Joyland's End


Toys sort of lost their value once we became the toys. Christmas became just another day to exploit the human body, for people and uncaring corporations. At first it was just an extra day to explore the novelty of augmentation, getting a new implant that you could look forward to using once per week. But all the tinsel and wrapping just concealed the poisoned mistletoe binding together consumers and their corporate masters. Humans were just addicts begging for more, thrusting their hard-earned credits towards the uncaring dealers who would have grown fat off the masses without the ever-popular growth-suppressors.

It was ironic to the observer, watching as companies sold the upgrades that made humans more valuable as laborers while marketing gurus convinced shoppers that their desire for the newest implants came from within. My livelihood depends on vice, but I don’t go around telling women to cheat on their husbands so I can reap the cash…

“Can’t wait to hear what you’re thinking up to tell me, Majid.” Sana poked me in the ribs and I squirmed uncomfortably, covering my mouth to avoid a grunt that would echo through the sanctuary of St. Sharbel. I wasn’t used to spending so much time with other people, and it was shocking to hear someone say they wanted to know what’s on my mind. Reverend Farid Walida’s liturgy continued uninterrupted, and I sat back to relax through the peaceful sounds of Aramaic liturgy.

Here was another beautiful thing ruined by technology. Most people watching mass online probably had the Reverend’s words filtered through a translator, missing the comforting familiarity of the foreign tongue. I never learned a word of Aramaic myself, but there was something special about hearing the words of the Savior in the language he used thousands of years ago. Thankfully the Reverend transitioned to English so we could understand the message, but the polyglot liturgy never got old.

The next part never became less painful, though I had long stopped expressing my sadness. I heard a loud “Amen” echo through the mostly empty sanctuary in response to the Reverend’s liturgical calls, haunting the void with the souls of those who choose to stay home preparing for Christmas parties rather than gathering with their brethren. The hatif of legend were made manifest by humanity’s arrogance, as people tricked themselves into believing that their technology fulfilled their innate need for companionship.

“Bet you could write a book with all the thoughts in your head,” Sana chuckled. “Maybe you should have been a Priest.”

“I get stage fright,” I muttered, closing my eyes and focusing on the sounds of bells accenting the call and response. Most churches would have pressed a key on a synthesizer, but I was glad that the Reverend used physical instruments, one of the few real touches in his high tech congregation.

When mass was finally over, I heard Sana breath a sigh of relief, obviously not sure that piety needed to be a part of her life. In a world where science made all things possible, religion seemed another quaint throwback to the world before cybernetics. The thing that brought us closest to fulfilling our destinies as humans, a relationship with God, was seen as holding us back from the potential offered by technology, which really existed only to warp humans into the ideal image of the corporations benefiting from upgraded labor.

“Can’t wait to see what’s for Christmas dinner,” Sana said expectantly, obviously hoping for something to redeem the drudgery of mass.

“Maronites fast on Christmas,” I told her.

“Really?” she gulped.

“Course not, we did just take communion,” I reminded.

“Anxiety like that makes me hungry,” Sana laughed. “Your food better be filling.”

“You’ll love it,” I assured. “My mother left me all of her recipes, so I’ll have a feast for you and anyone who stops by.”

“Didn’t realize you had any friends that close,” Sana needled.

“A few,” I assured. “I have some grateful clients in my rolodex.”

“Your what?”

“Majid, going so soon?” Reverend Walida sounded worried as he approached us the moment we were about to reach the exit.

“You usually chat with the folks online afterwards, figured my Christmas card was all you’d want from me today,” I told him.

“Why wouldn’t I want to say goodbye to my only physical parishioner? Especially when he brings a new sheep to the flock.” He smiled nervously. “Would both of you join me in the parsonage for coffee?”

“Only if it’s real coffee,” Sana mumbled. I frowned at her and she quickly corrected, “Why of course, we’d be delighted!” Not the response I was looking for, but I was thankful that she saved face.

