Sammy awoke sometime later to find his head splitting, his business pass missing, and his wallet short ten bucks. As his vision returned, he looked around to discover that he was alone. All the people with the annoying smiles must have already gone inside. In the wake of madness, he couldn’t help but feel vindicated by the peace. In the unusual silence, he could almost hear his heart echoing.
Even though he tried to keep his equilibrium as best as he could, his head convulsed so violently that it contorted his brain. Or that’s how it felt at least. He stroked his temples to massage the pain away, but the world around him pulsated in a dizzying fashion and he wasn’t certain that he was actually touching his temples. While staying balanced, he took a step forward. Sammy’s body endured a slight tremor from a shock to his brain. It was a challenge to maintain straightness, but one he couldn’t let himself lose. His boss was still waiting for him. The pain from his injury would have to ride in the backseat. He walked in a zigzag pattern down the ramps toward the parking garage exit.
Sammy approached the guard shack while the world around him did the cha-cha. His steps were uneven, but he managed to hobble up to it. The doorframe appeared secure enough to hold his balance, so he rested his hands against it for a moment and looked inside the shack. Another parking attendant sat on the stool inside, reading a Happy Fun Land brochure. The new attendant looked up and smiled.
“Welcome to Happy Fun Land, kind and happy sir,” he cheered. “Hope you enjoy your stay.”
The new attendant’s smile did the wave for Sammy. He decided his ten bucks wasn’t worth it, so he continued toward the park’s entrance.
* * *
The welcome sign pulsated with colored neon lights, highlighted with floodlights, strobe lights, and other ridiculously lascivious light sources. An array of cartoon character icons surrounded the welcome sign, each with hands outstretched toward the entering public. A three-dimensional display of a ceramic black and white cat loomed large over the entrance, sporting a sly, whimsical smile and an upturned thumb toward its tight, wiry whiskers.
Sammy glanced at his watch as he approached the bold, flashing entrance to the Happy Fun Land theme park. The heat rose under his collar as he realized he was now thirty minutes late, or forty minutes, or—he couldn’t actually tell what time it was thanks to the twisting of the hands before his warp-sensitive eyes, but he was certain his boss would chew him out over it regardless. Laying the metal rod against the parking attendant’s face might have been a sound business decision after all. He made a mental note not to let a good opportunity pass him by in the future.
No, violence was still not the answer. It would always be a poor decision. He couldn’t forget that, so he nodded to himself to cement the reminder. His temples throbbed at the thought.
When he returned focus on the entrance, he found himself standing before a fuzzy turnstile where a three-foot tall agent waited on a stool in his green and yellow striped Happy Fun Land uniform collecting tickets for the admissions box. The collector’s tiny body stretched and wiggled through Sammy’s vision, and his chest puffed with the confidence of a loon.
“I can’t let you in without a ticket, sir,” laughed the ticket collector. “Happy Fun Land doesn’t do charities.”
Sammy resisted the urge to push the ticket collector off his stool. He clutched his head to resist the temptation and, perhaps, to alleviate some of the pain he felt.
“I’m here on business,” he said.
The ticket collector said nothing. He showed off more of his teeth, the ones from further back.
“Please,” Sammy said, “I’m trying to be respectful here. I’m here on business. Dinners and Waters marketing meeting. I should be on the list. Name’s Samuel McGuinness.”
The ticket collector blinked at him.
“The list,” Sammy said again. “I was told I’d be on it.”
Sammy’s neck grew hot. Above the back of his jaw, up past his ears, his fingers grasped for the surface of his temples, searching for a few strands of hair to pull.
“Why aren’t you checking your list?”
“What list?” the ticket collector said. “Entry requires a ticket.”
Sammy reached out and grabbed for the ticket collector’s stubby little shoulders.
“I am here on business, you pygmy,” he yelled. “I don’t take pleasure in places like this.”
The ticket collector gasped at Sammy’s brash statement. His clawed fingers covered his open mouth.
