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Happy Town – Excerpt

Dear Reader:

Want to take a look at my upcoming middle-grade novel, Happy Town, coming out October 22, 2024 from Harper Colins? Well, scroll your way down and you can read the first four chapters. Or go right over to the publisher’s page with links to bookshops to pre-order it (or just outright buy it if you’re reading this after October 22, 2024). Or keep reading to find out what inspired me to write Happy Town. I’ve given  you so many options!

So, why did I write Happy Town?

“PLEASE WAIT, HELP IS ON THE WAY. PLEASE WAIT, HELP IS ON THE WAY.  PLEASE WAIT…”

Ever feel like help is not, in fact, on the way? On a recent trip to Disneyland, I followed a long day at the Happiest Place on Earth trying to buy midnight snacks at a huge national drug store chain. I used to know how to buy things, but I guess I’ve lost the knack, because all the self-check-out machine did was drone, “Please wait, help is on the way.” And, wow, that machine lied!

 The idea for Happy Town grew from this little episode. What if you dropped three kids in a place suffering technological breakdown, and help was never coming? And what if their town was built beneath a dome in the remote desert? What if it was owned by an Amazon-like corporation and run by a ridiculous but dangerous billionaire? What if every adult — every parent and teacher and first responder — was employed by the company, and the company turned them all into meat-craving zombies? And then the town ran out of meat.

This is a story about friends learning to survive by banding together. It’s about kids realizing their world doesn’t function the way it ought to. It’s about kids discovering who has power over them and struggling to do something about it.

“PLEASE WAIT AND REMAIN HAPPY, HELP IS ON THE WAY…”

There are also a lot of jokes about cardboard boxes, band instruments, and Meat Cramwich, the Microwavable Sandwich Crammed With Meat. (It’s vegetarian, except for the meat.)

I hope Happy Town gives readers of all ages a chance to laugh, to cheer, to cringe, to get excited, and even to get angry.

And if you’re a bookseller reading this, thank you. Bookstores are one of the few places where help usually is on the way.

Most sincerely,
Greg van Eekhout, author of Happy Town

[Production note: This excerpt is from an uncorrected proof. What does that even mean? It means there will likely be spelling, punctuation, and formatting errors. But don’t worry! They’ll all be corrected in the final version of the book. Probably.]

 

CHAPTER ONE:

“Welcome to Happy Town. We Make Happy.”

The cow-sized blimp sails over our new house, displaying the Happy Town motto in glowing letters. I still don’t know much about Happy Town, but I do know that Happy Town doesn’t make happy. Happy Town doesn’t make anything. They sell everything, though: diapers, donuts, drones, phones, toilet paper, toothbrushes, lawn mowers, luggage, abacuses, applesauce, athlete’s foot powder, art supplies, and thousands of other products. Happy Town is the biggest online shop in the world, and it’s also my new home.

“How are you liking Happy Town?” a woman with a camera and a microphone asks Mom. When people move to Happy Town they get interviewed for publicity and marketing purposes. It’s been happening all day up and down the street.

“Everything’s even better than we expected,” says Mom with great enthusiasm. “It’s so clean! So modern! It’s like living in the future! And we love our new house . . . I mean, box.”

The houses in Happy Town are all called boxes. The name fits, because all the homes are two-story boxes with sharp angles, painted the same white, gray, and pale green as the Happy Town smiley-face logo.

Stepdad Carl backs Mom up with a huge grin and a thumbs-up. “Great box. Terrific box.”

The camera woman makes a “keep-going” gesture with her hand, and Mom complies: “My husband and I got our job offers two weeks ago, and we’ve only been in town one night, but it’s already starting to feel like home. It’s been the easiest move we’ve ever done.”

Stepdad Carl backs her up with an even huger grin and a double thumbs-up.

Mom and Carl got married three years ago, and since then we’ve moved a lot because they got laid off from their jobs or were looking for cheaper places to live or places with better schools. I’ve gotten pretty good at starting over. And they’re not lying; the moving process this time really was easy. We packed most of our things in boxes and put those boxes in a bigger box that got shipped to our new box. Then we walked onto a plane in San Diego and flew to Las Vegas, where we were greeted by a Happy Town guide who showed us to a driverless vehicle that took us hundreds of miles down a private Happy Town road into the Nevada desert. It dropped us right in front of our box where our stuff was waiting, and that was it.

The camera woman turns her lens on me. “And how about you, Keegan? Tomorrow’s the first day of school. What are you most looking forward to?”

