IT WAS TEN MINUTES past four in the afternoon, and Charlie Lewis was running for his life.
His sneakers skidded against pavement as he barreled down the oversize sidewalk. It wound, like a flickering serpent's tail, between brightly colored storefronts, stone and marble fountains, and manicured hedges. Trickles of sweat streamed down his back. The thick straps of his heavy backpack dug into the skin of his shoulders. He'd never run so fast before, and he wasn't sure how long he could keep moving at that pace. Worse yet, the sidewalk was so crowded with tourists, he was dodging and weaving just to stay on his feet. Parents pushing strollers; little kids clutching ice-cream cones and silvery, bobbing helium balloons; teenagers in short skirts and tank tops; everyone laughing and smiling and happy. Everyone except for Charlie, who was frantically crashing through the cheerful mob at full speed. The adults glared at him as he careened by, but there was nothing he could do. One glance back over his shoulder and it was instantly clear--they were gaining on him.
Loopy the Space Mouse was in front--huge black ears bobbing above the crowd, spaghetti thin arms undulating wildly at his sides, oversize hands in shiny silver astronaut gloves pawing at the air. His strange, almost manic smile seemed completely out of place as he shoved his way past a family of three, nearly upending a baby carriage as he went.
The Frog was a few steps behind his rodent cohort. Nearly a head taller, he was all gawky legs and arms, twisting and twirling as he moved like some sort of drunken gymnast. For a terrifying moment, one of his gigantic patchwork moon boots caught in the base of a vendor's hot dog cart, but he somehow managed to pull it free, and then he was moving forward again, right behind Loopy, closing the distance to Charlie with each flop of his ridiculously long tongue.
Had Charlie not known what was going to happen if the two oversize cartoon monstrosities caught up to him, he would have found the scene hilarious. A twelve-year-old with an overstuffed backpack running through one of the most famous amusement parks in the world, chased by a gigantic mouse and an even bigger mutant frog. But to Charlie, the moment was anything but funny.
A burst of adrenaline pushed new energy into Charlie's aching legs. He cut left, sprinting around a circular section of the path. A copper statue rose up at the center of the circle, protected by four of the most carefully pruned hedges he had ever seen. The statue depicted a young boy holding hands with the park's most iconic creation--Loopy. In copper, Loopy looked a lot less threatening than the fierce, flopping creature now just a few yards behind Charlie.
"Somebody stop that kid!"
The muffled cry was enough to send new shards of fear through Charlie's chest. People around him were pointing and staring, but Charlie kept on going. He didn't need to look back to know where the cry had come from. Even muffled, Loopy didn't sound like the Loopy from the cartoons; he sounded like an angry, out-of-breath adult.
Of course, it wasn't really Loopy--there was, in fact, a man beneath the mouse. Twenty-one, maybe twenty-two years old, with scraggly, spiky brown hair and a mean-looking scar above his lip. Charlie thought his name was Barry, or maybe Gary; he couldn't be sure, he'd only heard the name in passing. But the scar was impossible to forget. Charlie hadn't gotten a look at the guy in the Frog costume, but the memory of that menacing scar was enough of an incentive to keep Charlie's feet skidding against the pavement.
Eyes wild with growing fear, Charlie skirted around a pair of German tourists, too busy babbling in German and gawking at the costumed pursuers to make a grab at Charlie.
It was immediately obvious what was causing the clot of people, even at full speed. Charlie was awed by the scale alone of the architectural wonder in front of him.
Almost three hundred feet tall, Loopy's Space Station was a sci-fi movie set come to life, topped by a single crystal antenna rising impossibly high into the Florida sky. Its design represented everything the Incredo Land amusement park was supposed to be: magnificent, whimsical, and utterly impractical. The large crowd was going to take at least half an hour to file through the arched tunnel feeding through the base of the space-age structure.
Instead, Charlie cut sharply to his left, exiting the circular path. A minute later he was crossing over a curved bridge, and it was like changing a television channel: Everything around him shifted from future Earth to the first stop on Loopy's journey through the planets. His sneakers kicked up meticulously designed clouds of reddish dust as he entered a section of the park known as Miraculous Mars at a breathless gallop.
