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HUGEPOP!!!Bedtime StoriesOne Man's WorldThe Mispronouncer
#24

Caves or Cruise



             The lines at the bank were short, and Missy would have been in and out in record time if she hadn’t noticed the tiny booth over in the corner. It was almost invisible between two large potted plants, and as she approached, she saw that it was manned by a red-haired boy who looked to be about fifteen or sixteen. He barely had room to turn around in the booth and the front counter pushed right up against his ribs. Behind the glass partition, there were two stacks of brochures resting on the counter positioned to face the customer. Hanging on the back wall of the booth was a chalk board with the word “Caves” written on the top left side and the word “Cruise” written on the top right. There were lots of tally marks under “Cruise” but only three under “Caves.”

            “What is this?” asked Missy. She tried to read the covers of the brochures through the glass.

            The boy took one of each brochure and slid them to Missy through a small opening in the glass. “One or the other,” he said. “You choose which one you want to do. One hundred dollars for one person or two people for a hundred and fifty.”

            Missy barely glanced at the Caves brochure before picking up the one that said “Cruise!” in big yellow letters. “Wow, a real cruise for a hundred dollars?”

            “Or caves,” said the boy, reaching through the slot to move the Caves brochure closer to Missy. “The caves are amazing.”

            “OK,” said Missy. “What’s the deal with the caves?”

            “Frightening cave art,” said the boy. “Of unknown origin.”

            “Hmm,” said Missy, going back to the Cruise brochure. Instead of concrete information, it devoted most of its space to exterior pictures of the cruise ship, which looked kind of run down, but still, a cruise for a hundred dollars was a good deal. And Missy had been feeling tied down recently.

            “Truly frightening,” said the boy, still talking about the cave art. “On a deep level.”

            “What about this cruise?” Missy pointed to the chalk board. “It looks like most people want the cruise.”

            The boy sighed and his shoulders slumped. “It is not a luxury cruise. But we guarantee you’ll see something you’ve never seen before, no matter who you are. Unless you dreamed it, which isn’t really the same as ‘seeing’ it anyway.”

            Something about the way the boy said this gave Missy an excited chill and goose bumps appeared on her arms. “Where does the cruise go?”

            “To the thing you’ve never seen before.”

            “Where’s that?”

            The boy shrugged. “We don’t know exactly.”

            “What’s the thing that’s never been seen before?”

            “That question doesn’t make sense,” said the boy. “Although, after you see it, we may attempt to provide context. Listen, you don’t have to pay today. You just sign a card that says you promise to thoughtfully consider it. But you have to choose which one you’re thoughtfully considering, Caves or Cruise. That’s what the tally marks mean.”

            “I’ll thoughtfully consider the cruise,” said Missy, her pulse racing.

            The boy slid a photocopied form through the slot but withheld the pen, saying, “Did I say the cave art is of unknown origin? To call it ‘frightening’ really doesn’t do it justice. It inspires life-altering fear in some people.” The boy had impressed himself. His eyes were wide and burning with fervor.

            “That sounds terrible,” said Missy.

            “We don’t promise that the Cruise will be life-altering,” said the boy, deflated. “All we promise is that you’ll see something you’ve never seen before no matter who you are.”

            “That’s what I want,” said Missy. “Give me the pen.”

 

            One month later, Missy was lying on her bunk in the giant central room that housed the cruise ship’s paying passengers. She had one of the top bunks and she lay flat on her back looking up at the massive I-beams sixty feet overhead, her eyes trailing along the steel skeleton that held the ship together. There was a low buzz of conversation as the other passengers milled around between the rows of bunks that spread from one end of the room to the other, and beneath the impatient voices, there was the ever-present drone of the ship’s engines, vibrating up through the hard, gray carpet that covered the floor.

            They’d been on board for a week now, churning out into the ocean, changing directions, changing speed, passing other ships without acknowledging them. The passengers spent their days wandering the deck, reading paperback memoirs, and eating the sandwiches and fruit the crew served to them in white paper bags. Many of the passengers were getting angry at the lack of activity and information, including Missy’s boyfriend Markus, who she had only been dating for a little over a month and still didn’t know very well. He’d only come along because the deal was even better for two people than for one person and he was between jobs anyway, but he was starting to become a drag.

