Please note: this story was provided by the author and published as is.
Tales of the old amusement park remained in the acrid air of the old town for a decade. The bones still stood, in rapid decay, behind a simple chain link fence that did nothing more than add to the ambiance.
“NO TRESSPASSING” signs littered the area, careless whispers of nothing more than empty suggestions in hopes that kids and adventurists alike would keep off the property, but to no avail. A place with a secret always holds a mysterious charm for those brave enough to look.
The old park left a blemish on our small town after a 16-year-old boy named Sam disappeared there. The 10-year anniversary loomed before us like a dark entity. 10 years was supposed to mean something; maybe a fresh look at the case, maybe some extra media coverage. But I knew that it meant nothing. There was a vigil every year on this day, candles scattered in circles like the ultimate séance. But it never brought him back.
After the park shut down due to “excessive safety issues,” rumors spread like the common cold. Everyone had heard the tales. Urban legend books were published in local libraries. Local kids claimed they saw him. Heard him. Felt him. There was a monster at Highland Park. And everyone knew it.
The first time I went back to visit the park was exactly two weeks after Sam’s disappearance, after the section of the park where the incident occurred had been closed for investigation. I snuck into the exhibit where I last saw him. I became obsessed with the place ever since.
10 years and I was back again, the same way I had been back every day since my initial visit. I had a backpack slung over one shoulder, filled with only essentials. I climbed up a small ravine and made my way through overgrown brush and tall trees to a clearing with a broken chain link fence. I saw one of the no trespassing signs had fallen, laying among the tall weeds and I kicked it over, so it was unreadable.
The day started out cloudy and breezy but when I made it to the top of the hill, the wind began to blow my blonde hair into my face. I kept my hair long to cover up the scars on my face and neck. I tied it back and stared up at the sky. The light was disappearing behind the clouds, and the air became suddenly hot and stale around me. I ignored the sudden signs of a storm with trepidation, knowing that this is where I needed to be.
I thought about Sam as I began to trek through the wilderness. Sam and I had been in a relationship for a year prior to his disappearance. Thoughts flooded my brain as I remembered my painful past. I could almost feel the searing pain of a fist colliding with my face again, of hands pinning me to the cement, of my own screams leaving my throat dry and raw. I had to stop walking. I lingered for a moment with my head in my hands.
Sam put me through hell. And even worse than the abuse from our relationship, the memory of the day he vanished, seared through my brain like a deadly wildfire. I hated him for the terror he exposed me to. I blamed him for the nightmares, the loneliness, and the trauma that now plagued my life.
I could see the Ferris wheel, a lonely skeleton covered in ivy and defaced with a kaleidoscope of graffiti. “You’ll never survive,” was scrawled sloppily on one of the cars in bright blue. Cars barely hung from metal wire; others were perfectly intact. There were signs posted all around the ride stating “DO NOT CLIMB,” in case people missed the “DO NOT TRESPASS” signs on the way in.
Each anniversary the day burns bright in my mind; a picture-perfect playback of the exact moment everything went wrong. I replayed it in my head once again.
It was sunny and hot that day, the air smelled strongly of fried dough, hot dogs, and sweat. Every piece of metal was hot to the touch, and my hair stuck to my face as the heat sweltered around us. We spent the entire day at the park, riding roller coasters, and swimming at the water park. Dusk was approaching and I wanted more than ever to slow the day down. We had not had this good of a day in a long time. This day was my day. My anniversary present from Sam – for one year spent together.
“Sam!” I screamed, “Let’s go on this one!” I pointed to the Ferris wheel. I loved the idea of a Ferris wheel lit up in the night sky. I romanticized the idea of it from the moment he told me he was taking me here.
Sam was tall, his strong arms were holding a large bag of popcorn and a giant lemonade as he looked over at me, his mouth stuffed full of food.
He gave me a thumbs up and I laughed.
He came over to me, a giant smile lighting up his entire face and asked me if I had heard about the new exhibit. I told him that of course I had but it wasn’t open yet.
The Cave. It was an interactive exhibit with animatronic tour guides that lead you through a cave full of wild animals within giant glass boxes that would come to life with one flick of a switch.
