Henry Oaker shifted uneasily in the seat of his compact car. The small car always made him squirm—his long legs and barrel chest were constantly sweating and straining against the plastic and steel confines—but today he was especially nervous. An official looking piece of paper sat in the passenger seat. It was marked with grandiose signatures and intricate stamps: all in triplicate. Henry’s right temple twitched delicately as a bead of sweat rolled over it. His eyes started to wander over to his silent passenger. Resisting the urge, he stared fixedly at the road instead, like a horse with blinders on.
It was a sunny day. Folks were ambling out of their enviro-friendly grass covered houses. Fathers were tossing Frisbees to their sons. Wives serenely pinned up the laundry as daughters ran through and reveled in the waving white sheets. Henry’s head drifted to the left to view these picturesque scenes whizz by in a blur of smiling faces, grass stains, and cans of soda. For a moment the families seemed like lab mice, running through the same maze of summer games as they had the day before. He jerked the wheel hard, realizing he was driving. He looked around. It didn’t matter; no one else was on the road. He had been driving uphill for a while. Now his little car was puttering over the crest. Henry craned his neck forward, looking expectantly in front of him. The hill leveled off sharply and suddenly the immense black form of the Happy Faces Center sprang into view. The building had a gloomy, solemn power. Henry pulled his head back into the headrest. From the vantage point Henry had on the lip of the hill, he could see an entire plane filled with trees, and the bumps of other hills off in the distance. The Happy Faces Center was planted in the very center of the plane. Its hulking, rectangular pillar rose high above the tops of the green trees, like a single black domino standing erect in a field of grass. No other structures were visible in this plane, but Henry knew there were thousands of humble grass covered dwellings hidden in the forest below him. The scenes of summer which Henry had just passed were being secretly replicated in the sprawling forest below him.
Henry began to descend the gentle slope onto the plane, the Happy Faces Center looming higher above his head all the time. In no time, Henry was pulling into the Happy Faces Center’s parking lot. The sun glinted off the other parked cars, and even the Center sparkled through its darkness, as though it were made of freshly laid asphalt. Henry pried himself free of his car, taking the print-laden form with him, and leaving a small sweat stain on the headrest. His blonde mane seemed to radiate with heat. With his hand still resting tentatively on the door he shaded his eyes and looked up at the tower before him. The Center was made of a granular substance that was a shiny black, but rain had created white streaks on the outside. The building was a stack of separate floors—a new one for each year—so each level had a unique set of white streaks. Henry remembered a moment in his youth when his father taught him how to count the rings of a tree trunk. Henry figured the Center was about twenty years old, and he could see the heads of men bobbing on the top floor, working on the twenty-first.
Henry slammed the car door shut and strode towards the automatic glass doors at the base of the Center. A line of people snaked out of the entryway. Sometimes the doors made a feeble attempt to close before sensing the line and then meekly retracting. Henry walked past the people on the line. Each of the people queued up was holding a small metal canister. The canisters had a sticker of a cartoonish, red angry face at the bottom and, at the top, a glass window through which could be seen a black liquid. Every so often, the line shuffle forward. No one on the line smiled or frowned or spoke, but they all held the same simple expression which seemed to say, “Oh well. What can you do?”
Henry entered the building. It was air conditioned inside, very cool. A long row of stalls filled with Center employees was accepting the canisters from people through glass partitions. Each time a canister was slipped through the hole in the glass, the employee would scribble on a set of forms, stamp them, rip them in two, hand half back to the person, and smile. The canisters were piled onto an industrial sized elevator platform behind the employees. Henry made for a kiosk which read, “HELP”
A young woman dressed in a suit looked up from a stack of papers and beamed at Henry as he approached. A pair of sleek glasses sat crisply on her pointy nose. Her pony tail bounced as she spoke, “Need help? Information? Directions?”
“Yeah,” said Henry gruffly as he slid his form through the glass.
