Finally! Without further ado:
It was lunchtime when Shane returned to pick her up. They grabbed microwavable burgers at the gas station where they stopped to fill the car on the way out of town, but even then it was late afternoon before they reached the stretch of highway that led to the park.
“You’ve still got it programmed into the GPS, right?” Melanie asked as she consulted her map.
“Yeah. Our turn should be coming up soon.”
Melanie looked up from the map and looked out at the highway. Up ahead, she saw a billboard coming into view, and as they grew closer she recognized the ad for the marina. “This is it.”
Shane slowed the car and took a right turn, and they heard the familiar crunch of gravel under the tires. But after a few yards, as the gravel gave way to black tar pavement, he stopped the car. “This isn’t right.” He looked behind them, where they could still see the highway and the billboard. “Wasn’t there a Dead End sign?”
“I thought so.” Melanie turned to look, and she couldn’t see one, either. “Maybe somebody hit it and knocked it down.”
Shane shook his head. “That doesn’t explain the pavement.”
“They could have paved it over.”
He shot her a skeptical look. “In the last 24 hours? It was almost five o’clock when we left here yesterday. How many road crews have you seen working overnight? Besides, even if they did, the tar would still be wet and brand new. This pavement’s already faded and worn.” He double checked the GPS, then reached for the map. “We’ve obviously taken a wrong turn,” he said, but as he studied the map, the look on his face just grew more confused and frustrated.
Melanie didn’t want to argue with him, but something, some inexplicable pull at her gut, told her they were on the right track. “Keep going,” she said. “Just a little further. Let’s see what’s up ahead.”
Shane shook his head. “I don’t like this.”
“You haven’t liked any of this. But let’s see where this road goes. If it starts to look bad, we can always turn around.”
His jaw grew tight as he continued shaking his head. “You think maybe that’s what Scott said?” He shot her a look, but without waiting for an answer, he put the car in gear and started forward.
As they drove on for a couple of miles, an eerie sense of deja vu came over her. Apart from the paved road, everything else looked familiar. It wasn’t just that it was the same scenery that they’d seen the day before; Melanie felt like she’d seen this landscape dozens of times, like she knew it by heart.
The GPS ticked off mile number three, and Shane abruptly halted the car. Melanie’s seatbelt dug into her shoulder as she jerked forward. She turned to him. “What…?”
Instead of finishing her question, or waiting for an answer, she just followed his disbelieving gaze to the old steel suspension bridge that spanned the creek up ahead. “Son of a bitch,” he muttered at last, then shook himself out of his daze. “Okay, we’re clearly on the wrong road. I’m turning around.”
“Shane, wait.” Before he could start the car again, Melanie unbuckled her seat belt and opened the door.
“What are you doing? Mel, don’t—” But before he could finish protesting, she was already out of the car. Shane got out of the driver’s side and glared at her over the roof of the car. “What the hell are you doing?”
“Look,” she said, pointing ahead with her chin.
Reluctantly, angrily, Shane followed her gaze. “Son of a bitch,” he said again.
Up ahead, on the other side of the bridge, the big, red Eucha Falls sign was lit up, good as new and bright as day. Above the tree tops, she could see the sky ride gondoliers traveling back and forth on their wire, the peak of a roller coaster, and the tip of a ferris wheel. She could hear the faint strains of carnival music, mixed with screams and laughter. “Do you see it?” she asked. It was almost a whisper.
“Get back in the car, Mel.”
“Do you see it?” she asked, louder this time, and turned to him for an answer. He looked like he wanted to say no. His face twisted up like everything in him wanted to deny what lay ahead. But he nodded.
“But it doesn’t matter,” he said. “We’re leaving. We’re going to go get the sheriff, and give him the video, and then we’re done with this place. Now get in the car.” He waited. When she didn’t move, he said, “Mel. Please?”
“I’m sorry, Shane.” She stepped away from the car and pushed the door closed. “I can’t.” As he swore under his breath, she added, “You go. Get the sheriff, and come meet me here. But I can’t leave. I have to see what’s in there. I have to find my little brother.”
She felt terrible as she watched Shane struggle with what to do. She knew he wanted to do the Neanderthal thing, to force her back into the car and take her home. She suspected that part of him might even be considering leaving her there, and she decided that was okay. She’d just told him to, after all. She wished she hadn’t let him bring her, but as much as he’d known he couldn’t stop her from coming, she’d known she couldn’t stop him from tagging along.
Finally, Shane pounded a fist down on top of the car, then reached in to kill the engine and grab the keys before slamming the door. Without a word, he went to the trunk and took out their gear. He brought her backpack over to her, and as she looked up at him, her eyebrows raised in a question, he said, “Did you think for a second that leaving you here was actually an option?”
She shrugged into the straps of her backpack. Then she said, “I wouldn’t blame you if you did.”
Ignoring her offer of a way out, he slung his bag over his shoulder. “We’ll leave the car here, and go on foot. If this magic bridge pulls a disappearing act while we’re on the other side, I don’t want the car to get cut off from the road.”
“You really think that could happen?”
“I don’t believe any of this is happening,” he said, “but I’m not taking any more chances than necessary.” He looked back down at her, the frustration on his face doing a fair job of hiding behind his mask of resolve. “I take it you’re sure about this.”
So did he. “Okay, then. Let’s get this done.”