The Happiest Place Stole My Little Brother (Part 2)

Weeks went by with absolutely nothing. We tried to keep in contact with the park and the police every day, but we always got the same response. They were ‘looking into it’. From what we were being told, they were contacting people that had been at the park and pouring over hours of security footage, but there were no new developments. We tried organizing search parties to look around the various cities surrounding Cheesy’s and hunting down employees that worked that day, but no one had any information.

To say that I was frustrated was an understatement. It felt like nobody in the world cared a fraction as much as I did. People get arrested for murders where all they left behind was a single strand of hair. Yet my brother was taken from right under me, and all anybody could say is, “I don’t know?” How the hell does that make any G******n sense?

Depression hit me hard. I couldn’t escape the stain of guilt Amari’s disappearance left on my mind and in my heart. My brain worked overtime to process the potential variables leading up to his disappearance. Maybe if my lazy a*s had woken up earlier, he wouldn’t have been in a bad mood, to begin with. Maybe if I didn’t insist we go on that roller coaster. Maybe if I had just kept my eyes on him for one second longer. If I had done one f*****g thing differently, maybe my brother might still be here. I’d get to see that beautiful smile and hug him when I came back from school.

Stressful thoughts plagued my mind. I couldn’t eat, I became lethargic, and the pain of losing Amari made my stomach churn whenever I was reminded of his absence. As a result, I was unfit to attend school for weeks. When you live in a small town, word travels fast. And this was the biggest news story to happen in years. When I returned, the darting eyes and whispers surrounded me constantly. And the ever-present headlines on the local news only served to remind me of the pain.

Chloe and Mark tried their best to make sure that I was okay, but, realistically, how could a seventeen-year-old ever be expected to deal with a loss like that? Especially when a lot of that loss was still a mystery.

On Monday after class, I was sitting by myself at the tables just outside the library. I had taken to doing a lot of my schoolwork outside of home because I felt I could focus better without the reminder that Amari wasn’t there. Suddenly, someone walked up from behind and covered my eyes from behind.

“Guess who?” asked a playful voice.

“Hm. You know? If I had to guess I’d say… Chloe?” I replied.

“Aw. You couldn’t have at least given me one free wrong guess?” Chloe said, slightly disappointed.

I shrugged. “What can I say? I’m pretty good at guessing the voices of people I’ve known since I was six. Call it a superpower.” I immediately noticed the girl standing next to Chloe. The two almost looked like twins outside of the fact that the girl’s hair was blonde instead of brunette, and she had no freckles. “Hey, Amber.”

“Hey,” Amber replied with a wide smile. “I know you’ve been down because of everything that happened, so I wanted to maybe help cheer you up.”

“Oh?” I said with an eyebrow raised. “And how’s that?”

“Well,” she tossed her blonde hair over one shoulder. “There’s this college party going down on Friday a few towns over, and I know a couple of the guys in the frat so I could definitely get you in if you wanted.”

I think Chloe could sense what I was going to say before I said it because she instantly hit me with, “C’mon, it’ll be fun! One night to forget about everything! Brandon, it’s awful seeing you hurt like this. Maybe it’ll help.”

I sighed and stood up. “Yeah, right. Look, I gotta go. I’ll let you guys know when I know.” I began to make the walk home.

After a twenty-minute walk, I reached my house. But as soon as I reached for the doorknob, I felt my phone buzz. Looking at the caller ID, I could see that Mark was calling.

“What’s up, man?”

“Brandon, dude. I heard Clo and Amber invited you to that party on Friday.”

“Yup. I do recall that happening twenty minutes ago.”

“And you turned them down? Amber is one of the hottest girls in school, dude!”

“I said I’ll let them know,” I shrugged.

