First He Must Smile

The little boy is dying and we are making the most of the life he has left.  The doctors say months so we rally resources and hold benefits and tap into funding to make things happen.

There are schedules and contracts and riders to navigate, and no time to waste. We bring the staff and the banners and the high-end cameras. We have the release forms and pens.

“He’ll beat the odds,” his grey mother whispers as we hoist him out of the special van on the special day when all his dreams will come true. “Someone has to; why not him? I have a good feeling, I really do. Don’t you?”

Nothing will ruin this day. Just shove the wheelchair over there and get him on the pony. We don’t have much time.

“Smile for the camera!” we tell him as he clings to the pony’s mane and stares at the sky. We need new photos for the website, ones with children who are still alive.

“Why him?” his mother implores us, one by one. There is no avoiding her. She is slowing us down. “There are terrible children, children with no manners. Children who sass their parents. Children who hurt animals. They should die instead. They should die instead!”

Why the hell isn’t the ballplayer here? He was supposed to be here. He has a reputation to fix, and it’s not going to fix itself, and we’re on a goddamn schedule here.

The little boy droops in the chair, and we tell him to sit up straight; he must have good posture. Doesn’t he know that The Ballplayer is coming? He will be here any moment. He’s not taking time out of his busy schedule for just any little boy. The Ballplayer is tall, and we’ll need both faces in the tight shot, so stop the fucking slouching. You can sleep when you’re dead.

“But I like hockey,” he pipes up, and we shush him quickly and roll our eyes. We wonder if the mother taught him manners after all.

At the amusement park, the mother brightens. “He always wanted to go on the big roller coasters,” she tells us as we sail through the lines.

“I feel sick,” the little boy says, hanging tight to his chair as we shove it over the bumpy path.

“We’ll give you a dollar if you go on the ride,” we pat and prod. “Ten dollars. A hundred. A million!”  He bounces and smiles, talks about what he might could buy with so much money. A big-boy bike. A real house with a yard. A pool!

We buckle him into the ride and ready the zoom lens.

“Raise your arms, stretch higher,” the mother shouts toward him as the car churns uphill, away, bumping and scraping, metal in the air. “If you touch heaven from the peak, God might make you better.”

The concert starts soon. We’ll have to skip the funnel cake. Call ahead and tell them to clear a path through the park. Tell them it’s a dying child.

“Don’t forget to say please!” the mother screams. We watch his head lurching, squint at the splash of wet brown arcing from the peak.

We send the mother for towels. She shouldn’t have dressed him in white.

The coaster makes a hard stop, and we rush in to dab his cheeks and smooth his hair.

It’s getting too late. We’re losing natural light. If he isn’t ready soon, we can’t use these pictures on the website. It will all be for nothing.

“We still have the concert,” we tell him. “You’ll get to go on stage, remember? Isn’t this exciting? All your wishes, come true.”

But the boy is crying, and he won’t stop crying and he has to stop crying because we don’t have much time.

“I don’t like country music,” he blubbers.

The mother is here with the towels, but she’s weepy, she’s sad, she’s too depressed to continue so we have someone take her away.

We will go to the concert. They will go to the concert, and the boy will go on stage and balance a cowboy hat on his bald little head, and we take pictures and then this will end.

“It’s going to be okay,” we tell the boy, clutching the towels hard, keeping our voices even. “Just look at the little red light and smile. We’ll get you a funnel cake if you do,” though we won’t.

“I want my mommy,” he sobs, and we tell him that of course he can see his mommy, his mommy’s right over there, we’ll take him to his mommy, but first he must smile.

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Vanessa Weibler Paris lives, works, writes and does some other stuff (like eating hot peppers and mulling the Oxford comma) in Erie, Pa.