I was lurking outside of the 7/12, hands in my pockets and shifting my eyes. Tom was inside. He was trying to lift some candy and cigarettes. But they know now to pay attention, especially to us. And you can’t lift a Slurpee anyways, which is the best part.
For the amount of traffic that the street saw, it was always deserted. It seemed that way. Stray bits of plastic from merchandising wrappers and the paper-foil sleeves that coat corndogs were always flying like tumbleweeds down the chipped pavement. The pavement wore out and got more and more beige, pink, purple, green; the colours of the long alien soil, leeched into it like thick acid ants. The cement died and turned into corpse without maintenance, and it went further into rigour mortis the more steps away you took from The Park.
The Park; I had never been. It cost too much money. That may not have been true; I never really had checked. But I felt that it did. It loomed over us, pristine and polished. You could see the tips of the rides, the spaceship rockets and castles, some encased in inner glass domes, from where we lived in the cramped multifamily housing. That was such a polite name for it: no wonder they had it emblazoned on the old stained sign. Multi Family Housing Project. Project — that was more like it. That was the truth. At least have the decency to tell the truth.
Maybe I could have gone, especially if we ever held up the cashier. No, that would be too far. The cops would be involved, not just a slap on the ass with a broomstick out the revolving door, and a call placed to parents that were never there. I never checked the prices. I never tried. Years of being so close and so far away, so close and not going, taught me not to try. There must be a reason. And so now there was an invisible line that barked at me, like I had on a shock collar fastened from birth that no one else could see either. Radio controlled. And it would bite when you crossed that line. Where was it? From here you could see the tips and peaks behind the convenience store. The indoor mega-attraction ran like a ravine in massive warehouses, and, we always assumed and joked, underground caverns right behind the convenience store. The spires peaked over like stalagmites. Speleothems right? That was their classification or whatever? Maybe I was smarter than I looked; smarter than I had an opportunity to be.
And there I was, dumb looking, looking inside at someone, I’m sure, who was clearly stealing, and they tapped me on the shoulder. I didn’t even enter anything.
I jerked my eyeballs back, expecting a security officer, or worse, an actual cop. But no. I was met with a taller woman, blonde bangs cut to almost meet intense, exotic blue eyes. The pupils inside wavered and quivered. She was staring at me, and waited too long before she spoke.
I thought it was a joke. Though I felt no sarcasm in her voice; only dripping techno-marketing speak. That was its own kind of sarcasm.
“Fuck off lady,”
“But, you won!” She repeated it like it was on tape.
“I never entered anything. If I did, how did you find me?”
“You entered just by being here!” She looked around herself with rehearsed wide eyes. The parking lot of the convenience store, with its trash and abandoned cars, remained still, “Right next to The Park.”
“Glamourous.” I coughed.
“We’re taking in… lesser fortunated kids today. You want a free visit to The Park, don’t you?”
“I’ve lived next to the park for nine tenths of my life, lady, don’t you think I’d have gone if I wanted to?”
“No,” she said calmly, and looked me up and down in my secondhand goodwill clothes with holes and notches in them. That stung. I shifted my sweat dampened hair underneath my ball cap. And let out the stupidest thing I could say, “It’s for babies anyways.”
“Oh, no it’s not! You’ve never been inside before, have you? You haven’t seen the wonders! The rides!”
I tried to look away like I didn’t care, but my eyes only drifted up to the glass dome spires that loomed behind the 7/12, behind the trees, behind the gates and fences in the difference. What was in those?
“Shops down every corner. Candy, action figures. And here,” the woman passed me a black card. It had no numbers on it.
“An unlimited Mastercard, only for the Park, only for today.”
I glanced back in through the windows at Tom, he was being stopped by the gruff arabic man inside. Balding, with a moustache like a bear. He was shouting at him to empty his pockets, to open up his hoody. All behind the glass panels. It seemed a lifetime away.
“Only for today,” I was not sure if she actually repeated it, or if I just heard her again. I would share some with him. I grasped the card in my hand and looked up at her. She was bent slightly at the torso, leaning down to me.
The turnstiles clicked effortlessly, cleaner and much better oiled than the subway. Really the land way: the acid sea rising had eaten away the land and now most of the train wandered through dense, flat, dirty neighbourhoods under a smog filled sky. That must be part of the reason for the domes. Had they always been there?