            “Here’s your food,” said Markus as he walked up next to Missy. From her prone position on the top bunk, their heads were at equal heights and Markus set the white bag next to her ear on the pillow.

            “How were the lines for the phones?” asked Missy as she bit into her sandwich. She was referring to the bright green phones that had been installed - one on each wall of the enormous bunkroom - as complaint hotlines for customers who were unimpressed with their accommodations, had a dispute with the crew or another passenger, or were simply sick of sitting around waiting to see the thing they’d never seen before.

            “Didn’t you notice how long I was gone?” asked Markus. “The lines were terrible.”

            “I lost track of time, I guess,” said Missy. “Did they answer any of your questions?”

            “All I got was the soothing music,” said Markus, pulling an apple out of his bag and examining it for soft spots.

            “Did it soothe you?” asked Missy.

            “A little,” said Markus, and he disappeared from view as he ducked down onto the bottom bunk. She could hear the squeaking of the mattress springs as he shifted around to get comfortable and then the dull scraping noise of him etching something into the metal bed frame with the corkscrew on his multi-tool.

After a few minutes, the scraping sound stopped and Markus said, “You know, ‘something you’ve never seen before’ is a really vague guarantee. It doesn’t promise any degree of size or quality or beauty. I could carve a little statue out of my apple core here and everyone could take a look at it and we could all go home ‘cause none of us would have seen it before. Right?”

“No,” said Missy. “That’s not what it means.”

She knew Markus was bored, that he thought the whole trip was a waste, that he was sick of cold meat and cheese sandwiches, but Missy couldn’t bring herself to care. She was too filled with anticipation, and with each passing hour it grew within her and crowded out every other feeling until there was no room left for anything but the anticipation, humming and churning and sparking just under her skin. She couldn’t sleep.

 

She awoke to the sound of the engines’ abrupt silence. People were turning on the reading lamps clipped to their bunks, little islands of light clicking into existence throughout the huge, dark room.

Missy didn’t bother to wake Markus. She got out of bed, stepped into her shoes, pulled on her coat, and followed the stream of hushed passengers making their way up the spiral staircase to the main deck. She felt a steady pressure swelling behind her eyes as she wound her way upward. On deck, the passengers were met with a strong wind, but the night sky was clear, all the stars were out, and the conditions were just as Missy thought they should be for the moment everyone had been waiting for. She rushed to the railing that ran along the edge of the deck and looked out over the water. She was ready. She was way beyond ready.

The man next to her at the railing hadn’t bothered with shoes at all. “Where is it?” he asked.

            Missy didn’t answer. It was a ridiculous question. Her eyes scanned the horizon, but there was nothing to see except deep, black water and the reflections of the stars on its impassive surface. But she knew it was close, she could feel it approaching, closing in, circling. Missy’s skin was crawling, her breath was quick and shallow. And then it was right on top of them, she knew it was, but why wasn’t it making itself known? She turned from the railing to look around the deck of the ship. Maybe it was hiding in their midst, waiting to be spotted and identified. The man next to Missy gasped and almost fell as he began to back away from her, staring with wide, horrified eyes. She looked behind her, but there was nothing: just the railing, the ocean, the sky. She turned back and the man was pointing right at her, and now other people were doing the same, their eyes fixed on her even as they sought to keep clear of her, forming a cautious line forty feet back from where she stood. Missy looked down at herself and saw her coat, her hands, her pajama pants, her shoes. Nothing was out of the ordinary.

            “What?” she asked in a loud, cracking voice. “What do you see?” No one answered. The crowd was awestruck, silent, trembling, some of them were so overcome that they wept, others had looks of ecstasy on their faces as they gazed at her. Missy saw Markus among the crowd now and he was staring at her too, his hair an oily mess, an expression of bottomless confusion on his face. Missy saw no trace of recognition in his eyes. Even the crew members - hovering around the edge of the crowd, preparing to spring in and provide context to the best of their abilities as soon as it became possible – even they looked at her in a way that she had never, ever seen before.