“C’mon bro. She’s just trying to help. I know what you’re going through is rough. I can’t even imagine what I’d do if I lost my sister, but if you keep wallowing in pain, you’ll never feel better.” Mark’s voice lowered a bit before perking up again. “You need to do things that make you happy. And as dumb as it sounds, maybe this is the opportunity to forget for a few hours…”

“Getting drunk isn’t going to solve my problems, Mark. Maybe that works for you, but alcohol isn’t bringing Amari back. Plus, what the hell would you know about dealing with trauma?” I hadn’t even noticed how much I raised my voice. “It’s great that you think you have an idea of how you would feel, but nobody really knows what this pain is like until they f*****g go through it. I don’t need a damn lecture about my own feelings!”

Mark went silent for a moment. I wanted to apologize for attacking him, but before I could, he started speaking again, “You know. I never told anyone that my mom’s sister was murdered. It impacted her for years, and seeing her go through that emotion was really hard. Your parents are supposed to be your rock, and when they can’t keep it together, then how do you think a child feels?” He paused again to think. “For a long time, I felt guilty for not getting to know my aunt, but in a way, I guess I’m lucky that not knowing her made the pain not as bad. But my mom was devastated, Brandon. And the only way she pulled herself out of it was trying. She made an effort to be happy, and even though she carries that pain to this day, she can still smile and be kind and enjoy life.”

“Mark, I…”

“Don’t, man. It’s cool. My point is. It’s natural to feel what you’re feeling. I’m sure that the other families that lost kids there felt the same pain. But you have to start somewhere no matter how much it hurts. At the end of the day, there’s still hope Amari will be found. But it doesn’t help to mope around until you get the news that’s he’s either found or… You know.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” I said quietly. “I’ll figure it out. Just give me some time.”

“Of course. If you need anything, Clo and I are here for you.”

“Yeah. I gotcha.” I hung up, went inside, and walked up to my room with mixed emotions. Was it really as simple as just doing things I liked and pretending to be happy until I was? What was really the healthiest way to deal with this? And what about the other families? How had they dealt with it?

The sudden realization hit me like a Mack Truck. The other families. I rushed to my laptop to do some research. I found a lot of news sites that had reported on the disappearances. “Child Goes Missing From Beloved Amusement Park, 1967”, “Child at Cheesy’s Never Found, 1973”, “Parents Baffled at Child’s Disappearance at Cheesy’s, 2005”, every single f*****g year. It was never on the same date. No two kids seemed alike, but the one consistent thing was the age. All of them were between five and twelve. Not only was Jose right about the sheer number of cases, but he was also right about some of these stories being absolutely buried. It looked like some families had to go to really obscure sites to mention that their kids disappeared. And even then, there was never a lot of information given or any follow-up stories done.

“Why weren’t more mainstream sites reporting on them?” I thought.

This place had been associated with a ton of missing kids. All of the police interviews done in subsequent years, all of them had said that they were looking, but there was no clear evidence to go on.

I dug further and found that the owner had only even commented on the kids once in the nineties. Most of it was typical PR jargon. But there was one quote that stuck out to me. He mentioned that wherever they were, he was sure they were happy and healthy.

“What the f**k does that mean?” I whispered to myself. “Why on earth would you assume a missing child is happy or healthy?” It was a simple remark that didn’t get much play in the media and easily could’ve meant nothing. But the fact that he wanted everyone to pretend like things were okay gave me a bad vibe. Why at Cheesy’s? What the hell did he know?

I couldn’t go rushing into some CEO’s house, but maybe I could talk to someone who had more knowledge than me. I dug until I found the phone number of a woman who had lost a kid at the park over two decades ago. She had been in several legal battles and even got into trouble herself for trying to stalk the owner along with breaking and entering into the park a few times.

I didn’t expect her to have all the answers, but if there was anyone who could tell me something important about the park, it was her. Finding her number was easy and I immediately called her up. After only a couple rings, a scratchy voice, no doubt ravaged by years of cigarette smoke, picked up on the other end.

“Hello?”

“Uh… hi. My name is Brandon. Is this, Ms. Turner?”

“Yes, it is. How can I help you?”

Not wanting to scare her or make her think that I was some weirdo looking to connect over tragedy, I made up a lie. “I know this is gonna sound strange, but I’m a student doing a research project on some places that had an impact on us growing up. I happened to pick Cheesy’s World, and I was wondering if I could talk to you?”

