Sitting for five and a half hours straight in that car has nearly killed me in every way imaginable. I’m more than happy when we arrive at the entrance, pay the parking fee, and then finally pull into an open spot in one of the parking garages. I get out and stretch my legs, which had fallen asleep an hour or so in. Rory almost falls over when he stands up, his legs probably in the same situation as mine are.
“It’s been a super long time since I’ve been here.” He says when he regains his footing. “I remember hardly anything other than how to get up there and some gross little kid next to us saying that he thought he saw a booger coming out of Teddy Roosevelt’s nose even though the viewing platform place is pretty far from the actual thing.”
I snicker. “Well, if you know where to go,” I gesture towards the entrance to the memorial with my hand, “Lead the way.”
“Oh, and don’t forget the jar.” Avril points to the trunk of the car with her half-full plastic water bottle. While Rory pops the trunk and retrieves it, she leans back into the car and snags the GPS and a small wad of money out from the driver’s seat stash and mouths the word ‘souvenirs’.
Rory stuffs the jar into his hoodie pocket and then motions for us to follow him. We walk up the steps and under an opening in the gigantic stone entryway. When we get inside, we all stop and look down the long stretch between us and the gigantic rock face in front of us. We don’t get that tall of stuff where we live.
“By all the pictures I’ve seen I swore it was way closer to the ground…” Avril says, pulling out her phone and snapping a picture.
“I think it’s about the perspective of the photo.” I chime, amazed by the tallness of everything around me. Even the trees are towering.
“Come on guys, let’s go explore!” Rory grabs our hands and drags us along, more excited than a kid in a candy store. Tourists are buzzing around us, talking about their families and Facebook posts and wearing their colorful Hawaiian shirts and khakis and their mom glasses and commemorative fitted bedazzled tees.
Rory drags us through the crowd and into the gift shop, which is chock full of people, as well as anything and everything that can have words and a picture of a big stone carving plastered to it. He snatches a blue baseball cap off of a shelf by the entrance with an embroidered image of Mount Rushmore on the front and “Mount Rushmore National Memorial” underneath in sweeping, orange letters. It squishes his dark hair down over his forehead when he puts it on his head. He happily says, “Look around, guys! We’ve got time!”
Avril splits off and loses herself in the shirts, And I head over to the shelves of trinkets and decor. There are mugs and paperweights and lapel pins and a ton of other gift-shoppy things. After what seems like ages and ages of staring at this stuff and looking every item over a billion times, I settle on an oversized, tacky, light-up snow globe with “Mount Rushmore: 1927-1941” carved into the front of the black plastic base.
Almost as suddenly as I decide to go and find the others, I feel a hand on my shoulder and jump, nearly launching the snow globe into the ceiling. When I turn around, I see Avril behind me holding up two t-shirts: one a dark green, the other a pale blue. “I can't decide which one I wanna get. Thoughts?”
I look them over and then look at her, namely her turquoise hair. “The green one. The blue’s too close to your hair color.”
She looks at the green shirt before nodding and walking off.
“Oliver! Hey!” Rory comes to me holding an armful of souvenirs and wearing bright green sunglasses under the hat.
I pinch the bridge of my nose and sigh. “I am ninety percent of your impulse control, aren't I?”
“I guess I can put this stuff away…”
“Probably a good idea.” I look at the hat on his head again. “But keep the hat. It suits you.”
He puts down everything in his arms on the floor and then holds up a George Washington bobblehead in front of me. “I'm definitely getting this, though.”
We are looking at the SØMNIUM scoreboard as we walk along the Presidential Trail, surrounded by tall pine trees. We’re still in second with two, Mauve with two as before, Vermillion now in third with two since they got it after we did, and a mish mash of other teams with one or two items each.
Rory is growing giddy with excitement as we near a clearing in the pine trees near the far end of the park. I’ve only seen him this psyched once before when I got him an ant farm for his tenth birthday. I swore up and down he would hate it and think I was a bad friend, but I kid you not, he almost cried. He loved those ants so much that we even had a formal funeral when they died because he accidentally fed them too much food once. There was a eulogy and everything.
“Now that’s more like the pictures.” Avril says with a sort of satisfaction as we enter the space beyond the trees.
