Untold hours later I awoke, one sense at a time, to the sound of distant unremarkable hustle and bustle, the feeling of a warm, soft, comfortable bed, the red glow of daylight through my still-closed eyes, and the smell of cinnamon and coffee. I took a deep, wonderful breath. I hesitated to open my eyes, because then the dream would shatter like antique glass.
But the coffee was too much for me. I opened my eyes and sat up. I was on a plush red sofa, covered in an ornate quilt. I swung my legs to the floor, to vintage carpet that may have been some kind of French Colonial. Looking around, I saw that I was in a small apartment that appeared to have been decorated in the 1950s by someone with a deep affection for the Victorian Age. Tall windows were covered with white sheers, bordered by red velvet drapes. There was a Victrola, a pedestal phone, claw-foot chairs, and baroque-framed sepia photos on the embroidered white walls. It all seemed real enough, but it wasn’t my reality… Did the Angels actually time-travel?
As soon as the question formed in my mind, the answer came to me, sharp and definite: No. The Angels’ science allowed them to manipulate subjective time through a quantum technology that would make Einstein throw in his physics towel, but the Universe still only worked in one time direction; the past was past. How quickly you met the future was another thing altogether.
This instant access to knowledge that I had not come by honestly was going to take some getting used to. I could already feel a headache sprouting behind my ears. I put it aside and began to explore. I was still naked, of course, and the first thing that grabbed my eye was a set of clothes laid out on a second red sofa across the room. They turned out to be mine—the clothes I had been wearing when I had stepped from the Diamond Horseshoe lobby into the Great Gray Beyond. I took a moment to put them on, then postponed further exploration until after the coffee and cinnamon roll waiting for me at the little pocket kitchenette.
My last meal had been a granola bar and a bizarre hot beverage called Postum, which Papa Nick swore was better than any coffee yet invented. Maybe it’s an acquired taste. By the time I poured the coffee into a cup and grabbed that sticky bun, my mouth was literally watering. I honestly fought back tears as I ate and drank, standing there at that little counter.
I explored some more. The windows looked out at various angles on Main Street; so I was back at Disneyland after all. The doors to a small balcony were stoutly locked. Light switches all worked; the antique telephone did not. The toilet was, thankfully, fully functional. I realized that I was working up the nerve to try the front door—if it was locked and I was trapped here indefinitely, my continued sanity might have been a long shot at best. I had only been conscious here for about fifteen minutes, and I had already had enough Disneyana for a lifetime. Finally, I tried the door.
It opened. I tried turning the knob from the outside; it seemed to be permanently unlocked. So far, so good. Much as I disliked the décor, it was nice to know I might have a home of sorts to come back to. Outside there was a simple landing at the top of a metal staircase down to a back-of-house courtyard. There was some patio furniture there, but the grass was brown and weedy, and the area seemed abandoned. A ground-level door led to a narrow hallway, then out another door… Main Street, USA. I looked back over my shoulder at the little apartment above the Firehouse. I had always thought that the windows and balcony were all part of a scenic façade. So had nearly everyone that had ever walked past it, I imagine. But Walt had really had a secret apartment in the park after all. If I found myself with time on my hands, maybe I’d go looking for his cryogenic vault.
The golden apex/ceiling still shimmered overhead. Something caught my eye on the other side: a bird, apparently frozen in mid-flight, though as I stared I thought I saw its wings move a tiny bit. I had no idea how much subjective time had passed here inside the pyramid-capped park, but it must have many weeks, at least. I had even less of a guess as the why time here was being manipulated this way. I formed the question in my head, trying to use my newly-acquired power; the only answer that came to me was “because we can,” and I was pretty sure that just my own cynical speculation.
If I hadn’t known better, I would have first thought that life at Disneyland was business-as-usual. Background music was still being pumped from subtly placed speakers, shop doors were open, and I could smell funnel cakes not too far away. There were some folks out and about, although not many. I saw a few who seemed busy, heading with a purpose to somewhere, from somewhere, but their urgency rang a little false. Others were gathered in little clusters, keeping close counsel and sending out an almost palpable leave-us-alone vibe.
A middle-aged guy with a scruffy beard walked past me; he gave me a curious look, and I almost stopped him to ask him about what had been going on while I’d been away. I quickly thought better of it. Everyone here with their wits about them knew that they were prisoners inside an impenetrable pyramid. They weren’t likely to take lightly my supposedly privileged status. I gave the guy a noncommittal nod and moved on.
I needed to find my kids. The Angels very well might snatch me back at any moment. I assumed I had only been allowed this time to check on my students as a carrot for my cooperation. I was already familiar with the stick.
I headed for the Diamond Horseshoe theatre. The last time I’d been here it was already becoming our own little headquarters; it was as good a place to start as any. I passed a few people on the way, but I learned long ago that as long as you walk with an air of purpose, most people will assume you’re authorized to be there; no one challenged me, though I got more than my share of suspicious looks.
