During those years when I was spending so much time in the shed, I would sleep at night and dream of a theme park. The park, when dreamed, was an island, even a planet all its own. There was nothing else in my dream geography; no bordering territories. There was no gravity or cartography or linearity of time, but night after night, it would in fact be the same place, the park, waiting to be explored.
Forgive me. I’m trying to untangle this all now. How the park first called out, I guess. What it was about my earliest years that made me so fixated on starting a life there. I need to do this because things are starting to feel strange here. Something isn’t right. And it seems important that I keep my feet on the ground, that I remember what’s real and what’s not. The park really tries to confuse all that. It’s sort of the selling point. Come here to fall into a fantasy. I don’t know how much longer I can do that, though. I’m seeing things. People who don’t belong here. Doors that I never noticed before. And something else that I don’t quite have words for.
I could be imagining it. I have been standing here, staring, for a long time.
There’s the turret. Underneath it, behemoth, plaster castle. Beyond it, the faint fingerprint of a daylight moon. My body is strong today. I feel ready for anything. But I’ll stay here a moment longer, trying to pinpoint what isn’t quite right. It’s a little itch, but nothing too bad. An off note in a beloved song. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with the park at all. Maybe I should try to keep on truckin’, even though it’s all ending. Maybe I should turn that frown upside down.
What I know: The park has never been the same since the actress crumpled in that boat. They rolled out the new land anyway, despite the crumpling in the boat, but no one could get it out of their heads. That was the beginning of the end.
There’s footage of it everywhere. Each time lawyers manage to get it taken down from one platform, it just pops up elsewhere, re-downloaded and redistributed by people who enjoy—is enjoy the right word?—that kind of thing. I’ve seen it plenty of times. It doesn’t get less sad, the way things can sometimes become less disturbing on repeat. Every time I watch it, I wonder why her boyfriend didn’t take her in his arms, or why the children seated behind her didn’t react like she did, or react to her, or react at all. They looked bored. Of course, the video only caught the last moments of the whole ordeal, just a few seconds before the lights came on. Then it showed about a minute of Callie still bent, but staring up at the electronic version of herself suspended above her, before she—the real flesh-and-blood Callie Petrisko—curled into herself once more, wailed, and heaved over the side of her little lagoon boat. The video stops there, and on the whole, it might not have been so disturbing if we didn’t all know what happened to her, later.
I’m wrong, I suppose. About the boyfriend. It’s no mystery why he didn’t leap into action. He was probably shocked, too. Shocked at her, and at the lights coming on in the middle of a dark ride. No one likes when the lights come on. I know I don’t.
Maybe that’s why the shed was my first real sanctuary. It was a place where I controlled the light. I was a child and a teen in Nebraska, south Omaha, in one of those regions that doesn’t feel like a city or a town at all, but a spill of boxes and roads without connective tissue. Iowa was across the river. I can’t remember when Whit appeared. One day, the crankiest man in the Midwest, with the most Santa Claus beard you’ve ever seen, was coming over for dinner at 10:30p.m., after my mother woke. She hadn’t told me about him coming over. She didn’t tell me anything because she didn’t like to look me in the eye after my short stint in foster care. The next day he was making breakfast for both of us, army rations he’d ordered in bulk online. Chicken chunks in a tomato sauce. Something a little bit like ravioli. Loose oats, no sweetener. Before long Whit was there every morning, and those bag-meals would greet us, fresh from the microwave, steaming, and if Mom was on a shift, it’d be just Whit pouring me orange juice and explaining what the Fed was, the shortcomings of the Cato Institute, how to buy antibiotics online, how his sons weren’t smart in the kind of way that made them right for college but that they’d do all right anyway. And I’d smile into my gruel, surprised, and say “It’s good!” and he’d say “Bitchin’.” He built his studio, the shed, later.
Before the shed, my life was those breakfasts, school, the library. Later, it was school and the shed, staring into molten light for hours on end, alongside Whit. Neon, his neon, his craft, for hours and hours. By that time his medication made him a little less sturdy, prone to stuttering, and therefore, prone to long periods of silence, which was fine by me, because by then he’d run out of things to say about his days waiting out The Bomb in Montana in the seventies with a couple buddies, and we could simply enjoy the harmony of working side by side. I was always sleepy, because it was all so trancelike, the crafting we did, and that constant half-dreaming meant I could never sleep deeply at night.
It was worth it, though, if all that time in the shed left me with skills that the park valued. It was worth it, if all those dreams made me more at ease among the real geography of the place, the curving bow of always-warm concrete footpath that wove between towers and rainforest vines and trolley cars; the secret alleyways; the shadows that might conceal a hidden door, even if it was just a maintenance cupboard. It took some time, but here I am. I have been here, happily, ever since I left home. I’m thriving. Just look at me.
There came a day shortly after training was finished when my feet ached from standing and my nerves were shot from rude guests—the ones who demanded to know why Caves of Chirakan was so scary, or not scary enough, why they couldn’t find the kiosk to buy a photo of their child on the ride, and had anyone even thought to take a photo of their child on the ride? My face hurt from the strain of the smile we’d been carefully trained to deliver, which was not a toothy pageant smile, as some might guess, but an impassive and content one where immobility of the brows was key. Maintaining it was exhausting in its own way; you felt it in the molars.
After I’d been working at the park for a few weeks, I accepted an invitation to a party after work, at these two baristas’ apartment “just north.” I’d never met them before, but they found me in the Tech Crew changing rooms and loaded me into their minivan like we were old friends. Half an hour on the freeway and I came to understand that “just a little bit” could mean any distance, expanse of space, in this part of the world. Already I was imagining how I’d fail to get home again, how I’d have to sleep in this mystery home, but I had faith that I’d be able to stake out a section of carpet. I can fall asleep anywhere.
When we turned off the 5, one of them asked what my training was like, but didn’t let me answer. She told me about her video, which had been straight out of the early nineties, an actual warbly VHS tape, and most of their day had been spent discussing cultural sensitivity, but she heard that now the park had begun calling it cultural neutrality. I didn’t know about either of those terms—we practiced giving directions without pointing, because of how much of the globe finds pointing to be lewd, and how to explain that there are no prayer rooms in the park, but that many locations in Marine Kingdom, especially the spacious and often-empty Orcas-In-Fedoras Millinery n’ More, were suitable. That was the extent of it.
