YOU MUST BE THIS TALL
Behind perhaps outer space, horse camp, or a Scholastic Book Fair, an amusement park is the most exciting place a kid can be.
It’s built into the name: the whole point of the park is to amuse. An old-timey word, amusement – kids today will recognize it as a (hopefully) familiar concept called “having fun”.
Amusement parks are predictably great at amusing, if for a high price in money and calories. They’ve got everything a kid could ever want: games, prizes, rides, greasy food, sugar. In other words, they’re paradise for both children and coronary artery disease.
Naturally, an amusement park named FUNLAND would have to be the most fun of them all, right? In fact, you would be almost guaranteed to have fun.
Even if it killed you.
Hate is a very strong word; you must be careful with its use. A couple acceptable examples are Hitler, the Baby Shark song, and unnecessary sequels. For other things, “strongly dislike” is preferred.
But Connor McGrath truly, from the bottom of his heart, hated FUNLAND.
It was not that he hated fun (though his siblings and peers often thought so). It was that FUNLAND, like many other things that promised to be wonderful, was actually the worst.
It was right up there with chocolate muffins that turned out to be blueberry, or a loving stepfather who turned out to be a big old meanie. The first few times Connor experienced this sort of disappointment, he brushed it off. But it became sort of hard to do so when everything seemed to be that way. Like life itself was a blueberry muffin.
FUNLAND may have been a particularly bad offender, but that was not the only reason Connor hated it. He hated it because it was the place he was spending the day his mother and stepfather filed for divorce. He hated it because it was the charade he was being forced to participate in for the sake of his younger siblings. He hated it because he, too, would have to be a blueberry muffin masquerading as chocolate for the day.
Perhaps the first annoyingly misleading aspect of the park was its motto. The words that lay under the fading wooden sign for FUNLAND read “Fun! Sun! Run!” Which, on the surface, sounded alright. But Connor was more intelligent than most other 14 year olds, and he knew that while rhyming can be a nifty way to advertise, communicate with children, and get a song on the radio, it also often involves using the wrong words for the sake of the rhyme. And if there was anything Connor hated besides FUNLAND, it was false advertising.
First of all, there was absolutely no running in FUNLAND: Connor knew this because he had been yelled at for it by teenagers in the signature gaudy fur vest many times before. The park was crawling with unenthusiastic employees, many of them plucked from among the more mean and stupid bullies from Connor’s school, and they revelled in their so-called power.
Second of all, Connor was not sure that even an ant would find any of the rides at FUNLAND fun. There had not been one new ride in decades; the last was a rather disappointing “high-speed” metal coaster that had become the park’s main attraction. Connor wondered why they hadn’t used the money instead to update the park – the other rides’ paint had chipped and faded, leaving a decrepit look that was more akin to a traveling carnival than one of the top 20 attractions of Arizona.
The only thing that could be guaranteed from FUNLAND’s motto was sun: this was the hottest summer the southwest had seen in a decade, and the state hadn’t experienced a single day of rain. In fact, the sun had become the enemy to many in Connor’s small town, who were not even allowed a sprinkler in the drought. (Many of the wealthier residents ignored this rule, however, enjoying signalling to their neighbors that they were both rich and inconsiderate.) The park itself was unspeakably hot, and only had a single water ride called Sun Garden Mill that only had a single tiny splash and mostly took place in a hot cave.
One out of three was not very good in Connor’s mind. And besides, if anything, the sun was a detractor.
Detractor was one of his new vocabulary words which meant it took away from something. He’d been studying very hard at school to get into the advanced summer program at Emory Park, the much nicer summer school upstate. Decisions were due out any day now, and Connor hadn’t wanted to risk seeming stupid if he attended. His little sister Josie had given him a judgemental look every time she saw him studying (in the summer, of all times!), but he’d just ignored her. He wasn’t keen on letting her or anyone else know about his application. After all, he hadn’t even decided he’d go if he got in – who would care for his siblings? And how would his mother, a waitress at the town’s diner, pay? He’d decided to wait until decisions were out to address those particular questions; for now, it was a waiting game.
Maybe running and fun had once been allowed in the park – it was obvious the motto had not been changed in decades. The sun had long since faded the probably once-colorful sign into a dirty almost-white – sort of like Connor’s clothing, which he’d had to wash himself at the laundromat. All of his clothes had faded, until a rude yet helpful older woman had instructed him to wash colors on cold.
It was probably better to be faded, anyways. You didn’t want to stand out.
