I have this novel completely plotted out and am working on the first draft now, so while I am still in the research and plotting stages of Horses in Wonderland, I am going to share some chapters from this novel. This will be available at the $5 Patreon level after this introduction, so if you want to read more, that's where you'll be able to find it. Ideally I'll share the entire first draft before working on a second draft and beginning the search for a publisher.
What's it all about? Theme park life and the people who make up the fandom. America the Beautiful is a theme park in coastal Virginia with a rich heritage and a huge fan base. Families come here to vacation; college students come here to get work credit and escape exams for a semester; middle-aged adults come here to soak up the nostalgia of their childhood trips. Most people go home; some people stay.
They all have reasons for being here. Tabby, because America the Beautiful's themed world offers the perfection her radical Christian upbringing always told her wasn't possible in this sinful world. Antonia, because it's the first stop on the train out of her inner-city childhood. Nick, because he's too lazy to find another job and there are plenty of girls here in all kinds of costumes, perfect for role-play. Nathan, because it's the only place where he's ever felt he belonged. And Martin, because he's holding onto the memories of what he had here once.
With a shared mythology their only link, the employees and fans of America the Beautiful find their lives tangle in unexpected ways--proving that a theme park isn't just for kids... and it can be a very adult place.
Copyright 2018 Natalie Keller Reinert, all rights reserved.
This is a work of fiction. All resemblances to places or people, alive or dead, is purely coincidental.
Chapter One: Tabby
Tabby smoothed the skin between her eyes with her fingers and wished the day would end.
She was sweating through her floor-length “calico” skirt, but that was nothing new. When she’d hoped to transfer out of ride operations, the goal had been to get into an air conditioned space, even if the costume was ridiculous. Like the one in Patriot’s Place, which everyone hated: two skirts, a lace-up bodice, a frilly-sleeved blouse. It would’ve been murder if Patriot’s Place had any outside carts, the kind that hawked light-up toys and five-dollar bottles of water, but America the Beautiful Theme Park’s 1776-themed area only had a cluster of cool, dark shops under low-beamed ceilings, where the air-conditioning swirled delightfully on what little bare skin the Patriots were able to show.
The Patriot’s Place costume had a mobcap, too, which the Brazilian college students always wore stretched low and tight across their foreheads, like baseball caps, during their annual summer migration. The Brazilian interns arrived, lived, and wandered the theme park in beautiful, husky-voiced packs, somehow all five-foot-seven with long dark hair, and brought with them no discernible customer service skills besides a mastery of Portuguese and a lack of squeamishness about cash carried about the park in sweaty cleavage. Every night they closed the shops, boarded the bus back to the Patriot employee lot, and took off the mob-caps, leaving them all with angry red marks across their foreheads where the elastic had pressed all day. They rubbed at each other’s mob-cap marks and groaned at their reflections in their phones. Tabby had given up trying to explain the cap was worn above the hairline.
Tabby had always preferred Patriot’s Place, despite the costume, but of course when her transfer out of ride operations came around it was for Old Dodge City, where the shops were mostly outdoor carts in the shape of Conestoga wagons. There were strict union rules about declining transfers, and if she turned down Old Dodge City she’d be stuck slapping the STOP/GO button on the Bayou Pirate Adventure boats for another six months or the rest of her life, whichever came first. So she buttoned up her Laura Ingalls Wilder blouse to her chin, looked at herself in the Wardrobe department mirrors, and cursed the day she’d dropped out of college for this.
“Hey, hey you, how much for these sunglasses?”
Tabby trained her gaze on the sweating man addressing her. When had “excuse me, miss,” dissolved into “hey you” anyway? Was she totally undeserving of respect since she was dressed up in a polyester prairie girl get-up? He waved a pair of plastic sunglasses at her, as if she had memorized the price-point of every piece of junk hanging from every peg on her miniature Conestoga wagon. She held out her hand. “I’m not sure, can I see them?”
“You’re not sure?” He squinted at her. He looked like no one in particular, just a typical theme park dad in his forties, sweating bullets from his unprotected balding head, a bountiful black mustache furring his upper-lip like he’d taken his fashion advice from the 1970s. He was wearing a t-shirt from a Fun Run which Tabby doubted he had successfully completed. The Fun Run had been sponsored by half a dozen community banks, car lots and chicken restaurants which apparently he was happy to advertise from his back throughout his theme park day. She noticed this a lot: dads showing up for family vacations, during which presumably they would appear in many treasured photos, wearing clothes they’d gotten for free. “Is this your shop or what? You should know!”
