A great idea. An amusement park.
Mostly in make-up and rarely wearing some stifling felt-covered animal head, it would be a summer job and almost fun at the same time. Pepito had even thought he wouldn't have to hold to any kind of dress code as long as they kept him near the fun houses or let him wander aimlessly on Halloween. Aside from days when it was too hot to think or the days it rained buckets from on high, the combined brain power of Todd and Pepito failed to produce any downsides to working at SuperFun Land except for 'dealing with people.'
Plus, Pepito had promised he could damn the fussy ones on the spot.
Todd of course laughed at him when Pepito's first job at the park was to stand in front of the Elevator to Heck – an old amusement that locked park guests into a room, heated the room about 20 degrees and scrolled a vinyl wall of rocks, bones and hell fire by the elevator's 'windows.' Pepito and Todd rode it themselves only once, and Pepito complained bitterly about the authenticity through the entire trip. Daily, he guarded the ill-conceived ride and pretended to be himself at its doors, quietly giving out small curses to anyone who was actually scared during the course of the ride.
Their coworkers were average guys and girls, many of whom had gone to Todd's school, all trying to somehow enjoy summer and make money in the process. Like Pepito, they had thought the amusement park would pay them to take spins on rides and sample the cotton candy. Also like Pepito, they were unhappy to say the least when they discovered that their only fun from day to day would be the breeze from the spinning Wipeout ride, and even that would usually require cleaning up vomit.
On his first day of work, Todd met the single exception to the sad picture of teenage woe: Old Hank.
Todd had been herding a small group of kids away from the clown ruler that snarled if the kids weren't 'this tall to ride' when bony hands latched onto his wrist and nearly pulled him to the sweat-and-french-fry-grease-covered pavement. Todd regained his balance easily and tensed up, prepared to run or scream or be abducted by something when he saw that the hand belonged to a withered old man.
"You be careful now," he said to Todd.
"Yessir," Todd replied quickly.
"Nah, nah, there's no needin' for any o' tha'," the man said, shaking his head. "Yeh just call me 'Old Hank' now, you hear?"
"Yessir, Old Hank."
"An' you listen to what Old Hank tells yeh an' yeh be careful. You're going to shrink when yeh get older." He motioned with the broom he supported in his other hand to the 'must be this tall to ride' clown sign that was currently giving the thumbs up to a boy who looked a little surprised that the clown hadn't bitten him.
"I'm going to what?" Todd asked, almost to himself.
"Best ta ride 'em now, s'what I always say. 'Fore the Steel Dragon takes you. Bit. By. Bit."
He released Todd's hand then, and turned abruptly as though something directly behind him had just that moment needed cleaning. He shuffled away, muttering about his lost youthful essence, his broom leaving soft swishes on the pavement.
No one knew how long Old Hank had been there. Everyone Todd had asked after his encounter with the old man either said, "Him? Didn't he die last year?" or "I dunno. I thought they built him with the park." And while Hank being a cyborg created to do the park's evil bidding had crossed Todd's mind more than once, there wasn't much practical about making a robotic crazy old man. Hank couldn't do anything but unsettle others and talk about how he'd never agreed to give his soul to the Tilt-O-Whirl.
The thing about Old Hank was that he was always delivering wisdom like this. Little bits of knowledge that almost made sense and were almost useful, but never really applicable to the situation he offered them in. Hank was at the park morning, noon and night and Todd worried that there were laws restricting how much they could work an old man.
The work was hot, and the work was long. Pepito said something after their first week about the length of their shifts being totally criminal, and while Todd thought maybe they were a little excessive, he had no problems being away from his parents for as long as work permitted.
FunLand's owner reportedly never dealt directly with his summer workers, but Todd found it odd that the owner hadn't interviewed him or even offered a single fleeting handshake accompanied by a vaguely sincere, "Welcome to the Team." Surely he'd want to keep up personal appearances or inspire some kind of belonging in his employees?
Two weeks into his job, Todd was cleaning the last llama on the carousel when the loudspeaker nearest him crackled and spewed some fizzing noises that worried him. He approached it cautiously, holding the cleaning rag in front of him as though it would offer some kind of protection. The speaker continued spitting noise and increased in volume as Todd grew closer.
When Todd stood directly underneath it, and lowered his feeble shield, the speaker exploded in a shower of yellow hissing sparks.
