Pinkwater is a dry and arid town, but on summer evenings it is a sight to behold. The dust that has been stirred up throughout the day is swept away by the cool breeze, and the cloudy sky blushes pink from the hidden sunset. Often, one can see the emerald mists that eternally shroud Undrinkable, a strangely beautiful phenomenon caused by the smoke from the naturally-occuring nuclear waste fires that have burned for millenia. The giant slugs emerge from the nearby nursery marsh and wander peacefully throughout the town, bringing delight to young and old alike.
On Fake Street, an evening such as this was appreciated by its occupants, the products of Slikk Biological Weaponry Ltd. The mass-produced children played happily in the road, which at this late hour was free of automobiles. The factory's engineers had been in the process of developing a new "Mutant Monsters" line when the operation was disbanded, and overgrown lizards, winged sentient snakes and humanoid spiders chased after the "Original" children.
Their ghostly counterparts loved them all. There was a special joy in raising these innocent, trusting creations, especially since many of them were genetic copies of some of their guardians. Theo Buendo, for example, was at that moment reading that timeless Godawful classic Cacophony of the Rams to a spellbound gaggle of his "children".
One of them raised his hand. "Theo?"
"Does Cannibal Hecter hide in our closet at night?"
Theo smiled kindly at the little boy. "I bet he does."
The kids cheered.
As Theo entertained the kids with tales of horror and existentialist despair, Velma Dooley traversed the street with a grotesquely deformed baby cradled in her arms. She lifted a hand to shield her eyes against the sun and peered out into the distance.
A lone figure slowly ambled into sight. Their silhouette shivered and flickered in the fading sunlight. They saw her and waved.
Velma whooped. The infant she was carrying waved one sticky tentacle and crowed in imitation.
"Jerry's here!" the feisty ghost called over to George Stringly.
"At last," George murmured, and favoured the occasion with a rare smile. He picked up the child he was responsible for-a two-foot-tall tween named Titch-and made his way out to greet the new arrival.
"George!" Jerry called cheerfully. "It's nice to see you, old pal!"
The tall ghost nodded graciously. "The same goes to you, Dolner. How is Mr. Morley?"
"Dude, I keep telling you to call him Marley. He's good, anyway. He's gonna drop in from time to time-he has to look after the cottage."
The killers sauntered into the factory yard. Jerry was amazed at how the place had changed since his miserable youth. The walls had been painted with murals of frightening monsters and deadly animals. All of the paintings had a childlike garishness to them, indicating that they were the work of the children. The yard itself was covered with chalked squares and circles, used in games of hopscotch and the Pinkwaterite game of Beg for Clemency. But the biggest change was to be observed in the faces of the kids themselves. They smiled constantly, and their faces shone with healthy tans-they were evidently allowed to roam free throughout the day. They laughed and sang nonsense words as loud as they could. Upon sighting Jerry, the whole bunch of them galloped over and hugged him all at once. They had heard about his kindness from the adult criminals, and thought fondly of him.
Jerry chuckled with delight at this welcome. He waved at his old comrades, and they waved back and smiled at him. The pheronomes that Mr. Slikk had secretly sprayed on him had worn off long ago, and he had no more trouble in making friends.
Suddenly, he spotted a little child hovering around the edge of the yard. Judging from the length of the hair, it was a little boy. The hunched shoulders and the downcast tilt of his head were familiar to Jerry, although he couldn't say why.
He waded through the bevy of juveniles to reach Theo, in order to find out more about this child.
"Theo," he enquired, "why's that kid over there all by himself?"
Theo looked slightly embarrassed. "Yeesh, Jerry, it's a nightmare. His name's Rocky and he's...well, it's like you've been reincarnated."
He waved a hand at the little boys and girls clustered at his feet. "Turns out that the factory folk ran out of ideas and used our blueprints in the production of the next litter of crooks-all these kids are exact copies of me. It's crazy. Velma was the favorite model-she has thirty kids the same as she was. But Rocky is the only Dolner model here. The other kids won't go near him. Heck, there's something about him that makes me on edge around him. Same goes for the others. It's weird."
"Oh, really?" Jerry said, rasing an eyebrow. I think I know what to do about that."
He made his way across the yard to Rocky. The child jumped and spun around when he heard him approaching.
Jerry started. It was like looking into a bizarre mirror-his ten-year-old self was staring back at him.
"Hey," Jerry said softly. "Is your name Rocky?"
The boy nodded nervously. "Hello, Mr. Dolner," he mumbled. He barely opened his mouth to let the words through. It was a trait the adult recognised instantly as one of his own childhood habits.
"So tell me," Jerry said, "why are you here on your own?"
Rocky shrugged. "I dunno," he sighed. "I didn't do anything. They aren't mean to me, they just..." He tailed off and sniffled a little.
Jerry smiled at him kindly. "You come with me. You're gonna have a really long bath, and when you come out everything'll be different. You'll see."
Rocky took this sage advice, and two hours later emerged a new child. His young peers, now uninhibited by the invisible presence of pheronomes, swarmed around him and accepted him in that unquestioning way that children have. Jerry surveyed his handiwork and beamed broadly.
"Nice work," a voice behind him drawled.
Jerry craned his head around and spied Jed Gupta, who was standing slouched with his arms crossed.
"You've done well for yourself, Dolner," he continued, nodding approvingly. "These things are adorable. If you sold 'em as pets, I'd buy about ten of them."
'They're not for sale," Jerry replied sternly.
"I know. But if you ever need to offload a few...you know where I live."
"With your mom?" Jerry grinned at him and winked slyly.
Jed batted at him and smiled a little.
Let us leave them now, the deceased killers and the blissful children-to say nothing of Jed, who will be going home soon to his loving mother. Jeremy Dolner's life was brief and full of ill deeds and shame, but his afterlife is just beginning, and it promises to be sweet and filled with friendship. The angry victims have been placated, and have forgiven their murderer. The evil Slikk has been slated to suffer the same fate as his warped creations, who now find the most happiness they ever knew in raising children made like them to adulthood, breaking a terrible cycle as they do so. Judge Janet Sludge has been reunited with her beloved coffee mug. All is well in Pinkwater.
Of course, there will be other stories here, and we will visit again someday. But, for now at least, our presence is no longer required. Let us leave this madcap town. Get back into your car. Start the engine. Watch as even the gigantic Execution Centre disappears from the horizon in your rearview mirror.