We were inside, but it didn’t feel like it. You could only tell you were inside by how much it felt you weren’t. I hardly noticed the air at all, it was so… thin. In here it was perfect, balmy but not frizzy, dry but not gasping, a perfect twenty five degrees, a sun beam wherever you needed warmth and a shadow wherever you needed a retreat from it. A clear sky. It was a ceiling, and it was deeper than the oppressive wind that hung over us like a damp basement out there. Dripping. Leaking. I thought I could hear the distant wind howling, but it was just the fading in of music. Music so meshed in with everything else in the place that I hadn’t even realized it was playing. “This way,” the lady’s arm bent out to part her cleavage a bit and expose her bulbous breasts. I glanced quickly and continued on… Wouldn’t that be nice? Someone to… take care of me. The way I finished that thought surprised me.
We were walking on interlaced brick cobblestones. Little rivers of dirt lingered between on the grout. But: how did they get there? We had walked over a revolving shoe brush and vacuum cleaner. I hardly remembered it: even though it was just a few feet away and a few moments ago it seemed a lifetime of difference. The Park was intricately stashed behind a one way mirror by experts. When you were in, the outside world wasn’t. What a wonderful place. But something didn’t add up. If it was so wonderful…
“Where are all of the people?” Her footsteps plodded behind me, briskly, silently, echoing through the seemingly endless sky whose firm ends were there just — invisible. We were small toy soldiers in a massive dollhouse. The red brick extended for miles — fading to other colours to match the themed areas so subtly you could not notice unless told — and yet no one was there. I looked behind me and to my left. A store front with dozens of identical action figures gleaming in boxes in boxes in boxes. Staring out of plastic windows then glass ones. Lights buzzing on the inside: the lighted bulb chasing itself around the carnival ring in one on and many off. A cashier’s register, sign beaming, rows of candy to entice last minute impulses undisturbed. Perfectly even. No cashier. Ahead of me: a popcorn cart. The bucket still piping hot, and brewing freshly butter-yellowed kernels that cascaded in an avalanche. A small figure of a clown turning the rotary like a tin toy. No salesman. The wheels had rust on them. All around the park, the distant roar of steel roller carts down rollercoaster tracks. And no screams. Not even a person’s breath.
I turned back to her. She stared blankly, before, eyes fluttering, she seemed to clue back in. Her left eyelash drooped on its right ledge, peeking off of the lid. So many people were fake, nowadays.
“It’s an exclusive day for the less fortunated. The rest of the winners will be coming later.” I stared past her. Her eyes weren’t there. It was that damn canned marketing speech. She wasn’t saying it. She was writing it: no, someone else had written it for her.
“Don’t you want the whole park to yourself?” I wandered ahead, up and over the fake hill. Trees stood still, leaves unable to be moved by wind in the still sky. They only brushed and whispering slightly when you walked past them: and, because of this, all behind you. I kept checking my back, watching the leaves flutter and scrape on the twigs, watching the woman wander tentatively behind me like a dog. Were they plastic?
To my right was a wrought iron queue, empty. Not even dust or a breeze disturbed it. Lights blinked behind another turnstile at the entrance. Slim bobsled cars rolled in and hummed out of the station every few seconds. Watchful black spots glimmered in their void, dotted in the rocks and tree line and leaf gutter on the top of the small awning. Why did they have that? Cameras: they must be cameras. It must all be automatic, to cut down on labour costs. I looked back to the woman behind me. She smiled brightly, blankly. I hadn’t seen a bright smile that wasn’t blank in such a long time. This was not sincere happiness. I marched into one of the cars. The steel bar crept down and onto my thighs, tightly. The thing whisked off. Another of those canned voices — this one truly — played: “Please keep your hands, arms, feet and legs inside the ride vehicle at all times. And please: watch your kids.” The car thundered into blackness at the base of this fake mountain. The whole time as it rolled around its steel road, I was looking for the steel girders holding the mountains up. The cracks in the plaster. The joints and the driveshafts for the yeti that roared to life in the dark. By the time we pulled back to the station — we: just me and the robots — I had seen nothing. It was a clever fake. At the top I had looked out, across and down, into the fake blue sky, down to the speckled carnival buildings, lighting up and flashing like wind up toys or velcro shoes. I saw no other specks wandering about. Not even drones to keep the thing running? It was all in the buildings, in the very ground.
