[Part 1]

‘Cheesy’s World, where a kid’s happiness is guaranteed!’ Well, that’s how the slogan went back when I was a teenager anyway. I know what you’re thinking. “Cheesy’s World? Isn’t that a rip off of…” And you would be right if it reminded you of several places.

If you ever had the displeasure of visiting while it was still running, you’d see that the park was largely ‘inspired’ by multiple mainstream amusement parks and arcades. Were the owners of the place teetering precariously on a razor-thin line that would undoubtedly lead to a mountain of lawsuits? Of course. But when you’re young, you don’t think about those things. Especially when those mainstream places aren’t anywhere near you, and nobody has the money or the time to take you there.

In our sleepy small town, separated by miles of forest from our sister cities, not much went on. Our best bet at entertainment was to go on a hike or visit the one mall and movie theater we had. The park, however, was situated in the middle of multiple sparsely populated counties. It was almost like a hub of entertainment for us. Even though individually none of the surrounding regions could get many people in one place, people showed up at the park.

As a result, the place was always packed. Whatever issues there were with Cheesy’s, at the end of the day, it was ours.

That said, my brother Amari and I practically bounced off the walls the night our parents presented us with tickets to Cheesy’s World for Amari’s seventh birthday. I was excited to relive the rides, and he couldn’t wait to meet his favorite characters.

For some context, the amusement park’s theme was centered around Cheesy and his band of friends. Cheesy, the pizza-loving, adventurous, upbeat mouse, was the face of the main cast. And he was always accompanied by his three best friends, Ronald the Rabbit, Dizzy the Dog, and Nina the Duck.

Again, clear rip-offs of other well-known characters. I get it. And as a seventeen-year-old at the time, these parallels weren’t lost on me. But they were the closest I’d ever get to the real thing so I honestly didn’t care.

”Cheesy’s World?!” Amari screeched, barreling towards my dad for a hug. “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”

”Don’t mention it,” My dad said with a wide smile. “You boys have been keeping up with your homework, staying out of trouble, and keeping your rooms clean, so think of it as a little reward.” He winked, and walked upstairs, leaving us to our own emotions.

Unable to contain himself, Amari took off toward his room and started playing some of Cheesy’s classic songs he found online. Usually the loud singing would’ve annoyed me, but seeing him happy put me in a good mood. I felt the immediate need to video chat my best friends, Chloe and Mark, and rub my soon-to-be-amazing trip in their faces.

”Wow, that’s awesome! I always wanted to go to Cheesy’s when I was a kid.” Chloe gushed, “My dad never took us.”

Mark cut in with an exasperated sigh. “You’re seriously getting excited over going to a kid’s amusement park? Brandon, you’re seventeen. You should be getting excited over getting drunk at some girl’s house, not meeting old guys in smelly costumes.”

Chloe took offense to this statement. “Well, maybe he can enjoy things that don’t get him kicked out into the street with no way home at three in the morning.”

Mark laughed. “Oh yeah, I didn’t have my car back then. Thanks for taking me home, Clo.”

”No problem, Mark. Someone has to be the hero, right? Point is, I think it’s great that Brandon gets to do something fun! And, it’s not like he has to hang out with the characters all day. They do have some pretty amazing rides from what I’ve heard.”

I nodded. “Hell yeah. Rides, surprisingly cheap amusement park snacks, their ‘world-renowned’ pizza, and an arcade that I’m going to definitely clean out. It’s going to be a great day.”

”Just don’t forget that it’s your brother’s weekend,” Chloe said. “I know you want to have fun, and you should. But please try your best to make sure that he comes first. Even if he wants to do all the boring kid stuff.”

Mark couldn’t refrain from taking another shot at the park: “It’s all boring, kid stuff, Clo. Trust me. When I worked there over the summer, it wasn’t as happy and fun as they’d lead you to believe. Working the rides especially sucked. Definitely not worth the half-hour drive.”