Todd shrieked and tried to cover his head with the rag as he danced out of the way of the spray. He looked around the park in a panic, breathing hard and a little stunned, hoping someone had seen that he didn't break the speaker on purpose. The park felt as though it looked back at him, though no one was there. The faded names of the coasters, bumper cars and other tourist death traps sat quietly in the almost-dark, but nothing moved or made a sound but the dying speaker before him.
Just when he'd decided to turn around and finish the llama and start in on the emu, a voice sputtered onto a speaker on the other side of the carousel.
Todd jumped and smeared some wax onto his shirt. Huddling close to the llama's leg, he called back into the dark.
"Clean up that mess over there. I'll work it out with your paycheck. When you come in tomorrow, I'd like you to try on the suit."
Grateful that he was talking to a speaker that could not see his face contort into dismay, Todd did his best to answer confidently.
"Good boy. Carry on then."
Todd's forehead thumped against the llama's wooden leg in frustration. "The Suit" the voice on the speaker (he assumed it to be his still-invisible boss) had referred to was Little Bear, one of FunLand's mascots. Wearing a dumb costume had been exactly what Todd wanted to avoid when he started working. As he finished the rest of the carousel, he prayed that the suit had been originally fitted to a tiny teenage girl or a large fat man and he would be spared having to wear the sweltering furry prison at all.
He met Pepito at the gate that night to walk home. Before he could relate his tale of mascot woe, Todd was greeted with a play by play of Pepito's evening.
"Listen to this, listen to this! So I'm over by the Elevator and the other guy there walks off to call his girlfriend. This is fine, I say, I'm gonna keep working because I want to go home sometime tonight."
"I'm not done, just wait. So I'm standing there and the Elevator lights up. And I'm all, 'Holy fuck, what is that?' Well the voice thing that narrates it comes on and says my name and tells me I need to grow a beard and come in early tomorrow for a fitting."
Todd flinched. "Fitting?"
"They want me as a mascot, I guess."
Todd quickly relayed his speaker story as they crammed into Pepito's tiny car.
"… and he said it would be adjusted for in my paycheck. Which means I'm not getting paid at all this summer if I have to replace a whole fucking speaker. AND, I have to not get paid in a bear suit."
Pepito slammed the dashboard in front of him, muttering about the broken display.
"We'll talk to him tomorrow," Pepito said, backing out of the parking spot. "Let's just get home in one piece."
Though they usually found freedom in playing the newest hits of Metal Ferret, they skipped the music and rode away from FunLand a little wary of the car's silent speakers.
The next morning, Todd reported to work as usual. Since he never saw the owner, he thought maybe he wouldn't have to wear the suit after all. For a full twenty minutes, Todd felt certain that he was going to get away with being bear free for the summer, but then he talked to Old Hank at the hot dog stand. Old Hank produced the head of the bear costume seemingly out of nowhere and told Todd that he was doing a favor for the management by bringing the suit out for him. Though he felt nothing even close to gratitude, Todd thanked Old Hank and slinked off into a nearby restroom to change.
It was musty in the room. The mirrors reflected brown and yellow and would have looked dirty themselves if Todd was not completely sure that it was just the air around them that was so disgusting. Also disgusting was the smell of the inside of the bear head. Countless summers worth of someone else's sweat were caked on the inside. While Todd debated attempting to flush the entire costume, he filled the inside of the head with water and soap in an attempt to fool himself into thinking it was clean. The bear's eyes and mouth, which were made of a black mesh to allow the poor bastard inside to see, oozed with the water behind them. Todd tried to pretend that oozing was a natural and normal property of water.
Todd thought the head was mocking him. "Yeah, you're in control now," it seemed to say, "but just wait until I dry out and you have no choice but to put me on. Then we'll see."
Admittedly, Todd felt he had a certain kind of experience with things like this, and was not as alarmed at this bear as a guy who hadn't had his childhood teddy bear tell him to kill would be. The humor in Todd now dressing in a suit that looked remarkably like his childhood toy was not lost on him, but unfortunately, Todd had no way of knowing if the bear head was truly talking to him, or if he was only hearing his own dread at having to wear it. Still, the concept of talking inanimate objects was not alien to him, and he kept the bear head in the water long after the stream began flowing out of the bear's face in a normal consistency. A little drowning couldn't hurt when facing an evil theme park costume.