I descended from the exit. The wrought iron gate clambered shut behind me.
“How was it?” She beamed once more. Now she was joined by a smaller, stouter man. I stared at him. He stared back, and blinked, ruffling his moustache and the equally thin rim of hair that surrounded his balding head.
“Mr. Butler is an associate of mine,” she introduced again far past the point of an awkward silence. He didn’t nod or smile, or acknowledge her in any way. He stared on, his eyes shifting far more than hers.
I walked on, leading them. “I’ve always heard about this one,” I looked behind me, to be sure she was there. She was. And trailing behind, too, was him. The log-tower and red dirt sculpture loomed ahead of us. I rushed back and grabbed her arm. She was a bit taken aback, but perhaps forced by protocol not to react: she calmed her blinking eyes. “I want you to come with me,” her eyes twitched, rolled, in their sockets, seeming to want to look back to the man, now ten or fifteen feet behind at the edge of the queue, but quickly stopping herself. “Sure,” she smiled, stammering a bit but needing not to. What good would the promotion be if she didn’t make my dreams come true? She darted behind me, up the fibre glass turned wood step, to the roaring entrance. Water rushed our log-boat into the station. We sat. The sensors, or whoever was watching, detected us. The station brake detached and we slumped on and down into the artificial stream. We ticked away, bumping into metal pipe drainage grates. I made sure to sit in front of her, darting my eyes back often. Perhaps I’d get to see her in a wet T-shirt: or rather wet blouse, and smart tailored business blazer. Hanging off of her like rags in barbarian pulp paintings. Those were the closest I could sometimes get to porno, after the ban. But, perhaps now and here in real life. “Can we get food after this?”
“You can.” She called back with the expected canned cheeriness.
Our log was caught by unseen hooks and drilled up the first chain hill. Water sloshed down and behind us, cascading in small splashes over numerous rivets and bumps. I looked back to watch it, and caught her. Her bangs were already slightly damp. Her eyelashes were almost completely peeling off. Her intense turquoise irises were swimming as fast as the water, looking, darting around, as if looking for something in it. They couldn’t keep fish in a log ride could they? She was pawing at herself with delicate, manicured fingers. She looked nervous — or at least as close to nervous as she was allowed to be. I opened my mouth to ask her, but frowned it off — especially after a speck of that dirty water flooded down my throat. It tasted deeply bitter, and wrong. I barred my teeth behind suctioned tight lips. A fibreglass-feathered bird cooed with lightbulb eyes and brought my attention back ahead at the peak. We lurched over the hill. No big drop yet, we were still lurching, outside — or at least, under the unified dome sky — and waiting for the big effects extravaganza and in turn the big splashes a bit later. But soon. Still, little waves lurched up and over the sides here and there, getting on to my shorts. I smiled at the coolness, but grimaced at the content of the water. They must clean it. I realized now it seemed much warmer over here. Something in the fake sky, some unseen cloud-heaters. I looked up, but saw nothing.
Mr. Bear’s House. Mr. Rabbit’s House. Mr. Squirrel’s House. What a quaint town… but who did they fuck? Or, how did they reproduce… There was only one of each animal?
A tunnel, though fake, loomed all too real and ominously up ahead. The woman behind me was blinking rapidly, trying to keep the eyeballs in. Her mascara seemed drooping but… thicker. It was a thick, coagulated fluid, like a mixture of blood and rotten milk. It pooled out of her like she cried desperately.
The fake Georgia red rock made a ceiling overhead. The darkness consumed us faster than the music, at first slow and distant, playing in mechanical chimes and aided by the whirs and sloshing of metal gears in water beneath partially submerged animatronic hulls. A cartoon rabbit, rendered just as cartoonishly in real dimensions, teetered on a pump action rail car overhead. “Off to the laughing place!” But its voice was static and on loop, and could have been saying much else when I caught the small snippet. I felt hands dig in hard to my shoulders. My stomach lurched as the boat descended. Into pure blackness: then, a black light neon symphony. The grip didn’t release, but changed. I felt a warmth not present in the water sloshing over us: emanating from her hands. I looked back and her face was dark, not even pin pricks of light echoed from her eyes. Water continued to heap on in thick splashes from the sides. Up ahead the hallucinogenic colours bled through, dancing on the black water’s surface. Animatronic alligators, snapping at the air conditioned air. Butterflies whizzing and singing. Bears spinning on cracked beehives, gleefully spouting honey-dyed water. Her grip didn’t cease, it dug in stronger. Impossibly strong, like she was clawing at me in the final throws of a death wish. I swatted at the warmth on my shoulders, and saw thick orange goop running down them, catching on my fingers, peeling like thick snot. It simmered quiet steam. I grabbed at her hands, and only felt cold metal rods. I pried them off, and head snapping, I turned around.
