The Happiest Place Stole My Little Brother (Part 3)

As I was putting on my clothes to get ready for school, I grabbed the pair of jeans I had worn the night before. On inspecting my pockets for my house keys, I found a small piece of paper wrapped around something solid. Opening it up revealed the words “Under Place. 33” and a set of small keys.

“What the hell?” I thought, “Under Place? Did Dizzy do this?” This was definitely a mystery for later, but for now I had to get to class.

The first thing I made sure to do when I got to school was to look for Jose and tell him that he wouldn’t be getting his flash drive back. He said it was okay, that, if anything, he was fascinated by what happened to me. We agreed to talk about things more in-depth after school, but for now, we’d just go to class.

What I was most concerned with that day was how I’d tell Mark and Chloe about what happened. At first, I didn’t know how I’d bring it up, but they brought the subject up at lunch.

“Dude,” Mark said with a look of concern. “Kristen Georges mentioned how there were police officers at your house at like four in the morning. What the hell is going on? Don’t give us some b******t about how everything is fine because clearly it’s not.”

“Brandon, you’ve been acting so strange lately.” Chloe reached out to touch my arm. “You need to tell us what’s happening because if you’re in trouble, we want to help.”

There wasn’t any escaping this conversation. And I knew I owed them the truth. They deserved the truth. I told them everything from Ms. Turner and the missing kids, to the break-in, to the abominations that chased me down at the park and what Dizzy left me.

I couldn’t tell if they really believed me. Chloe and Mark just stared in awe at the insanity of it all.

“Brandon. This is so…” Chloe began to talk.

“F****d.” Mark cut in.

“Yeah,” she resumed. “I may not really understand any of this, but we’re here with you either way. I can’t even imagine how terrifying this must all be.”

“You mentioned that Dizzy gave you keys?” Mark asked. “Do you think I could see them really quickly?”

I reached into my backpack and handed them over for Mark to inspect.

“These look like keys we’d use to operate the rides. But what would he give you those for?”

“Don’t know. But it doesn’t matter because I probably won’t be allowed out of the house for a while. Which, by the way, Clo, I don’t think I’ll be able to make it to the party on Friday.”

“It’s okay.” Chloe cut in. “The important thing here is that there’s obviously something going on. Whatever it is, those creatures seemed deadset on not letting you find out what it was.”

“But why would Dizzy let him go then?” Mark asked. “If what the park is hiding is so bad, then why not just kill Brandon while he was there?”

Chloe shrugged. “Who knows? Maybe they don’t all agree with how the park is run? Or maybe some of them have some humanity in them?”

A few minutes before the bell rang, we agreed to briefly meet up with Jose after class. After our classes ended for the day, we grabbed a library conference room, and I showed him the note.

“Under place? 33?” Jose thought for a moment but then shook his head. “Nah, no idea. How do you guys know this isn’t a trap?”

I took the note back and shoved it into my backpack. “Why would they trap me when I was already captured? Dizzy easily could’ve given me to Ronald or Nina or killed me himself. Instead, he let me go. Look, the note is obviously referring to something underground. Maybe under the park like a ride that takes you underground?”

Jose thought again. “Maybe it’s referencing the catacombs? The original creators of Cheesy’s really wanted to do their best to emulate other parks. Legend has it they even included their own underground system for the workers. Maybe that’s what it’s referring to?”

Chloe crossed her arms in thought before turning to Mark, “Mark, you worked there, right? Do you know anything about catacombs?”

“Yeah. But from what I know, they were only really used during the park’s heyday. In modern times they’ve had to downsize staff a lot, so the employee tunnels weren’t really used. The most legitimate thing I’ve heard about them is that maintenance used them to keep supplies.”

“Okay, well, that’s a start, at least.” I looked down at the note on the table. “It makes the most sense, right? But what about 33?”

To this, both Mark and Jose were stumped. ’33’ didn’t register as anything of significance to either of them, no matter what I tried to connect it to. After banging our heads against the wall for half an hour, we had to pivot back to the catacombs.

“Okay, so in theory. How would I get down there?” I asked Jose.

“We,” Chloe stated. “If you’re going, Mark and I are coming with you.”

“Wait, Mark is going with who to where?” Mark said softly. “We can uh, talk about that, right?”