“Majid, don’t tell me you haven’t introduced your girlfriend to Turkish coffee!” the Reverend laughed. “Otherwise, what’s the point of dating an Arab?”

“He has other charms.” Sana winked.

“Funny, I haven’t heard about those in confession.” The Reverend lifted his right eyebrow before hurriedly saying, “I have the ideal penance in mind already. Follow me.”

“Great, now my priest thinks we’re sleeping together,” I grumbled. “He probably needed my services and now he’s expecting to provide absolution in lieu of payment.”

“Oh golly…” Sana looked truly embarrassed.

“Hey, don’t worry, kid,” I said quickly. “Most people who know about religion don’t even know about the Maronite Church, and you’re less educated than most.”

“Gives me a leg up rejoining society.” Sana smiled, encouraged by my words. “I may not have upgrades, but I have more esoteric knowledge than anyone alive.”

“Everything is worth something,” I commented.

Reverend Walida led us through the church and into his attached parsonage, well furnished over the centuries by parishioners and the occasional pastor’s wife. He seated us in the living room and barely disappeared into the kitchen to prepare coffee. While we sat, I pulled my notebook from my coat pocket and tried to scratch down some of the thoughts Sana had interrupted during mass, but I found far greater interest in observing her. With all of her eloquence and calm demeanor, I forgot that she had only entered into my life a month ago, and there was still so much she had not experienced. Had I been a more pious believer, she would have joined me at church every Sunday instead of just Christmas, and I worried that if I don’t get her back before Easter she’d fall into the dreaded CEO category of wannabe apostates - not a great introduction to the faith.

She studied the portraits of Saints closely, and took time to memorize the Bible verses sewn into pillows. She seemed puzzled by the verses that were not written in plain English, probably wondering like many people how Americans were supposed to be edified by words they couldn’t understand - a forgivable misunderstanding. Her eyes turned to a bookshelf full of ecclesiastical works, giving her a lot of titles to read for herself later as she attempted to better integrate into society.

“Nor very chatty outside of the sanctuary, I see.” Father Walida pretended to be funny as he returned to his living room with a platter of coffee and cookies. “Don’t worry, you have nothing to hide in the house of the Lord.”

“Wonderful, now what do you need from Majid?” Sana asked, pouring her own cup of coffee and leaning back on her chair.

“You’re very direct, probably keeps Majid on his toes.” The Reverend laughed, pouring coffee for himself and me. “To business. Majid, my cousin called me this morning and said that her family Christmas is ruined because someone stole the toys she had purchased last night. She is desperate to get them back by tonight so the children can have some fun. I told her I knew someone who could help find the toys before this Christmas is ruined.”

“Sounds like a job for the cops,” I said. “What’s different about this?”

“The police won’t investigate right now,” the Reverend revealed. “They told her there’s more pressing issues at hand and they’re always short staffed. But she knows who it is, and someone with a little muscle could easily get back what was stolen.”

“We’re on the case,” Sana assured, pouring herself a second cup of coffee. “It’ll be a Christmas gift for the kids and the police.”

“Not sure the cops deserve help, they’d be on the case if she was rich,” I grumbled. “Which means that I can’t expect a big payday from this.”

“Is that your only motivation here?”

“A plumber or an electrician would say the same,” I rolled my eyes. “I’ll give her my friends and family discount, but that’s about as far as I can go.”

“Oh.” He sighed. “I was rather hoping it could be an act of charity. She spent every extra credit this year on these gifts, and it would take another year to make it back.”

“I’ll pay for it.” Sana shot me her usual mischievous smile. “Dock the fee from my paycheck. I haven’t had a real Christmas in a while, so my gift this year will be to these poor people who had their holiday stolen.”

“So it’s settled then!” Reverend Walida clapped his hands and smiled warmly at Sana. “I’ll write down her info and let her know to expect you shortly.”

