. I hadn’t seen anything so cold, so metal and foreign in days and I reacted like the cave man that I was, that I had become. The low roar meant that the resting and the easiness were over. Before, I could hide out, do deeds here or there, shine for the camera as some kind of involved extra, but not this time. I would actually have to play. I was going to be the leader now, wouldn’t be good enough to just be a player the entire exercise. That’s all it was, wasn’t it, an exercise?

I could smell the crocodiles, more than before as they were removed from their places. I would see them again in their cold, dark waters, their wet disgusting sand about them and under their clawed feet. They smelled of reptilian rot but I knew it wasn’t their own flesh, likely their last night’s prey, seasoned by the dark, brackish water that was their home, made ready for snack time.

The problem was that there were all of these mini-tasks that had to be completed before we could make our final descent, all eighteen of us. Or, was it seventeen people left? I couldn’t remember. I remembered that the viewers could see our vitals, could get visual confirmation of our losses, our fears, and our ultimate undoing.

The last level had not gone well. How could we be better this time? We were even more exhausted, even hungrier. I would have to lead the show. How was I now supposed to be the cat wrangler of eighteen of them? Or seventeen? God, I didn’t even know that stupid fact. A few were staring at me now, getting their gear ready, tired and looking for direction. Ropes, canteens, and spears seemed like toys of my youth, they were now vital and necessary. They all knew what to do but they had to hear me say it, they had to hear me give the commands. As if I was, could be, that sort of king to them.

The labyrinth ground folded upon itself like some little neat package, a never-ending maze of the wicked. Plates under our feet shift, the ground moved as some kind of puzzle. A rock formation that was to our left could be off in the distance or altogether misplaced under dark water that seeped in from below. We were forced to move with the ground, stick together and find a high spot as the plates shifted between rounds. I couldn’t fathom the structure we were in, couldn’t remember where we were on the globe, New York somewhere, right? Except in upstate New York, there weren’t hippos, monkeys, crocodiles, or snakes. Those hippos weren’t like the pink, stuffed animal variety either, they were nasty and mean. I saw one girl go out that way, the first. She was stomped to death under the water and none of us could believe it, none of us could save her. I could still hear her scream, her underwater scream. Mud and flesh and bones cracking and…She was cute too, I would have made a pass if we had the time. We were still playing around then, thinking we were on some kind of fake safari, a reality adventure like those sensational shows my grandmother watched.

There was this other girl, Sandra. I remember her asking me about my life before this madness started, before the sleep-deprived terror vacation, before the release forms and the briefings, before they took away our phones, before the deaths. She half flirted with me on the deck of the mansion by the railing that overlooked the valley before we really got started. The mansion was huge and we felt like movie stars, lucky dopes with a new found purpose. She was short but looked capable, had black hair, green eyes, a Mediterranean face and the kind of attitude I could fall in love with.

“What has brought you here to this fine establishment handsome?” I turned away from the small, quaint town and trees below and I remembered instantly wondering if she said that to every guy that showed up for casting. There were guys there that were better looking than me. Ex-Army types who stayed at the gym like it was their job, probably was their job. I hadn’t been with a woman in a while, no job and all, so I must have seemed a little nervous to her then. I was always nervous.

“Oh, just a…poking around a bit, I like mansions you know?” I said smiling. I clasped a hand around my chin like I had been surveying this one. I got a giggle out of her then but she didn’t fall instantly in love. That always depressed me, it wasn’t like in the movies, nothing was.

“I hear that we will be doing the final rounds of vetting tomorrow and by next week, we’ll be starting the safari, or, whatever it is, I’m still not really sure,” she got close to me then like she was telling me some kind of secret nobody knew. I already knew but was busy thinking about my bills, those student loans and the power of attorney that I signed. I was hoping my mother could get all the right payments made and not overpay, that would have been awful.

“Yeah, I still don’t understand where we are going either, can’t say that I really care to tell you the truth,” I sighed. “I hope I don’t get the pink slip tomorrow.”

“You won’t handsome,” she winked at me and turned to walk toward dinner. “They need at least one man of letters here, can’t all be just jocks and hot babes.”

She left me then, taking the stairs down that huge metal deck. I tried to say something clever in return but came up short. Her little hips swayed before turning around for another giggle halfway down the steps. I wondered if we would be able to find a quiet place once we started. At the time, we were sequestered from each other unless we had briefings which gave no information or tests that provided less than valuable insight. Mealtimes, we were all together in a bunch and I ate better than I had in years, buffets and rumor mills. Those were the times that Sandra and I would flirt and soft touch over subtle talk about our past. She had been a rodeo girl growing up and lived outside Atlanta somewhere. My Michigan ears took kindly to her soft drawl and those thoughtful, deep eyes. Those dark brown eyes with just a hint of black mascara dolled me right up. I was at peace then, those nights standing on that deck, overlooking the small town, forgetting all the troubles of my time.

 

Part III: My Turn as King

“Jim! Jiiim!” Something was shaking my arm, Sandra was standing there in front of me and I could feel the rope that was wrapped around her shoulder graze my skin, my dirty, filthy torso, my filthy everything. I snapped out of the memory and saw those eyes again, only this time they were masked by heartache, sleepless nights in trees and no mascara to be found. Her uniformed leather skirt and bra I was able to focus on first, and despite the filth of the mud and the bugs, I wanted to take her there.