Connor had learned that the hard way, when he’d moved to Stoneville five years prior and bumped right into bully Tim Myers. Tim had challenged Connor to a fight; and when he got home, Connor’s stepfather told him he needed to stand up and “be a man”. So, the next day Connor had showed up to school in his knight Halloween costume brandishing a wooden sword.
It turned out, fantasy role playing was not a surefire route to popularity. And “being a man” meant some sort of sexist nonsense about yelling in a deep voice and punching walls and somehow not crying while doing these things.
It certainly didn’t help that Connor wasn’t exactly popularity material. The other eighth graders made fun of his too-short hand-me-down pants inherited from a nameless relative (who had clearly had a problem with spilling things) and his often dirty hair. They weren’t exactly wrong when they called him a poor, low class weirdo from a good-for-nothing family, but Connor didn’t think it was very polite to say so. It wasn’t his fault the water was regularly shut off in his apartment, or that his stepdad couldn’t hold a job for more than a few months, or that all he had to read were old fantasy books. Connor actually thought he was doing pretty well, considering. He got good grades at school, at least. And one day – maybe one day soon – he was going to get out of Stoneville Arizona and become a great writer. And then nobody would laugh at him anymore.
But that day seemed very, very far away from the rusted wrought-iron front gates of FUNLAND, where Connor was busy plastering on a fake smile for his siblings, Josie and PT, and pretending Everything Was Great!! It was like being an adult without any of the perks – he had absolutely no freedom, and all the responsibilities.
At least PT and Josie wouldn’t have to experience that, not yet. If he acted like the parent, they could still act like kids, and remain blissfully unaware for at least one more day.
PT skipped forward, wearing the Iron Man costume Connor had gotten him at Goodwill two birthdays ago. Connor wasn’t sure if Connor knew Iron Man wasn’t a FUNLAND character, but had decided against correcting him. He was only 6, and he’d never been to an amusement park; they were all Disneyland to him. His face was alight with excitement, and Connor couldn’t bear the thought of bringing reality crashing down on him. Sometimes Connor was jealous of PT’s age; his ability to believe things were better than they were. Sometimes it just made him sad that he didn’t know their lives were bad because he’d never had anything better.
Josie was wearing her usual scowl, her blunt black bob looking almost blue in the sun, like she was wearing an ice crown. It was clear FUNLAND was not exactly Josie’s idea of a fun day, either; but she wouldn’t say anything about it. Partly because beneath her unfriendly demeanor, she loved PT and didn’t want to ruin it for him. But mostly because almost a year earlier, she had taken a vow of silence and hadn’t spoken since.
At least no one would make fun of her for being there. No one would dare. Everyone in her sixth grade class thought she was a witch after sixth grade ice queen Marcy Davis had insulted her clothes, then opened her locker the next day to see a dead bird. Josie was never caught, but Connor didn’t need rumors to tell him it was her; she loved reading books about zombies and taxidermy and everything that went bump in the night.
Tired looking adults carting around small children surrounded them, and Connor wondered where they might be going and why. How strange that their lives intersected at this one very moment and then never would again. Or even stranger, they would – and none of them would know they had ever seen each other before.
Connor had once heard that you couldn’t make up someone in a dream – every person you saw in a dream, you had seen before. He wondered if he’d been in some stranger’s dream before. He wondered if he’d been happy.
Connor turned back to PT, who was getting too far ahead – he wished he would slow down. The last thing Connor needed was to get separated from PT, or for PT to get hurt – Connor knew his parents did not have health insurance. But he needn’t have worried – the “no running” rule seeed to also include skipping, and a pimpled employee yelled harshly at PT to stop.
Connor recognized the employee as Tyler Drenow, a bully in Connor’s grade. Even among the employees, he was especially dumb. He’d been held back 2 years, and was due for a third – thus, he was much older than the other eight graders. As often happens, age crowned Tyler “cooler than everyone else”, and he’d let everyone know that Connor was decidedly uncool. Privately, Connor felt there was more to make fun of about Tyler than him – but he dared not say so. Middle school defied logic anyways, in an upside down version of the real world. One day, kids like Tyler would be mopping the floors of kids like Connor. At least, that’s what he told himself.
Tyler sneered at Connor as he passed, and followed them for a few steps, calling out clever insults such as “how old are you, 4?” or imitating Connor saying “I’m Connor and I’m too scared to ride the merry go round!”
FUNLAND had always been sort of lame, but had become much more so since the Six Flags had opened upstate. Now, you wouldn’t be caught dead in a photo in front of the mascot bear unless you wanted the picture passed around during the school lunch. It would’ve been easy enough to keep attendance a secret, if it weren’t for so many of the high schoolers working at the park. Connor wondered why none of the employees got made fun of for their stupid fur vests and animal ears, but alas: it was not him who made the rules.
