On the day the others left, we’d all been watching from inside the gates. They didn’t open anymore, and even back then, they had been rusted shut at the seams of their locks. They made our hands smell like blood. The others, maybe ten of them, climbed under the gates where swampy trees had uprooted the concrete where the soil was soft and new. They didn’t look back at us from the outside, holding hands, and their Nostalgia Town t-shirts were stained with sweat and dirt. They disappeared into the parking lot, and we hadn’t seen them since.
Once Petey disappeared, though, everyone started to act funny. They talked about going outside the gates to look for him, because that’s the only place Petey could’ve gone. A lot of them would talk about what would be on the outside, about leaving the inside. I couldn’t let that happen because we were safe here. Our Moms and Dads left us here because we would be safe. We’ve been safe.
We could’ve been worse off. We could’ve lived somewhere cold, or too hot, but we’re lucky. A swamp can never fool you: It’s just a swamp. Nostalgia Town, where we’ve been living, is surrounded by a thick marsh. We’d taken shelter in-between mossy roller coasters and rusting whirly rides. The park used to be lit up and loud, always screaming – happy. Now the rides ache and howl against cool, marsh breezes at night – moaning, and we all cry with them. We used to cry for something, for someone. Maybe for all the Moms and Dads, but I don’t think we know why we’re crying anymore. Maybe it’s just nice to cry sometimes.
We didn’t go on the Outside. That’s where The Bad lived. In the Before Time, we all used to live on the outside. We used to go to school, and we had friends. We used to go on vacation to fun places like Nostalgia Town, or we went to the mall, bought new clothes and shoes. We had video games and dolls and plastic dinosaur action figures. On the inside there were only memories and us.
Only a few of us lived in Nostalgia Town. We’d all been in the same class together at school, so we were sort of friends before The Bad Time. We were grateful for that.
There were several of us left. There had been more, but after a while in the sun, our faces sweaty and oily, the others decided to go on the outside. They went looking for their parents by themselves, because the seven of us didn’t want to go out there. It was still early on, when The Bad was new, and Nostalgia Town was less rust colored.
But we didn’t bring that up anymore.
Our timekeeper, Peg, used to put up one mark on the back of a popcorn shed at the beginning of each day. The wood on the shed was full of slashes and checks, for each day, each month, each year. We’d almost run out of space, but Peg was the only one who seemed worried about it. I don’t think anyone thought about it anymore. No more Christmas or Halloween. No more tooth fairy, or Easter bunny, or summer break. We made things fair by having one birthday for all of us at the end of Peg’s calendar. The swamp was bad at telling time, and we all had just turned thirteen, so we weren’t interested, either.
Darla, Peg, Francis, June, Petey, Bug and I, we were family. We’d watch each other’s backs. That’s what a family does. We gave each other jobs to so we woudn’t be bored, hungry, or dumb. We’d sleep inside of the old First Aid building on bunks with worn, wool blankets. Despite everything, the park keeps us safe from the wind and rain. The spider web moss clinged to the water-warped boards and gives us shade. Some of the rides still moved if we tinkered long enough. We could be safe here, and we all knew that we should’ve been – no, that we were definitely grateful for Nostalgia Town. We just wanted to make this work.
Francis and June were twins, real smart, and they did all of the scavenging because they were good at finding things. The swamp had tiny flowers and berries for us to eat. Petey was our cook, mostly because he was the only one who knew how. His Mom had to work all the time, he said, so Petey and his brother would make themselves dinner. He’d take the scavenged things from Francis and June, canned food and un-popped popcorn kernels, cotton candy sugar, uncooked pretzels, and the like, to make us two meals a day. If we wanted a snack we decided it was best to forage on our own. Sometimes Francis and June would talk about growing plants, but we could never figure it out. We would eat wild flowers and stale M&M’s, but everything always changes—stuff ran out.
Bug made us fires, and had already built some of the other stuff that we needed or wanted. He made us a table once, and chairs, too, and he always had a magnifying glass. Bug really liked to catch ants on fire, and we’d do that too, when the sun was hot. Lately, he was teaching everyone how to sew so that we could mend blankets and clothes, all of which were starting to become worn.
Then there was Darla. She had said once that we were lucky to all be friends. Darla liked to remind us that we could always be alone, or worse off, and then she liked to give us hugs and shush our crying.