One of them asked if I’d heard any information about The Founders, and what I made of it. The way they explained it, there were two schools of thought. They said the first school was, essentially, that there’s so little information about the brothers, The Founders, because they did some fucked-up stuff during the war, or before the war, or maybe after. World War II, you know—that war. The other barista chimed in to say she thought it was definitely before the war. They’d toured parts of Europe where “all the gnarly Surrealist stuff” was happening, and they stole a bunch of the more dazzling, more cinematic fever-dream designs that things they came across. All that splendor and tricks of the eye, ridiculous costumes, big sets made of wire and satin. And later The Founders got tied up with some artists who sort of went fascist-ish maybe (at this point the barista who was talking and driving reached behind her seat, waggling fingers at a near-empty tub of Pringles, which I nudged toward her hand while I paid sudden, close attention to the road’s meridian), but they made a few animated shorts that became hugely popular. Plans for the park, with all that enchanting, entrancing stolen art, were already set in motion.
The second school of thought was that it was all boring. Just violently boring. And that there never even were any brothers. They were just two anonymous old men whose vision for the park was nothing more than a group venture at an opportune moment with the same type of partnerships you’d need for any type of conglomerate.
This theory seemed most likely. Why else would they have kept The Founders so mysterious? Why else would it be that the world knows them as The Founders, rather than their real names, which were so dull and long that neither barista could recall them, even now? There must be no there there, no real story at all.
The backs of my hands had begun to itch. When I was about to weigh in, one of them cut me off.
“You forgot the third theory.”
“There’s no third theory.”
“I’ve never heard of a third theory. You’re literally making this up right now.”
“Jesus Christ, let me explain it first, then you can decide if I made it up”—the barista pulled her passenger side seat down to a luxurious recline—“like damn.”
The third theory was that the park built itself. One day there were simply swollen masses of earth and slim trenches marking out the perimeter, and an inexplicable arrangement of soil dunes where the castle would go, little markings where the main pathways threaded themselves between the park’s many kingdoms, and tunnels running deep into the earth. All of this was tied into the Los Angeles Satanists, of course: Aleister Crowley and the Brit spiritualists who came over, at some point, and maybe a burial ground. Scientologists were tied into all that, right? And stuff in the desert? There was some physicist who was like also a magician and accidentally blew himself up. Forgot his name, but it was like… like you know Oppenheimer—
“It’s not Oppenheimer. He was the atomic bomb. You’re thinking of that one guy. What’s his name. He was making other bombs and got all involved with L. Rod Hubbard.”
“Did you say Rod Hubbard?!”
“Whatever, but it’s not Oppenheimer.”
“Okay fine, but it’s like I said, all that stuff is tied up together, all those things in those early decades last century and LA, right?”
I sat in the silence before I realized I was supposed to respond.
“Right. Sure,” I said. And then, when it seemed like they wanted me to keep talking, “Um, they just gave us a list of names and said these guys designed the first rides. And the castle. I’m not sure if they were, like, The Founders, capital T capital F, I guess. And the rest of it was like, Theory 2.”
“Boring,” said one.
“Of course they’d say that,” said the other. “But what do you believe?”
I wanted to say that I believed that spending my teen years in a dark shed, building little useless totems of glass and fire with a feeble man, made my eyes more sensitive to magic, to spotting things that don’t appear in daylight. I wanted to tell them that that man had helped raise me and I left him to rot, wearing grip socks, medicated within a microgram of his life, in a facility that looked more like a prison than a hospital. I wanted to tell them that I didn’t need to believe anything at all; I could be brain-dead and wheeled into the park, and something about entering its territory would allow an invisible hand to reach within my ribs and pull me across its length. And whether the park was intentionally designed to be like that—a place that fostered devotion, coded into minds subliminally, beautifully, with treasure cove geometries and magic mountain magnitudes—couldn’t matter less. It was all those things, regardless of its architect.
“I like Theory 3,” I said. “Didn’t Aleister Crowley look like a wizard?”
For the rest of the drive they talked about their cousin’s wedding in Tecate, and whether nuts are vegetables. When we got to their house, I found that I was surprised at how nice it was. It was thoughtfully furnished. The things that were meant to look new looked new; the things that were meant to look old looked old. There was something made of real wool on the couch, and a panel of blue and green stained glass leaning against a wall.
People were already there when we arrived. Maybe ten. Someone was bent over a sink, doing something complicated to a pineapple. I felt comfortable offering him help because I recognized him as one of the princes. Very handsome, obviously. Speaking to him made me feel as nervous as speaking to a diorama of colonial Jamestown, or a small airplane. But when he said thanks and admitted, more painfully than I’d expected, that he wasn’t very good at it, at accomplishing with the pineapple whatever he was trying to accomplish, I started to see small flaws in his countenance and in his skin that gave me something to hold on to. I became so light-headed that I almost dropped the bottle of vodka that was, in some way I didn’t quite understand, meant for the pineapples, and he noticed the scars on my hands and I tried to excuse myself, but he touched my elbow and said, “You can’t leave me here like this. Seriously, I’ll fall apart.”
I didn’t stop smiling after that, even when the pineapple concoctions made us wince. Eventually I did leave him, to go through the motions of talking to other people. The living room was so packed it was impossible to tell where the line for the bathroom began. Other people, other girls, spoke to the prince, made bright eye contact and lightly touched his chest when they laughed. But I noticed that he never drifted more than a few feet from me. Once or twice when I looked over my shoulder to check the distance between us, I found him looking at me, and he would look away with genuine embarrassment. One of those times, in a shaky motion, he went to bite the rind of his mangled pineapple and met something sharp, and he jerked the fruit in such a way that he almost smacked a gondola girl in the back of the head.
By midnight I found that being near him made my chest hurt, and that it felt better than the morphine they gave me in the hospital, after what happened in the shed.
“Who are you friends with here?” he asked, later, and I struggled to give an answer, because I convinced myself that this was him asking about other people, other people he might want to be talking with more than me. So I slipped away from him, and spent some time in the bathroom alone staring into a mixture of vodka and sparkling wine that someone handed me, and the line had grown longer when I returned to the living room. I found it hard to see a line of people and not ask questions about group size, and to start guiding them to loading sections for their ride vehicle.
