"One more?" The father called to me as he slid to a stop, huffing for breath. His family wasn't far behind, and the little girls were already pulling out their autograph books.
I glanced back at Princess Petronella, who had just finished signing an autograph for another little girl and was blowing her a kiss goodbye. She jumped a little as a drop of rain splattered on her flowing, curly locks, then glanced at the sky.
I checked my watch. 4:23 PM. I warned them this would happen. It's happened every single day so far this summer.
I looked back at the family hastily assembling in front of me, plastering a Happyland smile on my face, and delivered my tried-and-true white lie. "I'm sorry. Princess Petronella has to go back to the castle and feed her pet dragon now. You know how dragons get when they're hungry."
"Oh, come on," the father whined. "Just one more? It's our last day. Our plane leaves in an hour."
Then you should already be at the airport, I thought. The daughters were making their way toward the princess as if I hadn't just told them no.
As if reading my mind, Princess Petronella was pretending she hadn't noticed the family, and was making for the employees-only gate with a sense of purpose, waving pleasantly at passers-by without breaking stride, gracefully dodging the handful of people who tried to stop her for a picture.
The father moved to go after her, and I stepped into his path. "Princess Petronella will be back at—" I shuddered as several fat raindrops pelted my shoulders and head— "—5:15, weather permitting."
"You let the other kids see her, but you're not gonna let my kids see her?"
"It's starting to rain, sir."
"If you woulda just let us see her, we could be done by now!"
You and the ten other 'just one more' families that walk up behind you, I thought to myself, trying not to let the Happyland smile falter.
"Fine, you tell my kid she can't see Petronella, then!" The father yelled at me.
I looked at the two little girls he had with him. "Princess Petronella had to leave." They nodded. They didn't look terribly concerned.
"DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?" The father roared at me, stepping into my personal space and towering over me. I could tell from his breath that he'd been sampling the adult beverages over at the Adventure Isles Cantina. "I am the VICE PRESIDENT of HAPPYLAND CUSTOMER COMPLAINTS. You are in BIG TROUBLE."
There is no Vice President of Happyland Customer Complaints. That's not a thing.
The shoulders of my uniform were soaked through now. I stepped away to grab the umbrella I'd leaned against a nearby fence—in truth, it was also a good excuse to put some distance between us. Instead of calling him on his lie, I played along. "Then you're certainly aware, sir, that we want all our customers to have the most enjoyable experience possible," I opened the umbrella, "and your experience meeting Princess Petronella will be much more enjoyable when it's not raining. See you at 5:15, sir. Have a Happy Day." I turned and speedwalked toward the employees-only gate.
"I've got your name!" The man yelled after me. "I'm going straight to customer service! You RUINED MY VACATION! I'm getting you fired!"
I'd be more concerned, I thought, if I hadn't already heard that more times than I can count.
People can get a little--for lack of a better word--crazy when it comes to their Happyland vacation experience. I can't say I always blame them. A lot of people save for a long time to come here, and the fact is, we're pretty good at making the experience utterly magical, but reality can't always live up to the hype, and the hype has strayed into the realm of urban legend. No, the Magic Castle does not lower into the ground in the event of a hurricane. No, the ducks, rabbits, and squirrels you see are not all just robots placed in the park to create the perfect atmosphere. No, for the last time, there isn't a dome that can be raised over the entire theme park for climate control purposes. But most importantly, you're just not going to see Bobford Beaver strolling through the Happytown Square without a care in the world, like he does in the commercials, because he would get mobbed and trampled by tourists. Seriously. Last year, a band of Brazilian teenagers, working in concert, managed to pick Bobford up and throw him in the Magic Castle moat.
That's why I'm here. Happyland corporate can use whatever inspirational buzzwords they want to describe my job, but at the end of the day, I'm here so Bobford and company don’t get punched. I always have to deliver the bad news. I get none of the hugs from delighted children, and all of the angry, red-faced, screaming parents.
When I ducked into the break room to make sure Princess Petronella had reached it safely, she had already kicked off her golden high heels and carefully wrapped her flowing, curly locks in a hairnet. It looked like she had escaped the rainstorm unscathed, along with several other Happyland citizens. One of them had fired up the Nintendo 64, a relic left in the break room before any of us had been hired by some past employee for just such an occasion as a rain delay. We had all memorized every level map in Goldeneye, and I, myself, held a record high score on the Rainbow Road track in Mario Kart.
Princess Petronella glanced at the clock. "Our daily 4:25 PM thunderstorm, right on schedule. Ten minutes after I hit the park. Always just as the line is starting to form, too."
