For magic look to Mxckey Mxxse. You might have thought Gxxfy would be the one holding. But the upright dawg clothed an uptight Latterday Saint from Fullerton, a drama major who had given up. The most psychoactive thing he had to sling would be a stick of gum, bent double for a sober and reflective chew, and sugar free. Dreams break and a onetime duck ought to know the dabblers. Mxckey, Mxnnie, and I—three of the big five—were heads-off in the men’s showers. Where talent got nude there was less chance of a cam—live feed for park security—and vapor in a balloon ran afoul of smoke alarms. We had the technology. And twenty minutes. The usual subterfuge, a quick huck of boo to prop up our morale. Usual, that was, until Txnker Bxll came in.
None of us knew her well. Blonde of course, and quick to rictus, all walks of life a cheerful selfie. So much work put into cute shrieked of Santa Monica. But something had gone bad—mascara ran from each eye. “Gimme,” she said. “Ohana means family.”
Bit rude—also, huh?—but a big-hearted mxxse like Mxckey did not stint to share. “Oh right—that’s from the one in Hawaii,” Mxnnie said. She was a former skater betty who used to play punk guitar. In grid terms she and Txnker Bxll were next-door neighbors. Teamwork came with. Santa Monica and Venice Beach liked to gang up on the Valley.
“Yeah,” said Txnker Bxll, “Hawaii, with the alien and the hijinks.”
I was inland and less partial than a neighbor. “So what’s ailing you, Txnk?”
Bag in hand, rip blown clear, she slid. The gossamer slump threw a leggy V. Heavy hangs the head that wears the thimble. “Call me Bethany. Until it’s Pxriwinkle.”
“A fairy,” Mxnnie told us. “From the franchise. There are lots of them. It’s a swarm of doe-eyed locusts.” She had a girl not yet six and this made her a kid vid mentat.
“My twin sister,” Txnker Bxll said. “Hers. Whatever.” Another rip, a trumpet face.
“So it’s like a demotion?” Mxckey said. “Damn. Sorry.” Inglewood. Head fairy was a fat gig. But a lipstick smile and a tunic wore easier than a sweltering orb. Risk of heat exhaustion called for lots of breaks. The ones who went au tete naturale did so to flaunt a natural gift and were cast for it. Snxw Whxte, Xriel the Lxttle Mxrmaid, Pxcahontas, Cxnderella, et cetera—most of the women in other words. Pretty women for park éclat.
(I ran this by Mxnnie later. “They get groped, idiot,” she said. “Even I do and I’m a bobblehead in polka dots.” My bad. “Also, what, are you saying I’m not pretty?”)
“Rotator cuff,” said Txnker Bxll. “Ganked it.” Pinking up, going dry—weed was just the formula for no more tears. “On weekends I free climb. They say I can’t fly any more.” Flight being a key element of the role. “And somebody in casting thought they were smart. The sibling resemblance. But Pxriwinkle is bullshit! I suggested Rxpunzel for the zipline, just for a month while I do PT. Her gimmick’s hair, not wings, but she could bust out from her tower, right? I called the local. I didn’t take a pay cut so there wasn’t anything our rep could do about it except commiserate.”
“Wait,” Mxnnie said. “Same pay, less work? What’s the bad?”
“Same base. Each run on the line earns a bonus.” She told us how much. We all had a better hourly than the dwarfs, but still. Wait until Plxto got a load of this.
On exit she said, ‘Giant help. Thanks so much.” And on a quick return, “Xpcot, Xpcot”—our nickname for park security. Xncle Wxlt’s deppity dawgs did not fuck around. Like any peedees of the here and now they had too many toys in the box—riot gear, “compliance weapons”—and were itching for a play date, whether it be a picket line or a turnstile jump or a victimless white collar crime like corporate espionage. The Xpcot backstage were a different ilk. More like Stasi. We knew who they were and they knew we knew. But they did not know we knew they knew we knew. Visine all around. Prep went on elsewhere—no vaporizer on scene—and a limp zeppelin sounded into the mxxse pants. To finish came a trusty squirt of Ozium. The air went as blank as the interstellar void, and in came Jxminy Crxcket.
Head off, somehow the hairstyle was intact. It was almost as if he hadn’t just been out on smothering rounds. Mainstream handsome, like cheekbone and eyebrow trim put up on a Christmas tree. “Hot one,” he said a tick too loud, pure central casting. God forbid a decent stage actor go anthropomorphic for the state. “Hey there, hi there, ho there—Joanne, Bethany! What brings you to the men’s locker room?”
Txnker Bxll had pinned a hornet in her teeth and was grinning it to death. “Men,” said Mxnnie, who thought quicker than anything north of Pico and gave up nada.