It’s foggy, what happened between those hours and the moment on the couch when my lids became heavy, but when I woke, he was at my feet. The prince. Brendan. His hand was on my bare ankle. His head was lolled back, but when I looked closely I saw that he was awake. He seemed to be watching the weak, watery sunrise leaking through a skylight I hadn’t noticed over the course of the night. A section of dawn grew on the floor by a radiator, and it made everything behind him start to glow.
“Have you been up this whole time?” I croaked.
“Yeah,” he said. “Just making sure you’re good.”
Is there a name for the thing where time distends? When a week or a year becomes longer than another week or another year. Everyone experiences it, but it doesn’t have a name. It doesn’t matter. After that party, time changed. It took two years after my arrival at the park, just a bit more, for everything in my life to become symphonic. My feet no longer ached inside my shoes, and I learned to soothe fussy families before they could voice their complaints. Managers learned about my mechanical skills, skills absorbed from Whit, and I officially became Load-Mat—managing the loading of guests into the cars of the ride and able to oversee basic maintenance tasks. I decided to move out of my shared room in a halfway house that had called itself an intern dorm online, and I found Brooke, who knew how to work an air fryer and how to keep someone company without demanding chitchat. She came to after-work drinks, sometimes, after I’d made a handful of solid friends at the park, and occasionally I went to drink with her teacher friends. They, like Brooke, did their self-tapes in the teachers’ lounge or an empty locker room, and took pride in the fact that they weren’t waiting tables while they auditioned and tried to attract agents. But only Brooke seemed to care about both—being a good teacher, being a good actor, even when that acting was, by and large, looking delighted by a CGI reflux pill that had come to life and begun listing its own side effects.
After that party, I could count the nights that Brendan and I spent apart on one hand. If he stayed at my place, he’d hide upstairs to let me and Brooke watch TV and share stories about shitty children. If I stayed at his, he’d show me his little projects: A terrarium he’d found intact next to a dumpster in Sunset Park. Two squares of timber that he was sanding down to assemble into a lazy Susan. Nondescript putty that he’d molded for the inside of his running shoes to improve his gait. He bought a book on palm-reading from a flea market, and the fact that it was clearly geared toward preteen girls didn’t dampen his enthusiasm.
I became awkward when I saw that last one; he hadn’t asked about my hands by that point. By then I had my gloves. I wore them almost constantly. Sometimes I slept with them on. Someone else might read this as an aversion to touch, to physicality. But Brendan never stopped picking me up, not as a flirty stunt, but almost as a nervous tic, gazing off into the distance, trying to work out some problem while bending at the waist, wrapping an arm around the front of my torso, gripping me with his elbow, and quietly trying to flip me upside down. If I leaned on him, he would demand that I do it harder, with more weight than I was able to give, so he could push back against something and create an equilibrium. He would mash the tip of his nose on my scalp until I could hear cartilage click.
“This seems like a dog thing,” I’d say.
“Mmh…” He’d think. “Pig thing.”
I rarely saw him at work. His was a moving circuit among the guests. The guests came to me, where I was stationed. But it worked, perfectly. All of it did.
But time flies. For so long, the park had seemed invincible. It was some vital spinal fluid of America. Then came the video of that actress, Callie Petrisko, crumpling in the boat. It had seemed bad when it happened, when the video leaked, but after what she did a few days later, there was no going back. The damage was irreversible. Now the park doesn’t have long to live.
It’s been a long process, the ending. From the official internal announcement of the park’s “transition” to an overseas presence, we were given a year, and each team received a specific Action Plan for mindful disassembly and ongoing reduced capacity maintenance. And once each team had an Action Plan, individual team members got a directive. One day, I opened my locker, with its digital display built in, to show a message sent to me and me alone. Baxter, Delphi—c3230912—Private and Confidential. It was my own Action Plan, with separate points laid out for day-to-day disaggregation and closure tasks that were to be done alongside my normal work. There were also milestone closure projects within the land containing Caves of Chirakan, group tasks that would be completed either after hours or remotely, in the mechanical bays, the ones just beside the main tunnel where we arrived and changed and had lunch.
It took a long time for us to understand what “transition” meant, although it was all anyone talked about for a long stretch of time. This park was closing. This, the first, the only one on this coast, the only one of this size and scope. It’s probably for the best that we didn’t really understand. It would have been too much to bear.
There were problems even before Callie: an outstanding lawsuit involving a cheese by-product found in one of the dining locations; something to do with the passholders, the adult park die-hards, antagonizing “casual” guests; harassment mishandled by park security. Settlements over whiplash were made almost every year. I suppose all those, plus Callie, might have made management rethink how the park operated, but I know in my bones that they wouldn’t have forced the gates to shut permanently. No, there was something else. The big dream of the future. There was something big planned for Hong Kong. A new park. We didn’t know much more than that, much more than the rest of the world knew in little press releases—breathtaking sketches that might get “leaked” from the studio, depicting palaces (plural) overlooking a vast stretch of lush terrain, coasters, hang gliders and hot-air balloons, all on the backdrop of a prismatic star system that certainly was not our own. It seemed this park wouldn’t have themed lands but would be a staggeringly complex harmony of every fantasy that the park, the studio, the guests, could muster.
Of course management confirmed nothing, and we were left with our Action Plans.
Over those first months countless friends were let go, the little notes slipped into their lockers in the underground corridors, and some unnamed, omniscient manager asking them to pop into the corporate campus just a “hop, skip, and a jump” across the freeway. At consolation drinks in February, Amber, who operated the steamboat, and Kenji, who worked in makeup, realized they’d experienced something identical when they got to the offices beyond the park. The first HR rep opened with “Let’s start at the very beginning” and the second one chimed in with “A very good place to start!” and both reps laughed and laughed.
We continued to watch individual C&C—cast and crew—get their letters. Mascara dripped onto the itchy lace collars of Arthurian princesses, and a man in lederhosen punched a wall.
