Innocence Lost and Regained, by Carol Ayer
“The park is too milquetoast, too innocent. Kids today want action and excitement. They want to run from experience to experience. They don’t have time to turn a plastic key in a box and listen to a story.”
I looked at Mr. White, trying to arrange my scowl into a neutral expression. He was missing the point. Storyland was supposed to be innocent. That’s exactly what I’d loved about it as a kid, and why I still loved it today. An oasis in a crazy, brutal world. A place where your favorite childhood stories were brought to life, a place where you could linger for hours, forgetting all sense of time.
Mr. Black was nodding his head in agreement with Mr. White. “These small fairytale parks are outdated. Theme parks are the way to go.”
Mr. Gray chimed in, “Roller coasters. Stage shows. Shops.”
I could almost see the dollar signs in his eyes.
“Think it over,” White said. “We’ll give you a good price.”
In unison, the three turned, and one by one, exited my gingerbread house-shaped office. They looked so alike, all brown-haired and brown-eyed, dressed in pinstripe suits and blue ties. It was difficult to think of them as human. They reminded me, actually, of Tweedledum and Tweedledee, but three instead of two. Tweedledee, Tweedledum, and Tweedledunce, perhaps.
After a few minutes, I, too, left the office, and squinted when the bright sun shone into my eyes. I’d been spending a lot of time indoors lately, drawing up summer schedules, planning special events, and trying to make a budget squarely in the red somehow turn black. I looked over at the “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary Gardens,” thinking how it had been my favorite set when I was younger. But, in truth, I loved them all. I treasured this park. It’s why I’d taken the money I’d inherited from my grandmother and purchased the property five years ago. If it weren’t for dwindling admission numbers and increasing insurance costs, I wouldn’t have allowed the Tweedles and their corporate greed anywhere near me.
We’d closed an hour early for my meeting, and an eerie quiet had settled over the park. It was time to go home, but for some reason I stayed. I climbed up the stairs at “The Frog Slide” and slid down the tongue. Next, I visited the set of “The Three Little Pigs,” admiring the small porcine statues and the larger wolf one.
I skipped my way through the “Wonderland Tunnel,” smiling at the scene depicting the trial of the Knave of Hearts. Once outside, I traveled over to the Hispaniola, the ship from “Treasure Island.” I sat on the cement beside the ship, took off my shoes, and dipped my feet in the shallow pool.
I gazed around, feeling my heart swell with love and pride. I’d always hoped that one day I would have my wedding here. Storyland’s chapel stood in the center of the property, and at one time hosted dozens of ceremonies a season. Now, we were lucky to have a single booking for an entire year.
I’d also pictured showing my own children around the park, taking them to the puppet shows, listening to the storyboxes with them, and sliding down the slides together. I’d share with them “The Crooked House” and “Little Miss Muffet,” “Jack and Jill’s Hill” and “Dr. Dolittle.” I knew they would want to come back every weekend, just as I had with my grandmother. And maybe they’d have their own weddings here, and bring their children…
Although this was definitely a place for dreaming, I knew I had to be practical. I couldn’t run Storyland much longer with no money. As much as I adored the park, I would probably have to sell to the Tweedles.
I wiped a tear from my eye. It wasn’t so much the idea of selling the park that saddened me, but the idea that it would never be the same again. Not with roller coasters, log rides, and restaurants instead of Peter Rabbit, the Tinman, and Long John Silver.
“Help me!” I screamed out loud, surprising myself with my anger.
Of course, I heard nothing in return, other than the wind rustling through the trees. I removed my feet from the pool, stamped on the concrete, and slipped my shoes back on. I headed for home.
Against my better judgment, I agreed to let the Tweedles roam around the park the following evening, allowing them a chance to plan their new park in advance of the sale. But only under the condition that I would escort them. I wasn’t quite ready to give up. Maybe I would get some ideas from what they were planning. I could implement them myself–while still keeping the core idea of Storyland alive. Then I could delay the sale, and see if I could get my attendance numbers up.
“Over here we can put ‘The Scream Machine,’” Mr. White said.
