We all make poor life choices. Mine just happens to be pizza.
You’d think working at the nostalgia-laden Wally World would be a dream come true. Maybe for kid me, with all the arcade games that spat out tickets like confetti, ball pits, and colorful characters straight from a children’s book, it was. I used to wrap myself up in tickets like a mummy when I won big, then walk proudly down the soda-stained carpet like royalty all the way to the prize counter. Ahhh, the prize counter, the only place you could use worthless tickets as legal tender. Kids would kill for that flimsy paper like the cartel kills competition for drugs.
And don’t get me started on the ever-charismatic Wally Weasel and friends in fabric-draped animatronic flesh. Were they a little unsettling? Yes. But who can hate a walking, talking weasel, his girlfriend, Piggy; fuzzy purple drummer, Crunch, and cowboy western guitarist, Doggone Dave? Nobody, that's who.
If you were a kid and your parents didn’t hold your birthday party there, or you weren't invited to a birthday party at Wally World, you bet you’d be marked with a scarlet letter—smeared in tomato sauce—spelling out your loser status. I don't miss those years. And did I mention the all-you-can-eat greasy pizza in five flavors of Capitalistic corner-cutting bland? Like I said, childhood dream.
Yup, graduating high school and proceeding to flunk out of community college sort of got me all jaded. We're not going to talk about health insurance or student debt here. Long story short, my parents remained astute in their kicking me out at eighteen, my cat is slowly dying from cancer, and I needed cash. Fast.
When you live in a small American suburb with only a high school diploma, the choices are fast food, retail, or Wally World. Literally, there's nothing else but dead malls and meth.
So now I'm sitting in a swivel chair, gripping an extra-large paper cup filled with soda and staring at security cameras bored out of my mind.
My poor life choice may be overeating crappy pizza, but I'm starting to think the poorest choice of all was saying yes to working the night shift. No one tells you how creepy the place gets with all the lights out.
The static fizzles in the background from the dusty old computer that hasn’t been updated since the place peaked thirty years ago. I don't remember everything being so run down. The colors were so vibrant then. Now they’re faded like they’ve been forgotten out in the sun and left to rot.
Not even five minutes into my shift, the phone rings. Landline.
“Hey, not-so-newbie, it’s me, Carlos. Welcome to the night watch.” The familiar voice of my coworker crackles out like it's being suppressed under twenty feet of water.
“I heard you quit.”
“Nah, just needed a new human sacrifice for the children-eating robots,” he chuckles.
"Not funny, asshole.”
“Hey, I'm just joking with you. Look, I'm a bit tied up at the moment, but I figured it'd be best to give you a few pointers seeing that you took the position last minute and all that. I like you. You handled all the backstage prep for the birthday animatronic shows better than most. Surprised they’ve moved you to security.”
They didn't even give me a raise.
“Yeah, me too,” I say. “It's like solitary confinement and I’ve barely started. The computer’s all janky, and I swear Piggy’s eyes moved a little on camera five.”
“Well, about that… management requires all new employees to hear this disclaimer, even if it's a current employee who's switched positions.”
Oh dear lord, not this again.
The icy coldness of the cola in my cup hits the back of my throat as I brace myself, staring at an old poster of Wally Weasel and friends. Their furry faces beam with inhuman cheer with the words ‘Let’s Party’ scrawled across it in big, bubbly yellow letters as Carlos begins his legally required monologue.
“We at Wally World are dedicated to bringing delicious pizza to the hearts of children everywhere. We’re all about fun, and kids, and kids having fun. Saying this, there are a few things you must agree to. Wally World cannot be held liable for any damages acquired by or from your person—including but not limited to theft, vandalism, or injury—grievous or otherwise.” Carlos clears his throat before continuing in a monotone rivaling that of my high school math teacher. “If anything were to, erm, happen to your person, Wally World will fill out any required paperwork as per law enforcement guidelines, missing person’s reports, etcetera within thirty days or after the carpet has been replaced and the walls scrubbed, whichever comes first… blah, blah, blah… you comply to franchise policy by listening to this disclaimer. You get the gist.”
What happened to labor laws?
“Alrighty then, just a heads up before I gotta run; the animatronics tend to carry a lot of extra power in their battery reservoirs at the end of the day. This causes them to move about and stretch their legs so to say. Now, I don't know what rumor's you’ve heard, but just ignore them. You’ll be fine. However, on the off chance that you do run into one of them, their sensors will tell them that after-hours patrons are unauthorized personnel and they may try and drag you to the spare parts room where they’ll ‘interrogate’ you. Except they can't speak, so they, you know, try and prop people up on the extra limbs and stuff which will probably impale you. But don't worry; just find somewhere to hide or shine a bright light in their face to make them think it's daytime and you’ll be fine.” Jostling sounds pop from the receiver. “Oh, crap… Sorry, like I said, I gotta run. Good luck!”