Chloe gave Mark a look that could turn Medusa to stone, and he quickly reneged on his statement.

“Chloe, I’m not gonna argue this. You guys can only help me to a certain point.”

“I’m not gonna argue it either!” she shot back. “You literally almost died last time, let us help you and…”

“Guys!” Jose cut in. “Maybe before you decide who goes where you should figure out where you’re even going?”

“Right,” I looked around the room expectantly. “So, how do we get in?”

Jose shouted. “Oh! Easy! There was a rumor about being able to access it through the Black Beard Adventure water ride. Supposedly if you get off at the part where Black Beard is sitting in his chair surrounded by his treasure, there’s a secret door behind him.”

“That must be what the keys are for!” Mark replied enthusiastically. “If you can start up the ride, then you should be able to get to it.”

“Sounds like we have a plan then! Jose, is there any way you could help us get to the catacombs?” I asked.

He laughed. “F**k no. I’ll stick to reading creepy stories on the internet. But you guys feel free to live your best lives! Well. At least as long as you’re alive.”

Chloe rolled her eyes. “Anyway. One problem. Our happy fuzzy buddies. They’d probably be crawling all over the place, and who knows what’s hanging out inside those rides?”

She had a point. If I couldn’t make it to the security office, what were the odds that I could get to the Black Beard ride and make it to the catacombs? And if I did, who was to say that they wouldn’t be waiting for me down there? Jose told us he needed to study but wished us luck, and we concluded our meeting with that. We had made progress, but I knew that I needed to talk to Ms. Turner.

Mark dropped me off at home, and I immediately went up to my room to call her.

“Hello?” The familiar voice picked up on the other end.

“Hey, Ms. Turner. It’s Brandon again. I went back to the park, and I saw something that I think you should know about.” I proceeded to tell her about the events of that night and most importantly, about how I think I found her son. Or whatever remained of him.

“I’m really sorry, Ms. Turner. I…”

“No. Don’t be. You found him. Thank you.”

“Even though I found him like that?”

“Whatever remains is what remains. But that’s my journey to deal with. What you’ve told me just strengthens how I’ve felt. That place is pure evil. Nothing about it can remain.”

“And that means what, exactly?” I asked.

“Doesn’t matter yet. Did you find anything else?”

“When, Dizzy or… Daniel grabbed me, he put something in my pocket. Turned out to be a note with the words ‘Under Place’ and two keys that go to the ride control panel. We think that he wants me to go to the catacombs, but I’m not sure what I’ll find there.”

“So when are you going back?”

“I don’t know. My parents aren’t too happy at me for sneaking out, so I’m not sure when I can safely leave the house again.”

“Brandon!” the way she raised her voice caught me off guard for a moment. “This is a hell of a lot bigger than your parents grounding you! Your brother and countless other kids are at stake.”

She was right. Even though I was scared of what my parents would do to me, I was terrified of what that park would do to Amari. The truth was, I didn’t know if I could save him. But I had to do everything I could to try and get him back.

I asked her if we could meet at a local restaurant to talk about it in person and she agreed. I let Mark and Chloe know about my plans and decided to let them tag along.

After class the next day, we drove over to the agreed-upon spot and caught her smoking a cigarette in the parking lot in front of her car. As soon as she saw us, she promptly stomped it out and made a remark about how weird it felt to be talking to teenagers. To be fair, the feeling was very mutual, but we both knew that we had a goal that could only be accomplished together.

With the somewhat awkward greeting out of the way, she got down to the real reason we were there. “When are you going back?”

The answer was clear, no matter how I felt about it or how absolutely terrified I was. “I have to.”

“Good.” Ms. Turner said with no emotion. “And your friends?”

Chloe didn’t hesitate to answer, “Yes, we’re going with him.”

“Okay, timeout,” Mark interjected. “Can we talk about this? Like, all of this? Isn’t this more of a job for the police? And how do we know that those people were really monsters or whatever you want to call them? What if the park just f***s with people?”

I rolled my eyes. “Mark, what cop is going to believe that I saw what I saw there? And you think they’d do all of this to mess with people on the rare chance someone breaks in? I was in the costume, man. There literally wasn’t a person in there to ‘f**k with’ me.”