I groaned. I couldn’t stand the thought of the “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary Gardens” being replaced by what I understood to be an upside-down roller coaster.
Mr. Black shot me a nasty look, no doubt intended to keep me quiet.
“Now for the ‘Treasure Island Area,’” Black said. “Maybe the water ride.”
White and Gray nodded appreciatively, making notes on identical tablet computers. I bit my tongue and remained silent.
“All these smaller sets–like this rat one–can just be razed,” Gray said.
“It’s not rats. It’s ‘The Three Little Pigs,’” I pointed out, but he just ignored me.
By the time they were talking about a three-level shop where the “Wonderland Tunnel” now stood, I’d had enough.
“Look, guys, I forgot I have to be somewhere,” I said, thinking I just had to be anywhere but there. “I’ll lock everything up. Just go through the turnstile gate when you’re done, okay?”
I stomped off without waiting for a reply.
Later, I had a nightmare about Storyland–now known as ThrillsLand. I was there against my will, swept from thrill ride to thrill ride by a swarming, angry crowd. On one ride, my roller coaster car sailed off its tracks, leaving me to hang in midair, wondering whether I would live or die. I woke up screaming, and was unable to fall back asleep. I left for the office at dawn, resigned to make it through the day on too little sleep.
On my arrival, I immediately noticed something odd about the turnstile gate. It seemed to be blocked by a mass of vines, curling in and out of the chain-link fence and over and under the actual turnstile. I peered through the gate at the “Jack and the Beanstalk” set, where against any kind of logic, the beanstalk was now a real plant sporting vines which extended out in all directions, including those binding the turnstile. I gulped. What was going on? Was I still dreaming?
But I knew I wasn’t. I used my key to enter the opposite gate, the one the staff used, and tentatively embarked on a tour around the grounds.
I gaped in horror when I arrived at “The Three Little Pigs” to find Mr. White on the ground, his insides now outside, as though he’d been ravaged by some kind of wild animal. I looked suspiciously at the wolf statue, which I could have sworn was pointing in a different direction than it had for the past 60 years. And hadn’t his right paw always been the one slightly forward, rather than the left?
Dry-mouthed, I moved on. I knew I had to call the police, but something beyond my control pushed me further into the park.
In the “Wonderland Tunnel” at the trial scene, I had to look away when I glimpsed the top of what I was sure was Mr. Black’s head…unaccompanied by his body. I was surprised, but also not, to find an ax lying next to the Queen of Hearts. The card itself seemed to have a smirk on its face, as if she were happy she had finally succeeded in offing someone’s head.
I moved on. At the Hispaniola, the water in the pond had risen several feet. Facedown, floating on the water, was Mr. Gray’s body.
The police were equally stumped by the happenings of that night, especially given the startling lack of any forensic evidence. After what seemed like hours of questioning, I was cleared of all suspicion. The locked gates and security fencing precluded the possibility of an outsider committing the crimes, so the detectives theorized that Gray had either killed the other two and then committed suicide out of guilt, or there’d been some other combination of murders and then Gray’s self-drowning. Apparently, the three must have squabbled (although to me, they seemed to always be on the same wavelength), or else at least one of them had gotten greedy and didn’t want to share in the future profits.
How White’s body ended up looking like an animal’s leftovers was never explained, nor the fact that the beanstalk had apparently turned real. And the ax….well, I surely would have noticed if one of them had been carrying it, and, of course, we had nothing like it in the park that wasn’t fake (I later discovered that Paul Bunyan’s ax was inexplicably missing). They finally released me, as baffled as I.
After I’d had the park thoroughly cleansed of all the nastiness, and read up on how to take care of beanstalks, I reopened. Despite my best efforts, the crimes had made headlines in the local papers. But contrary to what I thought would happen, business increased a hundredfold.
These days, things really couldn’t be any better. My innocent, milquetoast fairytale park now hosts thousands of visitors a day. I am engaged to one of the police detectives, and we will marry next June in the Storyland chapel.
Carol Ayer worked at a park like the one in this story in the 1980s. As far as she knows, the story is not based on real-life events. She usually writes romance, but realizes some people consider romance and horror to be the same thing. Visit her at CarolAyer.com .
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