I’m taken by surprise that she knows my name, but I suppose it makes sense they’d know who was moving in. “I’m looking forward to art class. The art supplies are supposed to be really high-tech and cool.” She nods approvingly.

My last school didn’t even have art classes, and I’m genuinely hopeful about what Happy Academy has to offer, even if I already miss Topher and Nolan and Trin, the best friends I’ll ever have. I hope they don’t forget me.

“One last question for you all,” the camera woman says. “What would you like to say about Arlo Corn?”

“Oh, he’s a genius,” Mom says without missing a beat.

“A total galaxy brain,” Carl says.

With that, the lens is back on me.

What should I say? I only know two things about Arlo Corn. One, he’s the owner of Happy Town, both the company and the actual town. Two, he’s a multi-billionaire. Should I admit that’s all I know? Everyone seems to want me to say something else.

Mom and Carl are looking at me. The camera woman is looking at me. Her lens is looking at me. The camera woman clears her throat. “Keegan, your thoughts on Arlo Corn?”

I should just go with the flow.

“Arlo Corn is a genius,” I say.

Grins. Thumbs. Nods.

The camera woman stows her camera away and brings out a pad. It’s a contract for Mom and Carl to sign, something about giving Happy Town permission to use the video and our likenesses in any format, for any reason, forever.

They sign it, the camera woman moves on to the next new family, and we go inside our box.

Before I shut the door, I watch the blimp make another pass over the street. The mobile billboard glitches, the letters scrambling into visual noise.

“Hey, Mom . . . ?”

“Yeah?” she calls from the kitchen.

After a blink, the sign corrects itself, once more displaying the Happy Town slogan.

“Never mind.”

 

CHAPTER TWO

The advertising blimp is back the next morning, displaying the weather report.

Seventy-four degrees, Fahrenheit.

Thirty percent humidity.

Chance of rain: zero.

Chance of snow: zero.

Chance of happiness: one hundred percent.

All the zeroes are little pale green happy faces.

The report switches to an ad for Sniffree. “Keep your family fresh with Sniffree body wash and you’ll never have to sniff them again.”

I take a nose sample of my armpits. The very last thing I want to do on my first day of school is be found sniffable.

A bread-loaf-shaped vehicle whispers up the street and stops at the corner where a cluster of other kids from the neighborhood wait. The vehicle—a “conveyor,” as it’s called in Happy Town—is my ride to school. I follow the others aboard and notice there’s no driver in front, just a camera aimed at the passengers, who seem fairly quiet for a load of kids. Nobody’s screaming. Nobody’s throwing paper airplanes. Nobody’s making goofy faces out the windows, and everyone’s facing forward.

I claim an open seat and scoot over to the window. A girl drops herself next to me, and I’m about to say hello when she turns to a very large boy across the aisle.

“Hey, Tank.”

The boy grunts and vaguely moves his hand. I don’t think he’s being unfriendly, just very absorbed in his book, a little paperback with a lot of pink and violet on the cover and a title written in red cursive.

“HEY, TANK,” she tries again.

He blinks as if awakening to the world. “Oh, hi, Gloriana,” he says with great cheer. Then he dives back into his book.

The conveyor sets off past the white, gray, and pale green houses.

Sorry. The boxes.

“Please sit back, relax, and enjoy our journey to school,” says a perky recorded voice. “If you’re new to Happy Town, welcome! Let’s show you around. Look to your left and you’ll spot the Fulfillment Center, where most of your parents work.”

The Fulfillment Center is a concrete hockey puck, the same colors as all the rest of the buildings. Neither Mom nor Carl work there. Carl is an elevator mechanic who works all over the city. Mom is a thermal duct deployment manager, whatever that means.

“As you probably know, ‘fulfillment’ has different definitions. It can mean satisfaction, or contentment. And it can also mean delivery of a product. That’s what our Fulfillment Center does. It prepares products for delivery all over the globe, which makes people content. When you’re older, maybe you’ll get to fulfill the world’s wishes and dreams.” “You new?” the girl next to me asks.

“How’d you know?”

“Most people in Happy Town are new. Plus, you’re getting nose prints on the window.”

I move my face away from the glass. “How long have you lived here?”

“Eight months. I’m an old-timer.”

I start to ask her about life in Happy Town, but the conveyor speaks again. “Sasha, please put away your gum. Tank, please put away your book and pay attention.”

