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I always hated road trips.
I'm not using the term "hate" lightly. I've always absolutely HATED long car rides, especially as a child. The hours on end spent cramped in the back of a vehicle drove me to the brink of adolescent madness. The sound of the road seemed always just loud enough to make it impossible to carry on a conversation with my parents up front. That's how desperate I'd get for any kind of break from the monotony - I'd actually wish I could hear my parents.
Sometimes my Mom would try to make the trips a little less unbearable... for both of us. She'd buy a stack of comic books or a couple new action figures, and hide them until the dreaded day would arrive. Naturally, I knew about them and would usually end up looking at them beforehand, completely sabotaging the attempt. I guess I've just always hated WAITING, really.
I'm going to tell you about one of these trips. The most mind-numbingly boring trip yet, from my home in New York to my Grandparents' house in Arizona.
Yes, we drove to Arizona, and I'd already read all the comics days earlier. We stopped at a couple Hotels for the night along the way, and I got to stretch my legs in school playgrounds if we happened to pass one when it was closed, but the majority of my time for days straight was spent seated, upright, seatbelt on, enveloped in the unforgiving drone of tires on pavement.
I don't even know what state we were in when I saw the first billboard. It was weather-worn, paint peeling, almost covered by overgrown trees... something largely unremarkable except for the image it offered.
"Whimsywood" was written in multicolored, balloon-like letters and set above the upturned head of a unicorn.
As we whipped past the sign, I could barely catch the small text below the mythical creature's image.
"Games! Rides! Animals! Family Fun! 25 MILES AHEAD"
"MOM!" I shouted as loud as I could, overtaking the tires' drone by several octaves.
"MOM! MOM! There's a PARK!"
She had seen it. They both had. My father, driving, took his eyes off the road for a split second as the two exchanged an unsure glance. It was a look I understood despite having never seen it before. They didn't want to stop there.
I must've sounded incredibly pathetic, even though I wasn't trying, because she turned back with a smile.
"Okay," she said, "IF it's open, and we'll see how much it costs to get in."
That was all I needed to hear. Now I was bouncing in my seat, utterly enthused. I just felt renewed, sharper and more alert after the stagnation of endless highway.
I watched the occasional car pass by and looked into their windows whenever possible. I looked for another kid like me, maybe coming back from the park. If I saw ONE kid with a Whimsywood pennant or an oversized stuffed animal or even a simple SMILE on their face, I would just KNOW the park was open.
Every car that passed was empty, though. Well, except for the grown-ups, but who cared about THEM?
I tried to convince myself that the random sights on the side of the road were signs the park was indeed open. A soiled baby doll with a hole in its face, a colorful blanket fluttering in the branches of a dead tree, even a sock monkey reclining on the road's center divider line.
There were enough children passing through to leave those signals, so I was more and more convinced this was going to be awesome.
A second billboard whizzed past. The same Whimsywood logo, the same unicorn's head, the same state of disrepair. Hanging off the billboard was a small wooden sign painted with red letters: "OPEN!"
"I know, I saw it."
My Dad turned to Mom again with a chuckle, "Well, I guess we're going."
The final Whimsywood sign stood at the end of a gravel driveway that trailed a long way off behind the tree line. The sign was much like the billboards, but despite being in better repair, it actually seemed even older. The lettering was hand-painted in an old-timey style, and the text beneath the unicorn head differed slightly. "Games of chance! Mechanical Rides! Rare Animals! Wholesome fun for Junior & Sis!"
Dad didn't really like the idea of taking the gravel stretch. He grumbled and complained the whole way down as the tires crunched stone and kicked things up into the undercarriage. I heard a few curse words in there, but all I cared about was the fast-approaching FUN.
Past the trees, the Whimsywood park was spectacular. On the drive in, we were overlooking the entirety of the property, several cleared acres with a short, long building essentially acting as a gateway between the downward sloping driveway and the gaming booths, petting zoo, and carnival rides toward the back.
I was probably vibrating at a dangerous frequency at this point, like I was on the world's biggest sugar rush.
