A short story of a couple, Dave and Melanie, who stop at a gas station outside of El Paso, where a Ferris Wheel that goes underground exists. Read more Short Story Sunday Stories.
We stopped at the edge of town and pulled into a gas station. A brown patina of dirt covered the pair of pumps under the awning, and the neon beer signs that hung in the shop windows matched with dull, muddy green and red lights. If we were thirsty, we weren’t enticed to grab a few cold ones for the road.
A gas station attendant jogged around the corner of the building, his deep blue jumpsuit hid the grease, while his pale face didn’t bother to hide the streaks of black and grey across his forehead and bald scalp. He had small brown eyes and thin lips and a voice that croaked like a frog. “Welcome, welcome, what can I do ya for?”
I had already begun to gas up our Belaire, and before I could reply, he whisked out a squeegee from a bucket behind the pumps and began scrubbing the windshield. Melanie, who remained in the car to rest her eyes a little more, shrieked at the swipe along the glass.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to scare your missus,” he said, bending over and looking through the glass. He smiled wide revealing what few yellow teeth he had.
I replied, “Thanks, but we’re good. We’ll fill up and be on our way.”
“You gotta pay first.”
“Of course we’ll pay before we leave.” The numbers on the pump spun and I wished the gasoline would fill the car faster. I caught his name, Randall, tagged in white letters across the left side of his chest. Randall still leaned over and grinned at Melanie, whose face frowned while she pushed herself as far back into her seat as possible. “Randall, do you sell Cokes inside? I think we could use a cold drink for the road.”
He looked up at me and nodded, “Sure do. I’ll get two for ya.” He dropped the squeegee in the bucket and headed inside, holding one hand to the back of his head.
Melanie reached across my seat and rolled down the driver’s side window. The curls in her honey blonde hair hung askew as she cocked her head and narrowed her blue eyes, “Why did we stop here? Couldn’t we just make it to town?”
“We’re low on gas and still twenty miles out. I didn’t want us to break down in this heat, and have to walk to town for a few gallons of gas.”
We were on our way to meet her parents in El Paso to celebrate their fortieth wedding anniversary. All her siblings and extended family would be there to toast them, along with throngs of neighbors and city leaders. I was the dutiful fiancee, who’d only met them once, and now ferrying her across the red Texas desert. Where Chayron piloted his small boat, I drove my blue Bellaire to a place I’d feel in limbo as not-quite-family.
She huffed and said, “Is this place even on the map? I don’t ever remember a gas station like this in all our trips to and from Odessa this far out of El Paso.”
Her parents made their money in the Texas oil fields outside of Odessa. Her father cut the deals with a sharp grin and forged them together with a firm handshake, while her mother managed the operations with a conductor’s grace and an accountant’s sober view of the bottom line. Melanie often rode with them between the two cities, where they resided.
“I don’t know, Mel, this is my second time out this way,” I said, tipping the last drops of gasoline into the tank and closed the lid. Diagonally from the building stood a white sandwich board in the hot afternoon sun that said in red letters, “Ride to the Depths/Underground Ferris Wheel.”
Before I could envision how that would work, Randall returned with a pair of frosty Coke bottles. He squinted at the price of fuel on the pump and said, while popping the bottle caps, “Your total will be $6.50 with the sodas.”
I paid him an even seven dollars, and said, “Keep the change.”
“Thank you, suh,” he said, slapping the back of his neck as if to pop his eyes wide open. “We don’t get many people here, and we do appreciate your business.”
I handed Melanie her Coke and took a swig of mine. The sweet fizz lolled around my tongue and I let out a sigh of satisfaction. I took another swig and my eye caught the sign again. How big and how deep would such a contraption need go in order to make one complete rotation? Let alone, how the hell did the motor turn the axle, or what supported it? The whole idea reeked of a carny’s misdirection. I pointed the tip of my bottle to the sign in the distance, “Randall, that sign, what does it mean by underground Ferris wheel?”
“Just that. A Ferris wheel that rather than taking you up, up, up, it takes you down, down, down,” he said, lowering his head. “Some miners built it after they came home from the World’s Fair a number of years ago.”
“Does it work? Is it safe?”
“Yes, I inspect it once a week. All the bearings, gears, struts are good, and carriages are affixed securely.”
“How much does it cost? Do I need to buy tickets?”
“Free with a tank of gas, which you already kindly paid me for. If you want to ride, just say so, and I’ll take you and your missus over to the carriage dock.”
I tapped the hood of the car. We had enough time to make it to her parent’s party, and we had spent most of the day driving, so this could be a fun respite. I leaned into the driver’s side window, and said, “Want to go on a quick date?”
Melanie stopped mid sip and looked around, “I don’t see a diner or a theater, and unless there’s a patch of grass and a shady park behind the gas station, no. I’d like to get to my parent’s house to change and get ready for the party.”
“There’s a Ferris Wheel we can ride, like at the State Fair, only it goes underground,” I said, trying to sound excited.
“We don’t have time, David. Let’s just go and get to El Paso.”
I turned to Randall, “How long does it take to ride it, one complete pass?”
“Ten minutes on the dot.”
“Mel, it’ll take ten minutes. It’ll be a good break from driving, and it’ll give us some alone time before we have to be with everyone at the party. Think of how fun a story it’ll be to say we rode a Ferris wheel underground.”
She twitched her lips and said, “Okay, ten minutes, and then no more stops.”
I knew she always liked to be able to tell a good story to all her friends. A good story was currency that bought attention, and what child of oil barons didn’t like attention.
