In order to escape, Blake must survive seven deadly rides by dawn, each of which represents a deep, personal fear from a carousel of stampeding animals to a hall of mirrors that changes people into their deformed reflections. Blake ultimately has to face up to a horrible secret from his own past to save himself and his brother that is, if the carnival doesn't claim their souls first!
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Read an Excerpt
"I Go Places Sometimes"
It began the night we died on the Kamikaze.
I should have known the night was jinxed when Quinn lost his hat on the Raptor. I wasn't sure where on the roller coaster he lost it because I didn't ride with him; my friends, Russ and Maggie, did. I had volunteered to wait in line for Icewater Rapids.
"What a nice guy," Maggie had said, giving me a peck on the cheek. Well, nice guy or not, I had my own reasons.
The loss of Quinn's hat was the first trauma of the evening, but not the first of Quinn's life. Whole galaxies of traumas revolved around my brother. I knew he wouldn't part with his hat easily; it was one of his prized possessions a black baseball cap with a very distinctive design on its face. Not the insignia of a sports team or a designer logo that wouldn't do for Quinn. No, his hat featured a rude cartoon of a hand with its middle finger up. He loved that hat because he could flip everyone off on a continual basis.
He was still grumbling about his loss as he, Maggie, and Russ joined me in the line for Icewater Rapids.
"There should be catch-nets beneath the ride," Quinn complained. "They're gonna pay. Russ should have caught it he was behind me!" As if the whole world were to blame.
"Ignore him and maybe he'll go away," Russ said, waving his beefy arm dismissively. Russ is what you might call a disenfranchised jock. He muscles up regularly, lifting weights, but never lasts more than a month in any of the sports he's tried, because he loses interest too quickly. Maybe that's because so many of the other guys on teams just try to impress the girls, while Russ had no need: He and Maggie had been dating since the beginning of recorded time, with no end in sight.
As for Maggie, she couldn't have cared less about Quinn's ravings. She checked herself out in a tall mirror one of several distractions placed in the long line to break up the monotony. "Tell me the truth, do I look fat to you?" she asked me.
"You're kidding, right?"
Russ just laughed.
"Maggie, it's a fun-house mirror. Of course you look fat. That's the point."
She sighed. "I know that, but fun-house mirrors never usually make me look this fat."
"Scootch down a bit," Russ said, "and you'll be fat in all the right places."
She poked him in the stomach for that one. Warped mirrors aside, Maggie was slim and nice looking. Smart, too. But to hear her talk, you'd think she was dumb and ugly, always comparing herself to the other girls in school.
"Congratulations," I told her, glancing once more at the mirror. "I always said you've got a distorted view of yourself. Now you really do."
She threw me a twisted grin, and Russ, thinking the grin was meant for him, clamped his muscular arm around Maggie's waist. I sometimes wondered if Maggie got bruises from the way Russ held her like, if he let go, she might get away.
You're probably wondering how I fit into this little high school equation. Well, I suppose if the others are variables, I'm the constant. Constantly studying, constantly busy, constantly shuttling from swim team to debate team to home with the regularity of a celestial clock.
"That's what I like about you," Russ once told me. "You've got a level head and I don't mean just the haircut."
As far as the equation went, I'd be out of it soon, on account of the way I tested out of high school. Not that I'm a genius or anything. I'm just a mix of a little bit of brains, a whole lot of studying, and a knack for multiple-choice tests. Blend that with a single parent earning minimum wage, and you get a scholarship to New York's Columbia University at sixteen. I was scheduled to leave next month, right after summer vacation, skipping my senior year of high school entirely.
"Columbia?" Russ had said. "Wow, I didn't even know you spoke Spanish!"
Maggie had told me he was kidding, but we both knew he wasn't. Let's face it, if my bulb was halogen, Russ had an energy saver. But that's okay. He had other things going for him. Like his easygoing personality. Like Maggie.
Me, I was between girlfriends. So when we took our little road trip to Six Flags, instead of a date, I ended up with Quinn.
I turned around, noticing that Quinn had stopped grumbling about his hat. That's because he was gone.
"Forget about him," Russ said. "He'll turn up eventually, and even if he doesn't, no great loss."
I shook my head. "If he gets into trouble, we'll all get ejected from the park." Which happened once before, when Quinn took an M-80 and blew up an animatronic mime.
"You know that's what he wants," Maggie said, "to make us all look for him."
"He's a waste of life," said Russ, and it annoyed me. I was the only one allowed to call Quinn a waste of life.
"Next time bring a metal detector," Maggie suggested. "Easiest way to find him."
