By Hannah Thurman
When Brenden calls the hotel, a waiter brings Kelly the phone on a Mickey Mouse platter. She and Hart are alone in the restaurant, drinking orange juice out of champagne flutes. It’s not quite five in the morning but it’s already hot. Across the lobby, automatic doors open every few minutes to let in monorail trains, and in with them comes the humid Orlando air.
“Is everything okay?” she asks her ex-husband. “Why didn’t you call my cell?”
“You didn’t pick up,” he says. “And this is important.”
“Sorry,” she says. “I couldn’t hear it buzz.”
Brenden’s usually even tone sounds a little rushed. “Hey, can I talk to Hart?”
“I’d rather tell her first.”
Kelly hands the receiver to her daughter without saying goodbye. “It’s Daddy.”
Hart takes the phone. “Hi! Yeah, I remember. That’s great. Wow. Yeah, probably. Okay, I’ll tell her. Bye.” She presses a button on the phone and sets it down on the table. “Daddy says he e-mailed my portfolio to the art teacher at Phillips. She really liked it. She said if I decide to go there, I can go straight into seventh-grade drawing.”
“That’s really great,” Kelly says. “It was nice of your father to get up so early to tell you.” But to her, the timing seems calculated. Hart has lived in DC with her for the past four years, but at the end of fifth grade, Brenden got her an interview at a private middle school near his house in Fairfax. Just to see, he’d said. But since she’d gotten in, he’d lobbied hard, sending Hart video clips of the ecology club, skiing field trips, and a remarkable rendition of Anything Goes. Now this. But she wasn’t going to give up without a fight. She couldn’t compete with Phillips’s appeal on academic grounds—Hart had gotten none of her charter picks and would otherwise have to attend Kennedy, the underfunded, overcrowded public school nearby—so she had arranged this trip. She knew it was a low blow, the kind of one-upsmanship they’d promised to avoid. But if Hart chose Phillips, she was left with weekends and holidays and Hart was still so young.
She squeezes Hart’s arm. “You ready to go see Elsa? Do you need anything from the room?”
“Nope.” Hart slides off the seat and pulls a pair of white, wrist-length gloves from the back pocket of her shorts. “Got it.” She tugs on the gloves and flicks a crumb off her chair. “Let’s go.”
Kelly can’t resist. “Don’t you mean let it go?” she says.
“Mom,” Hart says, “Please don’t embarrass me.” She shakes her head as she walks up the carpeted steps towards the monorail. Kelly’s tempted to start singing, or repeat the joke louder, but then remembers the mission at hand: show Hart how fun things can be if she chooses to stay with her. So she puts her hands in her pockets and follows her daughter silently a few paces behind.
The sea-foam green train that comes is empty, but two mothers get in at the stop for the next hotel. Their daughters are younger than Hart, seven or eight, and are both wearing blue polyester princess dresses. One of the mothers waves at Hart. “I love your gloves, honey. They’re just like Elsa’s.” She slurps at her drink, a beige-colored coffee topped with a mountain of foam and drizzled chocolate. Kelly smiles tersely. Five days a week, she lobbies for a nonprofit that promotes conservation and healthy eating. Disney seems diametrically opposed to both of these aims, and Kelly imagines the Florida landfills are packed with coffee cups like this one, ripped princess dresses, and discarded mouse hats.
Hart examines her gloves. “Thank you,” she says after a moment. “They don’t sell them at the Disney store so I bought them online. They’re for people who bite their fingernails. I don’t bite my fingernails though; they’re just a costume.”
The two women cackle. “She’s too stinking funny,” one says.
Kelly tries not to groan. The women are wearing little gold crosses on top of their pastel t-shirts. Homeschoolers, probably. Religious nuts. She puts her arm around Hart. “So do you think we’re here early enough?” she says.
One of the women yawns. “Our bellhop told us some moms left before four. But I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.”
The monorail slows into a nearly empty station. Another woman gets on, carrying a sleeping girl wearing a snowflake nightgown.
“Oh, my lord,” the two moms say, turning away from Kelly and Hart. “What an angel. An absolute angel.”
When they’re not looking, Kelly whispers in Hart’s ear. “Take off your gloves, sweetie. I’m gonna need you to use your powers to freeze their vocal chords.”
