Return to Pleasure Island
From "A Place So Foreign and Eight More," a short story collection published in
September, 2003 by Four Walls Eight Windows Press (ISBN 1568582862). See
http://craphound.com/place for more.
Originally Published in Realms of Fantasy August 1999
"By design or default, something about this story (and I can't describe exactly
what because I don't know) disturbed me a great deal, though it's a well-written
and unique take on an old tale. Others may find it more palatable. If Doctorow's
intent was to unsettle, he succeeded..."
- J. G. Stinson,
Blurbs and quotes:
* Cory Doctorow straps on his miner's helmet and takes you deep into the
caverns and underground rivers of Pop Culture, here filtered through SF-coloured
- Neil Gaiman
Author of American Gods and Sandman
* Few writers boggle my sense of reality as much as Cory Doctorow. His vision
is so far out there, you'll need your GPS to find your way back.
- David Marusek
Winner of the Theodore Sturgeon Award, Nebula Award nominee
* Cory Doctorow is one of our best new writers: smart, daring, savvy,
entertaining, ambitious, plugged-in, and as good a guide to the wired world of
the twenty-first century that stretches out before us as you're going to find.
- Gardner Dozois
Editor, Asimov's SF
* He sparkles! He fizzes! He does backflips and breaks the furniture! Science
fiction needs Cory Doctorow!
- Bruce Sterling
Author of The Hacker Crackdown and Distraction
* Cory Doctorow strafes the senses with a geekspeedfreak explosion of gomi kings
with heart, weirdass shapeshifters from Pleasure Island and jumping automotive
jazz joints. If this is Canadian science fiction, give me more.
- Nalo Hopkinson
Author of Midnight Robber and Brown Girl in the Ring
* Cory Doctorow is the future of science fiction. An nth-generation hybrid of
the best of Greg Bear, Rudy Rucker, Bruce Sterling and Groucho Marx, Doctorow
composes stories that are as BPM-stuffed as techno music, as idea-rich as the
latest issue of NEW SCIENTIST, and as funny as humanity's efforts to improve
itself. Utopian, insightful, somehow simultaneously ironic and heartfelt, these
nine tales will upgrade your basal metabolism, overwrite your cortex with new
and efficient subroutines and generally improve your life to the point where
you'll wonder how you ever got along with them. Really, you should need a
prescription to ingest this book. Out of all the glittering crap life and our
society hands us, craphound supreme Doctorow has managed to fashion some
- Paul Di Filippo
Author of The Steampunk Trilogy
* As scary as the future, and twice as funny. In this eclectic and electric
collection Doctorow strikes sparks off today to illuminate tomorrow, which is
what SF is supposed to do. And nobody does it better.
- Terry Bisson
Author of Bears Discover Fire
A note about this story
This story is from my collection, "A Place So Foreign and Eight More," published
by Four Walls Eight Windows Press in September, 2003, ISBN 1568582862. I've
released this story, along with five others, under the terms of a Creative
Commons license that gives you, the reader, a bunch of rights that copyright
normally reserves for me, the creator.
I recently did the same thing with the entire text of my novel, "Down and Out in
the Magic Kingdom" (http://craphound.com/down), and it was an unmitigated
success. Hundreds of thousands of people downloaded the book -- good news -- and
thousands of people bought the book -- also good news. It turns out that, as
near as anyone can tell, distributing free electronic versions of books is a
great way to sell more of the paper editions, while simultaneously getting the
book into the hands of readers who would otherwise not be exposed to my work.
I still don't know how it is artists will earn a living in the age of the
Internet, but I remain convinced that the way to find out is to do basic
science: that is, to do stuff and observe the outcome. That's what I'm doing
here. The thing to remember is that the very *worst* thing you can do to me as
an artist is to not read my work -- to let it languish in obscurity and
disappear from posterity. Most of the fiction I grew up on is out-of-print, and
this is doubly true for the short stories. Losing a couple bucks to people who
would have bought the book save for the availability of the free electronic text
is no big deal, at least when compared to the horror that is being irrelevant
and unread. And luckily for me, it appears that giving away the text for free
gets me more paying customers than it loses me.
You can find the canonical version of this file at
If you'd like to convert this file to some other format and distribute it, you
have my permission, provided that:
* You don't charge money for the distribution
* You keep the entire text intact, including this notice, the license below, and
the metadata at the end of the file
* You don't use a file-format that has "DRM" or "copy-protection" or any other
form of use-restriction turned on
If you'd like, you can advertise the existence of your edition by posting a link
to it at http://craphound.com/place/000014.php
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Return to Pleasure Island
George twiddled his thumbs in his booth and watched how the brown, clayey
knuckles danced overtop of one another. Not as supple as they had once been, his
thumbs -- no longer the texture of wet clay on a potter's wheel; more like clay
after it had been worked to exhausted crackling and brittleness. He reached into
the swirling vortex of the cotton-candy machine with his strong right hand and
caught the stainless-steel sweep-arm. The engines whined and he felt them strain
against his strong right arm, like a live thing struggling to escape a trap.
Still strong, he thought, still strong, and he released the sweep-arm to go back
to spinning sugar into floss.
A pack of boys sauntered down the midway, laughing and calling, bouncing high on
sugar and g-stresses. One of them peeled off from the group and ran to his
booth, still laughing at some cruelty. He put his palms on George's counter and
pushed against it, using them to lever his little body in a high-speed pogo.
"Hey, mister," he said, "how about some three-color swirl, with sprinkles?"
