The Great Skunk Ape Hunt

I was an awkward kid and spent a great deal of time in solitude. During the summer I turned ten I sat alone reading books, went for walks by myself, and on one memorable afternoon played monopoly against myself until I caught myself cheating and lodged the race car up my nose. That cost me my board game privileges for a week, but it was worth it because I always got to be the race car thereafter. All of my friends were off vacationing at places like Disney World, Six Flags, and Myrtle Beach. Even my poor friend Alex and his family would leave every summer on a two week road trip to see famous roadside attractions like cement dinosaurs, Wall Drug, and every contender for The World’s Largest Ball of Twine. I wasn’t sure what twine was, but I was pretty sure I could skip the road trip and satisfy all of my twine-viewing needs for the rest of my life by visiting a hardware store. I’d rather have seen where Cheetos were made, but my friend Amanda said the factory no longer gave tours after a kid fell into the Corn Extruder and got turned into the world’s first Funyun.

I was left to my own devices over most summers. The only other kid around was Crazy Teddy. He was seventeen, but mentally varied from six to fourteen depending in no small part on how many explosive or flammable things were in the vicinity. He didn’t go on vacations because of his Dad’s frequent business weekends in Las Vegas and also the court orders barring him from crossing most state lines. He got on the news for his attempt at building a rocket from an abandoned car and what the FBI later described as “a sort of improvised napalm.” I didn’t know what the big deal was, he barely cleared the grocery store.

I was torn between seeking out Teddy’s company, as despite being the coolest teenager my friends and I had ever heard of, I tended to experience bouts of what my psychiatrists have since labeled “mortal terror” whenever he was around. In his twenties he got sponsorships from major power tool companies to never be seen in public with their products. He once disappeared for a week and the private detective his dad kept on retainer for such situations brought him home wearing a hard hat covered with spotted owl feathers.The sheriff’s office had a folder of forms with his name already filled in. He violated the laws of both man and nature with the casual ease, expertise, and lack of any consequence of a Mitch McConnell.

It was a typical midsummer afternoon in eastern Tennessee. The temperature was well into the nineties and the air was so humid that the U.N. declared the weather a human rights violation. Satellites declared the area a sand dune. I got tired of pretending our broken lawn sprinkler was a water park and rode my rusty old BMX bike down the street to Teddy’s house. I considered myself a master of BMX riding and ended every trick with my signature move of falling down and scraping my knee on the asphalt. My parents got bulk discounts on Band-Aids. No one answered the door but I heard hammering from the back yard and walked around the house to see Teddy duct-taping a badminton net to the end of a pole made from his dad’s custom cue stick nailed to the end of a broom handle.

“What are you doing, Teddy?” I was bewildered by his actions, as usual. The psychologist I saw in my late teens said this was an encouraging sign that I could someday integrate into society.

“Dammit Daniel, can’t you tell?” He tried to punctuate his reply by spitting, but only ended up coughing. He wet his mouth by finishing off a two-liter bottle of oddly-colored Mountain Dew and spitting again. He then threw the empty bottle in a pile with several more and cracked a fresh one, chugging for several seconds. He then slammed the bottle into the patio table. “We got a skunk ape.” He pointed to a knot of fur tangled in a segment of barbed wire he’d apparently cut from a fence somewhere.

“What’s a skunk ape?” I mentally pictured a gorilla with a white stripe down its back.

“It’s not a gorilla with a white stripe down its back.” Crazy Teddy hammered a ten-inch nail through the cue stick until it emerged from the other side and cracked the glass of the patio table. “It’s like a Bigfoot. But it lives around here. And it stinks.”

Crazy Teddy had a way of knowing when strange things were happening. I remembered when he stopped the vampire outbreak in the local squirrels. Toothpicks make good stakes when adjusting for scale.

I thought back to my trip to the zoo. “So Bigfeet don’t stink?”

“It’s BigFOOTS. And yes, they stink. But it’s less hot in Oregon so people are more struck by their big feet. Here, it’s a cryptid sweathouse.”

Crazy Teddy held up the pole. The net dangled from it. “Now this is the finest Skunk Ape Snarer I have ever seen.”

I looked at the strange contraption. “Me too.”

Teddy laughed, then looked at me. “Are you coming with me? I could use an assistant.”