Hart rolls her eyes. “Mom,” she says again.
“I’m only joking,” Kelly says.
“I know.” Hart turns to look out the window and Kelly folds her own hands in her lap. She suspects Hart frequently pretends to be Elsa, the Disney princess who can conjure snow from her fingertips and freeze water with a touch. But whenever Kelly mentions the playacting, Hart scoffs. Pretend is for babies and she’s almost eleven. She likes Frozen because it has good music and because she wants to be an animator when she grows up. But she still wears the gloves almost everywhere they go, and Kelly wonders who Hart would encase in ice if she could.
When they’re not looking, Kelly whispers, “Take off your gloves, sweetie. I’m gonna need you to use your powers to freeze their vocal chords.”
The monorail glides around a bend and the park appears, bright as a cartoon. Rollercoaster tracks loop behind the castle, which stands uninterrupted against the pale sky. Kelly checks her phone. It’s 5:27. The park won’t open for two and a half hours, but there’s already a line forming against the front gate. The monorail slows.
The doors hiss open and they spring through them, past the rows of stanchions ready for the morning rush, then down the concrete steps to the park entrance. Their footfalls echo across the wide expanse and for a moment, it feels as if they are the only people left in a deserted world. They slow down at the ticket-takers and present their purple wristbands.
“All right, you can go,” the ticket taker says and they run the last few steps towards the line.
The line is less of a line and more of a mass of people, almost all female, pressing towards the enormous gold gates. Kelly and Hart take a spot between an Asian woman with twin girls and a bored-looking teenager in track shoes. When he looks away, Hart whispers in Kelly’s ear that he must be a runner. Apparently some parents have been paying locals to wait in line for them. Once Kelly heard about this, the whole activity seemed even more revolting. Rich, lazy people will always find a way to come out ahead.
Hart asks for Kelly’s phone to look up Frozen facts. There’s an almost unending supply of them online, and through Hart’s recitation, Kelly has learned that Elsa has been the most popular Disney attraction for over sixteen weeks.
“Did you know Elsa is the first Disney princess not to be a teenager?” Hart says, twisting her thumb out of the glove so she can scroll down the screen. “She’s 21. And she’s only the second princess to have magical powers.”
“What about Cinderella?” Kelly asks.
“No, that was all the fairy godmother, remember?”
“Oh yeah.” While Kelly doesn’t mind Elsa as a character, she’s disheartened by Hart’s sudden obsession with princesses. They seem for the most part vapid and anti-feminist.
“Elsa was originally going to have spiky hair. The first time they wrote the movie, she was going to be the villain,” Hart says.
One of the girls in front of them, a chubby redhead who looks like she’s about nine, says, “That’s not true. Elsa’s always been good!”
Hart sighs. “In the final version, she’s good. But when they were writing it, the authors were thinking about making her evil. They rewrote it four times.”
The girl crosses her arms. “You’re wrong. Elsa’s good. That’s why she’s my favorite.”
Hart addresses her with a patient tone. “She’s my favorite too, but it says so right here on Buzzfeed.”
“I’m not allowed to go to that site. It’s for the devil. You’re going to Hell.”
Kelly taps the girl’s mom on the shoulder. She is broad and permed and engrossed in something large-print on her Kindle. “Excuse me,” Kelly says. “Your daughter just told mine she was going to Hell.”
The woman yawns and does not cover her mouth.
“I said probably,” Devil girl says.
“Settle down, Kasey,” the woman says.
“Could you please get her to apologize?” Kelly says. “That hurts my daughter’s feelings.”
“No, it doesn’t,” Hart says.
“Looks like it doesn’t,” Devil girl’s mother says, turning away.
“Of course it did,” Kelly says. “Now I’d love it if you could ask your kid to say she’s sorry.”
“Mom,” Hart says. “Stop it, please.”
Kelly grits her teeth and backs away. These people are exactly why she hates Disneyworld. The mom probably eats meat three times a day, drives an SUV, and votes a straight Republican ticket if she votes at all. They’re the sorts of people she imagines send their kids to school at Phillips, although this woman looks like she’s spent about a semester’s tuition on Coach products alone. Kelly is counting the linked C’s on her massive purse when Hart taps her on the arm.