“Jim, you’re up next, you’re our leader now, snap to and get everyone together before the plates shift, Jim! Are you listening to me?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m here!” I said that, heard and felt the words move past my lips even though I really wasn’t there at all. My eyes fixed on the throne and I felt the plates under our feet start to move.

The structure was like a giant puzzle under a huge dome. The sun would bake down upon us, the rains would pummel our spirit, and the bugs would eat and gorge on our flesh and blood. Plates underneath our feet shifted with steam, rocks, and rumbling. The group, gathered together when this happened or risked getting separated as the plates moved in two phases, not so slow once they got going but slow enough that we managed to only lose one that way. I couldn’t even remember his name, might have been that bike messenger from San Francisco, but I figured he wasn’t cut out to be here anymore, wasn’t meant for this world. Then again, none of us were.

The game always showed you the throne first, laid with food platters of fruit, bread, and meat set out in some kind of splendor that only the Romans knew. There would be small items there as well- lotions and antiseptic, ointment for the bug bites. They would show it all to us, our daily goal, and if I was to make it, if I was to win, I would be sitting upon that throne when the fake sun went down, a kingdom for a king. Then they would take it all away. The rumbling and cracking sound would start all over again and we would be left there to start all over too, throne clicking, thumping, cast into the far distance. You could still see the throne when it moved. A banner flag tethered to the large chair on a pedestal. The ultimate goal of the day never appeared to be that far, always achievable, always there for the taking.

There were at least five or six daily tasks, deadly tasks for those less fortunate. These missions reminded me of what my overly optimistic and pudgy camp counselors called team building exercises from the Boy Scouts yearly summer gathering when I was twelve. It was a puzzle, you had to get everyone over this wall here, hop this rock past crocs, swing this way or that, and touch this boulder just so. Then the plates would shift again and the throne would appear in the distance, sometimes farther away or curved closer, depending on how they wanted our mood to shift with the ground. On some tasks, the weakest ones were the strongest. We wouldn’t even eat if each of us in the group didn’t get past the goal of the day.

The first week or so, I could feel the cameras around. They were catching interactions that people thought were secret, capturing the fights after losing a round and going hungry. I could sense their presence, knew we were being watched all the time, but I lost that feeling after a while. I suppose that’s what they wanted. Sensationalism only works after the fact, after the failure or success and all the ugly parts that fill the cracks.

Yesterday we didn’t make it to the throne and everyone was hungry and tired. The beginning of the level went like clockwork, our leader then was a former Army Ranger Captain who knew just what to do or thought he did, that is, until the monkeys came. They were so fast, moving through our ranks like a stampede of thieves.  They stole almost everything we previously found: our sharpened rocks, our saved rations, ropes, spears, and other tools gathered or made along the way. They took all but a small cache we weren’t even using anymore, the broken and afraid tools of previous rounds.  It occurred to me then that the monkeys could be unreal as one of them punched our leader in the face, adding insult to injury. The monkeys also took our flint and steel, a helpful tool used to ward off the creatures of the night which had also given us the hope of the cave people that we were. But there was that smell about them, so real, so pungent, so awful.

I was finally roused by Sandra out of my standing, the catatonic slumber of a dream and looked with purpose toward the people awaiting my commands. “Right,” I said, marching off to some distant horizon as the ground began to crack and snap with steam below our feet.

Sandra scurried along after me as we approached the group, and we jumped together over that last sinking boulder. Something felt different this time as I stood upright after the leap. The hard ground beneath us raised itself fast and high as rocks on all sides that didn’t hold were tossed below. Our new precipice, created by the shifting plates moved further upward, snapping, rumbling, cracking and I felt then that I was going to be sick. I felt that way, even more, when we came to a sudden halt and I looked over the edge, the distance had taken us at least fifty feet up. That’s when I heard the screaming.

“Ahhhh! Ahhh! Help! Somebody!” The sound echoed all around, showing the depth and we scurried over to one side. A guy named Marty who worked at an auto parts store in South Dakota was clutching a small ledge about ten feet down with his torso and forearms. He kicked wildly and screamed bloody murder for us to save him. I’m not quite sure what happened to me then, couldn’t even explain it now, but I reacted in a way I never thought possible, in a way some people call heroes never talk about. I lunged over the edge, almost spilling myself to the below. I just couldn’t reach him and he lost some of his grip with one of his trying hands in a desperate attempt to reach me.

“Stop kicking! You’re making it harder for yourself to hold on!” Someone yelled. I took that thought and ran.

“Hold my legs!” I called to the Ranger and his cohort, the largest men of the group. They held one each and I paddled my way to the parts man, refusing to look down, trusting the two men holding my own legs to keep up the faith. Someone held them too and I could feel the anchor. “Give me more!” I yelled, I could hear them strain and slump to their knees, bending over with great labor. When they slumped over, I gained a few feet going down, that’s when I first felt fear. Not fear for the screaming parts man as before, but real fear for myself and I thought my legs slipped a little and my heart sank through my brain, my life flashing a little before my eyes. No, I didn’t see my childhood, no visions of blowing away dandelion seeds at the park when I was eight or that first kiss with Summer Cleveland by the neighborhood pool, more like a flash of adrenaline, carried by the blood going to my head and all I could see was white.

