You Ain't Never had a Friend Like Me

The first thing I observed was that he was very, very ill. I wish I could say that the first thing I noticed was his cheeky grin, or the curious way his eyes darted over the crowd, but I can’t. The first thing I noticed was his hair. Soft brown, thin and wispy in a way that whispered of heavy doses of chemotherapy. The vivid curiosity of warm brown eyes undermined by anemic dark circles. And translucent, sickly skin that hadn’t seen the sun in far too long, leeched of its childish health by the most virulent kinds of drugs.

The second thing I noticed was his mother, young and harried, and his father, holding a little girl. “Are we too late?” she asked, “Are we too late??”

They were, according to policies regarding cut-off times for seating for Fantasmic!, Disney MGM Studios’ live action water and fireworks show. Disney had pretty strict policies on, well, just about everything. A lot of details went into making it the happiest place on earth. And usually, they were needed. But one thing I loved about Disney was the fact it was an organization so willing to break the rules when the happiness of a kid was involved. Especially the ones in the—I glanced down—yep, he had one of the round pins on his shirt: Give Kids the World, Disney’s answer to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. I took one look at the little boy and the way the mother’s hands wrapped white-knuckled around the handles of his wheelchair and made the executive decision to ignore the seating time rules, and ushered them in.

I showed them to the VIP section, reserved for our Give Kids the World guests and delighted in the grin he gave when I told him it was the section we only let very special guests sit in. His mom shot me a grateful look as I hunkered down to talk to the little boy.

“Hi! What’s your name?”
“Brandon. Hi!”
“And how about your little sister, Brandon?” I asked, smiling at the shy, tousle-headed little toddler.
“That’s Kaylee. She’s my sister. Who are you?”
“I’m Alisha.”

Brandon grinned and chattered away, telling me about his school, his sister, how much he liked the third grade, that his favorite subject was reading, that sometimes the chemo made him very, very tired but Disney was really cool, especially the giant gingerbread house in the middle of the Kids Village. At this, I had to look away to keep him from seeing the tears in my eyes. If you were accepted into the Give Kids the World program, it was because, simply put, you were not getting any better. Ever. I spied my good friend and partner in crime, Max, strolling past just then. “And this right here is Max. Max, come say hi to Brandon and Kaylee.”

Max strolled over, six feet of lanky Kentucky drawl and whip-quick wit: “Oh, man. They told me you’d be coming today, Brandon. I was just waiting to meet you. And you too, Kaylee,” he continued, bending down and hugging the little girl.

“They?” Brandon asked, wide-eyed.
“Oh, you know, Mickey…Minnie…” He glanced at me. “Tarzan and Jane, and, let’s see…who was asking about you earlier…?” I pretended to lose my train of thought, “Oh yeah! Belle and the Beast—I think she wanted to show you some of her books.”
“She did?? I love books! I won the spelling bee in my class a few weeks ago!”
“You must be pretty smart, Brandon. Who’s your favorite character?” asked Max, picking up where I left off.
“Aladdin!” he said immediately, “And Jasmine.”
“Those are my favorites, too!” I said—and they were.
“Oh, man,” he sighed wistfully, “I love them. It would be so cool to meet them…”

I glanced over at the parents. The father, looking sadly at Brandon, the mother, eyes fixed hopefully on me. My eyes met Max’s over the top of Brandon’s head.We have to make this happen, I silently mouthed. He nodded once.

“Okay, Brandon, Max and I have to work now, but we’ll be back in a little bit, okay? You enjoy the show.”

I pulled Max into a corner and we looked at each other in dismay.

“Max, we have to do this. We
have to make this happen. Can…can we arrange a meet-and-greet?”

“Aw, hell, I don’t know…I mean, if it’s one character in the park, sure, they sign autographs all the time, but you’re fixin’ to have him meet the whole cast of Fantasmic!? I mean, that’s a hell of a lot of characters, Lish. I don’t even know if we can pull it off. Has it ever been done before?”

We ran to find Kevin, our manager, to learn that no, it had never been done before. We dragged him over to meet Brandon and within three minutes of meeting the spunky little guy, Kevin was as on board with it as we were.

“Okay, let me make some calls and see if I can pull some strings. We’ve got to hustle—the show’s about to begin.”

Fifteen minutes, a handful of pulled strings, and some massive orchestration later and Kevin was back, “Okay,” he beamed, “They’re in. They’ll stay after for a meet-and-greet.”
“Which ones?” I asked. “Tinker Bell? Prince John? Aladdin?”
“Nope! All of them.”
Max broke in—“What do you mean, ALL of 'em?”
“I mean ALL of them. The entire cast has agreed to stay after hours for Brandon.”
“Holy…! Let’s go tell him!”

Max and I sprinted back to Brandon and his family.

“Hey, buddy,” Max whispered, kneeling down next to Brandon, “enjoying the show?”

Meanwhile, I pulled Brandon’s parents to the side so as not to be overheard. I told them what we had arranged, but that they’d have to stick around for an extra half hour while the characters got from backstage to the front, after the park had cleared out for the night.

I was confused when his mother’s face crumpled, and the dad seemed crestfallen. “It’s our shuttle,” he explained. “It’s picking us up at 10 p.m. sharp to take us back to the Kids Village. It’s the last one that runs; we won’t have a way to get back if we miss it.”

I stared at them for a second, wheels in my head spinning. There was no way I could let this little boy down now, no way Max and I could kill this surprise with a handful of empty gestures. I smiled at them while inside was all dismay. “Don’t you worry—I’ll take care of it.”

