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The Vanishing Game
My date—or so I’d been told, because she didn’t seem super attached to me—Penelope Chung, rolled her eyes. “That’s fascinating, Frank,” she said, shooting a glare at her best friend, Daisy Rodriguez, who was Joe’s date and the glue barely holding our foursome together. “Please tell me more about molecules. Or force times acceleration. Or the atomic properties of fun.”
Joe coughed loudly, grabbing my shoulder and pulling me close enough to hear him mutter, “Ixnay on the ience-scay.”
I couldn’t help it. Joe is always telling me science isn’t romantic, but come on. Isn’t “romance” itself a scientific concept? Attraction, biology, all that stuff?
Daisy smiled, a little too enthusiastically. “Shall we head over to the G-Force?” she asked, looking hopefully from Penelope and me to Joe. “My dad said the first ride would be at eight o’clock. And it’s just about quarter of.”
“Yes!” Penelope cried before Joe or I could respond, grabbing Daisy’s arm and pulling her ahead of us toward Funspot’s new ride, G-Force. Penelope leaned close to Daisy’s ear, and while I couldn’t hear what she was saying, her tone did not sound warm.
Joe met my eye and sighed.
“I don’t think she likes me,” I told him.
Joe just shook his head and patted my back. “I think your powers of detection are dead-on true.”
We started walking. “Sorry,” I said. “I know you’re really into Daisy.”
Joe nodded. “It’s okay, man,” he said, holding out his cotton candy for me to take another hunk. “I just don’t think you’re Penelope’s type.”
I nodded. “But it’s pretty cool that we get to be some of the first people to check out G-Force, right?”
“Very cool,” Joe agreed.
G-Force was the new, premiere attraction at Funspot, a small amusement park that had been a staple of Bayport summers for generations, but had been getting more and more run-down over the years. Last fall, Daisy’s dad, Hector, had used their entire family’s savings to buy the park from its longtime owner, Doug Spencer, who had fallen on hard times. Hector wanted to build Funspot into a top-tier amusement park—the kind of place people would drive hours to visit. His first step toward making that happen had been to install G-Force.
The ride was a new creation of Greg and Derek Piperato, better known as the Piperato Brothers—the hip new architects of premiere amusement rides all over the world. They built the HoverCoaster for Holiday Gardens in Copenhagen, the Loop-de-Loco for Ciudad de Jugar in Barcelona, and the ChillTaser for Bingo Village in Orlando, right here in the USA. These guys are seriously awesome at what they do. They know their physics, they know their architecture, and they keep coming up with new ideas to revolutionize the amusement industry.
They don’t work cheap, though. According to Daisy, Hector had to take out a major loan to afford G-Force. And unfortunately, right after Hector signed the contracts—Funspot had exclusive rights to the ride for five years—Daisy’s mom had been laid off from her job as a manager at some big bank in New York City. If Daisy and her family had hoped Funspot would be successful before, now their whole future was riding on the park’s success.
“Wow,” Joe breathed as we turned a corner, and there it was: G-Force!
For weeks, Hector had paid for advertisements on all the local radio stations: “Come to Funspot to ride G-Force! What does it do? You’ll have to ride it to find out . . . but one thing’s for sure”—here the voice got deep and creepy—“you’ll never be the same!”
I had been sure that seeing the attraction would be a disappointment. I mean, how could you live up to that ad? Put aside the basic scientific impossibilities of its promises (Never be the same? What, would it change your molecular structure?); it was hard to imagine a ride so impressive that it could stand up to weeks of wondering what it might look like. But the structure in front of me was, in a word, awesome. It was sleek and silver and had the curved, aerodynamic shape of a spaceship.
“Wow,” I echoed pointing at it like a kindergartner. “That thing is cool!”
Joe looked confused, then followed my gaze and nodded. “Oh, sure. It does look cool. But I was talking about the crowd—check it out!”
I looked around. Joe was right. The line coiled around several times before stretching all the way from the ride, through the “kiddie park” (where Joe and I had spent countless hours on the helicopter ride as kids), down the row of food stands, and nearly to the parking lot. When we’d arrived at the park hours earlier, it hadn’t been nearly as long. But it looked like all those radio advertisements worked!
“Looks like a lot of people want to be g-forced!” I said, smiling, as Daisy and Penelope slowed their pace and we caught up to them.
Daisy looked thrilled. “I guess so!” she said, looking around at the crowd like she couldn’t believe it. “It looks like the whole student body of Bayport High is here!”
Joe nodded, surveying the huge line. “We—uh—don’t have to wait in that, do we?”
“Of course not.” Daisy smiled and shook her head, gallantly taking Joe by the arm. “Follow me, mister. The four of us are skipping this line. It pays to have friends in high places!”
