The last traces of summer converted to memory as the digital countdown clock of Galactic Fun Park kept track of each fading millisecond. The guests meandered along the blacktop paths to the park’s front entrance with ten minutes to closing, dreading the trek to their cars. After a long day of temper tantrums, exhausted children were tossed to mothers’ hips in a bid to escape the intergalactic music that boomed from the speakers hidden behind trees and space props.
A thin gray squirrel named That One stared from the branches of an old oak tree. His boney paws clutched the bark as he scanned the walkway that led to the Interplanetary Arcade in Winner’s Orbit—the northwest corner inhabited by the raccoons and their leader, the Bandit Queen.
His soft paws plunged to the wood slat roof that protected the park’s most extensive collection of pinball games from the elements. That One’s eyes darted at the bright glow necklaces and battery-operated toys carried by the people treading the darkened walkway. He scurried down a post to the crane machine outside the door.
Beeps and thunderous music of arcade games rang in his ears as he squeezed through the crane game’s back door. His heart fluttered at the comforting odor of the stuffed animals—similar to the cotton used to line his nest as a young squirrel. He dove into the middle and swam through the astronaut penguins and necklace-wearing giraffes. His cheeks ached from smiling.
The most elusive buck-tooth bear sat in the machine’s corner. That One ripped the animal’s felt eyeglasses sewn to its head and tied the flimsy spectacles around his face like a superhero mask, pulling the front close to his twitching nose. That One admired the new accessory in the sliver of metal tacked to the machine. Like a glove!
His claws dug through the colorful prizes, dragging him to the top of the pile. As he did most nights, he lay on his back, flipped his furry tail over his chest, and rested his head on his hands. His eyes darted at the passing guests, waiting for the next player to wield the Crane of Improbability.
A kid’s sticky hand slammed on the outer glass. “Daddy, it’s a squirrel. Can I have the squirrel, pleeease?”
Rubbing his weary eyes, the dad dropped the awkwardly sewn bear to the pavement and reached for his wallet. “You’d think this monstrosity of a prize and the twenty dollars it took to win it would be enough.”
The corners of That One’s lips curled upward just enough as to not be noticed. Yes, that’s right. Try your luck and catch me if you can.
That One’s pulse ramped as the claw traveled along the track lining the glass case, swinging under the flashing red and blue lights. The anticipation of being caught in the claw was the highlight of his day.
The girl flicked the handle left and right as the last bit of cotton candy raced through her tiny body. Her fingers spread wide and smashed the giant red button flashing next to the crane handle. A plunging tone blast from the speakers as the chain clicked lower to the stuffed animals.
That One’s eyes grew as the claw lowered inches from his torso. With a sigh, he clutched the crane’s metal teeth with his hind paw. As the claw lifted him to the air, his head felt fuzzy, and he held back giggles bubbling in his throat.
Hanging upside down, That One studied the girl’s expression, waiting for the sparkle of confidence guests wore when beating the challenging game. A smile beamed across her face, and she bounced with glee. That’s my cue.
The claw ran along the track to the drop point where the prizes were delivered. That One lifted a single finger, one after another. He dropped and waved his arms, chirping the official squirrel warning, delighted at the girl’s confused expression. Bouncing off a penguin’s beak helped him backflip into the cushy heap.
“Did you see that, Daddy?” the girl screamed. “That squirrel is real.”
“Who? What?” The man shoved his phone into his pocket and grabbed her sweaty hand. “That was fun. Now it’s time to go.”
“But daddy—” the girl cried as her sneakers dragged from the machine.
That One returned to his resting position atop the animals where he waited for the next player. A sudden jerk of his tail had him scanning the pile. The firm pressure continued to tug, pulling him past the glass-eyeballed toys and out the back door typically used for loading the prizes.
A black-furred squirrel, a few inches taller than That One, tapped his paw on the cement. “What’re you doing?” asked Black. “You can’t play these games with the guests. It freaks them out.”
“You’re kidding, right? We do it all day, begging for popcorn and digging through their bags. I’d say they expect us to behave this way. Do you really believe those tired zombies understand a wild animal is trolling them?”
“You could get us fired. If Postmaster knew of your outings, we’d lose our jobs at Nutty Notes Delivery.”
“A squirrel can dream!” That One said. “Delivering to those rats in Eagle’s Tale is the worst. They’re always obsessed over funnel cake. Do you suppose if I tell Postmaster of my trials and hardships, he’ll make Tiny switch sections with me?”
“Don’t hold your breath. He’ll never give you Rover’s Landing after the prank you played on the cats.”
“Whatever. I’m sure the kitties have gotten over it. What harm is a little strawberry glaze on the fur, anyway?” That One jumped to the pavement and tucked the glasses into his messenger bag fitted over his shoulder. “Tonight, the big coaster has a short closing line. We can either stand here and argue or high-paw it to Landing for a bit of fun.”