In an instant, I was brought to by the whimpering and fast breathing Marty who was now within arms’ reach, whether I wanted him there or not. I had not fallen, I had not perished.

“Grab his armpits!” I heard someone yell from the top and I thought, “How the hell can I do that!” Only, I didn’t think it, I yelled it down and it echoed off the bottom. Just then I could see water rising down there and I almost fainted. I was out of my element.

I looked at Marty. I tried speaking to him in soft tones about what I was going to do. I would put my arms under his, grab my own hands behind his back and we would get pulled up. “All you gotta do is shrug your shoulders a little so I can get under them. When we get pulled up out of this, you can’t freak out and flail or we’ll both die. Marty? Marty, do you hear me? Can you do that?” I felt like I was yelling in his face when actually, I was speaking quite calm, funny how that is.

“Yeah, I hear you, just get me off of here!” he whimpered. I could see the manic tears that had rolled down his cheeks. Lucky for us, Marty was of the skinny, cigarette smoking auto parts variety. He shrugged his shoulders as best he could and I slid my arms behind him and locked my hands.

I thought my wrists or legs were going to snap off while we were pulled up from above. For those few seconds, my body was a mechanism. I allowed or ignored the pain and strain on my joints as I acted like an unmovable piece of pulley. We were lurched up with two swift, lumbering motions until only Marty’s bare feet were hanging off the edge. He passed out almost immediately after saying thank you with heavy breath. I turned over to my back and almost did the same, I could see the twinkle twinkle of stars on the edges of my vision.

I sprawled out there for a minute until I sat up, still panting. I could feel the sweat sting my eyes but I was beyond care. I could feel the high of adrenaline start to fade away from my limbs. I wasn’t injured, sore, but not injured. Sandra came over to me and I could feel the softness of her black hair touch my naked shoulder. I didn’t pass out before but I felt like it then, home sweet home until she touched my face and locked my eyes.

“Are you alright?” she asked with more than a concerned look, her hands wiping the sweat from my brow. So sweet, so soft, I thought, and I broke from the trance.

“I uh, I…think” those words just couldn’t come but I was startled to my feet by the yelling in the distance. When I stood up, I felt woozy at the height, even though our grass and rock plateau was twenty feet wide and I was near the middle of the group. I turned around and around, eyes searching for the sound of the voices coming from somewhere, yelling from somewhere.

They were at least a football field away and down a little bit too, we could just see the tops of their heads and their arms flailing, three sets of them. We could hear their cries echoing off the rock. There were two jutting cliffs between us and no swinging vines or rope bridges like in the movies.

The people beyond were a distraction. I know that now because I have had time to think about it. We wasted twenty minutes scurrying and worrying over how to get them with us, but there was no way. After the wasted time, everybody started to look around, forage for purpose or a sign, we were so used to it by now, and I didn’t even have to give the order. Minutes later, a guy named Mitch cried out that he found something, a sign from above. We all gathered around the edge and I stayed toward the back, feeling sick all over again at the height. Those who were looking around reported a glowing rock about four feet down in a small recess. These were our money makers. Touch this rock and things would happen, good things usually, or at least a change of some kind for the better. A few of them looked at me and chuckled, knowing that I wasn’t prepared to test my fate again by going over the edge. They picked another small, slender guy named Donny Nichols who was a valet in Oakland. Donny went over the edge and pressed on the glowing rock.

We all waited, the action was delayed. The smart ones knelt down when the rumbling began. Our precipice finally moved and shook a little, most of the people grabbed onto each other forming some kind of human chain, we had gotten smart. It wasn’t our spot that was changing, it was out there, somewhere, only a foggy mist started to roll in and we could barely see the shift in the distance. Finally, someone called out what they saw and it startled me to my bones when they did, the fog making everything eerie, and something about the below still clenched my gut.

About fifteen yards away, another plateau had formed, slightly smaller than the one we were on and it was a little bit lower too. There were more that could barely be seen but they weren’t in the direction of our stranded three who had stopped screaming for us.

We didn’t know what to think and I could feel the eyes start to turn my way, the comments of well, what do we do now great king? started to form in the fog. As they did, we all ducked at something flying at us, at least I thought I did but turned to see Donnie the valet had actually pulled me down. Whatever it was, flew past our heads and was coming back for another turn. Instead of ducking this time, Donnie lunged after it and caught it like a Golden Retriever catches a Frisbee, only with his arms. By the time I realized what it was, everybody was slapping him on the back and cheering. It was a vine, a thick brown vine that was connected to the above we couldn’t see, conveniently placed between our plateau and the one that appeared.

Donnie volunteered to be the first to go. A few of them tested the vine for durability and we put two and two together. We would have to swing to the other plateau, one by one, careful not to fall completely to certain death and careful not to lose the swinger that had given us both life and purpose. We had to be able to pass back to the next person and assist in the proper exits and swing.