I rolled my eyes. “It’s boring kid stuff I’ll enjoy, Mark. I’ll make sure to bring you back a light sword though, man. Anyway, it’s getting late so I’ll talk to you guys tomorrow. Let’s do something cool after class?” Chloe and Mark agreed, and with that, I ended the call and went to bed.

The next day at lunch, I sat alone at the outside tables picking at some questionable mac-and-cheese when I heard my name being shouted from across the quad. Being the only black kid in a nearly all-white school usually got me some looks. But, Mark had a knack for bringing even more attention to our group.

I looked to my left and saw him with a massive smile on his face as his long legs carried him toward me. Chloe was nearly overshadowed by his large frame as they walked together. Her brown hair covered her lightly-freckled face as her head hung low in embarrassment from Mark’s screaming. When the two reached my table, Mark slammed his pizza down right in front of me.

”Can you believe that they actually dared to buy good pizza today? How dare they actually bring us something edible for once? I mean, look at this delicious piece of pepperoni,” Mark said sarcastically.

I looked down at my still very questionable mac-and-cheese. “Yeah, crazy.”

While picking at my food, I caught Chloe staring at me. We had known each other since we were kids. I watched her grow from my goofy best friend who I’d climb trees and eat candy off the ground with to one of the most amazing girls in school. And even though I saw her every day, I always took notice when she looked in my direction.

I could usually tell when Chloe was flustered, but outside of that, she was a hard girl to read. The girl never had a class where she earned less than an A, so you never knew if her stare was because she was lost in the massive sea of her overly complex mind or if she was concerned about things happening at present. “You okay, Clo?”

Almost like she was broken from a trance, she perked up. “Oh! Yeah! Sorry, I was just thinking about something.”

”Thinking about what?” Mark asked.

”Well, I…“

Before she could finish her sentence, Jose Velasquez, whom I had known since Middle School for his deep interest in technology and the macabre, slid into the empty spot next to me. He had a crazed look in his eye and looked me up and down, shaking his head before speaking.

”Brandon, you’re really going to Cheesy’s World?”

”Uh, yeah?” I replied, confused. “How’d you know that?”

”Overheard Chloe talking about it to Amber. But it doesn’t matter. Look. That place is fucking weird, man. Bad shit happens there.”

I shot Chloe a glare, and she simply shrugged. “Oh, really?” I said. “Bad shit like… I dunno. Kids running too fast to the candy store and scraping their knees? I did hear that was a problem. You know? Now that I recall, I think I did hear a story about how one year, a guy got there so early and had so much fun on all the rides that he slept the entire next day.”

He scoffed at my sarcasm and started searching on his phone. “No. Bad shit like kids missing.” He turned his screen towards the three of us, and shockingly, there was an article from last year detailing how a little girl had gotten lost in the park and hadn’t turned up for weeks.

Chloe nodded her head. “Oh yeah. I do remember that story!”

”Spooky stuff, Jose,” Mark said, unamused. “I’m sure there’s a lot of kids that go missing in a lot of places. Doesn’t really mean much.”

”You don’t get it!” Jose nearly shouted before bringing his voice to a whisper and leaning in. “It wasn’t just that one kid. I’ve found stories almost of kids going missing going back years! Legend has it… They keep kids locked up in the park’s catacombs.”

Mark laughed. “Dude, they couldn’t even pay us enough to be on time. You think Cheesy’s could get its employees to kidnap kids? Plus, tell me one story you’ve seen on TV news about a kid going missing. People will tell you ‘stories’ about anything. Show me a verified case.”

”They’re probably paying off people to bury the stories!” Jose threw his arms up. “You have to really dig if you want to find the articles, but they’re there! I can show you that they’re there!”

I looked down at my watch and saw we still had another half-hour before lunch ended. “Wow, I just remembered. Mr. Perez wanted Chloe, Mark, and me to go to his room to talk about our project, so we’re gonna head over there. Thanks for the info, though, Jose. Really.”

