The Future: “HolyLand, USA,” a short story by Ron Burch

HolyLand, USA

We’re having trouble getting the Red Sea to part, and my boss is flipping out. It’s our highlight and finale. Written about across the country. Our most expensive exhibit, oh yeah.

Through an expanse of dirt, our Pilgrims approach the ride, an outside body of water. The water’s resting on the surface, and it looks like a small lake. When filled, it goes 12 feet deep. The customers queue up to my brown-metal gate, and when the group hits the maximum Pilgrim number of 21, I press a button on the underside. From a secret staircase, James, dressed like Moses, although his robe’s singed from last week’s accident at the Burning Bush set, appears magically in front of us, pulling focus from me. He gives his speech cobbled together from some of the best passages, what he can remember if he’s stoned, and then turns and raises his arms. My cue to press another button that kickstarts the vast machinery we use: the background choir music soars as the water churns into waves, pulls back and the Red Sea parts. Led by James, the Pilgrims, in their mandatory holy helmets and life vests, cross the waterless concrete bed for exactly 21 feet and are gifted, via tunnel, into our Bless You Shop, an extensive, and spacious, gift shop through which they then can exit the park.

We hurry them along because we have a mandatory twenty minutes to reset the ride and because merchandise sales account for most of our revenue.

And this problem now, today, on Christmas Day, when we have the largest group of funders coming to visit the park. James had heard a rumor that the park needed their money to stay open. It’s like it’s a sign or something.

Problem seems to be the weight sensor on the ride. After the parting, when the cement floor of the Red Sea feels the mass of the riders, it triggers a second safeguard to keep the waters apart. Buried beneath the ground under the ride, there’s a mile of huge machinery, using clear plastic plates to pull and keep the waters back. The sensor was failing in its job, which was to pick up the weight of the Pilgrims, and the second safeguard wasn’t kicking in.

Not within mandatory guidelines. If the clear plates, the first safeguard, fail, that’s bad.

This morning, Engineer Billy Sir, in the bowels of the machinery, found the flaw. The manufacturer doesn’t have the sensor we need. I advocate shutting it down to our Executive Director, Morton Clyme, saying that we have to follow national guidelines. Morton yells, given the visitors, it’s impossible: the largest organization, led by Mr. Post, a TV evangelical leader, and his wealthy congregation. Mr. Post, in fact, had requested that we shut down the entire park for their group only. Morton did and then told us to jerry-rig Red Sea to make it work for these Pilgrims.

Morton leads Mr. Post and his group to the ride and joins us, unusual for him since he prefers to remain in the background. James comes out, does his bit, and cues me. I hit the button and the walls start shaking, jerking erratically. The whine of a gear pierces the air. I smell burning oil. On the headset, Engineer Billy Sir, from down below, is screaming at me to shut it down. I try to explain the situation to him, given that Morton’s standing right in front of me, explaining how fantastic this ride is to Mr. Post. I slide over next to Morton and whisper apologetically, “I’m really sorry, but the engineer’s telling me to shut it down.” Morton’s smile scrawls onto his face. He nods again. Mr. Post, the group leader, picks up on this cue and asks if there’s a problem. Morton replies that there was a problem but it’s been worked out. Mr. Post smiles, engaging his flock in a quick group prayer, saying that their spiritual god would never let anything bad happen to them, especially here.

Worried, I offer that it may not be safe to approach it. Morton gives me a dirty look. Mr. Post protests, saying that they had come from across the country to visit the park, and there was a good chance many of his people would never have another opportunity to see it. I repeat that it’s unsafe, and I reach for the red button underneath to shut it down. Suddenly, I feel a push in my back. I stumble off my platform onto the weight sensor pad of the Red Sea ride. Losing my balance, I fall on my knees in the middle of the parting sea. But then the machinery clicks and screams. It’s the sound of the water releasing. I get up and try to get back to the platform, but the water starts to slip inward, the walls coming apart, and as the waves roar down hard, fast towards me, I can hear the group singing a hymn, expressing their deep devotion to their god as I run for the far side, the water crashing on me, lifting me, the rush in my ears, a ghostly voice welcoming me.

Ron Burch’s fiction has been published in numerous literary journals including South Dakota Review, Fiction International, Mississippi Review, and been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His novel, JDP, was recently published by BlazeVOX Books. He lives in Los Angeles: ronburch.com.

Image: atlasobscura.com

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