Old Hank had given him the outfit, and that worried him. He didnt' want to wear it no matter where it had come from, but Old Hank handing the suit out with authority that was inconsistent with his usual delirium worried Todd to that point that he felt that he would be risking something by not wearing the hideous suit.. He watched his face in the filthy mirror, wondering if it was possible that Old Hank was faking his lunacy. It was more likely that Hank simply had startling moments of clarity, but Todd's short-lived theory about Hank being a robot created to do the park's evil bidding was beginning to take shape again.
Outside, Todd heard Pepito attempting to pry some sense out of Old Hank, who only muttered about things that had happened "back in his day." Pepito grew increasingly annoyed with Hank and his voice began to betray his true nature. Quickly, Todd switched on the hand dryer and thrust the bear head under it. Often he found that if he could just pretend something was or was not, he could tolerate it. Confrontation set him on edge, awkward scenes in movies made his skin crawl and situational comedy in which someone was going to be screamed at freaked him out and made him change the channel. Anger in particular just shut him down, so if he didn't have to hear it, he didn't have to be affected by it.
Pepito stormed into the restroom and seemed surprised to see Todd there.
"What are you doing?" he asked, though it was completely obvious.
"I'm… drying the bear head."
"Yeah, I… guess you are. How's that coming?"
Todd didn't answer, just shot Pepito an angry look.
The problem was not sweeping and mopping up after ravenous drooling children day after day. The problem was not escorting people who were not 'this tall to ride' off the premises. The problem was not even the number of children who threw up on them when they posed for pictures with SuperFun Land's Little Bear and Devil Boy.
The problem was getting out.
Some time in mid-June, the park's owner had told them over the loud speaker that they were going to stay over night and scheduled the pair for the Death Speed's annual duct tape replacement. Money was money and the idea of being in the park long after people had left excited Pepito, so they had agreed. The owner laughed heartily when Todd said, "Sure," telling them with his snapping static voice that it was cute to pretend they had a choice.
For some reason, at four in the morning, taping support beams together, it didn't seem too bad.
At four in the afternoon the following the day, it was a little worse, but bearable.
The following night, at eight, there was a problem.
Todd began having delusions of the Little Bear costume eating him alive and Pepito kept slurring his speech to park goers about returning to his father in the Old Haunted Mill. When they were granted their daily break, the only thing keeping Todd from faceplanting into his French fries was the strength of the vinegar he'd tried to drown them in. He was sure that this kind of overtime was illegal or maybe expensive, and he had no desire to repeat the experience ever again.
Obviously, judging by his gradual abandonment of three letter words in English, Pepito was not interested either.
"I telled him, I said, 'Me y Little Bear, we gon' take this whole place over.' An' he's like, 'No, yer gon' let my boy on this ride con his ice cream.' You see what I'm saying, Todd?"
"Uh-huh," Todd said to the vinegar fumes.
"S'truth," Pepito said groggily.
"Pepito," Todd managed, "we have a problem."
"I been awake for two day."
"I know. My hallucinations have started hallucinating. When is our shit over?" He had meant to say 'shift', but correcting himself would have taken energy he didn't have, and he found that what came out instead was just as accurate a portrayal of his feelings.
"I can't do this. This has to be a mistake. The Little Bear head is going to eat me."
Todd ate the rest of his fries, though he could barely remember them by the time he and Pepito reached the main office. His head was cloudy and the schedule blurred before his eyes, but he was able to see the colors that indicated himself and Pepito on the paper well enough to be struck almost-awake.
"Shit, look at this," Pepito said, shuffling the schedule's pages like a flip book.
The magenta line for Pepito and the neon blue for Todd stretched endlessly from paper edge to paper edge for the entire length of the schedule. Pepito turned them over in his hands in an effort to shake the colors from the page and they still continued for days.
"Pepito, this isn't right, this isn't normal. Are we the only ones?"
Pepito flipped the pages one by one, looking at the schedules of the other people listed. They all seemed relatively normal. A few days on here, a few days off there. When Pepito thought they should try to see if there was someone they could change shifts with, they examined the names listed.
"I don't recognize any of these people," Todd said, glancing frantically over the pages. "Old Hank isn't even on here!"
"Who are these people, then? Is this an old schedule?"