“Funny! But you know, it is against cast code. Hey, I don’t mind, but I’d hate for you all to get in dutch.” Finger guns. “Check the employee handbook.”
Deadpan—just the right note—Mxnnie said, “We ran out of water in the women’s. Our union contract stipulates two quart bottles for each cast member daily.”
“Stay hydrated! Here, have one of mine. You should speak to services. Go right to the manager.” Our team conscience—every last directive spoken out as optimism.
Days later Txnker Bxll caught up with me in parking. She was free of costume but neck deep in the merch—a hoodie in lavender with a nonthreatening entity on the front. We got 20% off. “Hey Dxnald,” she said, and said. Which is how we got into the hospitality suite.
To mount the castle for a run Txnker Bxll had strict access. Because traffic up there was so sparse the park had never bothered to update security to something electronic, and it turned out that one old-fashioned key, a simple tarnished brass, worked on several dusty locks. Or so Txnk said. This was not the secret apartment in Nxw Orlxxns Squxre, which everybody and their dentist knew about, but a secret secret apartment. It seemed the nonsecret secret was a ruse to protect the secret secret. How very Dxsneyland. The set and setting of the Cold War echoed down years like a vagrant shouting on a park bench. Apart from kitchenette, head, and vestibule the suite had six rooms in the exact same layout as the Nxw Orlxxns version. But this one was not attended to or let out to cheesy VIPs. Fully furnished, dusty but lush, with chambers themed to each zone of the original park. In terms of decor Txmmorowland, Frxntierland, Advxentureland, Fxntasyland, and Mxin Strxxt X.S.A. read as future, past, foreign, fake, and proud. The sixth room was empty. A doorway in back led only to four blank walls, a ceiling without a lamp, a plain wood floor. The ghost lived there, we liked to say—not Xncle Wxlt but maybe a bosom friend. Xb Xwerks, say, designer of the mxxse. Or some primordial tutelary like Xswald the Lxcky Rxbbit. Had we not been so totally stoked it would have creeped us out rancid. Even my guard came down on the tour. “Txnk, you’re the best.”
“Pxriwinkle,” rueful. I peeked through a curtain at a window. Lattice lights of the typical castle design, but the glass had been soaped out to hide mundane innards. I threw back drapes to a filmy ambiance. “There are no eyes in this part of the castle and for sure none in here,” Txnker Bxll said. “Plus no smoke alarms. And soundproof.”
We stood and listened. Not a peep of crowd—the surly mob below. By then Plxto had come back from vacation with his beau. “You’ll always be Txnk to us,” he said.
The vaporator now had a permanent base, and god love a working fridge. We kept it stocked with fizzy water and fruit juice. We weren’t animals. There was no need to be sly about the rounds. The selfsame entrance led both to the workerbee hells and to the upper castle, thanks to some fire stairs, and the key pad was outside, where it left the only time stamp on our data records. Txnker Bxll had the key copied—just went into a hardware store for five spares and handed them out. Such was the advantage of old guard. Somebody thought to bring a wireless speaker. We checked how loud it could get from the other side of the door and put a red mark on the knob, all tunes mellow. Which was all we wanted anyway. Dressing up as felt-faced demigods was thirsty work.
On the last day of that short golden age Txnk told us a joke. “This Italian dad talks to his three sons. Two are fat, one skinny. ‘Look at you! You both as big-uh as-uh the house! How’d it get-uh so bad? You, my oldest—whaddah you eat the most?’
“‘Papa, I love-uh to eat the pizza pie!’
“‘Mamma mia! The pizza, she is-uh delicious,’ the dad says. ‘Son, son—we gotta eat the pizza, but-uh please, take smaller bites! You, middle son—you even-uh fatter than your brother! Whaddah you eat the most?
“Why are they Italian?” Mxnnie asked.
“‘Papa, I love-uh to eat the spaghetti and meatballs with-uh the Parmesan cheese!’
“‘Santa Lucia! The spaghetti and-uh the meatballs.’” Lips to fingertips. “‘Oh son—she is delicious, but-uh please, take smaller bites! Both of you, look at your brother! So handsome, so trim, the sweet girls in town, they all-uh love him so! Tell me, my boy—’”
“Why are they Italian?”
“‘—whaddah you eat the most?’
“‘Well, Papa,’ the youngest son says, ‘since-uh you ask, I love-uh to eat the pussy.’”
“Dad frowns. ‘But son, the pussy, she taste-uh like shit.’
“‘Oh Papa, Papa—take smaller bites!’”
How it landed. Mxnnie shot bodega-bought guava nectar through her nose. For the mxce breaktime had ended. Off they went over Txnker Bxll’s pleas to stick around “just for five more minutes.” Plxto—no fan of the sticky but very much into quiet downtime and zen practice—was contemplating a wall in the ghost room. Which meant that Txnker Bxll and I had only each other to talk to. We got to origin stories—what had brought us to the life. “I was an athlete,” she said. “Rhythmic gymnastics, routines with streamers, solo and group. I was even at the Olympics ten years back.”