At least the week ones identified themselves early in this regard. One woman in her late twenties just started to ball all over the place after we watched Donnie and another two swing across.

“I caaan’t!” She screamed past mucous and salt. “I can’t do it, please don’t make me do it!” Another man, a little older and grey was consoling her, only to find out that he was afraid to die as well and they were holding one another like some coalition of fear.

“We’ll catch you on the other side, we’ll be there for you,” the Army Ranger said and I looked at him, not expecting compassion. He broke it by saying through the man holding the woman, “Or, you can stay here and die.” The Ranger looked at me like they were my fault, my product and said, “just make sure they are not the last two,” before swinging over himself, he gave over a yell like Tarzan which echoed off the rocks.

The fearful pair went. They had to be convinced it was all some kind of ride at Six Flags but they swung and screamed until the group caught them on the other side. I was second to last and I didn’t showboat or hoot and holler, I just did the deed until it was over. I barely remember my first swing. I did remember my hands hurting a little afterward. The vine was made moist by the fog and the nervous sweat.

We went that way for a while, at least four plateaus later and we even caught up with our sad little three who cheered us on when we got close. This was a team exercise, yes, but it had individual feats to an extent not seen before. We couldn’t catch a glimpse of the throne yet but started to feel edgy over the hopeful end to the exercise. We knew the splendor must be close and waited for the other shoe to drop, seethed in our hunger. It had been three days since we won, too long I thought. Sure, people squirreled away rations from the last victory, but all that was taken away by the monkeys the last go around and people started to get shaky after each new plateau.

Then, we saw our beautiful harvest. A little sparkle gave way from the throne, my throne in the distance below. It was at least fifty yards away and some ways down, only this time was different, the angle was all wrong. No rope could swing that way, far too awkward. We waited, looked around for a sign on our thought to be last little piece of grass and rock before ultimate glory. I thought about eating the grass then and there but figured it would show a lack of leadership, a little less than confident wave this close to the end.

Finally, we saw the sign but it was more strange than usual, they appeared under our feet and all around. Glowing lights freckled the top of our last plateau and we giggled in excitement without knowing their meaning. One guy got the idea to stomp on one and something happened, a sound perhaps. I’m still not quite sure but we all started stomping, taking two a pair and jumping up and down like mad. The earth below was falling, a few feet each time we stomped, more if we did it in unison. The throne was closer and closer to our own height until finally the twinkles under our feet subsided and we were just above our ultimate goal, but it was still fifty yards away.

That’s when I first heard them, those little black flying devils and their screech. I never encountered a bat before. I only saw them pointed out to me in a singular fashion in some late summer night sky as a boy. There was nothing singular about these as they came tearing through our ranks like a creepy freight train and people almost bolted. One did and ended up being pulled from the edge by me and Sandra, each of us flailing our arms and screaming into the fog. That didn’t stop them, they came around for more and more until we thought it would never end.

Sandra was flailing about like the rest of us, she reached out and felt something else and yelled, “Jim! Jim! I’ve got something here, another rope and a…a swing! Jim, I think it’s a swing!” What she meant by swing was a t-bar attached to a rope, a zip line, something I had previously refused to go on at summer camp.

“Let me see it!” The Ranger yelled and felt above where Sandra was. They were sharing in the new discovery. They stood close and felt together upward and I remember a tinge of jealousy creep in at the time.

“It’s got some kind of clipping mechanism, some kind of spacer!” she yelled to me over the screech. Just then, a whoosh sound came and another appeared with another, then another.

“Permission to take the first ride?” The Ranger asked, smiling and flailing at the bats.

“Permission granted,” I said. “Just don’t touch anything until all of us get down there, and make sure everyone does the same.”

He nodded and I knew that he wouldn’t gorge on the feast before it was time. He had honor, principles, and a knowing respect for the chain of command. We were very different people but he understood what I was asking.

The Ranger went for it, hollering joy the entire ride down and giving a jumping thumbs up at the bottom. I thought then that he looked like a cheerleader on the side of a winning game night and smiled too. “Who’s next?” I beamed, grabbing onto Donnie who almost swallowed a bat, his mouth in a huge grin from watching the first man go. Almost all zinged down despite the bats that menaced our eager group.

The second to last, one man before me, was Clarence, the older man who was afraid to swing earlier. He was slated to go after Sandra and this was it, we were home free. He shook and stammered and I looked him in the eye, told him it was going to be alright, helped him get his grip and then, I watched him die.

Clarence got close, so close to the day’s victory before letting go, one arm first which ruined the balance of his decent. The second went, only a short distance from the throne plateau and I heard him yell something incoherent, all the way past the fog blanket that wasn’t there for comfort at all. He hit the ground so far below, I strained to hear the desolating chunk of his poor body hit the water and rock.

I paused. We didn’t lose anybody before to these great and unknown heights despite so many rope swings. I started to weep but I held it back and grabbed my own t-bar, the last one to go. There was no way I was going to lose my grip. This was my victory, my purpose.

