The Happy Little International Children Experience began as a slow, leisurely boat ride through a long, dark tunnel adorned with bright, twinkling, multi-colored lights. The boats weren’t so much floating as they were being pulled via an elaborate underwater conveyor system, but the effect was just the same.
Abby sat and sipped on her convenience store soda, her mind conjuring up images from her youth, a happier time when her parents and her brother rode the ride with her, but not because they particularly enjoyed it.
Hell, no one but Abby ever has or ever likely will enjoy the Happy Little International Children Experience. It has been routinely voted most annoying ride for thirty straight years by the readers of Theme Park Enthusiast Digest.
But Abby’s mother, father and brother rode it because they knew she loved it and it was that love that she was missing so much as she looked around the illuminated tunnel.
An old woman in a gray sweater sat to Abby’s left, clutching a set of rosary beads in her hand. Abby hadn’t noticed it before but as she looked back, the whole boat she was in was filled with kids ranging between ten and sixteen years old. The unkempt urchins wore tattered clothes and chatted amongst themselves.
“Ma’am,” Abby said.
“Yes, dear?” the old woman replied in an Irish brogue.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” Abby said. “But are you a nun?”
“That I am, child,” the old woman said. “Sister Eugenia of the Order of Our Lady of the Immaculate Cast Iron Undergarments.”
Abby appeared in doubt. “Seriously?”
“Oh,” Sister Eugenia said with a chuckle. “Its been years since they’ve made us wear anything like that.”
Abby pointed her thumb toward the back of the boat. “Are they all with you?”
“Yes,” Sister Eugenia said. “For the past decade I’ve been assigned to the order’s home for wayward orphans right here in Florida.”
Abby watched the kids. “You mean none of these kids have parents?”
“Sadly no,” Sister Eugenia said. “All of their parents have died under the most horrific circumstances, lost to the drink or the drugs, car accidents, heroin overdoses, so many folks out there just love to chase that dragon, don’t you know?”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Abby said.
“And then there are the mothers who sell their bodies on the street corner only catch an exotic venereal disease or to end up sliced and diced by depraved maniacs,” Sister Eugenia said. “Or the fathers who join street gangs and end up riddled with so many bullet holes that they end up looking like Swiss cheese.”
“I see,” Abby said.
“Don’t even get me started on the parents who sniff magic markers,” Sister Eugenia said.
“I won’t,” Abby said.
“So many lovely children end up orphaned because their parents were uncontrollable magic marker fume addicts, completely incapable of stopping themselves from shoving magic markers up their nostrils in order to sniff the devil’s aroma.”
“That’s terrible,” Abby said.
“Then I suppose once in awhile there’s a father with a strange sexual addiction…”
“I get the picture,” Abby said.
“They can’t get their rocks off unless they’re being strangled,” Sister Eugenia said. “Or if they’re wearing a leather gimp mask. Or if they’re having dangerously bizarre foreign objects shoved up their rectums and its all fun and games until somehow it all goes tragically wrong and…”
“Sister,” Abby said. “I get it. These kids have been through bad times.”
“They surely have, dear,” Sister Eugenia said.
“They seem well-behaved,” Abby said.
“Oh that’s just because this is our yearly excursion outside the orphanage’s walls and I’ve warned them that if I hear a peep out of any of them we’ll all go straight home,” Sister Eugenia said. “Harsh, I know, but you must never show weakness around children, dear.”
“I’m starting to realize that,” Abby said. “I have two of my own.”
“Where are they?” Sister Eugenia asked.
“Doing their own thing,” Abby said. “They want nothing to do with me these days.”
“Ahh,” Sister Eugenia said. “Don’t feel bad. It happens to every parent sooner or later.”
“All they do is complain, complain, complain,” Abby said. “It’s always, ‘me, me, me’ with those two.”
“Well, what do you expect, dear?” Sister Eugenia asked. “Weren’t you like that when you were their age?”
Abby sighed. “I suppose.”
“Every child deserves a parent’s unconditional love,” the sister said. “Once they’re old enough to realize that the world doesn’t revolve around them they’ll return it to you in spades, don’t you worry.”
“I’d just settle for being appreciated,” Abby said.
“Wouldn’t we all, dear?” Sister Eugenia asked. “Wouldn’t we all?”
Sister Eugenia balled up her fist and expelled a burp into it.
“Pardon me, dear.”
“It happens,” Abby said.
“The order was kind enough to give me a budget large enough to take the children to lunch at the wombat food court and I’m afraid Funky Cola does not sit well with me at all.”