“That’s impossible. Everybody takes pleasure in Happy Fun Land.” He lowered his hand and flashed his jagged little teeth again. “Anyway, you still have to show me your business pass if you want in on ‘business.’ It’s our policy.”
“What business pass? No one said anything about a business pass.”
“You get them at the ticket office, the kiosk with the black fur all over it. Same price as a regular ticket!”
“They’re the same as a regular ticket, but they say ‘business pass’ on them. They’re a collector’s item. You have to pay double if you want to take it home, though. Please leggo my shoulders. You’re starting to hurt me. The pain is only mildly pleasurable.”
The ticket collector tried to pry Sammy’s hands off his shoulders. But he was a split-second too late; Sammy picked him up and shoved him over the turnstile, flipping him to the ground. Sammy stepped over the top of the turnstile and tried to kick the collector as he hobbled on his way past. He’d question the professionalism of his actions later. This one just felt right.
“Why don’t you exercise a little trust in your business associates?” he said.
“You still have to pay!” the ticket collector said.
Sammy rolled his eyes. He wiped his hands on his pant legs to erase the ticket collector’s scent from his palms.
“We will collect!” The ticket collector’s voice rose in pitch. “Happy Fun Land always finds a way!”
Sammy flipped him off.
The ticket collector spluttered in his laughter, and soon his voice became drowned out by the sudden rush of ambient crowd chatter. Not a moment too soon, Sammy thought. His was the type of laughter that ushered in the last seconds of a time bomb.
Orderly slabs of concrete tiles slipped by under his polished loafers as he lumbered down the walk and fought to keep his balance. When he gazed up from his unsteady feet, Sammy surveyed the land before him. The depths of the theme park opened and panned out from a narrow alley of souvenir shops to a vast collection of capitalists’ fantasies. Shops, restaurants, and various forms of kiosks stood along the widened walkways. Branching concrete paths stretched off in a web of directions, leading to park attractions like cartoon-themed Ferris wheels, go-kart tracks, and roller coasters. Calliope music floated from one end of the passage to the other, dancing in circles around Sammy’s agitated ears. Cotton candy scents assaulted his nostrils. Madness knew no boundaries. After hobbling a short distance down the walk, dodging massive crowds of irritatingly amused tourists, he stopped in front of an outdoor movie attraction starring the theme park’s playful mascot, Nippy the Cat.
As he stood behind a group of kids who were watching a Nippy the Cat cartoon on the big screen, he stuffed his hands in his pockets and swayed. These kids were the future of the company, and if this investment went through and his team got the marketing bid to promote both companies, these kids were also the future of Dinners and Waters. He studied them as closely as his unfocused vision allowed. They laughed from their bellies as the short and nimble Nippy pounced around on the tops of bald men’s heads at a barbershop and dodged the angry barber’s assaults of flying shaving cream. Sammy was not amused by what he was seeing. He was disappointed in the children for laughing at it. They were falling for the trick. Each glob of cream that missed Nippy went splat in the faces of each barbershop customer. The cartoon music, though deafening in its own right, was barely loud enough to drown out the raucous laughter of the children. Sammy removed his hand from his pocket and used it to pick his teeth. Even with the psychedelic spinning that occurred in his mind, he was not impressed with what he saw on any front. This was the audience, and Nippy was the product. Unbelievable. Even now, nothing had changed. His chest sank at the sight. But tears were unprofessional. He continued on.
Sammy wove through the large crowds, trying to reach his destination as fast as his shaky legs allowed. The multitudes of colors in every display, every shop, and every ride spun around him like a pinwheel. People smiled as they let blue balloons, red balloons, and pretty much every color balloon float from their wrists. Other people laughed as they played with their fake cat ears, twitching at the yellow fur, green fur, and every other color fur that matched the balloons. He pressed hard against his temples as he watched people wearing Hawaiian T-shirts and Kojak Advantage cameras walk on by, tugging collars, snapping photos, racing for the mounted squirt guns at the edge of each path. This place was far too colorful for his suit-and-tie persona, certainly, and the spinning rainbows contributed to his headache. But like he felt about the children, he wasn’t disappointed in these tourists for enjoying themselves. Sammy understood the occasional desire for color, and he wasn’t about to complain over their personal investments in balloons and multi-patterned shirts. His complaint was rooted in the typicality of it all. These people were doing exactly what Happy Fun Land conditioned them to do, which was exactly what other theme parks all across the world conditioned them to do, which was exactly what he had once nearly succumbed to himself during a weaker period in his life. Sammy had to block it all out. He stared at the zigzagging ground until he could reach his destination. He would not allow these people to vex him.
