“Aiyana, come with me,” Ms. Levins urged. “Delaney will be here in a moment, Seth, just hold down the fort.”
Aiyana’s character assistant apologized to the folks in line and assured them that Queen Aliquippa had to go calm down the water serpent Oniare and would return soon. She hated to leave the disappointed people in the crowd, but Ms. Levins pulled Aiyana away from them and the enormous tree behind her, almost running.
“Where are we going?” she asked her boss, worried that she was in trouble.
“The hospital,” Ms. Levins heaved, her curly hair bouncing with her speed. “There’s a Wishing Stone Foundation child who wanted to come to the park, but he was hospitalized last night. He wants to meet Queen Aliquippa.”
Aiyana’s breath caught. She sped up to match Ms. Levins’s pace despite the fact that she was only wearing leggings the color of her copper skin, and hot summer gravel was digging into the thin soles of her costume shoes.
Ms. Levins directed her to a small Mary Marmot buggy and clambered into the back seat. The driver was already moving by the time Aiyana was comfortable.
“So, the story is that the child’s doctors originally deemed him unfit for travel. He’s from Ohio, has lung cancer, and is mute to top it off. His head doctor felt guilty, according to the Wishing Stone representative, and decided to give him the go-ahead to fly.”
“How long has he been here?” Aiyana asked.
“Since yesterday. He’s supposed to be here for a week, but his lungs are failing and the doctors think he only has a few hours left to live.”
Aiyana steeled herself. She played her part day after day for guests, but she wanted this performance to be her best. If he wished to meet the real Enchanted Masterpieces’ Aliquippa, then he would– and maybe that would miraculously fill him with the hope to live and cure his cancer. Weren’t there stories about that? Could it happen?
“Here,” Ms. Levins breathed as she handed over her iPhone. “He took part in a Wishing Stone Foundation video last Christmas. Just so you’re familiar with him before you get there.”
Aiyana took the phone and watched a montage of children sitting in hospital beds, accompanied by drawn, melancholy music. Some of the children were bald, others had respirators, several were attached to a variety of I.V.s and other cords, and many were unnervingly pale.
“What’s your name?” a male voice behind the camera asked, addressing a young girl with tubes in her nose.
“Shayna,” she replied, glancing bashfully at her stuffed tiger.
“What do you want for Christmas, Shayna?”
Shayna took a moment to respond. “A room with a big bed, so my mommies can stay with me.”
The camera panned to other children, then cut to even more. It soon landed on a young, fair-skinned and freckled boy, connected to an oxygen tank.
“That’s him,” Ms. Levins said.
“What’s your name?”
The boy signed a series of letters with his hands, subtitles reading Rider.
“What do you want for Christmas, Rider?”
All I want is to be healthy, and to be home with my family, the subtitles immediately displayed. Rider glanced somewhere off camera and signed, And to meet Aliquippa as an afterthought.
Tears welled behind Aiyana’s eyes. Ms. Levins noticed.
“If you’re going to cry, do it now.”
Aiyana forced a laugh. “Did you get your tears out of the way?”
Ms. Levins rubbed her chin. “This isn’t my first Wishing Stone child.”
They passed the giant gates and exited the park. Once outside, the passengers of the buggy transferred to a white shuttle bus with the Enchanted Masterpiece’s Theme Park logo painted on the side.
Aiyana felt like the vehicle was trailing her heart across the pavement below. It was horrible that a child was dying at all– but what could she say to him? What if he was disappointed that Aliquippa wasn’t as thin as he expected, and lacked woodland friends? She had auditioned for numerous talent agencies, but it felt as if far more was at stake for this particular audience. It was imperative for this performance to be exceptionally convincing, because if it wasn’t, a child would die without getting his wish.
As the van pulled up to the hospital, Aiyana rolled her shoulders, cracked her neck, and held her head high. A nurse emerged to greet them, wearing an exhausted smile that her eyes did not reflect.
“Thank you so much for coming, he’s upstairs,” she breathed, wasting no time.
“Of course,” answered Aiyana, falling into a hurried stride beside her.
The hospital was somber, as she expected it to be. Chill air flowed through the pristine hallways, a restless spirit disconcerted by the vibrantly colored handprint paintings that decorated the walls. Nurses marched down aisles with their brows furrowed, frowning when they thought no one was looking.
The nurse took Aiyana to the cancer ward, leaving Ms. Levins behind. Aiyana’s heart pounded in her chest as if it were angry with every monitor in the building for ignoring it.