Connor refused to be bothered by Tyler’s taunts – he’d expected it. Besides, it was a horrible impression of him. It was slightly frustrating that Tyler was being paid to continue him torment from school – which sounded like Tyler’s dream job – but the best thing to do with bullies, Connor had learned, was just tune them out. Actually, that was a good method with anyone who was making you feel bad – like his stepfather, who simultaneously refused to acknowledge the bullying and blamed Connor for it. Adults spoke in riddles like that sometimes, Connor had learned. They always thought they could hide what they were really saying. But Connor was very good at reading between the lines. Which had brought him to the conclusion that his stepfather, though older and supposedly wiser, was nothing more than a classic Stanton Middle School bully.
Giving up on Connor and turning to PT, Tyler began to make fun of PT’s costume. “Does the brain dead moron think he’s at Disney? Don’t you know your parents don’t love you enough for that? You could never afford it, anyways.” PT’s face fell, and Josie shot daggers at Tyler, but Connor simply grabbed PT’s hand and led him away. Josie shook her head, eyeing Connor as he started talking loudly about superheroes, drowning Tyler out. Soon they were caught up in the crowd, losing Tyler.
It was, as usual, unbearably hot. Everyone always said that the heat in places like Arizona couldn’t be too bad, because it was just dry heat. Everyone had never lived in Arizona, clearly.
Heat was just heat. And honestly, dry heat just sounded like another way adults tried to speak in poorly concealed code.
They stopped as they reached the center of the park, a square (which was really more of a circle) which housed an animatronic band made up of the park’s (self-touted) “famous” characters – a mouse named Herman playing the harp, a lion named Mildred playing the drums, and the most well-known of the three, the large bear named Barry playing the guitar. The animals was various shades of purple, fur rubbing and falling off as if the animals had a flesh eating disease. Garish smiles were plastered on googly-eye clad faces, a picture of painful joy as they played their instruments. They looked more rabid than jolly.
“Come to FUNLAND, where the sun and hopes are high!” they sang in cartoonish voices, jerky movements inches away from their instruments as the song played out of tinny speakers. “Come to FUNLAND, where the animals run run run and have some fun!”
Josie shot Connor a look. She looked like she wanted to run run run straight back the way they’d come, and Connor was right with her.
But a few small children seemed transfixed on the animals, clapping along as if they were actually enjoying themselves. Even PT looked mildly excited, pointing out the games closeby where you could win smaller versions of the animals. Reluctantly, Connor brought him over to the Whack-a-Barry, parting ways with a precious $5 as PT tried and failed to win the clearly rigged game.
The park was laid out into four smaller lands: Merryland, which was near the front of the park and held classic rides such as the carousel and merry-go-round; Barryland, which housed Barry the Bear-themed rides like the log ride, bumper cars, and a small coaster; Scaryland, which contained a haunted house, a rapid drop ride, and the “high speed” metal coaster; and Fairyland, a small toddler-friendly area with a treehouse and simple rides. Connecting them all was a small railway that ran above the park.
All around them were food stands selling greasy, overpriced items like giant pretzels and corn dogs, and diabetes-causing desserts like fried dough and giant sundaes. It was the kind of stuff that coated your mouth and made you feel like you’d swallowed chemicals and gave you a stomachache that lasted weeks. All of it manufactured and fake. Not real – not like the stuff that inspired Connor’s writing. Not like walks in mysterious woods and sunrises on a summer morning or the honesty he only held with himself.
It was simply not Connor’s scene. He did not like the crowds, the food, or even really the rides. It was certainly not Josie’s scene either – except for Scaryland, of course. She tried to drag them towards the haunted house as they passed, her face lighting up in a way it hadn’t in a very long time.
“Too scary for PT,” Connor said with a shake of his head, protecting his brother automatically. Josie’s face fell, and her eyes narrowed as she pulled PT forward. “Josie!” Connor said warningly.
“I want to go, too!” PT said, but Connor wouldn’t have it. What PT thought he could handle and what he actually could handle were two very different things – and this day was supposed to be fun, after all; not scary. Only Josie would see the two things as the same.
Josie pulled out her signature black pad and pen, scribbling down some words and presenting them to Connor.
I’ll go, she’d written. Stay here with PT.
“No,” Connor said firmly, struggling to be patient. Why wouldn’t children understand that he was simply trying to help them? Why did he have to be the one to be the bad guy? “We’re not separating.”
Josie fumed the rest of the way to Fairytown, where she refused to go on a single ride. Connor tried his best to act excited as they spun around slowly on a fairy-themed, glittery spiderweb-like contraption, but PT’s smile seemed even faker and less enthusiastic than Connor’s. Connor clearly wasn’t trying hard enough.