“Really? Did you medal?”
“Shut up. Anyway that’s how the scout found me. You guys, most of you are actors or showbiz types. That’s no surprise. They needed someone fit for the line—someone with core strength and balance. You stick your legs back straight and pump a wand at the yokels. It’s like planking midair.” The fairy gossamer did sculpt her nicely.
“No, I was never an actor,” I said. “Neither was Mxnnie—yeah, okay, showbiz in her case. But four years touring biker bars with the Vomitones never leapt on a resume.”
“So what were you doing?” She had a fingertip on my ear.
“Me? I do what do.”
“No, really. I’m just a lonely guy from Anaheim. I like a short commute.”
“No—you’re not just some guy. You, baby—you’re the dxck.”
Tongues and a light and humpy wrassle. She must have forgotten Plxto was telling beads because soon I was in her mouth. Through a pair of dxck pants a blowie was no small sleight of hand. “One of the walls is hollow,” Plxto said. “Oh. Shit. Sorry.”
“Dude,” I said, and we went, if only to get past awkward.
Past zafu and fish drum he rapped with a knuckle. In one narrow patch the sound changed. To trace it out he took the knocking high and low. “A doorframe,” he said.
Rapping on my own, I said, “Every other wall is plaster.” I had not bothered wowing the Olympian with knowhow in construction work. Younger summertimes had been different for me. “But this is stud.”
“I mean like a partition wall. Newer build.” I sniffed. “Really new. This went up not too long ago. There’s space behind.”
Our fairy princess had begun to look uneasy and a wristwatch glance gave her up. “We probably shouldn’t mess with it,” she said.
“Why would we?” Plxto asked.
I was giving her stares when we heard the door slam. We came out to Mxnnie. In a shouty breed of whisper she said, “Xpcot. They got Mxckey.”
The door was thick but we could hear the boots. Several pair, a dozen, and then the hot key chirp of personal radio units. A sting—a goddam sting. Mxnnie put on the chain and shot the bolt. We stared on until we heard a key at the lock. With a tiptoe run we found ourselves cowering in the blank room, become like ghosts ourselves.
“He blocked the fire door,” Mxnnie said. “For me. Told me to run.”
Deathly afraid, Plxto said, “Why be scared? So we’re written up. Docked maybe.”
“They were on the warpath,” I said to Mxnnie, for the nod.
“Full-on riot gear. It freaked my shit out. Poor Mxckey. He was the best of us.”
“Don’t let them in,” Txnker Bxll said.
I lost patience. “Cut the shit. You knew.” Mxnnie and Plxto’s eyes snapped to her. “Oh don’t look so put out. They were coming and you knew it.”
“I did not! Or not—not like that.”
“You’re Xpcot?” Mxnnie said. “You’re chingon verga Xpcot?”
“No! He had me show you here—for breaks—told me I’d be back on line.” I assume on line. Mxnnie was already pulling blond hair and putting in a knee. Venice bloodlust.
“Wait, wait,” Plxto said. He had got between them. “He? Who he—uh—he who?”
“Guys.” It was Jxminy’s voice back in the hall, speaking through the chain. “Guys, guys, guys. Take it easy. You might be experiencing cannabis-induced paranoia. All the beef behind me is just—. Back off, faggots!” To us again, “Not my idea. I know you know I know you know who I am.” So much for cover. “It’s not about the substance use. That’s been decriminalized in the state of California. Although it is a flagrant violation of the employee code. Never mind that. The big five have been infiltrated. One of you is not who he—” I shouted him down with a remark about company men. “Just pop the chain off,” Jxminy said. “Come on. These cowboy idiots can rush the door any time now. And a cutter’d go through the chain like dollar Chinese.”
Plxto made a what face.
“It’s for his reel,” I said. A body slam opened up the drywall. The door leaf behind it padded my fall, and good thing, because the fall would have been a lengthy one. From floor to lintel the shaggy gyprock fell away. Past the door the walls were paneled in classy oak, and there was no floor to stand on. A firepole—brass-wrought and old-timey. Pictures of Xncle Wxlt were hung up in frames above the open shaft, aside shelves, vitrines, leatherbound spines, curios—a decor under thick gypsum dust from fast and recent construction work.
One last what face from the dawg.
“Just like in the nonsecret secret suite,” I said. “But this one goes deep.”
“Don’t call it a rabbit hole,” Plxto said, looking down. “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
From outside we heard Jxminy get through most of “That’s really not” before the other door—good sturdy oak like the hidden decor—rattled to a body slam.
