Excerpted from The Aleph Review, Vol. 3 (2019). Solicited by Hassan Tahir Latif.
Naila is not at Joyland of her own volition. Her granddaughter, under her care this particular day, was insistent that they go, as she had never been before. Terrifyingly, neither had Naila. As she stands in line to enter the park, the horror stories she’s heard about the park come rushing back to her.
“Bumper cars at Joyland critically electrocute three children.”
“Joyland Ferris wheel gets stuck leading to emergency rescue operation.”
“Joyland monorail cart falls off track, crashing into the ground. No one injured, but the smiling face on the monorail cart will be disfigured forevermore.”
“Joyland quite possibly possessed by djinns.”
“Joyland actually Hell masquerading as amusement park with overpriced cotton candy.”
Today is not the day to worry, though. And the granddaughter looks so happy to be standing in line awaiting her turn at the ticket booth, though if its condition is any indication, it isn’t reassuring when it comes to what conditions the rides might be in.
She buys the ticket and firmly grasps her granddaughter’s hands. What if there’s a kidnapping. Hold on tight. Don’t worry too much, but hold on tight.
The teacups are the first thing to greet her. Those pastels again, swirling into the same day-old ubiquitous candy floss mess of a colour. Everywhere she looks, Naila sees potential signs of things she mustn’t do or things she mustn’t let her granddaughter do.
You must never get candy from strangers. Well, there’s a man right there selling candy and Naila doesn’t know him from Adam. Stranger. Candy. Nix.
You should always make sure that children don’t go around running and screaming. Well, Naila certainly isn’t going to tell other people’s kids how to behave, but she does take time out to bend down and whisper in her granddaughter’s ear that she shouldn’t run at any point.
You must never do anything that could be risky for a child. They’re such little things with such tiny hearts. They could give out at any moment. Well, too late for that because the granddaughter has by now dragged Naila to a line that leads to a ship suspended in mid-air with a dragon adorning the prow. An approximation of a dragon, at least. Or perhaps something that looked like a dragon once upon a time. More of a house lizard now.
The words ‘Pirate Ship’ are emblazoned across the currently immobile contraption. With a knot in her stomach, Naila asks her granddaughter if she wouldn’t prefer sitting on those oversized ducks that just spin gently around in what could generously be described as a pond. Clearly, ducks are not on the granddaughter’s mind when there is a whole dragon to conquer instead.
As they slowly make their way to the pirate ship, Naila tries to identify what the safest possible space on the ride could be. The middle. Yes, the middle. If they somehow impossibly fall off this clearly lunatic ride with barely functioning safety belts, it would be the best place to fall off from.
They slowly embark the ship and as Naila makes her way to the middle, the eight-year-old girl runs up to the furthermost bench. She yells out at Naila to join her. It’s apparently more fun at the extremes. If fun is code for cheating death, then, yes, certainly. Fun. She can’t possibly leave the child alone. The child she helped raise. The child she loves more than anything in the world.
Gingerly making her way to the far end of the ride, Naila sits herself down and tries to close the safety belt around herself and the girl. The girl’s works just fine. A wave of relief. But Naila’s refuses to close. She tries multiple ways of making the flat end enter the locking end. One side up. Then the other. Maybe a sideways jimmy?
In the midst of her attempts to somehow get this infernal belt working, the ride begins to move. A blood-curdling screech emanates from somewhere underneath the ship. The screech functions to make the ship go faster. And with each screech. Faster yet. Faster. Higher. Fast. Faster. Fastest. High. Higher. Highest.
The belt isn’t working. The child is laughing hysterically. Naila only has a safety railing for herself to hold on to. And the higher they go, the clearer it becomes to Naila that the safety railing itself rises a few inches. Just like the hospital, Naila begins to recite verses for safety. For her own. For that of the child. For that of everyone riding on what is quite clearly a death trap.
Yet, it goes higher. And faster. There’s no stopping it. The screeching ship is already reaching a crescendo. Naila is grabbing the railing with every ounce of energy in her body. She cannot let go. She must not let go. It’s not for herself. It’s for the child. She must remain for the child’s safety. She looks over, to see her screaming joyously. Not a hint of fear on her face. Not even a betrayal of worry.
And as she laughs, Naila finds herself laughing along.
The author is based in Lahore, Pakistan; C. Crowe is a pseudonym.