A boy a few seats in front of me spits his gum into a wrapper, neatly folds it, and tucks it in his pocket.

Tank says “Unh” and gives a distracted wave. He turns a page.

The recording points out shops, offices, temples and mosques and churches, elevated sidewalks connecting the high floors of the buildings, and MICE, the self-driving carts that zip out of holes in the streets and deliver groceries and household items throughout the city.

“The MICE network is a prototype of the delivery system Arlo Corn envisions in every city of the world. It’s merely one of Arlo Corn’s many innovations. Think of Happy Town as a laboratory where Arlo Corn’s best ideas are tried out and perfected so they can be applied to other Happy Towns. Ours may be the first, but soon there’ll be Happy Towns everywhere. Under the sea. In orbit. On the moon. And Mars. And one day, on planets across the universe!”

Gloriana snorts. I don’t know what she finds snort- worthy, but I decide to mind my own business and focus on the tour.

“As we pull into Happy Town Academy, we’d like to draw your attention to the heart and brain of our city, Corn Tower, where our founder Arlo Corn spends long hours planning for a future where all citizens prosper, where there is no poverty, no hunger, where every need is fulfilled.”

I crane my neck to gaze up to the top of the white spire looming over the rest of the city. The only thing taller than Corn’s office building is the clear glass dome that encases the entire city, protecting us from heat and cold and wind and rain, sealing us off from the rest of the world.

CHAPTER THREE

My social studies teacher is a tired-looking middle-aged man in a tweed blazer worn over a Happy Town T-shirt. He stares at an invisible spot in the air and twitches his fingers, as though he’s typing. The electronic board behind him displays an ad for Meat Cramwich, the Microwaveable Sandwich Crammed with Meat.

I take an open seat in the second-to-back row. This is a strategic decision. The first four rows are easily noticeable, and the back row is traditionally where troublemakers sit, at least at my previous schools. But the second-to-back row is sort of a netherworld for the very average, the boring, and the inconspicuous. The second-to-back row cracks no jokes, creates no distractions, does as instructed, goes with the flow.

My worktable is a panel of frosted white glass, and my fancy chair bristles with adjustment levers and knobs. I try to raise my seat and tilt the backrest forward, but I must be doing something wrong because all the levers are stuck in place.

The girl from the conveyor slips into the seat beside me. “You’re Gloriana. I’m—”

“Hold on,” she says. “I have to do something before class starts.”

From a transparent backpack she produces a coffee mug with the Happy Town logo. She places it on her worktable with care, turning it a little this way, a little that way, as if searching for some perfect position. Finally, she gives the mug a satisfied smile, then, like a cat, swipes it off the table.

It hits the floor and shatters.

A few kids look over and whisper. The teacher continues to stare at nothing and phantom type.

“What’s your name?” Her face is friendly now, eyes warm.

“I’m Keegan. Why’d you do that?”

“It makes me feel better.” She takes another mug from her bag and sets it in front of me. “You should try it.”

If there’s a nonjudgmental way to ask her exactly what kind of weirdo she is, I can’t find it.

The teacher stops staring and twitching and addresses the class.

He says his name is Mr. Grossman, and it’s time for a quiz.

Was I supposed to have learned something? School’s only been in session five minutes. I don’t even know where the bathrooms are.

My table lights up with a screen containing questions and a virtual keyboard and some buttons.

Gloriana’s done with her quiz before I even get started.

It’s a short quiz, all the questions about stuff covered in the tour. When I’m done I hit SUBMIT. My score comes back nine out of ten.

“I got a perfect score,” Gloriana says, but it doesn’t sound like bragging. More like she’s disappointed. “How about you?”

“Nine. I missed the one on what MICE stands for.”

“Mobile Intracity Delivery Express. Intracity is both the I and the C. The D is silent.”

We spend the rest of class reading from Arlo Corn’s autobiography, From Womb to Winner. The first chapter covers his birth, at which apparently he did a great job.

After social studies comes math, then language arts.

Neither are subjects I’m good at. I’m disappointed when I

learn art class is only once a week, on Fridays.

I find Gloriana again at lunch, and she shows me how to use a cafeteria kiosk to bring up a vast menu of options.

There’s nowhere to insert a money card or cash.

“You pay with your eye,” she says.

“You what with your what?!”

“It’s a retinal scan, see?” She leans in close to the kiosk with her left eye wide open. A little round camera flashes green and beeps. “They deduct the money from our parents’ salaries. That’s how everything in Happy Town gets paid for, from a juice box to a refrigerator. Delivery is included.”