She took the form and scanned the small print quickly, nodding knowingly, “Mhmm. Mhmm. This form seems to be in order,” she glanced at the clock on the wall. Her smile wavered minutely, “You are a couple of minutes late Mr. Oaker, but luckily the Number Twenty Manager has no other appointments today. So Mr. Oaker, proceed to your left and show this form to the guard. Then take the elevator to the top floor.”
She slid the form back.
“Thanks,” shrugged Henry.
“You’re very welcome sir,” she smiled, and then bent back over her stack of papers.
Henry walked over to a broad shouldered guard who stood next to an elevator and wore a black uniform with shiny boots. Perched atop a thickset, blank face was a yellow helmet with a black smiley face painted on it. Slung across his chest was a high-tech submachine gun. Henry eyed the gun as he handed the guard the form, explaining, “I have to go to the top floor.”
The guard looked briefly at the form and handed it back without looking at Henry, “Very good, sir.”
Henry pushed the button to call the elevator. The doors opened promptly, and he stepped inside. He examined the panel of buttons. Buttons filled one wall of the elevator from the floor to the ceiling. Most of the buttons were blank, but in the middle of the wall was a segment that ranged from -21 to 21. Henry had never realized the Center had basement floors. He looked at the negative numbers and licked his lips. He glanced towards the main lobby, and his heart jumped into his throat as he was greeted by the vacant face of the guard peering into the elevator. The smiley-face helmet smiled angrily at Henry. Henry pressed 21, hesitating no longer. As the doors closed, he noticed that the other elevator filled with the canisters was slowly starting to rise through the ceiling of the lobby.
A low hum filled the elevator as buttons flared up in glows consecutively until 21 were lit. The doors opened and revealed a scene of commotion and noise, all bathed in resplendent sunlight. Workers in smiley-face hard hats darted busily past the elevator, cradling canisters in their arms. Other workers were patting chest high lumps of black material with gloved hands. Some were busy working the lumps with complex and bizarre machines that whirled cotton pads or slammed pistons against the black material. Still others were gathered around a cranking machine which consumed canisters and spit them out empty along with a tiny pile of the black material that the Center was made of. The sun beat down and some of the workers paused to raise their t-shirts to mop their glistening faces. Somewhere in the crowd a shout went up, “New batch of evil just come up! Everybody grab a canister!” The throb of activity increased in pace after this call. In the middle of the pandemonium was a young man in a suit and hard hat, boisterously waving his arms in the air like a conductor directing an orchestra of construction workers.
Henry weaved a path through the busy bees and approached the young man. He handed the form to the Manager saying, “You requested a meeting?”
The Manager stopped waving his arms and shouting for a moment and looked down at the form, “Eh?”
Henry shoved the form towards him, “It says here…”
The man swiped the form from Henry’s hand and held it up to the sunlight. He smacked it energetically with the back of his hand, “No, no, no! I’m the Twenty-One Manager. This form came from the Twenty Manager. You gotta go down a floor.”
He thrust the rumpled piece of paper back at Henry. Henry looked at the form as though for the first time, “But the lady downstairs said…”
The young man shouted at a group of workers and rushed over to them, “You lot! Those go to Section C, you’re in Section F.”
He herded the group away with his arms at full wingspan. He clapped his hands and shouted, “Come on boys, this evil won’t pack itself!”
Henry returned to the elevator and pressed the button for the twentieth floor. While waiting for the elevator’s cogs to start spinning, Henry spotted a single oasis of calm on the twenty-first floor: two tall men stood at the parapet of the Happy Faces Center, scouring the plane below with their slender fingers wrapped around binoculars. Their sweeping, high-necked overcoats made them look like a pair of perched, black hawks. One of them spun his head quickly in Henry’s direction. Henry felt a stab in his chest as the two dark-ringed, iceberg eyes narrowed. The doors closed and shut out the eyes. Henry shivered. The sounds of mayhem drifted away as he sank down a floor.