I mentally weighed another afternoon of cheating while playing Scrabble with myself against an afternoon with someone whose activities were officially classified as “Acts of God” by at least one major insurance company. My innards became restless.

“S-sure, I’m in.”

“Great! Let’s get you some gear.”

“Gear” turned out to be an orange plastic pith helmet with a sticker on it saying “Junior Explorer At Adventure Pete’s Mini Golf and Truck Stop” and a carpenter’s tool belt with a ball peen hammer, a sandwich bag full of thumbtacks, a pencil sharpened at both ends, and a pocket notebook with “Skunk Ape-American Dictionary” scrawled on the front page in crayon. I opened the notebook. Written inside was line after line of entries such as “Grarg = Food” and “Grach = Telescope.”

“Skunk apes have a language?”

“Not that I know of, but it’s best to be prepared.” Crazy Teddy had put on a football helmet with “Greenfield Pangolins” written on it and packing a backpack with Mountain Dew, Doritos, a sandwich, Mountain Dew, a compass, and Mountain Dew. He started to zip it, then stopped. “I almost forgot!” He then grabbed another two-liter of Mountain Dew and crammed it in, settling for only being able to zip up the backpack halfway. He then handed it to me and I staggered under the weight. “Don’t drop this, it’s critical supplies.” He then ran into the shed against the back fence.

I wrestled the backpack onto my back as he came out of the shed pushing a brand new dirt bike. “We’re headed for the cave in the woods next to the mill pond.” Our subdivision was located in the middle of miles of countryside, mostly pastures and crop fields, and patches of forest that the landowner hadn’t gotten around to razing in favor of making more of the first two.

The cave was the subject of endless stories of hauntings told by the kids I knew. As I was best able to put together from various breathless playground retellings, in 1964 a group of satanic hippies drew a six-pointed pentagram on the floor of the cave to summon the ghost of an evil Civil War general named Zebulon Fencepost to make them werewolves. Also he was a werewolf. But lightning struck their VW Bus and disrupted the ritual so they instead summoned Bloody Mary, who inhabited the rearview mirrors of the bus and caused them to run off the road on their way home and die cursing the name of the guy who saw them crash but didn’t stop to help. He was named Steve Taylor or maybe Pat McDanus. The curse kicked in five years later when he was driving a truck full of chickens to his friend’s house in Wartburg and made him go insane and he drove the truck to the cave and set it on fire and then he exploded. So if you go to the cave at midnight, the Civil War general Zebulon Fencepost, the hippies, a werewolf, Pat McDanus, Bloody Mary and the chickens all get into a fight over who gets to eat your eyeballs. Several friends of older siblings of kids I knew swore it was true.

I nervously told Crazy Teddy all of this. He listened intently and nodded thoughtfully. “I’ll have to pack my ghost tools” he said, picking up a clattering fanny pack that felt it was full of bricks and fastening it around my waist. “Also, ghosts and werewolves are mortal enemies so they’ll be too busy fighting each other to care about us.” Crushed by the weight of his logic, I said no more. He got on the bike and started it, patting the seat behind him. “Come on, let’s go.” I wrestled my overencumbered body onto the bike and we took off across the fields.

Spending time with Crazy teddy had some minor inadvertent benefits, like wearing over half one’s body weight in encumbrance while trying not to slide off the back fender of a dirt bike that’s hopping across uneven terrain like a press secretary trying to dodge questions. If the ride was long enough I’d enter fifth grade with the abs of a bodybuilder.

The pond was barely more than a puddle, a tiny impoundment behind a small earthen dam just high enough to turn the wheel that was once there. On the ridge behind it was a thick forest with the cave somewhere inside of it. We stopped several dozen yards on the far side of the stream.

“I forgot where the cave is.” Teddy yelled over the engine.

A not-insignificant part of me felt relief. No skunk apes or werewolf ghosts or moments of imminent catastrophic injury. It was thanks to Teddy that I even had such better judgement at such a tender age, even as he consistently was able to get me to disregard it.

“So we’ll have to look for it. “

“What?”

Without another word he gunned the bike and headed for the creek at full throttle. I started screaming. I realized later that Crazy Teddy was also screaming, but that was drowned out by the motor of the dirt bike screaming, and above it all, a few million years of human evolution screaming.