After toddler-walking through the crowded avenues, he found his destination behind the infamous Bueller Wheel, a fifty-foot tall musical annoyance featuring a stout, feathered character with long legs named Bueller Bird. The delight radiating from the prospective passengers waiting in line, each awestruck by the sheer size of the ride, crawled, then dashed onto Sammy’s nerves. He did his best to ignore them, but their “oohs” and their “ahs” pelted his ears. He figured a hard focus on his destination was his only bet in combating their insensitivity. That, or a sudden mechanical failure on the ride, which he had no immediate control over.
His destination, which was an average-sized concrete building with a gift shop inside, danced like a palm tree before him. As he moved toward the interior, he felt himself floating from his neck. Almost there, he thought. Almost there.
The gift shop featured many types of trinkets and paraphernalia relating to the Wacky Fuzzies universe, from key chains to plastic bats. Sammy didn’t know as much about the Wacky Fuzzies as he used to, only that Happy Fun Land was the world designed to bring them to life, that they appeared not to have changed much since he’d last seen one of their shows during brighter days, and that they still disgusted him. He sighed under his breath as he almost collided with the inflated version of the company’s ridiculous propaganda, a tin foil helium balloon with a Nippy the Cat logo wearing sunglasses and a mischievous smile. The kaleidoscopic colors of the cartoon images around him, like the green, the yellow, and the orange, nearly sickened him to the point of actual vomit. He clutched his stomach to hold on to his composure, and his lunch.
Behind the gift shop stood a plastic door that led to a narrow hallway. Sammy felt relief as he entered the cold, whitewashed brick corridor, doubling as his own personal paradise. At the end of the corridor he found his true destination: a conference room connected to a locker room deep in the heart of masked despair. He entered the room to find his boss, Mr. Chip, a paunchy man with a brilliant blond mustache and beady eyes, waiting joyfully at the head of a long table, pulsating like a bowl of gelatin. Sammy was surprised to see him alone.
“You’re late,” chimed the happy Mr. Chip.
“Sorry, sir,” Sammy said, “but I was attacked in the parking garage.”
“Well, that’s okay. Your tardiness is acceptable, but the others have already disbursed.”
“Excuse me? I’m sorry, but I thought we were having the conference here.”
“We had the conference a little while ago and it was a happy one. But you can still enjoy the fruits of the conference and be full of joy. We each have a separate job to do today.”
“But I thought we were just having a meeting.”
“Now, Samuel, that’s not happy talk. If you follow me, you’ll find your assignment.”
Sammy studied his boss’s face. The upward curve of his mouth confused him, and Sammy thought maybe Mr. Chip, too, had been hit by a car. Sammy followed him to the locker room.
“Excuse me, sir,” he said, “but you’re acting kind of strange. Is everything okay? You don’t usually smile.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, Samuel. Let’s just be the happy worker that you are today?”
Sammy bowed his head. Something told him he would’ve been better off lying flat in the parking lot. But it was improper for him to dispute these circumstances any longer, so he continued onward into the locker room where the smell of poultry-scented stagnant water rushed up his nose. So much better than cotton candy.
“As you know,” continued Mr. Chip, “we have to make sure our investment is secure.”
Sammy nodded as he scanned the room. He tried to figure out why his boss couldn’t just give him the assignment in the conference area. Lockers waved, benches throbbed, and random lights flickered around him. A few white towels lay crumpled on the benches. This was not the cold comfort of the mahogany table or leather chair he was used to. He didn’t think conducting the rest of this meeting in a locker room was even proficient. His boss stopped and faced him.