I check camera five again. Piggy’s gone from the stage.
Camera four: Party room, empty
Camera three: Backroom, empty
Camera two: Disabled, audio-only
Camera one: Ball pit and arcade, empty
That motherfucker. Slowly, I inch to the door and lean my ear against it. The buzzing from the wires in the office and the desk fan make it impossible to make out anything.
A small hiss seeps through the crack in the door. Stale air from the fan whips me back into focus. This is Carlos we’re talking about. He’s been a prankster since I started. Made sure I knew all the ghost stories. Fucker tried to ruin my childhood.
“Once upon a time, Wally World had to close. Twice, actually,” he had said once while I was airing down the animatronics. “They call the first incident the chomp of eighty-seven. Ever wonder why Crunch is called Crunch?” Carlos gnashed his teeth together. “Because his dentures pack a punch. It’s really a wonder that the human body can survive missing half the cerebral cavity.”
He then proceeded to pump compressed air back into Crunch, making its purple limbs pop up to attention, mouth agape.
You know what? I’m pretty sure Carlos snuck in and moved the damn puppet. Just gotta focus until six a.m. Actually, a better idea would be pranking the prankster. Anyways, unlike the day shift, I've got the whole place to myself. I could play all the games, fuck with the animatronics, throw myself a goddamn birthday party. Get paid to be a kid again. On the clock.
Fumbling for the flashlight, I get up, unlock the door and start exploring.
Green emergency lights coat the corridor leading to the party area. ‘Wandering feet,’ yeah right. A shuffling sound softly thumps on the carpet nearby. Quickly, I switch on the flashlight and flip the beam towards the sound.
Just uneven thumps like someone dragging a limp leg.
“Carlos, I'm gonna fucking kill you. It's not funny.”
Now, I'm not scared of the dark. Or the musty smells, or zombies. I've watched lots of horror flicks. Never once have they kept me up, or made me wet the bed as an adult, or sleep with a nightlight… also as an adult.
But Carlos not answering has got me all antsy. I’m not holding my breath. My heart’s not racing.
Nope. I'm fine. Perfectly fine.
The cylindrical beam carves out a path to follow to the arcade area. I can't help but think that all the junk piled up against the American cheese-orange walls look like hunched over figures hiding and watching, waiting to pounce.
I get to the arcade area as fast as my feet will take me. There should be a power switch in the far corner. Getting paid to play Pac-Man, Pong, and Space Invaders will turn this from the worst job ever to the best job in the world.
Sandwiched between two machines, I reach for the switch when I hear the subtle hum of gears turning. Whipping my head around, I shine the bright light directly behind me. It’s Piggy, maw open, revealing the exoskeleton teeth some designer thought would make them more kid-oriented. My opinion is that they’re horrifying. Her pink felt ears lie limp, round plastic eyes staring vacantly my way.
There’s a bolt sticking out of her left foot that's supposed to keep the animatronics nailed to the stage. Her whole pig body trembles and hisses as compressed air puffs out of the seams of her outer shell. A large brownish stain clings to the bib around her neck reading ‘Eat more pork chops’.
Piggy doesn’t move. Her chest rises and falls like she's breathing. It’s the engineering. They do that during the day too, I reassure myself.
The flashlight flickers then fades out. I try to jiggle the switch, but no luck. The arcade closes around me like a suffocating blackout screen. Piggy starts moving again, left leg dragging towards me. The emergency lights illuminate her form in sickly green.
Sprinting, I run to the ball pit. I can hide there. Kids have drowned there! And I'm faster than a sluggish animatronic. Piggy’s neck tilts to the side, slack-jawed, as I make my great escape.
But as soon as I hop in, there’s Doggone Dave, the cowboy. He’s lying face up and clawing at the air with his paws. Maybe the animatronics get bored of the poor working conditions too? Seeming to sense my presence, his canine head swivels towards me. And what’s worse, he starts flicking primary-colored balls up into the air with choppy motions as he swims my way.
Piggy behind me, Dave in front of me. Only way out is through the party room off to the side.
I remember the rumors about Crunch, and don’t even care to look for that fuzzy dinosaur, or whatever it is. He's sort of like a Barney rip-off, except instead of telling me I love you or that I should love me, he sings about dental hygiene while kids gorge on pizza and cake.
A quick glance at the stage shows Crunch still there, but Wally Weasel’s gone. The only place left is the backroom.