As I came up to the Diamond Horseshoe queue, a couple of kids I didn’t know stepped out of the shadows inside. They were both bruisers, probably defensive linemen on their high school football teams. One even wore a letter jacket. The other—the bigger one—took another step out. “Can we help you, mister?”
The words were polite enough, but this was plainly a turf issue. He folded his beefy arms across his chest. He was pretty intimidating; he had a grown-out crew cut of shaggy light brown hair, some reddish-brown chin spinach, and an impressively crooked nose. He wasn’t as tall as I am, but probably had thirty pounds or so on me. He didn’t look worried. And his friend was almost as big.
I chose my words carefully; I wanted to clearly state my business without really telling them anything. “I’m a teacher from Oceanside High. I heard there were some OH students that hang around here…”
“So?” Letter Jacket stepped up.
“So, I thought I’d check up on them, see if everybody’s okay.”
They stared at me. This wasn’t a scenario they’d anticipated. Then another voice barked out from the shadows behind them: “Where the hell have you been?”
Jake stepped out. He didn’t look especially happy to see me.
He dismissed Letter Jacket and Chin Spinach with a nod of his head, then stood his ground while they made themselves scarce. If I hadn’t been looking for Jake, I might not have recognized him—he had beefed up, a good fifteen pounds worth, and his hair had grown out too. The smart-ass kid I had last seen had been replaced by a hard-edged young man. “Well?” he said.
I couldn’t help it; I smiled. “Good to see you, too, Jake.”
He strode deliberately up to me. I thought he might be about to belt me, but instead he embraced me in a fierce hug. “Seriously, man,” he said as he let me go, “where the hell have you been?”
“Can we walk and talk?” He nodded sure. I put my arm around his shoulder and led us away. “Believe it or not, pal,” I said, “I’ve been outside.” He huffed his skepticism. “No. Really. And I mean way outside.”
I started to steer us toward Tom Sawyer’s Island. Jake pulled us up short. “You don’t want to go that way.” I asked why not. “That’s Spics turf.” I frowned at the open racism. “No, man, that’s what they call themselves. We tried calling ’em Latinos or Chicanos or Hispanics or whatever, but they wouldn’t have it. Listen, have you been gone, outside, since the last time we saw you?”
“Yeah, more or less.”
“We can see that time’s barely moving out there—how long?”
“I’m not really sure. Maybe forty-eight hours or so? I’ve been getting some lessons in relativity lately, the hard way.”
“Forty-eight hours sounds about right. In here it’s been almost seven months; a hundred and ninety-eight days, if you believe the Disney clocks. We call it ‘Mickey Time.’ We get up from one day to the next and the sun has barely moved in the sky. Sunsets last four or five days. A single night lasts over a month, nearly six weeks.” He was leading us toward presumably more neutral territory. “The first long night? People went buggy, man. For a while I thought the whole place was gonna go all Stephen King on us.”
I didn’t get it; I said as much. “You know,” he explained, “like in that stupid ‘Dome’ thing? Everybody’s trapped inside some alien ant-farm or whatever; bunch of back-stabbing, dog-eat-dog, creepy, paranoia-strikes-deep stuff?”
I had somehow missed this particular Stephen King, but that phrase “alien ant-farm” raised a goosebump or two. I admitted that sounded bad. “But you guys pulled through somehow?” I added.
“Sure. And that’s when everybody—who hadn’t already—split up into packs. Gangs. Clubs. Whatever we call ourselves.”
“So have you guys all stayed together?”
“Most of us. PJ joined the Spics and Taylor joined the End-Timers, but we made up for ’em.”
“The Goon Squad I met?”
He laughed. “Zac and Zack? Big goofballs. Thought the Superjocks were a buncha stiffs. We got quite a few more besides. We call ourselves the Strays. Counting the little kids, there’s forty-two of us.”
We sat down in a shady patch of overgrown grass. Landscaping was obviously not being maintained. I asked Jake to fill me in, everything that had happened since I disappeared, and he did his best. He’d been living with the situation for so long now that sometimes he glossed over things that I needed time to process, so I had to ask him to explain, or go back, or just say it again.
My sudden disappearance had had quite an impact—only the dozen or so kids had seen it, but word had spread. As far as Jake knew I was one of only about half a dozen people around the park that had vanished while alive. (“Close,” I said. “There were actually seven of us.”) None had come back, until now. Speculation about what had happened to us and what it meant was still a favorite topic of conversation.
After the first twenty-four “Mickey Time” hours, food supplies were mysteriously replenished, freezers and refrigerators refilled, bread and canned goods restocked, but no candy and no alcohol. This last shortage was currently being met by at least three different stills across the park. Disney didn’t sell cigarettes, so there was an active barter market for those, and some desperate efforts at drying and rolling various available weeds and grasses. But folks were never lacking for the basics. No one ever saw how these supplies appeared, and not for want of trying: a few stalwarts had tried staying up all night to watch a particular freezer or shelf or bin, and they had all sworn they had never slept, yet in the morning the food was there.