I zinged down, my eyes always on the prize and Sandra, Sandra standing there, holding her mouth in anticipation, praying that I wouldn’t fall too. I didn’t, I won. I was a winner.

The group just stood there and gawked at me as if I had some kind of mark on my forehead. Actually, they weren’t looking at me, not in a personal way. They were looking at their man, at their leader for permission. Only I could grant them the device to move on, the path to end the grieving so soon without the guilt.

I got down on one knee, looked up from where we came and looked down to where Clarence went. I tried to hold back the tears. I also tried to play the part for myself, for them. I cared, we all cared when we lost another. This wasn’t an elimination game, the suits and secretive goon eccentrics running the show made that point clear enough. In fact, this wasn’t a game at all, this was life or death.

Sandra came over, put her hands around my shoulders and gave me a knowing gaze that looked sad and happy all the same, gave me permission to fly away from the bad. With that, I nodded and stood with purpose, the new purpose I had found so many vines and plateaus ago.

I locked eyes with some of them and searched for the words before I spoke, “Clarence was a good man. I don’t know much about him, who he loved…” I paused, looking up at the dark sky for the words, “but I know he was there for us…” I panicked. Giving a eulogy that nobody wanted to hear proved to be difficult and somehow wrong. I stopped short and looked at Sandra, she was sobbing but past the tears, she was looking towards the throne, her hunger and pains a reflection of the group. “We have something to do here, something to share,” I walked slowly over to the throne, head down and tired. I paused before the throne with my hand on the bronze armrest and felt a tinge of guilt before a small smile came to me, a sudden surge of victory and celebration. I mounted the large, ornate chair, picked up a goblet of cool, clear water, raised it in the air, “let us share in this bounty and feast until there is no more,” I said before taking a long, satisfying drink into oblivion.

We ate fine cheeses, fruits that tasted sweeter than anything I’ve ever had, and meats that our tired muscles cried out for in the night. We whooped and cheered silver cold water goblets that were never ending as the fog began to melt around us. The night sky was so clear we could see the stars and the moon, man the production was good. We had enough illumination to cut the night in half as our eyes adjusted and bodies were mended by the healing kits and treats abundant.

There was a small grassy pathway from the throne that led down to some kind of gorge where a spring flowed and large trees grew. We knew, had learned that these were our beds, the strong safety of time. We bathed and drank from the cool spring. The victorious frolicked and felt ecstatic about their situation, no one thinking of the plates shifting, no one wondering about the morning or the next challenge, no one mourning Clarence. We were at the mansion and saw people get cut, the endless briefings and the secretive displays for ninety days, three months of anticipation. This was our fourth month by contract and some whispered loud about this being our halfway point during the twelve months of isolation.

I found a tree. I stood there for a moment before mounting, put my hand on its bark and felt what I thought was a cool breeze hit my back. The tree’s wisdom, its solid, stout branches, and knowing leaves were there for my full belly, my tears, and my remorse.

Sandra walked up while I was still staring at the moss and the vines, my hand on the soft bark, “Hey handsome, funny seeing you around…Jim?”

I was crying, she could see through the light of the moon and she hugged me hard and sweet. “I…I told him it was going to be alright, that everything…”

She stopped me and put her finger over my lips, “Shhh…no need for that, not now.” Sandra climbed up the tree and motioned me to follow. We scurried up the side facing the throne, not the others in the gorge, and she caressed my tears away from my cheek. She pushed against me as I was straddling a large branch and without a word, she took me inside of her, kissing my lips and neck softly. I had sex before sure, but this was different. Not because we were in a tree, no, I don’t think so, but because she knew me, my dark and my light and I gave her more, thrusting my back, braced by the old main trunk. There was no regard for the cameras, they were forgotten long ago, and no care for anyone else but us.

I slept there on one of the main stalks with Sandra on my chest and the air  for the first time felt cool and different. I didn’t dream as I fell into my coma but I do remember smiling. A few hours after, I awoke and played with her hair in my hand. She stirred a little and clenched my chest tighter.

I was at peace until I felt the movement. It wasn’t a big, underground movement like the plates were known to give us, but a small, subtle, terrifying feeling at my feet and legs. I froze and wondered in my mind what it could be, that kind of time for discovery and surprise one spends just before smacking a bug and I realized what it was, a snake slithering about the large branch that my legs were perched upon, our legs.

I jerked upright and Sandra awoke to look at me, startled from her own haze. She followed my eyes and we could both see what gave us the start. A long, green and black marbled monster was staring back and I pushed her out of the tree. I don’t know why, but it seemed the right call and I was to follow suit, only I couldn’t. The snake reared up, its mouth grimacing at me, its voice that of a hoarse whisper from deep within its gut and its dead eyes stole my movements. It snapped its body with so much purpose, more purpose than I ever had and bit me, twice. I could feel the pain, the neurotoxins delivered from my leg melted flesh, delivered paralysis and I too fell like a heap from the tree.

 

Part IV: Returned

I don’t remember much after that, I remembered I couldn’t breathe and I remembered the white coats and masks. Aliens had taken me, one of my last thoughts, Aliens! A vision of being rushed around in a moving bed, of all things, and I wanted to care, I wanted to scream and lash out before they took me away from it all, took me away from her. Sandra and the snake, where’s Sandra? Was she bit too? Oh God!     