We crossed the creek with barely a bump as we were going fast enough to not lose any altitude as we jumped. For the briefest of moments, I felt the relief again, only for it to evaporate once more as we didn’t stop. We were headed for the trees there are a lot of trees there TEDDY DO YOU NOT SEE THE TREEEEEES

Years later, a urologist described my bladder control as “freakish.”

The trees flew past us as blurs and I shook in every direction as Teddy crisscrossed the hill in search of the cave. Time lost all meaning. Days were just like moments turned to hours. At some point, we stopped. I slid from the fender and thumped onto the ground without ever leaving the fetal position I had entered.

I sat up to see Teddy sniffing the air. “I smell skunk ape.” I slowly and shakily got to my feet. The cave entrance yawned to my right. I took a few cautious sniffs and was struck by the pungent aroma of wet dog mixed with my dad’s work socks and maybe a hint of an old ashtray.

“Ack” I agreed.

Crazy Teddy reached for his Skunk Ape Snare that he’d strapped across his back. He turned to me, held his finger to his lips, motioned for me to follow him then started up the hill toward the cave loudly crunching every twig and pine cone underfoot as he walked.

“IF WE’RE LUCKY WE’LL CATCH HIM SLEEPING” Teddy told me in a voice that might count as a whisper on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. I nodded, which caused him to scowl at me. “KEEP IT DOWN OR WE’LL WAKE HIM UP.”

Annoyed, I wriggled out of the straps of the heavy backpack and dropped it on the ground at the cave entrance. We slowly started in, turning on our flashlights as the light grew dim and the stench grew thick. My eyes began to water. I saw a lot of garbage, empty Mountain Dew bottles, snack cake wrappers, and what looked like an old Civil War sword that was embedded into the wall. An avocado green car door rested against one wall with a bra dangling from the side mirror. Beneath my feet, I noticed someone had actually tried to draw a pentagram on the floor, but there were seven points and they were all on one side.

Deeper in we saw a tangle of tree limbs, leaves, an old blanket and what might have been a sofa at one time. It was a festival of filth the likes I would not see again until I was fourteen and realized that cleaning my room wasted valuable Cheeto-eating time. To one side of the nest was a pile of porn magazines but they were pretty much solidified into paper mache by various fluids best not contemplated. I had already made a mental note to soak the clothes I was wearing in kerosene overnight before taking them to an empty lot and setting them on fire. At least I had just about outgrown these “Nukey Hair Johnson” shoes my dad had bought from the back of a van at the flea market. They were made primarily of corn husks, shellac, and spray paint, and as he sped off the guy in the van told my dad to never get the soles wet because of their tendency to “hyperlubricate.” So I wore plastic wrap on my shoes on rainy days. They had still held up better than the Springboks made from layered cardboard and glue that I had gotten for Christmas.

Crazy Teddy tried to spit, but choked and started coughing. He drew his current Mountain Dew 2-liter from the holster he’d made on his belt and took a long pull, then once again spit successfully. “It’s hotter than dammit!” he complained, then stuck out his hand. “Pass me the deodorant from the ghost kit.”

I fumbled in the fanny pack for the can of deodorant and handed it to Teddy. He sprayed it further back into the cave, the mist seeming to swirl into the shape of a drifting body for a moment. The addition of the deodorant to the ambient odors strongly reminded me of the neighborhood bully after he entered middle school but before he went after Teddy. the next day he transferred to a boarding hospital in Pennsylvania. Teddy never said much about it but graciously accepted our offerings of full-size Snickers bars and Capri Sun pouches.

“As I expected. There’s something here.”

I had seen enough Scooby-Doo to know not to ask what.

“Now hand me a lighter from the ghost kit.”

I unzipped the fanny pack and looked inside. “All that’s in here are metal lighters.”

“Yeah, it’s my dad’s collection. Just pick one.”

I grabbed one that had “C. Lindbergh 1927” engraved on its silvery finish and handed it over.

Teddy grabbed it without looking and lit it. He spent a moment tracking something only he could see, then sprayed the RIght Guard across the flame. There was a sudden explosion of movement as a flaming cloud of something flew past us, accompanied by a rasping, angry voice. The flame burned Teddy’s thumb and he hissed and threw the lighter off into the darkness. I heard it clack and crash against the rocks.

