The skies darkened over the ominous canopy where the remnants of a structure that once amused now creaked in the wind. It had been visited a number of times since that fateful summer thirty-two years ago, but not for the same reason it once was.
Makenzie waited for her friends at the Burger King along Germantown Boulevard, exactly where the bus stopped. The bus was taking a long while – longer than it usually did. While she waited, Makenzie peered through the forest across the street to try to catch a glimpse of the park. Finally, the old yellow bus pulled up, its suspension eased, and the stop sign extended from its left side. Its tall doors squeaked open and out poured about a dozen kids, three of which were Makenzie’s friends. “What took you so long?” she asked them.
“What’s the rush?” Zane asked as his two feet plopped off the stairs.
Jeet followed closely behind. “Yeah, we’ll make sure to drive the bus faster next time.” The doors hissed shut behind them and the bus rolled off as soon as the light turned green.
“I, for one, actually have homework tonight,” Makenzie sneered.
“You still do homework?” Zane laughed. “We all got into college already. Who cares?”
“That’s if you call Miami at Ohio a ‘college’.” Jeet said.
“It’s better than calling yourself a fighting artichoke,” Zane shot back.
Makenzie distanced herself from the petty spat, forcing a silent smile as she usually did. She had gotten into Brown University way back in October. She was inarguably the smartest of the three of the and she wanted to be happy for herself, but couldn’t ever quite get there. Because in the back of every boast about her Ivy League future was the stark reality that she’d inevitably grow distant from the friends she always knew. She loved going on their daring adventures, but she knew they wouldn’t be following her to greatness, never mind leaving their little Ohioan town.
Cars zipped by and Makenzie clenched her shoulders together with a shiver. “Come on, it’s getting late,” she intervened. “Are we doing this or what?”
Zane flipped his unkempt black-dyed skater boy hair and looked her up and down. “Yeah, relax.” She hated when he said that. “We have an hour and a half ‘till sunset.”
“We should get going though,” Jeet said. And so they did. The three of them waited for the light to turn red and the walk sign to flash on, then crossed the street together – the way so many kids before had. “So whatever happened to this place?” Jeet asked.
“I heard some kid fell off the one rollercoaster back in the 80s and they had to shut the place down after that.” Zane began. “Rumor is, his parents got in huge fights afterwards. The dad tried to get the mom to accept what had happened, but the mom kept insisting the kid was still alive. One night the dad threw something at the mom – acid or some kind of chemical – I forget. Anyway, she ended up going blind and running off. Now, she lives in the park and spends her nights wandering around looking for him. And if she runs into other kids, she’ll think it’s her son and takes them away.”
“That’s creepy,” Makenzie said. “Do you actually believe any of that?”
“I don’t know,” Zane said. “What do you think happened to Eric Franklin last year?”
“The Franklins? Pretty sure that family moved to New York,” Jeet said.
“Has anyone ever heard from him?” Zane asked.
“Did anybody ever hear from him when he went to school with us?” Makenzie laughed.
Suddenly a twig broke and emitted a muffled echo from a few trees away. Makenzie gasped. Her heart leaped through her throat. Zane was terrified as well, but tried to keep his lips sealed. A cool wind blew past them and rustled the branches while a murder of crows took off from a tree, cawing and ascending above the canopy. The three of them all stared at the tree line where the rustling had originated, waiting for their stalker to emerge.
Out came a squirrel, scampering and chirping delicately as it scoured the forest floor for food. Zane laughed and turned to Makenzie. “You were scared shitless, weren’t you? Of a squirrel.”
“Nuh-uh,” she said.
“You totally were,” Jeet chimed in.
“How much further?” Makenzie asked. And just as she did, she saw a pool of dirty water lying just a few trees away.
“You see that?” Zane said, pointing at the water. “That’s the old skatepark on the edge of Pleasure Park. Bummer: it’s filled with water. I was really hoping I could come back and skate there one day.”
“Who the hell thought it was a good idea to name this place Pleasure Park?” Makenzie said.
“It’s kind of cool,” Zane replied.
“It’s creepy if you ask me.”
“It was the 80s, Mac.” Jeet said, then turned to Zane. “And what did you expect the skate park to look like? The place has been abandoned for thirty years. Sounds like something someone would say who thinks Miami is in Ohio.”
“Shut up, artichoke.”
Makenzie continued to keep her distance from the college talk, and led the group onwards past the skatepark, not really knowing where she was going. Each flooded obstacle was swimming with gnats and mosquitos. A branch floated in one, inexplicably churning in the otherwise stagnant water. Tufts of grass and all types of fungus jutted out from the cracked concrete, attempting to reclaim the park for mother nature.
“Woah, look at that,” Jeet said, pointing up towards the sky.