I began to roll my eyes but stopped and shrugged, loudly slurping my last sip of coffee to communicate my displeasure. This enigmatic lady was about to lead me on an adventure to discover the true meaning of Christmas, and I walked right into it.

“Oh what the hell, I don’t pay you much anyway, might as well do it for free,” I grumbled. “After all, it’s Christmas.” Balance restored. I don’t need anyone to teach me the true meaning of my favorite holiday, and I don’t need anyone reading my journal to think I’m a grouch even when I’m surrounded by snow and peppermint air. I am the last man not made of metal after all.

“Wonderful, the spirit of the season isn’t lost on you after all, Majid!” Reverend Walida grinned from ear to ear, and I mustered the least fake smile I could muster in response.

Thirty minutes later, Sana and I were parked in a garage in Gresham next to an underground complex with a fading billboard reading, “Welcome to Elysium.” Someone has long ago crossed out Elysium and replaced it with the word جهنم, a chilling warning to certain outsiders that would be dismissed as illegible graffiti by people like Sana. This was the first time I was taking her to one of the subterranean structures long inhabited by the dregs of the writing poor, and she was oblivious to the squalor as she drank in the sights and sounds of the underworld. Even the trash on the floor of the mushroom-scented elevator kept her interest, alerting her to the gastronomical and recreational habits of her neighbors in poverty.

“Makes sense that they need lots of medicine with all that fast food,” she commented. “Imagine eating so poorly that you needed an injection every time you finished your meal!”

“That ain’t medicine,” I said. “You can ask someone in the hallway about this.”

We exited the elevator and walked onto a grimy carpet lit by cycling red and green lights poorly indicating the holiday season. As expected, a junkie was slouched on a bench by the lobby wall, fast food wrapper barely concealing a recently used syringe.

“Oh no, his medicine didn’t work!” Sana rushed to the poor kid’s side, putting her fingers to his neck to find a pulse. “He’s still alive, we need to call an ambulance!”

“They won’t bother.” I shook my head. “If he’s down here, he’s probably on OHP, and the ambulances will want to wait for patients with better insurance.”

“But we can’t just leave him here! Not on Christmas-”

“Oh come on, you of all people know how bad humans can be!” I said, grabbing her arm but meeting firm resistance. “You can’t save everybody. We’re here to help someone specific, and that’s what we’re going to do. Besides, this guy’s gonna wake up in an hour or two, find some more juice and go right back to pumping up. You can’t help a drug addict unless he wants to be helped. Now let’s go.”

I let go of her arm and began my journey down the psychedelic maze to find Reverend Walida’s cousin. Sana eventually followed, making a show of dragging her feet once she finally caught up with me.

“Addiction,” Sana said. “I vaguely remember something about that, being dared to avoid it by a cop. Back in school…”

“Hopefully it was more than a dare,” I chuckled. “Addiction will kill you. Some things trick your body into thinking you need them as much as oxygen and water, only to kill you later. And down here, where nobody who is supposed to care gives the people a second thought, drugs become the only way out.”

“That’s a rotten gift.” Sana’s pace quickened, but her mood became somber as she remembered that the bitterness of real life barely interrupted even by an occasion so joyous as Christmas.

“Ah, here we are,” I said, reaching the apartment and knocking on the door. I hoped that the interior would smell a little better than the hallway, but I was deeply disappointed when a young woman with fading auburn hair and obviously missing teeth opened the door.

“Hi, is Claire Hood at home?” Sana asked.

“I’m Claire,” said the woman. “Did Farid send you?”

“He said you had a problem,” I replied. “Can we come in?”

She let us inside and we sat down on a couch in her main room opposite a TV with a burning Yule video and a faded plastic tree decorated with chipped ornaments.

“Can I get you anything? I have some eggnog left over from breakfast,” Claire offered. “Probably want a splash of rum in there, too.”