I sighed and grabbed a towel from a waiting pile, in a vain attempt to keep the dampness from soaking down into my armpits. "I tried to convince management to stop advertising that we'd be out there at that time," I grumbled.
"They said we can't just assume it's gonna rain at that time every day."
"No," she replied, rolling her eyes, "it's only rained at that time every day since Memorial Day." It had. Every day, at 4:25 PM, it rained for about 45 minutes, like clockwork. If I didn't know better, I would think it was more Happyland magic. In reality, it was just hurricane season.
I patted my hair with the towel and threw it aside. "Welp—back to the trenches," I said miserably as I picked my umbrella back up.
She gave me a sympathetic look as she grabbed a controller and chose her racer. "Try to stay dry."
I just snorted.
Despite the fact that it was now pouring buckets, the Happyland App ™ would still be telling people that they could meet Princess Petronella in the Melody Grove, so it fell to me to go stand in the Melody Grove, in the rain, and tell people that Princess Petronella wasn't there because it was raining.
In case they couldn't figure that out for themselves.
…And an astonishing number of them could not.
My shoes had flooded before I even reached the spot where I'd been standing. Fortunately, there was no sign of the angry faux-vice president. I tried to settle into a spot where the surrounding buildings might shelter me from some of the weather; it worked for about thirty seconds, and then the rain started slanting sideways, slapping me in the face.
My toes felt waterlogged. I shifted from foot to foot a bit and felt the liquid sloshing around inside my shoes. Why do I have to do this? I asked myself. Literally no one was stupid enough to try and wander through the park in this. I could see a few families stranded in the doorways of shops and restaurants, waiting out the storm. Yet here I stand, ready to answer a question that is not going to get asked.
A family materialized through the streaming deluge, hiking along obliviously, with no umbrellas, in sopping wet clothes. To my astonishment, they approached.
"The app says Princess Petronella is supposed to be here?" The father began.
I tried my best to summon a Happyland smile. "Princess Petronella went back to the castle to get out of the rain. Weather permitting, she'll be back at 5:15."
"But the app says she's supposed to be here," the mother interjected, an accusing tone in her voice.
"I believe the app says 'weather permitting,'" I replied wearily.
"Can't she just come out here for one picture?" The father asked. "We'll be quick, I promise. She won't get too wet."
I just stared at the father, the Happyland smile completely gone from my face. "No."
"Please? It's my daughter's birthday. …And she has cancer," he added as an afterthought.
That last part seemed unlikely. Kids with serious illnesses usually visited Happyland through the charity Happyland partners with. They get a big button to wear in the park with the charity logo, to alert employees that we should basically do whatever we can for them. I scanned the family quickly, but I couldn't see any button. This wasn't surprising. Somehow, whenever I had to announce that one of our Happyland citizens had to leave, a whole lot of people suddenly and mysteriously came down with Birthday Cancer.
I couldn't really call them on it, but there was no way I was going to make the princess come out here in this weather. "I'm sorry, sir, there's nothing I can do. If the weather clears up, we hope to see you back here at 5:15."
The mother was starting up Karen mode. "If the app says she's out here, then she should be out here!"
The radio on my hip crackled, mercifully sparing me from having to respond. "Happytown Square to Melody Grove."
"Excuse me," I said to the family, juggling my umbrella to my other hand so I could reach my radio and stepping away to answer. "Go for Melody Grove."
"You guys are rain delayed, right? Sue's had another nosebleed. Could you come over here and cover for her in Happytown Square Hall?"
I made a face. That was halfway across the park. "Sure," I said weakly.
Making my apologies to the angry, wet family, I squelched off toward Happytown Square, my drenched uniform pants smacking against my shins as I walked. I wasn't even halfway there when a woman flagged me down from under an awning. "Excuse me!"
Oh, thank goodness. I stepped under the awning with her and enjoyed a brief moment of respite. "How can I help you?"
"It's raining," she pointed out.
"Yes it is," I replied, slightly confused as to how she expected me to respond.
"Can you do something about that?"
I blinked. This was a new one. I did not have a Happyland-approved response ready for that. What…exactly…did this woman expect me to do?
You know what? Screw it. I am wet, and I am grumpy.
Without breaking eye contact, I pulled my radio off my hip once again and held it to my lips, pretending to key the talk button. "Melody Grove to Happyland HQ: deploy the dome."
The woman's eyes widened. She had clearly heard this particular legend.
"They'll take care of it from here, ma'am, but the dome does take some time to deploy," I said in my most professional voice. "Should take about…" I covertly glanced at my watch. "Twenty five more minutes."
