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DinoLand, Serial Fiction

DinoLand | Chapter 7: The Lost Child

Welcome to the latest chapter of DinoLand, by A.J. O’Connell and illustrated by Max Farinato.
For the previous chapter, click here. To begin reading at Chapter One, click here.

DinoLand, novel

Perdita Patrone, vice president of communications at DinoLand Enterprises, Inc.

Her voice has been rising for an hour now. Each time she speaks, she edges closer to hysteria. “We’ve been here for hours. You are not even trying to find my son. You’re covering something up.”

“Ma’am, I swear to you. I would never, ever hide something like this. I’m a retired cop.” Tony’s voice is weary.

Tony Santagata, our head of security, is 70 years old, but he’s the kind of 70-year-old who gets up at 5 a.m. to lift weights at the gym and favors tight black tee-shirts that show off the results. He’s the kind of guy you’d want to set your mother up with: a sweet disposition, a square jaw and a full head of salt-and-pepper hair. Right now, he’s rubbing his hand over that hair for the fifth time in as many minutes, his face grim.

“We will find your boy, ma’am,” he insists. “We will.”

“And if he doesn’t we will,” adds a young cop, one of a pair that entered the office ten minutes ago.

The room is dim, but I can see that the mother is pale. Everything about her is drawn and tight: her ponytail, her mouth, her voice. She gestures at the screen in front of her with her chin. “Then find him,” she says, speaking through her teeth.

We’re all standing in the surveillance room of DinoLand’s security office — our own state-of-the-art miniature police department, complete with a holding cell for troublemakers — in front of a bank of monitors, watching the same video over and over.

Tony’s people have watched the footage from the security cameras and spliced together a video of the boy’s last recorded movements at DinoLand.

It’s short, less than five minutes: the little boy runs from his mother toward the bathrooms on one camera. He never arrives at the camera near the men’s room. The next camera shows that he’s changed direction, and headed up toward the allosaurus pen. The camera at the allosaurus pen shows nothing. Tony’s team has gone over the footage from all our cameras, and the boy simply never arrives at the pen, or anywhere. At least one of our surveillance cameras should have caught him on film, but the child has vanished.

There’s a noise from the mother. A cough, or a sob. We turn to look at her.

“We should never have come today. Never. But he begged.” The mother says this to no one, and to all of us. She rocks a little, but I can’t tell if she’s swaying as a child might rock to comfort itself, or if she’s too tense to properly keep her balance. Her feet are as close together as they can be without being one foot. Her hands each grip the opposite elbow. We all — including her husband — stand a few feet away from her. She is a bomb waiting to explode.

“We had,” her face buckles with emotion, “that free pass he got in school.”

She hugs herself tighter in the silence that follows, and her shoulders begin to shake.

“My guys are out there looking,” says Tony in a quiet voice.

“That’s not enough,” says the father, jerking a thumb toward the pair of cops standing against the wall. “We want their guys out there looking.”

Tony holds out his hands in a conciliatory gesture. “Whoa, sir. We are more than willing to cooperate with the police, but hold on a minute,” he said. “I have a call in to the chief and I just need to speak to Mr. Asten.”

The younger of the two policemen, who looks barely old enough to drive, steps forward and glares up at Tony. “We’re the Waterford Police Department,” he says. “We don’t need your permission or Steve Asten’s permission to search DinoLand. You’re in our jurisdiction. We’re not in yours.”

The older cop shuffles a little and looks uncomfortable.

Tony shakes his head, sighs and turns back to the bank of monitors. “Then what are you doing in my office, kid? Answer me that.”

***

Like most people in town, I have always worked for DinoLand.

My first job was selling hot dogs.

One July morning when I was seventeen, I was leaning on against the counter at my hot dog stand, idly watching some of my friends’ dads put together a life-sized animatronic T-Rex.

DinoLand

“I’m thinking a smart girl like you doesn’t always want to be selling Tyrannodoguses forever?”

Steve ambled over. “Patrone!” he called. He always used his teenage employees’ last names. “How about a Tyrannodogus Rex? Everything on it, please.”

I dutifully loaded up a dog for him. While I ladled chili into the bun, Steve leaned against the booth.

“What’s this?” He looked down at a pad, lying near the relish.

I froze. I’d brought the pad to keep me busy during the hours when no one was buying hot dogs. “It’s nothing.”

He picked it up. “Doesn’t look like nothing. Looks like poetry. Patrone, I didn’t know you were a writer.”

My face and neck burned as if I’d eaten one of the chilidogs. “I’m, um, I’m not,” I spluttered. No one knew about my poetry. Not my parents. Not my friends. Not my teachers. It was something I did just for myself.

“Looks to me like you are, kiddo.” Steve put the pad down and took his chilidog from me before I dropped it. “Patrone,” he said, with a mouthful of Tyrannodogus, “how long you been working for me?”

“This is my second year, Mr. Asten,” I responded, happy to talk about anything that wasn’t my poetry.

“I’m thinking a smart girl like you doesn’t always want to be selling Tyrannodoguses forever?” he asked, nodding at the pad.

