In a future that everyone hopes is distant but really isn’t, in a time when all mankind’s evil had long since come back around, a little boy named Cary Pickle was trying his hardest to fall asleep, but he was too excited about his birthday.
In the century before it all began, war had destroyed the face of the Earth. Where forests had been, the soil had been obliterated down to dust and desert by endless nuclear blasts.
Where oceans had been there were still oceans; oceans full of black radioactive slime that claimed anything that touched it, trapping its soul in eternal screaming torment.
Where the land had been rich and fertile, green and verdant, lovely and lush, there was nothing but desolation.
What was desert was still desert, a wasteland, in this new age populated by roving freaks born out of deformed wombs.
For decades, hope was a dead word. Life had once been the antonym of death; now the two were one and the same, synonymous, symbiotic, linked forever. Death before life, life before death, death following death.
Then came the dream, and the hope. The return of life as the opposite of death. At least for a few.
It started with an apple. A sweet apple, juicy and refreshing. Maybe the first that had grown in a long time. A man ate it, and its seeds fell to the ground. Where he stood, filled with new dreams, he decided he would build a city.
Men had long lived solitarily, or in tiny communities. A city could change things, a city could bring people back together.
There, in the middle of the Fetus Wasteland, he laid the first stone, the first log. Others came, and stone and wood were joined by brick and steel as civilization regained its footing.
Together they built Apple City.
Cary woke up and ran downstairs, yelling, “Happy birthday to me!”
His dad had fallen asleep at the table in the middle of wrapping presents, and jerked up with a trail of crusty drool going down his face.
“Huh! Yeah, happy birthday…” Mr. Pickle snapped off a piece of tape and kept going, like there had been no pause.
“We’re going to Happy Birthday Land!” Cary danced in the middle of the room. He scooted over toward his dad, trying to get a sneaky look at the presents. “Aren’t we, dad? We are, right? When are we going? Dad, when are we going?”
“When are we going dad?”
The Pickle family lived in Little Europe, on a nice little street with nice families that never got in fights. Cary and his dad stepped out into the street, the latter with a load of presents under his arm, and looked toward the rising sun.
Sunrise came later now. It came whenever it managed to get over the city wall, five hundred feet high. It was coming now, half the red disc bulging and bleeding over the edge. Mr. Pickle looked at his watch.
“Early start, huh champ?” He reached over and ruffled Cary’s hair.
“Yeah, dad, sure is,” said Cary. “Hello there, Miss Harkadoodle!”
Miss Harkadoodle was walking her dog by. Such a nice old woman. She always gave the kids cookies and told them fun stories. She waved at Cary and a few other kids who were outside.
Mr. Pickle smiled and waved back. “Have a good day, Miss Harkadoodle!”
They got into the car, a Shimmy 300, and drove down the street.
“Hey, look there, champ!” Mr. Pickle announced, pointing at the McDoogles on the corner. “They’ve got buy-one-get-one-free sausage boys, today only! Whaddya say?”
“I say heck yeah, dad!” Cary said. “I love sausage boys! Oh, can I get that dipping stuff too?”
“Sure you can, champ.” Mr. Pickle ruffled Cary’s hair again. “I think I’ll have one or two, myself.”
This McDoogles was nice and clean inside, Cary realized, not like the one they went to that one time when dad visited his friend in East Town.
They got four sausage boys and some of that good dipping sauce. It came in little cups that said “Yummie Goodboy Sauce” on the lid. It tasted like onions.
“Chow down, champ. I want my boy to be well-fed on his birthday.”
Cary ate up, dunking his sausage boys and slathering them in sauce. They finished and got back in the Shimmy.
“How far is it, dad?” Cary asked from the back seat.
“Oh, not far at all, champ. Just a little ways.”
They went a few miles, the eastern wall growing smaller behind them and the western wall growing bigger in front. They went by a few more McDoogles restaurants. Soon they had to go through Aryan Land, and neither of them liked that very much.
Mr. Pickle stepped on the accelerator. Three bald men in weird pants ran into the road and started swinging their heads around. One drank a whole bottle of beer and smashed it over his own head, going “Awooo!” and showing his broken teeth. Mr. Pickle rolled up the windows.
Soon they reached the barrier that would take them into the Hubroads, a maze of streets flanked by tight walls that led all over the city. Mr. Pickle showed his license to the officer at the gate, and answered a few questions about Cary.
They were allowed through. Mr. Pickle said a few bad words as he tried to merge onto the road. It was slow going, but as they got closer, Cary started seeing marquee signs for Happy Birthday Land and other Johnson Bros Co. parks.
The roads were lined with tall posts that had machine guns on top. Every once in a while, Cary saw a few scary looking men watching the cars through weird looking binoculars. All of them had mustaches and were fat. Everything was metal, gray, and ugly.
“Hi there, friends!” a jolly voice said through their radio. “We at Happy Birthday Land have been sent word that a little boy by the name of Cary Pickle is on his way here right now to have the time of his young little life!”
Cary clapped his hands, and Mr. Pickle smiled at him in the rearview mirror.
“Well!” the voice went on. “We at Happy Birthday Land love to show little boys and girls a great time on their special day! I’m pleased to tell you that this month is Jumpy, Bumpy, Rolly Clown Month! All one hundred of our park entertainers are dressing as clowns for the theme! Watch out for them once you get into Happy Birthday Land! And remember this special little tip, friends; if you find the one with the purple nose, knock him off his unicycle to win a special prize!”