She went silent on the other end for a moment, and when she spoke again, I could hear a hint of stress in her voice. “Uh, Cheesy’s World? What specifically about it?”

“The project has to include the history of the place, and from my research, I found that your family’s name came up in a couple of articles because of… what happened.”

Another moment of silence passed before she talked again. “How old are you, Brandon?”

“Eighteen,” Another lie.

“Can you come to my place? I can’t talk right now, but I’ll be free at about nine tonight if you want to speak to me about what happened. But I’m only free tonight.”

I hesitated. I only had my permit and no car, which meant it would be difficult for me to meet Ms. Turner. However, it was a chance I had to take.

“I’ll be there.” Mrs. Turner gave me an address about a forty-minute drive away, and once we hung up, it only took me a moment to realize who I should call.

I promptly dialed Chloe’s number.

“Hey, Clo.”

“Brandon, hey! Are you doing better?”

“I might’ve found a path to that, yeah. Can you do me a favor?”

“Anything, what’s up?

“Can you come by at around eight and take me somewhere? It’s kinda far, though.”

“Uh, yeah, I think I can get all my homework done by then. What’s going on?”

“It’s… Weird. I can’t even really explain what’s happening. I’m kinda just going off of instinct here. Look, you mentioned the party on Friday, right? I promise to go and have as great of a time as you want me to have, but only on the condition that you do this for me, no questions asked.”

“Of course. It doesn’t have to be ‘no questions asked’. I’m here for you anytime.”

I thanked her repeatedly and hung up. The seeds of what I was planning to do were already forming in my head. And unfortunately, I had to keep Chloe as far away from the truth as possible. I know it sounds stupid and selfish, and it absolutely was, but I didn’t want to risk Chloe getting too deeply involved in something that was my burden to bear. Not only that, if she knew I was doing research on the park, she’d also do everything in power to convince me to stay away for the sake of my mental health. Including not giving me a ride.

But still, I could clearly see that my friends were really making an effort to make me feel better, and that meant the world to me. I didn’t know how I’d do it, but I needed to make it up to them somehow.

I waited until about 8:15, and just like she said, Chloe was right outside. I would’ve told my parents that I was going out to catch a late movie, but they were gone. Oddly enough, there were a lot of days in the recent weeks where I completely missed one or both of them. But that was an issue for another time.

Before greeting Chloe, I sent out a text to Ms. Turner, stating that I was on my way, and we began the drive over.

“So, are we picking up Mark?” she asked.

“Nah, he’s got a project to work on. I’m pretty sure if he doesn’t get an A, he’s gonna fail the class, and I respect that. So guess it’s just us.”

“Ah. Just us like old times.”

“Yeah. Back when things weren’t as f****d up.”

“Stop that, Brandon. Can we not bring the mood down? It’s a long ride, and I want to keep things as positive as possible.” She let out an exasperated sigh. “Wanna know why Amber thought the party would be a good idea?”

“Why’s that?”

“She said she knows a girl who’s single and as a cute guy she thought…”

I nearly spat snot out of my nose as I laughed at Chloe’s revelation. “Hold up! Was the party an excuse to set me up with some girl she knows? But for the record, we’re gonna get kicked out as soon as we get in. Mark would tell you that from experience.”

She responded with laughter and brushed the hair out of her face. Once again, I got to see that beautiful smile. This was another moment where I really “noticed” Chloe. Every perfect feature brought together by those stunning eyes. But on top of it? We had been so close. This girl is the reason I’m not failing most of my classes. She’s been my biggest supporter at my lowest points, and the number of inside jokes we have about the dumbest things is endless.

It simultaneously filled me with warmth and sadness. Here I was, around someone I cared about so much. And yet, I was lying to her. I hadn’t told Chloe about what I found or who I was meeting. I planned to leave her in the car and come up with some b******t excuse once I got back, and it killed me. Mainly because she had done me the kindness of taking her own time to do something for me. The least I could do was keep the conversation positive.