“I don’t know, man! I really don’t. What if we just told the cops that something was going down at the park? They come and investigate, and everything is fine?”

Ms. Turner cut in. “I doubt those things are going to let any cop see them. Besides, even if they did, they’d probably just think they were employees. It wouldn’t prompt any investigation.”

“Okay then how about this,” Mark began to retort. “How do I know that this isn’t all crazy b******t? Guys, we’re talking about breaking and entering. Brandon, you’re my bro, and I do want to believe you. But this all just seems so crazy. How do I know for a fact that this isn’t just some story to get revenge on a park that you think took Amari?”

He had a point, I had no proof of what I saw. And there was definitely a motive for me to try and do some damage by any means necessary.

I stepped forward. “You don’t know. You can’t until you see it for yourself, and frankly, I don’t want you guys to see what I saw. So here’s the deal. You both have an out. I don’t want you there with me, and if either of you doesn’t want to be there, don’t come. Simple as that. I’d be more than happy to let you be safe.”

As expected, they took some time to weigh the heavy consequences of their decisions. But after a few moments of silence, they looked at each other and nodded.

“We’re here for you, man, all the way,” Mark stated.

“So, what’s the plan then?” Chloe asked.

No sooner had she asked that question had Ms. Turner spotted a rat circling her foot. She yelped in surprise and immediately told us all to go home and we’d discuss the plan later. Confused, we watched her run to her car and speed off without so much as a goodbye.

“She’s an odd lady,” Chloe mentioned.

“She definitely doesn’t inspire any kind of confidence for whatever we end up doing,” Mark added.

I agreed. But she also had the best knowledge of the park. She could potentially give us access to resources we weren’t likely to get by ourselves. She had been in this for far longer than any of us had, and it didn’t feel right to take the personal stake she had away from her.

Later that night, I got a text message from Ms. Turner saying that we should all get together Saturday night. The plan was to meet up at a park near my house at around two in the morning. From there, we’d discuss everyone’s roles and how we’d go about this. I pressured her into giving me something to prepare for, but she kept saying how it was only safe to talk about these things in person, where there were no rats.

Out of sheer curiosity, I asked Ms. Turner about what her aversion to rats was all about. She explained that it was just personal paranoia and that whenever she’d talk about something, and there was a rat or a mouse present, bad things would happen.

Oddly enough, the days leading up to Friday were completely normal. I think that subconsciously, Mark, Chloe, and I wanted things to be that way. We all knew how drastically our lives could change on Saturday, and we tried to keep things as light-hearted as possible. It was almost like an unspoken rule that the last day before the s**t hit would be spent in peace.

As an unexpected surprise, Chloe even came over Friday night completely unannounced. She convinced my parents that she needed help with a project in a class that I was actually doing well in. Though I thought Chloe would use the night to party and de-stress, I accepted her visit without a second thought.

As soon as we got to my room, she mentioned how there actually wasn’t a project. As fun as the party sounded, she ultimately wanted to spend some time with me before Saturday. We spent that night talking about everything. Not just about the park but about life, growing up, the world, and eventually, our feelings about each other.

That night enforced how much I cared about her. My emotions toward my friends might be irrelevant to the bigger picture. Still, I genuinely believe that her visit was the only reason I could go into the next day with the confidence I had knowing that she’d be there with me.

And when that time came. I was as ready as I could be. I was still completely terrified. But I was still going to go in there and do everything possible to get my brother back.

I donned the same black clothes that I had worn last time and pocketed the keys and the note. On my way out, I made sure to stuff my sheets in case someone glanced in and closed the door for an added security layer. My parents were both fast asleep, and I managed to sneak out of the house by 1:30 a.m.

By the time I made it to the park, I could see that Chloe and Mark were already waiting, and both were also dressed entirely in black. Chloe ran up to give me a hug, and Mark gave me a simple nod. I could tell that he was on edge, which, given the circumstances, was completely understandable.

“You guys ready?” I asked.

Mark shook his head, “Definitely not. But I’m here anyway because that’s what friends do.”

“Let’s just be really careful,” Chloe added.

Before we could reply, we caught Ms. Turner arriving in her beat-up minivan. She promptly hopped out and motioned for us to come over.