Everyone had talked at first about “when we get out of here,” but after the first month passed and darkness fell, that talk dwindled away. Still, there was one gang called the Drill Team, dedicated full-time to breaking out of the pyramid, but all they had to show for it was a lot of busted equipment and three martyrs that died when their tunnel caved in. Other folks had eventually fallen into doing whatever it was they did for a living as best they could in their new world. Policemen policed, cooks cooked, nurses nursed, etc. This left some accountants and computer techs and the like unemployed, but there was plenty of food and places to sleep, so as the weeks and then the months passed, the folks at Disneyland settled into a kind of “life goes on” attitude, “Even if we are stuck inside a giant time-warping pyramid,” as Jake put it with a wry grin.
There was even an informal community government of sorts, with “town hall” meetings called on Monday nights. They had organized a basic census, which estimated a current population of about ten thousand. Nearly two thousand had dropped dead at the sounding of the Trumps. A few more had died of various natural causes since then, plus an uncomfortable number of suicides, somewhere in the hundreds, although that had peaked in the early weeks of the first darkness, and very few were reported anymore. Dead bodies still vanished after a few minutes, and like the food appearing, no one ever seemed to see it happen.
After the first few weeks, attendance at these so-called town hall meetings became spotty at best. As Jake saw it, it was “mostly an excuse for a bunch of old guys to practice windbaggery and feel better about themselves.” A lot of this windbaggery was over their current predicament (nobody liked to say “captivity”), and the nature of who-or-whatever was responsible. Speculation was often quite creative, but data was in short supply. No sign of captors or masters or guards or benefactors had been seen since the pyramid barrier went up. Because the Angel in the Sky phenomenon had been so brief here, many dismissed it as a false memory in the first wave of shock on Day One. Many had not seen it at all, and tended to be quite dismissive of it; other True Believers had already formed ad hoc churches. Opinions also varied wildly on the significance of the pyramid—were they being sheltered from events outside, or had they been singled out for some sort of nefarious or even beneficent design?
For nearly an hour that first day, almost everyone had watched the doomed 747 creep across the sky. Many had seen the fireball blossom in agonizing slow motion. No one had any way of knowing how that crash related to their own situation inside the pyramid, or what it meant about the world at large. “They’re gonna grill you like a cheese sandwich,” Jake offered.
I chuckled. “You’re probably starting to feel a little scorched yourself. Sorry about that. Thanks, though.”
“Yeah, yeah. Now it’s your turn. Really—where the hell have you been?”
I was starting to feel conspicuous sitting out here on this lawn. I stood up and stretched, then offered Jake a hand. As he stood, I said, “Look, I’ll give you the short version. Then we can gather the gang and I’ll try to answer all your questions. Fair enough?”
“Sure.” He glanced at a new Mickey Mouse wristwatch. Apparently rank had its privileges. “We probably ought to head back anyway, get there before the Zacks get everybody all stirred up. We usually touch base just before lunch.”
“Looks like you’ve really stepped up, Jake. I’m proud of you.”
“Yeah, well, somebody had to do it.” Ouch. We walked a few steps. “We’re doin’ okay,” he added quietly. “Don’t get the idea that we’re all model citizens or anything. Wait’ll you see what we did to Small World.”
“I think you could say we killed it. Took all the persuasive power I had to keep Rachel and Chad from torching it.” Of course—they were the two kids who had worked here. I laughed. “I’m serious. Still had a pretty good bonfire of creepy dolls that night right out on the pathway… Hey, stop changing the subject! Come on—”
“Where the hell have I been; I know…” What to tell him? What did the Angels want me to tell? Did it matter to them one way or the other? The real question was, to paraphrase Jack Nicholson, could he handle the truth? When I had told my tale to Papa Nick, he had been one hundred percent open to everything I’d said, no matter how incredible. He was my grandfather; he was hard-wired to trust me. Jake was a teenager who barely knew me. If I started telling him tales of Angels and whirlwind teleporting tours of the world, I might lose his trust altogether. I had to build on the wildest part of what he already knew: he had seen me vanish. “Jake, you saw me disappear, right?”
“Like I’ll ever forget that.”
“Describe it for me.”
“Man, it was seriously weird. One second you were there, the next, your clothes were falling to the ground. Your watch went flying—you must’ve been swinging your arm—we all heard it smash when it hit the deck. Brianna screamed, but just for a second; Geoff put his arm around her and she calmed right down. Kimberly started to cry, but real quiet-like, and she looked at me and said, ‘Now what are we going to do?’” He paused, remembering. “At least one of us has been at the Diamond Horseshoe Revue every minute since then, in case you came back.”
“Thanks.” Wow. I hadn’t told him my return was almost certainly temporary. How would they handle that? “Jake, you saw it with your own eyes. I was teleported away. Teleported. The six others, too. I can’t say where; it may not even have been real, I honestly don’t know…” I went on as we walked, giving him a brief summary of my adventures. As we neared the Diamond Horseshoe I said, “Here’s what it all adds up to, Jake: the Earth has been invaded by unimaginably powerful aliens. Why, is anybody’s guess. Why this pyramid over Disneyland? No clue. But I do know this: the people here, inside?”
“You’re the lucky ones.”