Seeing the opportunity to escape from his rambling, Chloe and Mark took my lead and followed me toward Mr. Perez’s room. We stopped just short of it, and once we were sure that we had escaped Jose, we took a collective relaxed breath. We spent the rest of the lunch period discussing where we should go after school. Since Mark had just gotten his license and was now driving to school, he insisted that we go to what he referred to as a ‘secret chill spot.’ Chloe and I were a bit suspicious, as we’d never been there, but gave him the benefit of the doubt nonetheless.

When the day ended, we all met Mark in the school’s back parking lot, hopped into his car, and took off toward his mysterious location. Driving through our county is usually a pretty dull ride. Most of it is spent looking at trees and farmland. Mark, however, took the liberty of spicing up our time with horrible music and providing even worse backup vocals.

After about an hour of driving into the countryside, we made one stop for food before we finally pulled off onto the side of a road facing a cliff that overlooked the entire county. The sky was crystal clear, and honestly, the view from the cliff was beautiful. The town wasn’t much to look at, but the nature surrounding it was picturesque. I could see mountains in the distance, vast forests accompanying them, and even the town’s lake looked terrific as the sunlight gleamed off of its unmoving surface.

I asked Mark if we were nearing his spot, and he replied with a broad smile, “This is my spot.” He quickly got out and ran to the trunk to pull out foldable lawn chairs and a 6-pack of beer he got from a sketchy corner store. “Nobody comes up here, so I like to just put out a chair and think sometimes.”

Chloe feigned amusement. “Wow, Mark. So this is where you spend all of that time not doing homework.”

”Hey, to be fair, I have a stable C- in most of my classes. If I do well on the tests, I can get away with skipping, like, half of my assignments.”

Chloe and I looked at him, half-amused and half-bewildered. “That’s not… technically true, but I’ll let you have that one, buddy,” I said as I folded out a lawn chair.

Mark handed Chloe and me two beers each and then sat down in his chair. He raised one of the two remaining beers into the air and encouraged us to do the same. He cracked his can open and shouted, “Cheers to Friday!”

I couldn’t help myself and repeated the statement, slamming down my beer while Chloe laughed at her two idiot friends… well… being idiots. She slowly sipped on her beer but insisted that she was drinking in solidarity with us. And the conversation that followed was pleasant. We spent hours just talking and laughing as old friends do. It was the last moment of pure peace and relaxation we’d have for a while, and I really wish I could’ve appreciated that time more. Mark’s ridiculously firey personality contrasted with Chloe’s quiet brilliance. My friends indeed were what brought a real spark into my life, and nothing was more apparent than when we had moments like that to just talk. We were kids free of the ugliness of the world. We could move through life fluidly without fearing what was beyond our safe little bubble. Life back then was good.

When we decided to head back, it was already dark. Chloe complained of being tired, and Mark mentioned how he would have a long day of trying to sneak into college parties the next day. We loaded back into the car and began the ride back. The first few minutes were silent as we were all low on energy and wanted to be home more than anything. The thought of Chloe trying to say something to me earlier in the day before being interrupted popped into my head. At that moment, I felt compelled to ask. “Hey, Clo. You were gonna say something earlier at lunch. What was it?”

She perked her head up from her phone. She had a puzzled look on her face but then remarked, “Oh, yeah. It’s nothing.”

”Hm, well, if it was nothing, then you could definitely tell me,” I retorted.

She sighed and set her phone down. “It’s just. I was talking to my dad more about the park, and what Jose said was kinda similar to what he said. He went when he was a kid, and he felt something off about that place. You don’t think it’s weird that all those kids went missing there?”

I shrugged. “Maybe a little? But I’d bet every big park has kids that go missing. They’re massive places, and you’re bound to get some irresponsible parents with overactive kids. It’s a pretty common thing.”

”But it’s not just that. I heard these kids never turn back up. Getting lost in the park is one thing, but to never return home?” Chloe asked.

”What would that have to do with the park, though? I may remember a few cases, but like Mark said, how many were actually even verified?”

