The path was steep. The hills on both sides were aflame. The smoke became the sky. A coal black track ran between them, and Rebecca trudged there with Taylor Swift on her back. Taylor thrust her fists in front of Rebecca’s head. She seemed to think she was driving her. The hard part was when she hopped on and taught herself the clutch.
The crest ahead was Rebecca’s only goal. When she got there, she would find a new goal in the next crest. Somewhere the path might fork, and she would need to make a decision. There might be food, a corpse not too deep in the fire. There had been one a few days back, in reach but too clearly human. She hadn’t been hungry enough.
Taylor made a vroom sound. It was the first time she had, and Rebecca needed to laugh. It was hot and her breath was hard. She set Taylor down, fell on her side, and heaved sharp breath. Taylor was still driving. She reached a hand to the passenger seat and patted the shimmering air, then returned to eleven and one.
When she stopped heaving, Rebecca thought she should take a rest. Standing without Taylor on her back felt restful, and they were near the crest. She wondered how close the next was. She left Taylor driving.
The castle surprised her.
There were a few feet left in her climb. She noticed a mountain that wasn’t on fire and formed a hunch. At the top, with the amusement park below, untouched by the fire, part of a different world, her hunch was confirmed.
“It’s Dasneyville,” she whispered.
“It is!” squealed Taylor, still far behind, condescending to her crazy aunt. “We drove to Anaheim and stuff! You kind of read the sign? When you saw a ride, I mean?”
“You’re Nebraskan!” Rebecca shouted, spinning around, furious. Taylor was patting the air again, and Rebecca’s anger left her, but she did not intend to humor Taylor Swift. “You know a lot about Dasneyville for a teenager in Nebraska.”
“Yeah,” said Taylor. “You were there when we went. I mean last time. Are you glad we’re back?”
“Why would you say Anaheim? You’re pretending to pretend, and there are holes in your frame story!”
“Oh,” said Taylor. “You’re asleep. I thought ‘cause the pothole.”
Rebecca watched her breath until it calmed. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m hungry.”
“We’ll stop soon.”
“I guess it’s being on the run from the Nebraskan cops, right?”
“We’re not on the run!” said Taylor, covering sudden terror with exaggerated joy. She held out her hand to her passenger. “Hey, I’ll get donuts at the next 7-Eleven, but I don’t have money, so give me your card now, OK?”
“I think you mean Casey’s,” said Rebecca, turning back to Dasneyville. It was untouched by the apocalypse. The smoke stayed clear. The trail between fires led straight to it. Behind her, Taylor made the screeching noise of a child pretending to brake.
“We’re there!” said Taylor. “Get out. Now. So we can go on the rides.”
“I don’t know,” said Rebecca to herself. “It’s wrong. I think maybe we turn around.”
“I was obviously joking,” said Taylor. “Didn’t you feel how we’re shaky? I think that pothole hurt the tire. Go look, ‘cause I don’t know how.”
“There wasn’t a pothole. I dropped you. Hop up, we’re going back down.”
Taylor sagged over her wheel. Rebecca started down the hill, but found it trickier than the ascent. She slipped and almost fell. She squatted for better balance and sidestepped.
“Fine,” said Taylor. “I’ll look.”
She stood and walked straight at the fire. Rebecca hopped up to a sprint to stop her, but she slipped. She landed crooked on her palm and thought her arm was twisted.
“I got it,” said Taylor, and then flinched from the fire. She stopped. “Hey, pop the trunk, OK?”
Rebecca blinked and stared. She was shocked. Nothing more was gone. She was confused by her tears.
“Thanks,” said Taylor, and started toward her.
More confusion. For a moment, she thought Taylor had woken up. But Taylor walked past her, and everything made too much sense.
“What kind of monster are you pretending to be?”
Taylor flinched and ran. Rebecca cursed herself when Taylor disappeared over the hill. She tried to get up and used the wrong arm the first time. When she was able to stand, she held it by the wrist with her good arm to keep the pain from knocking her back down. It was more than twisted. She followed Taylor over the hill. At the top she spotted a blur of gold, Taylor’s costume. It kept bouncing away from the fires, but its path was straightening—the flames were leading Taylor Swift to Dasneyville.
Rebecca shoved everything wrong with her in and ran, steadying her broken arm, willing her eyes open, exhausted, hungry, dying. The costume was still a blur when Taylor ran through the gates of Dasneyville, and Rebecca let herself fall then.
The fires had merged above her, and she stared at them, wondering where the sky had gone. The bone was still inside her arm, but she could feel that it had split. She watched her breath slow and her vision shrink, and she was not surprised. She should have dragged the corpse from the fire.
Before her vision left her, she saw a skull covered in grave dust. She laughed at it. It was a joke.
“Of course they’re all jokes,” she said or thought. “All sick jokes. Or how would I know that stuff off the top of my head?”
“You’re forgetting things,” said the skull. “You went to high school in Omaha. Mrs. Alberts made you love Turn of the Screw. You would sit with your spiral notebook in a convenience store parking lot, writing frames within frames.”
Then skeleton fingers closed her eyes.