‘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.
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.
Credit : Bryan A Young
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