“You have a text from dad,” she says, handing her the phone. “I didn’t read it.”
“Thanks, sweetie.” Kelly takes the phone from her and opens the message.
Dear Kelly, it begins. For a VP of software, Brenden’s never mastered the etiquette of texting. I hope you are having a good time at Disney. It would be great if you could confirm if Hart wants to go to Phillips TODAY. If we want to lock in that art class, they need an answer tonight. There’s other people on the waiting list. I’ll call you later this evening. Hope you are having a great time. Brenden.
“What’s he say?” Hart says.
Kelly pauses. “He says he wants us to have a great time.”
“That’s a long text,” Hart says, but Kelly quickly deletes it. “Is daddy going to meet us at the airport? If so, you should see his new car. It has a talking GPS and last time I asked it to find my butt.” She imitates the Siri voice. “I’m sorry, I can’t locate ‘my butt’ nearby.”
Kelly smiles. “Maybe. Do you like it better than riding the metro?”
“The metro smells,” Hart says and Kelly looks away. When Hart was younger, she used to love riding trains. She’d always beg Kelly to be allowed to yell up at the arched ceiling of the stations, giggling when she heard her own voice echo back to her. It makes Kelly’s stomach sink to discover she can’t remember when Hart stopped doing this.
A few feet away, a man in a striped shirt is selling a tray full of drinks with purple straws. Kelly’s eager to switch the subject, so she waves to him. “You want a drink?” she asks Hart.
“Really?” Hart says.
Kelly hands the man a twenty. He gives her back four ones—the waste!—and an enormous plastic cup printed with hologrammed snowflakes. Kelly takes a sip before handing it to her daughter. The lemonade is the consistency of a slurpie and twice as sweet. Kelly rarely lets Hart have anything this processed, but she hands the cup to Hart anyway.
“Thank you!” Hart says, wrapping both gloved hands around it. “Oh my gosh, this is so good.” She giggles. “They should call it Frozen-frozen lemonade!”
Kelly laughs, feeling the anxiety subsiding. She checks the time. Just one more hour. She does not reply to Brenden’s text and puts her phone back in her pocket.
The sun rises higher over the castle and everyone begins to sweat, the air smelling like coconut sunscreen. More people arrive by the minute, and it’s clear they’re not Frozen folk, just families who want to be in and out before noon. Most of them have children in jogging strollers. Kelly remembers when Hart was that small and it doesn’t seem like so long ago, like the year before last, but that’s not true, Hart’s almost a teenager. A few more years and she’ll be gone for good. She watches her daughter suck frozen lemonade through the thick straw, and promises herself once again that she’ll do whatever it takes.
“Good lemonade?” she asks.
“Yeah,” Hart says.
Kelly is about to ask if she wants a snack, maybe they sell Elsa enchiladas or snowmen-shaped cinnamon rolls, but a hush falls over the crowd and she turns to see what everyone’s looking at. Staff members in Mickey Mouse ears have begun making their way to the gate. Remember, no pushing, they say. Remember, no pushing. Despite their warnings, the crowd begins pressing towards the gate, condensing into a solid mass of bodies. Sweaty arms keep brushing up against Kelly and she pulls Hart in front of her.
“Are you okay?” Kelly says.
“Yeah,” Hart says, “Can I have your phone again?”
Kelly has to elbow someone just to reach into her pocket. She hands the phone back to Hart.
It’s 7:45, 7:47, 7:50. The little girl next to them begins to cry. When her mother picks her up and wades back through the crowd, Kelly can breathe for just a moment, then people step forward to fill the space and she’s surrounded again. Her heart rattles. She feels like a cow bound for slaughter. She squeezes Hart’s shoulders until Hart tells her to stop.
“Are you okay?” Kelly asks.
“I’m fine,” Hart says. “Are you okay?”
Kelly has never liked crowds and the hot thick air reminds her of a story she heard once about a woman who fell down a stream-filled manhole. When paramedics pulled her out, her skin was loose and red like a cooked lobster’s. But they’re so close. She stands on her tiptoes to suck in a breath of untainted air.
A countdown starts echoing through the crowd. It grows louder and faster as people chant: 51, 50, 49.