"Wow," Mom remarked, "It's actually pretty nice."
Dad started the car down the slope toward the parking lot with a deep sigh.
The parking lot was about half filled with cars, which was probably a bit surprising to my parents. The minivans and station wagons scattered throughout the gravel expanse proved that, yes, Whimsywood was open.
I didn't think anything of it, though, racing to the front doors of the building to see if they were locked.
"Hey!" Dad called out as I bolted forward.
I froze in place, thought about what I must've done wrong, and sheepishly made the walk back to his side. Together, the three of us approached the building. More waiting.
Dad pulled the door open and held it for Mom and I... me first, of course. There was a wooden box by the front doors that simply read, "Pay what you can! ($5 for everyone over three suggested.)" I thought I saw Dad slip in a ten dollar bill and thought about protesting my age, but I was too excited to get inside.
The interior of the building was dark, lit by row upon row of arcade game cabinets and neon signs that hung on the walls. The signs weren't for any specific products, but were more along the lines of general concepts. "Fun!", "Groovy!", and "Tubular!" - Stuff like that. One that sticks in my mind just confusingly read "Super-Power!".
I hadn't really been to an arcade yet at the time, so this had my jaw dragging on the floor. Now that we were indoors and there was no chance of getting backed over by a van, I was free to run around like a lunatic. I was quickly lost amid the beeps and shrieks and computerized music of about a hundred video games.
I checked them all out. A Centipede-like game called "Skull & Crossbow" caught my attention the most. It had a little boy with a crossbow at the bottom of the screen, firing upward as skeletons and skulls rolled across a graveyard, inching closer and closer to him.
I ran back to my parents, and Mom already had a handful of quarters prepared for me. I played it for a while... but couldn't get very far without dying, so that "fun" was over pretty quick.
When I returned to my parents this time, they were talking with a third adult. She was a squat, heavy-set woman with stringy black hair and nasty-neat black dress clothes. She wore a unicorn horn on her forehead, attached with an elastic band.
"Well," Dad said to the round lady, "Here's the boy."
The way he said it was the same as saying, okay, here's my way out of this conversation.
The round lady turned and leaned down to face-level with me. Her face was wrinkled, worn and old like the signs. She said hello to me with a large, yellowish smile and her breath smelled like urine.
I didn't answer her, instead cleaving to Mom's leg.
"He's shy," she explained, "It was nice talking to you!"
We quickly exited and walked to the large clearing behind the building.
"Who was THAT?" I finally asked when we were out of earshot.
"She works here," Dad said flatly. He paused and added, "Couldn't get a word in edgewise."
We took a few steps before Mom and Dad exchanged the agitated look once again.
For about fifteen minutes, I ran from one attraction to the next as Dad repeatedly checked his watch. I didn't care, this was my one chance to actually enjoy myself. I wanted to take Dad's watch and smash it. I wanted to stay here, not go to stupid Arizona.
The petting zoo had the usual fare. Goats, chickens, and a hell of a lot of feces. An old man sat on a hay bale in the center of the petting zoo as other kids around my age harassed the birds and acted wary of the goats. The old man was dressed a lot like the round woman, right down to the plastic unicorn horn on his head.
He smiled at me.
After I did the customary amount of petting and stepping in shit, the old man beckoned me over. I kept a safe distance from him, but I did approach.
As I stood a couple feet from the old man, he cast his gaze down at the straw beneath his feet. I did the same.
Then, he swept a bit of straw aside.
Just beneath was one of the chickens. It was motionless, its head twisted several times around. Jostled by the old man kicking the straw, a few maggots twisted and turned out of the creature's beak.
I locked eyes with the old man, who was still smiling.
"Don't tell the other kids," he whispered, "They'll ALL want to see."
He put his finger to his leathery, black-speckled lips as if to shush me.
I always loved animals, and even if I hadn't this would have still been disturbing. I ran back to my Mom with such an awkward gait that she instinctively knew to kneel down and catch me as I reached her.