”I don’t know.” She shrugged. “But it’s not just the kids. My dad mentioned something about the characters being funny? He said he didn’t like the way they moved when he went as a kid.”

”I’m not saying that it’s not weird, Clo. I guess it’s just like… Why? What the hell would make a park want one random kid? Let alone a bunch of ‘em? And if people did think the park had some hand in it, then why hasn’t the place been raided or sued? As far as the characters go, those costumes are creepy to everyone. Not a huge deal, right?”

”The place was incredibly normal when I worked there,” Mark cut in. “As a guy who spent way too much of his life in that park, I can tell you for a fact nothing weird happened.”

”I dunno, guys… Just forget it. My point is, I was thinking about it, and it was freaking me out a little bit. Just promise me you’ll stay safe and look out for any creeps hanging out there, okay? I have some family stuff to take care of in the morning but have a present for Amari, and I want to give it to him at the park. Maybe I could meet you guys when you’re leaving?”

I chuckled. “The most danger he’ll be in is of throwing up after I force him to go on the Crazy Mouse with me. By the way, what’d you get him?”

”I bought him a lock-picking kit. I remember you used to play with those all the time as a kid, so I figured I’d give him one in case he had the same talent.”

”Oh yeah, I remember getting into trouble for opening doors. But you can’t just wait to give Amari the gift when we get home? We all live pretty close.”

”I would, but then I wouldn’t be able to tag along with his birthday dinner! I haven’t missed one yet, and I’m not going to this year.”

”You got it, Clo.” A large smile formed on my face. “And we’ll stay safe! I promise.”

The rest of the ride home continued in silence as we were exhausted from hanging out all night. Chloe was the first to get dropped off, and as Mark pulled up in front of my house, he stopped me before I got out.

”You know she worries about you, man,” He said in a rare moment of seriousness.

”I know. Clo’s been my best friend since childhood. I worry about her too.”

He chuckled. “Yeah, I’m sure you do. Look, you’re gonna go to the park and have a great time. I know you will. I have no doubt that everything will be fine. But maybe shoot her a text or something when you get there and one when you leave. Just to make sure that everything is cool. Make sure she’s able to meet you guys at the park to give Amari his gift and hang out a bit afterward. I’m sure Amari would love that too.”

”Yeah, maybe.” I raised an eyebrow at Mark’s sudden soft side. “Why are you so concerned about this? It’s pretty out of character for you.”

He shrugged. “I know I can be a dick sometimes. But maybe I care about my friends too.” I got out of the car and he winked at me before peeling off into the night, honking his horn twice as he faded out into the distance. As rough around the edges as he seemed, deep down, Mark was a solid guy and was always there when I needed him.

I meandered into my quiet house. It was a little past 12 a.m., and everyone was asleep. I tiptoed into Amari’s room, making sure to avoid the toys he had scattered across the floor. He looked like an angel as he slept peacefully. I swear I could see a smile form on his face as he dreamed. I kissed him on his forehead and whispered, “Happy birthday, buddy. Big brother loves you more than anything.” I could feel a massive yawn coming on, which signaled it was time for me to go to bed.

As I made my way to my room, got into bed, and closed my eyes to drift off into sleep, my last conscious thoughts were positives ones. I was utterly confident that the next day would be absolutely perfect.

I woke with a start as my dad shook me to get out of bed.

”Brandon!” He half yelled at me. “Get up. I told you we need to be there early. Mom and Amari are already ready.”

”Wha… What time is it?” I responded groggily, still mostly asleep.

”It’s 7 a.m. We were supposed to be gone thirty minutes ago. So get up and get ready, please.”

”7 a.m.? That’s like… three hours earlier than anyone should ever be awake. Why are we going so early?”

He shook his head in disapproval. “Because everyone goes early, and we won’t be able to do anything if we spend all day standing in the line to get in.”

”And why didn’t you wake me up again?”

”Because you’re seventeen, Brandon! I expected you to get up without me having to tell you. You have fifteen minutes, so either you get ready, or we leave without you.”