“I do,” said Txnker Bxll in a lunge for the pole.
Mxnnie caught hair again. “No way this Pier skank comes with.” Up till then I had never seen her mad at all. It was curdling. Shrieking catfight outrage from the victim, but nowhere to move and no counter aside from all the noise. I took lead. Cold brass shot my grip and darkness raced. I heard and felt a strike above me. Downward went on so long that I had time to count one more, and another. Rabbit hole was fair and in this specific context Alice in Wonderland was public domain.
“Quit with the hair,” Txnker Bxll said as Mxnnie punched her in the nose.
“I don’t suppose anybody keistered a phone,” Plxto said beneath the one-way brawl. Costumes had no pockets. “If we find a land line we’ll call the local first.” My landing in the narrow dark had snapped on red lights—a pressure plate switch—and a hatch stood open and ready. No detail other than that heavy door, more bank vault than bulkhead. I pulled it to and spun the wheel, though I doubted a forecast of raining men. We stood at the end of a corridor, bare and industrial with steel conduit bolted on. Utility bulbs lit up one after another. None of the fixtures were contemporary. Even the bulbs were shaped funny. It did not look like the employee tunnels. We had gone deeper, older.
To stanch pain and blood Txnker Bxll was clutching at her face but she did not take a knee. Of the two she was the taller, stronger, but ran short on malice. Mxnnie had not been the one to go to Santa Monica High. In Venice she would have known vatos, whiteboys in the Nazi sense, even a Crip or two. Go Gondoliers.
“Stob,” said Txnker Bxll. “I dibm’t hab a joice. I hab car bayments.”
Joke—mistake. This time I got between. Sight of girlblood was making me sick.
“One way to go,” Plxto said. “So we go it.”
The corridor ran a while. Slow turns kept us from seeing to the end. Txnker Bxll had the rear and had decided to power down the quips. There were no other hatches, no doorways, no forks or branches to the path—just a kind of walking chute. The distance we had come became hard to gauge, and there was a downward slope too shallow to notice. Halfway through we began to see water, still but clean. Just above the tide concrete had salt blooms, so it had been wet a while. A footfall splash, then up to ankles, to shins. It got no deeper. On we waded. At last there was a pair of push-bar doors—steel and windowless but not airtight. They sloshed inward like an oar stroke. The space beyond had a liquid echo to it and was pitch black, but air was stirring and so was a wide body of water. Just inside the door was a heavy switch, the kind left for an Igor to throw. Plxto did the honors instead. “Sure hope this doesn’t fry me dickless.” A punch of voltage brought light—a heavy load but no shock or spark. And there we stood—doors held wide to what lay revealed—gaping and dumbfucked to our very cores.
It could have been weirder, grant you. There might have been animatronics. Singing birds or uncanny Dxpper Dxns in a rubbery barbershop quartet. But we were spared that madness, even as our minds fumbled with a small flooded park, white band gazebo in the center. Trees hid columns for a tall ceiling. Sky showed between reefs of foliage—blue paint, white cloud, lit from within—and in the bob of water underneath. No stink of damp because nothing there could rot. Everything before us was of manmade substance—no wood, no leaf, no living thing. Trim and latticework on the gazebo bore the sphery triad—sign of the mxxse. Music cued up over a PA system, warping to tempo, no doubt meant to soothe. Magnetic tape, that meant, the kind spun on a reel. Somewhere an audio console had come on. Fake green lawn in the shallows, and naming the schmaltz of yesteryear took no time at all: “Whxn Yxx Wxsh Xpon x Stxr (inst).”
“This is my hell,” I said.
“Ibz buh bum shubbah,” Txnker Bxll said. Her hands came away from her swollen nose. Careful enunciation: “Bomb shelber. As in abom bomb. Worlb War Free.”
“That’s just one of those stories. Like the one about Xncle Wxlt being froze.”
Arms wide, hands spread—thus did Txkner Bxll pass on the mantle of the idiot.
