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The Slide

Forrest Brazeal is a software engineer, writer, and cartoonist based in rural Virginia. This is his third story for Daily Science Fiction.

Noah Carmody, aged four years, seven months and two days, dove headfirst into the top of a covered playground slide--the one in the indoor play area at Burger Jack--and never came out the other end.
His mother, Mrs. Carmody, became annoyed when Noah did not respond to repeated orders to come out and eat his chicken nuggets. Her irritation changed first to astonishment, then gradually to panic when she wriggled into the slide herself and discovered that it was empty. Mrs. Carmody crawled through every inch of the play area. She threw the balls out of the ball pit, scooping frantically with both hands. Noah had disappeared.
Law enforcement arrived on the scene in due course. Police detectives reviewed Burger Jack's security tapes. Nobody other than Mrs. Carmody had entered or exited the play area since Noah climbed into the slide. Mrs. Carmody insisted, growing hysterical, that someone must have been lying in wait for Noah inside the covered tube. But twenty-four hours of security footage--all the store had--revealed no such person opening the play area's single glass door, and not even Mrs. Carmody had seen anyone leave.
The police tested swabs taken from the play area, turning up a rather disgustingly large variety of DNA, but nothing that could be matched to a known criminal.
Local news caught wind of the story, and Mrs. Carmody's tearful interviews soon went viral on social media. Conspiracy theorists and anti-government truthers propounded bizarre explanations for Noah's disappearance. They got an unexpected boost from a distinguished professor of physics at Caltech, a Dr. Russell Morton.
Morton, who nourished a fascination with multiverses and quantum entanglement, was the first to suggest that Noah had entered the playground slide in one dimension--ours--and slid through a transient space-time rift into a parallel universe. The covered slide itself, he excitedly told CNN, had the exact physical characteristics of the interdimensional wormhole he had sketched out in his latest journal article.
Morton's claims generated substantial public interest, making him a minor celebrity. He purchased, at his own expense, a covered slide identical to the one that had swallowed Noah, which he unveiled at a press conference while Mrs. Carmody bit her knuckles on the dais beside him. Morton sent crash-test dummies through the tube with infrared cameras around their necks. The dummies emerged in the normal way at the mouth of the slide, with their legs and arms tangled and nothing of particular interest on their cameras. Both they and Morton looked quite foolish, though this did not prevent him from publishing a popular book about his ideas called "The Carmody Files."
Eventually, prevailing opinion turned against Mrs. Carmody herself, the only adult known to have entered and exited the play area after Noah climbed into the slide. Careful review of the security footage showed that as she left the play area, crying and calling for a manager, her coat momentarily bulged out as if concealing something. Mrs. Carmody said the bulge was a trick of the camera angle, and anyway it wasn't her fault that she'd had trouble losing Noah's baby weight. The police pointed out that she had run into the parking lot before finding a manager, out of sight of the security cameras, for which she could provide no explanation other than simple distress.
Anyway, Noah's body never turned up, and without any physical evidence the case against Mrs. Carmody never really got off the ground. The most notable outcome of the whole affair was a temporary dropoff in attendance at public playgrounds in general, and Burger Jack in particular. Matthias "Jack" Berg, the chain's founder, made a rare late-night TV appearance in an effort to restore public trust.
"We may never know exactly what happened to little Noah Carmody," he said, "but we are stepping up security measures to ensure that customers of all ages feel safe and welcome in our stores. It's the same reason we make every meal from fresh, sustainably-sourced ingredients."And he smiled for the camera.
And he bit into a juicy, tender little Burger Jack Slider.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, September 27th, 2018
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