“The top guys thought it would be keen to witness our security first hand.” His boss clasped his palms together. “That’s why they set it up for us to do more than just meet in some old, stuffy conference room where we would be grumpy and unhappy. We get to experience the joy of Happy Fun Land on a personal basis.”
“I’m not sure I follow. What’s wrong with a stuffy conference room? We’ve gotten a lot done in stuffy conference rooms. I like stuffy conference rooms.”
“We’ve decided it’s one thing to read numbers off a paper but another to watch the numbers made right before our happy eyes. This will allow us to make sure we’re investing in the right place.”
“Sir, I don’t want to sound unprofessional or anything, but riding rides and buying hot dogs from clowns is not something I’m ready to do. It requires something I haven’t had since . . . a different time in my life. I would prefer to read off the numbers from a sheet of paper in a conference room if you don’t mind.”
Mr. Chip paused. It took him only a few seconds to break the pause and smile.
“Now that’s not the happy attitude I want from you,” he said. “Smile and think of cream pies. This is Happy Fun Land, where all your frowns transform at the happy towns. You don’t have to ride rides or buy hot dogs. That’s been given to someone else. This is your assignment.”
He passed over a small sheet of paper. Sammy snatched it out of his hand.
“Have fun,” said Mr. Chip. “It’ll put a smile on that grumpy face.”
Sammy’s head did a few cartwheels as he tried to focus on the words written on the sheet of paper. He could make out most of them, but some swing danced with one another, so they made little sense. He rubbed his temples to stimulate coherence, but the intensity from his fingers caused the letters to do bigger flips before his eyes. It was hopeless. Sammy handed the paper back to his boss.
“Maybe you should just tell me what to do.”
“Is something wrong? I thought the instructions were clear.”
“I can’t see straight right now. I’ve got a splitting headache.”
“Is it because of the red crayon? I can write it in blue if you’d like.”
“Sir, it’s not the crayon. I just can’t read anything right now. The words look like streaks on paper to me.”
Mr. Chip put his hand on Sammy’s forehead. Sammy took his wrist and brushed it aside.
“Sir, please don’t feel my head. It’s not a fever.”
“Well, don’t worry, Sammy. I’ve got the perfect thing to relieve that minor setback. It’s in my locker. Just give me a second.”
“You have a locker?”
“We all have lockers. The company gives it to us for being potential partners and shareholders in this place. It’s like we’re employees here. Isn’t that exciting?”
Mr. Chip swung his fist for emphasis. Sammy didn’t answer.
“It cost us a pretty penny,” Mr. Chip continued, “but it’s oh so worth it!”
Mr. Chip walked with a spring in his step to a locker near the room’s entrance. On reaching it, he fiddled with the lock before it popped open. As the door clanged against the neighboring locker, he knelt down and rummaged through a bag he had resting on the floor.
Sammy swayed as he glanced at blue and purple spreadsheets hanging from the tight metal walls inside. He also saw some red and green floppy disks sitting on the top shelf. The colors swirled around like a bowl of fruit yogurt. The brightness of the hues disturbed his head even more. He pushed against his temples, hoping to ease some of the pain. If there was a miracle cure awaiting him in that bag, he was certainly ready for it.
“Here you go, Samuel,” said Mr. Chip, as he flipped a colorful pill in the air and caught it with the back of his hand. The pill poised between his knuckles a few seconds before falling to the moist, tiled floor.
“What are you doing?” Sammy asked.
“Just having some fun. After all, this is Happy Fun Land.”
Sammy shaded his eyes from the intense overhead light as the question of why me? floated around in his thoughts.
Mr. Chip plucked the pill off the floor and tried to balance it on his finger. It trembled for about two seconds before falling again.
“Okay,” he said, “maybe I’ll just keep this one.”
He picked the pill off the floor and popped it in his mouth. Sammy removed his hand from his eyes as his boss staggered, sucked his cheeks in, and rolled his eyes about.
“Okay,” he said, “the next one’s for you.”