I stop and look up, and sure enough, there sits Mount Rushmore at least four hundred feet above our heads, the sun shining down on it and highlighting every tiny detail.
“Wow. It’s really high up there, huh?” I turn to Rory, who is absolutely mesmerized.
“This is one of my very, very first memories.” He says, his blue eyes sparkling. “It’s been way too long since I’ve been here.” He tilts up his hat and walks to the edge of the trail, not breaking his gaze for a second. Avril and I join him and just stand and take it all in for a bit.
“Aren’t you forgetting something, Rory?” Avril says and waves her phone when he looks at her.
“OH, YEAH!” He quickly pulls his phone out of his pocket, opens the camera, and holds it out in front of us. “Okay, guys, squish together.”
With our heads almost touching, we all smile for the camera, Rory’s by far the biggest of the three of us. We swap our phones until we all have a picture, and then continue down the trail, looking back occasionally to see how far away the memorial is getting from us.
Avril stops us for a second, “Alright, guys. We’ve had a fun time, now let’s get serious. We have to plant a seed in that jar or something—”
“Which is actually against the park regulations! Disturbing nature and all.” Rory chimes in as he is handing her the jar from in his pocket.
“Well then,” She bends down over the edge of the trail and scrapes some dirt into the jar. “I guess we’re gonna break the law for a few seconds.” She finds a small, pebble-like pine seed that looks more like a rock than a baby tree. When the seed is buried in dirt, she cracks open her plastic water bottle from earlier and dumps the remaining liquid into the jar.
“That’s some sort of Spy Kids, Inspector Gadget stuff right there!” Rory points to the side of the jar as the water seeps down. Ever so slowly, the wet dirt fills up tiny little carvings, words, inside of the green glass.
“I didn’t see those when I first looked at it.” Rory states. When the water finally reaches the bottom, we read the tiny message inside the jar.
Congrats on item three! There are still five to go, but the next two aren't too far apart.
Clue: a door will open, and 100 steps will light your way to the next item. Wisconsin.
I turn on the GPS and enter the coordinates into the site. The scoreboard changes, and a black pop-up appears on my phone screen reading: “Congratulations. You are now in first place.” I turn my phone to Rory and Avril, and their eyes go wide.
“First place?” Rory questions, even though the evidence is right in front of him. “That was unexpected.”
“Not to be pessimistic or anything,” Avril mentions, “ but it probably won't stay that way for long. We should figure out where to go and get going while we can. There might be a chance we could win this thing”
“Would it hurt to go celebrate for a little while? We could get some ice cream, tiny confetti poppers— ”
I join in to the conversation. “I actually saw an old fifties diner a few miles outside of Rapid City while we were driving. We could go there if you guys want.”
“I am getting kinda hungry, and the food they have here is probably really pricey.” Avril replies and then continues on down the trail. I follow her, but then Rory stops me.
“Do you really think we could have a chance at winning this thing?” He asks out of her earshot.
I reassure him. “It's a one out of sixty-six chance, bud. Those odds are pretty freaking good, if you ask me.” I pat him on the shoulder. “And if we don't win, at least we can say we've had some fun along the way.”
We pull into the dusty, gravel parking lot of Linda’s Diner and Disco, which looks more like a Diner and Deathtrap from the outside. On a big green pole with flaking paint sits a retro neon sign with broken and disconnected tubes that had long since been a beacon guiding people to this place. Now it’s just a mess. The metal siding on the diner is rusting to a gross brown in misshapen blobs, and the glass door boasts a couple of marks left from bullets of someone who was probably angry that their fries weren’t cooked exactly the way they liked.
“I hope they have milkshakes. I like milkshakes.” Rory says, squinting his eyes and peering through one of the big windows on the side of the building where we are parked at. “I think I see a shake machine, but I don’t know for sure.”
Our heads turn when a man, probably in his late twenties, exits the diner and lights a huge cigar. He doesn’t look anything like what you’d expect a smoker to look like. His hair is combed back, he is clean shaven, and he is dressed in a nice polo shirt and khaki pants with dress shoes. Who am I to stereotype people, though?
The smoke from the cigar somehow drifts quickly in the stagnant air and seems to cloud all of the airspace within a twenty foot radius of the guy.
“Inconsiderate.” Avril mutters and fans as much of it as she can out of her face.