“You ready?” Kelly asks Hart. Hart doesn’t turn around but nods, clapping her gloved hands to the beat of the numbers.
35, 34, 33.
Kelly spots Devil girl a few feet away. She and her mother are both wearing hard plastic sandals. She hopes they get blisters. She wonders if Devil girl will cry when they aren’t first in line. Thinking about that calms her down a little.
11, 10, 9, 8.
The gates begin to open, swinging inward on a grooved track. The staff members back into the park and move out of the way, smiles stretched across their faces.
4, 3, 2—
The first people begin running through the gates and the crowd lurches ahead. Kelly grabs Hart’s gloved hand and springs forward onto the pavement. The sun is hot already and Kelly feels sweat run down her neck as she and Hart race past the silent gift shops and empty green lawns. She does not look behind her, but she can hear the rumble of feet and wheels as everyone makes a beeline for the castle. Elsa’s appearance will take place on the left side stage, tucked into a stony alcove called “the chamber.”
Hart’s fingers feel hot through the gloves. A 20-something sprints past them, and Kelly feels a stab of jealousy. One more person in front of them. She pulls them both forward, purse flopping against her side.
The cobblestones end and they jog onto the painted asphalt that surrounds the castle, racing towards a flag that says “front of line.” An arrow points towards a roped-off area surrounded on two sides by artificial rocks. The sun reflects off the high castle windows, splashing Kelly with flashes of light and heat. Her mouth feels sticky from the lemonade.
With one last push, Hart and Kelly careen towards the flag. Only a handful of people stand there already, and they all look like they’re saving places for someone else—most have already gotten out cell phones, breathlessly saying they’ve made it.
“We made it!” Kelly says. She looks behind her as the line grows and grows. She can’t spot Devil girl or her mother anywhere. “Awesome job,” she says to Hart.
Hart nods, sucking deeply at her lemonade. “Those people in the back are going to be waiting for hours.”
“I believe it,” Kelly says. “Hey, do you think it’s the same actor who plays her all day?” She pauses. “Um—”
Hart shrugs. “I know she’s not real-real.”
Kelly wants to ask her what real-real means. Are there levels of realness that Hart believes in, stacking Santa versus angels versus the onstage persona of Taylor Swift? But it seems like a silly question and anyway they’re now distracted by the arrival of children who’ve come to replace the runners in front of them.
“Cheaters,” she whispers at Hart but just as she says that, a woman pushes up a girl in a wheelchair. “Okay, not her,” she says but Hart doesn’t smile. She’s got her eyes trained on the stage, where two men are setting up a cushioned throne and a microphone. They disappear into a door in the rock and Hart leans forward.
“Oh my gosh,” she whispers. The door reopens and out walks a tall, pale woman in a sequined dress. Her white-blonde hair is thick, twisted into a complicated braid laced with tiny sparkling things. She steps out onto the platform and Hart’s eyes grow big.
“Good morning,” Elsa says. “It is truly a magical day!” She clasps her hands. Kelly sees she is not wearing gloves, but that makes sense. She’s Elsa from the end of the movie, after she’s accepted her powers and stepped into her rightful role as queen. “My sister Anna told me I was here to meet my subjects, but she must’ve been mistaken. You aren’t subjects at all—you’re… princesses!”
Children begin to shriek. The girl in the wheelchair in front of them claps so hard she has to bend over.
“Thank you all so much for coming,” Elsa says. “I can’t wait to meet each and every one of you.” Then she replaces the microphone and sits down on the snowflake throne.
Kelly fans herself with her hand. Her cheeks feel hot and she can’t stop staring at the stage. Elsa’s skin is flawless, her mouth painted with perfect lines of red. When she blinks, her eyelashes actually sparkle.
“She’s so beautiful,” Kelly says, taking Hart’s hand.
Hart grins and grins. “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it. I want them to take two pictures. One with just me, then one with you and me. Wait, three pictures and we can do one with a gap so we can Photoshop in daddy.”
Even this mention of Brenden doesn’t slow Kelly down. The excitement has overtaken her. She feels more centered than she does after hours of yoga. It’s embarrassing and silly but she doesn’t care. They’re about to meet a princess. She stares at Elsa’s white wrists, wondering if wearing sunscreen every day would make her skin half as soft. There must be some kind of laser that will peel off her epidermis until only princess skin remains. She’s imagining what a machine that does that would look like when she hears a familiar voice.