“What was that?” I gasped.

“Ghost. You were right. I ran it off.”

“Is that why it called us ‘mucker-flubbers?’”

Teddy stared at me in bewilderment for a moment, silently mouthing what I’d just said, before seeming to realize something and giving me an odd look. “You don’t get out much, do you?”

I had been asked that quite a bit as a kid, usually in response to mentioning my notebook full of solitary rules for board games.

“Back to the ape. What I was trying to say is that skunk apes mostly are active at night. This one is acting odd. Really odd.” He scratched his chin. “REAL really odd.” He stared at the nest. Not knowing what else to do, I joined him.

“Well, maybe not that odd. Just peculiar.” He punctuated his sentence with another drink of the Mountain Dew. He turned and headed for the mouth of the cave. “The chase is a-big-foot!”

I had a sudden urge to kick something.

The air outside was much hotter, but at least it didn’t quite reek like a microwave full of jockstraps. Crazy Teddy finished his soda bottle, flattened it, and switched it out with a full one from the backpack. Teddy was many things, including an official hazard to public health in at least three municipalities, but he didn’t litter.

Something was bugging me, and I decided to take advantage of the rare pause in Crazy Teddy’s speech and activities to speak up. “Why is all of your Mountain Dew so dark?”

Teddy proudly puffed out his chest. “That’s because It’s not just soda. It’s Dew, coffee, cold medicine, tattoo ink, rust solvent, and chainsaw polish.” Teddy was counting off ingredients on his fingers as he named them, but kept skipping and re-using them randomly. “I call it ‘Megamonster Energizing Drink Beverage (name subject to change)’. He trailed off for a second to watch himself continue counting fingers. Once that stopped, he continued. “I bought the dirt bike with the money I made selling shots of it to college students.” He took another drink. “It took a while to get it right- I had to feed a lot of test batches to some pigs.” He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, then snapped them back open. “It’s really boosted my productivity, but I keep having to remember to blink.”

I recognized the name- I saw on the local news where the university president had denounced it as an “affront to safety, decency, and dignity” after a noticeable uptick in students howling at the moon during finals and a couple of incidents of attempted bicycle ingestion. If he’d been drinking that cocktail all morning, It was a wonder he even needed the dirt bike.

“The dirt bike would have just slowed me down but I pour a little Megamonster in the tank and it takes off like my dad’s Ferrari.” Teddy had a way with pushing everything around him so far beyond any boundaries of sanity that you’d swear his life story was a pitch for an 80s action movie made after a weeklong coke bender.

Crazy Teddy frowned at the backpack. “I thought I had more Megamonster than this with me.”

“Well I–”

“SHHHH!” Teddy slapped his hand over his own mouth, caught himself, and slapped his other hand over mine. He gestured downhill with his head. Walking along the creek was a large hairy man. He paused and looked in our general direction. It was no man. It looked like an orangutan mimicking the face of an old Catholic who had accidentally walked into a bus station bathroom. I’d seen happier faces after home dental surgery experiments.

It had a bottle in its hand. As we watched, it ripped off the top, sniffed the contents, recoiled, then drained it in one gulp. It then staggered around for a few seconds and before suddenly falling over.

“We got him!” Teddy was ecstatic, but something about that bottle wasn’t sitting right with me. I stopped thinking about when Teddy pulled me onto the bike and we rode down the hill.

The skunk ape looked like the inside of a chewing tobacco spit jar left in the sun and smelled twice as bad. We had just left the cave and I hadn’t spent this long wanting to throw up since my third grade class put on a history pageant and my Thomas Jefferson outfit was an old T-shirt with the face of a penny screened onto it. I got a “D.”

It lay on its back taking rapid, shallow breaths. Crazy Teddy pushed his eyelid open with his fingers. It looked to be every bit of eight feet of muscle, matted hair, and protruding gut. I wondered if it was related to my gym teacher, but I couldn’t know for sure until I could see how it chose to humiliate me for not being able to do pull-ups.