Then nothing. I felt nothing and I couldn’t move for a long time. I thought I might have been dead except for the dream about the small foliage, the ferns and the grasses and the mushrooms that no one dared to eat on the bottom of the forest. I was right there with it all, on the toes of the forest floor lurking, moving, slithering! Was I the snake? Was it me? I jutted this way and that, I lurched, curling up grass along my path with a pressed trail behind me. I climbed stalks and branched and came upon something sweet, something warm, and something fleshy. I jutted back up on my haunches, no arms to assist but I could make the motion anyway with a hard strength learned and I struck with force into the softness until…

“Noooo!!!” I sat up in my white bed feeling weak and disturbed. Sweat seeped out of every pore and I longed for Sandra’s affection as I touched my face, holding my hand there, feeling the warmth of my cheeks. I looked at my arm, it was fine. I looked at my feet which were jutting out from the white, alien blankets. I wiggled my toes, they were fine too. I quickly unveiled my legs and saw two large bandages wrapped around my left leg. I dared not remove them and look underneath, I could feel the pain rise up from within, still burning, that wretched tingling of the skin.

“Well, you seem to be doing alright,” I turned to the right to notice that I was not alone. Recognition came over my face and I nearly jumped straight out of the bed, almost pulling out the tubes from my arm to run, run!

“Clarence?” Hope and fear came to me all at once and the thought occurred to me that we might be, could we? No, I couldn’t be dead because I wouldn’t have this headache, this throbbing in my legs, or this fever.

“Yes dear Jim, I am alive and, so are you I might add,” he smiled at me and I calmed a little.

“But…”I didn’t give in right away. “But I saw you, and uh, I heard! Clarence, I heard you die!”

“Yeah, pretty convincing right? Hell, I heard it too! I passed out right then and there on that net hearing that thump sound that I thought was my own body breaking. I only landed a little funny,” he said, revealing his leg under the blanket, recuperating in a cast.

“But what about,” my mind stammered and I couldn’t even remember the names, the names of the dead, how sad and wrong of me. The fever took over or was it my emotions, I wasn’t sure, but I couldn’t even remember my own name in that instant.

“They’re fine,” Clarence said, “Alive.” I couldn’t believe it. “You’ll see them for yourself later. In the meantime, try to relax.”

Was it a dream? No, the pain was throbbing and I was sweating and Clarence was talking to me, this couldn’t be a dream. No sweet bliss could be felt that even a nightmare brings just before dawn, all I felt was a hangover and pain, deep pain and regret.

“Sandra?” I asked Clarence with a quick stare.

“She’s fine too, look,” Clarence pointed with remote to a hospital flat screen that I didn’t notice was on, it had no sound and my vision was still a little blurred but I could see everyone from a live feed near a large plant, could see them struggle, helping each other over a rock wall. I waited and rubbed my eyes, eager for that first sign and there she was, Sandra, alive and well, still in the Tropic Zone, still fighting for her life.

“I keep the sound off, that chirping and buzzing of those damn bugs really gives me the jitters,” Clarence chuckled and turned off the tube. He leaned toward me as far as he could in his hospital bed and gave me a real serious look, “I want to thank you, Jim.”

“What for?” I asked, still trying to process.

“You gave me the chance, made me take it even. I was an aging math teacher with a boring future ahead of me, scared of heights too, but you never saw that and never believed it. For that, I am appreciative.”

I tried to say something then, but before I could, a man in a white lab coat walked in with a familiar creature pinched in his hand, draped and wrapped around the white of his arm. Something green, something marbled, hideous, and I shrieked, and looked for a way out of the room.

“It’s okay Jim, he’s harmless. Hey, it’s okay. My name is Dr. Landry, and this, well, I call this one Pete.” The green, wretched serpent in his hand squeezed and hinged, its tongue licking the air. I started to pull the tubes from my arm and grab the metal tree holding my fluids for defense when Dr. Landry did something strange. He snapped his fingers twice and pressed what appeared to be a button under the serpent’s belly. The evil uncertainty went away as the mamba went limp in his arm, the tail falling down like a dead rope.

“Animatronics, my boy, the best of its kind,” he said, offering the snake to me to touch and feel. I declined with a strong shake of the head. “This one does have one-quarter of the venom that the real ones do, though, for effect. In your case, it had full effect, likely due to your malnourished state and your overall lack of sleep. You’ll be fine, though when you recover.”

“I…I don’t know what to say,” I felt angry, afraid, and stupid all at the same time. I became dazed, confused by the notion that this may be a dream after all, so unbelievable and another cloud of fear swept over me as the two men watched. Were they real? Could they be robots too? Look at them, they staring at me as I go mad, smiling, and hoping for insight into my head. How dare they? Why were they here? No one would ever believe me if I told them or warned them. Were they real? Was any of this real? I stammered all at once and slumped over into a dark sleep.