Penelope glanced at me warily, but we both fell into step behind Joe and Daisy. She’d been right: The line was crowded with our classmates from Bayport High. Some smiled and waved at Daisy as we passed, or called out their congratulations. But as we walked by one sullen-looking group of boys, a dark-haired kid stepped out and blocked Daisy’s path.
“Well, well, well,” he said, giving the four of us a not-very-friendly once-over. “What have we here? The kings and queens of Funspot?”
As Joe shot her a questioning glance, Daisy frowned at the kid. “Let us by, Luke.”
He didn’t move, but met her gaze without a smile. “Is this your new boyfriend?” He scowled at Joe.
Joe stepped forward, holding out his hand. “Hey, man . . .”
But Daisy just shook her head. “What do you care?” she asked, looking from the boy to his chuckling friends in line. “Joe, Frank, this is my ex-boyfriend, Luke.”
“Emphasis on ex,” Penelope piped up, stepping forward to give Luke a withering stare.
Luke glared at Penelope for a moment, but her words seemed to wound him, and he quickly looked down before stepping aside. Daisy hesitated for a moment, then turned around and walked briskly past. Penelope followed, her head held high, and Joe and I and began to follow.
“Hey!” Luke called after us when we were a few feet away, and Daisy was almost at the ride. “Congrats on the turnout tonight!”
Daisy paused, turning slowly to look back at him.
Luke’s expression turned to an ugly smirk. “Guess you can go to college after all!” he shouted, loud enough for the crowd to hear. His group of friends erupted into loud chuckles. Daisy cringed.
Joe was furious. I could tell he was upset on Daisy’s behalf and would have loved to teach Luke a lesson. But instead he pulled out his smartphone. “Smile,” he said to Luke, snapping a picture.
Luke was taken aback. “What did you do that for?” he demanded angrily.
Joe just smiled. “When we go to security and tell them a group is being rowdy and disruptive, this way they’ll know who to look for.”
Luke glared at Joe. I had to smile. I seriously doubted Joe had any intention of going to security—but the look on Luke’s face made it clear he didn’t know that.
Joe touched Daisy’s arm. “Shall we?” he asked, gesturing to the ride.
Daisy looked like she wasn’t sure what to do. Penelope shot Luke another icy look, then moved toward Daisy. “Let’s go, Daze,” she said, pushing her forward. “He’s such a jerk.”
After a moment, Daisy moved on, and the three of us followed close behind.
At the head of the line, an older, gruff-looking guy with ruddy skin and dark hair and beard stood behind a narrow metal gate. He looked at Daisy and nodded. “Miss.” Without another word, he opened the gate, and the four of us walked through.
“Thanks, Cal,” Daisy said, smiling brightly. “Do I have time to quickly show my friends the ride before it starts?”
Cal nodded, not making eye contact. He locked the gate, then led the four of us up a metal gangplank toward the shining, brushed-chrome ride. A small rectangular door was embedded in the side, and Cal easily pulled it open, gesturing for us to enter. Behind us, people were hooting and hollering, clearly eager to get onto the ride themselves.
Inside, small purple lights recessed into the ceiling and walls provided just enough light to make out a circle of huge, cushy seats, each with a sturdy restraining bar, surrounding an open center. I strained to see the ceiling, the floor, anything that would give a hint to what the ride actually did—but it was too dark.
“So . . . what does it do?” I asked Cal, who had paused in front of a bank of seats.
He turned to me and smiled. In the low purple light I could just make out that he was missing several teeth. He laughed, a low, raspy sound.
“I guess you’ll just have to ride it and find out, won’t you?” he asked. Then he nodded at the door. “Let’s get you strapped in.”
Daisy and Penelope smiled and eagerly chose seats next to each other. As Cal was securing the restraints around each of them, I glanced at my brother. I thought he looked pale.
“Are you okay?” I whispered. His eyes were darting around the ride nervously.
He bit his lip. “What do you think the ads meant,” he whispered, “when they said, ‘You’ll never be the same’?”
I opened my mouth to answer, but Joe immediately held up his hand to shush me. “Never mind,” he whispered. “I don’t want Daisy to hear.”
At that moment, Cal finished strapping in Penelope and looked back at us. Joe smiled eagerly—I mean, I guess it was supposed to look eager, but to me it looked kind of insane—and walked over to the seat next to Daisy. As he got strapped in, I settled into the seat next to Penelope.
She looked at me warily. “Great,” she said tonelessly, “we get to ride together.”
I nodded. “There was a rumor on amusementgeeks.com that this ride will send you into another dimension,” I told her, “but of course that’s scientifically impossible.”
“Good to know,” she said, and turned back to Daisy.
Cal came over and quickly strapped me in, placing two restraining belts over my shoulders and clicking a wide metal bar into place just inches from my stomach. He jiggled the bar a little to make sure it was tight, then, apparently satisfied, turned and exited the ride without a word.
