Young Max stood at the entrance of the playroom. Before him was an entire area full of loud and belligerent children running and screaming in every direction. Some of them went up and down a plastic slide connected to a larger jungle gym. Giggles of joy came from all over the room, but they occurred most of all in the ball-pit. The ball-pit was a rather large tub full of multi-colored plastic orbs cluttered with small children splashing around. Max didn’t particularly like other children, but his mother told him to make some friends.

Max slowly descended into the pit with a frown on his pale little face. Almost immediately after entering, a small boy tossed himself onto Max and sent him tumbling into the center of the arena. Max resurfaced with a scowl painted on his lips. It wasn’t long after the initial “accident” that more kids fell back into Max. He placed his arms over his face but to no avail. He felt the children fall onto him, shoving him further and further down.

Max was frantically squirming at this point. He attempted to scream but all that exited his lips was a soft groan as the ball-pit and children sandwiched him together. He felt his face strain as his muscles tightened due to the lack of oxygen he was getting. Max was shoving and clawing at the pile above him now. The weight of the kids combined began to take its toll as an insurmountable pressure was forced onto Max. His body began to stop fighting the pressure as Max’s arms and legs went limp. Their weight and the sheer number of rubber balls in the pit was preventing him from breathing, and he felt some kids knee and elbow him in the face. He could feel himself losing consciousness, he could feel himself drowning. His eyes fluttered before he completely blacked out.

A strange sensation shot through Max’s body as he woke up. His head was pounding, and a high-pitched ringing sound filled his ears. He soon after rubbed his head and regained his composure, happy to be able to breathe again. He allowed his fingers to run across the surface below him. He seemed to be on a moving platform of sorts. Max sat up in a daze and looked around, confused by what he saw. He wasn’t sure how long he had been unconscious. He yawned and stretched his arms out before grabbing the rail next to him. He was on an escalator slowly moving downward.

The surrounding area was different than anything Max had ever seen before. The sky was aligned with purple clouds and a pink hue. The sky was brightly lit, but there appeared to be no sun. Yet, there were stars… but with no moon. Max looked downward where the escalators were heading. He seemed to pass through a thin layer of clouds, and below those, he saw a platform. He saw colorful carnivals on it, and beautiful birds and butterflies fluttered through the air quite majestically. Before he knew it, Max’s feet touched down onto the ground and he stood before the gigantic place. Everywhere he looked, his eyes were met with an abundance of beauty. Lush gardens full of pure white flowers and trees made of cotton candy substance filled his vision. Max pranced along the perimeter of the platform, taking in all the sights. Then, he stepped onto a path made from the whitest marble he had ever seen.

It wasn’t long after he started skipping down the path that he came into contact with the owner of the mysterious and wonderful land. He was a rather tall man, and his skin was pale and smooth. He opened his mouth to reveal a toothy grin made up of teeth treated with the most proper of hygienic care, and the sight of the man caused Max to smile as well. He wore a red suit decorated with blue, purple, and yellow poke-dots. It was tacky, but Max looked past that and stared in awe at the man. Happiness and joy seemed to radiate off of the man and spread in every direction.

“Hello, child, would you like a balloon?”

Max smiled and nodded his head politely. His mom would always give him balloons on his birthday, and it brought back fond memories. The man smiled and held out his hand. Max took it, and together they galloped along the path and towards the center of the carnival. A small carousel seemed to stand directly in the center, and so the two of them got on. Little Max had trouble at first, but the man helped lift him up onto the porcelain horse. But something was bothering Max, and although he didn’t want to be rude, he also wanted to know when he would be getting his balloon.

“Hey, mister, is it ok if I have my balloon now?”

The man turned his head towards Max and smiled. His elongated fingers curled around the brass pole sticking out of the horse’s head and he smirked before placing his hand on top of one of the poke-dots aligning his suit. In an instant, he pulled the yellow poke-dot out of place and blew into it, inflating the rubber into a full-sized balloon.

“There, kid, you got a two for one deal. I did a magic trick and made you a balloon! Now, if you behave and have tons of fun you can get even more prizes!”

Max’s eyes shifted towards the man and his eyes fluttered in surprise. More presents and gifts? His mom never got him anything except for on Christmas and on his birthday.

“Like what, sir?” Max asked the man politely.

“Oh, like, I dunno. How about ice cream, Max? You like ice cream?”

All Max could manage to do was nod his head yes. This place was only getting better and better for him. First, he got a balloon and carnival rides, and now he was getting ice cream? What more could he ask for?

“Really, ice cream? Yes sir, thank you for this!”