This time, the doors parted to reveal a completely different situation. Although the outside of the Center was smoothed out, the walls and ceiling of this floor more resembled a cavern than a building. It looked as though a giant worm had carved a system of catacombs through the sparkling black substance. The different tunnels were lighted by electric lanterns that were pinned to the ceiling and connected by electrical cords. Henry could see men in white lab coats calmly examining sections of the wall. Some were in groups, quietly, but excitedly, whispering over small chunks of the black matter. A few steps in front of the elevator a middle-aged man in a three piece suit sat at a glossy desk, absorbed by a computer screen. The desk seemed out of place, an object of a business office stuck inside a dark cave of sparkling evil. Next to his desk was a trolley that held a machine that resembled a small plastic sink attached by three tubes to canisters with angry faces on them. The machine was facing the chair in front of the man’s desk.
Henry stumbled as he started towards the man. The man looked up and smiled at Henry as he closed the rest of the distance. Henry opened his mouth, but the man spoke first, “Mr. Oaker. Please, have a seat.”
Henry slid into the flimsy chair. The man pushed his computer out of the way and leaned his elbows on the desk. He tapped his fingers together, happily.
“This shouldn’t take too long Mr. Oaker. I just have a few questions for you.”
Henry reached into his jeans for the form.
“Here,” he said with a hoarse voice.
“Thank you,” said the man, taking the form. He searched the drawers of his desk, looking for a place to file the wrinkled piece of paper. The man had a wolfish appearance. His sideburns almost ran down to his chin and his canine teeth looked sharp. His eyebrows were thin and grey, and moved very little. His starched white collar choked his long neck.
“You are Twenty Manager, right?” asked Henry.
“Yes,” said the manager, drawing out the word into two syllables. He continued rifling through the drawers.
“So have I done something wrong?” said Henry in a voice that was stronger than he felt.
The manager paused for a moment, “Of course not Mr. Oaker. I merely have a few inquiries before I let you go about your day.”
He resumed searching.
“Ahhhh!” he said at last, raising a petri dish out of a drawer and setting it on the desk between himself and Henry. Henry looked from the dish to the man, confused. The manager looked at him intently. Henry shifted in the small seat. Abruptly the man pulled out a pair of tweezers and a magnifying glass. He lifted the top off the petri dish and pinched a small grain out of the dish with the tweezers. He held it beneath the magnifying glass, his eye blowing up into a cartoonish bloodshot eyeball through the magnifying glass.
“Here, take a look,” he said handing over the utensils to Henry. Henry observed the small fleck.
“Notice anything different about it? Different in comparison to the walls we are surrounded by, I mean,” asked the manager, still smiling.
“Well,” Henry strained his eye, “I guess it looks like it’s got some white in it.”
“Very good, Mr. Oaker!” grinned the man, “It’s often hard for non-Happy Face employees to spot a good bead.”
“A ‘good bead’?” asked Henry, confused.
“It’s what we call a fleck that comes from a canister that had good poured into it.”
“Oh,” said Henry. Pools of sweat were leaking through the armpits of his grey t-shirt.
“We believe that the canister came from you, Mr. Oaker.”
“Really?” asked Henry, weakly. His eyes felt like they were popping out of his skull. How could they possibly find it in all this? he thought as he looked away from the manager to the black walls.
“You do understand the process of cleansing, don’t you?”
Henry said, “of course,” but the man proceeded to explain, “When you activate the cleanser,” he pointed to the white sink to his right, “the user must cooperate mentally with the machine and let negative energies course through them for the cleansing to be completely successful.”
“Yes, I understand,” Henry said, annoyed, but still sweating.
“Well I’m simply making sure Mr. Oaker, because it appears,” at this he put on a simultaneously sad and concerned face, “that you gave us a faulty sample of evil matter.”
“Right, well it’s never happened before,” responded Henry quickly.
“Well that’s the thing Mr. Oaker,” the manager said with the same pitying and disappointed face, “the Nineteen Manager has notified me that he too has found a faulty sample that originates from you. It’s not as contaminated as the one I have, but nevertheless, this is a very startling trend.”
Henry threw the fleck on the floor and leaned in, menacingly. His blonde hair was now stained brown with sweat. He growled, “Look. Just what is this all about, huh?”
The manager leaned back in his chair, looking comically surprised, “There’s no need to get angry Mr. Oaker.”
“What is the purpose of this inquisition?”