The fact that there were six different pricing structures for the various sunglasses her stupid covered wagon displayed on its racks was probably not something that Arthur T. Familyman would understand. Tabby had tried explaining this before. Instead, she went with the Themed Reply written in the binder wedged next to the cash register. “I’m sorry for the confusion, sir. This is Shopkeeper Sam’s store, but he’s down at the train station picking up a new shipment from Back East. I’d be happy to check the price for you if you just wait one moment.”
Theme Park Dad wrinkled his forehead at her, his black eyebrows coming together like two fat caterpillars, and Tabby knew that, as usual, the Themed Reply had been a mistake. “Shopkeeper Sam?” he repeated in an incredulous voice. “Do you think I’m an idiot?”
There was no Themed Reply for this, which was ironic because of how often this was the response, and because most of the time yes, Tabby did think the person was an idiot. Tabby retreated to the Standard College Girl Reply, which was not written down but instead passed from college student to college student at America the Beautiful, like a grand verbal tradition of cop-outs, poor training, a lack of management, and rude customers. “No sir, I’m just saying what they tell me to. I’m sorry.”
It was the equivalent of “I don’t know, I just work here,” but it usually got a grin and de-escalated the situation. Tabby waited, puppy-dog eyes in full effect, as the man considered and then relented. He handed over the cheap sunglasses, the arms rattling against the frame, and Tabby scanned the bar code. The register beeped obediently.
“Twenty-four ninety-five,” she announced.
“Plus tax,” she finished.
She handed back the glasses.
“Are you kidding me?”
And it was back on. Tabby was prepared to wait this one out, but then escape came in the form of a tiny computer print-out, the size of a receipt, handed to her by a fellow Patriot. She smiled at her rescuer. “I reckon this fine gentleman will be purchasing those sunglasses,” she told Winslow in heavy Themed Language.
Winslow grinned. He was a goofy-looking guy with long jowls, long ears, a long nose, and somehow, long eyes, but he was nice, as most goofy-looking guys are, and he had a thing for Tabby, which also seemed to be a common trait of goofy-looking guys. He had crumbs on his faux-leather vest and red and black plaid shirt, so he’d just come from break himself. “Enjoy your chuckwagon,” he told her, and whisked his hand through the air like a maitre’d pointing to her table.
Tabby sighed and made her escape, dodging tourists as she skipped across the hot brown pavement of Old Dodge City. A collection of Old West storefronts lined the opposite side of the pathway, their elaborately carved signs advertising the Shootin’ Arcade, Sam Sweet’s Candy Emporium, Professor Cloud’s Curious Artifacts, and Tumbleweed Treasures. All but the arcade were stores, all were air-conditioned, and all were out of Tabby’s reach, staffed by long-time Patriots who used their seniority to keep themselves in climate-control all year long. Tabby hadn’t even been trained to work in any of the indoor shops. It was a pioneer’s life for her, and would be for a long time. America the Beautiful had been around for thirty-some years, and a startlingly large number of people had been content to run registers and stock shelves for all of them.
Her friend Molly had gotten so sick of the seniority backlog at America the Beautiful that she’d transferred right out of the park and into the much younger sister location across the parking lot. By all accounts it was much easier working next door at Legacy of Heroes Adventure Park, where the roller coasters were themed to great American conflicts (and, to a lesser extent, the movies that celebrated them. The Escape From Atlanta had won several industry awards for its animatronic right before the final lift hill, of a damsel that looked remarkably like Vivien Leigh slapping the reins of an emaciated animatronic horse. Riders got a quick glance at her before they went up the last hill and the warehouse explosion blew them straight out of Atlanta and into the bucolic country night of a plantation that looked suspiciously Tara-like.)
At Legacy of Heroes everything seemed less strict than at tradition-bound America the Beautiful—you could occasionally walk through a themed area in the wrong costume, for example. The park had been built on a much cheaper scale than America the Beautiful, and it lacked the tremendous infrastructure that kept AtB’s costumed staff from accidentally intruding into the wrong era. It also lacked the thirty-year Patriots who scooped up all the good shifts and training, and left the new staff out in the cold (or the heat, depending on the season).