George smiled and knocked the rack of paper cones with his strong right elbow,
jostled it so one cone spun high in the air, and he caught it in his quick left
hand. "Coming _riiiiiight_ up," he sang, and flipped the cone into the
floss-machine. He spun a beehive of pink, then layered it with stripes of blue
and green. He reached for the nipple that dispensed the sprinkles, but before he
turned its spigot, he said, "Are you sure you don't want a dip, too? Fudge?
The boy bounced even higher, so that he was nearly vaulting the counter. "All
three! All three!" he said.
George expertly spiraled the floss through the dips, then applied a thick crust
of sprinkles. "Open your mouth, kid!" he shouted, with realistic glee.
The boy opened his mouth wide, so that the twinkling lights of the midway
reflected off his back molars and the pool of saliva on his tongue. George's
quick, clever left hand dipped a long-handled spoon into the hot fudge, then
flipped the sticky gob on a high arc that terminated perfectly in the boy's open
mouth. The boy swallowed and laughed gooely. George handed over the dripping
confection in his strong right hand, and the boy plunged his face into it. When
he whirled and ran to rejoin his friends, George saw that his ears were already
getting longer, and his delighted laugh had sounded a little like a bray. A job
well done, he thought, and watched the rain spatter the spongy rubber cobbles of
George was supposed to go off-shift at midnight. He always showed up promptly at
noon, but he rarely left as punctually. The soft one who had the midnight-to-six
shift was lazy and late, and generally staggered in at twelve thirty, grumbling
about his tiredness. George knew how to deal with the soft ones, though -- his
father had brought him up surrounded by them, so that he spoke without his
father's thick accent, so that he never inadvertently crushed their soft hands
when he shook with them, so that he smiled good-naturedly and gave up a
realistic facsimile of sympathy when they griped their perennial gripes.
His father! How wise the old man had been, and how proud, and how _stupid_.
George shucked his uniform backstage and tossed it into a laundry hamper, noting
with dismay how brown the insides were, how much of himself had eroded away
during his shift. He looked at his clever left thumb and his strong right thumb,
and tasted their good, earthy tastes, and then put them away. He dressed himself
in the earth-coloured dungarees and workshirt that his own father had stolen
from a laundry line when he left the ancestral home of George's people for the
society of the soft ones.
He boarded a Cast Member tram that ran through the ultidors underneath Pleasure
Island's midway, and stared aimlessly at nothing as the soft ones on the tram
gabbled away, as the tram sped away to the Cast housing, and then it was just
him and the conductor, all the way to the end of the line, to the cottage he
shared with his two brothers, Bill and Joe. The conductor wished him a good
night when he debarked, and he shambled home.
Bill was already home, napping in the pile of blankets that all three brothers
shared in the back room of the cottage. Joe wasn't home yet, even though his
shift finished earlier than theirs. He never came straight home; instead, he
wandered backstage, watching the midway through the peepholes. Joe's Lead had
spoken to George about it, and George had spoken to Joe, but you couldn't tell
Joe anything. George thought of how proud his father had been, having three sons
-- three! George, the son of his strong right thumb, and Bill, the son of his
clever left thumb, and Joe. Joe, the son of his tongue, an old man's folly, that
left him wordless for the remainder of his days. He hadn't needed words, though:
his cracked and rheumy eyes had shone with pride every time they lit on Joe, and
the boy could do no wrong by him.
George busied himself with supper for his brothers. In the little wooded area
behind the cottage, he found good, clean earth with juicy roots in it. In the
freezer, he had a jar of elephant-dung sauce, spiced with the wrung-out sweat of
the big top acrobats' leotards, which, even after reheating, still carried the
tang of vitality. Preparing a good meal for his kind meant a balance of earthy
things and living things, things to keep the hands supple and things to make
them strong, and so he brought in a chicken from the brothers' henhouse and
covered it in the sloppy green-brown sauce, feathers and all. Bill, being the
clever one, woke when the smell of the sauce bubbling in the microwave reached
him, and he wandered into the kitchen.
To an untutored eye, Bill and George were indistinguishable. Both of them big,
even for their kind -- for their father had been an especially big specimen
himself -- whose faces were as expressive as sculptor's clay, whose
chisel-shaped teeth were white and hard as rocks. When they were alone together,
they went without clothing, as was the custom of their kind, and their bodies
bulged with baggy, loose muscle. They needed no clothing, for they lacked the
shame of the soft ones, the small thumb between the legs. They had a more
civilised way of reproducing.
"Joe hasn't returned yet?" Bill asked his strong brother.
"Not yet," George told his clever brother.
"We eat, then. No sense in waiting for him. He knows the supper hour," Bill
said, and since he was the clever one, they ate.
Joe returned as the sun was rising, and burrowed in between his brothers on
their nest of blankets. George flung one leg over his smallest brother, and
smelled the liquor on his breath in his sleep, and his dreams were tainted with
the stink of rotting grapes.
George was the first one awake, preparing the morning meal. A maggoty side of
beef, ripe with the vitality of its parasites, and gravel. Joe came for
breakfast before Bill, as was his custom. Bill needed the sleep, to rest his
"God-_damn_, I am _hungry!_," Joe said loudly, without regard for his sleeping
"You missed dinner," George said.
"I had more important things to do," Joe said. "I was out with an Imagineer!"
George stared hard at him. "What did the Imagineer want? Is there trouble?"
Joe gave a deprecating laugh. "Why do you always think there's trouble? The guy
wanted to chat with me -- he likes me, wants to get to know me. His name is
Woodrow, he's in charge of a whole operations division, and he was interested in
what I thought of some of his plans." He stopped and waited for George to be
George knew what the pause was for. "That's very good. You must be doing a good
job for your Lead to mention you to him."