The two women walked into a private room, an infuriatingly charming place for such a cheerless purpose. Only one other person was in the room, another female nurse. Rider lay in his bed, machinery around him beeping as it pleased. The boy was not quite the same boy from the video: this one was far paler, gaunter, and had a barren scalp.
“Rider, someone’s here to see you,” said the nurse, her voice just falling flat of excited.
The boy meekly turned his head to Aiyana. Everything about him changed: simple shifts of expression made him look so invigorated, so alive; his smile burst across his face like the park’s famous fireworks show, his eyes radiating light and joy and magic.
“Hello, Rider. Sgëno,” she said to him, hoping he would recognize the word from the Aliquippa film. She knelt by his bed and took one of his hands in both of hers. “I am very pleased to meet you.”
Rider withdrew his hand and made an elaborate series of gestures.
“He says he’s very happy you came,” spoke the second nurse, who Aiyana realized was his interpreter for the time being. “His parents said princesses were only for girls, but he knew that you would come to anyone in need.”
Aiyana’s throat clenched. “Of course, my friend. We are all connected, are we not?”
Rider signed some more. The nurse translated, “You’re his favorite princess. He loves how you don’t care if people are like you, you treat them nicely no matter what.”
“That’s right, my little hummingbird,” she found herself whispering, touching his jaw tenderly. “I am glad that you learned that.”
The nurse chuckled. “He wants to know where your animal friends are.”
“Nyakwai’ and Neokë’ had to see the Sky Woman, I’m sorry. I will tell them you said hello.”
That seemed to appease him. He reached over to his bedside table and handed her a piece of paper. It revealed a watercolor picture of several small people dancing with drums, which Aiyana recognized as the invisible nature spirits known as the Jogah.
“This is beautiful, Rider. Did the Drum Dancers show themselves to you?” She poked his nose playfully.
Rider started coughing viciously. Aiyana panicked and took a step back while his windpipe tried to free itself from his throat. Had that been her fault?
The first nurse quickly got him a glass of water and tended to his episode. While Rider recovered, Aiyana asked the interpreter, “Where’s his family?”
The woman’s face dropped. “They’re not here.”
“Where are they?”
“Still in the park.”
Aiyana blinked. “What?”
The nurse repeated herself like she hadn’t quite believed it at first either. “They’re still enjoying the park. The ambulance dropped Rider off last night, and they never came back here in the morning.”
“How do you know they’re still in the park?”
“We called them. A lot of them, actually. His parents brought along cousins and aunts and uncles and great-aunts and grandparents and second cousins and more. That gave the Wishing Stone Foundation a fun process.”
“And none of them came?”
The interpreter shook her head.
Aiyana had been feeling nervous and melancholy, but those emotions were replaced with anger. Pure, unadulterated anger, burning and tunneling its way through her flesh.
“Can I have his mother’s number?”
“I’m afraid I can’t give that to you,” the interpreter said, walking over to a binder on the doctor’s table, “seeing as you’re unaffiliated with them.” She flipped to a page and left it open. “Something about confidentiality, blah, blah, blah.”
The interpreter did not exit the room, but neither did she stop Aiyana from scrawling down Rider’s mother’s cell number on a spare pad of paper and leaving in search of a phone.
There was an unoccupied patient’s room a few doors down from Rider’s. Aiyana snuck inside and dialed the number on the phone resting atop the bedside table.
“Hello?” a gruff female voice answered after several rings.
“Hi,” Aiyana responded in her most urgent voice, tossing in a paradoxical dash of false peppiness and sympathy. “I’m calling to notify you that your son, Rider, has been hospitalized. I’m afraid he is not faring well, but he has been asking for you and would love to have you by his side. We can arrange to have a car pick you up and bring you to the–”
“I don’t ‘preciate you guys calling me a fourth time. We’re in line, um, for something right now, anyway. Can we come when the park closes?”
“Ma’am, your son has been hospitalized and is in critical condition. The doctors do not think he will survive much longer.”
“How long do you think he’s got?”
Does it matter? she thought. “He has very little time.”
“Yeah, well, is that like, tonight, tomorrow…?”
“I think it would be best if you came regardless.”
“We only got a week at the park and we don’t wanna lose any time.”
You’ve got to be kidding me. “You are losing time with your son.”
“Can he come to the park? There are disability services, right? My cuz don’t mind waiting in line with him, either.”