Black gave him a questioning stare. “You promise to stay hidden this time? No running across the loading dock or playing dead on the tracks?”
“Sure, but only for you, baby brother.”
“I’m only a minute younger.” Black stood a little taller. “We can go straight to Moon Man. It’s only a ten-minute run from here.”
“Those roaches are crazy,” That One said. “They chant like brain-hungry zombies and turn on their own in an instant. Claiming Moon Man as their own started all this territorial nonsense. Do you remember when the roaches were helpful and intelligent—before they formed a collective?”
“I don’t think you can blame their behavior on them building a community. The cats and raccoons have done the same, and they seem normal.”
“Whatever. Going through Moon Man is out of the question,” That One said. “If it’s not the roaches causing chaos, it’s those tiny humans that chase us up trees.”
Black shrugged. “You have a point. Lead the way.”
Park employees dragged long-handled dust bins along the walkway, wishing the guests a safe trip home, unfazed by the brothers who weaved through the sluggish sneakers heading for the front gate.
That One cut through the trees at the churros stand and crossed the border of Winner’s Orbit into Rovers Landing, home to the Surveyor ’98 roller coaster. They slid under the monster ride’s fence, climbed the support beams, and perched on a wood plank with a magnificent view of guests being loaded and unloaded, which amounted to organized chaos.
A train filled with wide-eyed guests whooshed past the squirrels and stopped with a jerk in the station. The wild-haired riders tugged at their lap bars, their laughter and shouting drowning out the prerecorded announcement blasting from the speaker near the rafters.
Leave loose articles in the cubes to the right.
Please keep all hands and legs inside the car at all times.
No photography or video while the ride is in operation.
We hope you enjoy your day at Galactic Fun Park!
Metal rails keeping the guests a safe distance from the ride’s tracks swung open, and people rushed to their assigned seats and buckled their seatbelts. Groans bellowed from the train as weary attendants checked the lap bars, shoving the cushioned restraint deeper into the guests’ stomachs.
That One searched the riders, deciding their level of comfort. “Him. Over there.”
“No way,” Black said. “His cheeks are still rosy, but the boy in the third row is pale as paper. He’s definitely gonna lose it.”
That One reached into his bag and pulled out two raisins, popped them into his mouth, and chewed the gummy snack with a circular motion of his jaw. The mashed fruit slid from his tongue. He elbowed Black. “Who’s that guy?”
Black leaned from the wooden dock and stared at the garden next to the exit ramp. A leathery-skinned man lifted a handful of dirt to his tongue, sampling the granules of sand and topsoil. “I don’t know. I’ve not seen him before.”
“Gross!” That One blurted. “What kinda human forages in the park’s gardens?”
“He’s searching for something.” Black squinted as the man slunk up the ride’s exit ramp like a cat stalking his prey—his eyes trained on the brothers as he pulled a net from his pocket.
That One waved his paws and grabbed Black. “We gotta vault! That man is ogling us like we’re a couple of walnuts!”
“Good evening!” The Jenkins shouted as he strolled up the ride’s exit ramp toward the suspicious man who stood upright and tucked the net back into his pocket.
All the residents of Galactic Fun Park were familiar with The Jenkins—the most visible park manager. But That One had learned his scent. Each morning before the park gates opened and released the flood of humans, The Jenkins took time to leave a few pecans for the delivery brothers.
“Good evening, Maurice. Have you found anything?” The Jenkins asked.
“You have a huge rodent problem, more than I’ve ever seen.”
“I was afraid you’d say as much,” The Jenkins said. “They’ve been out during the day, which is new. Do you think the increase in park attendance is to blame?”
“The more food those part-time workers neglect to clean at closing, the more the vermin populations will grow. I can thin the herds, and no one will be the wiser of your pest problem.”
“I don’t mind the critters so long as they stay in their place,” The Jenkins said. “They’d be an asset if we could train them to do tricks, like dolphins and bears in years past.”
The exterminator scowled. “Rodents are the least intelligent of all species. They eat their young and their own poo.”
“Yes. Well, I’ll let you finish with your estimate for pest control. Please call if you need anything.” The Jenkins walked a few steps to the loading dock but turned back. “Oh, and try not to draw attention from the guests. I don’t want them thinking we have a problem.”
That One’s nose twitched as The Jenkins shook hands with the ride’s driver sitting behind the cluttered control panel.
“Why would he hire that creepy man?” That One asked. “The Jenkins loves us squirrels.”
“I’ve been telling you the park is overpopulated,” Black said. “And those rats think they own the whole place. If they’d socialized at night like everyone else, we wouldn’t have a problem.” The music from the speakers silenced, announcing the park was now closed. “We should get back to the office. Postmaster will worry, and he’s way awkward when he’s worried.”
“Awkwardness is a state of mind,” That One said proudly. “To each his own, my very normal brother.”