"Oh, that’s wonderful—thank you for doing that," she gushed, then turned to go into the store behind us, where a man, presumably her husband, was talking on his phone several feet away. "Honey, they're taking care of it!" She called out as she walked toward him.
I stood there, dumbfounded for a moment. She bought that? She seriously believes that we have a dome to put over the park stop the rain and we were just…waiting for someone to ask us nicely to use it?
I was still shaking my head over that five minutes later when I passed that very same awning while going the opposite direction. My umbrella was useless now—sheets of rain were sluicing off of every building, and I was walking into the wind. I'd gotten all the way to Happytown Square Hall to find that Sue had recovered from her nosebleed and no longer needed me to cover for her. No one had bothered to radio and let me know.
As I passed the Smiley Smoothie stand, I noticed a mother and daughter in Bobford Beaver ponchos sheltering there, the daughter sobbing brokenheartedly. That wasn't so unusual—Happyland saw a lot of meltdowns from overstimulated children—but this girl was probably twelve or thirteen, a bit too old for that sort of thing. That was weird.
My gut told me to stop.
"Everything okay?" I asked.
The girl was trying to tamp down the hiccups that came with a good cry, and couldn't speak. "We lost our autograph book in a puddle," her mother explained.
"Ah," I answered. Collecting autographs was a favorite pastime of the younger Happyland guests. Bobford Beaver, Princess Petronella, and all their friends each had their own unique (carefully practiced) autograph, and honestly, it was kind of fun to see how each citizen of Happyland wrote their names. Again, though, this girl seemed a bit old for that. I tried to carefully school my expression so I wouldn't look like I was judging, but I wasn't fast enough.
"It's n-not for me," she told me in a quavering voice. "It's for my friend, Claire. We were supposed to do our trips together, but sh-she had to cancel." She winced when she said those last words, as if they caused her pain.
'Do our trips.' That was an odd way of saying it.
"Morgan's made it a priority to get Claire something special to make it up to her," the mother continued for her, but I didn't really hear her. I was focusing on Morgan's poncho—through it, rather. Through the translucent vinyl, I could just barely make out a charity button.
If Claire was also supposed to visit Happyland through the charity, but she had to cancel…that meant she was probably too sick to go.
My stomach turned as I glanced at my watch. Seventeen minutes until the rain let up, and Princess Petronella returned to Melody Grove, and I had to be with her.
"Let me see what I can do," I said. "When the rain stops, could you come and meet me in Melody Grove?"
I ducked into a mostly empty shop on my way back. The employees' faces lit up when I walked in. In the social hierarchy of Happyland, I, a mere one degree away from Bobford himself, was cooler than them, in the same way that they were cooler than the food services people.
"Hi," I flashed them a smile as I grabbed an autograph book off a shelf. "I need this for a customer service issue, okay?" That was universal Happyland code for 'a customer is upset, and this will shut them up'. Happyland corporate had authorized us to give away complimentary inexpensive souvenirs to keep people from leaving one-star reviews, if we judged it necessary.
The shop employees nodded enthusiastically, but I didn't bother to wait for their approval. I sprinted through the puddles in the now-drizzling precipitation, past the employees-only gate, into the break room where Princess Petronella and friends were still playing Mario Kart. "Hey guys?"
They politely paused the game and turned to me.
I unwrapped the plastic film off the brand-new autograph book and set it on a table. "Fill 'er up." As the citizens of Happyland crowded around the table, I pulled Princess Petronella aside. "Could you do me a favor?"
At 5:20 PM, as the sun peeked out of the clouds and the memory of rain dripped from the trees of Melody Grove, Princess Petronella had developed a substantial line of waiting guests as Morgan and her mother approached me uncertainly. Flagging the princess down, I pointed subtly to Morgan and gave her a look. She caught my eye, and as soon as she had finished up with the family she was visiting with, she daintily held up a finger to the next waiting family and asked them to wait a moment (somehow, they always listened to her, and not even begrudgingly) and flounced over to Morgan.
"My friend has told me so much about you!" She exclaimed, taking Morgan's hand as if they were old friends. She looked at me expectantly, and I produced the autograph book, and she duly handed it to the astonished Morgan. "My friends and I have gotten you a gift to bring back to your friend Claire. I hope she likes it!"
Looking slightly unsure, Morgan flicked open the cover and began thumbing through the pages. I could see her breathing faster as she turned page after page. Every single one was full—not just with autographs, but with personal messages that started with 'Dear Claire,' from every single citizen of Happyland, in their own unique handwriting (a little bit of real Happyland magic that the break room crowd had helped me with).
Princess Petronella might have been the one that got the hug, but I swear I could still feel it.