Haley and I were at the front of the pack when we started through the empty plain of pavement. I was trying to catch anything in her face or her movements—fear, boredom, excitement, whatever—but I couldn’t find anything. We learned that Group Pluto would be assembling in the maintenance shed of It’s a Small World After All and a headcount would be taken. Christa was behind us in the group, whining to her dad, who held her on his hip.
Turns out her brother was in a wheelchair and he had some kind of mental disorder. Inside, I saw he had a Goofy cap on and a shaved ice in his wheelchair’s cupholder. He was having a blast. Like, what the hell, the lights are out, let’s have fun and eat a snow cone. The rest of us sat on the tile floor beside generators and wrench sets. “Bomb threat,” our guy was saying. “Very low level, but we don’t take chances.” A man asked, “Why no lights?” Our guy said, “Aaaactualleee, I’m not too sure on that. They wanted us out the door and with our groups.”
“Thank you for helping us,” the man said. It was mostly quiet. Haley ended up behind me with her back against a statue of a squat, cartoony Dutch kid with a porcelain hand raised to indicate where the ride’s line started. I smelled sweat added to the room’s cotton candy-motor oil aroma.
“Do you remember when I walked in on your dad in the bathtub?” I asked Haley. “I was like, seven, maybe.”
“Yeah,” she said, smiling.
“He made that sound like ‘buuuh!’ and dropped his book.”
“Yeah,” she said.
Our attendant stepped outside to talk on his headset and we watched him intently through the glass door. He was out there for a while. Our room was dimly lit by hazard fluorescents, with two broad hallways reaching back into the darkness of the ride’s access doors.
There was a small gasp as a police officer was seen sprinting across the grounds with a flashlight. None of the groups were left outside. The silence broke again when Christa’s brother started knocking a plastic sword against his wheel and making a “Ch, ch” sound. The dad said, “Ryan, no.”
The attendant popped his head in the door, staring off. He was listening to his headset, mouth open. “Maybe ten minutes,” he said, and then he was back outside again. Someone started whistling “It’s a Small World After All,” and that got a few people laughing. I was thinking about a bomb plot on a fireworks night. I saw the mastery of it all. The flashes and booming of the fireworks would hide the bombs. I felt like I needed to tell someone that I had put something together they might want to hear. While doing my own headcount I realized Haley wasn’t in the room anymore. She wasn’t behind me. She wasn’t walking around or leaning against a wall.
I thought hard. “If she had gone to the bathroom, I would’ve seen her. The ladies’ room was right in front of me. Is anyone else gone? Are the terrorists using the bomb plot as a diversion for a kidnapping operation? Sex trade. Disneyworld. Those perverts. But I definitely would’ve heard something. They’re not that good. Or somebody would’ve seen something. They can’t be that good.” We had been at the edge of the group, and she was sitting in the back, obscured by bodies and shadow. “How do I act? What’s the plan? What would Dad want? What would Mom want? What would her dad want? Maybe she left to find them. Wouldn’t she have told me? Maybe she wouldn’t have.”
A flashlight swept over the round features of a caricatured porcelain Arabian boy beside me. Mom would say, “Why didn’t you come to us? You knew where we were for God’s sake? I was a mess!” Or maybe Mom wouldn’t say that.
I looked at the space around me. To my left, an Asian couple was bundled up in a coat, looking at a magazine. A thin park janitor was leaned against the wall on my right, craning his neck to check for news from the outdoors. “Why keep us inside?” he muttered. Two boys were up at the windows, disobeying. I started to stand—a thundering slam, like a dumpster door, resonated across the pavement outside, another one, another one, three-quarter time—and I was on my feet, holding on to the guy behind me. Our headset man put his hand to his forehead and listened intently. I pressed back into the shaded hallways and slipped into the ride’s access door to look for Haley while people were choking at the windows for an answer.
This is the only place she could have gone. I shut the door behind me and was confounded by darkness. A few emergency lights and exit signs barely lit a cavernous tunnel. I tried to remember to the Small World experience. You ride in a boat on rails. A large room is at the end. Most of the floor is covered in shallow water to give the impression of being on a sea. My eyes adjusted and I saw a glass surface as long as a football field. Leading up to the climactic big room is a series of ethnic stereotypes. Mom called them ethnic stereotypes. They sing and spin and come to life when the boat passes. It’s a giant cuckoo clock.
There was a humming rumble, like a generator or an air conditioner. I fumbled to find a light switch, as if that was how it worked. I guessed that I might be at the transition between the tunnels and the giant room.
There was no pretense about being Haley’s savior. I could dismiss it as a service to her parents, not her. And I was already there, moving, not knowing why, listening. The commotion in the maintenance shed was behind me. Another low thud sounded outside the ride.
“Haley,” I called out in either direction. The sound bounced off of everything and quickly fell into the low hum. Seeing no other alternative, I slipped my sandals off, rolled my pant legs, and knelt to feel the concrete riverbed with my toe. It was shallow. I started into the room with one hand on the wall and my sandals in the other. I felt tired. The chamber had to be five, six stories high. Sun, moon, and stars hung by cords from the ceiling, and they spun slowly on their axes. There were forms out in the water, farther from the wall. Towers and wheels. Who knows what they were. I couldn’t see them and I couldn’t remember what they might be. My feet were loud in the water, and the ripples across the room, bouncing against invisible walls, must have been my own. How far had I walked? I wanted to sit down, but there was only water. I called out, “Haley,” and listened again. The room was only dark blue to me in return. She would not be in here, she would’ve looked for an exit to find our parents. She would’ve hid until the bombing was over. Did she hear the bombs, did she care about me and the others dying and making headlines the next morning?
I stepped out into the middle of the room, sliding my feet the whole way in case there was a drop. Out I went. My foot eventually hit the boat rail and I stopped to investigate. I walked the rail for half a minute before I saw a stranded boat dead on the rails in front of me. It must have lost power. I chuckled to ease myself, and something moved in the boat.
I approached and sat next to Haley, who was rigid and staring at my face. As far as I could make out, her earlier dismissive, casual air had frozen into tension. I looked at her too. She gripped the front of my shirt and stared through me. She was wheezing. She did some sort of ritual. She took my hand and squeezed it, she tugged on my shoulder, she ran her hand down my face. All this time, the planets were turning and the water was settling once more into glass. I rested my face against the side of hers and she let me stay. I could smell sweat and skin. “Will you say my name?” I asked, but she was silent. She clutched my arms and squeezed, moving down to my hands like she was trying to wring them out, get something from me. It was like this when the lights kicked back on and the boat moved forward again, lurching toward the crowds. I lifted my head and we looked forward into an animatronic sunflower, spinning its petals and rising on its stem. Before we made it out of the final tunnel, she straightened up, inched away from me, and pressed her hands to her eyes.
Our parents were at the gate, and they were so glad to see us but still laughing. “It was all a hoax. Some weirdos set off their own fireworks. Hope you guys were okay,” Mom said.
Haley sat beside me on the ride to the hotel, looking out the window.
She was beside me as her parents dropped us off at the Orlando airport the next morning. She hugged me goodbye on the sidewalk, and I remember gauging the pressure of her hand on my shoulder.
Dad asked me in the ticket line, “What did you think of Haley? I think she’s funny.”