Rory starts to cough, and I ask him if he’s okay. He stops for a second, nods, and whispers, “Let’s just go inside and get away from this dude.”
We manage to make it past the guy, who is still standing right outside the door of the diner when we get inside. We pass an old couple on a date, a person on their laptop and furiously sipping a glass of soda, and some other random people being served by the wait staff on vintage roller skates. We decide on a seat at one of the red and white booths near the back of the diner.
It’s hard not to marvel at the restaurant’s inside atmosphere that really contrasts the exterior of the building. There are black and white photos of pets and people and other restaurants along the top of the bar, and red, pleather stools with metal footrests. The table in the booth is covered in that classic boomerang laminate, and on top of it against the wall is a napkin dispenser that matches the booths, and the classic red and yellow ketchup and mustard bottles. In the back corner of the restaurant sits a big, rainbow jukebox underneath a disco ball.
“Alright, they do have a milkshake machine.” Rory says quietly just before a waitress zooms up to us with laminated menus.
“How’s everyone doin’ today?” She asks excitedly with a slight southern accent and a red-lipped smile that tells me she really wants (and probably desperately needs) a raise. We all reply with a simultaneous “good”, and she hands us each a menu covered in pictures. “I’m Trisha, and I’ll be servin’ y’all today! Can I get y’all started with somethin’ to drink?” I admire this lady’s peppiness, but it’s only been ten seconds and she’s almost borderlining on creepy. “We’ve got water, coffee, tea, milk, juice, basically any name brand pop you can think of, milkshakes, malts, italian soda, slushies—”
“I’ll take a diet Coke.” Avril says, and the waitress scribbles it down on her notepad.
“Milk. Chocolate, if you can, please.” I say. She nods and writes, and then turns to Rory, who is looking a tad bit pale.
“And for you, sweetie?” She asks.
“Water.” He mutters, his attitude seeming to do a full 180.
“Alrighty. I’ll be back with those for y’all in a second!” The waitress chirps as she speeds away.
“You feeling okay, Rory?” I ask when she’s out of sight.
“Yeah, I’m just a little lightheaded for some reason. Probably nothing too major.” He says breathily, and scratches his arm through his sweatshirt sleeve.
“Alright.” I say, unsure if I should believe him or not. “But if you feel like you’re gonna pass out or something, just lay down so you don’t fall.”
“And if you’re gonna puke, try and go to the bathroom.” Avril mentions. “The trashcan is a lot closer, but we don’t need to be smelling vomit while we’re eating.”
“Duly noted.” He says, twisting one of the drawstrings on his hoodie between his fingers while he looks over the menu.
Avril takes her heart-shaped sunglasses off of her head and slides them into the breast pocket of her striped shirt. I gaze at my menu, eyeing the pictures and fancy fonts on the baby blue background. The waitress rolls by again a few minutes later and puts our drinks on the table faster than anything I’ve ever seen. She circles back around and holds up her notepad. “Y’all know what you want or should I give you a minute?”
Rory speaks up in the same slightly somber tone as before. “Just a strawberry milkshake and a basket of fries.”
“Alright.” She looks at me. Watch me mess this up hard, guys, I think. You’re gonna be learning from an expert on being anxious.
“Uh… um, I’ll have some fries…” I subconsciously scratch the back of my neck, knowing there’s nothing I can do to stop it. “A va-vanilla malt… um...Do you do chili dogs?”
“Yup. You want cheese with that?”
“Uh… no. No thank you...” Jesus, that was waaaaaaaay more stressful than it should have been.
“The grilled Reuben, please. With extra swiss.” Avril says.
The waitress smiles her lipsticky smile again. “Okay, y’all. We’ll have them out as soon as we can.”
As she speeds away, Avril twirls a lock of dyed hair around her finger and says. “It’s Linda’s Diner and Disco, but I haven’t seen a single Linda in this whole place.”
“Considering how old this place is,” I say, “The Linda who probably made it is most likely dead.”
Rory slowly sips on his water next to me while Avril talks about something I’m not really trying to listen to. It takes a lot for him to look pale, especially with how tan his complexion is, but he’s sitting here looking like every ounce of blood suddenly dropped down out of his head. He sighs heavily a few times in a row, and I can’t seem to put a finger on what is making him feel lightheaded or nauseous or whatever he’s feeling right now.