I moaned as I flipped off my covers, rushed to a quick rinse shower, and brushed my teeth. Once I was clean enough, I threw on a hoodie and some jeans and announced to my family that I was ready to go as I made my way downstairs. I could already see that Amari was in a mood when I approached.

”Happy birthday, Amari. What’s up with you, little bro?” I asked.

”You’re making us late!” He wagged his finger at me. “I wanted to get there early!”

My mom put a hand on Amari’s head and shot me the same disapproving look my dad did when he walked into my room. “Amari’s been a bit cranky this morning because he woke up really early, so please do your best to not upset your brother while we’re there.”

Though I felt the criticism was a little harsh for simply oversleeping, I agreed to be on my toes, and we all loaded into the car.

During the ride over, I tried to engage Amari in conversation, but he wasn’t too interested. He was clearly frustrated with me for making us leave late. He mostly just stared out the window and gave me one-word answers when I tried to talk to him.

Halfway through the drive, I started poking him and asking, “Whatcha doin’?” But he just groaned, prompting my mom to tell me to leave him alone. Eventually, I gave up and started talking to my dad instead.

”Hey, dad. Have you heard any of the rumors about this place? About the kids going missing?”

My mom gave me a look and then motioned to Amari as if to tell me not to scare him, but my dad just laughed. “Oh yeah. I remember I heard about something like that once. I think they’re just a bunch of urban legends, son. Everyone I know has been safe going there.”

”You’re sure?” I asked. “A couple of the kids mentioned it at school, so I was just curious.”

”I am. We’ve been to this park, what? Five times? And nothing terrible has happened. Just keep in mind that not everything you read online is true. We’ll be okay, trust me.”

If Amari had been paying attention, I didn’t notice it because as soon as we started to draw near the park, a wave of excitement hit him. He started bouncing in his seat and pressing his face to the window so that he could get a better look at the park in the distance. All while humming the Cheesy’s songs he spent the past few days listening to.

We drove past a large sign with Cheesy’s massive smiling face looking down at us. His eyes seemed to follow us as we drove by, and his grin was always just a little too big for my liking. Under the mouse, giving us a big thumbs up were the words, “Welcome to Cheesy’s World. Where a kid’s happiness is guaranteed!”

My mom looked back at us with a big smile and reached back to hold Amari’s hand, “Are you excited? You finally get to see your favorite mouse.”

Amari nodded, barely able to contain himself as we finally pulled into the park. He was practically bouncing from the time we got out of the car until the time we officially entered the park.

I have to admit, I was a little taken aback by what I saw. Though on the surface everything looked normal, there was something off. Maybe it was teenage cynicism, but I got the feeling that the park was dirty.

I looked around the big entrance square where people were strolling around to get from one attraction to another. It was already getting busy. Through all of those happy families, I saw numerous pieces of trash were strewn about. A couple with a six-year-old girl hanging from their arms passed by and made a fallen coke can roll around the tiled square. Further up, a trash bin was overflowing, and an empty bag of chips was caught in a light breeze. All the buildings had chipped paint with large dark spots like nobody had done any upkeep on them in years.

I couldn’t remember noticing it the last time I visited. Not many people around seemed to be catching how janky the park looked. Several dressed up employees walked by, but their costumes looked raggedy, and the characters themselves appeared lifeless. It was as though they were empty husks dragged across the park from one point to another. Their stiff, ragged movements toyed with my imagination, and I could have sworn they made a slight shuffling sound.

I had a profoundly ominous feeling, and I could tell Amari was picking up on it when I caught him staring off at a petting zoo that had only one lazy looking goat with a frown. I asked him if he was doing okay, and he simply shook his head. “This isn’t what I expected.”

”I know what you mean, buddy.” I looked over to my parents to gauge their reactions, but I could see the sense of childhood wonder in their eyes. They consistently pointed out the attractions and how amazing everything looked. It was like they were being blinded by their inner children.