I didn’t dream and I teased with the notion of waking up, the way one does on lazy Saturday mornings with no place to go. I could see my feet at the end of the bed, feel the presence of a nurse tending to my wounds but would not give in. I loved the sleep instead and peeled away the hours. I have no idea what time it was when I awoke. I curved and flexed my torso, finishing up with a big arm stretch and a satisfying yawn. I felt saner then, ready to take on any version of reality that life decided. I was ready, and so was Clarence.

“Well Mr. Sleepy Pants, I was wondering when you would come to, I haven’t had the opportunity to try these babies out yet,” Clarence said, pointing to his chrome and pad crutches which were leaning on the end of his bed. “I have to go get some people to sign my cast son. Are you ready for dinner?”

I tried to appease him for a moment, “sure,” I said, attempting to get up and laughing, not trying very hard. I felt a little silly the way I did when I was a kid, waking from a nightmare and coming to the dawn realization that everything would, in fact, be okay. “I am hungry, though, how long have I been out?”

“Since last night,” Clarence responded.

“And it’s dinner time? Geez! But what about the Zone? Have you been watching? Tell me!”

“Nobody died, fake or otherwise, if that’s what you’re asking, not even Sandra,” he said the last bit like a mocking school kid at recess time. Clarence looked younger to me then, his black hair was thicker than before, less bald than I remembered. I wondered for a moment how I looked and didn’t care, I was hungry as hell.

It was the same buffet that we had before in a great hall in the mansion. The food was laid out in such a splendor, everything you could imagine. I dreamed about this feast earlier while sleeping on the large limbs that I could find, both hungry and loathing for the chance at a new day.

I felt a little funny at first around the other dead, still sporting my hospital gown but then I remembered Clarence was with me. His rubber bottoms of the crutches clicked and stuck with the labored pressure taking the place of his casted leg. They were happy to see us and I them, the hippo girl, the first one especially. But the group was already onto their drinks, scraps of food that I would have died for only a few days ago were cast aside in a casualty of plates on one of the cloth-covered tables. Funny, I thought, I died for this great feast. Before I knew it, I was alongside Clarence, loading my own plate, with my elbow cocked out so he could hop along too.

I ate and ate and ate. Just before I thought I would lose it all, I stopped and declared myself victorious. Salmon, crab, roast beef, lobster, cold potato salad, green salad, fruit salad, croissants and steamed with cheese broccoli. I couldn’t decide between apple or pecan pie, so I ate both. Clarence finished before me and just stared in wonder. I was pretty skinny then and only five foot nine but I packed it all away.

“You know you might get sick, right?” Clarence said, his dark brown eyebrow cocked at me in wonder, his wrinkled expression forehead became lighter than the rest of his dark skin. He just laughed while I paid him no never mind and just chewed and chewed. He pulled out his pocket watch, something the producers let him keep in the mansion, but not in the game itself, “Almost time for the viewing.”

“Is it certain times of the day? Are there commercials?” I joked through a mouthful of sweet pecan pie.

“That’s the part I don’t understand,” he said with a serious and concerned look. He was trying to capture my attention but I wasn’t having it, I was having whipped cream. “I mean, we are getting a live feed, right? Three times a day for two hours. What is the rest of the world seeing? Are there commercials? I overheard some suits talking about editing, they must be cutting this thing up somehow, take out the boring parts, you know?”

“I don’t even think I want to watch,” I said, licking my fingers. “I had enough in there, lucky to be out, lucky to have all of this. Sure, I had to get bit by a snake, or, whatever that was, but I wouldn’t have it any other way,” I said, lying to myself as much as Clarence. I had to watch, I had to know about Sandra.

“If it is a live feed, hell, even if it’s edited, what do they think out there? Do the viewers think it’s real? When did the show start? I know when it started for us but when did they announce? When did it show up in everybody’s TV Guide? Are people setting their DVR right now, waiting to marathon this thing on a Sunday night, eating popcorn with their kids?” Clarence chuckled at the thought and just shook his head.

“Wait,” I put my hand on Clarence’s arm to stop him right there. “If what you are saying, whatever it is your saying is true, then people think we’re dead!”

“No kidding kid. Fact or fiction? I taught math before this. What do all of my students think happened? What about the principle? Will my aunt suddenly forego my power of attorney and stop paying my car payment, my mortgage?”

“Stop Clarence, please stop,” I said, my head pounding. I thought about my mother, my poor mother and her weeping heart. I snatched the thought away and said, “If we go down this road, I will faint like I did after seeing that robot snake, I swear. Let’s just take this one day at a time, enjoy what we have,” I said, pointing to the uneaten food, “just lie to ourselves like we did in there.”

Clarence let out a big sigh and his dark brown eyes looked with worry into my own. “I suppose you’re right. Say,” he said breaking the fearful trance, “can you drum up a marker? Then I can have everybody sign my cast,” he said, pointing with his head toward the group. I nodded, letting out a big sigh of worry as well and walked toward the cheering group of other lost souls.