If we didn’t get along together, or someone said something not nice, she’d say out loud, “No Mommies. No Daddies. No friends,” and that scared everyone just enough.
After a while, everyone decided it was just easier to help out, to stay friends, to be here rather than leaving. The outside was where The Bad lived, and we knew that nothing could be worse than that. We’d been managing, though. Like I said before, we’re a family, and family is important. That’s what they didn’t understand. They said that finding our real families, going home, that would be most important. They never asked what was most important to me. We never talked about it out loud, but I knew that the Bad would swallow them whole.
The day before Petey disappeared, we were all standing underneath a mushroom cap. The mushroom cap had moss on the top, and vines growing up its metal trunk. I remember it felt cool, listening to everyone breathing out hot air, picking at the ground like you would a scab. That’s when they brought it up again.
“But, maybe The Bad is gone now.” Bug said idly, his lips were chapped.
“They said that they’d come back, Bug. My Mom and Dad said so,” Petey had a knife in his hand, and had it stuck inside of a lizard, but nobody said anything when we all saw it move, “I just don’t think our Moms and Dads are even out there.”
Darla shot Petey a look. “That’s not nice to say,” she scolded him. Petey didn’t say anything, finally killing the lizard and wiping the blade on his shorts – red guts outlined his pocket.
“Well, if our parents said that they’d come back when The Bad is gone, then they’re gonna come back. They never lied to us.” Darla always said stuff like this, always rung her index finger around a curl in her hair, like she was sure.
“They lied about Santa, and The Tooth Fairy, too,” Francis looked up finally, and June met his gaze, looking at Darla. Bug, Petey, and Peg were all looking too, for an answer, or for Darla to get upset, or say that he was wrong. Darla smiled at all of us, a knowing smile, “They wouldn’t lie about the big stuff,” and with that it was decided we would stay.
It was a real hot, sweltering day when we realized that we hadn’t eaten yet. Petey hadn’t made us anything, hadn’t rung the bell for us to meet up for lunch. Darla and Francis were teaching us to wash clothes. I walked up on Peg, Bug and June setting ants on fire near the mossy water slides. Petey’s normal spot was around the bend in the first bunch of food stands. That was where he was able to use the burners and stuff as long as he made the fire first. It was empty though, the smell of grease and potatoes hung around. I kicked rocks around the overhang in the shade, wiped sweat from my forehead, but I didn’t say anything about Petey being gone. It was normal for some of us to go out and wander. It was good to wander because sometimes you found stuff, or sometimes you thought about stuff. Maybe Petey just had a lot to think about. When the others found out he was gone, though, they weren’t happy.
June tied her hair back in a messy ponytail, her forehead crinkled and beading, mud outlining the creases; confused. “Where’s Petey?” As I looked around, I realized that all of our hair was pretty long, and maybe we should’ve learned to cut hair.
After a while everyone got the same look on their faces, shielding their eyes from the sun, looking towards where I was standing in the shade.
“Elliot…” Darla’s voice carried well into the humidity.
“Yeah, Elliot, where is Petey? Is he over there with you?” Peg rubbed his stomach, kicking a piece of gravel away.
“If he was over there, h-he would’ve heard us,” Bug glared at Peg underneath a ratty dinosaur hat, one from the before time, “Elliot, he isn’t there, right?”
“No. Maybe Petey took a walk, to think about stuff.”
That seemed to rile them up. They shuffled amongst one another, and I found my place in their group circle. June began braiding her hair, a nervous habit, I thought. Bug and Peg were kicking dirt onto one another, while Francis and Darla exchanged a look.
“You haven’t seen him.” Darla reminded me of what my Mom might’ve been like for no particular reason, “June? Francis?” Her head swung to meet me, but I was quiet, my thumbs running over the dry cracks in my hands. They decided to look for Petey for the rest of the day, only coming back when they were worn out and tired. They then decided that maybe Petey went on the outside. Maybe Petey found a way out. I said that maybe The Bad was starting to come on the inside, but June told us that Petey would come back; he wouldn’t have left without telling us, and that helped everyone go to sleep that night.
June was the next to go. It had been a few weeks since Petey had gone, enough time for us to feel comfortable again, even if we were sad. We checked the insides of cabanas near the green tide pool, the ride houses, the offices near the front gates. All the windows were boarded up or broken because we liked throwing rocks or playing stickball, but otherwise the park was empty and abandoned and creaking as usual. Nostalgia Town never kept secrets from us.