“Just out of curiosity, what’re the chances she’s actually the bad guy and murders us?” Mark whispered. This prompted Chloe to elbow him in the stomach while she told him to stop being ridiculous.

But as soon as we walked up to her car and saw the supplies she had inside, Mark’s suggestion didn’t seem too far off. Before us was a pair of bolt cutters, a pocket knife, and gloves. But the most serious part of Ms. Turner’s arsenal was the handgun she had holstered.

“Jesus!” Mark yelled. “That’s a f*****g gun! What the hell are you doing with that?”

She glared at him. “For protection. If one of those things came at us, then…”

“Then nothing! We aren’t f*****g shooting anyone! I don’t care if you think those things in costumes aren’t human. If they are, then we go down for f*****g murder. Brandon, Chloe, please tell me you’re not with this crazy chick?”

Chloe agreed, “Mark is right. Exploring this place is fine, but I’m not okay with anything involving a gun.”

She rolled her eyes and opened the passenger side door to pop the gun in the glove compartment. “Fine. It’s gone. No problem. But can we get going?”

The three of us agreed and we hopped into her car with me taking the front seat next to her. The vehicle had a distinct smell of gasoline and cigarettes. The interior looked like it had seen better days and, I’m pretty sure empty beer cans were rustling around at my feet.

Part of me felt awful for Ms. Turner. Here she was relying on kids to help her heal the trauma she had been dealing with for years. To this day, I can’t even imagine how desperate she must’ve felt, seeing as she was willing to go through all of that.

The ride over was quiet. I didn’t know if it was nerves or focus. Probably a mixture of both. I can only vouch for myself, but there were multiple points during the ride where I wanted to ask Ms. Turner to pull over and take us back. The closer we got, the more my anxiety started to rachet up as the vivid images of those things flashed through my mind.

When we finally arrived in the empty parking lot, my heart was damn near beating out of my chest. There wasn’t any turning back now. Chloe and Ms. Turner were the first to exit the car. I sat in silence, staring at the front gate, reliving every horrible moment I was there. Mark asked me if I was alright, and I told him I needed a moment. He nodded in understanding and grabbed the bolt cutters and spray paint as he got out.

I was alone now with my thoughts. Here was my moment. I had my chance to take back my brother and never see this awful place again. And yet, I was sitting in the car doing nothing. I don’t think of myself as a brave person. I don’t have a particular level of resolve or heroic character. At the end of the day, I was desperate. But that desperation was the only thing that was going to get Amari back. Before I stepped out of the car, I eyeballed the glove compartment. It was stupid. I knew I had never shot a gun before in my life, but if I was going to get Amari back, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to have it. I quickly opened it up and stuffed the barrel into my waistband, hiding the handle under my hoodie.

I took in one big breath and exhaled before popping out of the car into the frigid cold air. The sting of it almost sobered me from my emotions.

Ms. Turner looked me up and down. “You ready?”

I nodded. “So, what’s the plan?”

“Mark and I will try and draw some attention from those things. You and Chloe need to get to the Black Beard ride. She can operate the ride while you hide in one of the tubes and wait until you have to pop out.”

“Wait, why doesn’t Mark go with me?” I asked. “He has experience with the rides, so he’d know how to operate it, right?”

“I do,” Mark agreed. “But if this plan relies on us being chased around, my cardio is going to last a lot longer than Chloe’s. Besides, turning on the ride is easy, I told her how to do it while you were in the car.”

“Fine,” I relented. “But you are out of there as soon as the ride starts. You and Mark.”

“What if I want to go with you?” Chloe asked.

“No. You guys will have already done enough. Clo, as soon as that ride gets moving, bail. Mark, I’ll text you, and it’ll be the same deal.”

“So, where do Clo and I go?”

“Best spot is off-campus. Are you gonna go with them, Ms. Turner?”

She shook her head. “No, I’ll leave the keys with Chloe. As soon as Mark gets to the car, you guys take it just off-campus. I’ll meet you later.”

“And what’re you gonna do while they’re leaving?” I asked. “You’re not gonna go with them?”

“We all have our goals, Brandon. You guys just worry about staying safe.”

As curious as I was about what she planned to do, I honestly didn’t have much time to think about it, and that was fine by me. I just wanted to get Amari back.