The schedule wasn't old, and the schedule wasn't new. The same names were present weeks ago just as they were present weeks in advance. As Pepito flipped wildly through the pages, cursing every one as he tossed it aside, Todd heard clicking footsteps echoing from the hallway behind them. He hoped it was another employee come to copy down a schedule and he could compare workloads with someone.
Todd never saw who it was, just heard a brief swish, watched Pepito's face contort into confused, and then woke up (merciful sleep!) somewhere on the park's pavement. Pepito was lying nearby, moaning something in Spanish and sounding dazed. Todd shook Pepito's shoulder frantically until he was able to see Pepito's mismatched eyes.
"How did we get here? Did you do that?" Todd asked urgently.
"No, I can't say I did." Pepito's voice was relatively calm as he inspected his hands and knees.
"I'm not joking."
The park was devoid of movement but for a few stray bits of litter skipping by in the breeze. Too early for customers, and almost too early for management, there was only enough light for everything to look uniformly grey.
"Do you think Old Hank is here?" Pepito asked, glancing around.
"Old Hank comes in early?"
"Maybe he just lives here," Pepito said, shrugging. "Eats old corndogs for dinner and sleeps in the Old Mill."
"That would explain why he's crazy, I guess."
"I think he was crazy before the corndogs."
"And you really didn't do this."
There was a crack in the air and after a slow start, the park's radio began playing happy tunes from a decade or two ago. The lights from the night flickered off, and the life audibly returned to the rides and animatronic mascots that littered the park.
Todd jumped at Old Hank's voice even though, or perhaps because, he had just been discussed.
"Jus' business as usual, boys," he told them, leaning heavily on his broom. "Getcher stations ready."
"Did the manger tell you that?" Todd asked.
"Yessir, he did," Hank said cheerfully.
"Listen, Hank, how did you get here this morning? Did you see how we got here?"
"On a boat from ol' Dixie," Hank sang softly.
"Hank, please, this is sort of important," Todd pleaded.
"…all covered with cheeeeese!"
"Hank, come on, think."
"I think that's all you're going to get out of him," Pepito said, a hand on Todd's shoulder. "We can just go find the guy ourselves."
The attempt was made. Long hours of traipsing through the park, watching people trickle in and miming at them until they tired of the bear and the devil led absolutely nowhere. Todd kept saying, "Okay, just around this corner," and around that corner would always be another path, another ride.
"Oh. Oh, I guess I do remember this being here," Todd said around the first turn.
"I forgot we had this," and "When did this go up?" followed around the next two.
Pride kept them from asking directions from the guests who seemed so comfortable with the layout. If the guy in the bear suit didn't know his way around the park, people would ask questions. As much as Todd was furious with the manager, even suspicious, he wasn't looking to unsettle customers and get himself fired.
"Did you hear that?" Pepito asked as they rounded a turn into the old section of the park.
"The guy back there, with the hat." Pepito tried to gesture subtly, but no matter how Todd moved, the bear suit magnified his movements.
"What about him?" Todd asked, miming that his bear head had lost a contact.
"He said he's been coming to that spot for a photo op since he was seven."
"What? They just finished that spot the week before we started here!"
"Shhh," Pepito cautioned, holding up a thin hand. "I know, I know."
"Are they all like this?"
Wading through the crowd, getting to the manager was no longer their goal and Todd imagined they passed his office around ten times while he and Pepito searched for other park-goers who had no idea what they were looking at. Some thought the park was as old as their great-grandparents, others were sure it was built within the last few years. One woman said she won the 'Guess Your Weight' game every year, and had won a giant pink poodle last summer, even though the game had been taken from the midway lineup over four years prior.
Todd suggested a timewarp and brainwashing as he wrung his oversized bear hands. Pepito found stupidity to be a more attractive explanation, though admitted that he doubted the entire park could possess the same staggering amount of dumb.
"What if we've been brainwashed too?" Todd asked, watching a small girl crash into the ground after a failed attempt at hopscotch.
"Then at least it's the pleasant kind where we look smarter than everyone else."
Todd tried to glare through the bear head.
"Look at it this way," Pepito said, poking the bear head's nose, "I doubt they could brainwash me. And if I'm seeing the same thing you are, then your brains are safe."
"Then if it's not us," Todd said, removing the bear head, "it's them."