Then people disappeared in small groups. First, the entire team at the Beignet Grotto, then all the ladies from the unnamed Edwardian section, and Springtime Canyon, and the Colonial Outpost. They even got rid of Beth, who was famous among C&C for her ability to remember details about the hundreds of children who took photos with her every day. She could recall the story of how a boy got the scar on his knee if he approached her a year after his first visit. It baffled parents. They always tried to have a quick whisper with her, to guess how she managed it (“Is it cameras? Face recognition software or something?”), and Beth, in her lilting soprano, would answer, “Oh no, Madame Lily could simply never forget such a special child!”
They fired the live actors embedded within the mummy thrill ride, even Eric, who’d paid for facial filler and laser hair removal to achieve the Pharaoh’s famous straight brows. The guests’ favorite thing about that ride was the fake-out breakdown, where the wooden carts in which riders were seated jerked to a halt that felt, convincingly, like a mechanical problem. Then, after ten full seconds, Eric would appear at a rocky ledge toward the ceiling, slide down a greased pole made to look like a dangling rope, land, howl, and charge toward the cars, only to have them sputter to life and shoot away right in the nick of time.
Thinking about it now, after the footage of Callie Petrisko was released, it might have been in poor taste. The ride pretending to be broken like that.
But they didn’t fire me, and they didn’t fire Brendan. Somehow I knew they wouldn’t, even though there are more popular rides than mine, and there aren’t enough guests to require a full-time prince. We felt guilty, in a way, especially when the lederhosen guy got escorted out by security. But we can’t help it if management has a soft spot for us. Most people do. The unlikely love story: the prince and the cave dweller.
In the moments when I’m not panicked about the future, I try to fill myself with a kind of wisdom, like when I read the contents of a self-help book from the library back home, or the sage-like yak from Himalaya Hootenanny 2 who greets guests in Springtime Canyon at 11:20 a.m. and 4:15 p.m., and I think: It’s all right that things end.
But how do you end a place like this? A park the size and scope of a small city? Not too long ago I asked Brendan that question, while he tinkered with tweezers inside that terrarium he found. We were about to go to this market where he’d heard you could get hermit crabs. (This did not turn out to be true.) He asked what I was looking at, and only then did I realize I’d been staring out the window above his kitchen sink, which smelled like moss. “I guess I’m trying to figure out which section of sky belongs to the park.”
“No section of sky belongs to anywhere. It’s sky.”
I didn’t tell him that I thought he was very wrong. “The park is bigger than some incorporated towns. Did you know that?”
“No,” he said. “You’re the tiny town authority.”
“My town wasn’t that tiny. It was bigger than the park. But the park is bigger than some towns, is what I’m saying.” I heard little pebbles clinking on glass.
“How do you know that?”
I shrugged, even though he wasn’t looking. I let my hipbone push into the sink and wrapped my gloved hands around my waist. I leaned forward until my forehead was touching the glass. It felt nice.
“We got a CD-ROM in the mail once, when I was like twelve. You could click through different areas of the park and play grainy videos about each ride. There were all these facts you could uncover, if you clicked on enough of them. And one was about the size of the park. But that’s even before Nebuland.”
“How much time did you spend on that CD-ROM?”
“Two years, I think.”
He didn’t say anything, and I didn’t turn around.
“I mean,” I continued, “I knew most of the audio by heart.”
Later, before we went out, I pressed Brendan into the couch, where he’d taken a break from his miniature arrangement, and rested on top of him, like his gently expanding torso was a raft, and he pressed his fingers into the back of my skull. I almost fell asleep, but he whispered, “Hermit crabs,” and we knew that if we stayed there any longer we’d get naked, or fall asleep, or both.
I felt a little unsatisfied that he didn’t understand what I was saying about the sky. If you found yourself somewhere like, I don’t know, the Scottish Highlands, or the Louisiana bayou, and the sky was doing something particularly beautiful, you’d say to yourself, This Highland sky is sure somethin’. Only on the bayou would you get this kind of sunset. The park, too, has its own sky, and that makes the disassembly seem impossible. It kept me in disbelief about the closure, even though my workload became heavier than most.
There are tasks in my personalized Action Plan that the others don’t have. From the shed, with Whit, I know a little bit about engineering. Only the basics. I qualified to pass an online safety test that was designed for work-experience machinists, day laborers, that kind of thing. And so I can do some mechanical work inside the rides. They don’t have to pay me any different, unless I go into overtime. I’m happy to help. I want them to remember me, if I ever find myself in Hong Kong, or if something in management comes up here, remote. I’m resourceful, I think. I’m up for any task. Except for one.
I made the Nebuland lagoon ride, Callie’s ride, part of my deal with management. That I would never, under any circumstances, set foot in there. I’d rather be fired.
I’m standing, still, feeling strong, underneath that faint lunar stamp above the clouds. Staring.
I jump a little at the sound, and my eyes water. I must have also been staring into the sun.
“Yes?” I offer.
I can’t see who it is. No, it wasn’t the sun I was staring at. It was the turret, so high, and so huge. I can’t stop blinking.
The voice again: “I recognize you from those… all those…” It’s gravelly and familiar. Black spots wiggle across my line of sight. I rub my eyes.
“… those all-hands meetings. You always ask good questions.”
“Oh!” I try to laugh in the direction of the voice, but now the black is morphing to yellow, then red, bruising across my vision.
“What you looking at there?” he asks.
I finally make him out: thick brows. He’s carrying a mop and bucket on wheels, but he doesn’t have the sad posture of most janitors. They carefully costume the custodians in tans and reds, cowboy colors, and though I can’t see much, I can see that he’s pulling it off. His pass is dangling out of his pocket. I almost want to say something about how he needs to be careful; it shouldn’t get into the wrong hands—but now I see his gentle expression. He’s old. I wonder how long he’s been here.
“Oh, just this ol’ beaut!” I say and sweep an arm out toward the castle. The turret I’d been staring at is my favorite—the one where the violet base fades to coral at the tip, a regal tie-dye, a trick to keep its contours visible even during sunset. “I could watch her all day. I think I accidentally looked straight into the sun, though!”
I try to laugh more. I’m conscious that my shift hasn’t started yet. I’m not in costume. I’m not really supposed to do that—be aboveground before I’m changed, enter through the gates rather than the C&C tunnels—but I woke up spacey today. I couldn’t see the harm in taking my time, aboveground.
“I was wondering if you knew who we had today,” he asks. “In the park.”