We laughed and laughed throughout the ride, and it felt like my problems were melting away. Of course, the circumstances didn’t allow me to feel completely normal, but for the moment, I felt better than I had in a long time.

We drove up to a non-distinct house in the middle of a dark suburb. I searched up the address again and confirmed that this was indeed the house. Chloe started to get out, and before she could, I grabbed her arm.

“What’re you doing?” she asked, confused.

“I’ve gotta go in alone.”

“Why?” she snapped at me. “I drove all the way here for you to leave me in the car?”

“It’s really personal stuff, Clo. Remember, I said no questions asked. I promise it’s nothing too crazy. I just really need to talk to this person. I won’t be more than twenty minutes.”

“And if I try and come in with you anyway?”

“I’m not getting out of this car if you try to. Please just trust me.”

I could tell she was grappling with the idea of leaving me to do whatever mysterious thing I had planned. Still, eventually, she relented and told me to just be quick about it. I gave her a nod and told her I’d be right back.

Walking up to the house felt strange. A million thoughts about who would be on the other side of that door ran through my mind. Just after the third knock, a shorter blonde woman with streaks of grey hair opened the door.

“Hi, Ms. Turner. I’m Brandon. I wanted to talk to you about my project?”

She nodded and motioned for me to come in. From the moment I stepped into her home, I could feel the tension in the air. As soon as I sat down on the couch, she began to talk.

“I know you’re not here about some project, Brandon.”

I was bewildered at how she knew, and all I could do was fumble over my words, trying to keep up my charade.

“Honestly, it was a dumb lie to begin with,” she said.

I could see her start to pour a glass of whiskey and then downing it in one go. She offered me some, but I politely declined, not trusting her yet.

“How’d you know I was lying?”

“Because I’ve dedicated so much of my f*****g time to keeping an eye on every weird thing that happens at that park ever since I lost my son, Daniel. When I heard about your brother going missing, I had a feeling you’d come looking for me. A lot of people come to me asking what steps to take because I’ve been so outspoken.”

“Why were you so convinced that the park was responsible for taking Daniel?”

She laughed at my question as if it was the most ridiculous thing in the world. “When kids get taken, it’s almost always by someone they know. Before I moved out here, I lived my entire life in a small town with maybe two thousand people. Never made an enemy, and I knew just about every Goddamn person by the first name. None of them wanted to take him. You figure out who that leaves.”

“Crazy strangers? How would you know that the park is involved?”

“Think about it, Brandon. A popular theme park wouldn’t do everything in its power to prevent people from taking your f*****g kids? Cameras, Security, other people who go there for a fun time. All of that and my kid still gets snatched never to be seen again? Then they tell me they’ve found absolutely nothing for years? How likely does that sound to you?” I went silent as she continued to speak, contemplating the gravity of her words. “Every single family I’ve talked to. Every one of them said the same thing. Nobody they knew would’ve wanted to target them, and yet they had their kids taken without a trace. For most of them, it happened in a second. One moment they’re looking at a map of the place. The next, their baby is gone forever. If that doesn’t sound like something is going on, then I don’t know what to tell you.”

It sounded insane. What would a park do with kids? And how could they do that without anyone seeing them? It didn’t make any sense. “Do you think the owner is involved?” I asked. “I saw that you were investigating him before. Maybe he knows something?”

She shook her head. “No. I don’t think so. If anything, that park should be a burden for him. From what I’ve found, that place bleeds money every single year. It hasn’t been profitable in decades. The man hasn’t even made an appearance there since the 90s. But not only that, in one interview, he said he wished the place would just burn in a fire. I’m not sure why he chooses to keep the land, but from everything I’ve gathered, he’s not involved.”

“So if you had to guess, you’d say it’s likely that the park has my brother somewhere?”

“Think? No. I’m sure of it. Your brother. My son. Every single kid that was stolen since the sixties. When I managed to get into one of the on-park offices, I found a list of kids’ names and their favorite characters. That list didn’t just include my Daniel, it included so many of the poor kids that have gone missing over the decades. And some that would come to go missing in future years. If that’s not damning.”