Directly ahead, he could see people lining up for the Solar Sailboat that would take them to Mars Central Docking Station. Charlie's memory danced back to three years ago, when he'd thrown up on that boat; more specifically, he'd thrown up all over his dad, right as the boat ride ended. At least Charlie's parents had had the decency to buy him ice cream when he'd finally recovered from the trauma of barfing on a ride designed for children half his age.
But his parents weren't around to help him this time. His dad and mom were five hundred miles away, enjoying a leisurely November afternoon in what was probably the quietest suburban corner of Massachusetts. Maybe his dad was outside, raking leaves, the cold moisture in the air fogging up his glasses. Maybe his mother was reading a book in her study, something scientific and complex, with a title Charlie wouldn't even dare try to pronounce. For the first time in his life, Charlie's parents weren't going to be there to catch him if he fell. Looking back over his shoulder at those menacing giant ears bouncing over the curved bridge that connected the end of Solar Avenue to Miraculous Mars, Charlie knew there were things a whole lot worse than vomiting on his dad on a fake sailboat.
Charlie made another hard turn before he reached the Hall of Aliens--a terrifying place, full of angry-looking animatronic figures that seemed to have stepped right out of a horror movie. Now he was heading straight toward the Space Rock Carousel, which was exactly as it sounded, a revolving ride speckled with asteroid-shaped seats bounding beneath a canopy of near-seizure-inducing lights.
For a brief second, Charlie thought about hopping the low railing of the carousel and trying to lose himself in the whirl of colored rocks. But he discarded the idea almost as quickly as it came--it was a matter of simple physics. Too many people in too small an area. If there was anything that Charlie knew well, it was simple physics. In fact, it had been simple physics that had gotten him into this mess in the first place.
He continued forward, frantically searching for another option. His breaths had turned into gasps, and tight cramps spasmed up his calves. He wouldn't be able to go much farther.
"Charlie?" A shout suddenly shot toward him from ahead. "Charlie Numbers?"
"Holy smokes!" Another voice, close to the first, rang out. "That is Charlie!"
Charlie skidded to a stop. He quickly picked out a shock of thick dark hair near the end of the line leading up to the carousel. Heck, Dylan Wigglesworth would've been easy to spot even if Charlie hadn't known him since kindergarten. Not just because of that hair, piled above his oversize head like an angry storm cloud. For a sixth grader, Dylan was freakishly big all over. Mountainous shoulders jutting out of a sleeveless white tank top, hands that were more like a Great Dane's paws, and a chin and neck that seemed to blend into one single body part. Charlie knew that the way he saw Dylan was colored by the fact that Dylan and his buddies had been tormenting Charlie for as long as he could remember. Dylan had one hand on the shoulder of his ever-present co-thug, Liam Anthony, and the other hand in front of him clutching a rapidly melting ice-cream cone. Dusty Bickle, the third wheel of their malevolent bully tricycle, was never far behind the duo. Liam and Dusty could have been brothers; they both had matching curly blond hair, horselike faces, and arms that seemed to be too long for their bodies. Dylan's size and the wonder-twins' elongated limbs made them good at baseball--the three had been dominating suburban Boston's Little League for as long as Charlie could remember--but their prowess at the sport seemed to have an inverse relationship with the nature of their personalities. The more runs they scored each season, the worse they treated Charlie and his equally less-than-athletic friends.
At the moment, the look on Dylan's face was much more astonishment than malice. The only time Dylan had seen Charlie run even close to that fast was when he himself was chasing Charlie around the school playground. When he caught sight of Loopy and the Frog, Dylan's surprise turned to true shock. Charlie couldn't help but feel a moment of perverse pride. It must have killed Dylan.