The voice laughed and tooted a horn, and then went away.
“Remember that, champ. Purple nose. I’ll bet they give you a credit pass to use in their gift store!”
Cary remembered last year. He got a few things from the gift store, but there was so much stuff there! He was definitely going to find that purple-nosed clown!
A few minutes later, Mr. Pickle put on the turn signal and said, “Here we are, champ!”
They entered a wide tunnel. Lights blinked on and off, all different colors, spinning around in flashing chaos. A sound grew louder over the radio. The Happy Birthday Land theme song! Cary bounced around in tune with it, and Mr. Pickle tapped on the steering wheel.
There were lights at the end of the tunnel. They came out into a huge parking lot. Over the barrier, Cary could see the big buildings and the colors. The entrance was before them, a huge wide tent with loud music coming from it. They parked and ran in.
The tent was dark, and some fast crazy clown song played somewhere deeper inside. The girl at the podium was dressed like a clown and tooted a horn when they came in.
“Welcome to Happy Birthday Land!” she said, throwing her hands up. “You must be little Cary Pickle, huh? Why, you’re the cutest boy I’ve seen all day! Why don’t you come over and get your special Happy Birthday bracelet!”
She put a plastic band around his arm, striped in all different colors. One part had writing on it. It said:
Lives: 1542 Pirate Treasure Rd. Little Europe
Guardian: Gilbert Pickle Age: 34”
“So if you get lost, they know how to help you!” Mr. Pickle said. “Come on, champ, we’ve got a long day of fun ahead of us!”
Mr. Pickle dumped the presents in the present receptacle. They moved further into the tent.
They came into a big room with huge balls rotating on the ceiling and reflecting light everywhere. Tons of kids were here, kids from East Town and North Town and Little Europe and the Southern Sphere, dancing with people dressed like clowns. The music was faster now, and it made Cary want to spin around until he got dizzy and fell down. But he was too excited to see the rest of the place; they revamped it every year, and this year it was supposed to be really awesome.
It was a short walk to get outside the tent, and when they did, little Cary and his dad stood and stared.
Cary had seen the buildings past the big walls by the entrance, but that was nothing compared to this. He’d heard somewhere that the park covered two hundred acres. He wasn’t sure what that meant, but it sure was big.
And it had all been transformed into a city. Twenty story buildings, with cardboard windows showing cartoon women hanging their clothes and cartoon men leaning out to get a look at the street. Some of the doorways were open, leading into accessible rooms. Others were painted to look like they were open, with kids running around and playing inside. In every building it seemed a birthday party was going on. Fake balloons and cake and piñatas were everywhere.
There was a little city square here, with a big fountain that shot purple and green water high into the air. One of the clowns stood on the center platform, dancing and laughing and strumming on a little toy guitar. Ten kids and their parents were here too, dancing and freaking out with excitement.
“Wow, would you just look at this!” Mr. Pickle said. “Your very own city to explore, champ! D’you like it?”
“I sure do, dad!” Cary said.
There were four streets leading off from here. They were each flooded with a shallow wash of a different colored confetti. A plethora of toys was scattered everywhere, from plastic baseball bats to life-size dolls, from roller-skates to huge train sets. Cary could hardly contain himself, but he had to wait for dad’s permission.
“Let’s go see where we are, champ.”
They went to read the street signs.
One of them was blue. It said, “LONELY KID BACKROADS.”
The next was green. It said, “SLIME PIT WAY.”
The next was red. It said, “TERROR STREET.”
The last was pink. It said, “JOYFUL BOYGIRL DRIVE!”
“Hm,” Cary said. He pointed at the pink one. “That way.”
Mr. Pickle held up his hands. “Hey, Champ, it’s your birthday, not mine. Go run and have some fun! I’m gonna stay here and get the rest of your party set up.”
“Alright dad! Thanks!”
Cary ran and ran, kicking up big storms of pink confetti. He saw a big pile of pink foam beads, and jumped into it with a laugh. There was a loud grunt underneath him, and a clown came crawling out. He ran over to a tiny little bike, his big shoes flapping, and rode off giving Cary a wave and a big smile.
Cary kept going. Joyful Boygirl Drive led off little by little from the other streets and he had no idea how far he was going. But he didn’t care. There were hardly any other kids here, and he had all the toys to himself!
Up ahead, he saw a clown running into one of the open buildings.
That must be the purple-nose clown! Cary thought, and ran after him.
The inside of the building was all rough wood and cardboard. A little staircase led up to a platform where someone had left a few cans of paint. The rest of the building was hollow, all the way up to the ceiling. Cary could see the sky. It was bright and orange, like every day.
He heard a laugh, and saw the clown through a window. He must have jumped out when Cary came in! But he didn’t have a purple nose. He grinned at Cary, then ran off, shaking his whole body. His shoes were squeaky.
Cary went into the street and grabbed a hoola-hoop. He wheeled it along with him, until he saw a big squirt gun. There was pink water in the tank, with little purple sparkly things floating around in it. He threw the hoop down, grabbed the gun, and ran after the clown.
He found the clown doing cartwheels for two little girls. Cary started unloading the gun, and the clown fell on his head. He got up, laughed a little, and ran away fast. The girls called Cary a jerk, and ran back the other way. Cary didn’t care; he dropped the gun and went skipping up the street.