“Future years? They keep tabs on kids? Why the hell didn’t you go to the police?”

“I tried!” she snapped, getting frustrated with me for not believing her. “But who’s going to listen to the crazy lady that broke into an amusement park? And who’s going to think that she didn’t just print up a list of names because she has a grudge? Look, Brandon. I know it sounds crazy, and it absolutely is. But that park is f*****g evil. No one else wanted to take these kids, the last place they were seen was at Cheesy’s, and Cheesy’s denies having any evidence these kids were taken. Do the f*****g math.”

Her words echoed in my ears. What she was saying couldn’t be true, could it? If it was, then, unfortunately, I knew exactly where to find Amari. But the big question still was why? What would the park want with a seven-year-old? And how could they have taken him without a single person noticing?

“I’m still curious why you’d agree to tell me all of this. And you never told me why we had to do this at your place.”

“Because someone has to. I’m going to be honest with you. Fighting that park is impossible. I’ve tried in every conceivable way. But the one thing I can do is bring some kind of closure. As for doing this here… There are fewer rats.”

With that, I nodded and walked off. I didn’t feel comfortable enough to say bye because it wasn’t like this was a friendly conversation. I had just learned that it was very likely my brother was taken by a park that I damn near grew up with. So many thoughts were bouncing around in my head that by the time I returned to Chloe, she could immediately tell that something was wrong.

“Well, you kept it under twenty minutes, which is great, but you also look like someone stole your lunch money.”

“It’s nothing. Just thinking a lot.”

Chloe sighed. “Brandon, I can tell you’re hurting. I’ll never know the pain you’re feeling, but please, talk to me. I need you to be okay.”

I wanted so badly to tell her, but all I could do was stare at the dashboard. At that time, I couldn’t bring her or Mark into it more than I needed to. Maybe after everything was done. Things were changing every second, and this rabbit hole I was determined to descend into had gone from a mysterious place to an absolutely terrifying one.

Her look of anger suddenly turned to one of concern, “Please just say something…” I turned away from her, resolved to my silence. “Fine,” she said quietly. “I know that you’re scared, Brandon. But going through pain alone is the worst way to handle it.”

We drove back to my place in silence. I gave a soft, “Bye,” before getting out of the car and going back up to my room. My parents still hadn’t come back yet, which I found odd but worked out for me because I had one more call to make, and I didn’t want them to overhear me.

Jose sounded half-asleep when he picked up the phone. “Hello?”

“Yo, man. It’s Brandon.”

“Brandon? Hey, I heard what happened I’m really s-”

“Don’t worry about it. You were the first one to mention that kids went missing from that place. That being said, I have some questions. First, how’d you know about that place?”

His voice turned serious. “I’ve always been interested in urban legends. And there wasn’t a day where that place didn’t give me weird vibes. Reading about all the disappearances just confirmed things for me.”

“Would you say that the park is connected to the kids disappearing?”

“Oh, 100%. There’s no way they didn’t catch those kids being taken on camera. If I was a betting man, I’d say they have footage of everything going back a long time.”

This piqued my interest. “That’s interesting. So if someone could get that footage, then they could expose everything, right?”

“Hypothetically, yes. But you’re not hacking into the computers from the outside. I know that for a fact. And you’re not going to get remotely close enough in the day to look through their files.”

“So, what could someone hypothetically do?”

“Well, what you would have to do that might work is physically putting in a flash drive with spyware so that you could have access to everything. And that involves a bit of breaking and entering.”

“I might know someone that can help with that. The only issue is that I don’t have a flash drive with spyware.”

“And that’s where I could help you out, buddy. Meet me after class tomorrow, and I’ll let you have something.”

I really wanted to ask why Jose had a flash drive with spyware on it but figured it’d be for the best to leave it alone. The most important thing was that now I had a plan. I’d go to the park, find the security office, use my lock-picking skills to get in, install the spyware, and then prove that those bastards took my brother. I texted Ms. Turner and asked her how she managed to get into Cheesy’s. She had a few questions about my intentions but didn’t push too hard when I gave her soft answers about just being curious. Once I had a basic understanding of what to do, there was one final thing to take care of.