“Sounds delightful!” Sana said, doing her best not to seem offended at the stench of trash in the corner of the adjacent kitchen space.

“I’ll take some, too,” I said. Didn’t turn out to be a great antidote for the smell. The eggnog was definitely past its due date, and if it wasn’t for the rum I would have spit it up immediately. Sana seemed a little better adjusted, by now expecting alcohol to make drinks taste a little funny.

“Wasn’t sure you took rum in your drinks,” Claire said, sitting down on a chair opposite the couch with her own hefty mug in hand. “I thought you people didn’t touch booze.”

“Is that uncommon for Maronites?” Sana was puzzled, but her eyebrow rose in anticipation of another cultural lesson.

“Not all Arabs are Muslims,” I said. “Did you think your cousin was an imam?”

“Hell if I knew,” said Claire. “Farid’s cousin fathered two of my kids, said Farid was some kind of holy man. Didn’t stay long enough to leave more details.”

“Ah, and where is your new husband?” Sana asked. “Keeping the kids occupied while you look for the presents?”

“Goodness, never could keep a man around.” Claire sighed and drank a heavier gulp of eggnog. “They’re in a greenhouse on the bottom floor. Folks from Portland State brought us a real Christmas tree to look at this year, left some games to play to learn about it. Figured it would keep them awhile.”

“So, what happened to the presents?” I asked. “Have a lead on where they are?”

“Sure enough,” Claire told me. “There’s a banger on the top floor who makes us pay for protection. Asked for extra this month as a Christmas bonus and when he couldn’t pay, sent his goons in during dinner one night to steal the presents. My kids were terrified, so I told them they were just keeping them safe. Tried to trade anything I could to get them back, but they said it was too late.” Claire broke down crying, and Sana moved over to embrace her, trying to hide her revulsion at Claire’s greasy hair.

“Give me his name and apartment number, and I’ll get everything back for you,” I assured.

“Really?” Claire jumped for joy, immediately getting up from her chair to hug me. “Thanks for being the real Santa this year! You don’t know what this means. I’ll do whatever I can to make it up to you.”

“No need, it’s Christmas,” I assured quickly, slouching back into the couch until she got the message and went back to her chair.

“So, what’s the scumbag’s name?” Sana asked, her eyes burning atop a sought curb on her lips.

“Scumbag, haven’t heard that one before,” Claire chuckled. “I’ll have to use that.”

“Right… So, his name?”

“Calls himself Chupacabra, he’s in apartment 152,” Claire said. “The building manager leaves him be because he can’t kick him out.”

“That’s where we come in,” Sana said. “Don’t worry, we’ll have those gifts back in no time.”

Thirty minutes later, we were standing outside the apartment with pizza boxes, ready to fight for Christmas. We had made a brief detour to my car so I could do a brief search on the web for any helpful kompromat and a variety of toys that had served me well in the past. Sana was a little more direct, readying a multi-frequency stunner in case they tried to pull any cyborg stunts. These criminals probably had tech that had been outlawed, and we would both need to defend ourselves if we weren’t able to blackmail this scumbag from giving us what we wanted.

“Whatcha want?” asked the hulking cyborg who answered the door, almost drowning out the whirring of implants that covered his body.

“Got an order for a pizza, heard it was for a sucker.” I smirked.

“Oh get those jokers in here!” roared a gravely voice from inside the apartment. The hulkling grabbed me and Sana and dragged us into the spacious and well-furnished apartment. We were forced to kneel in front of an even taller cyborg in a lofty fur coat, face and hands masked by shining metal implants.

“Who the hell are you, and why you sticking your nose into my business?” asked the cyborg, obviously Chupacabra.

“Just here to deliver a pizza,” Sana laughed, unfettered at first but quickly grunting with discomfort when the hulkling kicked her thigh.

“You have something that belongs to a friend of a friend. Give us back what we want, and we’ll leave you be.” I was cordial, hoping that the juxtaposition of my calm demeanor with our audacious entrance would appropriately illustrate the danger of angering me and Sana.

