How do people choose their final words? Do they realize their gravity? Are they fated to be wise?
By his 83rd birthday, Eddie had lost nearly everyone he'd cared about. Some had died young, and some had been given a chance to grow old before a disease or an accident took them away. At their funerals, Eddie listened as mourners recalled their final conversations. "It's as if he knew he was going to die...." some would say.
Eddie never believed that. As far as he could tell, when your time came, it came, and that was that. You might say something smart on your way out, but you might just as easily say something stupid.
For the record, Eddie's final words would be "Get back!"
"OH MY GOD! LOOK!"
Eddie felt his eyes dart beneath his lids. Over the years, he had come to know every noise at Ruby Pier and could sleep through them all like a lullaby. This voice was not in the lullaby.
"OH MY GOD! LOOK!"
Eddie bolted upright. A woman with fat, dimpled arms was holding a shopping bag and pointing and screaming. A small crowd gathered around her, their eyes to the skies.
Eddie saw it immediately. Atop Freddy's Free Fall, the new "tower drop" attraction, one of the carts was tilted at an angle, as if trying to dump its cargo. Four passengers, two men, two women, held only by a safety bar, were grabbing frantically at anything they could.
"OH MY GOD!" the fat woman yelled. "THOSE PEOPLE! THEY'RE GONNA FALL!"
A voice squawked from the radio on Eddie's belt. "Eddie! Eddie!"
He pressed the button. "I see it! Get security!"
People ran up from the beach, pointing as if they had practiced this drill. Look! Up in the sky! An amusement ride turned evil! Eddie grabbed his cane and clomped to the safety fence around the platform base, his wad of keys jangling against his hip. His heart was racing.
Freddy's Free Fall was supposed to drop two carts in a stomach-churning descent, only to be halted at the last instant by a gush of hydraulic air. How did one cart come loose like that? It was tilted just a few feet below the upper platform, as if it had started downward then changed its mind.
"Listen to me!" Eddie said, grabbing Dominguez by the shoulders. His grip was so tight, Dominguez made a pained face. "Listen to me! Who's up there?"
"OK. He must've hit the emergency stop. That's why the cart is hanging. Get up the ladder and tell Willie to manually release the safety restraint so those people can get out. OK? It's on the back of the cart, so you're gonna have to hold him while he leans out there. OK? Then ... then, the two of ya's--the two of ya's--now, not one, you got it?--the two of ya's get them out! One holds the other! Got it!? ... Got it?"
Dominguez nodded quickly.
"Then send that damn cart down so we can figure out what happened!"
Eddie's head was pounding. Although his park had been free of any major accidents, he knew the horror stories of his business. Once, in Brighton, a bolt unfastened on a gondola ride and two people fell to their death. Another time, in Wonderland Park, a man had tried to walk across a roller coaster track; he fell through and got stuck beneath his armpits. He was wedged in, screaming, and the cars came racing toward him and ... well, that was the worst.
Eddie pushed that from his mind. There were people all around him now, hands over their mouths, watching Dominguez climb the ladder. Eddie tried to remember the insides of Freddy's Free Fall. Engine. Cylinders. Hydraulics. Seals. Cables. How does a cart come loose? He followed the ride visually, from the four frightened people at the top, down the towering shaft, and into the base. Engine. Cylinders. Hydraulics. Seals. Cables....
Dominguez reached the upper platform. He did as Eddie told him, holding Willie as Willie leaned toward the back of the cart to release the restraint. One of the female riders lunged for Willie and nearly pulled him off the platform. The crowd gasped.
"Wait ..." Eddie said to himself.
Willie tried again. This time he popped the safety release.
"Cable ..." Eddie mumbled.
The bar lifted and the crowd went "Ahhhhh." The riders were quickly pulled to the platform.
"The cable is unraveling...."
And Eddie was right. Inside the base of Freddy's Free Fall, hidden from view, the cable that lifted Cart No. 2 had, for the last few months, been scraping across a locked pulley. Because it was locked, the pulley had gradually ripped the cable's steel wires--as if husking an ear of corn--until they were nearly severed. No one noticed. How could they notice? Only someone who had crawled inside the mechanism would have seen the unlikely cause of the problem. The pulley was wedged by a small object that must have fallen through the opening at a most precise moment.
A car key.
"DON'T RELEASE THE CART!" Eddie yelled. He waved his arms. "HEY! HEEEEY! IT'S THE CABLE! DON'T RELEASE THE CART! IT'LL SNAP!"
The crowd drowned him out. It cheered wildly as Willie and Dominguez unloaded the final rider. All four were safe. They hugged atop the platform.
"DOM! WILLIE!" Eddie yelled. Someone banged against his waist, knocking his walkie-talkie to the ground. Eddie bent to get it. Willie went to the controls. He put his finger on the green button. Eddie looked up.
"NO, NO, NO, DON'T!"
Eddie turned to the crowd. "GET BACK!"
Something in Eddie's voice must have caught the people's attention; they stopped cheering and began to scatter. An opening cleared around the bottom of Freddy's Free Fall.
And Eddie saw the last face of his life.
She was sprawled upon the ride's metal base, as if someone had knocked her into it, her nose running, tears filling her eyes, the little girl with the pipe-cleaner animal. Amy? Annie?
"Ma ... Mom ... Mom ..." she heaved, almost rhythmically, her body frozen in the paralysis of crying children. "Ma ... Mom ... Ma ... Mom ..."
Eddie's eyes shot from her to the carts. Did he have time? Her to the carts-- Whump. Too late. The carts were dropping--Jesus, he released the brake!--and for Eddie, everything slipped into watery motion. He dropped his cane and pushed off his bad leg and felt a shot of pain that almost knocked him down. A big step. Another step. Inside the shaft of Freddy's Free Fall, the cable snapped its final thread and ripped across the hydraulic line. Cart No. 2 was in a dead drop now, nothing to stop it, a boulder off a cliff.
In those final moments, Eddie seemed to hear the whole world: distant screaming, waves, music, a rush of wind, a low, loud, ugly sound that he realized was his own voice blasting through his chest. The little girl raised her arms. Eddie lunged. His bad leg buckled. He half flew, half stumbled toward her, landing on the metal platform, which ripped through his shirt and split open his skin, just beneath the patch that read EDDIE and MAINTENANCE. He felt two hands in his own, two small hands.
A stunning impact.
A blinding flash of light.
And then, nothing.