“God bless you,” it says. “You’re an angel.”
She turns around. Devil girl and her mother are squeezing into line behind them, and Kelly sees the woman they’ve cut folding a wad of bills into her wallet.
“Whoa,” Kelly says. “What are you doing?”
The mother smiles. “That’s none of your business.”
“You just paid that woman to get in line. That’s not fair.”
“Calm down,” the mother says. “We’re all going to the same place.”
“Yeah,” Kelly says. “But some of us got here first because we’re in shape.” She’s furious that they’re going to have to share space with these morons, that they’re ruining her moment with Elsa.
Hart grins and grins. “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it. I want them to take two pictures. One with just me, then one with you and me. Wait, three pictures and we can do one with a gap so we can Photoshop in daddy.”
Hart tugs at Kelly’s arm. “Mom,” she says.
“What do you mean, ‘in shape’?” Devil girl’s mother moves towards Kelly. She is wearing rose-scented perfume that does not cover up the sour smell of sweat.
“I think it was pretty clear,” Kelly says. The mother lurches towards her but Kelly steps away. The line has begun to move so the disruption goes unoticed, everyone shuffling forward in fits and starts. Out of the corner of her eye, Kelly can see the first little girls approaching the throne.
Hart looks from Elsa to Kelly. “Don’t do anything, mom.”
The woman nods sharply towards Hart. “Looks like your daughter could teach you some manners.”
Kelly turns away to keep from slapping her. “Almost there,” she says. They are now right behind the photographer. Elsa poses with three little girls wearing matching pink baseball caps. Her dark eyes sparkle.
“Are you excited?” Kelly asks Hart, pushing them both as far forward as possible, away from the odious pair behind them. They are now second in line, watching the girl in the wheelchair roll ahead. Kelly and Hart both watch as Elsa bends down to hug her. “Looks like you’ve brought your own throne,” Elsa says.
“She’s perfect,” Hart breathes, but then Kelly hears a thick laugh. She whirls around and Devil girl’s mother is rolling her eyes.
“She’s perfect,” Devil girl mocks.
“No,” Hart says but before she can say anything else, Kelly snatches the cup of lemonade out of her hand. It’s heavy, still half full, and she yanks the lid off with one jerk. The girl in the wheelchair begins wheeling away and it’s their turn, they should be moving towards the throne but she’s struck, paralyzed by anger and the power she holds in the cup in her hand. Devil girl and her mother grin wide, flat suburban grins. Kelly cocks her arm back and hurls the contents of the cup into their pudgy faces.
Their reaction is immediate. Both lunge forward, clawing at Hart and Kelly with dripping fingers. The children around them shriek. Devil girl’s mother lets out a string of growling curses, flinging glops of frozen lemonade off her red face. Blood pounds through Kelly’s hands as she throws herself towards them.
The rest of the line moves back. Elsa gets out of the throne, moving quickly towards the back of the stage, then disappears through a metal door. Kelly sees the sparkling edge of her dress flash once, then it’s gone. She feels a tight grip on her arm. A man in a security jacket and mouse ears pulls her out of the line.
“Stay out! Stay out!” Devil girl’s mom shrieks but then another man appears and marches her away in the same direction. Hart and the other girl pause for a moment, faces white, then follow their mothers as they walk past the line and back towards the park entrance.
The guards do not speak. They lead the group down the Disney main street and out towards a plain door in the back of one of the pink buildings. Devil girl is crying loud sobs and in spite of all of this, Kelly wants to kick her. The guards pull them down a long gray hallway and turn at the end into what looks like a small conference room. Nothing is rounded, nothing is pastel. The only sign that they’re still in the park is faint Muzak coming through the walls, which is playing the theme from Beauty and the Beast.
“Why don’t you take a seat,” one of the guards says. The four slide into high-backed rolling chairs. The air feels very cold. Kelly looks at Hart. Hart looks away.
“We know waiting in line can be stressful, but your behavior out there was inappropriate,” the first one says.
“When you push and shove, you set a bad example for your families and for the park.”