“We simply cannot keep receiving contaminated specimens, Mr. Oaker.”
“I don’t see why I have to give any specimens at all!”
The manager’s eyes widened, “But Mr. Oaker, the law requires you to give specimens!”
“We have a unique opportunity, not to repress our negative feelings, but to extract them for good. Just look at the strides we have made with the Happy Faces program! No more murder or crime; there is a sense of community and sharing that has solved every problem from international conflicts to global warming. And of course, we cannot forget the happy faces which are now everywhere,” he swept his arm grandiosely across the desk, “We can create a perfect world Mr. Oaker, but we need everyone’s help and everyone’s samples to ensure the everlasting bliss and happiness of mankind.”
Henry slammed his fist on the desk, “Well what about my own happiness? Maybe my brand of happiness is different. Maybe sometimes I’m happy being angry. Maybe sometimes I’m happy pushing the gas pedal all the way down and speeding, and feeling a little scared and nervous.”
The manager shook his head sadly, “This is distressing.”
He pulled up his computer and rapidly typed on it.
“What’re you doing?” asked Henry, flattening his fist out on the table.
“I’m afraid you’re way past the law’s time limit for handing in a canister.”
“The law’s time limit? Who makes these rules? You all have forgotten but this one right here still remembers reading some history textbooks, and I remember what it was like to have nations, and opinions and art, man. Art! There used to be true energy to the world!”
Suddenly four sets of hands gripped Henry’s arms from behind.
“Hey!” he shouted, twisting around with fury etched in creases across his face. Four guards with empty eyes were picking him up off the chair. The smiley face helmets swam before Henry’s eyes as he tried to buck the guards off and rip free. They shifted him, bodily, over to the cleanser and shoved his face into it. Henry continued to scream although the sounds were muffled by the plastic sink. With a little pucker of suction, the screams vanished completely. Henry continued squirming underneath the four guards in the now silent room. Slowly the canisters underneath the sink filled up with a dark juice, and slowly Henry’s squirming slowed. By the time the second canister was full, Henry was patiently twiddling his fingers behind his back.
The managers signaled to the guards, “That’s enough.”
They flipped a switch and Henry pulled back from the cleanser, red-faced but smiling, streaks of black juice dribbling down his chin. The manager walked around his desk, and pulling out a handkerchief with a flourish, wiped away the dribble, as a mother would a baby. He handed Henry a glass of water, “Make sure to keep hydrating for the next twenty-four hours; that was a lot of evil to lose in one sitting.”
Henry nodded tamely, “I don’t know what I was thinking. But I feel much better now.”
The manager smiled paternally, “that’s very good. Now go home and get some rest, and I’ll see you in a week for a checkup.”
A guard approached the manager with the two filled canisters, “Should I bring these up a flight, sir?”
The manager shook his head, “No, these should provide some excellent samples. Take them straight down to the boys in Negative Twenty One,” he pointed at the canisters enthusiastically, “I heard that they’re on the brink of finding out the secret behind this stuff. It shouldn’t be long until we can do away with these ghastly forced-cleansings.”
“May I go now, sir?” interjected Henry, leaning in with a half-bow.
The manager waved him away, “Yes, of course.”
Henry rode the elevator down with the four guards, smiling all the way. He got off at the lobby, but the four guards continued downwards. Henry walked across the parking lot with a spring in his step. He stopped by his car and sighed, “I got a long drive ahead.”
He looked at the long line of people still waiting to deliver their canisters.
“At least I didn’t have to wait on line!”
The long hallway was completely deserted save for the flotsam and jetsam of past customers which littered the tiled floor. The body of an electric sign which read “Forest Hill Super Mall” lay broken and dark in a corner. The only sound was the whir of a dusty air conditioner which buffeted the scuttling newspaper clippings of “THE END IS NIGH!” with blasts of canned air. Even Randy was silent as he pondered his figure in one of the mirrors of a Super-Gap. He twisted slightly to see his backside. He turned to a mannequin beside him and asked earnestly, “What do you think?”