"That little prick? He hates my guts. Woodrow's building a special operations
unit out of lateral thinkers -- he wants new blood, creativity. He says I have a
"Did you talk to Orville?" Orville was the soft one who'd brought them from
their father's shack to the Island, and he was their mentor and advocate inside
its Byzantine politics. Bill had confided to George that he suspected Orville
was of a different species from the soft ones -- he certainly seemed to know
more about George's kind than a soft one had any business knowing.
Joe tore a hunk from the carcass on the rickety kitchen table and stuffed it
into his mouth. Around it, he mumbled something that might have been yes and
might have been no. It was Joe's favorite stratagem, and it was responsible for
the round belly that bulged out beneath his skinny chest.
Joe tore away more than half of the meat and made for the door. "Woodrow wants
to meet with me again this morning. Don't wait up for me tonight!" He left the
cottage and set off toward the tram-stop.
Bill rolled over on his bedding and said, "I don't like this at all."
George kept quiet. Bill's voice surprised him, but it shouldn't have. Bill was
clever enough to lie still and feign sleep so that he could overhear Joe's
conversations, where George would have just sat up and started talking.
"Orville should know about this, but I can't tell if it would make him angry. If
it made him angry and he punished Joe, it would be our fault for telling him."
"Then we won't tell him," George said.
Bill held up his hand. "But if we don't tell him and he finds out on his own, he
may be angry with us."
"Then we should tell him," George said.
"But Joe and this Woodrow may not get along after all, and if that happens, the
whole thing will end on its own."
"Then we won't tell him," George said.
"But if they do get along, then they may do something that would make Orville
angry," Bill looked expectantly at George.
"Then we should tell him?" George said, uncertainly.
"I don't know," Bill said. "I haven't decided."
George knew that this mean that Bill would have to think on it, and so he left
him. He had to catch the tram to make it to his shift, anyway.
The soft one with the six-to-noon shift left as soon as George arrived, without
a word. George was used to soft ones not having anything to say to him, and
preferred it that way. He was better off than Bill -- soft ones always wanted to
talk to Bill, and he hated it, since they never had anything to say that Bill
wanted to know. The weather needed no discussion, Bill said. And as for the
complaints about the shift's Lead, well, one soft one was just about the same as
any other, and Orville had told them that at the end of the day, they worked for
him, not for any Lead.
Joe liked talking to the soft ones. Joe liked to talk, period. He told the soft
ones lies about their childhood in the shack with their father, and told them
about how his brothers tormented, and even talked about the weather. When he got
back home, he told his brothers all over again, everything he'd told the soft
George had memorised the SOP manual when they came to the Island, five years
before. It clearly said that the floor of the booth would be disinfected every
three hours, and the surfaces polished clean, and the pots and machines
refilled. The soft one with the six-to-noon shift never did any of these things,
which could get him disciplined by their Lead, but George didn't complain. He
just wiped and disinfected and re-stocked when he arrived, even though he had to
be extra careful with the water, so that he didn't wash any of himself away.
Boys ran up and down the midway, baking in the mid-day sun. They reminded George
of the boys he'd gone to school with, after the social worker had come to his
father's shack. They'd teased him to begin with, but he'd just stood with his
hands at his sides until they stopped. Every time he started a new grade, or a
new kid came to the school, it was the same: they'd tease him, or hit him, or
throw things at him, and he'd stand strong and silent until they stopped, even
if it took months. His teachers quickly learned that calling on him in class
meant standing in awkward silence, while he sat stoic and waited for them to
call on someone else. The social worker could make him go to school with the
soft ones, but she couldn't make him act like one.
George watched the boys carefully, as carefully as he had when he stood silently
in the schoolyard, not seeming to watch anything. He was better at spotting a
donkey than any of the soft ones. When a boy was ready to turn, George could
almost see the shape of the donkey superimposed on the boy, and he radioed a
keeper to pick up the donkey come morning. He got a bonus for each one he
spotted, and according to Bill, it had accumulated to a sizable nest-egg.
George looked at the inventory and decided that the fudge was getting a little
long in the tooth. He'd start pushing fudge-nut dips, and by the end of his
shift, the tub would be empty and he'd be able to give it a thorough cleaning
and a refill from fresh stock. "Hey guys!" he called to three boys. "Is anybody
_hungry_?" He dipped a floss and held it up, so that it oozed fudge down his
wrist. The boys shyly approached his booth. George knew from their manner that
they were new to the Island: probably just picked up from a video-arcade or
lasertag tent on the mainland that afternoon. They didn't know what to make of
their surroundings, that was clear.
"Step right up," he said, "I don't bite!" He smiled a smile he'd practiced in
the mirror, one that shaped his soft, flexible features into a good-natured
expression of idiotic fun. Cautiously, the boys came forward. They were the
target age, eleven-to-fourteen, and they'd already accumulated some merch,
baseball hats and fanny packs made from neoprene in tropical-fish colours,
emblazoned with the Island's logomarks and character trademarks. They had the
beginnings of dark circles under their eyes, and they dragged a little with low
blood-sugar. George dipped two more and distributed them around. The eldest, a
towheaded kid near the upper age range, said, "Mister, we haven't got any money
-- what do these cost?"
George laughed like a freight train. "It's all free, sonny, free as air!
Courtesy of the Management, as a reward for very _special_ customers like you."
This was scripted, but the trick was to sell the line like it was fresh.
The boys took the cones from him timidly, but ate ravenously. George gave them
some logoed serviettes to wipe up with and ground the fudge into his wrists and
forearms with one of his own. He looked at his watch and consulted the laminated
timetable taped to the counter. 1300h, which meant that the bulk of the Guests
would be migrating towards Actionland and the dinosaur rides, and it was time to
push the slightly down-at-the-heels FreakZone, to balance the crowds. "You boys
like rollercoasters?" he said.