And so it went for three more months. Long months they were too with no Sandra to soothe my aching soul. For part of the wait, I wanted her to die and join us. Not in a sick way because I knew that it didn’t really mean death, but she didn’t know that at all. In a way, I felt sorry for her. Sandra thought I was really dead and that notion pierced me as if I mourned for her. She kept fighting through and for a time I could watch, could still feel the sweat and the muck and the worry of the nights without a true bed and the bellies without real food. Some great feats were taken by the remaining group, thrones won and lost, the plates ever shifting into new terrain. I was always so surprised at how real the trees and rocks looked when I was in the game and from above on the screens. All the different angles were shown to us from the glow of a large projector or the televisions in our rooms. After a while, I didn’t care to watch anymore.

The mansion’s library was full of books, some classics I missed out on in college, some I already read and perused again. I tore through them all, beginning with authors’ names that started in A. The leather bounds gave me comfort and I got lost in the dreams of all of them. Clarence and I opted for a suite together. I’m not sure why because the estate had so many rooms, but I guess we felt lonely in a way. We were part of a group and still felt like we should be. Six more warriors of the tropic zone died and joined us in the festivities and we tried our best to give aid with their transitions.

When it was over, there was no winner. The game wasn’t about elimination or victory. The small victories achieved between rounds meant food and the pure glory of that nourishment. The game seemed kind of cheap in the end. Not because it was fake or that I died, but that it all seemed planned. Of course, the creators, or producers, as they liked to be called, maintained the sly arrogance of secrecy, even when the dream all came to a halt.

When the final round occurred, there was no fanfare, no last whistle for the survivors of the jungle. There appeared only an open doorway for the hungry and tired, a gateway out. The double doors were opened near the final throne feast. The group won the round and some of them stopped, looked, and tossed their platters aside mid-chew. A few of them marched right through the threshold, others lingered to find if it was real, saw others go through the mirage first. Sandra was there, slowly testing the door after others ran through and our eyes met. She took a step back at first, covered her mouth and cried. I must have been a sight to see in my khakis and button-down, not only dead but completely clean and foreign to her. We walked slowly toward each other but didn’t run like in the movies. We kissed and our tears combined. Our fingers touched one another, softly playing with the clouds of our souls.

Of course, we had to attend more exit briefings, there was always that, but Sandra and I just sat together and pretended to listen to the eccentric ramblings of our producers and their robotic notions of their lawyers in tailored suits so fresh they made me want to howl like a robot monkey.

“Of course, since the airing of the first episode of The Tropic Zone about a month into your adventures, some people may have perished,” one lawyer said. “Since that time of your death, should you have received such a purely fictional fate, your friends and family may have reason to believe that fiction and may have taken unwanted action. I can assure you that no official death certificates were allowed to be filed. We have taken care of that measure. All subsequent late fees and termination payments on bills or otherwise, have been paid in full. But, there is the unknowing human element of sadness and remorse that we, the company, shall not be held accountable in any respect.  Now, if you will turn your packets to page thirty-two and sign at the bottom.”

We all signed. Reams of paper were killed for our benefit somehow. We weren’t allowed to say how this worked or explain anything to the media. We weren’t allowed to disclose our contracts. We weren’t allowed to write about our experience or profit directly from our new found fame. Every household would know our names. While we were allowed to conduct interviews, the company would arrange for them and we would be compensated by the Tropic Zone and the Tropic Zone only. I got so used to signing my name by that point. Each signature was one step closer to going home, leaving this job and getting on with my life, whatever that was.

I remember gazing at Sandra between signing, wondering what that meant for her. All this talk of leaving and we hadn’t discussed what that meant for us, for our relationship.

Clarence moved out of the suite when the rest of the group, the living, as we jokingly called them, returned. Those nights were the best I can remember. Sandra confided in me that she didn’t want to go home, couldn’t in fact. Through pillow talk in the cool darkness of our room, she told me that her grandparents raised her, took her to rodeos and let her ride horses, but they were gone now, died a few years back. Since then, she had been waitressing in a chain honkey, riding and guiding trails when she could. One night, closer to the end of our stay at that mansion, I asked her to come with me and she agreed.

When I returned home with Sandra, snow was on the ground, early for that time of the fall and we could both feel such a chill in the evening, the low burr seeped through the taxi on the way from the airport while we held each other on the cold leather. My dad came to the door first and he just smiled. I had never seen him smile that much, not since I was a boy.

“I knew it! Martha! Martha! Jim is home!” he cried, as he smacked his thigh and held me tight around the neck. Mom came to the door and almost fainted, then gained her composure and settled for a healthy weep holding my father for support.

Sandra stood there awkwardly as the three of us gathered in a group hug with buckets until my mother said, “now you must be Sandra. You’ll have to excuse us my dear, we knew you weren’t dead from the last episode.” We all laughed. “Come in you two before you catch a chill.”

I looked in that mirror again, the one in the bathroom, that same one that held my eyes over a year ago, those dopey, creaming eyes. I could hear my dad rustling up tea and snacks, mother displaying my younger achievements, photos and giggles from the living room, the way moms do when you bring a girl home that she knows is serious, even if you don’t.

Mom was right all those years, I could do anything. Now, I knew it to be true. I looked in the mirror and created a chirping in sound with my lips as I sucked an inhale, just with my mouth, the way my father did between cups of warm coffee with rich cream from his thermos.

I looked in the mirror, I saw a man.

 

 

 

 

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