Teddy pulled out his pole-net contraption and put it around the ape’s head and shoulders and bumped into me.This caused me to lose my balance and fall into the creek, drenching me head to toe. I tried to stand, but my shoes suddenly felt like everything under them was melted butter, so I grabbed the pole to use the ape’s weight to steady myself. It was then that I noticed that the bottle the skunk ape had dropped was one of Teddy’s Mountain Dew bottles, completely empty. I looked at it, then at the Skunk Ape Snarer whose handle I was still firmly gripping, then at Teddy. Our eyes met. Without breaking eye contact, he slowly opened the gas tank on the dirt bike and poured the rest of his bottle of Megamonster in.

My right eyelid twitched slightly.

The next twenty minutes of my life was a blur to the point where I can’t really put it into words, so I’ll just describe what I saw on the local news that night.

The clip opens at a local hog farm, with the reporter explaining how the farmer’s prize hogs are becoming aggressive and that the meat is linked to several bizarre incidents, like an octogenarian mall-walker tearing through a Spencer Gifts on rollerblades and a father of three repeatedly trying to snowboard off the roof of his house on an ironing board. She goes on to detail how the hogs had come to prefer eating shotgun shells, buckshot, gunpowder and all.

The reporter trailed off as she and the farmer reacted to a rapidly increasing growling noise that at first sounds like a malfunctioning semi but is quickly revealed to be the combined screams a huge hairy creature running at 75 miles per hour in the throes of catastrophic tachycardia and the boy it’s dragging behind him who appears to be skiing along the ground like he’s in the Olympics.  In close pursuit is a teenager on a dirt bike that’s shooting a twelve-foot jet of green flame from its red-hot exhaust pipe. The skunk ape runs through the pigpen and smashes it open, followed by the bike, which ignites the green bristle on the boars, causing them to panic and begin howling like porcine wolves as they start stampeding after the dirt bike.

The camera starts shaking as its operator starts running after the reporter, who is running after the farmer, who is running after the hogs. All three give up and dash back to the news van after the hogs hit highway speeds while making roaring engine sounds typically only heard in NASCAR highlight reels and Road Runner cartoons. The reporter is heard to yell “FOLLOW THOSE PIGS” before the video cuts out.

The scene then cuts to another reporter covering the grand opening of a Walmart, the camera panning across the huge parking lot, packed with cars and a carnival to celebrate the store opening. As the manager starts to cut the ribbon, he pauses and looks into the distance as the cacophony heard before, this time accompanied by sirens and galloping, quickly increases in volume. At first, the people gathered at the ribbon think that the town has organized an impromptu parade to celebrate the cornucopia of Always Low Prices about to be bestowed upon them and their families, as that seems much more likely than having the biggest display of total mayhem bearing down on them since the KFC had Free Gravy Tuesdays.

Everyone gapes then scatters as the ape, me, Crazy Teddy on his Megamonstered rocket bike, thirty-six adrenalin-crazed hogs, four police cars, a fire engine, the news van from the pig farm and a very confused elderly man who thinks he’s getting an elaborate escort to his free birthday cone at Baskin-Robbins come tearing into the parking lot.

The whole furious mass of us came barrelling down the lane between parked station wagons with faux wood paneling and double-parked pickup trucks lifted too tall for most drive-thru windows like a flaming pork tsunami. Grown men climbed light poles and strictly religious parents covered the eyes of their children like their parents did to them in the fifties when a black person walked by. Preachers would declare this sight the sign of the impending Rapture for years afterward like they had with sock hops and MTV before.

The skunk ape’s heart and central nervous system, already at ludicrous speed, goes full plaid like a toddler in a video arcade. It finally noticed the net and tore it off, sending me careening into one of the carnival attractions, “Guess How Many Marbles Are In This Giant Unsecured Top-Heavy Bucket WIth No Lid and Win This Truckload of Down Pillows.” The radar gun in one of the police cars clocked me at hitting the pile of pillows at 64.7 miles per hour, the impact spreading feathers and marbles across the parking lot.

Crazy Teddy stops just short of the doors, sees the situation, and tries to flee, but the Megamonster runs out and the glowing engine dies seconds before melting through the bike’s frame and then the concrete below. The deputies had a longstanding and strict policy of detaining Teddy on sight, and soon he was handcuffed to a cruiser door as the fire department followed radioed instructions from engineers at the nuclear power plant on how to stop a meltdown before it reaches the ground water. The result was a thick fog of water vapor, which only added to the pandemonium as the hundreds of people panicked and ran aimlessly. Several tried to drive away, and in the confusion smashed open a fire hydrant, rang the bell on the strongman game, and dislodged the prizes in the target shooting booth from the shelves they rested on for the first time since they were glued there in 1937.