The youngest -- they were similar enough in appearance and distant enough in
ages to be brothers -- spoke up. "Yeah!" The middle elbowed him, and the
youngest flipped the middle the bird.
"Well, if you follow the midway around this curve to the right, and go through
the big clown-mouth, you'll be in the FreakZone. We've got a fifteen-storey
coaster called _The Obliterator_ that loops fifty times in five minutes --
running over _ninety-five miles per hour_! If you hurry, you can beat the line!"
He looked the youngest in the eye at the start of the speech, then switched to
the middle when he talked about the line.
The youngest started vibrating with excitement, and the middle looked pensive,
and then to the eldest said, "Sounds good, huh, Tom?"
The eldest said, "We haven't even found out where we're sleeping yet -- maybe we
can do the ride afterwards."
George winked at the youngest, then said, "Don't worry about it, kids. I'll get
that sorted out for you right now." He picked up the white house phone and asked
the operator to connect him with Guest Services. "Hi there! This is George on
the midway! I need reservations for three young men for tonight -- a suite, I
think, with in-room Nintendo and a big-screen TV. They look like they'd enjoy
the Sportaseum. OK, I'll hold," he covered the mouthpiece and said to the boys,
"You'll love the Sportaseum -- the chairs are shaped like giant catcher's mitts,
and the beds are giant Air Jordans, and the suite comes with a regulation
half-court. What name should I put the reservation under?"
The eldest said, "Tom Mitchell."
George made the reservation. "You're all set," he said. "The monorails run right
into the hotel lobby, every ten minutes. Anyone with a name tag can show you to
the nearest stop. Here's a tip -- try the football panzerotto: it's a fried
pizza turnover as big as a football, with beef-jerky laces. It's _my_ favorite!"
"I want a football!" the youngest said.
"We'll have it for dinner," the eldest said, looking off at the skyline of
coaster-skeletons in the distance. "Let's go on some rides first."
George beamed his idiot's grin at them as they left, then his face went slack
and he went back to wiping down the surfaces. A moment later, a hand reached
across the counter and plucked the cloth from his grip. He looked up, startled,
into Joe's grinning face. Unlike his brothers', Joe's face was all sharp angles
and small teeth. Nobody knew what a child of a tongue was supposed to look like,
but George had always suspected that Joe wasn't right, even for a third son.
"Big guy!" Joe shouted. "Workin' hard?"
George said, "Yes." He stood, patiently, waiting for Joe to give him the cloth
Joe held it over his head like a standard, dancing back out of reach, even
though George hadn't made a grab for it. George waited. Joe walked back to his
counter and gave it back.
"We're dozing the FreakZone," Joe said, in a conspiratorial whisper. He put a
spin on _We're_, making sure that George knew he was including himself with the
"Really," George said, neutrally.
"Yeah! We're gonna flatten that sucker, start fresh, and build us a new theme
land. I'm a Strategic Project Consultant! By the time it's over, I'll be an
George knew that the lands on Pleasure Island were flattened and rebuilt on a
regular basis, as management worked to stay ahead of the lightspeed
boredom-threshold of the mainland. Still, he said, "Well, Joe, that's marvelous.
I'm sure you'll do a fabulous job."
Joe sneered at him. "Oh, I know I will. We all do just _fabulous_ jobs, brother.
Just some of us _have_ fabulous jobs to do."
George refused to rise to the bait. He could always outwait Joe.
Joe said, "We're thinking of giving it a monster theme -- monsters are testing
very high with eleven-to-fourteens this year. Dragons, ogres, cyborgs, you know.
We may even do a walk-through -- there hasn't been one of those here since the
George didn't know what Joe wanted him to say. He said, "That sounds very nice."
Joe gave him a pitying look, and then his chest started ringing. He extracted a
slim phone from his shirt-pocket and turned away. A moment later, he turned
back. "Gotta go!" he said. "Meeting with Woodrow and Orville, down at Ops!"
Alarm-bells went off in George's head. "Shouldn't Bill go along if you're
meeting with Orville?"
Joe sneered at him, then took off at a fast clip down the midway. George watched
him until he disappeared through one of the access doors.
Bill was clearly upset about it. George couldn't help but feel responsible. He
should have called Bill as soon as Joe told him he was meeting with Orville, but
he'd waited until he got home.
He'd been home for hours, and Joe still wasn't back. Bill picked absently at the
dinner he'd made and fretted.
"He didn't say how Orville found out?" Bill asked.
George shook his head mutely.
"Why didn't he invite me?" Bill asked. "I always handle negotiations for us."
George couldn't eat. The more Bill fretted, the more he couldn't eat. It was
long dark outside, hours and hours after Joe should've been home. Bill fretted,
George stared out the window, and Joe didn't come home.
Then, an electric cart's headlights swept up the trail to their cabin. The
lights dazzled George, so he couldn't see who was driving. Bill joined him at
the window and squinted. "It's Joe and Orville!" he said. George squinted too,
but couldn't make anything out. He took Bill's word for it and joined him
It was indeed Orville and Joe. Orville was driving, and Joe was lolling
drunkenly beside him. Orville shook hands with Bill and nodded to George, who
lifted Joe out of the cart and carried him inside.
When he got back, Orville and Bill were staring calmly into each other's eyes,
each waiting for the other to say something. Orville was dressed in his working
clothes: a natty white suit with a sport-shirt underneath. His bald head gleamed
in the moonlight. His fleshy, unreadable face was ruddy in the glow from the
cabin's door. George bit his tongue to keep from speaking.
"He's drunk," Orville said, at last. Orville didn't beat around the bush.
"I can see that," Bill said. "Did you get him drunk?"
"Yes, I did. We were celebrating."