Charlie didn't pause long enough to see what expression came after shock. He cut hard left, skirting the back of the line for the carousel, and headed toward a vaguely familiar building. Another space station, nowhere near as gargantuan as Loopy's; instead of a crystal antenna, this space station was crowned with jutting dioramas meant to look like recognizable landmarks from all over planet Earth: A large smiling clock, a skeletal Eiffel Tower, a daggerish Leaning Tower of Pisa. As with the carousel, there was a line of people out front, waiting to get inside. Charlie raced past the line, looking for somewhere--anywhere--to hide. The cramps in his calves had already begun extending into his thighs; a few more minutes at this pace, and he was going to collapse.
In his desperation, he suddenly noticed something that put a burst of new air into his lungs. Ten feet past the line into the building, there was a maintenance door leading inside; a man dressed in white pants and a blue work shirt was exiting, his back to Charlie. If Charlie timed it just right--
The man let go of the door just as Charlie reached it. He slipped inside, the door clicking shut behind him. He was in a nearly dark hallway with cinder-block walls. The ceiling was barely lit by crisscrossing fluorescent tubes. Steam pipes jutted out from the cinder blocks like the threads of a metallic spiderweb, connected via curved junctions to big circular gears and rusting gaskets. And above the hiss from the pipes, a dull throb of music bled into the hallway from beyond both walls; the melody could only be described as sickly sweet. Charlie mouthed the words as he jogged down the hallway: Oh, the world keeps spinning, yes, it does. Beyond the music, he could hear the sound of running water.
He knew that on the other side of the cinder-block walls, little spaceships were carrying groups of visitors through a cartoonish geography lesson populated entirely by robot children: a futuristic menagerie of cyborgs populating an invented land of a time well beyond the present. As Charlie navigated between the pipes and gears, the music growing louder with each step, he imagined himself wandering deeper and deeper into the working bowels that kept that cartoon world revolving: Rust, steam, cinder block, crackling fluorescent tubes--these were the guts that made up that spinning world, yes, they were. . . .
Slowly, Charlie's terror began to subside. Maybe his pursuers hadn't seen him going through the maintenance door--maybe they had run right by. Maybe Charlie was free and clear. He shifted the backpack against his shoulders, taking some of the weight off his aching back . . . when he heard the click of a lock being opened from somewhere behind him, and then the sound of a door swinging inward.
He didn't look back, he just ran. Deeper, deeper into the building, the pipes and gears flashing by on either side as he went, the flickering lights casting jagged shadows as his feet skidded across the cement hallway floor. He turned a corner, then another--and suddenly, his eyes went wide. Ten feet ahead, the hallway ended in a dead end, entirely blocked by a faceless steel door.
Charlie didn't even pause. He hit the door with both hands out in front of him and felt the blow right up to his elbows. It didn't budge. Charlie cried out, throwing all his weight against the steel, every ounce of strength--and nothing. It was locked. He was trapped.
"Like a rat in a cage, kid," a muffled voice echoed from behind him. "You're not going anywhere."
Charlie slowly turned away from the door. Loopy the Space Mouse stalked down the hallway, his sausagelike, silver-gloved fingers tracing the piping along the cinder block walls as he went. The Frog lumbered behind Loopy, those huge moon boots slapping ominously against the cement floor.
Charlie pressed back against the steel, his legs trembling beneath him. Not good. Not good. Not good. Loopy came to a stop a few feet away, then carefully reached up and placed his two enormous hands on either side of his own orbital head. With a twist, he pulled the head off and placed it gently on the floor by his feet. The man's face, now freed from the Loopy head, was flushed, his spiky hair dripping with sweat. He jabbed at Charlie with one of his oversize fingers.
"Hand over the backpack, kid. There's nowhere else to run."
Charlie closed his eyes, his shoulders sagging. Slowly, he reached for the backpack. In that moment, he couldn't help thinking that other kids his age were safe in their classrooms at schools across the country, taking tests, reading books, playing on playgrounds. And here he was, cornered in a dark hallway in the bowels of one of the biggest amusement parks on earth--and things were about to get ugly.
The worst part was, he had no one to blame but himself. . . .