“Excuse me,” Devil girl’s mother says. “We were just minding our own business. This lady poured her drink on me.”
Kelly snorts. “You were mocking us. You insulted my daughter.”
“Jeez, mom.” Hart puts her face in her hands. Her gloves are stained yellow from the lemonade. “I didn’t care what she was saying.”
“See?” Devil girl’s mother says. “Now please, let me and my kid back in that line.” She starts to stand up but one of the guards holds up a hand.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “But we have a zero tolerance policy for these kinds of incidents. You’re all banned from all Disney parks for the rest of the calendar year.”
“We’re going to need your wristbands,” the other guard says, pulling out a pair of long-handled scissors.
Devil girl’s mother sputters. “Are you crazy?” she keeps saying. “Do you know what we paid for this?”
“What about Epcot?” Kelly asks as the guard snips the band from her wrist.
He shakes his head. “You could do Seaworld, or Universal Studios. I’m sorry, I hate-hate doing this.”
Kelly wonders if hate-hate is the same as real-real. The guard’s face is sad and young, he’s probably closer to Hart’s age than to her own. She begins to feel a weight crushing down on her shoulders, back and neck. She has ruined everything.
“Sweetheart,” she says to Hart but Hart gets up. Kelly follows her to the door.
“Wait,” the nice guard says and they both turn. He walks towards them.
“Yes?” Kelly says. “What is it?”
“I need to escort you out.” He puts a hand on Hart’s shoulder. “Come on,” he says. “I’ll drop you off at the monorail entrance.”
Behind them, Kelly hears the other mother start to cry. “I want a refund,” she says. “It isn’t fair.”
The monorail back to the hotel is empty and cold. Sugar from the lemonade glues Kelly to her seat. Her throat is tight. “Hart,” she says again. “I’m so sorry.”
Hart flops her gloves back and forth in her hands.
“I’ll pay someone to wait tomorrow,” Kelly says. “We’ll put up your hair and they won’t recognize you, you can just find the runner and I’ll give you the money. I’ll buy you a new wristband.”
“And today we can still go to Seaworld. Don’t you want to see a killer whale show?”
Hart finally speaks. “You always say it’s cruel to keep them in those tanks.”
Kelly pauses. “They’re already in there, how much more can it matter?”
Hart frowns at her. “I’m tired,” she says. “I don’t want to go anywhere.”
The monorail zips along in silence. It stops at the first hotel but they’re going the wrong way so no one gets on.
“Well,” Kelly says. “Since we’re not seeing Elsa, I may as well tell you, your dad wants you to decide about Phillips today. That art class sounds pretty cool, doesn’t it?”
“No,” Hart says. “It doesn’t.”
Kelly blinks. “What?”
“Daddy’s going to be mad but I don’t care. All my friends are going to Kennedy. And Phillips has to wear those stupid uniforms. And they don’t have dances. It’s retarded.”
Kelly unsticks herself from her seat and turns to face her daughter. She’s never heard Hart say that word. Or express any interest in dances. I should feel happy, she thinks. This is what I wanted.
“So you want to stay with me?” Kelly says. “You want to keep living in DC?”
Hart shrugs. “I want to go to Kennedy.”
“Wow,” Kelly says. “Wow.” She slides closer to Hart. “I’m so sorry about today,” she says again. “I was a little stressed out. I was worried you were going to leave me.”
Hart doesn’t say anything. She scratches at her cheek.
Kelly puts an arm around her. “I’ll make this up to you,” she says. “I promise.”
The doors open and Hart stands up. “It’s okay,” Hart says. “I don’t care. Frozen is for babies.”
They step down the carpeted steps of the hotel. Everything smells like chlorine and maple syrup. The doors close behind them and Kelly turns to see if they’ve left anything on the train. Through the wide, clean widows she sees Hart’s gloves on the seat, one folded over the other. She looks down and sees Hart staring too, but her daughter doesn’t say anything and with a whoosh like magic, the train doors close and the monorail begins to move away.
Hannah Thurman is a writer living in Brooklyn, NY. Her stories have been published in The Michigan Quarterly Review, The Brooklyn Rail, The Lifted Brow, and others. She is currently working on a collection of short stories that take place in and around airports.