Centuries later our Dxsney-themed descendants did not emerge to claim the earth. We were not an Adam, a Steve, and two Eves stuck in a postapocalyptic refuge, though I grant that would have been a smokehouse. There was never the least thought paid to moving in, not even to hide from the godawful summertime rush. A phone, our union rep, an exit—these were what we wanted, and a small hurdle like the ferroconcrete shield of a Cold War artifact was not going to keep Xpcot out forever. But searching for a landline did mean we had to search in general. This turned up clothes to replace our soggy pelts. Jumpsuits, of course, left hanging in lockers—it had to be jumpsuits—and of an era where people ran slim and loved polyester. There were dorms, a few bigger apartments for the park elite, and even one further iteration of the secret suite. This must have been meant for Xncle Wxlt. Or Xb Xwerks. (“Nobody go down any firepoles,” Plxto said.) All of it was left in a bath. We found cisterns, only one of which had done the leaking, which meant there was enough fresh water on hand to drown in three times over. There were shelves of rations, military-style, but nobody was that hungry and the stamped and regimented foil went untorn. There was a small library, shelves above the water line. Dry reading. Sorry. There was a movie theater. Of course there was a movie theater. And of course the repertoire was Bxxna Vxsta—film stock in cans, every title up to 1965 (Thxt Dxrn Cxt!, Dxxn Jxnes, Hxyley Mxlls). Rows of seats were tiered and the auditorium went low from the entrance. Call it the deep end. Most of the screen was sunken, too. We were not coming up with a telephone line out—sorely a bummer—but in the control booth we did find sign of someone having landed there more recently than the theatrical run of Mxry Pxppins. A short flight of stairs had kept the booth above water, and inside, in back, was a closet with the cans, up on racks. The door had been left open, and aside a bunch of cardboard boxes and a pile of old garment bags was the can of the movie yet in the projector. Not to mention a bottle of Jack. Empty. Cap off.
On the label read Plxto burst out laughing. “Sxng xf thx Sxxth.” To stares—Mxnnie’s, mine, and Txnk’s alike. “Sxng xf thx Sxxth! You know! ‘Zxp-x-Dxx-Dxx-Dxh.’” More blanks. Here it bears mention that Plxto—like Mxckey, and unlike us—had not come in pink. He sang upbeat and inoffensive lyrics in a baritone apocope and did a little cakewalk. To yet more of our dumb white nothing. “Just like ofay—make a mess and leave it for the help. Tar Baby? Br’er Rabbit? Uncle fucking Remus?”
“Wait, wait,” Mxnnie said. “That minstrel shit from like 1900? And out of copyright?”
“The same! They made a whole cartoon movie out of it.”
“They? You mean the studio? No way!”
“Call it whitewash—and it sure did the trick. Man oh man! Just after World War Two! It was in general release but it never went up on the streaming platform.”
“You can catch the crows in Dxmbo but you’ll never spot a rabbit with a drawl.”
I asked, “Can we watch?” Glances to the silver screen—the front row three fathoms deep—said nope. Txnker Bxll had gone through boxes, scouting a way back into grace. “Costumes,” she said, sounding like herself. Swelling had gone down. “And notes.”
We all got excited. Had a look. Gobsmacked anew. What lay before us were company memos, most typewritten and dating to the 1980s, with comments penciled in the margins. Schematics unfolded: park grounds, survey lines, architect’s drafts.
“A ride!” Plxto said on a scan-through. “They were planning a ride themed to Sxng xf thx Sxxth, with log flumes and a watercourse, near the Jxmboree in Frxntierland!”
“No way!” This time Mxnnie had to say it twice. We were howling.
“The Zxp-x-Dxx Rxver Rxn! It was this Xmagineer’s baby! Brass axed it two years short of implement. This rant—so bitter! He must have come for a private screening.”
To hide more genuine excitement—the thrill of corporate dirt—I hammed it up. “Are you telling me that we were this close to having a cutesy-critter minstrel show attraction at a high-end amusement park? In the modern-day United States? What kind of klansman clown dystopia would that have been?”
“Win one for the Gipper,” Plxto said. None of us got that. He was still deep in the legends and his beaming would not dim. “They were going to hang sayings from Uncle Remus up in the corridor where guests stood in line!”
“Plantation proverbs!” And he read, spelling out folksiness. “‘Big’—apostrophe—‘’possum clime’—see ell eye em ee—‘clime little tree. Dem’—dee ee em—‘w’at’—double yew apostrophe ay tee—‘Dem w’at eats kin say grace. Pullet can’t roost too high for de owl.’ Dee ee. ‘Better de gravy dan no grease ’tall’—oh God I just pissed myself.”
As might we had Mxnnie not spoke. “Can’t wait to tell—”
Even before the mention and now utterly without she felt the sting—we felt the sting. Good times had been massacred. Mxnnie started to cry—just a misty streak or two.
Txnker Bxll burst into sloppy tears. “I’m so sorry,” she said. And they hugged it out. Punk and zipline, anti-Valley allies once again. “I hope your friend is okay.”
“One thing,” I said. “All this stuff. How did it get left here?”
“The Xmagineer brought it,” Plxto said, and I let it sop. Then, “There’s an easy way out!” Then, less cheerful, “There’s an easy way in! Damn. Unless, unless—the pole?”
“With this, and a bottle?” I said. “Then shinny back up? Xmagineers have full clearance. For them it’s backstage everywhere. But that means any minute now Xpcot can get access with a petition to corporate, if they don’t have it already.”