“What is it?” Makenzie asked.
“You see that? It’s a rollercoaster.”
Sure enough, a steel and wooden structure broke out above the distant canopy and sat eerie and lifeless in the air. It was hard to see if you weren’t looking for it: the aging wooden shape was starting to blend in nicely with the surrounding colossal oak trees. If not for the various clearings around sections of the park, the group wouldn’t have seen it at all. “Is that…the rollercoaster?” Makenzie asked, thinking about the story Zane had told her. It was all starting to feel more real – more uneasy.
“Dunno,” Zane said. “If you see an older blind woman snatching kids, you’ll know that’s the spot.”
“Not funny, Zane,” she snapped.
“It’s so…intact,” Jeet said.
“What do you mean?” Zane asked.
“Well, isn’t it? Just look at it. I saw this show on the History Channel about buildings and how quickly nature takes over when there’s no humans to take care of them. If it’s been thirty years, that rollercoaster should have fallen apart by now.”
“The History Channel is bullshit,” Zane wrote him off. But he shouldn’t have. The rollercoaster was intact just like in all the old photographs. It doesn’t look a day older than that picture of it in the paper.
The group continued on toward the rollercoaster. Makenzie peered between the trees whenever the other two weren’t looking. They were all getting more nervous with each passing minute, but she was hiding it the least. It became something of a game of chicken, trying to see who would ask to turn around first. They all had that same pit in their stomach – that gut instinct telling them it wasn’t safe and it wasn’t too late to turn back. The sun was starting to set and rainclouds rolled over the forest. They passed by graffiti-clad walkways and countless piles of junk and scrapped parts from the park. The rollercoaster still felt no closer. An owl hooted from a nearby tree, startling Makenzie. Growing impatient she said, “Really guys, how much further is it? I’ve got so much homework to do.”
They both ignored her. Zane’s eyes widened as they came upon the next clearing. The one with the smoking charred logs. “Th-that looks…new,” he stated nervously.
“We’re not alone, are we?” Jeet asked.
Zane shrugged. “People probably come out here all the time to get stoned. They won’t bother us if we don’t bother them.”
“Stoners? You think they made this fire?” Makenzie crossed her arms.
“I don’t know. who else would have?”
Makenzie stared at the black smoke rising off the glowing embers. The logs had collapsed in on each other and the last bit of kindling danced back and forth as if it were writing in pain just before extinguishing. “I don’t know,” she mumbled. But whoever it was, she didn’t appreciate the possibilities.
They continued on anyway, each trying harder than the other to remained poised. They continued until they reached the rusted staircase, rising high into the trees. Zane picked up a stick and threw it on the staircase. It rattled and creaked at that alone.
“You both have your tetanus shots?” Makenzie asked, only half joking.
“Yeah, I think so,” Zane answered, partially ignoring her. He put one foot on the first step, seesawing from foot to foot to test its durability. When the whole structure didn’t immediately give way, he decided it was safe enough to climb the whole thing. Zane skipped up the next few steps to the first platform where the staircase twisted back the other way. “Come on, I think this is it. Watch out for a blind woman with an acid face.” He pranced up the next few stairs and disappeared.
Jeet and Makenzie looked at each other anxiously, as if to silently say they were both ready to turn around together. But neither did. “I’ll go first,” Jeet volunteered. He ascended the stairs with a lot more caution than Zane had exercised. Makenzie started to put her hand on the railing, but quickly took it off. She had had all her shots, but she still didn’t want to test it. She looked back at the forest, feeling something behind her – like a soft heat running over her shoulders. Nothing. She could have sworn she was being watched. Then, she extended both her hands to her sides for balance, then followed the boys.
With each step the structure screeched and groaned louder. Makenzie wondered the whole way up whether it would collapse just because three people were on it at once. With each step, her heart seemed to climb a ladder in her throat. “You gotta come up here!” Zane called down. “The view is awesome!”
Makenzie didn’t let his antics rush her. She was going to take the trip as carefully as possible to prevent a fall in any way she could. The whole time she thought about how stupid the whole thing was. This better be the best view of her life if she was going to climb this rickety old thing.
Jeet, on the other hand, was easily excited. “Come on, hurry up,” Zane yelled. Jeet put one hand on the railing and bounced up the stairs. Six, five, four steps left. He was so close. The structure groaned louder and creaked in a higher and higher pitch until…
“Jeet!” Makenzie called out.
The stair snapped in two beneath Jeet’s foot just as he launched off it. It fell through the platform, clattering into the metal structure beneath. Its banging descent echoed through the entire forest and was probably audible all the way back in town. The owl fluttered away at the commotion. Then the snapped step finally smacked into the dirt below. The three of them remained silent for a moment, awaiting the forest’s reaction, but there was nothing more. It took Jeet a moment to remember to breathe.
