HAPPILY EVER AFTER WORLD
By Susan Lago
Annie has a date. They met on TruLuv.com, a dating site for those who haven’t yet given up on love. So far most of the men she’s met have either been separated and bitter, or newly divorced and bitter, or confirmed bachelors who are too jaded to be bitter. This guy, though, the one she’s meeting today. He sounds different. They’ve messaged back and forth, witty repartee about the weather or work, safe topics that establish them as reasonable human beings who are in all likelihood not serial killers or stalkers.
His name is James.
In his profile picture, he looks nice. He’s smiling, which is a plus. And he’s not in his car with the seatbelt fastened, nor is he holding a fish, which so many of the TruLuv men are.
“I have an unorthodox suggestion,” he wrote in his last message. Annie thrills at his use of unorthodox; so many of men she’s been in contact with on the site limit themselves to words that use numbers to replace some of the letters as if their huge man thumbs can’t manage to type the entire word “before” instead of “b4.”
“Let’s meet at Happily Ever After World. I have a season pass that my boss gave me instead of a holiday bonus last year.”
“Yes,” she types back. She wants to use an exclamation mark, many of them, but she’s determined to play it cool: “Yes. I’ve lived in Florida all my life, but have never been. Sounds like fun.” She wants to sound like the kind of woman who likes to have fun. She changes that one to an exclamation mark: “fun!”
Now Annie weaves her way around groups of people, families mostly. Always one member is shouting and at least one person is crying. She positions herself in front of one of the fighting families and behind two teenage-aged girls. The girls in front of her chew their gum with quick, sharp snaps. Behind her, the father is begging a small angry child to ride the broomsticks just this once. She’ll like it, he says. Does she want to go home and tell her friends that she went to Happily Ever After World and didn’t go on one single ride? Does she? The child shrugs.
Annie pulls out her phone. Still no text or missed call. She opens up their last message. He did say let’s meet in front of the Flying Broomsticks at 2:00 didn’t he? Yes, he did. Her phone reminds her that it’s two thirty. No answer to the text she sent at 2:15. She has full bars and nearly full charge. Maybe he’s stuck in traffic? But then why no phone call? She sighs. She’ll have to be the one to call. It goes straight to voicemail and it’s not a personalized one, but the automated greeting that comes with the phone.
By 4:00, Annie is starving. Clearly, he is not coming. She starts moving toward the exit, following a road paved with bits that glitter in the sun like she’s walking on a pathway made of stars. The families, however, are surging in the opposite direction and Annie finds herself being pushed, almost carried, deep into the park. Suddenly she’s so angry that she can hardly see. The sunshine is an affront. What a fool she’s been. A first date at a theme park. What had she been thinking? She should have gone with her gut and suggested Starbucks. But she’d been hoping for romance, for kismet, for magic. She pushes back and feels a thrill of satisfaction at the grunt and stumble from the man whose pillowy flesh absorbs the impact of her outstretched hands. “Hey!” the man says, but then he too is swept away in the current.
“Hey! You can’t be here.” The security guard stands over the glass coffin where Annie lies curled on her side, head resting on her handbag.
She sits up and the guard rears back, eyes wide. He has a baton in his belt. He wrestles with it, freeing it from its straps, and raises it over his head.
Annie screams. The guard screams. He drops the baton.
“What are you doing here?” he says. He’s young with fair hair shaved so close to his skull he’s almost bald. He’s all freckles from the Florida sun with hands the size of catcher’s mitts. He’s about as intimidating as one of the anthropomorphized characters embedded on just about every surface of the Happily Ever After theme park. A bear, thinks Annie, or maybe a wombat. The guard has woken her from a sound sleep and she’s caught somewhere between the dream she was having (something about bears and wombats?) and the uncomfortable reality of having to explain her presence in one of the coffins on the Casket Coaster.
“I’m taking a nap,” she says. The afternoon had been so hot, the crush of the crowd so overwhelming, that she had ducked under the sign that said CLOSED FOR REPAIRS just to get out of the heat. She was still furious, shaking all over, but once inside the dim cavern, all the feeling drained out of her, leaving her limp and exhausted. So she curled up inside one of the coffins, pillowing her head on her knockoff Prada, and fell asleep immediately and powerfully, as if she had been bitten off a piece of enchantment.
Now the guard crosses his arms over his chest. The hair on his forearms glints gold in the coffin’s glow. He may be young, Annie thinks, but he’s no fool. “Let me see some ID.”
“One second,” she says and reaches into her bag. Instead of her license, however, she pulls out a taser and before the guard can say a how-do-you-do, she’s tased the fuck out of him.
She’s decided to stay. The hell with James, with dating. With love. With security guards. Besides, the park is charming in a car salemanish kind of way. It wants you to love it and so you do. Maybe that’s enough for now, she tells herself. She buys herself a small cake and a frosty bottle of Witch’s Brew, alternately nibbling and sipping as she follows the path of stars. The cake is sweet and the brew bracing and now that the sun has started its descent in the midsummer sky, she feels peaceful, almost euphoric. She finishes her refreshment just as the starry path deposits her at the entrance to the Hall of Wicked Stepmothers.