Max knew his mom wouldn’t be proud of him for listening to strangers. It was one of the things she told him to never do, after all. Still, this was a nice stranger. Max didn’t think he was a bad guy trying to hurt him. Perhaps if Max was older he would understand that looks can be incredibly deceiving. But the pull of the carnival and the promise of sweets made him forget about his mother’s warning, and so he followed the man hand-in-hand deeper into the carnival.

“Excuse me, mister, is it ok if I ask you a question?”

“Sure, Max, anything at all,” the man said with a toothy grin on his face.

“How is this place so huge and colorful?” Max asked. Although he was just a small boy, he was still curious as to how something so impossible could be real. It was hard for him to wrap his head around the perfection before him, and he needed an answer. Not out of suspicion, but out of confusion.

“You see, Max, this place is always so bright and happy because it’s fueled by the happiness and joy of the world. That joy acts like a battery here, and soon you can help this world be even brighter and more perfect! I can tell you’re a good child, Max. I know for a fact that the rest of the children would be excited to have your joy help fuel theirs.”

Max stopped for a moment. Other children? He hadn’t seen any other kids since he stepped into the carnival. No… he hadn’t seen anyone but the man.

“What do you mean by other children, sir?” Max inquired.

“Oh, the children in the ball-pit, of course. All the ball-pits in the world in fact. This place is solely responsible for, well, making them fun, you could say.”

Max nodded his head and proceeded with the man towards a tall building. He could see things poking out of the roof of the building and heading upwards. They looked to be tubes of some sort, with strange things in them. Colors appeared to be flowing through the tubes. Max couldn’t tell whether they were liquid or gas, but he didn’t mind. As long as he would get his ice cream he would be pleased.

As the man led Max into the building, the first thing Max noticed was that the entire room they had entered was completely empty. No furniture, no paintings, no television. Well, maybe it hadn’t been empty. Upon second inspection, Max saw what appeared to be exactly what he was hoping for. An ice cream machine was in the corner of the room. It was a soft-serve machine. The man motioned for Max to approach the machine and gave him a plastic cup and a spoon to hold the delicious frozen treat in. Max was in front of the machine and stared at the dials and b*****s of it. He reached towards it, and then stopped. Something washed over him that prevented him from pouring the ice cream in his cup.

Something deep within him told him to drop the cup and run far, far away. It was because at that moment he felt an overbearing sense of dread. The entire time he had been in the joyful world he felt safe and happy. But something about the man and the ice cream and that moment was different from the rest of the world. He didn’t know how to describe it other than a change in atmosphere. It felt as if in the world and happiness and joy he was currently in, there was malicious intent within the man and the delicious sweet before him.

Max turned back and saw the man behind him. His toothy grin was now replaced with a slightly annoyed look as he told Max to fill the cup.

“Come on, Max. I thought you liked ice cream. That’s why we’re here, right? To enjoy ourselves and have fun!”

Max wouldn’t budge. There was no way he was going to eat the ice cream. His arms started to quiver and he withdrew from the machine. The man’s expression changed again. This time, however, it was one of frustration. He placed one hand on Max’s shoulder and used the other to grab his arm. He squeezed tightly, and his voice was different. The previously cheerful tone he once held was replaced with anger. His teeth were clenched; his veins were starting to become more noticeable through his head.

“Listen here, Max, listen when I’m speaking to you. Do you want the rest of the kids in the ball-pit to have a bad time just because you wouldn’t eat ice cream? I’m trying to help you enjoy yourself, and as a result, you’ll help the kids up there have the time of their lives. But no, you’d rather be a loser. Do you want to be known for being a disappointment, Max? Do you want to be known as a loser?”

Tears began to roll down Max’s face as the man squeezed harder on his arm. A red imprint began to form on his forearm as tears continued to roll down the young boy’s face. He tried to yank himself away from the man, but with each pull, his grip only tightened. After using his small size to wiggle free from the man’s grasp, he ran towards the doors he entered the building from. He pulled on them, only to find the doors locked. Max looked back at the man. He stood there, laughing at Max as he screamed and pleaded. His efforts were futile though, and the man began making his way towards him. Max scanned the room through his tear-drenched eyes and saw it. In the opposite corner of the room was a door. Getting to his feet, he made a mad dash past the man and toward the door. The man made no attempt to stop him as he burst through the door and into the room. And upon entering it, the young boy let out a scream that echoed throughout the whole carnival.