Francis had been real upset about it, tugging on his fingers until his knuckles were red and raw. He and June had never been apart before, and Francis was half of a whole now. Darla was upset, too; the only other girl was gone, her best friend. Bug had lost his magnifying glass and we couldn’t figure out fires. Peg lost track of the days after he ran out of space on the back of the shed a few days ago.
“She wouldn’t have just left,” Francis’ eye twitched, “She would’ve said something to me. Darla, she would’ve said something, and if she wanted to run away she would’ve taken me too. We would’ve gone and looked for our parents together.” Francis kept running his hands through his thick hair, kept licking the corners of his lips. Bug and Peg stood silently. Darla looked to me again; her brow was stern, like a mother who wanted to scold you.
“You’ve been real quiet.”
“I don’t have anything to say.”
“Why not? Aren’t you sad that June and Petey are missing?”
“Well, yeah of cour –“ Darla grabbed Bug’s hand, who grabbed Francis’ hand, who grabbed Peg’s hand, and I grabbed my own hand.
“You’re the one always talking about family. How we gotta be a family, and I don’t see you sad. Francis lost his sister, Elliot!”
“I am sad!”
“Oh, yeah? Sure seems like it. You’ve been real quiet.”
“I just am sad and I don’t have anything to say. I don’t gotta say something all the time.”
“You always got something to say,” Darla tugged on the connected hand chain, and Bug spat on the ground in front of me while Francis and Peg began to cry. She looked back at me with something similar to disappointment, “If you were really sad, Elliot, you’d say something.”
That night the wind was bad. The carousel horses spinned and groaned, and the fallen Nostalgia Town mascot in the middle of the park whistled as the breeze caught in his neck. A piece of Sky Tower, the biggest roller coaster in the park, fell off and made a loud thud into the muddy waters of the swamp. The huge bang gave Bug, Francis, Peg and me a reason to climb into a nest of blankets. Our blanket nest was warm and comforting while the windows rattled and shivered, plush toys littering the inside. We briefly mentioned that Darla had gone. In between strands of Bug’s hair, my eyes caught onto her empty bunk. June’s empty bunk. Petey’s empty bunk.
It became more of a problem when we woke up in the morning and Darla wasn’t back, and Peg had gone, too. Francis hadn’t stopped crying, his lips were chapped and his face was red-stained, caked with snot and dirt. Bug started to rip off pieces of his shirts and I could feel my stomach get hungry and nauseous. We walked outside, leaving the safety of the blanket nest of the night before, and out into a cool humidity. The willow trees had shed much of their dead growth; branches had made homes out of the upturned gravel and muddy swamp silt. Planks of wood had fallen from the windows in the surrounding village buildings. Bug and Francis stood opposite of me, holding hands and shaking, and not just for lack of food.
“Where is Darla,” We were all standing around kind of stupid-like, “Darla wouldn’t have left us.”
“Peg, too,” Bug chimed again.
It was true, and a good question, but it was too hot. Francis was crying so hard his body shook and no tears were coming out. I shrugged them off. Bug spat at the ground in front of me again, t-shirt threads hanging from his fingernails.
“El-Elliot we gotta find them,” Francis stuttered.
“I know that.”
“Well, you know how Darla said yesterday you’ve been real quiet. You have, ok! You have!” Francis picked himself up out of a crouching position in front of me; his nose and my nose were real close. Bug looked up from a hole in his shirt.
“You’ve been real quiet, Elliot.”
“And all you’ve been doin’ is crying,” I shoved him.
“No, you hey!
“Seems real funny that you’ve been quiet. You don’t care, do you?” He shoved me back.
“Francis! Sto-stop!” Bug pulled on him; pulled him so hard he almost made him fall. Francis’ face was real red, and Bug’s knuckles were white. My fists felt like bricks against my sides and I said, “You wanna say what Darla said, fine! I hope you disappear just like her,” He shoved me back again, I was spitting, “You can disappear just like Darla and June, Petey and Peg. Ok! I don’t even care.”
Bug had pulled Francis towards him and the two of them stood shoulder to shoulder in front of me. We were all sweating, mad and hungry and sad.
“You care, Elliot.”
“Oh yeah, funny. Cause it was just you saying I didn’t.”
“Shut up. You aren’t funny or cool,” Francis kicked dirt at me.