"They did a damn sorry job of it," Pepito scoffed, crossing his arms. "Can't even get them all to think the same thing."
"I think having them all think the same thing was the problem," Todd said quietly. "If they all came in thinking exactly what they knew about this place –that it's total shit, and old, but not too old, shit – then no one would be here at all."
"So what, they got them on the highway on their way to somewhere else?"
Todd shrugged. "It was just an idea."
"I wonder if they have any idea where they are," Pepito said, shaking his head at a small boy walking repeatedly into a nearby tree. "Maybe they aren't even seeing this place."
Pepito found more joy in the mascot adventures than Todd did, even though he claimed to be greatly insulted at playing a parody of himself. He often told Todd stories of the people he had scared, the old ladies he'd accidentally killed, and the kids who managed to piss themselves out of sheer terror even on the carousel. One particular day, he thought he'd find some rare pleasure in the heat by showing Todd the park's latest conquest in the name of childhood terror.
The park reminded Todd of being eight years old and seeing the world as the nightmarish place it was with eerie clarity. Though he derived a certain pleasure from Pepito's personal entertainment, he felt deep empathy for them.
"Just wait," Pepito said excitedly. "There's this little red-headed girl in car five that is just the funniest looking kid I've ever seen, and she's terrified of everything."
Todd felt a bit uneasy about the idea – the girl could be someone like he had been and still unable to just accept the things around her, after all – but something about a harmless scare had him anxiously waiting for the moment when the girl would turn the corner of the ride so he could see her face. Plus, if she was anything like Todd had been, she knew carnival tricks from homicidal maniacs like most people know water from air.
Cars two and three rolled in full of laughing people who looked a bit windblown. They all flashed thumbs up at the oncoming riders and departed happily. Pepito elbowed Todd in the ribs in anticipation for the car. Car four rolled in with a group of slightly shaken teenage girls, but after it there was long pause.
"Maybe she's stuck on the old track in the blacklight room," Pepito reasoned. "Gary says they haven't replaced that in years."
"Who's Gary?" Todd asked, eyes still on the occupants of car four.
"The reaper in the cemetery room, you know, right before the blacklight?"
"Oh, him, right."
"Hey, hey, here we go!" Pepito elbowed Todd yet again, despite that Todd's attention to the front of the haunted house had been unbroken since car two.
The car rolled out backwards, rotating lazily on its old axis. When it turned to reveal its passengers, it contained three young boys. It was number six.
"Very funny, Pepito," Todd muttered, annoyed.
"No, no, she was there. It was car five, I'm sure! Look at the cars, look at them!" He pointed to the ones that were still being loaded. "Look, red, blue, red, blue. Four and six are both red, amigo, just look at them!"
Pepito was right; the remainder of the cars, up till thirteen, alternated red and blue. Pepito remained fixed in place, watching the cars until there was a need for the devil in the far corner of the park. He watched, and Todd watched, any time they could, but for the remainder of the day there was no car five.
Red-haired girl, it turned out, was not the only one who had vanished, but Todd was not able to find anyone who knew about lawsuits, settlements, or even blackmail. He often found himself worried that the parents had been brainwashed into forgetting their children. One night, while he was waxing the echidna on the carousel, he thought to ask Gary the Reaper if he had seen anything. Gary, however, said he saw absolutely nothing that wasn't characteristic of a terrified child in a haunted house ride.
"She was screaming, man, that's it. They all do that. I hear it in my fucking nightmares."
Todd found some humor in the guy playing the reaper having nightmares, but said nothing about it. He thanked Gary, but without his help, or cameras in the ride, there was no way Todd would find out what happened to the girl. Unless of course…
"Hank, please," Todd begged the next day. "This is really important. Just look at me for a minute."
"I'm going to tell you something very useful, boy, listen," Hank said urgently. Todd nodded eagerly, leaning in to hear Hank finally explain everything.
"The next time you are at a party, you're gonna need to go to the back of the room. Back there, you'll find a guy who is hella drunk, you understand?"
Todd's face fell in dismay. "Hank, I-"
"No! This is going to save you, now listen! You're gonna go to the back of that party, and you're going to say to that drunk guy, you're gonna say, 'Drunk guy, did you know there are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on Earth?' And you will blow his mind, you understand? You will be the most popular guy at the party."