Bill's eyes narrowed. "So you know."
Orville smiled. "Of course I know. I set it up. I thought you'd approve: Joe
clearly needed something to keep him out of trouble."
Bill said, "This will keep him out of trouble?"
Orville leaned against the cart's bumper, pulled out a pipe, stuffed it and lit
it. He puffed at it, and watched the smoke wisp away in the swamp breezes. "I
think that Joe's going to really like life with the Imagineers. They're
Management's precious darlings who can do no wrong. Anything they ask for, they
get. There won't be any more discipline problems."
Bill said, "Why not?"
Orville grinned without showing his teeth. "Where there's no discipline,
there're no discipline problems. He can work whatever hours he wants. He'll have
access to anything he needs: budget, staff, an office, whatever. It's his dream
Bill said, "I don't like this."
George wondered why not. It sounded pretty good to him.
Orville puffed at his pipe. "Like it or not, I think you'll have a hard time
convincing Joe not to do it. He's sold."
Bill went back into the cabin and closed the door.
"He took that well, don't you think?" Orville asked.
George said, "I suppose so."
Orville said, "Is everything working out all right for you? Shifts OK?
George said, "Everything's fine. Thank you."
Orville tapped his pipe out on the bumper, then got back into the cart. "All
right then. Good night, George."
George started cooking dinner for two. More and more, Joe spent the night in a
suite at one of the hotels, "working late." George didn't know what sort of work
he was doing, but he sure seemed to enjoy it. He hardly came back to the cabin
at all. The first time he'd stayed out all night, Bill had gone back to the
Island and gotten Orville out of bed to help him search. After that, Joe started
sending out a runner, usually some poor Ops trainee, to tell them he wasn't
coming back for dinner. Eventually, he stopped bothering, and Bill stopped
One night, a month after Orville had come out to the cabin, George slathered a
muskrat's carcass with mayonnaise and lemon and dragonfly eggs and set it out
for him and Joe.
Bill hardly ate, which was usually a signal that he was thinking. George left
him half of the dinner and waited for him to speak. Bill picked his way through
the rest, then pushed his plate away. George cleared it and brought them both
mason jars full of muddy water from the swamp out back. Bill took his jar out
front of the cabin and leaned against the wall and stared out into the night,
sipping. George joined him.
"We're getting old," Bill said, at last.
"Every night, the inside of my uniform is black," George said.
"Mine, too. We're getting very old. I think that you're at least thirty, and I'm
pretty sure that I'm twenty-five. That's old. Our father told me that he thought
he was fifty, the year he died. And he was very old for one of us."
George thought of their father on his deathbed, eating the food they chewed for
him, eyes nearly blind, skin crazed with cracks. "He was very old," George said.
Bill held his two whole hands up against the stars. "When father was my age, he
had two sons. Can you remember how proud he was of us? How proud he was of
himself? He'd done well enough that he could lose both his thumbs, and still
know that his sons would take care of him."
George shifted and sighed. He'd been thinking about sons, too.
"I've wanted a son since we came to the Island," Bill said. "I never did
anything about it because I couldn't take care of Joe and a son." Bill turned to
look at George. "I think Joe's finally taking care of himself."
George didn't know what to say. If Bill had a son, then he couldn't. They
couldn't both stop working to raise their sons. But Bill always made the
decisions for them. George didn't know what to say, so he said nothing.
"I'm going to have a son," Bill said.
Bill did it the next night. He told Orville that he'd need a month off, and
after eating the dinner George made for them, he made a nest of earth and
blankets on the floor of their cabin.
George sat in the corner and watched Bill as he stared at his thumbs. It was the
most important decision one of their kind ever made: a clever son of the left
hand, or a strong son of the right. George knew that his son would come from the
left hand. In the world his father had put them into, cleverness was far more
important than strength. After all, Bill was having the first son.
Bill put his clever left thumb in his mouth and slowly, slowly, bit down. George
felt muddy tears pricking at his eyes. Bill's hand coursed with silty blood. He
ignored it, and used his strong right hand to take the severed thumb from his
mouth and bed it down with infinite care in the nest he'd built.
George cautiously moved forward to peer at the thumb, which was already moving
blindly in its nest, twisting like a grub. Bill looked on, his eyes shining.
"It's perfect," George breathed.
George felt an uncharacteristic welling up inside him, and he put his arm around
Bill's shoulders. Bill leaned into him, and said, "Thank you, George. This
family wouldn't exist without you."
They both slept curled around the nest that night.
By morning, the thumb had sprouted tiny arm- and leg-buds, and it inched itself
blindly around the nest. George marveled at it before going to work.
Joe stopped by his stand that day. His belly was bigger than ever, and his skin
was cracking like their father's had. "Big guy!" he shouted, vaulting the
counter into George's stand. "Where's Bill today? He wasn't at his post."
George said, "Bill had a son last night. From his left hand."
Joe rolled his eyes, which had gone the murky yellow of swamp water. "Wonderful,
right? Ugh. There are better ways to achieve immortality, bro. I'm designing a
crawl-through for HorrorZone: you're an earthworm crawling underneath a
graveyard. It's gonna be huge: maggots as big as horses, chasing the Guests
through the tunnels; huge ghost hands grabbing at them. We're building a giant
tombstone as the weenie, you'll be able to see it from anywhere on the Island.
We'll build out over the midway for HorrorZone -- it's the biggest rehab we've
done since they brought in electric power."
As usual, George didn't know what to say to Joe. "That sounds very nice," he
Joe rolled his eyes again and started to say something, but stopped when three
Guests came up to George's booth. George hardly recognised the Mitchell
brothers. The youngest was already three-quarters donkey, so dangerously close
that it was a miracle he hadn't been picked up already. He was hunched over, and
his hands were fused into fists. His hair had grown down over his shoulders in a
coarse mane, and his lips bulged around his elongated jaws.