“Everything I got belongs to me, fool.” Chupacabra rolled his eyes. “None of you surface dwellers care about what goes on here. Somebody gotta take care of this barrio. But protection ain’t cheap. When my people think they can’t pay, I show them that they can.”

“If you prefer, I can forcefully remove your implants and then take what belongs to us,” I said. “Be a shame to ruin what’s left of that pretty face of yo - agh!” I groaned as the hulkling kicked me in the side. I writhed on the ground in pain, barely managing to turn my head to Sana to wink.

“We don’t leave this apartment in 5 minutes, Julio comes looking for you.” Sana smirked, avoid another assault from the hulkling by a second as Chupacabra swiftly raised his hand in the air.

“How do you know that name?” Cupacabra roared, leaving the couch and kneeling in front of Sana. He stared deeply into her eyes, failing to instill fear even as a short blade protruded from his right index finger and made its way below Sana’s chin. “You don’t come into my house and say that name.”

“Who’s Julio, boss?” The hulkling was confused by the mention of someone important enough to scare Chupacabra without his own bodyguard knowing about them.

“Probably desperate to get some child support payments after the accident.” Sana winked deviously.

“She mean Julia?” asked the hulkling. “Mighta been these new ears, don’t work like they said they would.”

“Shut up!” Chupacabra growled. “The hell do you two actually want? Don’t come in here talking about a man’s business unless you really want something.”

“Already said, you took something from a friend of a friend.” I coughed, still not recovered from the kick to my ribs. “Just give it to us and we’ll leave.”

“Nah that ain’t right, you must be cops or something,” Chupacabra said. “You know to much. Whats yo names, Imma look you up.”

“I’m Majid, this is Sana.”

“She’s Santa?” The hulkling laughed, defects in his ear implants leading to the ever-common mistake of hearing Sana’s name incorrectly. “So you think you’re Mrs. Claus, boy? That’s just peculiar.”

“Hey, not cool!” Chupacabra growled, standing up and glaring at the hulkling.

“What? That ain’t how they oughta be. Boys should be boys, girls should be girls. Unless… well, you ain’t peculiar, are you?”

“Hey, that’s not cool-” Chupacabra froze, weighing the risk of outing himself to his homophobic acolyte.

“You have three minutes until Julio gets a call,” Sana chuckled. “Better give us what we want.”

“Alright, um…” Chupacabra fumbled nervously. “Julio was my parole officer. Guy was a real pain. Thought I capped his noggin before I came around here. These jokers must have found him.”

“So let him come, we can clap him right here.” Hulking laughed. “You are the Chupacabra, won’t be a problem.”

“If, uh, if he, uh, survived, we die tonight.” Chupacabra nervously continued fabricating the backstory. “That cop has family on the Commission, we kill him for real he comes for us.”

“Is he a cop or a parole officer?” The hulkling began rubbing his chin in doubt.

“Parole officer, cop, what difference does it make? Boot’s a boot, no matter the color.” Chupacabra shrugged, growing more confident. “Thought I had a clean kill, no traces. He survived, they’ll watch all the time now. We cap him here, cops show up right after that. Probably bring a whole army with him.”

“Guess we got a good thing going." The hulkling sighed and backed away from me and Sana.

“So who wants their stuff back?” Chupacabra asked.

“Claire Hood,” Sana said. “Give us the goods, and we’ll be on our way.”

“Yeah, that chica,” Chupacabra laughed. “In the pile in the den.” He pointed down the apartment hallway, and the hulkling briefly disappeared.

“I don’t know who you people are, but you come back to my hood again, I’m sending a piece of you to every pad in this hellhole.” Chupacabra glared at us as we stood up from the ground. I shrugged as I leaned on Sana, still not recovered from the kick to my ribs.