Parties? Popularity advice? Despite his situation, Todd found a few moments to be resentful that an old man had decided he must be unpopular.
"Okay, Hank, I will, but I have a question."
"There really are."
"Grains of sand and stars. More than… wait."
"No, no, I believe you. Listen, a little girl disappeared yesterday, did you know that?"
"O'course," Old Hank said, nodding proudly.
"God, thank you. Do you know what happened to her?" Todd clamped his hands on Old Hank's shoulders.
"Hank, okay, Hank, you have to tell me. This is important, alright? Really important."
"It's not important, everything's fixed. Her parents went home with a girl and everything."
"They did? Where was she?" Todd asked.
"Out back," Old Hank said as his eyes glazed over.
Todd cocked his head to one side. "What 'back'?"
"Don't you worry. Everyone goes out through that pretty white gate up front. Old Hank has been here for sixty-two years, and he ain't seen nothin' gotta worry anyone."
"Yeah. Yeah, I bet." Todd sighed and let Old Hank go and the old man wandered off as though he'd been a wind-up toy briefly held in place by Todd's questions. For Old Hank, the conversation may not have even happened, but he'd mentioned a white gate, and even if Hank had been making a sick reference to the pearly gates and the number of people who had died on the bumper cars, Todd thought he'd find the gate, though what he'd do there he didn't know.
Todd thought the map would help. He'd seen plenty of the park guests make it out of the park alive with one and there was no shame in a park mascot owning a map; he didn't patrol the entire park, after all. Of course, this being Todd and SuperFun Land, he was wrong.
The map unfolded normally at first, but then an extra page fell out. When Todd inspected it, it seemed to be able to be placed end to end perfectly with any of the edges of the pages he had unfurled already. No matter what way he lined it up, it matched, and it had no notation of where it should go.
Setting that paper aside, Todd continued to unfold. The direction of the folds changed suddenly and the map for Kiddie Land sprouted from what appeared to be the Food Plaza. He had no doubt that the spare page fit perfectly against these new pages too.
Four pages required a decoder ring, the back seemed to be the Oregon Trail, one section was in 3-D, you had to send away for the lower half with three proofs of purchase and ten FunLand points, and several pages were of downtown Toledo. As far as Todd could tell, nothing in the map depicted the area of the park he was currently in and it was already larger than Pepito in both directions.
It was when he realized that the bit of the map that fit everywhere else on the map was the part with the entrance that he resigned himself to never leaving the park again, saving little kids or even knowing anyone other than the Anti-Christ. Todd was either going to become like Old Hank, or Pepito was going to summon his father to take care of the place once and for all.
Pepito, however, was not ready to give in so quickly. He looked at the map later on their weekly lunch break and kept shaking his head.
"You're right. I don't think we signed up for this."
"Then can't your dad do something?"
"Are you kidding? Bring him out for something this trivial?"
"It is a little like Hell."
"Father would be furious if I bothered him for something like this."
"Then what would it take, Pepito?!" Todd slammed his hand onto some portion of the map that didn't have a corresponding location in reality. "We're stuck here! Did you know Old Hank walked into this park when he was seventeen and hasn't left since?!"
"I don't think you'll argue with me when I say that he likes it here."
"He's also crazy."
"Look, it's not that I don't agree with you here - we need to get out - but my father is not going to help us. We're going to have to kill them all on our own."
Todd choked on his hot dog.
"Kill? We can't kill people!"
"Technically," Pepito said, picking at one of his nails, "they can't keep us here either, yet…"
"Yet here we are."
"Think your neighbor likes FunLand?"
"He'd refrain from killing to spite me."
"He likes you."
"For a given value of 'like.' We can't ask him to kill the park, Pepito."
"Kill the park…" Pepito's eyes shifted strangely in his head. Todd was sure that they were asymmetrical, even though he never heard anyone else mention it, but when something really clicked in Pepito, Todd could see it in his eyes.
"Pepito? The killing? The thing we can't do?"
"FunLand isn't alive, amigo."
"Then how do you plan on killing it?"
"I don't know. But it's not wrong to do it, now, is it?" Pepito softly dropped an origami sculpture made from a foldout section of the map onto the table. It was a three-headed dog.
Written based on an idea by PolyesterRage, who also beta'd this madness the poor girl.