The mannequin’s plastic eyes reflected the soft folds of Randy’s face. Randy nodded vehemently, “I totally see where you’re coming from. These jeans do make my butt look big.”
He started to take off a pair of tactfully shredded jeans, his gnarled old fingers fumbling with the tiny zipper on the crotch. He quickly slipped on a pair of sweatpants which read, “JUICY” on the seat of the pants. He wore them backwards. He was tightening the elastic band when something crashed in the hallway outside the store. Randy rushed to the hallway, pausing to grab his skater-boy Volcom hat off the mannequin’s hand.
Peeking timidly from behind the massive plaster columns which framed the Super-Gap’s yawning entrance, Randy saw a young woman in hiking gear cocking her arm to throw a rock at the glass window of a Forever 21 store.
“No!” rasped out Randy’s voice before he could cover his mouth. The woman looked over, could only see a tuft of snowy white hair and two blue eyes, and shined a smile as she dropped the rock. She started to walk over. The butterflies in Randy’s stomach started churning a stew of anxiety which he hadn’t felt in many years. Her echoing footsteps halted before him, at last and she thrust a dirty hand towards Randy, “Hi! My name’s Christie Candle.”
Randy lowered his eyes to the grimy hand and said simply, “Hi.”
Christie withdrew her unrequited hand and pointed enthusiastically over her shoulder, “You like that store?”
Randy raised his eyes with a gleam of defiance and screwed on his hat, “I love it!”
Christie shrugged, “It doesn’t have much for survival. You should check out the LL Bean on the other side of the mall.”
Randy sighed, “LL Bean, more like LL Has-Been. Forever 21 has one of the best selections of tops I’ve ever seen. I go there almost every day.”
Christie laughed and shot him a quizzical look, “Every day? You mean you live in this dump?”
“I have lived here for 50 years and it is not a dump.”
“But they’re no windows! Don’t you want to see what it’s like outside? It’s certainly not the way it was when you came in here. My mom told me everything used to be gray, but now everything is just bursting with green. You ought’ta see it! It’ll probably blow your mind, man, come on!” she said tugging at his arm.
“Don’t want to”, sulked Randy.
Christie’s smile faded. She put a hand on each of the old man’s slumped shoulders and said sympathetically, “Don’t you ever get lonely? There’s nobody around here anymore.”
Randy looked around. The mannequins were all frozen in their poses, serenely strolling in Capri shorts and petting stuffed dogs. He turned back to Christie, “It hasn’t changed that much. I’m no lonelier than when I came in here,” he paused and stared off into space “, no less either.”
“How old are you?” asked Christie.
“65 and a half,” he responded proudly.
She hit his shoulder “, C’mon you’re gonna die soon! You gotta see how the parking lot is full of grass. I saw a tree that had grown right on top of a car, bending the car into a “V” almost. It looks like the tree just hopped right up and squashed the thing like it was a bug,” she pressed a finger to her lips “, in fact, I think it was a Volkswagen Bug.”
“What?” Randy craned his wrinkled neck.
“I said you’re gonna die someday, you might as well go out now!” she shouted, exasperated.
Randy took a step back “, No! That’s impossible!”
“No, no. The air’s all better now. Just look at me,” she did a jumping jack.
Randy wagged a finger at her “, It simply is not possible. I have too much shopping to do today. Besides, Everfre$h gets a new line of perfumes tomorrow. And in only a month, Best Buy gets the first shipment of PlayStation 5’s! By the way, I’m dying to see how it compares to Microsoft’s new console. Microsoft always has great games, but I like the feel of the PlayStation controllers. Don’t you agree?”
This time Christie took a step back. She tried to put on a smile “, Ok. Maybe next weekend.”
“But next weekend the new…”
She was already striding down the hallway, navigating around the trash on the floor, moving down the neon-lit tiles toward a red exit sign.
Randy Smiled and waved “, Bye!”
Randy stared at the wall for a moment. Everything was quiet again. He went back into the Super-Gap and took his mannequin by the wrist “, C’mon!”
The pair of them shuffled across the vast hallway, plodding slowly towards the shining gates of Forever 21.