“Jeet, are you okay?” Makenzie called up.
“Yeah,” he said, exasperated, staring down past missing step. “Yeah, I’m fine.” Once he collected himself, Jeet continued up the last couple of steps, then looked out upon the horizon. “Mac, it’s beautiful up here.”
Makenzie still didn’t speed up. She could hardly see the stairs that still were there from the long dusk shadows masking their depth. She focused hard on the stairs, making sure she found her footing each time before continuing. When she came across the broken stair, she lunged hard to traverse it. But then she too was finally at the top. “Isn’t it gorgeous, Makenzie?” Zane whispered. And it was. The three of them watched the sun setting rapidly behind the cloudless spring sky. The forest was ripe with animal activity between the hooting owls and diving bats the friends pointed out to each other. Maybe the view was worth it, Makenzie thought.
“Let’s do this every year,” Jeet said.
“Of course,” Zane enthusiastically replied. Makenzie nodded as her smile dropped. But the view wasn’t enough for Zane. “So this is it. This is the rollercoaster that killed that kid.”
“Don’t you think that’s a little dark, Zane?” Jeet said, followed by a nod from Makenzie.
“What? You both knew what you were getting into. I told you the story.”
“Yeah I guess. But now that we’re here it feels super sad,” Jeet replied.
“Whatever,” Zane snapped. “Let’s get some pictures inside the cart and then we can head back down.
“You want to get in that thing?” Makenzie said. The cart wasn’t the normal cart with a seat and bar across the waist. It was a sphere covered in glass with a small door which remained ajar. The glass was yellow and green, stained from the years of rain and overgrowth plaguing the rest of the park. It was loosely connected to a sagging cable above, and was sitting precariously on a rusted track. “That cart needs a small gust of wind to collapse,” Makenzie added.
“Come on. What are you, chicken?” Zane mocked. “You’ve made it this far, it’s not like it’s going to fall apart now.”
His logic didn’t quite fit to Makenzie’s liking, and she wasn’t persuaded by his insinuation of her being a ‘chicken’. But she knew how little time she had left with these friends. She knew once they went off to college, they’d likely never speak again. “Alright fine, but you first.”
Zane happily stepped into the cart and put his hands in the air with a smile. Makenzie snapped a couple pictures of him: first with the flash, then without to see which was better.
“Boys picture,” Zane demanded.
“I don’t know, man,” Jeet said. “I don’t think it can hold both of us at once.”
“You calling me fat?” Zane sarcastically replied.
Makenzie was distracted from this minor argument by something behind her. Something…breathing. She tried to write it off as her mind playing games on her, but she couldn’t quite shake the feeling. “Come on, let’s get the pictures and get out of here.”
“Okay,” Jeet complied. He held onto the dirty glass and stepped into the cart. Zane held onto Jeet’s arm for support. The cart creaked and Makenzie watched the cable sway and drip from the recent rain. The whole structure creaked louder. Makenzie could have sworn she saw it sway.
Makenzie held up her phone, pointing it at the two of them. Jeet nervously put on a smile and wrapped his arm around Zane. “Alright,” she began. “One…two…three!” But just as she snapped the picture, the door hissed shut, the lights powered on, and for the first time in thirty years the park came alive.
The two boys released each other and searched the glass for a handle – some kind of opening on which they could gain leverage. “Makenzie,” Zane’s muffled voice hardly reached outside the cart. “Makenzie, help us. How do you open this thing?”
She fumbled and slid the phone into her pocket. For a second, she thought Zane might be playing a trick on her. That was until she saw his petrified pale complexion.
“One second,” Makenzie’s voice shook. “Don’t worry, we’ll get you out.”
While Makenzie kept searching, Jeet stopped and flapped his hand against Zane’s shoulder with eyes fixated beyond Makenzie’s shoulder. “Zane,” he said. “Zane. Zane, look.”
Zane wasn’t paying attention. He was still frantically searching for a way out. He banged and pushed against the glass and started to whine.
Behind Makenzie was a set of batting green eyes piercing the darkening skies. Beneath that was a yellow smile slowly widening. The figure was crouched on the last stair, staring. Waiting. And Jeet was the only one who saw it. While the group banged on the glass and pulled fruitlessly at its non-existent edges, the figure’s hand raised and settled on the control panel, then pressed the big red button. The lights flashed green and red. The rollercoaster sang a static old song that struggled to power on. They watched the round flickering red and green lights first in surprise, then in horror. The cart lifted and began rolling down the tracks for the first time in thirty years. Makenzie stepped back as the cart slid from her hands and she heard the breathing behind her again. She twisted around and gasped. She knew they weren’t alone.