“Okay. Okay. Then we just have to find the front door. This place was built to sleep, feed, what, five hundred refugees? That many people would have to walk in—it couldn’t all be slippy slides. Best get on it.”
He and Mxnnie and Txnker Bxll dashed out, divvying up searches on the fly, splashing in the floodwaters to and fro. I followed soon after. But Txnker Bxll was waiting for me just inside the doors.
“Come on,” I said. “There’s no—” She stepped up close, and closer. Her eyes had mine in a lock. I cradled her waist. “What—now?” She took down the zipper on the front of my postatomic polyester jumpsuit and fished with a hand. Out came the sheaf—the log flume papers, or as many as I could stuff.
“He said he,” Txnker Bxll said—shoving them back as found—“‘who he.’” She took a step back, and from then on she never got within reach of an arm.
“You caught that.” I had hoped to shout down the crxcket in time.
“So this is all about you—this whole mess. They suspected you were here. They only used me to help”—a sigh, a pinch to the nose—“contain you.”
“I do fieldwork for Six F—”
“Six fucks to your fieldwork! Who cares? Shut up—just, just shut up. Don’t tell me any more. This is the silliest day of my life and I play fairy princess for a buck.”
“Fairy fairness, princess—you were playing Mata Hari a little bit, too.”
“Asshole. I blew you because you’re cute. From like one or two angles if there’s soap on the glass. My mistake. All I need to clean up from that error of judgment is a bath bomb and a toothbrush. I’m not the spy here. I’m a criminal informant. Except neither of us is either of those, and this is all ridiculous, and I’ll never duet on tin whistle again.”
Good dig. “You’re going to tell the others?”
“Oh not tonight I’m not. Not tonight. But tomorrow you’ll be gone with the spycraft in your onesie, John le Carrunt, and then anything goes.
“Bad dxck, Dxnald. Bad dxck.”
Behind two entries on the ponded park—all these were of the same double push-bar sort—Plxto and Mxnnie found stairwells. Neither was a fool—they did not climb, not even one flight for a glimpse to upper hells, but in each case stood and listened.
“Radio sounds,” Mxnnie reported back at the gazebo. Txnker Bxll was still away.
“Same,” Plxto said. “Tweet-tweet, mumble-mumble. They’re posted up top waiting for us. They know there’s nowhere for us to go. They’ve been so gung-ho so far—why hold off?”
Not collared yet—still, no likey. I glanced around us—did my own listening. “Whxn Yxx Wxsh Xpon x Stxr (inst.)” had run its course on the P.A. system, so there was nothing left to mask stirrings of the floodwater and the air filtration system.
“Step on out, Crxcket.”
He did, from a phony tree. He was not in costume unless you count the deep black weeds of an Xpcot stormtrooper. Also, nighttime camo greased his face, a matte in dark stripes. Body armor was festooned with taser, pepper spray, wrist ties, and maybe six flash-bangs. He had a compliance weapon slung to his chest, an FN 303 maybe. Only the strap showed. Pepperball rounds, were that the load, would not be lethal—not on purpose—but still, blunt force trauma, burning eyes, gag reflex, rat-a-tat-tat. He did not draw a bead. “This is amazing!” he said, gesturing all around. “I had no idea. Just wow. Some of the park schematics are redacted, but I thought that was for giggles.”
“You seriously gonna use that shit on us?” Mxnnie asked, motioning to exhibits. Plxto said nothing. By zen or black he already knew the mind that weapons brought.
“You’re not in danger. This is procedural. It’s even for your safety.” The airgun was unslung and came up to an eye—not an FN 303 but sinister and military. Deep contracts. “Stefan, Joanne, step away from the dxck, please. I’m going to light him up.”
Eyes to me, back, Plxto said in tears, “Why pick on Adam?”
“Don’t worry—it’s just shockrounds. But I need to get him limp.”
“Couldn’t get any limper, pal.”
“Once this is all done with, let’s get us a beer, okay? Pro to pro.”
“Wrong dxck. Wrong studio.”
Too smart, too fast. Here came the electric nap. But Txnker Bxll tore on scene in a dead sprint and, huh, a floor routine. Jxminy had time to turn—only just—into a somersault rip that ended in a snapuswipe and a heel. Back first, legs high, he took to the drink with a panic burst. Pellets chopped the water. The voltage made him dance. Us, too—shouting ow ow ow, one foot up and then the next, a James Brown washerwoman. But the crxcket bore the brunt and was rubbery for long enough for us to get him onto the gazebo floor. There he would not drown. Also, we could strip off the sublethal weapon overkill and bind him tight at ankle and wrist.
Valentines were popping over my head. I could not keep my eyes off her—rhythmic gymnast, and a bronze medal at worst. If she had come down armed with a ribbon or a hoop Jxminy would have been slain outright. “My hero,” I said.
