I stared in disbelief at the flawless ticket booth paint. You couldn’t even tell they’d touched it up.
“Yeah,” I said. “I guess so.”
I mention all of this now to explain why, in the middle of the night in the Happy Mouse Kingdom parking lot, I walked to the empty ticket booth in line with Duke Elliphant and crouched down. It was just one of those things. It’d make a funny story to tell Mom when I found her.
Down at the base of the booth the word FART was scratched into the paint.
I leaned in closer. I squinted. I remembered the goats in tiny cars I thought I’d seen earlier, so I traced the word with my fingertip. I felt the shallow trench my key had cut two years before, and tiny flakes of paint stuck to my skin.
“I am crazy,” I told myself, and nodded. “Probably have been for a while.” I poked the booth again and picked away the paint so you couldn’t read the word anymore.
“There wasn’t even any alien invasion, I bet. I’m just nuts. Most likely I’m strapped to a hospital bed right now, drooling and making animal noises.”
It was a nice thought, but I didn’t really believe it. I stood up and walked through a turnstile into the park. At some point I would find the rest of the human race, and eventually I’d track down someone who worked at Happy Mouse Kingdom, and they’d explain about the really interesting ticket booths that sometimes said FART and sometimes didn’t. There wasn’t anything else to do.
The inside of the park was not so clean. There was garbage all over the walkways, in the buildings and shops, plastic bags hanging like bagfruit from the skeletal trees. I caught sight of stray cats and at least one peacock. Broadway was the name of the main thoroughfare, lined with little stores that once offered Gifts from Other Lands. Now they were pretty much just full of rats.
At the end of Broadway I should have been able to see the Snow Queen’s Castle, but I couldn’t. Then I saw why. Most of it had been vanished by the Boov’s guns. It was horrifying, somehow. It was like a person with no head. There was a little bit of tower here, half a drawbridge there, but the rest was sliced clean away. I thought of an old photo of my mom, taken when she was younger than me, waving from the drawbridge of this castle and wearing one of those rubber mouse noses that everyone buys. I hoped she’d never have to see it like this.
And I wondered if this had any bearing on the message I’d seen:
GO TO THE KINGDOM
MEET UNDER THE CASTLE
That had been it, hadn’t it? I’d taken a picture of the message but left it in the car. I supposed that even if the castle was gone I could still look under it. Was there a downstairs? I’d never noticed one before. I was staring ahead of me and thinking this when I saw what looked like a collie dog in front of a fire hydrant.
“Hey,” I said. “Here, boy.”
Now, the thing about Happy Mouse Kingdom, if you don’t already know, is that some things are smaller than normal, and some things are bigger. You can see what looks like a huge Bavarian ski lodge or something, then get closer and realize it’s only ten feet tall. They really screw with your sense of perspective. So that’s why you can get pretty near a dog in front of a hydrant before you notice the hydrant is as big as a refrigerator and the dog is as big as a lion, and is shaped liked a lion, and is, actually, a lion.
“Oh,” I said, stepping back. My mind raced. Part of it thought, Well, naturally, some of the animals must have escaped from the Wild World Animal Park, and part of it tried to remember if anyone in school ever told us what to do when faced with a lion; but no, of course they didn’t, they were too busy teaching really useful things like the state capitals.
“The capital of Florida is Tallahassee,” I told the lion as I backed slowly away. “The official beverage is orange juice.”
The lion grunted and crouched low on his haunches. He stalked. The word for what he did was definitely “stalked.” I’m certain that this word was coined just for lions; everyone else made a poor business of it.
“I probably don’t taste good,” I offered as I edged toward a shop corner. “You won’t believe what I’ve been eating.”
The lion’s rear quivered impatiently. Then he suddenly stretched back like he was coiling his springs, and I took off running.
I ran like I never had. I drew air so hard it felt like pins in my chest. I weaved back and forth, around lampposts and in and out of alleys, hoping it might make a difference, hoping that lions weren’t so good at hunting if their prey suddenly ducked behind a gift shop. I could hear his round paws pounding behind me, and the huff of his breath. And I realized that if I was looking for evidence that I’d lost my mind, I could do a lot worse than thinking I was being chased by a lion through the empty streets of Happy Mouse Kingdom.
I thought about what I had. I had some cheese crackers in the pocket of my cargo pants. I had a camera and a pack of chocolate Ding-A-Lings in my camera bag. I had a turkey baster that made noisy bubbles when you squeezed it. I had my car keys, but unless I was going to scratch FART into the side of the lion, I didn’t think they would help.
I leaped for the lowest branch of a tree and pulled myself up. Suddenly I felt a jerk, and the cat’s claws were hooked through the strap of my bag, pulling me down.
I screamed and batted at the paw with my fist. Finally I saved the camera, and the bag’s strap broke, and I left it to the lion as I hoisted myself higher, branch by branch.
The lion hunched over the camera bag, sniffing. He ate my Ding-A-Lings.
“Lions don’t climb trees, right? That’s leopards,” I said between rapid breaths. I was full of butterflies. “Or panthers. Leopards or panthers.”
The lion finished his snack and turned his attention to me again. He circled the tree, then stretched his tawny body up the trunk, sinking his claws deep into the bark.
“Lions don’t climb trees!” I yelled.
I got a good look at his body now, his thick ribs nearly pushing through that bristly hide. I’m no lion expert, but his eyes looked sunken, and his legs were lanky and thin. He was old and he was starving.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m sorry you can’t eat me.”
The lion lay back down on the ground, never taking his eyes off me. I didn’t want to use the turkey baster. It would alert J.Lo to where I was, but it would alert every other Boov in town as well. I looked around. I was pretty sure I could crawl along one of the tree limbs and climb onto the roof of the Haunted House.