I came downstairs, nearly killing myself when I was caught off-guard by a scurrying rat that I later captured and put outside. I looked outside to see that my parents had returned and that the car was parked out front. To that point, I was still resolved to keep Mark and Chloe out of this, and I didn’t want to ask anyone else to drive me. But if I could take the car while they were asleep, I wouldn’t need to. I knew I would be a few hours, but it shouldn’t have mattered if I left late enough. Everything seemed to be coming together perfectly. I went to bed resolved with what I would do.

The next day was pretty average save for Chloe being unusually quiet when she hung around me. Mark tried to pry for info, but she kept telling both of us that she was fine. He suggested that we go somewhere after class to cheer her up, but I shot down the idea telling them I had homework to do.

Once class ended, I met up with Jose and he gave me the flash drive. He made it a point to stress that once I put it into Security’s computer, I’d need to log in as a guest and open up the program. He claimed that the program should run whenever someone logs in on their personal account. From there, Jose would have remote access and all of the password information. For him, having access to this info was payment enough for giving me the flash drive.

Now I had spyware, a means of transportation, and the knowledge of how to get into the park. All I needed was patience. I waited until roughly one in the morning before making my move. Donning all black complete with a bandana wrapped around the lower half of my face, I grabbed my old lock-picking tools, and I was ready to go.

I made sure my parents were fast asleep before hopping into my dad’s car. As I turned the keys in the ignition, I took a deep breath and tried to center myself. When I turned off my phone before taking off so that it wouldn’t buzz and give away my location, I noticed a text message.

Chloe: Hey, I don’t know if you’re up, but I can’t sleep. You doing okay?

It killed me to silence my phone and ignore the message, but I knew that it would be worth it once this was all over. Amari would be back, and I’d be more than okay. I’d be whole once again. I took off towards the park with a single goal in mind, which was to get Amari back home at all costs.

I think I zoned out on the drive over because it didn’t feel like I was consciously doing it. I kind of just floated towards the general direction of the park. My mind was devoid of thought. It was just me and the dark road that was simply a pathway to Amari.

But once I had passed the sign with Cheesy’s smiling face welcoming you to the park over that stupid f*****g slogan, I knew this was it. This was when my life could finally start to be normal again. Instead of pulling into the parking lot, I parked just off the park’s campus at a nearby twenty-four-hour convenience store and made the walk over.

I could feel my heartbeat ring in my ears as I made the silent walk through the parking lot. The ominous atmosphere and knowledge of what I was planning to do made every step towards the park feel like I was walking towards a terrifying fate. I couldn’t describe it at the time, but from everything I had learned until that point, the place just seemed off. I knew that I was afraid. My own fear of breaking into a beloved park was to be expected. And if it was true that they were holding kids captive then, of course, that was another concern. But beyond that? There was something else. Something was tickling the primal part of my brain, flashing signals that everything went so much deeper than I could ever understand.

But whatever I was feeling had to wait as I walked up to those gates. I could see a large number of rats crawling out from under the entrance, which caused me to jump back in surprise. Feeling down the cold steel, I attempted to jingle the entrance open just in case. I noticed the electric keypad lock and knew that I had to resort to the actual plan.

Looking over to my left, I saw that there was a set of bushes flanking the gates. From what Ms. Turner had told me, kids used to climb under those bushes to gain access into the park, but they had since installed sheets of wood to block the crawlspace. Of course, with the park operating in the red, these sheets weren’t exactly the most expensive or durable and could easily be kicked out.

Normally it’d be a struggle to do this because I’d be noticed pretty quickly, but with no one there, it only took a few hard kicks to the wood for me to break it down. Once it was out of the way, I was able to army crawl under the bushes and into the second park check-point. There it was as simple as hopping a turnstile and strolling into the park. I had actually managed to make it inside.