Mr. Chip rocked to the side as he turned around to face his locker. His body convulsed into many forms as Sammy watched him bend down to reach in his bag. He returned a moment later with two different colored pills in hand. Mr. Chip curled his lips as he bounced his attention from one pill to the other. The confused look on his face suggested he didn’t understand what he was looking at.
“Okay,” he said, “I believe one of these is ibuprofen. Make sure you eat something before taking it. You can tell Edison to get you a hot dog when nobody’s looking.”
Sammy tried to focus on both pills. The colors merged to form one superpill. He couldn’t understand why his boss had produced them both.
“Sir, are you sure this is the right thing? I know my head hurts and my eyes are playing tricks on me, but . . .”
“Sammy, come on. I’m your boss. You can trust me. This is like taking aspirin.”
Sammy narrowed his eyes as much as his headache allowed.
“Yes, that’s usually true. But—”
“But nothing. I’m giving you ibuprofen. Plain and simple. Trust me, Sammy. Be happy.”
Sammy studied the two pills. Neither one looked like ibuprofen.
“Am I supposed to take both?”
“If you want.”
“Let me ask it another way. Are they both ibuprofen?”
Mr. Chip nodded in a circle. It was a yes and a no. Or maybe neither one. Sammy couldn’t tell.
“Are you questioning my judgment, McGuinness?”
“No,” Sammy said. “Just clarifying. You said you thought one was ibuprofen, right?”
“So, only one is ibuprofen? Not both?”
“Sounds about right.”
“What’s the other one?”
Mr. Chip shrugged.
“Not sure that’s an answer,” Sammy said.
“Sure it is, Samuel. Everything has an answer. Are you questioning the big cat’s judgment?”
“No, I just . . . you mean questioning your judgment?”
“That’s what I asked.”
Sammy pinched the bridge of his nose. His headache was moving into his cheeks.
“I’m not questioning your judgment, sir.”
“I sure hope not. That would make me very angry. Very angry indeed.”
“Which one am I supposed to take?” Sammy asked.
Mr. Chip nudged the palm of his hand toward Sammy’s chin. It was open, like a display tray, beckoning Sammy to partake of the goods.
“Which one would you like?”
“The one that will get rid of my headache.”
Mr. Chip gestured forward again. The smile on his face was haunting. Sammy knew his boss well, and this man was not the man he knew. Not completely.
“Exactly,” said Mr. Chip.
The man who often told the marketing team at Dinners and Waters what to do in the most abstract of terms before any potential partner or client came through the door with a pitch was the man standing before Sammy now, aloof as ever. There was nothing completely off-color about this situation, even if it was more challenging to decipher his instructions than usual. This moment was certainly an original take on a usual Monday theme: managerial control. Mr. Chip, even in this most unusual of circumstances, had to be worth some trust. After all, if Sammy didn’t exercise complete faith in Mr. Chip, he wouldn’t have agreed to meet at Happy Fun Land in the first place.
But still . . . something was wrong here.
Sammy looked long and hard at the pills. The colors of orange and white meant nothing to him since they were growing and shrinking before his eyes. He took a wild guess and grabbed for the orange pill. He thought it was the orange pill. It seemed harmless enough. The pill was small, possibly easy to swallow without water, and it had some word written on it. He wasn’t sure what the word said, but it must’ve been some brand name, maybe even one he heard of, and he was certain he’d taken orange pills before, so it must’ve been aspirin. Certainly, Mr. Chip wouldn’t lie to him. Why would he? Without giving it another thought, he popped the pill in his mouth, closed his eyes, and swallowed hard. A moment passed.
“Wait,” said Mr. Chip, looking at the white pill, “I think you took the wrong one. I think you took the free one.”
Sammy froze. He felt the internal pain behind his ears lifting away, as well as the rest of his head. The benches before him looked rather comfortable, so he bent down to grab for the closest one. Grasping the firm wooden surface, he slipped down onto it, onto his belly, and rolled on his back. Above him, the ceiling faded in and out from solid light cyan to harsh mechanical blue tiles. He stared at Mr. Chip as his image blurred back into focus. His boss’s eyes and mouth contorted with delight, while his skin looked hand-painted with a soft peach and his suit with a purple shade of black and dull white. Everything started to resemble a cartoon.