The middle and eldest were well on their ways, too. The points of their ears
poked out from under their hair, and they carried themselves painfully, forcing
their legs and hips upright.
George flipped over his phone and punched 911, but left it out of sight below
the counter. Loudly, he said, "Come on over, boys! You look like you could use
one of George's triple-dips, the best on the midway!"
From the phone, he heard the security operator say, "Thank you, George, we'll be
along in a moment." Surreptitiously, he racked the receiver and smiled at the
"How are you enjoying your stay, boys?" he said.
"It'th aw-thome!" the youngest said around his clumsy teeth.
George handed him a cone piled high with floss, then started building two more
for his brothers. Joe smirked at them. George hoped he wouldn't say anything
before security got there.
The eldest said, "I don't think my brother's feeling too good. Is there a doctor
here I can take him to?"
The youngest, face sticky with confection, kicked his brother. "I'm fine!" he
said. "I wanna go on more rideth!"
His brother said, "We'll go on more rides after we see a doctor."
The youngest dropped to his knees and cried. "No!" he said, hammering his fists
on the ground. "No no no no!" George watched in alarm as the boy went all the
way over to donkey. His cries turned to brays, and his shorts split around his
haunches and tail. His shirt went next, and George smoothly vaulted the counter
and stood in front of the donkey, blocking him from passers-by. The other two
made a run for it. George snagged the middle by his collar, but the boy tore
free and took off down the midway. George looked about wildly for security, but
they still hadn't arrived.
Then Joe tore past him, moving faster than George had ever seen him go. He
caught the boys and stuffed one under each arm, kicking and squirming. He
grinned ferociously as he pinned them beneath his knees at George's feet. He
clamped his hands over their mouths. "Got 'em!" he said to George.
A security team emerged from the utilidor beside George's booth, wearing clown
makeup and baggy pants. Two of them tranquilised the boys and the third fitted
the donkey out with a halter and bit. The clown slapped the donkey's haunch
appreciatively. "He's a healthy one."
The security team disappeared down the utilidor with the Mitchell brothers: two
boys and a donkey. Joe smacked George on the back. "Did you see me catch them?
Like greased lightning! Bounty, here I come!"
George didn't mind sharing his bounty with Joe, so he just smiled and nodded and
went back around to his booth.
Bill named his son Tom. Names weren't very important to their people, but the
soft ones' world demanded them. Within a week, Tom was eagerly toddling through
their cabin, tasting everything, exploring everything. His eyes shone with
curious brilliance. The clever son of a clever son.
George loved Bill's son. He loved to watch Tom as he gnawed at their bedding, as
he dug at the floor in search of grubs. Tom was clearly delighted with his
surroundings, and George basked in Tom's delight. Bill could barely restrain
himself from picking Tom up and hugging him every moment. The only time he left
George alone with Tom was a few precious moments after each evening's meal, when
he would duck into the woods to find some new toy for Tom: a crippled chipmunk;
a handful of pretty rocks; a discarded beer can. The son built bizarre towers
out of them, then knocked them down in a fit of giggles. Tom ate all day long,
and spoke a steady stream of adorable nonsense.
Bill hardly spoke to George. Their evening meals were given over to watching the
son eat. George didn't mind. Talking to the Guests all day wore him out.
When Tom was two months old, Joe came by George's booth.
"Well, it's final. Tomorrow, we shut down the midway. Too old-fashioned -- it's
only stood this long because some of the older Imagineers had an emotional
attachment to it. I told 'em: 'That's _your_ demographic, not the _target_
demographic.' So we're knocking it down. HorrorZone's gonna be _huge_." He
skipped off before George could say anything. His ears were long and pointed. It
wasn't the first time George noticed it, but now, he could see that Joe's
hunched-over gait wasn't just because of his belly.
George built a dozen cones for the Guests, but his heart wasn't in it. Besides,
most of the Guests already had their hands full of gummi spiders and snakes,
from the Actionland Jungle Treats buffet. His thoughts were full of Joe, and he
turned them over in his slow, cautious manner. Joe was turning into a donkey. He
didn't think that one of their kind could turn into a donkey, but this was
Pleasure Island. Indulging your vices was a dangerous pastime here. He should
tell Bill, but there was no phone at the cabin. He couldn't send a runner for
him, because this was family business. His shift wouldn't end for hours yet, and
this was too important to wait.
Finally, he called his Lead. "I have to get offstage. I'm having a bad day."
Technically, this was allowed. Management didn't want anyone onstage who wasn't
100 percent. But it was something that none of the brothers, not even Joe, had
ever done. The Lead was surprised, but he sent over a soft one to relieve
Orville and Bill were sitting out front of the cabin, watching Tom, when George
got back. He wrung his hands as he approached them, not sure of what to say, and
whether he should talk in front of Orville at all. He held his left thumb in his
right hand, and it comforted him, a little.
Bill and Orville were so engrossed in Tom's antics that they didn't even notice
George until he cleared his throat. Orville raised his eyebrows and looked
significantly at Bill.
"I just saw Joe," George said. "On the midway. His ears are pointed, and he's
walking all hunched over. I give him a few days at the most before he's all the
way gone." George held his breath, waiting for Bill's reaction.
"Too bad," Bill said. "It was inevitable, I suppose. A child of the tongue! What
was father thinking?"
Orville smiled and puffed at his pipe. "Don't you worry about it, George. Joe's
going to be much, much happier. Focussed. If you'd like, I can bring him out
here to live. Little Tom could have pony rides."