Even though I had done what I thought would be the most challenging part, it felt wrong. There was no security at the front, and I didn’t see any flashlights in the distance. I assumed I’d have to be ducking and dodging a lot, but the place almost looked abandoned. Could they really be struggling so much that they couldn’t afford security guards? Regardless of how much money they were bleeding, protecting your property is a necessity, so why wasn’t this more challenging?

As I made my way through the park, I stopped a few times to marvel at what the place looked like wholly shut down.

Looking for the security office was difficult. I had only been to that office once, and I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to commit the path to memory. Eventually, I conceded that I was lost and was going to resort to using the park’s online map to find where I was. Maybe I could even find a landmark to locate the general area of the office.

No sooner had I pulled my phone out did I hear the very distinct sound of a can being kicked in the distance. I immediately scanned the area but saw no flashlights and heard no voices. Logically it made sense to assume it was an animal, but in the back of my mind, something was screaming that that was the wrong assumption.

I continued to scan the area, and to my horror, what I saw confirmed every dark fear I had about this place. Standing in the distance and clearly facing in my direction was Ronald. He was softly illuminated under a dim pathway light so I couldn’t get a good look, but what I saw unnerved me to my core. His suit was absolutely filthy, and his ordinarily perky ears hung low. Parts of his costume were in various states of decay, and he stood hunched forward with his arms dangling lazily in front of him.

For a second, neither of us moved, but then in an instant, he charged. I screamed out, “Oh s**t,” and hauled a*s out of there. I didn’t know where I was going, but anywhere was better than there. I could hear his footsteps quickly gaining on me. For as clumsy as I thought the costume would make him, he was coming at me like an Olympic sprinter. I knew that I’d have no chance to outrun him and that my only real option was to hide. I dove towards the Crazy Mouse rollercoaster and hid amongst the support structure, making sure to keep absolutely still against one of the beams as he raced past me.

Millions of thoughts were firing in my head. Before I had even a second to process them, I looked up and saw Nina impossibly contorting her body to clutch onto the horizontal beams around her. She, too, was twisted. She was twice her regular size, and her beak was missing. In its place was a large, open hole in the shape of a smile with a few human teeth embedded around the hole’s borders. Her costume was also rotting away and in place of her pom-poms were human-like hands with disturbingly long fingers that each seemed to have more fingers growing from them. Her once sultry eyes were now bloodshot and sunken into her face. Her famous pizza shirt was gone revealing multiple patches of missing feathers.

She stared down at me like a spider examining its prey, and I could see drips of saliva flowing freely from her mouth. As soon as we made eye contact, she descended upon me with lightning speed. I ran into the darkness, not caring where I ended up. For a brief moment, I looked back and saw that she was running on all fours, easily climbing over all obstacles in her path.

Not only did I have to worry about Nina, but Ronald was still lurking in the darkness, and I had nothing to defend myself with. For a moment, I thought that she would surely catch me as I had no place to go. But by sheer luck, I spotted the Haunted Estate ride and figured I could at least hide in there briefly and come up with a plan to escape.

But as I made a beeline towards the ride, something grabbed my ankle and pushed me to the ground. Before I knew it, I was being dragged behind a patch of bushes, and I could only look up in horror to meet my captor’s eyes. Dizzy was looking down at me. His long freezing cold fingers wrapped all the way around my head, and he made sure to keep enough pressure to make it painful. As expected, he also looked to be in a state of disarray. His muzzle hung like a deflated balloon, and his straw hat had numerous holes in it on top of his overall look of rot. I could see chunks of his costume missing in random sections, and parts of the costume seemed to hang like loose skin.

Using his other hand, he reached into my pocket and pulled out the flash drive and crushed it in one motion. Then he pulled out my lock-picking kit and flung it far from where he had me pinned. He raised a long finger to the end of his drooping mouth and made a “silence” motion before getting me to my feet and looking around. He stood much taller than he usually did. Last time I saw him, he was around my height at six feet, but this version easily stood a foot taller than me, and his arms hung low to his feet.