“What did you give me?” whispered Sammy.
“I think I gave you the happy pill,” said Mr. Chip. “I meant to give you the aspirin.”
“You gave me a choice of both. It was fifty-fifty. With all due respect, what did you expect would happen?”
“Now, Samuel, I sense that you are unhappy. What did I say about being unhappy? And what did I say about trusting my judgment?”
Sammy wasn’t sure what to do at this point. He knew there was a mission for him to undertake, but the bench was getting very comfortable, and the world was getting very animated. As he lay flat on his back, he sensed all the pressure from the aches in his body lifting away. He knew if there were ever a great substitute for a massage, it was the comfort of a good, hard wooden bench, pressed against his back, his shoulders, and his neck. Within an instant he forgot that he was ever hit by a car. A part of him forgot he was angry, too. But just a part.
“But it’s okay,” said Mr. Chip, as he slipped in and out of his subconscious state, “I took the happy pill, too. They gave it to us at the door when we bought our ticket and said it was candy. It makes this place so much more delightful. By the way, your locker is the one next to the showers. You’ll find your marketing material inside. Here’s the ibuprofen if you still want it.”
As soon as time and space finished modeling a rubber band, the world morphed back into a state of normality, or into something similar. The ceiling once again hardened into a light cyan tile surface. And the locker room stopped throbbing. Sammy turned his head in time to watch Mr. Chip sliding down his locker door toward the firm tile floor. On touching the floor, his boss slipped off the door and fell backward on his bag.
Sammy rubbed his hands across his forehead while Mr. Chip multiplied and divided himself before his eyes. The thumping pain had nearly gone from his head. All he still needed was his singular vision. He slowly raised himself to a sitting position, careful not to let too much blood rush to his head. As he sat upright, he focused hard on his boss, waiting to see if he’d return to a single form. Because the multiple images continued to dance before him, he figured the safest thing for him was to close his eyes.
He stared in the face of purple darkness as he stood from the bench and outstretched his hands. He stumbled about the place, kicking benches here and there, and nearly tripped over his own feet as his fingers grazed the tile wall searching for his locker. The walls were smooth to his touch, but he knew there was more to find.
He continued along the wall, feeling for any change in surface. Almost immediately, he felt a change against his face. He backed his nose off the side of the locker and pawed around for the front.
Sammy knew that he was looking for the far end, so he brushed his way down from one handle to the next, until he ran out of handles to touch. When he clawed at the empty air, he assumed he was right there. He grabbed at the metal handle and tried to lift it. It was locked. He yanked harder, but it still wouldn’t budge. Not willing to give up, he felt for the empty air again, this time coming in contact with a corner wall. He realized he wasn’t anywhere near the showers.
After more touching and feeling his way around the locker room, he came to what he assumed was his—the smell of the showers got much stronger, and his locker was supposed to be next to them. Since he was on arrival, he figured his business associates knew to keep it unlocked. Sure enough, when he fidgeted with the handle, it popped open with ease. He took a moment to let his dizziness pass. Then he opened the door to his immediate fate, hoping it didn’t originally belong to Pandora.
Sammy reached inside the locker and sensed something fuzzy on his fingers. The texture was like rubbing a shaggy carpet against his skin. What’s this insanity? he wondered. He took both hands and grabbed hard at the carpet, forcing himself backward onto the tile floor, and getting dog-piled by his new fuzzy gizmo. Ignoring whatever pain he might’ve suffered from the fall, he dug around the carpet to discover a wide opening. He shoved his legs in and lifted it around his body. Once he felt secure sandwiched within the mystery material, he stood and searched around his locker for more of it. His fingers discovered a bulbous shape covered in the same texture, so he pulled it out and popped it on his head. All of a sudden, a rush of heat overwhelmed him, so he felt for the shower room. On turning the tiled corner and encountering a shower knob, he twisted the knob to allow a stream of cold water to fall on his head.
This was his first carpet shower.