Once inside the Hall, Annie is surprised at how lifelike the figures are. She peers closer at one whose beauty is terrifying. Is she wax? A robot? She can’t be sure. The air in the Hall is freezing and Annie wishes she hadn’t left her sweater behind when she fled the Casket Coaster. She looks around now for the fair haired guard, but all she can see are the still figures of the beautiful, wicked women.
The line moves slowly because many of the smaller children are frightened, some are crying, although Annie can’t see what there is to be scared of. Until she sees the figure of the crone. Her lifelike skin is as gray as the crypt, her hair as snarled as a tangle of cobwebs. But her face. Beneath the crepey skin is the same inhuman beauty as the rest of the women. Annie’s eyes are drawn to the apple she holds in one crooked-fingered hand. The nails are like claws, but the apple is perfect and red and fragrant.
In front of her, a child screams. “I saw it move, Mommy!”
“You saw no such thing,” says the mother. She’s wearing a Happily Ever After World t-shirt with the faces of all twelve of the Happily Ever After World princesses.
The child is crying and a guard (not her guard) emerges from the shadows to escort the pair out of the Hall. That’s when Annie sees the last figure. The last stepmother.
Impossible, she thinks, peering closer. But it’s her; no mistake. She’s holding her over-sized Louis Vuitton and on her finger is the amethyst ring she bought herself to celebrate her fiftieth. She’d recognize her anywhere: lips pressed together in her tight non-smile, the careful blonde bob, gaze focused just beyond your head as if someone or something was standing behind you that was much more interesting than your face.
“Annie!” she says, or Annie thinks she hears her say because no one else in the line reacts, but another child is crying, screaming really, and the shrieks are bouncing and echoing off the walls of the chamber.
“Annie! Did you vacuum the living room? I see dust in the corners! Do you think you can live here without contributing anything at all? Do you think you’re some kind of princess?”
“I did vacuum,” Annie mumbles.
“What?” says a woman in front of her.
Annie shakes her head and the woman turns back around.
The line is moving and she’s almost past the figure when she hears her name again. “Annie! Did you polish the scrollwork on the end tables? Did you pick everything up before you cleaned or did you just swipe around? Annie! Are you listening?”
Up ahead, she can see daylight. The exit. She’s panting and the woman in front of her is casting worried glances over her shoulder and hurrying her brood along. She’s almost out when she sees the guard. Her guard. And he sees her.
“You!” says Sam Swallow, pointing at the woman standing to the left of the figure of the Old Crone.
Her eyes widen. He can see her assessing possible escape routes, but the only exit is located directly behind him. He’s got her.
The woman ducks behind a large man bending over a child. He’s arguing with the kid, who’s having none it. Her arms are crossed over her chest and eyebrows head for each other over the bridge of her tiny nose. Just as Sam pushes his way between a wheelchair and a woman holding a Happily Ever After World super-sized stuffed wombat, the girl takes a deep breath and opens her mouth.
The sound causes every head in the Hall to turn. Her wails echo off the chamber walls, creating layers of sound upon sound. The man, her father, Sam presumes, attempting to extricate himself from the wombat’s hind legs, looms over the child. The father opens his own mouth: “Stop! Your! Yelling!” he yells. And the child does. She wraps her arms around one of her father’s thick legs and weeps into his cargo shorts.
This interlude has distracted him long enough for his mystery woman to escape. Where did she go? She couldn’t have made it past him, not even with all the ruckus. Sam pauses for a moment to reflect on life paths not taken. He should have listened to his mother’s advice to go to dental school. “People will always have bad teeth,” she told him. Either that, or he could have joined the armed forces. But no, he had to get a criminal justice degree from the that online university that has since declared bankruptcy. Sam sighs and tucks his baton back into his belt. He steps over to the Old Crone intending to straighten her black robes which somehow became disarrayed in the melee, and he sees that behind her is an opening in the cavern wall. He steps over the ropes that cordon off the displays, past the Crone. The wall is further away than it looked and by the time he reaches it, his heart is beating strangely in his chest. But there’s the opening. He leans his head in, and all he can see is black.
Annie sees an exit sign, a red beacon in the dark. She slams her body into the door and it opens, spilling her out into the damp Florida sunshine. She’s blind, no not blind, her eyes need to adjust after the darkness of the tunnel. She’s in an asphalt lot. The wall behind her, the one with the door, is brick. On one end of the lot is a row of dumpsters like sleeping green dragons. On the other, is a backhoe and next to it, a stack of empty boxes and a shopping cart with one missing wheel lying on its side. A cinderblock fence surrounds the space. She tips back her head and sees loops of barbed wire on its top.
She’s in the back of Happily Ever After World.