We walked to the front gates and spent a few minutes cutting the padlocks. As soon as it broke and fell to the ground with a distinct thud, we knew we were at the point of no return. We slowly creaked the door open and waiting for us on the other side was the silent hellscape masquerading as an amusement park.

Mark took point in leading us to the Black Beard ride. We moved methodically through the park, doing our best to not make any noise. At first, it seemed to work. I actually had some hope that we could make it through this without seeing any of the characters.

But just as I was starting to let my guard down, we spotted Nina, waiting on top of the Spinning Soda Cup ride. Chloe, Mark, and Ms. Turner looked on in horror as they saw the spider-like abomination perched on top of the ride, peering down at us. And as soon as it registered who we were, she moved viciously fast towards us.

We broke off into two groups as planned, but Nina didn’t care. She tore after Chloe and me until Mark picked up a nearby stone and hurled it in her direction. It landed just in front of her, and without hesitation, Nina spun around and gave chase to Mark. He was already running in the opposite direction and screaming as he went.

Chloe called after him, but I grabbed her wrist and screamed that we had to go. We ran in the general direction of the Black Beard ride and didn’t see any more of the characters. We knew from looking at park maps beforehand that it was a straight shot down and then a sharp right. If we hurried, we could easily make it there.

We took off towards our destination, but just before we had to make the right, we spotted Ronald standing in the middle of the walkway. Chloe quickly pulled me behind a set of trashcans, and we watched as Ronald slowly sauntered around, scanning the area.

Sweat poured from my brow as I peeked around the trash can to see that soulless husk drag its body forward. It moved silently down the path, and even though its eyes were faced forward, it felt like it was still taking stock of every tiny movement around it.

But just as it was about to pass by us, it stopped. My heart dropped, and I quickly retracted my head and made myself as small as possible so that no part of me was visible. I squeezed my eyes tight, praying that it’d go away. I had the darkest feeling that it knew that we were there, and we had nowhere to run. All we could do was stay silent and hope that it turned away.

A strange cold came over me, and just as I imagined him reaching over the completely meaningless barrier we were sitting behind, I heard a voice yell out from a distance.

Mark was on the other side of the pathway, screaming to get Ronald’s attention. Without hesitation, it moved towards Mark. Chloe and I took our opportunity to go. We could feel multiple pairs of eyes watching us and some shadows starting to close in on our position as we went. We were exposed, and we knew it. Our best bet was to get to the Black Beard ride and complete what we came here to do. As soon as it was in our sights, an extra burst of adrenaline kicked in, and we dived into the empty building that contained the ride.

A slim figure slithered towards us and slowly rose up on thin legs out of the darkness. The character resembling a tall decaying doll with melted facial features and pinpoint red eyes stared directly at us. Still, it didn’t dare to enter the ride. I could feel the tears streaming down my face as it paced the entrance and never for a second looking away.

We were entirely still watching it stare us down, and then for an utterly unexplainable reason, it moved on. Chloe and I both needed a moment of rest. In the near darkness, all I could hear was the moving water and her light sobs.

“Clo,” I whispered. “Are you okay? Look…” I reached for the keys in my pocket and tried to find her hand in the darkness to pass them off. “The second you start this ride, run back to the car, and you’ll never have to see this place again.”

Once I found them, I placed the keys in her hand and helped her to her feet. Without warning, she pulled me into a tight hug and told me that if she had to leave me to the catacombs that I had to promise that no matter what, I’d come back safe.

“I promise, Clo.”

Using her phone’s light to guide her to the control panel, she went to work on trying to get the water ride to start up. There were six small boats lined up in a row. Not knowing what awaited me inside the animatronic world of Black Beard, I took the last boat and tried to lay as flat as possible under the seat.

I waited until I heard the distinct buzzer indicating that the ride had started and I was off. The ride jolted forward, and the world of Black Beard came to life. I could only peek out of my spot, which allowed me to watch the animatronics dancing and singing to the cheesy pirate music and bad voice acting.

I had honestly forgotten how long the ride was as I was waiting. Still, when it got to a portion where there was simulated cannon fire between opposing ships, I knew it was halfway over. All I had to do was hold out until then.