Sam proceeded to tell me that he had friends who had snuck in the exhibit, that they had told him it was amazing and that we had to do it too.
I told him there was no way I was doing it. He responded by telling me to “live a little.”
The intensity was palpable in the air now. One wrong statement from me could throw Sam off for an entire day. His annoyance was the last thing that I wanted.
He said that he would go by himself and stormed off. The next thing I knew I had followed him to a giant black building that looked like a warehouse, despite the conflicting feelings I had about breaking into an unfinished exhibit.
Sam pretended to be on his phone. I followed his lead. What felt like an eternity later I heard an employee nearby say that he was going on a break.
Sam smirked at me with a look that said he knew he could make me follow him to the ends of the Earth. And in the moment, I probably would have.
He grabbed my hand and pulled me towards the back entrance and in through a giant metal door labeled “EMPLOYEES ONLY.”
Before I knew it, Sam was already touching things he was not supposed to. He started by tapping a button on one of the animal exhibits. The lions began to tumble, roar and fight each other. It was like watching a movie, each animal looked soft with fluid movements, and intricate, sharp, teeth. I was both mesmerized and terrified.
“I don’t want to do this.” I told him, my stomach churning with uneasiness.
Instead of being understanding Sam chastised me for being afraid of everything. I immediately shut my mouth.
I stared into one of the empty glass boxes to my right. It was lit up in a deep fluorescent glow. There was a shark with multiple rows of teeth; sharp and white, suspended motionless in a giant tank of water. There was an entire coral reef covering the bottom of the tank. My hand hovered over the button as I stared into its abysmal black eyes.
Sam came up behind me, slapped his hand over mine and the button sunk into the wall.
My breath caught in my throat. The shark looked ravenous as its mechanical body twisted and turned throughout the miniature reef. It barred its large teeth, as sharp as pickaxes, and came right up to the glass to stare into my eyes before it was stationary once again. I imagined the glass shattering and the shark devouring me in one bite.
Sam continued to touch everything. He was pressing buttons and tapping on glass. He messed with doors and levers and before I knew it, he was halfway through an unlocked bear exhibit.
He asked me to take a picture of him as he went up to a gigantic black bear that hovered in the air, claws fully exposed above him. He mocked the bear’s stance and made a low growl.
“Come on. Camera,” he said, pretending to hold one in his hands and pressing an imaginary button over and over to attempt to persuade me.
The whole exhibit shook beneath my feet; a tremor that ignited a fear in me that I have not felt since that day. I shook my head in terror as unbeknownst to Sam the greatest horror I could ever imagine began to take place.
One of the mechanical tour guides emerged from the darkness and started walking towards the bear exhibit. The tour guide, anthropomorphic in his movements and appearance was so human-like that I don’t think I would have known any better if it weren’t for its dead black eyes, and a slight distortion in its facial features.
“Lock down all exhibits. Lock down all exhibits.” It repeated as it shut Sam in. “Our tour is about to begin.”
Sam stared at me and ran back to the door. He pushed, shoved and kicked but it would not budge.
He mouthed my name through the glass; the same feeling of impending doom etched into his face as I am sure was on mine.
My legs were swept out from under me before I could do anything, and I was dropped into a cart I had no idea was there. The robot buckled me in despite my defiance.
“Hands and feet must stay inside of the cart at all times for passenger’s safety.” The robot said.
“No!” I shouted, my eyes darting back to the bear exhibit where Sam stood next to the glass, frantic, trying to break out.
“Please stay silent so all passengers may hear the rules.”
I screamed for help as I haphazardly attempted to rip the buckle off myself.
“Shhh.” The robot said leaning right into my face. I stared into its empty, dark eyes and knew that there was nothing I could do. This situation was much more sinister that I could have possibly imagined.
I turned to look at Sam. The belt around me was locked into place and I could not move more than a couple of inches.
“Sam!” I yelled again. The bear behind him began moving with a miraculous roar at another bear in the same habitat. I looked away from the scene, just as the same robot tour guide ascended upon me once again.