“Oh, I’m not quite sure, to be honest. If it’s anything like the last two weeks, it’ll be more German package guests and”—I take a quick look around to make sure that there’s no one within earshot—“the HQ kids.”
He shakes his head and pulls up on the belt of his pants. They look like they could slip down his skinny hips. “Shucks. That’s bad news for me!”
“Yeah, they can be…” A shrug and a grin. We’ve been running at reduced entry for how long now? Some weeks. No more pass holders. No more casual guests. Only those who made group bookings a year ago or more, and the children of execs, who’ve never treated the park as anything more than an additional property of theirs, another place to be disaffected or messy or moody or high.
“Silver lining is there’s only a few more weeks of this!” I say to fill the silence.
I can’t quite read his face, but his lips, sunken into the lines of his mouth, keep their friendly shape. I wonder if he’s heard me. I start to repeat myself, but he interrupts: “That’s right! And heck, maybe we’ll make it to Hong Kong someday!”
“Maybe. I’d love to see it!”
I find myself reaching out and patting his sleeve. It feels antiquated, condescending, but I can’t stop myself. It’s something I’ve seen women in old movies do to friendly old men, but his eyes catch on my gloves. I forget that there are people who don’t know that I don’t take them off. I don’t judge them for staring. It was management who encouraged me, in the first place, to keep my hands covered whenever interacting with guests.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
“Sam. Old Sam Ybarra.”
“That’s right!” I lie. “How could I have forgotten?”
I check my watch: just after seven. I pass the station where Peter, character Peter, a waif twenty-year-old in Peter’s trademark costume of nylon and fluffy white feathers dangling down his back like an angel wing that had become dislocated, would stand and sign autographs. He’d need to stand still because of the wires, which would lift him up and away when his shift was done. The other actors were always jealous of Peter; it’s hard to get away from the throng. Getting flung into the air is the ideal exit. I was never close to the Peters, though. It was because his story is my favorite, and so I suppose I kept a respectful distance. Somewhere on the border between Nebraska and Iowa, there’s a page torn from a magazine, an antique LIFE, I think, that’s been ironed and attached to a wall with a gold thumbtack. It’s a still from Peter and Wendy, the scene where Peter has just caught his own shadow, which had been running rampant across the Darling children’s walls. Wendy (played by a twelve-year-old Renata Revere, gamine and toothy and wonderful) in her iconic yellow sleep set, is sewing the shadow-foot to Peter’s flesh-foot. Peter looks sheepish. Wendy looks proud.
I don’t know if it’s still hanging in my bedroom. I don’t know what’s become of that house. I didn’t pack much when I left. Maybe my mother burned my things, or maybe she abandoned the house altogether, like she’d so often threatened to. Maybe all my wrinkled magazine pages and plastic figurines, my doodles of Pinocchio’s whale and Baba Yaga and Cosmonaut Calvin, all my favorites from the park and the studio’s cartoons, have been reabsorbed into moss.
Brendan says he would have liked to see it. Where I’m from. I can’t imagine anything worse. It’s sweet of him to say, though.
I thought I might meet him on my way to start my shift. He hadn’t stayed over last night. He said he hadn’t been sleeping well, and the thought struck me as funny. Since we’d gotten serious, he’d never, not once, slept solidly through the night. In his rare moments of deep sleep, he would often bicycle his legs, like a dog, but slower, warm thighs jostling against mine. I’d let him do this for as long as he needed to, but he’d usually wake himself up and worry he’d kicked me. Or he’d wake with a sharp pain in his limbs. He said it was something to do with some bodily acid being misplaced when he lies down for too long. He talked about it like his internal workings were unique to him or belonged to some prehistoric understanding of how bodies work. Acids and vapors and whispers.
We’d needed to move my bed to the other wall because of the morning light and the ineffectiveness of my blinds. He’d drape my arm over his face, elbow crook covering the bridge of his nose, and when I suggested he get an eye mask, he said it would make him panic.
“Every morning I’d wake up and think I’d gone blind.”
“Yeah, but just for a second.”
“I like your arm better.”
“But your face is big and my arm is small.”
“It’s big enough.”
“Just what every girl wants to hear,” I said. “Arm just big enough to get the job done.”
“Some girls would want to hear that.”
“I guess. Wait, what are we talking about?”
“I don’t even know.”
On nights he kicked a lot I’d wake exhausted, imagining falling asleep at my control post, letting two cave Jeeps crash into each other. This was impossible, of course—there hadn’t been a crash in the park since the seventies, and that was only the Miss Muffet Cruise Boats, yet another friendly bit of whiplash and a settlement out of court. It was worth it, though. Enduring Brendan’s kicks. Knowing this thing about what his body did at night. It was yet another glimpse that I got, a glimpse at how different he was from the prince. He was faulty and a little neurotic and his enthusiasm for things outweighed his skill. On those mornings when he’d drape my arm over his eyes, I’d let his heat accumulate in my skin, watch his jaw clench and unclench, and listen to his fretful pattern of little throaty snores. What a world, that would allow me to have him.
I notice that when people ask to hear the story of Brendan and me, they choose their words very carefully. I can see them laboring.
“How did you… you know…” and “Did you swoon over him while you were buckling those kids into the Jeeps?”
“Sure,” I tell them. “You know how you’ve got to keep your mind occupied with something!”
But they look like I didn’t quite get it, what they were getting at.
Brooke was pouring me wine the first time I told her about it, a few months after we’d found each other online and agreed to find a place together, about how they interrogate me. All those barbed questions and heads tilted. The implication that he’s far out of my league.
“Oh what the fuck?” she barked while using both hands to pour. “That’s a bit fucking rude!”
“Oh I don’t know about that…”
“Stop doing that.”
“Oh I don’t know about that. That weird fucking fifties cadence thing they have you do. No one talks like that. It’s not welcome in our home.”
“You’re right,” I said. “Sorry.”
“The whole league thing is so fucked.”
“I mean, they didn’t literally talk about leagues—”
“It’s such a fucking California thing. If I was at home and told a girl her boyfriend was out of her league, she’d batter me and she’d be right to do it!”
I remember the wine we had that night was the kind she liked best, almost green, and gentle. I took three of the largest gulps I could manage.
“Yeah, it is pretty fucking rude,” I said.