The hogs smashed through the front doors of the Walmart and stormed inside like there were exciting Black Friday Deals that they couldn’t miss out on. They knocked over the jewelry counter and flattened most of Housewares before eating the entire cereal aisle and falling asleep in Lawn and Garden.

The events were best summed up in the press conference the next day by Sergeant Michael “Mickster” Hamner of the National Guard, who called it “the most intensely chaotic hysteria the area had seen since the college football stadium ran out of beer before halftime.”

The hogs were rounded up by enticing them with seven-dollar pretzels from what was left of the snack tent. After an emergency FDA inspection declares them a Class 2 Gastronomical Hazard, they were sent to a laboratory farm where their bacon was reverse-engineered for use in truck stops and college cafeterias.

Crazy Teddy was released after his father’s lawyer pointed out that, technically, Teddy didn’t personally incite a riot this time. He sold his formula for Megamonster Energizing Drink Beverage (name subject to change) to Raytheon for an undisclosed sum.

The news reporters later went on to cover such legendary news stories as “Bear Cub at Zoo Eats Large Fish,” “Cats Wear Whimsical Outfits at Cat Show” and “Six Dead After Guest Chef On Morning Show Causes Grease Fire.”

Edgar Stoole Jr. arrived at the Baskin-Robbins after a moderate delay but still in time to get the last scoop of mint chocolate chip.

The Walmart’s opening was delayed for a week. Within three years it was responsible for the closure of sixteen local businesses, including the grocery store.

I was sent to bed without supper for destroying my shoes and for “whatever you were doing today.” I got up at eleven-thirty and ate the last of the American cheese.

The skunk ape was last seen in Florida, and everyone agrees that is a much more fitting home for it.

Fireworks

On that day, Paul and I were spending a July afternoon playing with bottle rockets, just a couple of ten year olds in the brutal Tennessee sun.

“Our neighbors must be so jealous.” I said, lighting a rocket and absently watching it fly into the air and explode with a loud “bang” over our neighbor’s pool.

“Why is that?” Paul immediately lit another and watched it sail into the air and explode over the pool.

“They can hear us out here having whimsical, innocent childhood fun with the steady explosions of our bottle rockets almost every fifteen seconds, but with just enough variation to keep them noticeable.” I lit another rocket. It sailed out over my neighbor’s new boat, but didn’t explode.

“That one missed the pool.” Paul observed.

Down the street, old man Petersen started yelling. “You skipped one, you hooligans!” He threw a shoe at us.

“He must be getting tired.” I said. “That one barely cleared his driveway.”

“Yeah, he got much better distance with the potted fern.”

We heard someone yelling from behind us. We turned to see Crazy Teddy driving his golf cart toward us with something large and colorful dragging behind it.

“Guys, guys!” He panted as he came up next to us. “Look what I have!”

What he was dragging was a large red, white and blue column emblazoned with all sorts of symbols and warnings saying “DANGER” in several languages, including what appeared to be Braille and some sort of hieroglyphs. At least, that’s what I assumed “bird-bird-sun-mummy” meant.

“What did your dad buy you this time?” Teddy’s dad once bought him an emu pen and an emu to go with it. Teddy quickly lost interest once he realized he couldn’t ride it and stopped closing the pen door. It took six cops, two fire trucks, four zookeepers and one track-and-field star to capture it again, and by then it had hit the freeway and made it to the next county. And the Canoe Incident got him mentioned on the news. He was the only sixteen-year-old we had heard of who had lost his driver’s license three years before he was old enough to have one, purely based on precaution. The petition was a wild success.

Teddy proudly puffed out his chest. “This is the Freedom Annihilator 40K. It is the world’s first Smart Firework.” He grinned. “It was made by reverse-engineering a crashed cruise missile. It was originally intended for stadium demolition but was banned for being a hazard to air traffic, so the designers added copper and chlorine to it for color. Every country ratified the UN resolution to ban it except here in the US on account of the Second Amendment. Owning it is a violation of international law, and setting it off is considered a war crime.” His smile got bigger and bigger with every word. “It’s computer controlled. I forget everything the salesman said it does because it came with a free lighter and I was playing with it.” He scratched his head. “I was going to ask him to tell me more about it but he remembered an important appointment in Tijuana and was driving away by the time we got it loaded in the van.”