“You bug her again and I sell your implants for scrap.” Sana’s eyebrow furrowed as she smiled seductively. “I do enjoy taking cyborgs apart.”

“Like you ain’t got nothing in that skin of yours.” Chupacabra rolled his eyes.

“One minute until Julio gets a call,” I said. “Better add a little something to the presents or he’ll be at your door begging for you to return shortly.”

“Nagual!” Chupacabra screamed, summoning the hulkling. “Escort them down with the presents and give the chica 5,000 credits.”

“5,000! I didn’t even get that for a bonus.” Nagual crossed his arms defiantly.

“Just leave now and I’ll give you 10!” Chupacabra shouted, waving his arms frantically. “I want these jokers outta my sight now!”

Hey, you got it boss!” Nagual eagerly left the apartment, while Sana helped me across the threshold.

“Just 4 seconds to spare!” Sana’s laugh was followed by an abbreviated groan from Chupacabra, interrupted by the closing of his apartment’s door.

“So, you guys crooked cops?” Nagual asked nervously. “You wouldn’t be doing someone down here a favor if you weren’t getting something out of it.”

“Like I said, I’m Santa and this is Christmas.” Sana laughed, tapping the handle of her stunner as though she was hoping to goad Nagual into using it. “Mrs. Claus can tell you.”

“They oughta make upgrades that keep people from being peculiar.” Nagual spat on the ground. “If you can’t pray it out, you gotta do something.”

“Ah, you’re a praying man.” Sana’s interest piqued, and her fingers retreated from the handle of the stunner.

“Confession keeps me going.” Nagual sighed. “You get into this life because you have nowhere else to go, and you stay here because you have nowhere else to turn. Doesn’t make me a bad guy, it’s just the way things go. Plus my Priest guides my penance.”

“Is that how religion works?” Sana stopped in her tracks, throwing her head back and laughing so loud the sound echoed through the hallway. Suddenly, she drew her stunner and blasted a beam at Nagual, and he dropped to the ground with a thud and a grunt.

“You see, I don’t know any God and even I know that ain’t right.” She reached down and grabbed the presents that had fallen from Nagual’s arms. “Keep your money, we’ll be on our way.”

“You know that’s not how it works, right?” I asked her once we had reached the elevator. “Religion?”

“Not his religion.” She shook her head. “You do right by people, even if you have to be dragged into it sometimes. You don’t strike me as the kind of guy to use confession and penance to do wrong. For you it’s about repairing a good relationship, not absolving a bad life, right?”

“On the money, honey,” I laughed. “God looks at the heart, and if you’re counting on forgiveness as an excuse to sin, you really don’t know him.”

“Now that makes more sense,” Sana said. “But I imagine people have used religion as an excuse to do bad more than once.”

“You’re really mastering the lowest form of wit.” I chuckled at her evolving sarcasm, appreciating the partnership of someone as cynical as me. “Every person has a God they worship. Sometimes it’s a deity, sometimes it’s technology, sometimes it’s drugs.”

“I see a lot of false gods running the show,” Sana sighed.

“Just part of human nature.” I shook my head. “The trick is to distract yourself just enough that the distraction doesn’t become your god, either.”

“Like Christmas.” Sana looked at the presents in her arms.

“Like Christmas,” I agreed. “Claire won’t ever give her kids the good life they need, but for a day, she can bring them joy. And she can satisfy her need to be a good mother when they laugh and cry the moment they remove the wrapping paper. But creeps like Chupacabra will use it to enrich themselves, just like the unfeeling suits that keep consumerism thriving throughout the year. Getting just one more upgrade and making just one more dollar becomes everyone’s god, and joyland ends.”

“We’ll keep it alive just one more day.” Sana smiled proudly. “As long as one person understands the Spirit of Christmas, there’s hope that more people will get it right.”

I offered her a rare smile. Slowly but surely, Sana was understanding the potential of humanity, and she was about to show the best of our species to children who almost had hope ripped from their grasp forever.