She turns back to the door, but there’s no knob, no way to gain entry once you’re on the other side of it. Now she’s hoping for the guard. She’ll take the consequences. Maybe they have a dungeon where the take recalcitrant guests? At any rate, she wants to leave this awful place and go back to where life-sized lollipops line the starry paths and the fairy dust that floats through the air tastes of the freshest fruit plucked straight from the tree.
Her phone, of course, is dead. “Help!” she yells. She pounds her fists on the door. “Somebody help me!”
The voice comes from behind her. She doesn’t want to turn around. What if it’s her stepmother? But no, the voice had been male. The security guard? But he had been chasing her, should be here now as a matter of fact. She turns.
“Annie?” He’s sitting on one of the broken boxes, bleeding from a cut above his eyebrow.
She recognizes him from his picture. “James?”
“Yes!” he says. He stands, swipes at the blood dripping into his eye with the back of his hand.
“You’re late,” she says. She crosses her arms over her chest.
And then the door opens and the security guard tumbles out and lands at her feet.
Sam Swallow looks up at the woman—will she tase him again?—and then at a man wearing all white: white t-shirt, white shorts, white sneakers. The man is bleeding. Sam leaps to his feet.
“Don’t let the door close behind you!” yell the man and the woman just as the door swings shut.
The click of the tumblers sliding into place is loud in the midsummer twilight. But Sam is swinging into action. He has his baton in one hand and handcuffs in the other. He lunges for the woman’s midsection, tackling her to the ground. Before she can say a how-do-you-do, she’s handcuffed and lying on her stomach. “You idiot,” she says, but it’s unclear to which man she is speaking.
“Are you okay?” Sam yells and the man in white flinches. Sam repeats his question at a lower volume. God, is his adrenaline pumping.
“I’m fine,” says the man in white. His head has all but stopped bleeding. “And uncuff her. She didn’t do a thing. I hit my head trying to stop the door from closing.”
“Oh,” says Sam. He leans over and unlocks the handcuffs, making sure to kick the taser-holding handbag to the side. He offers his hand, but the woman just glares at him and gets to her feet.
“You’re even more beautiful than your picture,” James says.
“Bullshit,” Annie says, but she’s flattered.
“No, I mean. Wow—”
The guard steps back and takes a look at her. “You are. Um. Hot,” he says.
“How did you get here?” she says to James.
He picks up a rag from the ground and swipes at the blood on his hands. Incredibly, none of it has gotten on his white clothes. “I got here early so I could leave your pass at the admission desk, but I guess I got here too early because my phone’s battery started running low. I was looking for a place to charge it and one of the princesses told me that there’s a charging station in the Hall of Stepmothers. I’m looking and looking, right? I’m like all the way in the back behind those creepy statues. I look at my phone and it has one bar. I’m in the red. I think I see the charging station behind the backdrop and then I’m crawling around in a dark hall. Next thing I know, I kind of trip and a door opens and I end up here. I’ve been waiting for someone to find me.”
“Oh,” says Annie.
He walks over to her and takes her hand. “I was so excited about meeting you,” he says.
“Me, too,” she says. Soft. She squeezes his hand.
“Um? You guys?” The guard. They turn. “You’re not supposed to be back here. This is a restricted area.”
James pulls back his shoulders and raises his chin. The last rays of the sun settle themselves on the white of his clothes and he’s glowing in the near dark. He steps forward to shield her with his body.
“We’ve done nothing wrong,” he says.
Annie whispers something in his ear.
“Well, I haven’t done anything wrong. And she’s very sorry.”
“Yes,” Annie says. “I am incredibly sorry.” She starts to tell him about being stood up and how hard it is to date these days, but stops when she sees him reach into his back pocket. She gasps and James blocks her with the entirety of his person. It’s full on dark now, the only illumination is from the full moon watching them from behind the barbed wire.
“I have a swipe card,” the guard says. He waves it in front of the door and it pops open. “After you.”
“Thank you,” says Annie. Mumbles, really.
“Thanks, man,” says James and grips the guard’s hand in his and pumps it one time.
James and Annie stay until the park closes. They gorge themselves on meat pies and sweet ices.
They ride the Flying Broomsticks and the Red Hot Dancing Shoes. He kisses her under the bang and sparkle of the park’s closing fireworks and it’s the most romantic date she’s ever had. It’s magic.
They exchange a flurry of texts for a few days and then the gaps between her texts and his answers grow longer and longer. By the week’s end, his stop altogether. Annie never hears from him again. She thinks about canceling her TruLuv membership, but then she doesn’t.
Sam Swallow enrolls in dental school.
About the Author
Susan Lago teaches composition and literature at Queensborough Community College. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in publications such as Pank Magazine, Word Riot, Per Contra, Monkeybicycle and Prime Number. She is currently at work on a collection of connected short stories. Visit her website at http://SusanLago.wix.com/susanlagoor follow her on Twitter: Susan Ell (@SusanLago).