“The Second Amendment applies to fireworks?”

“Well, it’s still making its way through the courts, but the NRA has their best lawyers on it.”

“What’s that smell?” Paul asked.

“Oh, I just dumped a bunch of gasoline on it so it’d go up more quicker.”

Paul and I stared in wonder. To a ten-year-old, this had the effect on us that our parents wished church did.

A strange new feeling stirred inside of me. A sort of clenching feeling of doubt and dread. I would later realize that this was the activation of my self-preservation instinct, something that would become finely honed over the next few years of living near Crazy Teddy.

I decided to read some of the warnings on the firework’s wrapper. “Says here it should only be ignited on a barge anchored in a body of water at least five miles from any land or human habitation.”

“Blah blah blah BORING.” Teddy replied.

I decided I had to be the voice of reason here. “Crazy Teddy, we’re in the middle of the street in a residential neighborhood. We can’t set it off here.”

“Then where?”

“Let’s take it to the abandoned grain silo in the pasture behind the houses.”

“That dusty old place?” Paul was skeptical. “That’s where everyone dumps their old tires and motor oil. It stinks.” The old silo was where 80% of the liqour store’s inventory was consumed. There were more roaches than the school cafeteria.

“Exactly. Nice and safe.”

“That sounds like adding a lot of time between now and explosions.” Teddy said.

“You get to take your golf cart off-road.”

“Okay, fine, have it your way.”

Soon we were jostling across the cornfield in the cart with the Freedom Annihilator bungie-tied to the roof.

“There are a lot more tires here than I remember.” I said.

“It reeks of oil too. It’s everywhere.” Paul added.

I noticed several liquor bottles with labels like “Night Punch” and “Ol’ Jake’s Wooden Leg,” as well as that a recent storm had blown off part of the silo’s top and every time a gust of wind blew the air would get thick with dust. There were gentle moos as a large herd of cattle grazed nearby.

“See, no one’s here.” I said. “It’s perfect.”

“The other two nodded. “I swear, Daniel, sometimes I’d almost think you’re as smart as I am.” Teddy laughed.

It was twilight and we could barely see the lights of houses and the rest of the town twinkling in the distance. The earth and fields around us were parched after nearly three weeks with no rain. It was a good night for fireworks. Teddy got out his blowtorch.

We lugged the Freedom Annihilator to the top of the huge hill of oily tires and shifted tires around until it was snugly seated in a sort of pit. We found a few large steel barrels with large orange letters in what looked to be Russian on them, under a picture of a tentacle inside a circle with a line through it. It took a couple of hours to drag them out of the way One leaked on Paul, but it only made him itchy.

We then uncoiled the fifteen-foot long piece of kerosene-soaked rope that served as the fuse. “We’re going to be legends.” Teddy crowed. He lit the fuse. We felt the heat from the burning fuse and the smoking tires beneath it.

That weird clenching feeling came back.

“Uh, guys?” Teddy and Paul were transfixed by the fire. They didn’t react.

The tires started burning. The flames rapidly grew until they were ten feet above the top of the forty feet of tires. I kicked each of my companions in the shins.

“We should move back.” They both stared at me, but right then a loud pop sent a steel-belted radial rolling between us. We headed for the cart.

Teddy started to let off the accelerator when we were half a mile out, but at this point the blaze cast a shadow ahead of us I stomped my foot on top of his and pressed on farther. Finally we stopped nearly a mile out and turned around. “Man, we won’t see nothin’ from here.” The bright light reminded me of a night launch of a Space Shuttle I watched on TV. I could see nervous cattle, silhouetted against the blaze, moving away from it with increasing speed.

The wind picked up.

We saw a flash and a moment later, a massive fireball was accompanied by a loud boom. We had to turn away, but turned back a moment later after the heat died down, watching the inferno ascend into the sky. What I thought was the explosion reverberating in my skull was in fact terrified cattle charging in all directions. They burst through the fences and into the subdivisions and roads surrounding the pasture. I could hear yelling, screeching tires, and car horns in the distance.

