A short time later, Sammy reopened his eyes to find himself staring at the sun-washed midway through a pair of tiny eyeholes. As he attempted to bring his surroundings into clearer focus, kids cheerfully ran up to him and pawed at his carpeted body. Their “oohs” and “ahs” raised the actual hairs on the back of his neck. Along with the gross lack of preparation he had received for this assignment, he also lacked any training manuals that related to the average Happy Fun Land clientele, and he stood there uncertain of whether he should keep standing there.
How did one relate to children again? Were these people even considered children, or were they just marketing subjects? Did he want to aid in their hopeless delight and the consequences that might follow them into the dark of night?
He searched his memories for his own childhood, hoping to connect with this demographic, but somehow his thoughts got lost in a haze of mental snapshots, of briefcases and moussed hair, and of nuns armed with sharp rulers. Flashing forward to a happier time in his life, he remembered moments of joy, of thinking he was the right man for the job, a job his wife had given him, and how that job erased the negative memories he had of childhood, but his thoughts could not stay fixed on that happy time for long. They segued to his life’s worst screw-up, a job poorly done thanks to that faulty seat design he hadn’t fully inspected because the branding convinced him he didn’t have to. He snapped the memory out of mind.
This wasn’t the time to dwell on the past. Improvisation would have to take control today. He had done it once before when he spoke to a conference of Japanese investors without a translator, and somehow still got the message across, and the marketing contract. The same could happen here. Reluctantly, he opened his arms akimbo and let the young children give him hugs while keeping his focus on all the robotic, smiling people passing in front of him. A similar strategy had worked on the Japanese businessmen all those years ago.
“I love you, Bubby,” cried the chorus of children hanging from his arms. Having so many kids embracing him didn’t seem right. But the past was the past, and this was business.
While his head continued to do laps around his neck, Sammy tuned out their squeaky voices and took step after step away from the souvenir shop, hoping to find a spot where his fans could be more manageable. He scanned the area for a bench where no one was sitting or a trash can that wasn’t already overflowing with discarded food bags that he could lean against. All he saw through his narrow eye slits, however, were the park’s vast concourse and the sea of visiting zombies and their stupid, ugly fake cat ears.
This was not working out well. The flood of children was swallowing him. He tried to flick a few of the tykes away, gently, but they kept coming back in bigger droves. When he got about twenty feet down the walk, the children mounted his shoulders and brought him down to his knees. Rather than wrestle with them, Sammy went limp and allowed them to roll him around. Sometimes improvisation required a little extra injury.
After a few moments of abuse from the kids, Sammy regained his strength and attempted to rise from the ground.
“Okay,” he said, feeling another bout of dizziness coming against him, “time to get off me.” He thought about using a “fuzzy” voice to authenticate the character, but decided against it when he realized how typical that would have made him. So he just spoke to them in his regular, acidic voice. They didn’t seem to notice the difference.
The kids continued to hug him and hit him, further bringing slight bruises to his belly and sides. Despite his floating state of equilibrium, Sammy, using all the strength he had left in his body, rose to his feet and staggered. He tried to stay balanced, but he found it challenging. With a couple of hobbled steps, he struggled to hold his vertical position. His knees quaked and his toes clawed for the sturdy anchor within those giant synthetic feet. More kids continued to run up to him. Hungry piranhas wearing Nippy the Cat T-shirts. Out of automation or instinct, he clamped his elbows to his side. These children were tainting the happy memories he fought so hard to keep of his previous life.
Desperate for relief, Sammy looked to his left, then his right. Perhaps a responsible parent could step in and reel the children away, if any such responsible parent existed. Or maybe one of those typical clowns could jump in from behind a tent and spray them all down with a hose. But no, he saw nothing like that beside him. Instead, he found a balloon stall nearby with many round and animal-shaped balloons hanging from its walls and ceiling. He attempted to shrug; it was better than nothing. He lumbered toward it, waving his hands around to maintain his balance. Of course, the kids scrambled to follow him. His steps were strenuous, but after a few tiring minutes of effort, he made it to the stall and collapsed against the counter.
The children screamed in his ears as they cheerfully demanded the balloons.
“What kind of balloons do you kids want?” he sputtered.