Bill said, "I don't think that's such a good idea. Joe's too wild to play with a
Orville put a hand on his shoulder. "You'd be amazed at how docile he'll
Bill scooped up Tom, who was up to his waist now, and who liked to grab onto
Bill's nose. "We'll see, then." He retreated into the cabin with his son.
Orville turned to George and said, "You've probably heard that we're taking down
the midway tomorrow. The others are all being reassigned until the rehab is
done, but I thought I'd see if I could get you a couple months off. You could
stay here and play with Tom -- it's not every day you get to be a new uncle."
Orville had always taken obvious pleasure in the transformation of boys into
donkeys. It was the whole why of Pleasure Island, after all. Orville seemed
especially pleased tonight, and George thought that he was as surprised about
Bill as George was.
George, not knowing what to say to any of it, said nothing.
It didn't take long for George to start missing the midway. Stuck at the cabin
with Bill and Tom, he sat against an outside wall and tried not to get in the
way. He prepared meals in silence, taking a long time in the woods, gathering up
choice morsels. Bill and Tom ate on the floor, away from the table. Bill chewed
the tougher morsels first, and then put them in Tom's mouth with his crippled
left hand. Most of the time, neither of them took any notice of George.
One day, he prepared a whole day's worth of meals and left them on the table,
then walked to the utilidor at the other side of the woods. He boarded a tram
and rode to the old midway entrance.
The midway was fenced in with tall plywood sheets, and construction crews
bustled over the naked skeletons of the new HorrorZone. Heavy machinery groaned
and crashed. Nothing but the distant silhouettes of Actionland's skyline were
familiar. George tried to imagine working here for years to come. An
overwhelming tiredness weighed him down.
He took the tram back to the cabin and stripped off his clothes. They were
browner than ever. His arms felt weak and tired. He suddenly knew that he would
never have a son of his own.
Bill and Tom were playing out front of the cabin. He sat in his usual spot
against the wall and watched them. "Bill," he said, softly.
"Yes?" Bill said.
"When will I have a son of my own?" Bill always knew the answers.
Bill gathered Tom up to his chest unconsciously while he thought. "I suppose
that once Tom is grown, you could take some time off and have a son of your
To his own surprise, George said, "I want to have a son now."
Bill said, "That's out of the question, George. We're too busy with Tom." On
hearing Bill's annoyed tone, Tom leaned into him.
George said, "I'm not busy. I am old, though. If I don't have a son soon, I
won't be able to care for it until it's old enough to care for me."
Bill said, "You're thinking like Father. We're living with the soft ones now.
Orville will make sure that you and your son will be fine until he's grown."
George never won arguments with Bill. He went inside the cabin and set out
Orville visited the brothers the next morning. He chucked Tom under the chin and
shook hands with Bill. Then he took George out into the woods for a walk.
"Your brother tells me you want a son of your own," he said.
George nodded, and stooped to put a small, mossy log in his basket.
"Bill doesn't want you to, huh?"
George didn't feel very comfortable discussing the family with Orville. That was
Bill's job. After some thought, he said, "Not right now."
Orville said, "I can see that that makes you unhappy. No one should be unhappy
here. I'll see what I can do. Come down to Ops tomorrow morning, we'll talk
When George got back to the cabin, Bill was lying on his back on the floor,
laughing while Tom climbed all over him. Tom still babbled, but they were real
words now, though nonsensical. With his constant talking, he reminded George of
Joe, and that made him even sadder.
George had never been to Ops before, but he knew where it was, in a collection
of low-slung prefab buildings hidden behind the topiary sculptures near
MagicLand. He clutched his right thumb nervously as he stood and waited in the
reception area for Orville to come and get him. The secretary had taken his name
and buzzed Orville, and now kept sneaking him horrified looks. George's family
were the only of their kind to leave their homeland and join the soft ones, and
here at Ops, there were any number of low-ranking babus who'd never heard tell
Orville was all smiles and effusion as he breezed through the glass
security-door and pounded George on the back. "George! I'm so _glad_ you came
He took George by the arm and led him away, stopping to wink at the secretary,
who looked at him with a mixture of disgust and admiration.
Orville's office was buried in a twisting maze of door-lined, fluorescent-lit
corridors, where busy soft ones talked on telephones and clattered on keyboards.
He led George through his door, into an office as big as George's cabin.
Orville paced and talked. "Did I say I was glad you came? I'm glad you came.
Now, let's talk about Bill. Bill's happy. He's got what he wants. A son. He
doesn't have to take care of Joe. It's good for him."
He paused and looked at George. George nodded.
"OK. There's a problem, though. You want a son, too, only Bill won't allow it."
It didn't need any comment, so George kept quiet.
"My thinking is, Bill's so busy with Tom, he wouldn't really notice if you were
there or not. You're an adult, you can take care of yourself. Do you see where
I'm going with this?"
George assumed it was a rhetorical question.
"Right. What I'm thinking is, there's no reason that both of you shouldn't have
your own son. This is Pleasure Island, after all. No one should be sad on
Pleasure Island. You've worked hard and well for us for a long time here. We can
take care of you."
George felt an uncomfortable sensation in his stomach, a knot of guilt like
"I thought about having another cabin built in the woods, but that's no good. I
think that you and Bill need your own space. So let me bounce my current thought
off you: we'll put you up in the new Monster's Arms, that's the hotel we're
building for HorrorZone. It's way ahead of schedule, almost finished now.
There's a penthouse suite that you can take for as long as you like. It's only
temporary, just until you and Bill have had some time to raise up your sons.
Then, we'll get the whole family together back at the cabin."
The guilt rose higher, choking George.
"Don't worry about eating, either. I've briefed the house chef on your tastes,
and he'll send up three squares every day; everything a growing boy needs." He
flashed a grin.