Brooke rubbed her thumb on a yellow stain on our cheap countertop. Turmeric from Indian takeout. Without shifting her gaze, she reached a long arm into the open fridge and put a Kraft Single, still wrapped in plastic, between her teeth. Then she corralled me toward the couch.
“Sorry if I sound cranky.”
“Cranky,” I said back, mimicking her accent, quietly. I only did that rarely, because I knew she hated it. She always said it was the one accent no one on the planet could stand. Whichever new classroom she ended up in, the children always made her say “no,” and hollered it back at her, “norr.” They’d pout and whine until she either did it or slammed a chair onto the linoleum. The last school she subbed at was “Montessori-adjacent,” with a brush swirl of blue and white printed on the uniforms. Brooke managed to get a sweatshirt that I stole often, and she joked it was like living with a Ruta Valley Elementary student. An elementary student who occasionally drinks cheap wine with her, in the evenings. She often said that the drive to the school was the saddest route she’d ever had, past the cluster of nuclear power facilities down toward Long Beach, Alamitos, locked away by endless concrete fortifications, but still very much in the shadow of this idyllic, hippie compound where the school lived, the school that gave the kids beeswax to play with during lessons, something about motor engagement and cognitive focus. Brooke said that no one acknowledged it, the nuclear spread, which surprised her. They didn’t comment on its ugliness, or link her to some kind of petition addressing it, or even speak a word about it. She said it was like they’d trained themselves not to see it, that vast facility on the water.
“What, so the joke is like, Brendan is an actor and you’re a ride operator?”
“No, it’s the cave,” I said. “The joke is they send uglies to work down there.”
“I mean it’s not really a joke, it’s a fact.”
“It’s one of the most popular rides! People probably look at your face more than Brendan’s, on the whole.” She tore the plastic off the cheese with her teeth and sucked the tile into her mouth the way Venus flytraps eat prey in sped-up documentary footage. “Your ride’s even more popular than the Sci-Fi Princess Swamp Adventure or whatever it’s called, right?”
I wished she hadn’t said it. There was the footage again, clear in my mind: Callie bent over herself, the surgical lights switching into life. When the incident, or the footage, comes up unexpected like that, I know I won’t sleep well. I’ll lose a few hours on the internet, looking up theories and dissections of each frame of the video. I’ll go through her filmography; only eight credits in all, two of the studio’s kids shows, two made-for-TV movies, three films she made after her contract with the studio was up (which were more adult, for sure, I think she was even a prostitute in one, but none of which were well reviewed), and then of course Nebuland. Mention of what happened on the ride is a parasite, a worm, waiting to bore into me. I wish I knew how to cure myself of it.
“I know,” I said. “But it’s like… just a long-running joke. Uglies and kids with sunstroke. That’s what you’ll find in the Caves of Chirakan.”
“Brendan’s not even that good-looking,” she said through the cheese.
I snorted. Wine burned the space between my throat and nose. “That is objectively untrue.”
“Nah.” She spaced out while looking at the wall. “He’s so symmetrical. I don’t trust it.”
“Aren’t there studies that show people inherently love and trust symmetry?”
“Most serial killers are extremely symmetrical. Think about that.” A sweat patch had formed at the center of her bony chest. “Well fuck ’em,” she said. “You’re gorgeous and Brendan’s a prince, so it makes sense. Princes love gorgeous cave women.”
Sometimes if Brooke and I have fallen into the quiet before bed, me on the couch and her at the other end of the room behind the kitchen counter, I’ll watch her shoulder blades as she does some repetitive task. Drying dishes, or grading papers on one of the stools at the counter that marks the start of the kitchen, even though it’s all just one room. Whenever she stops whatever it is that she’s doing, however banal, and announces that she’s going to bed, a sort of cold will come over me. Just a small sadness. She’s so good at… I’m not quite sure what. She’s good at simply being, in a world I could never quite feel at ease in. The world outside the park.
Brendan must still be in makeup, something he has to do himself now. I look at my feet and wonder if he’s right below me. It’s unlikely. I’m walking along the river between Nebuland and the castle, one of several little pathway extensions from the lake at the center of the park, where pyrotechnic shows used to blast off, up until a week ago. We’d encourage parents to take note of certain markers on the wall of the lake as meeting points if their kids got lost.
This section of river is walled off from guest view with handpainted signs that say PLEASE PARDON OUR TRANSFORMATION!, but two kids are trying to peek through. I never understand why they do that. Willfully destroy the illusion. Who wants to see the dug-out canal pit, the tract for the steamboat, the debris, the bottom half of a hippopotamus, bisected, made of gears and rotors? Who wants to be disturbed in that way?
“Howdy!” I call out. The guests don’t turn.
I thought it was two children, but I see now that it is one very old woman wearing baggy clothes, clothes that have billowed in a breeze and taken on the impression of several dimensions, whose back is curved like a comma and whose legs are twigs hovering beneath some kind of board shorts designed for teen boys, slivers of reflective silver running down their sides. She couldn’t possibly have chosen to dress that way.
“That spot’s just under construction.” I’m careful not to say demolition. “But I can help you get to whichever attraction strikes your fancy!”
She turns her gaze back to the peephole, as if I was only an apparition. There’s no more I can do—if guests don’t violate rules, I can’t make demands of them. I just can’t imagine why you’d look at all that, in that stagnant river. There’s a specific phobia of machinery under water. It has a long name. I don’t understand why it would be any more frightening than machinery on land, but I suppose it wouldn’t be a phobia if everyone understood it.
The way guests see the park—what happens in their adrenal system and in their supine hearts—always seems to be in such delicate balance. Throwing off any one thing can throw off a deeper, more tectonic equilibrium inside each of them. If the lovely fantasy shifts, it makes room for something grotesque to suddenly appear. The park can mess with psyches in unique ways. Sometimes I want to write about that in those forums about Callie Petrisko, but I don’t know that I could explain it well. But sometimes I think it’s a wonder that so many of us give ourselves over to the park at all. Being in its guts, in its inner workings, fixing small mechanical problems, from time to time, when they need me, has made me less vulnerable to surrendering to the park, but still. I understand that guests have their limit. The illusion of this place can only glitch so badly before they, the humans within it, fall apart.