He didn’t listen to their responses. Instead, he envisioned either shooting his boss or shooting himself for taking this job. But bullets were not enough. Getting baked by the fierce heat and becoming consumed by the endless stream of childhood greed placed visions of shotgun shells in his head. He stared inside the booth to see the stick-figured balloon merchant laughing at him. Sammy was tempted to respond to the laughter with a fuzzy punch to her face.
“That’s so adorable,” said the merchant, as her polished whitened teeth threw the sun back in his eyes. “I wish I had your job.”
Sammy wasn’t sure if she was being serious or just sarcastic.
“Would you like to give these kids some balloons?” she asked.
“Anything to get them off my back.”
“What? Oh stop, they’re adorable. Here, take the Gary Giraffe specialty balloon for the superest of these super kids.”
The merchant stood on her tiptoes and stretched. She plucked a giraffe-shaped balloon from the ceiling and handed the string to Sammy. He could not see the string clearly, so he ended up grabbing at air.
“Maybe you should give it to them yourself,” he said.
The merchant nodded and passed the string along to the smallest kid. The kid grabbed a tight hold of it and ran away, calling for his mommy.
“Weren’t you going to ask that kid to pay for it?” Sammy asked.
The balloon merchant put her hands on her hips and smiled.
“Oh, come now. I have plenty more. What’s giving up a small price for a happy face?”
Sammy felt the strain on his back and shoulders getting sharper.
“Maybe you’d consider giving up about twenty more? I got money.”
The merchant flipped at his fake nose, which looked like a big red cotton ball from behind his eyeholes. He had no idea why she’d done that, but he flipped his big furry fingers against her nose in return. The merchant laughed at his action and flipped his nose again. Her smile grew bigger and bigger. He realized he hated the balloon stall, too.
“Well, I guess that means no,” he continued. “Bye.”
Sammy tried to fight his way back to the main walk, but the mob of children made it difficult. As he struggled to move, he spotted a mirror standing next to a fortune teller’s weight scale. In it he saw his wet and blurry reflection shining back at him: he was a large, red, fuzzy cartoon bear, matted with shower water and surrounded with little screaming people. By looking at the children hanging on his back, he estimated he was lugging an extra two hundred pounds on top of his one hundred seventy-pound body. He let out a huge breath, hoping to draw on more energy. The move caused him to lose more from the exhalation, and he needed to follow it with an even larger breath. However, the greater breath came in too quickly, and it made his head grow lighter. His knees weakened under the weight.
“Okay, kids,” he said, “time to get off Bubby.”
None of the kids dismounted. Instead, some older children, more like young adults, came rushing up to his side. They, too, pounced on him with delight. The weight was far too much for him to handle. His knees collapsed, and he hit the ground hard. The quick change in altitude made him even dizzier.
“Get off me,” he shouted, to no avail.
The young adults laughed as they helped the kids roll him along the ground. Some had difficulty holding their drinks as they playfully tortured him and spilled slight amounts on his body, staining the fur with cola. Sammy gritted his teeth at the surreal circumstances engulfing him. Where did these people come from, and why did they have to come here? The young adults jumped on his belly and drummed him on the chest and crotch as hard as they could. He knew his bruises were getting bigger now. And his breath escaped him. There was also the problem with him having his crotch assaulted.
This was not the type of market he wanted his company to invest in, even if it did manage to lure in so many people under its spell. This was nothing more than blood money.
“I said get off me,” he shouted. He tried forcing the mob off his torso.
All of them refused to move; rather, they swarmed him, play-beating him into madness. Enough was enough.
Sammy ripped Bubby the Bear’s head off his shoulders and revealed to the entire crowd the heat flushing from his real cheeks. The action scared the little kids to panic.
“Bubby pulled his head off,” they screamed. “He’s dead! He’s dead!”
They ran off yelling for their mommies and stepdaddies. The young adults, on the other hand, stuck around, somehow turning themselves into human chickens with their hands on their hips and their noses thrusting at him in erratic beats.
“Hey, you’re not supposed to show us who you are on the inside,” sang one of them. “Put the head back on and entertain us.”
Sammy used all of his strength to push the few sitting on him to the ground. They laughed as they rolled away from his body.
“I’m not here to entertain,” he said. “I’m here on business. I couldn’t care less about my stupid bear head.”
As he finished his thought, Sammy stood up. But he got up a little too fast. With a sudden burst of pressure in his head, he blacked out in front of all the happy people.