“Your son is going to die. You should be with him.”
“Can you put him on the phone? His sis can just talk to him until we get on the coaster.”
“You’re just going to let your son die alone?” Who were these people? Aiyana couldn’t believe she was having this conversation.
“If he’s gonna die, he don’t need anyone. Not like it’s hard.”
“You are his mother. He is your son. He is six. Don’t you care about him at all?”
“Well, he ain’t the most grateful kid, is he? First thing he did when we landed was get all in a fit and have to go to the hospital–”
Aiyana snapped. “Your son is going to fucking die so you get over to the fucking hospital this second or I swear I will drag your scumbag, inhumane ass here myself and revoke your tickets. I can do that. I’m a fucking queen.”
“I don’t ‘preciate that tone, lady. If you want him to have someone by his bedside so badly, then you do it.”
Rider’s mother hung up. Aiyana slammed the phone down onto the receiver with enough force to crack its plastic encasing.
She found her way back to Rider’s room and sat on his bedside. He signed a complex series of symbols that she thought she might be able to understand, and she didn’t like it.
“He wants you to sing,” the interpreter said.
Aiyana racked her brain for an excuse. Singing was not a required part of her job; she could carry a tune but was no artist. Rider, however, was gazing up at her so expectantly, so reverently, that her potential excuses crumbled.
She had many of Aliquippa’s songs memorized, of course. She had grown up on an Apache reservation in New Mexico, and though Aliquippa was Seneca, she had been her inspiration and her role model; a shining light in the obscurity that was her future.
So she did as he asked. Aiyana kept her eyes on Rider, studying his face. If her singing voice disappointed him, he made no indication. So she continued:
“Listen to the sound of the water drum,
It softly speaks of what you can become…”
Rider closed his eyes. Aiyana did her best to do the song justice, a honeyed melody amongst consistent beeps and minute rushes of air.
Both nurses stepped out of the room. It was only Aiyana, the sickly boy before her, and the song. A satisfied smile tugged at the corners of Rider’s pale lips.
Aiyana thought of the boy’s mother. Her harsh, cruel words still echoed in her ears, and they hadn’t been shouted or even addressed to her. They were for this boy—a boy his family neglected because he was voiceless, colorless, inconvenient. Other.
Rider started coughing violently again. His eyes flashed open, crimson blood fountained from his mouth. Aiyana did not dare back away. She cried for help and put her hand on Rider’s lower back, unsure of what to do. Should she pat him? Would this pass? She grabbed a handful of tissues and gave them to him to hold in front of his mouth, but he only clawed at his throat.
The monitor was beeping frantically now, heralding the entrance of the two nurses.
“Move!” one of them commanded. Aiyana leapt to the side, worry clogging her own throat. Pull through, Rider, she thought. Pull through. Please.
“He’s choking on his blood,” one of the nurses said. “Go get help.”
The other nurse dashed out the door. Aiyana only stood there, dumbstruck and useless.
Doctors and more nurses burst into the room, concentrated and ready for battle. Aiyana retreated to the corner, but a doctor grabbed her shoulder and ushered her into the hallway.
“Please, ma’am, we just need some space.”
The doctor shut the door behind him, framing Rider and his team of unfamiliar caretakers in the small window.
All Aiyana could do was stand in the hall, watching the doctors do their work. Please make him be okay, she prayed. Save him. But what did this boy have to live for? His family had rejected him. Ideas scrimmaged in her mind; she would convince his family to let him go, she’d find him a nice home, a new family, she’d adopt him herself if she had to–
The doctors and nurses yelled at each other as Rider hacked and choked, belting requests for medicine and machinery.
Aiyana caught a glimpse of Rider, screaming with a voice he did not have, his eyes searching the room in terror before a doctor’s back obscured him from view.
You can do this, she thought.
The doctor moved again. Rider was making heaving, shuddering throws, blood splattering the doctors’ white coats like his own endearing freckles–
And then Rider was still. The doctors ceased working and fell silent, so the piercing monitor mourned for them. Aiyana placed her hand on the window for a moment before turning and sliding to the floor, the music carrying through her mind once more.
Have the flutes told you what you’ve overcome?
“Time of death,” a voice said through the door, “11:23 a.m.”
Ms. Levins gave Aiyana the rest of the day off. She returned to the park for her clothes and possessions, but she did not go home. Aiyana took the bus to the middle section of the park to find her boyfriend Cade when he got off work. He gawked in horror when she told him the events of the day, covering his mouth and smearing his Prince Valor makeup. Other actors gave them sidelong glances as they eavesdropped, one princess even spilled the contents of her purse when she overheard.