“If you cannot adhere by the rules, I will have to dismiss you from the tour.”
“Screw you!” I screamed at the robot.
Then with incredible force it began pulling my arms to unsuccessfully eject me from the seat.
I screamed in agony, as I heard my bones snap from the force. The pain subsided quickly as the shock of my arms being broken shot a heavy dose of adrenaline through my veins.
I should have never looked as I heard Sam’s feeble cries through the glass. I should have never glanced behind me to see a giant bear ravaging his body, twisting it and throwing him around, passing him to the other bear. I shouldn’t have, because I replay this particular moment in my mind over and over again. It gives me a sinister high that I hesitate to admit.
I noticed a small “EMERGENCY” button located near my foot and I tapped it. The belt popped off of me almost instantly and I scrambled out of the cart toward the exit, avoiding the mannequin-like robots that had not yet become mobile, scattered throughout the exhibit, their eyes seeming to glow as I passed them.
I heard a crash as the shark beat against the glass, its teeth scraping against it with an intense chalk-like noise that made me momentarily fall to my knees.
Before I knew it, another robot was grabbing my arms, flimsy in their sockets, as I could not move them to fight.
“Escort to exit required,” the robot said calmly.
I screamed fiercely into its face and it released me. I scrambled to my feet and ran as fast as I could towards the exit. It seemed impossibly far away; the red etched letters burned in my retinas as I tried to ignore the flurry of animals trying to break free from their glass prisons.
I stopped and looked back towards Sam, wondering how I could leave him there. I thought I loved him at the time. I thought he might be worth saving. Could I be so selfish as to save only myself?
I heard a creak beside me and jumped with a start as a chimpanzee attached itself to my face. The pain was almost too much to bear. I flung my neck around as I could not use my arms or hands to get it off me.
A door opened and a security guard stood there, a look of shock plastered on his face. A bright light shone through the exhibit. The chimp fell from my body and everything stilled as I gasped, running to the man holding the flashlight, momentarily forgetting about Sam.
I fell breathlessly into the security man’s arms, my face tear streaked, and covered in blood.
“Is there anyone else in here?” He screamed at me what I imagine was multiple times before I responded.
I nodded but when I turned to look, there was no one there. Sam had vanished as quickly as we had snuck in. And for a brief moment I wondered if I had actually lost my mind.
The police searched for a long time for Sam but they never found him. They weren’t even sure my story was completely true as they never really could understand why the animatronics were doing things that they were never programmed to do and none of the developers could get them to act the same way I had described again.
The park shut down not long after the incident. People were afraid to go there. Sam’s disappearance wasn’t the only strange incident that occurred at Highland Park. Shortly after, a woman drowned after jumping a fence into a koi pond, screaming that she was on fire. Later I discovered that same woman abused and neglected her 5 children. Police found them locked in the basement of her home. Sometime after that a man jumped from the very top of the Ferris wheel. He had recently robbed a liquor store, killing the cashier and getting away with all the money.
All that is left of Highland Park are the broken bones of a lost world, whose mystery exceeds even my own dark secrets. I have grown to love this strange, dark place. I do not believe it was trying to kill me anymore because I truly believe it saved my life.
So if you happen to come to my town and they tell you that Highland Adventure Park is haunted, and they tell you that you can hear Sam’s cries from under the Earth itself, just know that they aren’t lying.
And on the 10th anniversary of his disappearance, things were just as they say. I stepped into The Cave, the very exhibit where Sam was last seen. Sometimes the robots still twitch all these years later, undoubtedly in stages of their own rigor mortis.
I then opened a giant metal door hidden beneath a layer of brush and climbed down the ladder amidst the screaming and moaning of the underground monster. A monster that fell through a trap door after being dropped by a massive black bear one decade ago. A monster that I once thought was worth saving until he spat in my face on that very first visit, a visit where I made the decision to let the park have him.
This monster-only a fragment of a man now-was chained to the wall, his mouth mangled and wordless, a grotesque tapestry of scars covering the length of his warped body, wearing the same thing he had on 10 years ago.
“Hi Sam,” I said, setting a small cake down next to him. “Happy Anniversary.”