“I want to go on the Scarycoaster!” PT insisted when they got off, referring to the metal coaster – the only ride in FUNLAND which perhaps lived up to the name.
“It’s too scary,” Connor resisted, distracting PT with lunch (chicken fingers that tasted more like fingers than chicken) – but there was no deterring him. Tired of saying no, Connor relented, and PT practically dragged them to the outskirts of Scaryland, where the creatively named coaster was laid out. PT burst forward excitedly, giving Connor just enough time to smile, relieved that PT actually seemed truly happy for once.
But just as he entered the line, an arm grabbed his, pointing him towards a sign.
“You must be this tall to ride,” the sign read. Shooting a worried look back at Connor, PT stepped underneath the sign, just reaching the line. Connor breathed a sigh of relief.
“Sorry,” the attendant, who Connor recognized as Tyler’s friend (or, more accurately, accomplice) Jimmy, who went to the high school. “You’re too short.”
“What??” PT said. “No, I’m not!”
“Hair doesn’t count,” Jimmy said rudely, gesturing to PT’s wild brown curls. PT and Josie both looked at Connor, waiting for his move.
“Let’s go ride the Bear-o-Coaster!” Connor said, plastering on his best Barry the Bear smile. “It’ll be way more fun.”
“I want to go on this one,” PT said in a small voice. “You said I could.”
“We’ll come back when you’re not so little anymore.”
“I am not a little kid!” PT burst out suddenly, pushing Jimmy aside as he rushed into the line, weaving between adults and carriages and children on leashes.
“HEY!” Jimmy shouted, running after him, pushing children and adults (including a pregnant woman) aside rudely.
“PT!” Connor called, running after him with Josie. But they got caught up in the crowd (politeness was a rather inconvenient thing), and soon a large hand pulled at the back of Connor’s shirt, nearly choking him.
“No cutting!” Connor turned to see Tyler’s pimply face glaring at him.
“My brother’s in there – “
“Then wait in line like the rest of the people. What, you think you’re special?” Tyler thought very hard for a moment, like it required both of his two brain cells, finally coming up with a triumphant grin like he had just solved world hunger. “Yeah….yeah….” he laughed. “You are special, actually. So ‘special’ you should be in special ed.” Connor was fairly certain Tyler himself was in special ed – which really should not have been an insult anyways – so he wasn’t sure how effective of a diss that was. Besides, Tyler always called Connor a nerdy know-it-all – he was really having trouble keeping his story straight.
“Please,” Connor said. “He’s only 6 – he’ll get too scared by himself. If he goes by himself- “
“Then you shouldn’t have let him get in line without you,” Tyler grinned, baring braces laden teeth like a cartoon pubescent shark.
“I didn’t, he ran off – “ Connor tried to explain exasperatedly, feeling like he was trying to talk to one of his younger siblings even though Tyler was older than him.
“That’s not my fault. Back of the line,” Tyler said, unfazed, jerking his thumb backwards. “Relax. The ride’s perfectly safe. Well, if you’re tall enough…” He cackled in a hyena’s laugh.
Connor turned with a sigh and slunk to the back of the line with Josie, watching the exit like a hawk – but he saw neither PT nor Jimmy come out. Soon they were inside the ride and could no longer see the exit, and Connor waited impatiently, trying to ignore Josie’s looks – she was clearly unhappy with him, as usual. “We’re not going to the haunted house,” he said, annoyed. Josie threw up her hands with a huff, and scribbled something on her pad, but Connor refused to read it, even when Josie crumpled it up and threw it at the back of his head.
It took over an hour to make it to the front of the ride, and when they did, PT was nowhere to be seen.
“Next!” the ride operator called, and the person behind Connor shuffled forward, bumping into Connor. “Line 7,” he called towards Connor, pointing.
“We should go out the last minute exit,” Connor said, finally looking back at Josie, who was already getting on the coaster, shooting him a look that said “we didn’t come all this way for nothing.”
“Last call,” The operator said. Reluctantly, Connor jumped forward and got in beside Josie, still craning his neck to look for PT. “Enjoy the ride!” The operator called, pulling the level and causing the ride to begin to climb.
The ride shook through two loops, 4 hills, and 8 turns, the seats barely seeming secure, just as Connor had feared. Their heads rattled around, causing Connor’s pretzel and fried dough to come up into his throat. When they finally stumbled off the ride, Connor stumbled to a nearby bench with Josie’s help, forgetting to even look for PT as he squeezed his eyes shut and tried to regain his bearings.