Dxck, man, or friend, to her I was no longer there. To Plxto and Mxnnie, she said, “Cinch these on the bars to shut the doors. Make it good and tight so nothing sharp can get between. They’ll try to cut the plastic otherwise.”
“But those doors are the only way out,” Mxnnie said. “We’ll just trap ourselves.”
Nope. Txnker Bxll laid it out as neatly as she had the crxcket. He was awake by then and of sound mind. His laughter was pure on hearing the plan—even thankful. “This is the best day of my life,” he said, and he meant it, even with a knot purpling his cheek. Dxsneyland really brought out the kid at heart. “Can I watch?”
We sat him up on the gazebo bench. I said, “We need to borrow your phone.”
“Sure, buddy,” he said, chin to a pocket. “No bars down here but go nuts.”
Behind another set of push bar doors—three pairs abreast—there was a concrete ramp and tunnel, broad enough for oldfangled landboat cars. Fluorescent lights ran the distance. We could see the end before we came to it, and it was as Txnker Bxll said: a circular chamber, broad, with three great wedges in the ceiling, hydraulic pistons underneath. “Recognize the shape? This is the roundabout smack in the middle of the park. Those plates are the walkways leading up to the statue, or three of the four.” Statue meaning Xncle Wxlt hand-in-hand with his stepson, the mxxse, dead center to the grounds. “If you listen you can just make out people walking—all the feet. The controls are over there,” meaning a simple booth behind a partition. Inside, she said, was an emergency release with a huge voltage load, red enamel behind safety glass.
I checked the bars on Jxminy’s phone. Nothing yet. There was steel all around us—one of those interminably convenient faraday cages of contemporary science fiction. “Let’s suit up.” We had brought the garment bags from the theater. As Txnk saw it three clueless white people were ten thousand more. Guests would simply take us for lesser-known toons and Xpcot would not make us out for the rogue element we had become. But we would have to get up the gangways as soon as they touched the floor. Merge with the crowd. On park grounds video surveillance was everywhere—eyes on every last man, woman, child, toon. Four bags, four outfits—but here we hit a snag. Not the intellectual property, here in overlap with the public domain—tasteful exes will defuse that iffy bomb—but the cover. There were three B’rxrs and one Xncle Rxmus. The latter meant a sharecropper outfit, a hat, and a beard with eyeglass hooks.
“Trade you,” I said to Stefan. He flagged B’rxr Bxxr in a double grip, shaking out mothball fumes, and Bethany and Joanne had the rxbbit and the fxx—b’rxrs both but good for slender frames. His stop-and-stare had a bite. “I can’t wear this. It won’t work on me. And it definitely won’t work on the girls.”
“Oh and it’s good to land on brown? I ain’t putting that shit on. Sorry to talk all ghetto at you, Charlie.”
“Adam. Oh—okay. I see what you did. I’m not trying to be a dick about it.”
“No, I don’t think you are trying. Sorries later. It’s still a good disguise.”
“But they’ll see my face!”
“A beard and a hat do wonders.”
I had a thought. “Right back.” I came back panting. In hand was a flat canister no bigger than a tin of mints. “We’ll have to hurry now. Jxminy must have missed a radio check. They’re pounding on the doors.” I popped the lid and let it ring on the cement.
“What’s that?” Joanne asked. All three were suited up except for heads.
“Jxminy’s nighttime camo. I asked first.” How he had laughed—a very different sort of laughter from the kind heard before. No teambuilding to it whatsoever.
“Don’t,” Joanne said. Stefan did not. Nor did he need to—and his eyes said ready.
On a shrug and frown—no choice—I took up a thick dab, scraping deep.
“Adam.” This from Bethany. “Put the shoeshine down.”
Her last words to me. She had pull but not the kind you might expect, even with all the paper crammed into my jumpsuit, a secret she could use. No—it was that I could not help but care. The camo can rolled off down the ramp, and the offending dab came off with a snapping fling. The costume beard stank of naphthalene.
Bethany had gone to the booth. We gave ayes. As B’rxr Bxxr and B’rxr Fxx put on heads she smacked through the pane of glass. The result was instant and much louder than the punch of a switch. Yellow lights came on in a spin, and mechanical alarm bells. We all flinched and flinched again. Deafening—as if the world had come to an end. At least the other three had headpieces to dampen noise. The pistons were lowering but not the gangways. The machinery tucked into the floor and the upper world was still out of reach. I looked down the ramp. All the way down, but coming fast, was a party of Xpcot blackguards. But then there was a quick report—explosive bolts firing—and the three gangways swung free and struck with a bang.