“What if I fast-tracked you onto the apprenticeship program?” a woman in HR had said, underground, a few months after I started. “To be honest you’ve demonstrated some real skill beyond the scope of those casual maintenance fixes we’ve got you doing. You don’t need to be a ride operator forever.” She winked. She smelled like stale coffee.
“Would I have to see the lights on?” I asked.
She hesitated. “Sure, yes, I do think that occasionally our teams need to work in full light, but I don’t know the ins and outs of process there, hon.”
I reiterated my rules. The lights can never come on. Not all the way. And never the lagoon ride. Never. There was more chat, over a couple of days. I think the woman liked speaking to me, I don’t quite know why. But it was clear that my rules meant that I could never be a real machinist, a real maintenance gal.
The last time we met, the woman gave me a gentle touch on the elbow. “How did you learn to do these fixes anyway? That emergency with the chassis and the Saudi family… that was impressive. We noticed.”
“My stepdad,” I said, trying not to look at my gloves. “And the answer is still no.”
They hardly ever come on at full blast anyway. The lights. Only for an injury or hazmat, really. I’ve only been on a ride when it broke down—really broke down—once. It was the coaster in the Kingdom of the Future, a section of the park devoted entirely to the idea of innovation. (“A monument to the great American, amphetamine-fueled Cold War aerospace machine,” Brendan likes to remind me. I’m not sure why.) The coaster normally took place in total darkness. Riders tipped downward from a very high ramp, and whipped past a few sharp turns, and then there’d be smeared nova lights and a few stomach-drop jumps in the track.
But at this point, when I’d gone on the ride, there was a shrill scraping sound, and we came to an abrupt halt. We were there for five minutes total. A friendly voice came through our in-seat speaker to tell us that we’d be on the move again shortly. Then the music stopped. That was the ghoulish thing, the thing that gave an instant metal-on-teeth feeling. Maintenance lights bloomed dimly below us; just a night-light, not enough to let us see the whole architecture of the ride, or even the dimensions of the room, but enough to see how the track almost caressed itself, how tightly wound it was, how pregnant the whole thing was with pneumatic nodes, the kind which prompted the ride to stop if one ruptured, but would otherwise whisper in your wake as you flew through the dark. I felt sick, being stuck there. I shut my eyes very tight and tried to count. I began to see colors. I began to see the whirling of a blue light into a white one into something warm. It might have been different if I had been called in to help, on the ground, but I was locked into my position in midair, helpless, and trapped in the claustrophobic hinterland between fantasy and reality. We were on the move again shortly—I couldn’t tell you how long it took.
Now that section of the park, the one once called the Kingdom of the Future, is called Nebuland, as in Nebuland, the movie, the CGI franchise, the one that starred Callie Petrisko, whose film world was replicated in the lagoon ride. It’s about a beautiful and ferocious princess, Fiusha, who would stop at nothing to protect her ice kingdom, with its sexy and tropical subterranean under-stratum where much of the second act is set, from human invaders. After crash landing on one of Nebuland’s tundra areas, a young lieutenant engages in hand-to-hand combat with Fiusha, and at some point they fall in love and there’s a PG-13 moment in a hot spring and then a lot of war, martial arts from the quick-limbed Tsunami, Fiusha’s army a tangle of visual details borrowed from Inuit, Chuvash, and Comanche cultures (facial scarring, headdresses, animal bones, copper masks, that kind of thing), and the twist is that Nebuland is Earth. The war-men are the real aliens. It’s hopeful and sad at the same time. Get it?
The arrival of Nebuland had all been so strangely timed. It washed over the Kingdom of the Future, the one so beloved since its opening, only a year and a bit before the mutterings about the park’s closure became impossible to ignore. “IP fever,” people called it. Clunky branding took over the oldest attractions.
I pass some of the worst of it on my walk along the walled-off river: the Aqua Lounge, that room with its bossa nova animatronic revue of fish-themed song and dance. Some time ago it became the Tsunami Martial Arts Encounter (as in Tsunami, the hero’s ass-kicking sensei-type man-shark friend from Nebuland), a live-action fighting show where a huge slab of a man kicks and spins under a kaleidoscope of green and blue light. The animatronic animals that had made the Aqua Lounge so iconic are now hidden in shadow, ghosts watching from the walls.
The opening of Nebuland also ushered in the new generation of robotic character features. The bots on the rides. The park was famous for these, for the kindly moving figures—like marionettes, almost—of all the studio’s most beloved characters. It almost didn’t matter what the characters looked like in their films, or how modern those characters were; these older models had always been recrafted into animatronics of the same style: apple cheeks, visible joins, movements as clunky as an electronic reindeer attached to a neighbor’s roof at Christmas. The bots were an expression of the park’s innocence, and their designers’ sweetness, their sentimentality, their nostalgia for a bygone time. Guests could take comfort in these friendly renderings. No one needed to be reminded of how robotics were integrating into the actual world—everyone had seen those videos of men in labs kicking at a metal dog thing in order to prove a point about its stability. No, even the villains of the park, the witches and fire-demons and evil step-siblings, were made of glossy wood and plastic, and nothing more menacing than an arched brow painted on their faces.
There was also something wholesome about the lore—the way the models and molds of the park, the small prototypes, the animatronics, were created. The place. Everyone knew about the designers’ desert oasis outside Palm Springs or Mojave. One of those. It was officially called the Imagination Ranch, a retreat where the park’s creatives went to brainstorm and manufacture their new rides and décor and inventions. In books and videos about how the studio works, they always describe it as a sacred haven “away from the noise of the city, where minds are free to wrangle and roam!”
The Imagination Ranch wasn’t open to the public; no one could be altogether sure it wasn’t a PR myth. Die-hard adult fans of the park made excursions into the blazing heat to try to locate it. They might arrive at some anonymous steel gates and get turned away by a huge mute guard, or they’d find nothing at all.
But then the bots changed. Nebuland made them change. With the implementation of the new land within the park, it was decided that the friendly doll-bots of antiquity needed to be retired. It happened little by little, but it might as well have happened overnight, the way the guests reacted to the sudden appearance of a hyper-real Scheherazade, Miss Muffet with pores, an alien princess whose lungs rose and fell underneath the faint impression of ribs, under luminous skin.