I was in it now. I had no idea how we were going to do it, but somehow, we were going to make this happen. I leaned over and whispered the problem in Max’s ear. “Aw, hell. Look, I don’t care if we have to drive ‘em back ourselves in our own cars, this little dude is GOING to meet Aladdin.”

We sprinted back to Kevin. By this time, the show was almost halfway over and we were working with borrowed time. Back on the phone he went, making calls. He returned a few minutes later. “Okay,” he breathed out. “Normally, they don’t do this as all the shuttles run on a schedule, but some of the drivers were willing to make an extra run to pick them up after hours. No worries, a shuttle will be back to pick them up at 10:45.”

“Kevin, you are AWESOME.”

Back we ran to Brandon’s parents, Max in the lead and me hot on his heels. We were getting a workout tonight, running helter-skelter around the giant amphitheater. He skidded to a halt and I bumped face-first into his back as I stopped behind him. I ducked under his arm and gave them the OK sign, while Max explained in a low voice.

Brandon turned around, completely oblivious to what had been going on behind his back the whole night. “Hey, Alisha! Max! Come watch the end of the show with me!”

After the show was over, knowing we’d have time to kill but not wanting him to be suspicious, we regaled him with stories about Disney and introduced him to various friends as they wandered past during clean-up. We told him that because he was a special VIP, he got to stick around the park after everyone else had gone. Luckily, thanks to Max’s mile-a-minute mouth and my ability to make up stories on the fly, the time passed quickly without Brandon getting suspicious. While I was entertaining him, I saw Kevin signal to us from the backstage entrance. Max wandered over and came back a minute later. He deftly nudged Brandon’s wheelchair around while kneeling down so his back was to the entrance.

“Hey, buddy, Lish and I have a surprise for you. I don’t know if I should give it to you, though…”

Brandon’s eyes widened and I elbowed Max.

“Okay, okay. Wanna see what it is?” Max grinned at Brandon, who grinned back at us, nodding. Max and I spun his wheelchair around so he could see what was unfolding behind him. Disney characters galore poured out of the backstage entrance, resplendent in their colorful costumes.

I pulled the cast member playing Prince Eric aside. “Thank you so much, guys.”

“Hey, no problem. This is what we’re here for, right? A lot more fun than the usual routine.” He grinned easily and gave Brandon a high-five.

They kept coming: Sorcerer Mickey and Minnie started the parade, led by Peter Pan and Wendy, followed closely by Captain Hook and Mr. Smee and a scolding Tinker Bell. Snow White and her Prince, Belle and the Beast, Ariel and Eric all stopped by to say hello. Snow White’s evil stepmother swept imperiously by, but not before offering him an apple, which he nervously declined. Governor John Ratcliffe and the Native Americans bartered a peace treaty long enough to talk to Brandon. John Smith and the lovely Pocahontas came by and had a chat as Cinderella and Prince Charming danced past. Princess Aurora and Prince Phillip joined in the waltz and for a time, Brandon’s face was rapt as a handful of Disney’s royal couples twirled in front of him, a riot of color. The Seven Dwarves, Chip and Dale, Donald and Daisy, Goofy, Pluto, Hercules, Rafiki, and a galaxy of other Disney characters.

And last but not least…

A tap on his shoulder and a voice saying, “Not NOW, Abu!” as Aladdin and Jasmine materialized. Jasmine bent down to hug him and Aladdin messed up his hair: “Monkeys, ya know? You can never train them.”

I swear to you, I will never see another face more exploded with joy than Brandon’s was at that moment. I had tears in my eyes. Max had tears in his eyes. Ditto for Kevin. Brandon’s mother was sobbing openly, and his dad had turned his face away, presumably so we would not see him cry.
Thank you, his mom mouthed at Max and I, over and over again, Thank you. The only one not crying was Brandon, who had been transported to a near paroxysm of glee by his idols.

Eventually, pair by pair and one by one, they drifted away, the heroes and heroines and villains of his childhood, dwindling to a close. The last to go were Aladdin and Jasmine, and Brandon begged his mom to take a picture of him with them. Max and I stepped back to let her snap the photo when Brandon asked, “Why are you two going? I want you here, too!” We stepped back in and took our positions.

FLASH!

And that is how we were immortalized: Jasmine kneeling down on one side of his wheelchair, smiling with tears in her eyes. Kaylee, tucked between my legs on the other side, one of my arms wrapped around the shy little girl in a hug. Aladdin, high-fiving Brandon, who was giving a thumbs-up with his other hand to match the one Max was giving. And Brandon, caught mid-laugh as he mugged for the camera.

We saw them to the entrance where the shuttle was waiting, and said our goodbyes, Brandon’s mom hugging me tightly, still whispering her fierce thanks. His dad, clapping Max on the back and shaking his and Kevin’s hands. Kaylee and Brandon were babbling excitedly to one another even as they were being bundled onto the shuttle.

And so they left.

A few months later, we received a letter while at work, addressed to the two of us. It was a letter from Brandon’s mother, informing us that he had passed away. She thanked us for everything we had done and told us that up to his very last day, he still talked about us, as if we were old friends. And that the first thing he did when he got home was put the snapshot from that night on his bedside table. After he died, she had taken the picture out of its frame and had placed it in the coffin with Brandon. Max and I never got a copy of that picture. We didn’t need one. I can guarantee it will be seared in our minds when we are old and gray,
far beyond this time.