”So, what do you want to do first? Maybe the Black Beard water ride?” My mom asked Amari.

”Isn’t that where they keep the frozen head of the park’s founder or something?” I asked. “Maybe it’s the animatronics, but something about that ride has always kind of creeped me out.”

”Frozen head? That’s a… different park, son,” my dad commented.

My mom rolled her eyes, “It’s your brother’s birthday, so we go on what he wants first. Even if the animatronics are a little creepy.” She turned to Amari. “Any ideas, sweetie?”

He hesitated for a moment before answering. “I um… I dunno… Maybe we could try to go on the Time Train? I always liked seeing the dinosaur part.” His speech was quiet, and he looked at the ground, unsure of his choice. This was strange because he was almost always confident in his choices. Whenever we had gone to a place of his choosing, he would passionately exclaim what he wanted to do.

”That sounds like a great idea!” Dad exclaimed before leading us all to the train.

It wasn’t too far of a walk from where we were, and on the way, I could see that Amari didn’t look particularly happy about going. My parents tried to ask him questions about if he was excited, and all he would give were bland answers.

When we got on, I could see Amari looked even more bothered by something. I knew that the ride wouldn’t hold the same magic it did for me as a kid, but I hoped I could at least find some entertainment in it. But it was clear as soon as we started moving that he wasn’t enjoying himself. He frowned at the passing animatronics, and when his supposed favorite part of the train ride came up, he jumped back at the deafening roar of the dinosaur. After the ten minute ride, he had looked like he had gone through hell.

”You okay there, buddy?” I asked.

When he didn’t respond, I tried again, placing my hand on his shoulder, and he immediately slapped it away. “I’m fine!”

”Amari!” My parents scolded in unison. I knew that this was the point where he’d start to get into trouble, and they pulled him aside to have a conversation about how he needed to fix his attitude.

I took this opportunity to text Chloe like Mark had suggested.

Me: Hey, Clo

Chloe: Hey there :)

Me: We made it to the park. ‘Fun’ times all around.

Chloe: That’s awesome!

Chloe: I’m sorry I was weird about it yesterday. I’m glad you’re having a good time.

Me: Yeah, about that. I think you might’ve been right about the weird vibe here. Amari is throwing a fit.

Chloe: Oh no. Well, let me meet you guys there when you’re leaving. Maybe the gift will cheer him up.

Me: Hopefully. The kid is tripping. But I’m not really worried about that right now.

Chloe: What do you mean?

Me: Like I said. Just bad vibes. Parents coming over. I’ll text you later.

My parents walked over with Amari in hand, and he was wiping away tears. “Everything okay?” I asked.

”Yeah,” my mom said with a hand on her hip. “Amari is just having a bit of an attitude problem. But he knows that if he doesn’t fix it, then we’re going straight home.”

”I mean, could you guys leave me here if you do that because I can always get a ride b…” Before I could finish, I saw the cold look both of them gave me, and I quickly pivoted. “I mean, I was just kidding. I’d love to visit the arcade and win a prize for Amari, though. That’d be great.”

Amari simply shrugged, and that was good enough for us to head over to the arcade. Waiting outside of the arcade was a short, blue, somewhat plump cartoon rabbit wearing a pilot’s uniform. He wore a nametag that read, ‘Your Pal, Ronald the Rabbit,’ and was pre-occupied with taking pictures with kids. I tried to steer us left to avoid him, but as soon as we walked next to him, his neck snapped towards us, and his large cartoonish eyes seemed impossible to escape. He rushed over to block our entrance into the arcade, waving his hands.

”Oh my gosh! Ronald!” my mom squealed. “Let’s get a picture!”

Ronald nodded and motioned for us. My mom pulled a young man away from his girlfriend to take a picture. Ronald huddled us together, and all I could remember was how he felt. It literally felt like ice was pressing against my skin when Ronald put his paw on my shoulder, and a very distinct chill ran down my spine. I could tell Amari forced a smile during the pictures. Despite how uncomfortable the experience was for me, it was downright terrifying for him. The way he took an immediate step back from Ronald and refused to make eye contact said a lot.