"And forget about Bill. I'll smooth things over with him. He'll see that it's
for the best."
Finally, George had something to say. "What about Joe?"
Orville had been almost dancing as he spoke, enchanted with his own words. He
pulled up short when George spoke. "What about him?"
"I want to live with him again," George said.
"He's gone, you know that." Orville pointed his fingers alongside his ears.
"Hee-haw, hee-haw. The monthly ferry will take him to the mainland tomorrow."
"I don't care about that," George said. "I want him there."
Orville said, "I don't think that's such a good idea, George. You're going away
to concentrate on _you_ -- Joe's a handful, even now. I don't want you
George said, "I want Joe."
Orville stared at him. George set his face into a blank mask. Finally, Orville
said, "If that's what you want, that's what you'll get."
George didn't have anything to fetch from the cabin, and Orville thought it
would be best if he spoke to Bill alone, so he sent George to the stables to get
The donkey stables were beyond Ops, at the very edge of the island, opposite the
docks where the ferries brought new boys in. A different kind of boat docked
there, large utility freighters that brought in everything the Island needed and
took away braying, kicking herds of jackasses.
The donkeys shifted nervously in their stalls. George smelled horse-apples and
hay, and heard fidgeting hooves and quiet, braying sobs. He wasn't clear on what
happened to donkeys when they went back to the mainland, but he had an idea that
it wasn't very pleasant. On the Island, donkeys were prizes, a sign that a boy's
every wish had been gratified. What happened afterwards wasn't something that
they were encouraged to think about.
He walked down the clean, wooden aisles, peering into the stalls, looking for
Joe. Finally, in a dark stall in the very darkest corner of the stables, he
found him. A large, pot-bellied jackass, who leapt up and brayed loudly at him
when he clucked his tongue at it.
"Joe?" he asked softly.
The donkey brayed again and kicked at the stall's door. It was already
splintered from many such kicks. George opened the catch and was nearly trampled
beneath Joe's hooves as he ran out and away, braying loudly. George chased his
brother. He didn't start very fast, but once he got going, inertia made him
He cornered Joe at the door that led out to the Island. The donkey was kicking
at it, trying for escape. George locked his strong right arm around Joe's neck.
"Stop it, Joe," he said. "I'm taking you out with me, but you have to stop it."
Joe's eyes rolled madly, and he struggled against George, kicking and biting.
George waited in silence until the donkey tired, then used a bridle hanging on
the wall to lead Joe out of the stables.
When Joe saw Orville waiting for them, he went wild again. George caught him by
the hind leg and dragged him to the ground, while Orville danced back with a
Orville grinned and said, "I guess he doesn't like me very much." He came
forward and darted an affectionate pat on Joe's haunch.
Joe brayed loudly and George kept his own counsel. Orville led them down a
utilidor and into an electric tram with an open car. George led Joe in and held
onto his neck while Orville sped down the utilidor. He drove up a service ramp
and out into HorrorZone, then to the doors of the newly completed Monster's
George and Joe lived in the Monster's Arms. Every morning, Orville paid them a
visit and snuck looks at George's thumbs. They were intact.
George wanted to have a son, but he couldn't bring himself to do it. Orville's
visits grew shorter, and Orville's manner grew more irritated. Still, George had
One day, he waited until Joe was napping, and slipped out through the
iron-maiden elevator, right down into the utilidor.
The tram driver recognised him and took him out to the cabin. The last mile of
the utilidor was dusty and disused. George leaped off the tram and walked
quickly to the cabin, his heart racing. It had been so long since he'd seen Bill
and little Tom. He missed them terribly.
The little cabin was even smaller than George remembered it, and it looked sad,
sagging and ramshackle. He hesitated at the door, then, feeling a stranger,
There was movement inside, but no voices, and the door stayed shut. George
opened the door.
It was a disaster. The kitchen cupboards were smashed in, the little table
knocked over and splintered, the bedding scattered and soiled. Deep shadows
collected in the corners.
"Bill?" George called, softly. A shadow stirred, an indistinct figure within its
"Bill, it's George. I missed you. I need to talk with you. I'm confused."
The shadow stirred again. George crept forward, peering, his old eyes
Bill huddled in the corner, wracked and wasted. He stared up at George through
eyes filmed with tears. He held up his hands. They had already begun to shape
themselves into hooves, but George could still see that both his thumbs were
gone. His ears were pointed and long.
"Oh, Bill," George said.
His brother let out a braying sob, and George saw he had no tongue.
Orville came looking for them the next morning.
"Where are the sons?" George asked him, while stroking the donkey's head in his
Orville smiled a slightly abashed smile. "I'm keeping them safe. I didn't think
that Bill was in any shape to take care of them."
George said, "I'll take care of them. Bring them here. Joe, too -- he's in the
room. I'll take care of them all."
Orville smiled his abashed smile again, then gave George an ironic salute. "Yes,
sir," he said. He patted Bill's haunch and smiled to himself.
George didn't know how to respond to irony, so he held his brother more tightly.
Eventually, Orville went away, and then came back a while after that. He drove
an electric cart. In the front seat, three sons bounced -- Tom, bright and
curious; another, strong and big; a third, whose little pot belly jiggled as he
talked and talked and talked. In a trailer, Joe kicked and fought against his
George let him out first, then took the sons to the porch. Joe and Bill stared
at each other for a long moment, then Bill brayed out a long, donkeyish laugh.
Orville looked with proprietary satisfaction at the donkeys, then at the sons,
then at George. He waggled a finger at George, as if to say, _I'll be back for
you, someday_. Then he got into his tram and drove off.
George went back inside and made dinner for his family.