Rushing into the door labeled, ‘Staff only’, I shut it behind me. I can hear something scraping at the entrance so I lock it too, just in case. I’m not one of those dumb victims in a slasher movie.
Until now, I'd never spent much time in the backroom. Smells a little funky, that's for sure. Lots of animatronic innards, steel skeletons, discarded characters like that god-awful chicken, ripped up and abused outfits, and cartoon heads of rabbits. At least I'm finally alone and it’s quiet.
Making sure the door's locked one more time, I walk over to the far side of the room. There’s an old arcade machine. Guess I'll just hunker in here and waste my time playing this until morning.
Plugging in the machine, its pixelated screen flashes to life.
I press start. Four eight-bit kids pop up on screen. They all have blue shirts except one in sunshine yellow. That’s the player apparently, so I move the joystick around and begin interacting with the environment.
Welcome to Wally’s where dreams come true.
Each screen brings me to a different room of a party establishment. In the corner, there's a bright orange weasel beckoning the kids with a swish of its tail.
Okay… through the party room with triangular birthday hats on the table, past the stage, through a maze of the arcades, until one by one the kids follow the weasel into a storage closet. Text scrolls under the weasel.
Heya kids, want to see a magic trick?
The pixelated kids all jump up and down in excitement.
Wind-up toy music starts to play, a little distorted as it looks like old tech made this. The weasel starts to circle the kids who are now rounded up in the center of the room. The next text syncs with the music.
All around the party place
The children chased the weasel
The children stopped to eat some cake and
Pop! Goes the weasel
With that, the weasel takes off its head, revealing a human figure inside who then jumps on each kid one by one until they turn into a red puddle on the floor.
Weird game. A large birthday present rolls on screen, and all the dead kids are gifted with a mask corresponding to each Wally World character. A gurgling sound erupts behind me, drawing my eyes away.
"I never did tell you about the mass murder of ninety-three.”
I look around the dark room, but only see spare parts.
“Here…” The voice rasps out from underneath a mangled pile of metal limbs.
I rush over to the pile and slip on something sticky. “Fuck, Carlos, is this blood?”
I push the heavy metal and stuffing away and find Carlos barely hanging on with a giant robotic femur sticking through his abdomen.
“They never found the guy who did it. Stuffed their bodies into the animatronic suits. No one found out until their bodies started leaking through the fabric.” Each word strains against him like a weak ripple in a pool of life. “Listen here, kid. I like you. You need to get out of here. Make it ‘til morning, or they’ll get you. They'll interrogate you. They’ll kill you.”
“I-I need to call an ambulance.”
“Forget about me. Company policy is for staff to bleed out in the backroom. I’m done for.” Calm washes over Carlos’s face, but it's only making me freak out more.
“No, don’t you fucking die on me! It's a joke. It's all an elaborate prank. Tell me it's a prank. Speak to me!”
Two expressionless brown eyes gaze up emotionless. His spark is gone.
Two dim lights peek out from behind the arcade machine like a pair of beady snake eyes. By this point, I’m hallucinating. I'm sure of it. It’s all just a horrible no good very bad dream. For example, how can I now be staring face to face with an inanimate anthropomorphic weasel?
“H-hey, Wally…" I stutter. “Remember me? I used to come here all the time as a kid.”
Not working. Why the hell did I think talking to the damn weasel would do anything? The animatronic starts to grind its way towards me with the most sickening crunching sound while I back up towards the door.
“I don't mean you no harm. I'm just leaving…” my fingers clumsily rattle the door handle. Fuck, forgot I locked it. Shit, shit, shit.
A furry paw rests on my shoulder, cold and corpse-like.
Heart thudding against my chest, I fiddle with the lock enough to kick it open. Maybe I am one of those stupid characters from a horror movie after all. I run into the party room again. All the characters are there—one closing in on me from each cardinal direction. There's no weaseling my way out of this one. Part of me wants to make a break for the exit, but then the alarm will go off and I’ll lose my paycheck as per franchise policy.
Thoughts of the sofa I'm sleeping on and my cat flash through my mind. My cat. For her, I’d do anything. Just got to make it through the night.
Never did I quit a job so fast. And all I get to show for it is a broken arm and a puncture wound. The contract won’t let me speak about company secrets. Not sure about the legality of that, but they have fancy lawyers and I'm broke. Thirty days later a paycheck arrived in the mail for forty-five dollars minus tax. Addressed me as a valued employee.
The only solace is a newspaper article in the paper today.
Wally’s World Closed for renovation. Reopening uncertain for loved pizza party place. One employee reported missing.
Sometimes, the nostalgia just isn’t worth it.