Among the booming cannon fire came a piercing scream that sounded like it had years of pain and anguish behind it. A large dark figure rose behind the smoke, and my eyes grew wide as I heard the bellowing screams of the now visible animatronic that drew near.

The animatronic pirate had big vacant white eyes and a large hook nose that mimicked a beak. His massive hands each had two long human fingers in the shape of claws, and he was riddled with holes exposing a body covered in coral.

I hoped he wouldn’t see me, but my hope was dashed when he screamed my name and jumped into the first boat.

“Brandon!” His voice boomed. The robotic nature of its voice was made apparent through the multiple times his sentences would skip. “Where’s my F…ING treasures? YOU LITTLE SH…T. I’ll F…ING K… YOU.”

I could see him looking through the first boat but to no avail. He screamed in frustration. Without warning, he jumped into the second boat and, using his grotesquely long fingers, flipped the first boat out of the water, causing a loud BOOM.

“I’ll flip every F…ING boat, sailor.” BOOM. Four left. But we were almost there.

“I’ll break your F…ING neck as soon as I find ye.” BOOM. Three remaining. I knew I was right around the corner.

“You little piece of S..T. Where’s my G.D D..M treasure, boy?” BOOM. Just two. I could see I was slowly coming up on Black Beard’s treasure room.

“You’re going to die today.” BOOM. He was on my boat. The treasure room was just in front of us, I took a chance and exploded out of the boat. In one big leap, I made it onto the Black Beard’s platform. The animatronic screamed after me, and I could see it starting to move towards me. I quickly scrambled around the treasure and found a hatch. I flung it open and started climbing down the ladder into the catacombs. I heard a loud thud as the hatch closed above me from something slamming it down.

Once my feet reached the ground, I ran forward a bit and peeked over my shoulder to see if Black Beard had followed me down, but he never did. I was completely alone.

I exhaled a deep breath of relief. “I always knew that ride was wack.”

What I was faced with was essentially a concrete service tunnel. I noticed my footsteps echoed as I walked, and I didn’t hear any other voices or footsteps in front or behind me. For the first time in a while, I was sure that I was alone.

I checked my phone real quick to see if I had any service, and it was weak but there. I wanted to send a message to Mark but noticed he had already sent me a ton of text messages. My eyes grew wide as I read them.

Mark: Dude. Wtf?? I think this lady is trying something.

Mark: She disappeared when we split up. Saw her later pouring gasoline

Mark: DUDE SHE’S GONNA SET THIS PLACE ON FIRE HURRY THE F**K UP AND GET OUT OF THERE

Ms. Turner was going to set this place ablaze. If I didn’t get Amari and get out, all of this would be for nothing. I texted Mark to run back to the car if he hadn’t already and that I’d meet him and Chloe soon.

For the first time, I thought I had a chance to breathe, but my sense of urgency came back with a vengeance. I jogged forward through the bleak tunnel, watching the rats scurry by me. They seemed to be the only form of life in a place that went on for God knows how long.

Eventually, my jog slowed into a fast walk as I ran out of breath. It was only after I started to cool down did I realize how freezing the place was. Even though I was wearing warm clothes, it felt like I was walking in a damn freezer.

I don’t remember how long I walked or when I came to the end of the tunnel. Almost out of nowhere, a door that looked like it belonged to a janitorial closet appeared in front of me. But when my eyes focused on the very clear “33” engraved near the top. I had finally made it.

Everything was leading up to this. Every moment of terror, every tear shed, all the pain, everything was going to culminate right here. I reached for the knob and slowly opened the creaking door to reveal the wretched sight on the other end.

A morbidly obese man sat on a rotting wooden throne at the end of a small concrete room. He wore a soggy molded Cheesy mask whose typically large smile had deflated into an apparent frown. His body was mostly covered with what looked like stitched together clothes. Despite his exceedingly large frame, his fingers were long and bony, and they clung desperately to the throne. At his feet were small mummified corpses. Hundreds of rats running about through little tunnels scattered around the room. The smell of rot and cigarettes wafted through the air, and my eyes stung as soon as it hit me.

“Jesus F*****g Christ,” I whispered.

“You have entered the domain of the Rat King, Brandon. We were expecting you. You should show some respect.” His voice was gravely yet calm with a hint of playfulness, and he hissed as he spoke.