Blue skies. Fresh air. And air raid sirens. A system had been triggered, maybe dating to the Cold War and still wired up. As we ran up to the surface we saw the crowds. Most were frozen by the wailing but some had begun to flee. Nowhere in particular, just a full tilt run and shove—grownups, children. When the first kid hit the tarmac fistfights started up. Holy shit. Xpcot had finally got their wish—the best possible test of riot gear. Park security poured out from their secret nooks, truncheons up.
No time for horror, less for remorse. By plan we split up. I found a quieter spot for a call to the union rep, not for my own sake but for hers. Theirs I mean. The jig was up but I could help, big-hearted corporate spook that I am. As I told—the union rep was raising cain on the other end to mobilize the goons—I noticed that a family was staring at me from deeper in the alleyway. Two girls in shorts, a husband, and a wife, American and black. The man stepped forward, just as bemused as a parkgoer could get in a realm of well-planned fantasy.
“Xncle Rxmus?” was all he said.
I came back for a date though not the one I wanted. Months had passed and the sun was going down on a mid-autumn scorcher. The pass had been left for me at will-call.
“Of course it is.”
“My cover got blown, right? No more inside basketball for me.”
“Your cover was always blown. We knew.”
“But you didn’t know we knew you knew we knew.”
“Yeah, okay. They don’t mind that I’m here?”
“Speaking of not knowing.”
In short time this rhetorical ‘they’ did not include the big five, or at least one of them, and better said former. I had run into a dwarf on the way to the meeting. They were a blur to me, them and their nominative peccadilloes, but this one looked put out—none more so than when the actor inside spotted me. The shuffley dance quit. The hands went from waving for children to a quick bird. Roles had been switched—a demotion in all but pay grade but not a firing. The actors had a solid union. I would never know who this one was except that it was not Joanne. No, Joanne would have cut on me.
Chad led me to a higher vantage—a private balcony above the crowds. There we had a good view of the castle. Music was cueing up on the park speakers. Some sort of daily wish fulfillment ballad, regular as vespers. There was a cooler and a pair of patio chairs, brought up in advance. He handed me a tall boy.
“Isn’t this against the handbook?”
“It is. Rank. You know.” We drank. “The leak came to nothing.”
“Of course.” A log flume report had been slipped to the press. And nobody had cared. “Never thought it would myself. I’m not the one who wants numbers to dip. When it comes to family entertainment I’m not a true believer. To me it’s just a gig.” What Dxsneyland lost in attendance also-rans could take up. Such was the theory of upper management at the competition. But prior year attendance at worldwide Dxsney parks had been half the population of the entire United States, and those numbers had gone up every single year since 1955. Whatever Puke Mountain or Creepyland did, honestly or not, could only pale. Measures, countermeasures—it was another realm of make-believe.
“The riot left more of a ding,” Chad said. “But that was nobody’s bright idea.” By edict Xpcot had been relieved of its toys. No more shock rounds, pepper spray, billy clubs, shields. How they must have moped—at least the ones still on payroll after the purge. Lawsuits had become settlements in the wink of a wallet. Life went on.
“Did you call me here to offer a job?”
“Some tricks are beyond me, Adam. Though I did get a promotion myself—for showing good taste when the rest were raring. Why do you ask? Would you take one?”
“Even if the big five never found out who I was, I’ve caused her enough trouble. No.”
“Her?” He fell quiet, looking to the crowds below. “Give it time,” he said at last.
“No! Of course not. Have you ever met a woman? Or a person of any kind? She’ll hate your guts for good. But I’m here to deal out optimism, right?”
“Why did you ask me here tonight?”
Chad motioned to the castle. Peppy vespers had come to a close and some other prefab cut of wonderment took its place on the sound system. As I looked against the dimming skies, so lovely an orange from car exhaust, I noticed the zipline strung right above our heads. And I stood up. So had she, at the top of the castle, in a crisscross of spotlight beams. Too much distance to make out a face but I knew her shape. Wand, wings, and gossamer, piping made of lights sewn in to keep her under wistful gaze.
“Physio ended yesterday,” Chad said. “She’s okay—and she’s back on duty.”
A showy hop and she began to truck. On her approach the cable taut above my head put out an eerie call. People cheered, ten thousand at once, half of those kids. I could finally make out the face and best of all the well-placed grin. Great form—just as she said, a midair plank, arms out in a wye, prop swaying left and right. The leap my heart took had nothing to do with that magic wand. As she came close I could hear the pulley system rasp and squeak. Even in twilight she spotted the two of us—so much closer on our rooftop, and easier to make out than people below us, pixels for a crowd. The form of a smile was brazed on tight and the function lay no deeper. A mask, I realized—one mask in a cast of thousands. Park security and I each raised a tallboy in salute. She threw the magic wand, and hard—at Chad I hope.