“Well, no, Mr. Asten.” I handed him the mustard.

He grinned and took another bite.

“Good, kid, because you’re brighter than selling hot dogs. I remember how well you used to listen when I talked to your class. You used to ask good questions. And young lady, in the past two years your register has never been off once. So I figure you could start work for me as a DinoGuide this summer and maybe keep doing that when you’re home summers from college.”

“Really?” I was trying to play it cool, but I found myself gazing across the park at the DinoWalk, where I could pick out royal blue polo shirts moving around what used to be a cornfield.

“Really.” Steve finished tucking away his chili dog and grinned at me.

The DinoGuides were the rock star teenage employees at DinoLand. No standing at a sweltering hot dog stand for them. It was their job to learn all the habits of the dinosaurs. They spent all day on the DinoWalk, our best attraction, helping kids follow dinosaur tracks and prizes. They ran our summer camp program and went out to talk to schools, and when they did that, they got to drive the company car.

“I’d love to,” I said, more eagerly than I’d intended. “And since I’m not going away to college, I can work all year round.” Going away to college was out of the question for my family. I was going to the community college.

Steve frowned. “Not going away to college? No. You’ve got to go to college, Patrone. You want to do something with your life, right?”

I felt the blush creeping back up my neck.

He finished his Tyrannodogus and tossed the wrapper in the trash. “Okay, kid. Tonight after you cash out, report to the offices. I’ll get you your shirt and the book of DinoFacts. Better start memorizing that thing tonight.”

The rest of my summer was spent as a DinoGuide, bringing tours of kids around the DinoWalk and driving to day camps with boxes of fossils. And the next year, before I graduated high school, Steve presented me and several other DinoGuides with full scholarships to State University.

***

Just as Steve had suggested, I came back every summer in college to work as a DinoGuide. I ran camps. I spent each summer on the DinoWalk, explaining tracks and dinosaur habits to a whole new crop of Waterford kids, smarter and less scraggly than the last. The DinoWalk itself improved. You could no longer see the abandoned factories from the park, because while I was away at school, Steve had purchased that land too. If I ignored the rides and the screaming crowds just over the fence, I really could imagine that when I was on the DinoWalk, I was billions of years back in time. I encouraged my tours to do the same.

Whenever I returned from campus, it seemed like the town was bigger than it was before: Waterford’s downtown now stretched out into the surrounding farmland. Big hotels and chain restaurants began to spring up where fields had been. The sway-backed bungalows in my parents’ neighborhood erupted into large houses that pushed at their property lines. Even the elementary school I’d gone to was knocked down in favor of a shiny new state-of-the-art complex, named, not Jefferson School, as it had been, but DinoLand Elementary. Steve had paid for the whole project.

The park was growing, too. The May before my junior year of college I learned with the rest of the guides that Steve was building some sort of lab on the site of the factories, for the study of dinosaurs or something. He was coy whenever anyone asked him a direct question about the labs, so eventually we all stopped asking. Well, most of us did.

“Come on, Mr. Asten,” I said, one June afternoon as unmarked trucks rolled through the park, passed us and headed for the science buildings. “Come on, what’s with the labs?”

We were standing in the parking lot near the doublewide trailer that then served as the company offices. It was hot and overcrowded in there, with piles of files teetering on top of filing cabinets and boxes piled everywhere. A lot of the employees were irritated that brand new labs were being built when all the guides, managers and administrative staff were tripping over one another in the trailer. Steve, who was helping me load boxes of merchandise into a storage unit, just laughed and handed me a box of plastic stegosaurus eggs.

“Maybe you’ll know someday, Patrone, when I have you working in a more responsible position,” he said.

“Like as a janitor?” I stacked the box on top of others like it. “Well, I’ll definitely know what’s in there when I’m sweeping up the place.” I was already a little worried about my chances of getting a job after school. I’d been hearing bleak reports from friends who’d already graduated. Most of the country was experiencing a recession. I knew I’d have trouble getting work when I moved out of town.

Steve chuckled. “I’m serious, Patrone. What’s your major in school?”

“I haven’t decided yet.” It was something I knew I had to do in the coming year, but the idea of narrowing down all those choices… I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

He stopped rummaging in a box of odds and ends for a loose stegosaurus egg and crossed his arms thoughtfully.

“Remember how you used to write poems, Patrone?” he asked.

“Sir?” I was startled. The poetry had stopped when I went away to college and found other things to do with my time.

“Ever think of going into writing, Patrone?”

“The poetry was a phase, Mr. Asten.”

“Business writing, Patrone. Communications. I tell you, kiddo, if you decided that you wanted to go into communications, I could use an intern next summer. You know, to write press releases and things. I’m getting tired of doing them myself.”

***

That internship was the first job I’d held that didn’t require me to wear a uniform. I had my own desk and was responsible for writing press releases and — my favorite thing — updating our educational booklets with the latest scientific research. Steve brought me with him to Chamber of Commerce meetings and began introducing me as Perdita. I was out of college two days when he called my house to offer me a permanent position.