“You knew I was coming?”

“We kept a close eye on you from the very beginning. We heard about your plans to pay us a little visit. The King told his servants on the outside to be on the lookout. However, to his disappointment, one of them disobeyed his king. But in due time, he will be fixed. Yes. Everything will be fixed.”

“And who is ‘we’?”

He chuckled. “We are a kingdom, boy. We are the ones who run the park and all operations within it.”

“So, you bastards are the one that took my little brother?” I spat.

“Happiness here is guaranteed. It is not allowed to be unhappy here. The park does not permit it. But more importantly, the Rat King does not permit it. But still, your brother was unhappy. That had to be fixed. And the only way to fix it is to dedicate yourself to bringing happiness to others. That is how you get into the good graces of the Rat King.”

Anger was building up inside of me. “Why do all of this? We could have just left the park, I don’t get why you’d cause so much pain!”

“Of course you wouldn’t understand, boy. No one can reach the same level of enlightenment as the Rat King. You say he brings pain. But instead, he brings joy to his people. He is kind. And in return? He gets sustenance in any form he desires. It is a fair deal, says I.”

“Your crazy a*s can believe whatever the f**k you want, just give me my brother back or…”

“Or what, boy? You do not threaten the Rat King. No one threatens the Rat King. Even the man who finances my kingdom can’t intimidate him. Neither can the police. Or the media. And do you know why, boy? Because the king hears all. He knows all. Secrets are valuable. And the Rat King is rich in secrets.”

I was done with that park. Done with the characters. And done with this delusional man who had some warped sense of control from underneath an amusement park. I whipped out the gun and pointed it towards him, frustration and anger guiding my emotions. “Where’s my brother?”

Another laugh came from behind the mask. “Brandon. You are not going to shoot me. You are merely a child. One who has never fired a gun before. And now you’d shoot the Rat King? You aren’t a hero, boy. Accept that he has done everything for the greater good of the park. Put away the gun. You are not capable of using it anyway.”

“For Amari, I’d do anything.”

“How can you say that, boy? You’ve never killed. And you won’t today.”

For a moment, I wavered. I had gone through all of this for Amari. All of this pain and suffering. Now here I was with the perfect opportunity, and the only thing standing between my brother and me was this disgusting b*****d. And yet, I couldn’t pull the trigger. He was right. I was just a kid way over my head. Sneaking into this place is one thing but killing? I wasn’t a killer, no matter what the stakes. I just didn’t have it in me. But at that moment, I didn’t necessarily have to. “You say this place is your kingdom, right? If you don’t give my brother back, it’s going to burn to the ground.”

“What?” I could hear the hitch in his voice. Quickly, three rats crawled up his body and into a hole in the mask.

“If you don’t give me back Amari, I’ll tell my friend up there to burn it all. You can call your friends to come to kill me, but I guarantee one text message reaches her before they reach me.”

“How dare you, boy. How dare you?”

This time I could hear real frustration. The Rat King’s cool and calm demeanor had drastically changed, and this time I felt the gun was more for self-defense than to threaten him.

“Leave my park, boy. I command you. At first, I thought young Amari could bring happiness to the children. But now I see being rotten runs in the family. Maybe he is nothing more than rat food.”

How dare he? How dare he take Amari from me and then reduce my f*****g brother to rat food? This horrible man tried ruining our lives, and he dared to say that to me? Everything leading up to that moment flooded my mind. All I could think about was how that disgusting creature that stole my happiness didn’t deserve to speak another word. Before I even know what happened, a loud bang rang out. Then another. And another. Then silence.

I stood in silence, completely in shock at what I had done. But before I could even have a chance to reflect, a horde of rats poured out from the bullet holes like water from a faucet and rushed towards me. Without thinking, I quickly fired off the gun into what I thought was a corpse, but all I was met with was another wave of the horrible rodents.

I quickly spun around and ran out the door. The rush of adrenaline allowing me to sprint down the tunnel in a fraction of the time it took me to walk, but in my haste, I dropped the gun. That horde wanted blood, and the non-stop hissing that came from each of them was a constant reminder that if I stopped, they would pick my bones clean.