By the time half of the robots in the haunted house were swapped out, management had gotten cold feet: Guests complained that the new bots made the haunted house too scary. Genuinely scary. Those scenes of dinnertime exorcisms and bodies dragging themselves out of tombs were much darker when the participants seemed to be flesh-and-blood people rather than oversized figurines, with no discernible expressions of anguish.
I’m grateful they never got around to Peter and Wendy. I don’t know if I could have handled it.
They slowed the rollout. And then Callie Petrisko happened.
And so the bots remain a mix of old and new; charmingly clunky and hyperreal.
I take a moment at the juncture point beyond the north-facing extension of the castle. I see Nebuland’s gates, a flowing arch of built bioluminescence, spilling foliage that moves, a little bit, a little breathy writhing with the help of two pneumatic bladders buried underneath the vines, on either side of the walkway, every twenty minutes. Beside me there’s a small footbridge and a shrub and an angled rock that functions as a bench, but of course there are no benches in this part of the park, where foot traffic gets—got—so dense. The rocks would offer a brief place to lean, engineered to a very specific angle, just the same way there are no concave surfaces in the park, not where guests can reach. Nothing for litter to get mashed into. All these countless details, details that no one would ever notice, all of that is the result of extensive, enduring testing, though who was doing the testing was never clear to us: designers, psychologists, hypnotists. It’s all a delicious fog of forced-perspective tricks, clever angles of glass, music that inspires galloping but not jogging. They’ve thought of everything: how at night, in the absence of light, dark surfaces become reflective, and guests should never be able to see too much of their own faces while they’re here. And so, in the walkable spaces, there’s a well-placed torchlight that flashes its glow onto any dark surface, a surface pretending to be onyx or slate. Instead of your own face looking back at you, you find yourself replaced by a ball of light.
There’s the rest of the castle, some meters behind me now, those turrets, parapets, this impression of a bastion that casts long shadows to where the road widens and then forks. When I stand here, right here, I’m shrouded in those sunset colors and the Cro-Magnon hum of something powerful behind my back. Sometimes I think I can hear it breathe. The castle. The battlements warm the body. It’s wonderful as long as you follow the one rule of the park: Don’t look too closely. If you can avoid it, don’t look up.
There’s a thump from under my feet that I feel all through my spine, and particles of lavender paint sift through the air. The breeze makes them hover like a stray ghost and then settle on the ground. A few flecks settle near my boots. How weird. Must be the demolition guys in the empty river, taking apart some animal half-made of gears.
Something beckons me to look behind my shoulder, a feeling like I’m being watched. But it’s just Sam, in the distance, standing where I just was, looking straight up into the sun. He’s watching the castle, just as I was watching it a moment ago. He looks so light, frail, like he’s made entirely of dead skin, like the only thing holding him to the earth is the jacket of heavy canvas with his name embroidered across his heart. He looks lost, though, like he might not return from staring at the parapets. He seems to have become a static figure, harmonious alongside the other statues of unreal creatures and imagined sidekicks within the park, which are each rendered stately and almost austere in stone.
I wonder if I look like that, sometimes. Lost, and very content.
I find the tree with the door in back. I feel guest eyes on me; I suppose there’s no avoiding them. It’s not against park rules for them to see me go down below, through a hatch, but of course ideally you’d want to do it without anyone around. I think it adds to the whimsy: a door in a tree! But I can see how it might be unnerving. So I give them a wave, get no response, only slack-jawed curiosity, as I press my finger to my keycard, and the keycard to one of the stumps. I slot in the needle, companion item to each standard keycard, required of almost every lock in the park. I wait for the click, and pull open a panel of textured bark. I shut the door behind me and wait for the light.
Nothing. Just a damp darkness. I wait another few seconds, then I wave a hand. Nothing. When did it go out? I feel for the walls and take the steps slowly, waiting for my eyes to adjust. One foot after the other. I stroke one glove with the fingers of the other.
“Keep walking!” I hear a voice call out from below. I know it.
“What’s with the lights?” I shout.
“Just come here!”
I reach out to the wall on my right and feel the texture of the mural, a pastiche of different characters and stories, led by a flying Peter, spine-feathers fluttering, who’s holding Wendy—Wendy with Renata Revere’s face—by the hand. His claws aren’t out in the mural. It’s mostly pastels. In places, the paint had dried in thick glops.
“Almost there,” he says. I see his teeth before anything else. Then the rest of him: Brendan’s illuminated by something small in his hand. A lighter? No, a glow stick.
“Where’d you get that?” I ask.
“I found a stash of them in catering.” There’s the outline of his eyes, and for a moment it looks like his head is floating on its own, like something in the haunted house, and I don’t like it. I adjust myself so that my weight is against his chest. He lets out a puff.
“You found me,” he says.
I breathe in his shirt smell. “Where is everyone?”
“I think they must be under the castle, looking at the big breaker.”
“Why would they do that? That’s not where they’re gonna fix the lights.”
“You know how to fix the lights?”
I pull back and try to make out anything, a fire escape, a distant LED. “Are there more glow sticks?”
He kicks something, and there’s the sandy sound of a cardboard box moving across the floor. I grab a handful and crack them, and they light up green and blue, but they don’t help me see shit.
“What, so there was no cast down here?” How many were left? Who was doing their circuit? I should have checked. I should have come down here sooner.
“Yeah. A couple of Beignet girls and, you know.”
“I don’t know.”
“You know.” He pauses. “The rooster.”
He sounds stiff.
“Oh… okay, well, were the lights all fucked when they were down here?”
“Just when they were leaving. Don’t worry about them, they’re fine.”
“I can fix them.”
“Sure,” I say, and approach a forking of corridors. One path leads to a makeshift soundstage, close to the control room for the fireworks and the fountain shows. The other path seems to lead into a new depth of darkness, a thin passage where machines built into the walls let off heat. I feel my feet stop, and Brendan feels my hesitation.
“Let’s not worry about it. I’ll help you feel around for your locker. My eyes are pretty adjusted.”
“No, I…” I try to listen to something from that corridor. The hum of the machines has slipped into a harmony, I think. Can Brendan hear it, too? For a sickening flash, I feel certain that he can’t. That it’s something maybe only I can hear.
I shake my head. I rub my face.
“No,” I say. “I can fix it.”