"What?" she asked, "What is it?"
"There's a dead chicken!"
"It was under the straw by that man!"
"Well, I'm sure he'll get rid of it. Sometimes animals get old, and they pass on. Remember, we talked about that?'
As you no doubt already know, THAT wasn't the problem I was having with the whole situation. Still, I didn't really have the mental tools to figure out exactly how I should clarify the situation.
I held hands with my Mom AND Dad, almost hanging between them, as I decided what I wanted to do next in the park.
That's when an announcement echoed through the park, carried by rattling, tinny loudspeakers mounted on telephone poles.
"Well-a, well-a, well-a! Welcome, Whimsywood wee ones! Hurry, hurry, hurry to the Lumberjack's TIMBEEEEEERRRR-R-R Tunnel! All you little Lumberjack and Lumberjills toddle on over to the tunnel and get ready to laugh!"
The announcer did a passable Goofy impression, mixed with the hype style of an ad for a Monster Truck Rally.
"How about that," Mom asked, "Wanna do that?"
I felt a little less sick now, almost entirely forgetting anything was wrong in the first place.
"Sure!" I perked up.
The Timber Tunnel was like any given theme park tunnel ride... a metal track, a roller-coaster styled cart, and a long tunnel the tracks lead into. The mouth of the tunnel bore flat, plywood "trees" and a stand-up cutout of a burly lumberjack that looked like it had been left out in the rain for about a century. It was faded and worn, most of its facial features missing aside from a thick beard.
I got into the cart at about the back. Other kids were already piling in, and there was a real sense that I might get shoved or kicked if I tried to work my way in any sooner than I did.
The round woman was standing by the cart, making sure everyone was safe and secure by manhandling them to see if they'd come loose from the cart. Nearby, two people in a less than convincing two-man unicorn costume pranced and trotted around, the lead man making whinnying and snorting sounds.
Next to me in the cart was a dweeby kid with coke bottle glasses and a green and white striped shirt. He had a blob of snot rolling down his upper lip, which he would continually snort back up as he looked around in wonder. If this kid smiled any wider, his head would've fallen off.
When the round woman finally worked her way to the back of the cart, she jerked and jostled me roughly, her hands darting from my arms, to my chest, to my leg, and bumping my crotch in a way that gave me a fleeting feeling of extreme unease. It happened so quickly that she was already moving on before I could even croak out a word.
And with that, the cart was off.
All the kids waved to their parents, who waved back again. My hands were solidly on the metal bar that held kids in place as I stared toward my parents, still dumbfounded by what just happened. Mom and Dad waved, their look of happiness turning to concern over my appearance just as I disappeared into the tunnel.
After this all happened, all I wanted was to forget the song.
LUMBERJACK DAN LUMBERJACK DAN CLEARING ALL THE TREES WORKING ON THE LAND
LUMBERJACK DAN LUMBERJACK DAN A HARD DAY'S WORK FOR THE LUMBERJACK MAN
It issued from unseen speakers over and over again with no variation. It was set way too loud, and a couple kids ahead of me clasped their hands over their ears. Most just laughed, and one said, "It's not bad. You guys are gay!"
We passed painted scenes of forest landscapes and little animatronic lumberjacks. They had about the same range of animation as desktop "drinking bird" toys, and were about the same size. It was like being on the train in a miniature train set.
As we rounded a curve, the song loop sped up like the cassette tape was being played on fast forward.
The screeching, high-pitched voice was ear-splitting. Now ALL the kids were covering their ears.
I looked at the little mechanical people as we continued through the ride. They were moving faster, as well... blindingly fast... faster than a tiny tin toy should realistically be able to move without flying free of their hinges.
As we continued, the lumberjacks were cutting other things.
Tiny lumberjacks had moved into a small settlement of log cabins and were relentlessly, eternally hacking away at tiny felled people. Blood spurts made of red metal wire jiggled this way and that as the torturous murders commenced.
The lights went out. The song still played, still way too fast and way too loud. I felt my pants getting wet.