“Whaddya think, Perdita? I’ll start you at $30,000.”

I repeatedly the sum involuntarily and added: “Wow. Mr. Asten. Thanks a lot.”

“Great, you accept. Work starts Monday.”

I paused. I hadn’t planned to begin work so soon. A group of my college friends were going to France in July. I’d been saving my internship money to go with them.

“I don’t know,” I faltered. “I had plans to go to Europe this summer.”

“Well, sleep on it, Perdita,” he said breezily. “Call me in the morning. I really need this position filled, and the job won’t stay open forever.”

I hung up the phone.

“Perdita? ” I turned to see my mother standing there, beaming, and realized she had heard every word. There was something in her face that told me she would never forgive me if I went to France and threw away the chance to make $30,000 a year right out of college.

***

The silence in the surveillance room is disturbed by noises out in the reception area: a door opens, chairs scrape back on the hardwood floor, and a male voice murmurs “Good evening, Mr. Asten.”

My shoulders relax for the first time in hours.

Thank god, I think. He is finally here. Steve will handle this.

The door of the surveillance room flies open. Steve fills up the doorframe; his broad shoulders and barrel chest are outlined against the bright lights from the reception area. We all squint at him like moles.

“My phone has 50 missed calls on it,” he booms. “What’s all this?”

“Mr. Asten —“ everyone begins, but Steve cuts us all off with a wave of his hand.

“Let’s make this easy. Perdita,” his shadow falls across me. “What’s going on here? Explain this.”

And though I would like nothing less than to repeat the accusations I’ve been hearing for the past hour, I step forward and address Steve in the voice I use when I speak to him in public.

“Mr. Asten, this couple,” I gesture to the father and mother, “the Greens, lost their son in DinoLand this afternoon. Tony’s team has been unable to find the boy, and the Greens now believe that their child has been eaten by one of our animals.”

I’m aware, as I say this aloud, that it sounds ridiculous. I haven’t really believed it since hearing the accusation from the reporter for the local paper. The only thing that made me worry was Doug’s “animal situation” from earlier in the evening. Now, however, the whole thing sounds bizarre, almost laughable.

“Well, that’s quite a leap to make,” says Steve and although I still cannot see his face in the dim room, I think I can hear a smile in his voice. “Tony?”

“It’s true, Mr. Asten. We can’t find him, in the park or on the cameras. He just disappeared from the video feed. Something is definitely wrong. We should have some video of him.”

“Any evidence that a dinosaur got him, Tony?”

“No, sir.”

“Ah.” There’s definitely a smile in Steve’s voice now. “Well, maybe we should call Doug Dalena, and ask him if any of the dinosaurs have seemed especially hungry today.”

“Mr. Asten,” I jump in before he can say anything else. “Maybe we should speak to Doug about this.”

“That’s right.” One of the security team, a woman sitting at the monitors, chimes in. “Mr. Dalena did call in about an animal situation in Pen One earlier this evening.”

There is an uncomfortable silence while Tony shoots her a hard look.

“Fran,” he says. “Please go out front and handle the phones.”

She probably won’t have a job tomorrow. One of the first things we teach new employees is not to talk about company business.

“I knew it!” It’s the mother’s voice. She’s standing straight and tall by her husband. She’s pulled herself together to confront Steve. I admire her for the attempt. “I knew it was a dinosaur.”

“And what makes you think that, Mrs. Green?” Steve turns on her, his voice cooling. “Isn’t it possible — probable, in fact — that your boy was abducted by someone? What makes you think it was one of our animals? Do you know how unlikely that is?”

The mother opens her mouth to answer but nothing comes out at first. When she does begin talking, she repeats her story about the boy wanting just one last look at the allosaurus pen and begins ranting about our videos having been tampered with, and I realize that she’s got nothing. She doesn’t have any evidence at all that a dinosaur ate her child. She’s simply spent all day around dinosaurs and dinosaur toys and dinosaur rides, and then her child disappeared and she’s assumed that the dinosaurs ate him because no one can find him. She’s grasping at straws. She’s desperate to find a reason why her son is missing.

It’ understandable, and I feel bad for her, but I have to say this next thing, because it’s my job: “Mr. Asten, I first heard this from the reporter at the Waterford Gazette.”

Steve turns to the parents, his voice icy. “You went to the press with this story before coming to me? How fortunate that it’s a ridiculous story and no one will believe it.”

He hits the lights, blinding us all. “Tony. Work with the police on the abduction. Perdita. Call the Gazette and deal with this insane rumor. And, for Christ’s sake, someone get me Doug Dalena on the phone. Now.

***

Click here to read Chapter 8: The Long Walk.

To read the previous chapter, Our Own Elephants click here.
To begin reading at Chapter One, click here.

If you’d like to see more art from Max Farinato, visit his site here. If you’d like to read more of A.J.’s work, visit her site. Want more serial fiction from Geek Eccentric? Visit MAJK’s steampunk epic To Live a Dragon’s Age.

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