A security team emerged from the utilidor beside George's booth, wearing clown makeup and baggy pants. Two of them tranquilised the boys and the third fitted the donkey out with a halter and bit. The clown slapped the donkey's haunch appreciatively. "He's a healthy one."
The security team disappeared down the utilidor with the Mitch.e.l.l brothers: two boys and a donkey. Joe smacked George on the back. "Did you see me catch them?
Like greased lightning! Bounty, here I come!"
George didn't mind sharing his bounty with Joe, so he just smiled and nodded and went back around to his booth.
Bill named his son Tom. Names weren't very important to their people, but the soft ones' world demanded them. Within a week, Tom was eagerly toddling through their cabin, tasting everything, exploring everything. His eyes shone with curious brilliance. The clever son of a clever son.
George loved Bill's son. He loved to watch Tom as he gnawed at their bedding, as he dug at the floor in search of grubs. Tom was clearly delighted with his surroundings, and George basked in Tom's delight. Bill could barely restrain himself from picking Tom up and hugging him every moment. The only time he left George alone with Tom was a few precious moments after each evening's meal, when he would duck into the woods to find some new toy for Tom: a crippled chipmunk; a handful of pretty rocks; a discarded beer can. The son built bizarre towers out of them, then knocked them down in a fit of giggles. Tom ate all day long, and spoke a steady stream of adorable nonsense.
Bill hardly spoke to George. Their evening meals were given over to watching the son eat. George didn't mind. Talking to the Guests all day wore him out.
When Tom was two months old, Joe came by George's booth.
"Well, it's final. Tomorrow, we shut down the midway. Too old-fashioned -- it's only stood this long because some of the older Imagineers had an emotional attachment to it. I told 'em: 'That's _your_ demographic, not the _target_ demographic.' So we're knocking it down. HorrorZone's gonna be _huge_." He skipped off before George could say anything. His ears were long and pointed. It wasn't the first time George noticed it, but now, he could see that Joe's hunched-over gait wasn't just because of his belly.
George built a dozen cones for the Guests, but his heart wasn't in it. Besides, most of the Guests already had their hands full of gummi spiders and snakes, from the Actionland Jungle Treats buffet. His thoughts were full of Joe, and he turned them over in his slow, cautious manner. Joe was turning into a donkey. He didn't think that one of their kind could turn into a donkey, but this was Pleasure Island. Indulging your vices was a dangerous pastime here. He should tell Bill, but there was no phone at the cabin. He couldn't send a runner for him, because this was family business. His shift wouldn't end for hours yet, and this was too important to wait.
Finally, he called his Lead. "I have to get offstage. I'm having a bad day."
Technically, this was allowed. Management didn't want anyone onstage who wasn't 100 percent. But it was something that none of the brothers, not even Joe, had ever done. The Lead was surprised, but he sent over a soft one to relieve George.
Orville and Bill were sitting out front of the cabin, watching Tom, when George got back. He wrung his hands as he approached them, not sure of what to say, and whether he should talk in front of Orville at all. He held his left thumb in his right hand, and it comforted him, a little.
Bill and Orville were so engrossed in Tom's antics that they didn't even notice George until he cleared his throat. Orville raised his eyebrows and looked significantly at Bill.
"I just saw Joe," George said. "On the midway. His ears are pointed, and he's walking all hunched over. I give him a few days at the most before he's all the way gone." George held his breath, waiting for Bill's reaction.
"Too bad," Bill said. "It was inevitable, I suppose. A child of the tongue! What was father thinking?"
Orville smiled and puffed at his pipe. "Don't you worry about it, George. Joe's going to be much, much happier. Focussed. If you'd like, I can bring him out here to live. Little Tom could have pony rides."
Bill said, "I don't think that's such a good idea. Joe's too wild to play with a child."
Orville put a hand on his shoulder. "You'd be amazed at how docile he'll become."
Bill scooped up Tom, who was up to his waist now, and who liked to grab onto Bill's nose. "We'll see, then." He retreated into the cabin with his son.
Orville turned to George and said, "You've probably heard that we're taking down the midway tomorrow. The others are all being rea.s.signed until the rehab is done, but I thought I'd see if I could get you a couple months off. You could stay here and play with Tom -- it's not every day you get to be a new uncle."
Orville had always taken obvious pleasure in the transformation of boys into donkeys. It was the whole why of Pleasure Island, after all. Orville seemed especially pleased tonight, and George thought that he was as surprised about Bill as George was.
George, not knowing what to say to any of it, said nothing.
It didn't take long for George to start missing the midway. Stuck at the cabin with Bill and Tom, he sat against an outside wall and tried not to get in the way. He prepared meals in silence, taking a long time in the woods, gathering up choice morsels. Bill and Tom ate on the floor, away from the table. Bill chewed the tougher morsels first, and then put them in Tom's mouth with his crippled left hand. Most of the time, neither of them took any notice of George.
One day, he prepared a whole day's worth of meals and left them on the table, then walked to the utilidor at the other side of the woods. He boarded a tram and rode to the old midway entrance.
The midway was fenced in with tall plywood sheets, and construction crews bustled over the naked skeletons of the new HorrorZone. Heavy machinery groaned and crashed. Nothing but the distant silhouettes of Actionland's skyline were familiar. George tried to imagine working here for years to come. An overwhelming tiredness weighed him down.
He took the tram back to the cabin and stripped off his clothes. They were browner than ever. His arms felt weak and tired. He suddenly knew that he would never have a son of his own.
Bill and Tom were playing out front of the cabin. He sat in his usual spot against the wall and watched them. "Bill," he said, softly.
"Yes?" Bill said.
"When will I have a son of my own?" Bill always knew the answers.
Bill gathered Tom up to his chest unconsciously while he thought. "I suppose that once Tom is grown, you could take some time off and have a son of your own."
To his own surprise, George said, "I want to have a son now."
Bill said, "That's out of the question, George. We're too busy with Tom." On hearing Bill's annoyed tone, Tom leaned into him.
George said, "I'm not busy. I am old, though. If I don't have a son soon, I won't be able to care for it until it's old enough to care for me."
Bill said, "You're thinking like Father. We're living with the soft ones now.
Orville will make sure that you and your son will be fine until he's grown."
George never won arguments with Bill. He went inside the cabin and set out dinner.
Orville visited the brothers the next morning. He chucked Tom under the chin and shook hands with Bill. Then he took George out into the woods for a walk.
"Your brother tells me you want a son of your own," he said.
George nodded, and stooped to put a small, mossy log in his basket.
"Bill doesn't want you to, huh?"
George didn't feel very comfortable discussing the family with Orville. That was Bill's job. After some thought, he said, "Not right now."
Orville said, "I can see that that makes you unhappy. No one should be unhappy here. I'll see what I can do. Come down to Ops tomorrow morning, we'll talk more."
When George got back to the cabin, Bill was lying on his back on the floor, laughing while Tom climbed all over him. Tom still babbled, but they were real words now, though nonsensical. With his constant talking, he reminded George of Joe, and that made him even sadder.
George had never been to Ops before, but he knew where it was, in a collection of low-slung prefab buildings hidden behind the topiary sculptures near MagicLand. He clutched his right thumb nervously as he stood and waited in the reception area for Orville to come and get him. The secretary had taken his name and buzzed Orville, and now kept sneaking him horrified looks. George's family were the only of their kind to leave their homeland and join the soft ones, and here at Ops, there were any number of low-ranking babus who'd never heard tell of them.
Orville was all smiles and effusion as he breezed through the gla.s.s security-door and pounded George on the back. "George! I'm so _glad_ you came down!"
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