Although there were some days, Tabby thought, slipping gratefully through a door next to the restroom breezeway with a sign reading “Shopkeepers Only Please,” when America the Beautiful’s principle conceit, keeping the outside world so far outside that even admitting the employees there were actual modern humans, provided a welcome real-world escape for the Patriots as well as the park guests. On the opposite side of the rustic wooden door was an industrial staircase, the walls painted dull battleship gray. Cold air rushed up the staircase and bit at her ears, and she smiled in weary relief. Thank goodness for subterranean passageways cut through Virginia clay, she thought, and then congratulated herself on her lyricism. Maybe she hadn’t lost her touch when she quit on her English degree after all.
Two flights down, Tabby walked along the wall as the warning signs hanging from the pipe-lined ceiling indicated she should: drivers in the middle, pedestrians to the sides. The service tunnel was about twenty feet wide and lit with a wan shimmer of blue-gray fluorescent light panels, sort of like a subway passage. America the Beautiful kept up its illusions with an upstairs/downstairs segregation. Down here there was a constant buzz of semi-industrial work going on beneath the bright colors and lush landscaping of the theme park’s guest areas. Instead of carefully selected music with tempos chosen to blend seamlessly together when one land merged into another, the tunnel system was always regaled, at all hours, with the smooth sounds of Lite 97.3, Virginia’s At-Work Station. Tabby hated late shifts the most, because that’s when the station played “Delilah.”
She passed the open door of a stockroom and paused to peek inside: Antonia was pulling geodes out of a box of packing peanuts and dropping them unceremoniously into a plastic shelving unit. Tall and slim with cocoa-dark skin, Antonia was just a few years older than Tabby’s twenty-two, but somehow seemed decades older. At least, that was how she seemed to Tabby, who envied Antonia’s cool, rational response to every disaster AtB could throw at them. She pulled an earbud out of one ear when she saw Tabby. “Hey girl, what’s up? You look like a total mess.”
“Thanks.” Tabby pushed a limp lock of brown hair, damp with sweat, behind her ear. “You look cool and comfortable. So I hate you.”
“Hey, I don’t know how I keep getting these early morning stocking shifts. But I ain’t complainin’ either.”
“Someone in scheduling loves you. Because I’m pretty sure Juanita has higher seniority than you. I’m pretty sure because that’s what she’s telling everyone.”
“But what did she choose on her bid? Time of day or location? Because if you chose time of day first you’re going to get mid-shifts. I chose stocking as my first location choice. Don’t care when I work as long as I do it inside, in the A/C.”
“I chose time of day so I wouldn’t get stuck closing one day and opening the next.” The mystifying rule of schedule bids and seniority dominated tunnel conversations. Talking about it in guest areas was strictly prohibited. But everyone was constantly scrutinizing the posted schedules and taking offense to any seniority infraction, real or supposed, even if they didn’t want the shift that supposedly should have been their’s. Winslow said it was how management kept them distracted from the real problems facing the park’s employees. He didn’t say what those problems were, though. Typical fucking Winslow.
“Yeah, I hear that. Tomorrow I don’t come in until four o’clock. And today I’m done at three.” Antonia poked a loose curl into her updo. Her black hair gleamed under the stock room lights. “Gotta take a nap so I can stay up late tonight. It’s been weeks since I had a closing shift.” She reached back into the box and dug out more cheap geodes, shaking the packing peanuts onto the floor in a styrofoam snowfall. “Nick was down here earlier.”
Tabby’s stomach made a slow nervous back-flip. “Oh yeah?” She hoped her voice was steady.
Antonia grinned at her sideways. Maybe it wasn’t. “Mmhmm. He say, 'didn’t Tabby get any morning shifts this week?’ I say, ’she’s opening up the wagon all week, that’s like her new home.’ He was like ’well I meant five AM shifts,’ and I told him ’nah man I got all those.’”
“That’s a good story,” Tabby said. “Thanks for sharing.”
Antonia cackled. “Girl, he’s looking for you! Go see if he’s in the break room.”
They eyed each other for a moment. An electric cart went whining past, its cargo bed rattling with ladders and toolboxes. A crowd of college students went past, wearing flower-sprigged skirts and ruffled aprons, on their way to lunch shifts at Gold Rush Saloon. They were loud, their conversation echoing off the low ceiling of the tunnel, and it masked Tabby’s half-apologetic good-bye when she turned away from Antonia and headed for the break room.
Antonia doesn’t care, she’s over it, she told me we could still be friends, nothing has to change. But Tabby couldn’t help glancing over her shoulder as she trudged down the concrete aisle, and when she did, she saw Antonia duck back into the stock room, not wanting to admit she’d been watching.