Sudden relief hit as I caught the ladder in my sights. When I was within 5 feet of the ladder, I opted to jump onto the rungs and quickly sprawl out of the hatch.

Looking down, I could see that the tunnel was utterly filled with rats. Once I was out the hatch, I could see rats spilling out of every hole in the ride. I bolted through the ride’s exit and didn’t stop sprinting until I saw the park’s gates.

I easily jumped the turnstile and left the attraction behind me, not once looking back. I didn’t stop sprinting until I saw the gates to the parking lot. The only moment of solace I had was when I finally saw the car in the distance, and as soon as Mark noticed me, he popped the door open for me to jump into the backseat.

No sooner had he done that did we watch as the park went up in flames. We waited for Ms. Turner to show up, but she never did. We tried texting and calling, but her phone went straight to voicemail every single time. Eventually, we knew that we needed to get the hell out of there, and we sped off back home.

I don’t remember what time we got back to the park. We still had a little bit before the sun came back up, but the three of us spent that entire time crying. That night hurt us all so profoundly. It left scars that still persist to this day. It wasn’t until maybe six or seven in the morning did any of us feel comfortable enough to go home.

We left the car at the park and simply walked to each of our houses without saying a word. We were all just so tired. We had been pushed so far beyond our limits mentally and physically that there was nothing left to give. I can only speak for myself, but I took it especially hard. After all of that, I failed again. So what was the point? Why did I make everyone go through literal hell just to not get my brother back? I felt that if Chloe and Mark hated me for the rest of my life, it would’ve been justified.

I managed to sneak back into my house and into my room. No one had noticed my absence. I found it strange how my parents slept peacefully while I was living a literal nightmare. I tried to get some sleep, but through the tears and adrenaline, it was impossible. Eventually, I just opted to stay awake until my body gave out.

It wasn’t until about 1 p.m. that a knock came at the door. I didn’t bother to check who it was. But when my mom answered, I could hear a loud scream that prompted me to rush downstairs. A police officer was standing in our doorway with Amari in hand. He looked entirely untouched from the day he went missing.

My eyes grew wide, and I started to tear up as I ran towards him and gave him the biggest hug possible. I told him I loved him and that I would never let him out of my sight again. Something he’d get annoyed by as he grew older, but I didn’t care. I finally had my brother back.

The officer told us Amari claimed that while Ms. Turner was setting the fire, Dizzy helped him to a secret room under the Concert Hall. It was here that police found him while searching through the rubble. It took years of therapy to get Amari back to where he was comfortable talking about much. To this day he still has a lot of repressed memories about whatever he saw. But the one thing he’s been adamant about is he didn’t know how he disappeared. All he could recall being led away to what he called “the secret place.” I wish I had more, but he’s yet to expand on that.

Still though, it was amazing to finally have our family back together. We treated him like the most precious thing in the world from then on. Looking back, it’s strange how amazing normalcy can be when you’ve missed it for so long. I’m not sure if Amari ever understood the pain we felt while he was missing, but he damn sure knew the love we had when he got back.

Us stupidly leaving the car at the park was brought into question when Ms. Turner was reported missing. But given the traces of gasoline in her vehicle, history of drinking, past history of tension with Cheesy’s, and her charred body being found clutching a Dizzy costume, the police eventually determined it was a vandalism-suicide attempt and that someone just moved the car after. I’ll never know the emotions she felt that night, but that last bit still gets me.

From what I hear, the park owner was more than thrilled to be released from the financial burden of Cheesy’s. In subsequent years he’s either sold off what he could to other parks or to scrap yards. I think the now-empty land is being redeveloped for something. He also went on a bit of a campaign to “clear” his name by paying off news sites to remove any and all stories relating to the park.

Life for me now is good. Chloe and I live together, and Mark stays close by. Sometimes when we leave our apartment, we see rats congregating just outside our doorstep. It’s odd, considering we don’t see them anywhere else in the apartment complex. For me, it always leads to a nagging thought. What if the Rat King is still out there, watching? I never technically saw him die. Is it possible that he found some other deep dark hole to crawl down? Is he continuing to do the horrible things he was doing before? I’m not sure. But if he is, I have a feeling he rules his new kingdom with an iron fist. And that no child anywhere will ever be safe from his reign.