Randall led us into the sun to a long wooden shed about twenty yards from the gas station. A low hum buzzed and pungent oil fumes hung in the air. Large yellow mining lights attached to a black wire lined the inside of the shed and snaked down into the earth. Hairline scratches criss crossed the paint along the steel of the wheel, most likely a symptom of time and the grit of desert sand. Thee bottom half of the carriage was painted red, and a series of steel poles propped up the roof.
“David, it looks like a cage. A death trap. And look at the scratch marks along the side,” Melanie said, pointing at a pair of jagged lines etched on the surface.
“Miss, it’s perfectly safe. Those marks were made by a mountain lion who got in here during one of our rainy floods. Made a mess of the whole place,” Randall said, opening the carriage door. “Step on in.”
I entered the carriage. It shook slightly and creaked. I held my hand out to Melanie, “C’mon, Mel. We’ll be fine.”
With a hesitant step, she came aboard and we both sat down on the metal bench. I wrapped my arm around her waist and pulled her close while Randall shut the door and bolted the latch. He disappeared behind us, and a clack of a gear becoming disengaged filled the shed, followed by a hiss and squeal. The carriage lurched forward, and we began our descent.
While the shed provided shade, we were now below the surface and a cool breeze wafted around us, prickling our skin with goosebumps. We both nestled closer to each other and her curls scratched at my neck. The mining lights became more sparse, and we rode in near darkness, lit only by the faint glow of the next light.
“This is just weird,” Melanie said.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s cool and dry and suddenly it feels as if we’re in a fog, a sticky fog. Can’t you smell it? Rain?”
I rubbed my hand against my pants and the moisture stuck to my palms. The air did feel heavy.
The blackness of the rock broke open to a forest, but rather than bright a verdant, the greens were dull and tinged with silver. Men and women in togas and clothing you’d only see in a Hollywood movie wandered with listless faces. Some laid about, motionless without any pallor of life. It was if the entire forest had a glaze of discontent all over it.
We descended lower and the dull greens changed grey shards of rock piercing the landscape like upended knives. Naked men and women writhed their bodies together only for a gust of wind to separate them and slam them against the rocks. Our carriage swayed and the metal groaned. Melanie shrieked and yelled, “This is not fun.”
The violent winds tempered to thick clouds of rain, pouring hail and black snow to the ground below. The stench of rotting meat and vegetables mixed with rank, overripe fruit. Where in the level above the bodies were lithe and arousing to the eye, obese jowls and rotund mounds of flesh rolled about like a walrus as an amusement park show.
“Oh my God, they’re people,” I said, gagging as one of them forced a rancid turkey leg in their mouth.
A gallop pounded in the distance, and a sound that rung between a bark and a roar shot through the clouds. It sounded two more times, and a gigantic, brown three headed dog with red eyes and teeth stained with blood snapped at our carriage as we slipped lower out of the storm.
And into a bright, arid desert pock marked with boulders. Some pushed the large stones, their feet and hands bloody with cuts from rock and sand, where others sparred with their fellow man. Those who fought, their faces were swollen and their hair torn in patches, bruises spotted their bodies and their eyes held a constant abhorrence to the blows they threw.
Further still we went, and the sun vanished and a water world of blue spanned for as far as we could see. The waters appeared to be shallow, perhaps waist deep, and like above, pairs of people were locked in vicious fights and clawed at each others bodies. An old man in a boat the size of a canoe skimmed the surface, but just below, motionless bodies lay on the floor, blinking, holding blank faces.
The water faded to gothic spires and cathedrals constructed out of black stone. Cobblestone streets form a city of the damned, where stone coffins burn people alive and flames dance on those who hang from inverted crosses. Hunched figures dressed like nymphs and sartyrs and tree people guard the city’s perimeter.
“David, make it stop, make it stop. This is a horrible place, a horrible ride and a Ferris wheel to Hell,” Melanie said, pounding her fists on my shoulder.
I deflected the blows and stroked her shoulder and said, “I know,” and in a whisper, “I’m sorry.”
The city dissolved to a plane of red, brown and yellow. Snaking along the plane, a river of boiling red water steamed while those who wore fine silks or crowns of gold screamed as their flesh melted into the river. Along the banks to the north and south, a forest of desolate trees grew with faces on their trunks. Their boughs shook and twisted, tortured and twisted in a wind of pain. Far to the east, the forests dissipated to a burning desert. Along the dunes, knights in broken armor and rusty swords roamed, cursing the sky, cursing themselves.
Our carriage shook, swallowed by blackness and emerged in a suffocating and fiery world. Whips cracked, voices wailed and screamed, sadistic groans and laughter burst. A winged harpy flew at us, talons first. We threw ourselves to the floor and covered our heads.
Her shrieks ceased and frigid air enveloped us. We sat up to view four rings of ice, each holding frozen bodies in stasis of torment. But at the center, a demon six stories tall with six wings and three faces stood, devouring a man head first. The beast inched his head at our carriage and blinked and huffed a white breath of smoke from his right face.
Again, our carriage turned to black, but the creaking metal grew louder, yawning, and rattling to the level we could not hear ourselves scream. Our arms clutched at each other’s clothes, and our faces shared tears along our cheeks.
“I love you,” I screamed. “I’m sorry.”
All sound ceased, and light broke through the bars of the carriage. We were back at the surface in the shed. The carriage stopped and I reached out and unbolted the door. We ran, pumped our legs into the bright Texas sunlight towards the Bellaire. Only, there was no gas station. No pumps. Just our car and the hellish expanse of desert. We didn’t stop to wonder. We fled from our journey to Hell.