I was in utter shock, and sweat was pouring down my face. Here before me was this… monster and I didn’t know if I could run, fight, or reason with it. But it didn’t matter because I didn’t even get to choose. In the blink of an eye, he reached out to grab me and shoved me into his body through a partially open slit in the suit. In my mind, I was dead. It was pitch black and freezing inside the costume. Something was hard and small at my back, and I could feel little buglike things crawling around me. If it wasn’t for my mask, they definitely would’ve invaded my mouth. But did it matter? I had been caught, my flash drive was destroyed, and I couldn’t even make it to the security office. On top of it all, I was going to die at the hands of some otherworldly creature just because I wanted to see my little brother again.

Tears began to flow liberally as I slowly resigned myself to my horrible fate. Thoughts about everything leading up to that point raided my mind. Despite every s****y thought that permeated my mind, the ones that stood out were of my friends and family. Mark. Chloe. My parents. And most of all, Amari. I’d never see them again. And why? Because I was afraid to ask for help? Because I felt that I could deal with something that I obviously didn’t even understand? The least I could’ve done was be honest. I could’ve said goodbye, or I love you. They’d at least have that closure of knowing how much I cared about them. And now, this was my punishment.

I was in there for what felt like hours. But to my complete surprise, I could feel a set of cold boney hands wrap around my body and rip me from the inside of my captor.

I was back outside the park. Dizzy stood over me, and I could see numerous roaches crawling in and out of the slit that I had assumed to be my tomb. I scrambled to my feet, but he didn’t move. He pointed towards the street in what I could only think was his way of telling me to go. I could see Ronald and Nina in the distance making their way towards us. To my horror, they had brought company. Numerous other deformed characters were following them, peeking out of the darkness and descending on me. Even though I was in the parking lot, I knew I wouldn’t be safe until I was completely off-campus. I didn’t know whether Dizzy had intentionally helped me escape or if this was simply their way of warning me to stay out. Maybe it was both. But before I ran off toward the safety of my car, Dizzy began to choke out something that seemed to be akin to his version of speech.

“Brother. Not. Safe. Here. Deep. Soon. Go.”

“What the f**k?” I thought. I didn’t have time to contemplate what he meant. I simply ran and didn’t look back until I was in the car and already speeding back home. I only stopped after I had been driving for half an hour. Finally, I pulled over to cry. It was all hitting me at once. This went so much deeper than I could’ve ever imagined. It was far more than I could’ve bargained for, and I had no idea where to even start. I pulled out my phone to check the time, and the first thing I saw were numerous missed calls and texts from my parents, asking where I was and why the car was missing.

“S**t!” I yelled, slamming my fist on the dashboard.

I took off towards home, knowing that a storm was waiting as soon as I pulled up. And that’s precisely what it was. A couple police officers were parked outside of my house, standing with my parents outside. I knew I was in a world of trouble. My whole world was about to come crashing down for the second time in one night.

They absolutely tore into me. Though I left out that I was at the park, I tried to explain that I was out looking for Amari, but they were livid. I wanted my parents to understand that I had done this for the right reasons. I wanted them to know that I was trying to cope with it the best I could and that the reason I was out was the same reason they had also been away so much. We were all out there searching. I knew at the end of the day, they needed me to be safe. And how could I fight them on that? Especially right after losing one of their kids.

I was told that I could no longer go out late or use the car. My grades had to be absolutely perfect from here on out and that I shouldn’t make any plans for the summer because I was getting a job.

I had lost in a lot of ways that night, but this felt the most deflating. All I could do was nod and walk up those steps without saying another word. That night, vivid images of those creatures hunting me down made for the most terrifying sleep I’ve ever had.

Despite the trauma that would burn horrible memories into my psyche for years to come, it wasn’t the creatures or my parents yelling at me that I was focused on that night. No. As I drifted off to sleep, the thought at the forefront of my mind was that as Dizzy stood over me, his name tag no longer said, “Your Pal, Dizzy the Dog.” It clearly read, “Your Pal, Daniel.”