A segmented metal disk in the floor opens like a flower greeting the dawn, and little MICE crawl out of it, skittering all over the cafeteria floor and delivering orders of tacos and pizza slices and sandwiches and paper trays of chicken tenders.

Gloriana orders a rice bowl with a non-meat protein called “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Turkey,” then makes space for me at the kiosk.

I order a rice bowl with actual turkey and pay with my eye. Less than a minute later, a MICE rolls up to us bearing our bowls.

Amid chattering voices, I follow Gloriana outside to a long lunch table. The sun is bright, and the air is warm.

“I guess with the dome keeping the weather out we can eat outside every day. That’s cool.”

Gloriana grunts with a mouthful of rice. “I’m from Ohio,” she says. “I don’t miss snow, but I always liked the wet season. Everything gets mossy and mildewy.”

“You miss mildew?”

“Sort of. It’s gross, but at least it’s natural. It’s real.”

I think I know what she means. I haven’t seen a single bird since moving in. Not a pigeon. Not a sparrow. No bees. No butterflies. If I dug into dirt would I find ants? Is there even dirt in Happy Town?

“Okay, so really, why’d you break your mug?” I ask.

She chews. I can tell she’s thinking. “I’ll make a deal with you. If you can go a whole month without wanting to break a Happy Town mug, then I’ll tell you.”

“I don’t think I’m going to want to break a mug.” Breaking mugs in class is not the kind of thing a go-withthe-flow guy does.

Gloriana lets out a dry little laugh. “I’ll keep bringing spares anyway. Just in case.”

CHAPTER FOUR

I come home from school during “family hour,” the brief window when Carl is home from his morning shift and Mom hasn’t yet left for her night shift. This means an early dinner, and then I can go to my room and draw mammoths and dinosaurs and spaceships and ignore my homework if have any, which I do not.

Carl presses buttons on the microwave while I join Mom setting the table.

“How was school?” she asks. “Were you social?”

“A little bit.” The dinnerware is new, the spoons and forks and knives all embossed with the Happy Town logo. “I talked to a girl on the conveyor. She’s in a couple of my classes.”

“Is she pretty?” Carl asks in a teasing tone.

My eyes roll of their own accord. “I didn’t check. She knocked a coffee mug off her desk in homeroom. On purpose. I think she may be a human-cat hybrid.”

Mom puts out Happy Town drinking glasses and napkins. “She sounds like trouble.”

“Nah, the teacher didn’t even care. He was staring at nothing and pretending to type. Maybe it’s all a Happy Town thing.”

“Just please make good choices, Keegan.”

“I will,” I say with a little impatience, because I’ve made this promise at least a dozen times in the lead-up to the move here.

The microwave bings, and Carl plates up sandwiches with tall stacks of meat patties between shiny buns. He presents them like a chef debuting a new recipe. “What do you think?”

“They’re very vertical.”

“Right? This is Meat Cramwich, the Microwaveable Sandwich Crammed with Meat. I saw an ad for them on a blimp and figured we’d give them a try. They came right to our door by MICE. Isn’t that amazing?”

“But you’re a vegetarian.”

“Meat Cramwich, the Microwaveable Sandwich Crammed With Meat, is vegetarian. Except for the meat.” He takes a big bite and makes happy eating noises.

I take a smaller bite.

Carl watches me expectantly.

“It’s good,” I assure him. “Real good.” A more honest answer would be “It’s not exactly delicious but the salt and fat make me want another bite.”

Mom gives me a concerned-mom look. “You don’t have to finish it if you don’t like it.”

“It’s fine.” I down another bite to show her how fine it is. “It’s just . . . we usually have Indonesian food on Mondays.”

My dad’s Indonesian, and even after the divorce, even after Mom married Carl and we moved in with him, we kept up the dinner tradition.

Mom’s eyes soften. I can tell she’s frustrated with herself. “You’re right, Keegan. We haven’t really been thinking about how hard this move was for you. We wanted to give you a better life, a better education, a better future, but that doesn’t mean we have to leave everything behind.”

“We’ll do Indonesian tomorrow,” Carl assures me.

“And then next week we’ll move it back to Monday. Sound okay, kid?”

“It’s fine,” I say again, reminding myself of my plan to be a go-with-the-flow guy. And to prove how much I’m flowing, I gobble down the rest of my Meat Cramwich, the Microwaveable Sandwich Crammed With Meat.

 

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