Max saw their bodies dangling in the air loosely. Children, dozens, maybe hundreds of them hung by wires and tubes strapped to various parts of their body. Their bodies were colorless. Grey, leathery skin covered them, and their malnourishment reached the point where their ribs protruded and pushed their skin near breaking point. The life was drained out of their eyes, and yet their chests sunk in and out. They were alive, although they were better off dead. Max could feel his heart smashing against his ribs, and for a second he felt as if it were going to burst through them. Turning around, he saw the man at the door. His toothy grin was back again, but this time it was for different reasons. Max stepped backward and into the entanglement of kids who swung from the ceiling. The man followed after him, and they both made their way through the grey children, the man hot on his trail.

Max could hear the man only ten or so feet behind him. He was stronger and faster than Max, moving through the bodies with ease. Max knew he had to do something and fast. Thoughts raced through his mind, but in his panic, he somehow found a moment of clarity to think. The children’s feet were only a foot above the floor, and with Max’s height, he could drop down and view the surrounding area. He got down on his stomach and saw the man’s feet moving towards his direction. He silently crawled in the opposite direction and did a loop around the man before standing back to his feet. He made his way towards the door he had entered the room from. He knew that if only he could exit and make his way towards the escalators that he would be safe. And so he waded through the bodies and towards the door. He ran through it and was soon in the ice cream room. The door that was locked was made of glass, and although he didn’t have the time to break through it before, perhaps the man’s wild goose hunt would buy him time.

Max began to kick the glass of the door harder and harder as the glass cracked inch by inch. He knew the man had heard him because the sound of footsteps was now coming in his direction. He kicked and kicked, and soon the glass was almost shattered. The sound of footsteps was at the door across the room now, and with one last attempt Max kicked through the glass and climbed through the small opening. He started running away from the building, only looking back once he was about fifty yards away. He saw the man bend and contort his body to fit himself through the child-sized hole in the door. Even from a long distance away, Max could hear the cracking of bones and the twisting of joints. They almost seemed to echo through the world he was in.

The man was chasing after him again now, his long legs traveling faster and farther than little Max’s legs were capable of carrying him. Max looked up at the sky, the once purplish clouds now turned grey. The whole landscape was having its color sucked out of it and replaced with grey. The same grey as the children he had seen. Carnival rides and decorations crumbled into dust as the man yelled from behind Max.

“This is what this world turns into when a child’s joy isn’t put to good use. Is this really what you want, Max? Do you want this world to burn?”

Max didn’t look back; he just kept running. To think that all the ball-pits in the world were fueled by this place. It was spread out just enough to take children away, but not so widespread that it caused the closure of restaurant play areas and other places with the pits. The Ferris wheel fell off of its hinges and crashed down onto the ground below it. The carousel horses were charred black as if they had been burned, and the rides ceased movement. The air was filthy and filled with smog, and the flower beds and gardens died, leaving behind withering vegetation and chipped wooden fences rather than the painted ones Max had seen upon entering. But Max held onto hope because in the distance he could see the escalator, and he heard the kids in the sky playing in the pit.

The man was gaining on Max, and with every step, Max grew more and more tired. What started out as a 50-yard head start was now only a 20-foot distance, but Max was determined to avoid the fate the other kids met. He only had ten more yards until he was upon the escalator. He was so close to the railing that he could extend his arm and touch it. He felt the hot breath of the man in the suit behind him, and with that Max lunged onto the escalator. He felt the man’s lanky fingers wrap around his ankle and pull. Max looked back and saw the man. His entire appearance had changed. His suit was stained and tattered, and the previously bright colors were dull. His hair was neat before but was now a greasy mess of white. His skin was deteriorating and rotting, and he smelled of death and disease. He was showing Max what the world would look like without the joy and creativity of children. How it fell apart and plunged into darkness and decay.

Max was more determined than ever to get back to his world. He reared up his other foot and stomped down on the man’s hand, crushing it between his shoe and the hard metal escalator step. The man screamed out in pain and looked up in Max, his face full of hunger and malice.

“You can’t escape, Max! I’ll have your spirit and your energy, and you’ll help fuel this world just like the rest of the kids!”

Max reared up his foot and kicked the man directly in the eye, sending him tumbling down the steps and into the world below. In a hurry, Max raced up the steps and towards the heavens. He only looked down when he was near the top of the escalator, only to see the man at the very bottom. The world was back to its usual colorful look, and the man waved at Max from below. Although he wasn’t sure, Max knew that the man had the same toothy grin as he always had. Looking back up at the sky, he ascended past the clouds and felt the texture of the plastic orbs. He heard the sound of kids playing in the pit, and he made his way upwards to the top.

Max felt the edge of the ball-pit and climbed out, absolutely exhausted. He watched all the swarming in the pit like a bunch of animals, ignorant of what lies below. And as he watched the kids play in the pit, he did notice one thing in particular. The pit seemed different than it had before.

He didn’t know what it was. Something about the color of the balls seemed more vibrant since he last saw them.