I kept Amari company in the arcade, trying to calm him down as much as possible. But even as I helped him to win more game tickets than he knew what to do with, he seemed to be in a constant state of stress. He meandered through the arcade with no clear motivation to play, and he’d completely lose focus during the games. When he noticed employees who simply wore hats or shirts with the various characters, he’d completely avoid them and cling to me when they walked by. One time I even caught him looking over his shoulder. I tried to see what the hell he was looking at, and for a moment, I thought I saw Ronald peeking in on us from the outside.

About an hour later, Amari wanted to trade in his tickets for a prize. He picked an action figure that blared an annoying catchphrase and a thundering sound behind it. For a while, it brought him some peace. This came at the small cost of my sanity as he repeatedly echoed the noise, but it was his day, so I let him be.

For the next few hours, things were normal. Amari was still a bit snippy when we tried to talk to him. But he kept it in check as much as possible as we went around the park. Though Amari wasn’t totally engaged with the activities, he wasn’t throwing a fit either, which was a win. However, when we got to the fiercest roller coaster in the park, he tugged on my mom’s shirt and pointed towards the Concert Hall.

”But I want to see the show,” he whined.

”Amari, your brother has been wanting to go on this ride all day, and we did everything you wanted to do.” My mother said firmly. “We’ve been waiting in line for half an hour; we are not getting out of it to go to the show right now.”

He stomped his foot down, and tears started to well in his eyes.

”Hey. C’mon man. It’s just one ride, and you’ll love it,” I said, trying to cheer him up.

”No!” Amari yelled back. “I want to see the band’s show!”

”That’s it!” My mom yelled. She grabbed Amari by the arm and dragged him out of the line and towards the exit. My dad and I tried to follow carefully behind, but my mom was determined to storm back to the car and get home, with Amari fighting her the whole way. But just before we reached the gate, another character, a yellow duck with long blonde hair, pom-poms, and a shirt with a pizza on it, jumped in front of us. I think she caught my mom off guard because it stopped her march in her tracks.

”Nina!” Amari yelled, pointing to the dancing duck.

Nina started to dance around and shake her pom-poms. As strange as it was, I could tell that she was doing this for a reason. Amid her frantic dancing, it looked like she was trying to motion towards the Concert Hall.

”Hey, you know, the Concert Hall is right over there, and I don’t think the band has played yet. Maybe we should just let Amari have this since we’re already here?” I said, putting a hand on Amari’s head. My parents weren’t exactly buying what I was selling, so I pushed further. “Can we please just do this for him? He hasn’t had the happiest day, and maybe we can just do one thing to make sure that his birthday is still a special one.”

My parents conferred for a moment, and my dad shrugged and gave the nod. “Fine. But Amari, I want this to be the end of your attitude.”

With a smile on my face, I texted Chloe to make her way over, and inside, the animatronic band was on full display. Cheesy stood front and center with a microphone in hand. The grey mouse was in his classic attire. A green t-shirt featuring a pizza with bites out of it forming the letter C. He wore athletic shorts and large yellow shoes accompanied by his traditional white gloves. All of this was topped off by one of those colorful hats with the propeller on the top.

Cheesy was leading his group of pizza-loving anthropomorphic animals. As we stood in the crowd, Amari began to bounce to the music, and he even managed to convince our parents to buy him some of Cheesy’s ‘world-famous’ pizza. For a moment, he seemed happy. My mom even managed to get a picture of him smiling with pizza hanging out of his mouth, holding the toy he won from the arcade.

That was until another kid walked up and grabbed Amari’s toy. “Look, mommy. Can we get one?” the other little boy looked up at his mom with pleading eyes.

Amari didn’t take too kindly to this. He immediately stood up, snatched the action figure away, and yelled, “No!” Before anyone could react, he pushed the kid down. My dad immediately grabbed Amari and started dragging him to the exit. I knew that Amari had been upset, but he had never been violent. We were absolutely shocked at the sudden outburst.