I laughed at that. She was, of course, referring to Quinn's many facial accessories. Studs, rings, and dangling things. They weren't just in his ears, but in his eyebrows and nose. He had one in his lip, too. Call me old-fashioned, but I figure a thirteen-year-old like Quinn could get away with one, maybe two rings before maxing out the face-to-metal ratio.
I asked Russ and Maggie to wait for me when they were done with the raft ride. Then I wound my way out of the line until I came to a wide pathway that was almost as crowded as the line. In an amusement park this big, I knew if I let him get too far away, I'd never find him. And Maggie was right; he'd like that just fine. He'd ruin my night by making me worry where he was and what kind of crazy thing he was doing, then he'd show up at the car an hour after closing, with a smug grin stretched across his ring-filled face.
Fine, let him get lost, I told myself. I don't care. But the problem was, I did care, and that annoyed me even more.
For a long time everyone thought Quinn was autistic. Hard to believe that, looking at him now. Now he was just a self-centered royal pain. But when he was a baby, he would turn all his attention inward, never making eye contact with anyone. He was almost three and a half before he even spoke. It happened right before our parents split up. We went to one of those cheesy carnivals that came to town every year. Dad took us on a kiddie coaster. Quinn smiled and back then Quinn never smiled. Then, when the little ride grinded to a halt, Quinn spoke.
We were speechless. Until then Quinn had never put a coherent thought together. It was as if the ride had stimulated something in my brother that had always been dormant. Dad moved out a few weeks later. It was on the night of our annual viewing of The Wizard of Oz, just about the time that Almira Gulch turns into the Wicked Witch of the West. I still can't watch that movie without getting a sick feeling in my stomach, like it's my own house spinning inside of a tornado.
Our father probably would have left a few years earlier had Quinn not been born. Quinn wasn't planned. He was an "accident." Enough of an accident to keep Dad around until Quinn was three. Since he left, our lives have been a roller coaster of Mom's raging romances with men who weren't good to her, or to us.
As for Quinn, that first ride opened the door to bigger things. Stimulation and saturation. His life was a festival of excess that could not be contained. Deafening music, eye-popping bright colors, sugar added to almost everything he ate. Quinn's life was a bullet in a barrel ready to explode.
I searched the amusement park for fifteen minutes before I found him. I would have found him sooner had I been thinking like a lunatic, to whom breaking laws is a lifestyle choice.
About a dozen people stood in the middle of a wide pathway, looking up at something. I followed their gaze to some imbecile climbing the support scaffolding of a roller coaster. He was at least fifty feet high and leaned dangerously toward a piece of cloth wedged between two crossbeams. It was a hat. That's when I realized that the imbecile and I came from the same gene pool. And the law my brother was trying to break now was the law of gravity.
"Is that part of the Spider-Man show, Mommy?" I heard a little kid next to me ask. I hurried toward the roller coaster, ready to kill my brother, if he didn't do the job himself.
"Have I ever told you what a psycho you are?"
I stood on the exit stairs of the Raptor, looking out at Quinn, who clung to the support beam about six feet away from me. I looked around to see if any guards had noticed him out there, but for the moment Quinn's antics had found a security blind spot.
"Hey, defib, okay? I had to get my hat." He stretched his hand out toward it, but it was still just out of his reach.
"Did you ever consider engaging your brain?" I easily grabbed the hat from where I stood on the exit stairs.
He sneered at me, but he did seem a bit red in the face. "Oh, sure, do things the easy way." There was something else about him too. Not now, but when I'd first arrived. I'd seen the way he'd reached for his hat, as if he weren't hanging fifty feet above the asphalt. As if he didn't notice where he was until I'd brought it to his attention. There were times that he sort of slipped out of phase with reality a holdover, I guess, from those early years when he was so locked in his own private universe. It wasn't just that he didn't see the big picture. Sometimes he saw a different picture entirely.
Now Quinn looked down, taking stock of his situation, and shrugged, swinging to another girder closer to the stairs, still using the ride's infrastructure as his own personal jungle gym.
"Isn't it enough that you drive Mom crazy?" I asked him. "Is it such a stretch for you to be normal just this once?"
He tossed his head, flinging a lock of his uneven hair out of his face. "If that's what you are, I'd rather be deviant."
Unable to reach the railing of the stairs from where he hung, he grabbed a bar above his head and let his legs swing free, as if the fifty-foot drop beneath him were nothing. A sizable crowd had gathered below, gawking and pointing.
That's when I noticed the vibration. I felt it in the staircase railing before I heard or saw it: a shuddering of metal crashing downhill. It came to me in an instant what I already knew but had forgotten until that moment.
The Raptor was a hanging roller coaster. The bars Quinn dangled from were part of the track.