“Hey!” a voice barked as Josie shook his shoulder. Connor looked up, blinking away stars and chasing away nausea to see Tyler and Jimmy. “Your psycho little brother went Wolverine on my friend!” Tyler called.
Jimmy held his arm angrily up, presenting a large bite mark. Next to Connor, Josie nodded in appreciation.
“Probably has rabies or something,” Jimmy added. “Little freak!”
Josie stood suddenly, eyes blazing as she stepped up to Jimmy. Connor jumped to his feet, trying to pull her away.
But as anyone with motion sickness knows, sudden movements only make it worse. And when you’re already fighting to keep down your lunch, they can sometimes produce….well, undesired results.
In this case, throwing up all over someone who already has plenty of reasons to hate you.
“Arghhh!” Tyler screamed, wiping puke off his uniform. “You’re going to pay for that, McGrath!”
Still dizzy, Connor took a step back. Josie pulled him away as Tyler lunged for him, still dragging him along as she ran, weaving between the crowd as heavy footsteps pounded behind them and parkgoers cried out in disgust, puke rubbing off on them. This time, they were saved by etiquette being broken, and the pandemonium that broke out at Tyler’s rudeness helped them get lost in the throng.
“You three are dead!” Tyler called from a rapidly increasing distance. “You hear me?? Dead!”
Looking for PT became rather impossible as they were being hunted themselves, like wild geese trying to find a needle in a haystack in the middle of hunting season. They used what was almost the last of their money to buy bear-ear hats, donning them as a disguise each time they passed an employee, but there were a couple near misses. As the park started to get dark, they still had not found their little brother.
The park closed at sundown – apparently, lighting was out of the park’s measly budget – so most of the park’s visitors were beginning to make their way towards the front entrance. PT had to be among them, Connor reasoned, so they joined the group.
They made their way through the throws of people to a tree near the exit, stepping up on the base to get a better vantage point. “Do you see him?” Connor asked. Josie shook her head.
Unfortunately, the tree was also a good vantage point to see them from.
“Hey!” came a voice suddenly. “McGrath!”
“Crap,” Connor said, ducking back down into the crowd. “It’s them.” Tyler and Jimmy had spotted him and was heading towards them, pushing against the traffic leaving the park. “Come on,” he said to Josie, pulling her towards the side. But the teenagers had longer legs, and were gaining on them. Connor and Josie ducked behind trees, changing routes and running deeper into the park.
“You can’t run from me!” Tyler called. Connor wondered how he’d gotten the job at the park. He sounded like a cartoon villain to everyone he’d ever met – he couldn’t exactly see Tyler charming the pants off his interviewer, unless he’d been asked to give a Mojo Jojo impression. “I’ll find you!”
The crowd grew sparse as Josie and Connor made their way to the center of the park, weaving between buildings and rides. Finally they stopped to catch their breath by the animatronic band animals, turning to see if Tyler had followed them.
They waited in silence, scanning every entrance to the square.
“Come to FUNLAND, where the sun and hopes are high!” the song suddenly broke out again, causing Connor and Josie to jump. They turned to see that the animatronic band had begun playing again. “Come to FUNLAND, where the animals run run run and have some fun!” they sang in their nasally voices.
But something was off. The tune was faster and higher pitched than normal. Their hands actually seemed to be playing the instruments, and the sounds became jarring and loud, off pitch.
“Come to FUNLAND-where-the-sunandhopesarehigh!” They screeched. Sparks began to fly from the guitar as a string broke. “COMETOFUNLANDWHERETHEANIMALSRUNRUNRUNANDHAVESOMEFUN!”
Connor took an instinctive step back, grabbing Josie’s arm as the band’s movement quickened, too, until the strokes of the ear’s guitar became a screeching cacophony, and the strings on the lion’s harp began to break, and the beat of the mouse’s drum became more of a vibration.
The animals began to shake off their hinges, almost as if they might fall. The very foundation rocked left and right, as if the animals were trying to free themselves of it. But that was insane. It was a jarring malfunction, but it was just that, Connor told himself. Most things in life could be explained – it was simply science that had not been discovered yet, or some phenomena Connor had not learned yet. It was still Normal.
Until the mouse’s foot broke loose from the base with a loud series of creaks, then stepped forward. Until the lion’s paws broke free and it began to drag its back legs forward. Until the bear’s eyes moved to Connor’s and narrowed as his arms reached out, leering out at them.
Until Connor watched the animals come to life, and could no longer brush the events off as anything other than horrifying, utterly impossible-yet-possible paranormal activity.
Next to him, a grin began to creep onto Josie’s face
“Awesome,” she said.