Then Aiyana told Cade her plan. He had his reservations, but he agreed.
She phoned other friends, too, but most of them did not want to be fired. Only one other agreed, and thankfully he was the most important. She expected to feel guilty for the risk she was asking them to take, but she believed that it was worth it.
Aiyana stood at the base of the Horrific Heights ride, awaiting Cade with Rider’s relatives. The building’s spire reached into the sky, insultingly lavender in the harsh streetlights. It reminded Aiyana of the hospital with all of its playful colors. Neither building was fooling anyone.
Aiyana had saved the mother’s number and instructed Cade to call her a few hours ago on a discardable cell phone. “We would like to express our condolences to you and your family,” he said in his Prince Valor voice. “We understand that you are all grieving in this tragic time, so we would like to extend the park’s closing hours for you all. Please meet our representative fifteen minutes before closing time inside the Enchanter’s Pavilion.”
Cade snuck the family into an empty stage auditorium and spewed off random facts about the park for nearly an hour until Aiyana texted him that everyone but the cleanup crew and the security guards had left. Cade told them that they had prepared something special at Horrific Heights for them, so they would head there immediately.
When she saw the group approaching, she darted inside and met Riff, who had access to the ride’s keys and had turned everything on.
“I brought gloves, just in case,” he said, a cruel smile splitting his face. “I don’t want my prints being on these buttons.”
“Good idea,” she muttered, anxious.
Riff held himself high, tinkering with gadgets on the control board purposefully. “I’m glad you called me. I love a good chance to give people what they deserve.”
“And I’m glad you of all people were willing. This wouldn’t work without an operator.”
Aiyana hugged herself tightly. This was a very un-Queen Aliquippa thing she was about to do, but Rider would never know about it. If he was watching from wherever he was, maybe he would understand.
A few minutes later, Cade texted her that everyone was seated inside the elevator, locked into their seats.
“Go ahead, Riff.”
Riff chuckled and started the ride. Aiyana imagined the family together now, just enough of them to fill every seat, strapped down in a dark room dropping 39 miles per hour.
Then Riff pressed the brakes.
“Well, that was fun,” he said, pulling out the keys. “They could do with some quiet time.”
They met Cade outside. “I can’t believe we just did that,” he breathed, his voice quavering, but not without a smile.
Aiyana couldn’t really bring herself to celebrate. She strained her ear to listen for anyone making a fuss inside the tower, but there were no voices just yet. Good. They hadn’t realized this was more than a ride malfunction. Aiyana stared at the ground as the three of them walked to the parking lot, pulling hoods over their heads as they passed by any cameras.
Cade wrapped an arm around her. “How do you feel?” he asked.
Aiyana leaned her head against his shoulder. “I don’t think there’s anything I can do to make them feel as alone as he was,” she sighed. “But I had to do something.”
“He wasn’t alone,” Cade whispered, kissing her temple. “He had Aliquippa.”
Aiyana smiled. Rider’s relatives would have an opportunity to contemplate what they had done, if they gave him a thought. In an ironic way, she had done them a favor. The Wishing Stone Foundation would make them come home now that Rider had passed, and they were certainly not losing any time at the park before then.
“The operators are going to be in for a surprise tomorrow morning,” Riff snickered. “Do you think any of them will sleep, or will their full bladders keep them awake?”
Cade shrugged. “So long as the seatbelts keep them locked tight enough and make them appreciate their ability to breathe, I’ll be satisfied.”
Aiyana glanced back at the towering building, its pitch silhouette menacing against the sky. It wouldn’t be long before the people inside started shouting for help. At least they could, though aid was unlikely to come.
Aiyana thought of Rider, gasping for breath. She had not known him for long, and of course she would never forget the boy whose deathbed she sang over, but there was something about Rider himself that left its mark on her. Aiyana pulled out his artwork from her coat, the watercolor spirits gleaming beneath the streetlamps and stars.
A comforting breeze brushed her face, trailing her hair behind her. For a small moment, she thought she heard the beat of a small drum.
Jacob Yoss is a student at the University of Colorado at Boulder, studying Humanities with emphases in Creative Writing and Art. His experiences in nonprofit fundraising and political news sharing have influenced his belief that literature is a powerful tool for enacting social change, so he strives for diverse representation in media.