“You better take that back.”
“No, Francis is right. You’re being mean.” Bug doesn’t have anything left to spit at me now.
“I’m not trying to be cool or funny or anything at all. You all won’t stop.” I couldn’t stop tugging on my fingers. The others hadn’t moved. They were united against me. All I could do was whisper, loud enough for them to almost hear, “I hope the Bad gets you!”
The blanket nest was lonely with all of the empty bunks and stuffed animals hanging around. A storm had picked up early yesterday afternoon, and it hadn’t stopped raining. The thunder shook the entire building; the lightening was the only source of light. Bug and Francis hadn’t come back last night, and instead the shadows kept me company, while somewhere outside I felt like The Bad lurked. I was too afraid to go out in the rain by myself, but I had to look for them now that they were all gone.I kept thinking about Darla, how she said they’d never lie to us about something this big, and it was true. Our parents always said they’d be back, “Once the bad is gone, Elliot. Mommy and Daddy will be back. Before you know it!”
I think I made that part up. I don’t know. It’s so hard to remember. It was pouring rain and sticky, but it felt good, like a really hot shower. It soaked through my clothes as I made my way past the calendar shed, the mud getting under my toenails. I knew where I had to go because there was one place in the whole park that would give me the answer.
When I made it to the gates, the rain seemed especially hard, almost like hail. It was coming down on me so hard that I had to keep my eyesclosed for a little while. I just stood in front of the gates with my eyes closed for a long while. I knew that when I opened them the answer would be there, I would just have to see it, but it made my head hurt. The rain slowed down, though. I was soaked through my clothes, but my eyes were open.
Everything looked the same. The same empty parking lot. The same empty park. The same rusty lock that kept the gates together, that sealed out The Bad outside, and the answer. My fingertips were orange, everything smelled like blood. Rust just smelled like that when it was wet, someone told me that once. Maybe it was Petey. I was looking for their footsteps, truthfully. Looking for a sign that they had left willingly, or at all. The mud around the gates was too sloppy now to tell.
Maybe they were just playing a prank on me, hiding somewhere deep in the park where the grass is waist high. That’s what it had to have been, one big, fat joke. They wanted to make a point. I didn’t talk enough. I didn’t stick up for them. I was mean. I didn’t look for Petey, or cry about Darla or June and now they had to play a prank on me because of it.
Maybe they had all gone on the outside. They thought Petey had gone there, and maybe that was where everyone went. My foot squeezed between the iron gates, but I stopped. My hands were shaking, but if they were out there, I needed to be, too. For a brief moment I thought about how they would’ve told me, or should’ve told me. Maybe they didn’t want me with them. I began to slide through the opening in the gate; I remembered a time when I couldn’t do this. I stopped.
“Guys?” It was still raining, but my voice echoed pretty far, “Hey, guys. Are you out there?” It was just a prank, they knew The Outside was bad, “This isn’t a funny joke, ok.” I’m saddled between two iron bars, not even sucking in, “I’m sorry, ok?” Nothing. Not even swamp noises, just rain and the smell of blood, “Darla…June…Francis…” I listened to the quiet, sucking on my bottom lip until I tasted blood too. I felt like crying.
“Petey? Bug?” There was mud in between my toes, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I didn’t cry. I’m sorry I didn’t try harder….” The Bad was close. I could feel it on my right side, the side out of the gate. “You can come back now. I’m sorry…” A thick fog had come up from the ground, swallowing up the rain and the parking lot with empty cars and vacant ticket booths, “I’m sorry, please, please, I’m sorry.”
I slid myself through the rest of the way, on the outside of Nostalgia Town. It felt like static on the outside. The pavement had started to crack from dandelions and new grass, “Hey, you guys…” No answer still, just the rain and the fog and the whistling from the wind against the rides. Maybe I’d go back inside. Maybe I’d wait for them and they’d turn up.
My bare feet felt raw on the pavement, hot. My stomach ached, and my wet t-shirt was covered in orange rust. I started to cry as I leaned my back up against the gates and shouted for them. They were my family. The fog settled, and the sky continued to spit rain. I slid down the bars, sat in the mud. “I’m sorry,” was all I could say.
I waited for The Bad to tell me what to do.
A current student at The University of the Arts, Emily is also a writer for Halfbeat Magazine, an online music publication, as well as an editor for Underground Pool. She is available for contact at email@example.com.