The cart shook. It shook with increasing severity, like someone jostled the front of the car... then the middle... working their way back.
Suddenly, something hit me in the jaw very hard like an uppercut. I felt something lash my face as well. It was like being hit from underneath by a child's shoe, foot and all, with the laces following suit. It was almost like someone had flown past, while kicking out violently.
Reeling from the shocking blow, I slipped beneath the safety bar and crumpled to the floor of the cart. I cried out, but the music drowned the sound. I felt across the floor for help from the boy next to me, but I found only empty space from wall to wall within the cart.
The music finally ceased and everything was deathly quiet.
Sniveling in the dark, I remained quiet. I didn't even breathe deeply. I listened for any sign of where everyone had gone or why they'd left.
All I heard was a sound like a restaurant full of customers obnoxiously slurping soup mixed with the absent, brainless chewing of a group of cattle. It wasn't loud, but in the darkness it seemed to echo all around me.
The lights never came back on, but thankfully the cart had continued to move throughout this ordeal. Soon, I saw daylight as I emerged from the other end of the tunnel, still hunched down on the floor and clutching my swollen jaw.
When I realized I was most likely past the danger... or at least assumed I was... I boldly popped my head out of the cart and looked around, the sunlight burning my unadjusted eyes. I was alone.
I don't mean I was alone in the cart, though I WAS, but rather that there was absolutely nobody around. Not a single parent was there to greet anyone coming off the ride.
The cart was still moving when I rolled myself over the side and landed on the ground hard. I was frantic at this point, nearly crying. I moved as fast as I could through the grounds, making a bee line away from the Timber Tunnel and toward the long building at the front of the park.
The petting zoo was empty except for the animals... everything was empty. The game booths displayed unguarded prizes, and the other rides whirred and click-clacked with no passengers and no operators.
As I moved through the arcade building, I made sure to stop at each row of cabinets to see of my parents had come in there for some unknown reason. It was just as desolate as the rest of the place.
When I reached the parking lot, that's when relief finally washed over me. There were my Mom and Dad, walking toward our car. The other parents were here as well, doing much the same.
"MOM," I called out, "DAD!"
Nothing. Not even a hesitation in their step.
"MOOOOOMMMM!!" I repeated in a desperate tone.
When I caught up with them I slipped between them and took their hands again.
They both gasped in shock and looked down at me as if some sort of otherworldly creature had suddenly grabbed onto them.
"Hey..." Mom said, almost as if she was remembering something from far away in the past, "Hey! Where were you?"
"Mom," I started bawling at this point, "Mom, I was in the TUNNEL. You left me in the TUNNEL! Where were you GOING, Mom?!"
"The tunnel?" She repeated, seeming mystified.
"The tunnel," Dad grinned at Mom, "We left him in a tunnel!"
He was making fun of me, acting like I wasn't making and sense and like I was doing it on purpose. It made me so mad I could actually hear my own pulse.
"DAD, YOU DID."
I never convinced them.
To this day, I've never convinced them of any of it.
Even though we all got into the car and drove up that slope out of Whimsywood... ten seconds later they acted like they'd never even heard of the place. They acted as if there had been no interruption in the trip.
Mom even said I'd dreamed it.
We were right in the middle of talking about Whimsywood... she had JUST said it seemed like a nice place, even if it was a bit run-down... and the next moment she was talking about it being something I'd dreamt.
I watched another car behind us that had just come from the park as well... without the child that had been riding along less than an hour earlier.
Out of the passenger's side window came a stuffed rabbit... a juice cup... a coloring book.
By the time we reached Arizona, the combination of my parents' insistence that I'd dreamt it all, combined with the monotony of the remaining trip, had me worn down.
I really started considering the idea it hadn't been real. I almost had myself fooled until the trip home. On the way back, we passed the billboards again. "Games! Rides! Animals! Family Fun! 25 MILES AHEAD"
"Hey, look..." Mom said, "You've been really good, want to stop there on the way?"
Much to her surprise, I declined.