Her face was permanently fixed in that same stately smile. Only water now sloshed through and back around her teeth, rotted out to black, clamped in metal wires. Her eyes blinked metal netting with nothing else on top. They rolled to the back: as far as they could. For they were only half a sphere, painted turquoise bright, camera pupils shuttering and sensing. Clumps of matted hair clung to her a rounded fibreglass head dome. Shreds drifted here and there but fell off quickly, like scratched toilet paper. Small circuitboards and servos glinted against the harsh neon. Water sloshed through them all, removing a liquid layer of wax like skin. Droplets suspended themselves, floating on the top of the water in a trail following her down the channel. She attempted to open her mouth, to say something: “Is anything wro —“ but she couldn’t finish. The log turned, and the side brushed up against the curved metal grates. The force was too much in her weakened state. There was a harsh snap, like a pencil being ripped between two hands. The delicate pneumatic rod spurted. Her head tumbled over, too top heavy, bounced among the scenery for an instant, and then fell down the red rock and into the murky water. She blinked once more with eyes under the surface, sinking. But by then the boat was gone. Her body went still, metal tubes piping out the neck, half skin acidly dissolving into leaking clay lumps down the rest. Her nails, though, were immaculate, on top of steel rectangles bolted stiff. I pawed at the hands, getting them finally off me. The husk, no longer active, slumped aimlessly in the back of the boat.
I tried crawling out and up, but could only make it as far as the most frontward seat. Already we lurched onto another chain hill. A light glimmered far up above us. Mechanical birds squawked. This was the big one, the massive drop that could be seen from the outside. I braced myself in the car, staring fixedly at the metal frame, partially cloaked, in the back. As we curved over the top, it lunged forward. I ducked, and it flew over me, impaling itself on the tangle of wire and plaster below us. I was again rained through splashing water. The ride must almost be over. But what would happen then?
As the log swum past the steamboat, and only more singing creatures, I still kept checking backwards, to see if the loose tangle of rivets, the only thing of her remaining, now rolling back and forth when the car turned, would come to life on their own. Finally we lurched back onto the water soaked rubber conveyor belt, back up and into the station. Once more, no one was there. I expected them — someone — to have seen through her camera eyes, to have seen through the cameras on the ride. I stepped out, and the log rushed away, empty. Water dripped off of my pants and clung to my shoes, leaving small footprint puddles on the synthetic ground where I walked. But I stopped when I realized the single door looming ahead, behind a corner of more sculpted orange concrete. There was only one exit. They must be waiting for me. I dashed over the lightly swimming load channel and started making my way back up the queue. The small fibreglass chambers — sculpted to look like dirt and stone and barn wood, but really all the same — seemed more claustrophobic, more chilled from unseen and unheard air conditioners. Animatronics sung and water wind whistled through small openings into the ride. Lights blinked in the distance, down below, at the characters. But I heard murmurings that weren’t them. I kept stopping to check around me, hesitantly continuing on pointed toes. The chambers bled back to the interdisbursement of real trees and shrubs, to the outside (almost) blue sky. I hopped through one of the open window frames and darted through the shrubs, trying to crawl up the side of the mountain — a bit — that got smaller the higher I got. I could poke my head around the shingles of the faux barn entrance and see the exit below and to the side.
The short man with the rat moustache and tanning hair was twiddling his thumbs, sweating heavily through a short sleeve white button up — even though the temperature was controledly perfect. There were a tangle of bars just behind him. I thought it was another park fence before I saw the small hands grasp at them. Familiar hands. A face came in to match, biting his teeth against the bars like a whistle from a jail harmonica, or a ringing against its mug. It was too far to see but I knew it instantly. It was Tom. His eyes dashed up to me, but I had to duck. The thorns in the bushes scraped at my knees. I looked around me in the dirt. I picked it up in my hands, and let it run through like sand. Which was real? Where were the next cameras? Where could I go?