Before we made it outside, Dizzy stepped in our path. He was tall with soft drooping eyes and dressed in attire one would associate with someone who lived on a farm complete with a straw hat. His long limbs completely blocked the exit.

”Move,” my dad coldly stated to the character.

He simply shook his head and pointed to a guy rushing over. For the first time in what felt like forever, I saw what appeared to be a regular employee dressed in plain clothes.

”Hey, folks. I saw everything that happened just there, and here at Cheesy’s World, we like to provide a safe and healthy environment and…”

”Get to the point,” my mom said, cutting him off.

”Right.” He continued after clearing his throat. “Well, we’d just like to bring you in to talk about the incident so that we can make a report. I’d like to assure you that you’re not in trouble and we get that these things happen. We just want to be responsible when they do. Eh, where’s your son?”

”He’s right here…” My dad suddenly realized he was grasping at air. He frantically looked around but didn’t see Amari anywhere. “Amari!’ he yelled. “AMARI!”

It took my parents all of a second to run around the Concert Hall, searching for Amari. I stood in shock, unsure of what to do. Had he really run off? So much of this seemed out of character for him. Even when he got emotional. I told my parents I’d be right back, and I ran outside spurred on by pure adrenaline, screaming his name. I sprinted the perimeter of the Concert Hall, down by the train, and around every building, he could be hiding behind desperately searching for him. I pushed numerous people out of my way and made sure every person I passed wasn’t trying to escape with Amari. By the time I got back, I could see my parents were in tears. They were being told that we needed to go back to the park manager’s office to talk to security about where Amari could be.

I was terrified. A million thoughts ran through my head. Did someone take him? Did he wander off? Is he safe? I could already feel the tears parading down my face as I was constantly bombarded by thoughts of worst-case scenarios. Anger at myself started to boil up in my body. How could I have let him go like that? And why the fuck weren’t these park employees freaking out as much as my parents and I were?

Once we arrived, they assured us they had people around the park looking for him and that security was checking the cameras. We stayed all the way through closing, and there were no developments. This wasn’t a good enough answer for any of us as my parents berated management and security for not doing a good enough job of getting their son back. In their minds, he couldn’t have just disappeared with no one seeing anything.

Eventually, the police got involved, and after hours more of waiting, they told us that they’d handle it. Still, we needed to go home because there was nothing else to be done. It hurt me so profoundly to walk away without Amari. It felt like we were leaving him there to some unknown fate. I was prepared to stay there every second it took until he was safe with us, and yet the reality of the situation meant that we had to go. So many emotions were firing inside of me, anger, sadness, confusion. I just wanted my brother back, and it felt like we weren’t doing enough to make that happen.

I hadn’t looked at my phone until we were walking towards the gates, and when I saw a litany of missed calls and texts from Chloe. At the time, I didn’t have the strength to see her. When the shock wore off, I could only manage to send a message that read, “Amari is missing.”

I watched as rats scattered out from underneath our car. And the moment the three of us got in, we broke down. My dad punched the steering wheel, and my mom clung to him wailing. We all cried for a long time that night. And the tears didn’t stop all the way home.

[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 God damn 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 ass 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 fucking 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 fucking 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 fucking 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 fuck 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 fucked 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 bullshit 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 fucking 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 fucking 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 fucking 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 fucking 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 fucking 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 shit," and hauled ass 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 shitty 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 fuck?" 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.

"Shit!" 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."

[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 bullshit 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.

"Fucked," 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. "Fuck 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 fucks 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 'fuck 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 bullshit? 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 shit 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 fucking 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 fucking shooting anyone! I don't care if you think those things in costumes aren't human. If they are, then we go down for fucking 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 ratchet 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 FUCK 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 Fucking 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 ass can believe whatever the fuck 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 bastard. 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 fucking 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.

Written by bryany97 (https://www.reddit.com/user/bryany97/)

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