Quinn realized it too, and he tried to swing himself closer to the railing but didn't have enough momentum.
All at once the train swung around an outside curve, its riders screaming with joy, completely unaware of my idiot brother directly in their path.
I leaned out as far as I could, grabbed Quinn by the waist, and wrenched him from the hanging track. I almost lost him, but I got enough of him over the rail to flip him onto the stairs. We tumbled on the steps, while just past the railing, the Raptor sliced past, a blur of green and black, gone in an instant.
I should have been relieved, but saving Quinn was such a regular pastime for me, all I could feel was anger. "I'm tired of saving your friggin' butt," I told him, although friggin' and butt weren't exactly the words I used.
Then his eyes glazed over for a second.
"I go places sometimes," he told me, his voice as thready and distant as his eyes. "Don't know why I go places...I just do."
It caught me off guard. He was around six the last time he said that. It was a whisper at bedtime, like a confession. A secret, too fragile for the light of day. I go places sometimes.
But right then I wasn't feeling too sensitive. "Next time you go, bring me back a shirt." He snapped out of whatever state he was in, and something inside him closed up like a camera shutter. He glanced defiantly at the ride that had almost turned him into roadkill, then looked back to me.
"Nice save, bro." Then he put on his hat, effectively flipping me off without lifting a finger.
Copyright © 2003 by Neal Shusterman
Reading Group Guide
A Reading Group Guide for:
by Neal Shusterman
About the Book
Teenaged Blake is scared of roller coasters due to a trauma he experienced when he was seven, but that doesn’t stop a mysterious young woman named Cassandra from giving him a free pass to a one-night-only amusement park. When his daredevil thirteen-year-old brother, Quinn, steals the pass, Blake convinces his best friends Maggie and Russ to go with him to bring him home. It doesn’t take Blake long to realize that this is no ordinary amusement park — each ride opens up into its own deadly world, and he discovers that if he doesn’t survive the night, Cassandra will keep his soul in the park forever.
• Blake, Quinn, Maggie, and Russ all have different reactions to the phantom amusement park. Describe the similarities and differences in their responses. How do you think you would respond?
• Cassandra describes the amusement park as a living thing that feeds on the souls of those who visit, lured by the thrill, and she herself is the park’s soul. What do you think this means?
• Blake goes into the amusement park to rescue his little brother, but Quinn doesn’t want to be saved. Blake wonders how can you help someone who refuses to be helped. What do you think is the answer to that question?
• Cassandra tells Blake that there’s a way out of every ride, even though most of the riders don’t see it. How is this a metaphor for life?
• In the amusement park, Quinn becomes King Tut. Given the chance, what historical figure would you want to take the place of? How do you think that particular ride would end?
• In the book, Russ tries to kill Blake in exchange for his freedom. Step inside Russ’s head for a minute and try to justify that act. Can you?
• The amusement park is a metaphorical prison. What other kinds of prisons are there, besides those made of stone and steel?
• Cassandra offers Blake a choice — stop now, and she will share the park with him. Blake refuses her offer. What choice would you make? Why?
• The last ride in the park takes place inside Blake’s head. If this ride were in your head, what do you think you’d find there? How would you manage to escape?
• At the end of the novel, when Blake has won, Cassandra tells him the world needs her, that there will always be people who want to “ride.” Do you agree or disagree with her? Why?
Activities & Research
• In the novel, Blake mentions scientists who think there may be many more dimensions than just three, but some are so folded in on themselves they can’t be experienced. Do research into the latest advances and theories of physics — superstrings, dark matter, wormholes. How many dimensions do scientists think there may be? What forms do scientists think these dimensions might take?
• In the amusement park, the carousel ride becomes real animals, the bumper cars become real automobiles, and so on. Design or describe in words an original ride that might fit into this park. What ordinary ride would it look like from the outside? What would happen to the rider once they got on the ride?
• One attraction takes Blake and his friends to Chicago in the “bad old days” — the 1930s, when mobsters ruled. Research and write an essay exploring the real Chicago of that era. Remember to cover the good as well as the negative aspects.
• Find out how a real amusement park, like Disneyland or Six Flags, or one in your town, is actually run. How many people work there? How much fuel and popcorn do they go through in a day? If possible, conduct an interview with an official of the park. Present your report to the class.
• The mirror maze in the novel actually disfigures people, distorting them until their bodies match the fun house mirror images. Research real-life mental conditions, such as bulimia, which involve a distorted sense of body image.
• At the end of the book, Blake relives the bus accident that shaped his life. Choose a moment in your life that you would you relive, if you could. How would you change it? Write about the outcome of that experience that you would like to see.
This reading group guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.