“So, have you test-driven the ride?” Joe asked Daisy, breaking the silence.
She shook her head. “I wish,” she said with a sigh. “But my dad’s agreement with the Piperato Brothers was very specific. No one—except the test subjects they used when they were designing the ride, I guess—gets to ride G-Force before its official opening.” She checked her watch. “Which happens—wow—in about three minutes!”
Before any of us could reply, the door opened again, and eager riders from the line began filing in, oohing and aahing, straining to get a good look at the ride’s interior. They milled around and selected seats, and after a minute or so, Cal entered and began to strap all the riders in.
“So, Daisy,” Brian Mullin, one of the football players, spoke up. “Is this ride going to change my life, or what?”
Daisy chuckled. “You know what the ads say, Brian,” she replied, deepening her voice. “You’ll never be the same.”
Brian snickered. “Well, I hope I come out taller.”
Cal was just finishing strapping in the last rider, and as we all laughed at Brian’s joke, he glanced around at all of us, then nodded. “Enjoy the ride,” he said, not smiling, and then exited through the tiny door. It closed behind him, and the inside of the ride darkened even further.
Everyone grew quiet as we waited for the ride to begin. In the quiet, I picked up a weird clicking sound—like someone tapping their fingernails against a hard surface. I looked to my right, where the sound was coming from. Penelope was looking around too, seeming to hear it, and Daisy glanced at her and frowned, then turned to Joe.
“Are your teeth chattering?” she asked.
But Joe didn’t get a chance to answer—at that very moment, the purple lights clicked off and we were immersed in darkness. A huge whoosh emanated from the floor—probably the ride’s engine cranking up. Then a loud guitar chord sounded: I recognized it as the beginning of “Beautiful,” a rock song that was climbing the charts. The song started up, and then suddenly we were moving—suddenly we were moving really fast! The circle of seats orbited faster and faster around the center, and I could feel the centrifugal force pushing me against the back of the seat. My head slammed back into the headrest, and it felt like the skin of my face was tightening, being pulled back by the force of the revolutions.
People began screaming, and suddenly the darkness was cut by a bright white light. I could make out the riders on the other side of the circle grimacing and beaming, screaming in fear and pleasure. Then the light cut out, then on again—a strobe light, making the whole ride look like it was in stop-motion.
The ride seemed to slow, and then suddenly the seats rose into the air. I gasped, exhilarated by the sudden motion. Just as quickly as they’d risen, though, they plunged down, farther, I think, than we’d been when the ride started. The strobe lights changed, suddenly, so that instead of bright white light, we saw neon images projected on the riders across from us—symbols, photographs of beautiful nature scenes, crying babies, an old woman smiling. The ride kept spinning, ascending, descending, but as hard as I tried, I couldn’t keep track of all its motions. The scientist in me had wanted to break down exactly what G-Force did, but in the end, I just couldn’t. The experience of the ride took over, and I screamed and laughed with everyone else, feeling totally exhilarated.
After some time—it could have been seconds or it could have been hours—the ride spun around again, gluing us all back in our seats. I closed my eyes as the revolutions slowed, and the music began to fade. Slower, slower, slower still we circled, until finally I felt the ride click into its resting position. I opened my eyes as the purple lights kicked on again, illuminating the ride with dim light.
Everyone looked like they’d been tumble dried. Hair stuck out in all directions, clothes were rumpled, expressions dazed. But as we all looked at one another, not sure how to capture the experience, suddenly Brian Mullin began to clap slowly. The girl on his right joined in, and after a few seconds, so did everyone else on the ride.
“That was AWESOME!” Brian shouted.
His words seemed to give everyone else permission to speak too.
“That was AMAZING. . . .”
“. . . unreal . . .”
“I’ve never felt anything like that.”
“Omigosh, I want to ride that, like, ten more times!”
I looked over at Daisy, who looked a little dazed herself, but a smile was creeping slowly to her lips. Joe (who looked less pale now) smiled at her and took her hand, giving it a little squeeze.
“Looks like Funspot’s new main attraction is a hit,” I heard him whisper to her.
But as everyone seemed to be giving their personal review of the ride, an increasingly concerned voice broke through the din.
Penelope sat up, grinning, and patted Daisy’s shoulder. “Good job, Hector,” she said. “I think he bought a winner!”
I looked across the ride, where the voice was coming from. People were gradually stopping their own conversations, turning their attention to the spot where a girl about our age struggled against the restraints, stretching her neck to look around.
The girl let out a sob.
“Oh no!” she cried. “No, no, no! Where is she?”
That’s when I caught sight of the seat next to her.
“My sister disappeared!”
It was empty. And the restraints that should have held Kelly in place had been cut.