Teddy swore from beside me. “Oh turkey toenails, Is that firework ever gonna–”

A bright blue flash nearly blinded us. A moment later came intense heat and a massive BADOOOM that shoved us backward and sent us tumbling, cart and all. The wind howled around us.

I sat up and faced toward the heat. The firework was spinning incredibly fast, hovering in the air about a hundred feet above the greatly diminished, but still burning, tire hill. Higher in the sky, lots of orange specks flew about.

No, not flying.

Falling.

Flaming tires began to fall all around. I heard a cacophony of crashes, screams, and car alarms from our subdivision behind me as we clutched each other in terror. Sparks and flaming debris rained everywhere, causing small and not-so-small blazes in the dry pasture grass around us.

A robotic voice came from the blue sphere. “COMMENCING PATRIOTIC ACTIVITIES. PLEASE STAND AT ATTENTION, CITIZENS.”

“Three Cheers For The Red White And Blue” began blasting from the Freedom Annihilator and flaming mayhem rained down upon everything we knew. We saw flashing lights as police and fire vehicles worked their way down the old access road leading to the silo. The light and heat kept them at bay. Jets of water from the fire tankers were steam by the time they got to the orb of blue fire.

Lasers erupted from the top of the burning blue light and began to draw images in the sky. An American flag with an eagle next to it. The eagle spread its wings, which were guns, and used them to shoot a group of children climbing over a wall. Red, white, and blue confetti fell.

“NO ONE SHALL DESECRATE THIS SACRED LAND.” “God Bless America” started playing. A laser fixed on us. “ARE YOU LEGAL? ARE YOU SOCIALISTS? WHERE ARE YOUR PAPERS?” Teddy was trying to remember how to put the cart in reverse as we all screamed.

A missile flew at the Freedom Annihilator from behind us. I realized I could hear a helicopter nearby, from the Air Force base in the city, I realized. The Smart Firework shifted its laser from us to it. “FAKE NEWS DETECTED.” It destroyed the missile. “SUPPORT OUR TROOPS.” It shot the helicopter and I heard its engine straining as it retreated into the distance.

The firework changed from blue to white. “PHASE TWO COMMENCING. IGNITE BARBECUE GRILLS.” The lasers swept the area, and finding no grills, locked onto the silo. “GRILL CREATION COMMENCING.” The silo exploded into another orgy of flame. “ENJOY YOUR MEAT, CITIZENS.”

The emergency vehicles on the access road started moving and a tank started driving up to the Smart Firework. There was a loud boom as the tank fired its main gun. The shell hit the firework, but bounced off and went spinning into the night. Again, it retaliated. “WE CANNOT AFFORD DISSENT WHEN THERE ARE HOMELESS VETERANS ON THE STREETS.” A laser shot out and melted the tank’s gun. “DEFUND THE VA. TAX DOLLARS ARE WASTED ON FREELOADERS.”

The Freedom Annihilator changed again, this time to red. “PHASE THREE. PATRIOTISM ESTABLISHED. GRAND FINALE COMMENCING. OPEN BEERS AND CONSUME.” The Star-Spangled Banner began to play. “FINALE IN FIVE. FOUR. THREE. TWO. ONE.”

There was a brief moment when time seemed to stop. Despite the pandemonium, there was no sound. A moth fluttered by.

Then the Freedom Annihilator detonated. Red, white, and blue flames spewed into the sky. The silo turned to sand. The tire fire was blasted out. A massive mushroom cloud rose into the sky. We could see the shock wave rip across the pasture toward us.

A giant fist slammed into us and sent us flying as the loudest sound we ever heard blasted across the valley. There was heat, light, tumbling, and the nothing.

I woke up in a hospital room. I looked around and tried to sit up, but a gentle hand pushed me back down. It was my mom. I was surrounded by flowers and loved ones.

“He’s awake!” my dad shouted.

“What happened?” I asked. My mom explained the Navy Seals had found us in the field with the remains of the golf cart and turned us over to the paramedics.

“Your friends are both fine. Teddy keeps getting his hands on a combat knife he swiped from a Seal and Paul won’t stop eating raw fish.” She patted my head. “We’re so lucky.” Her eyes focused on something in the distance. “So lucky…”

A man pushed his way through my gathered family. He looked at me with a solemn expression as he pushed back his cowboy hat. It was the sheriff.

“Son, we know you were a part of what happened last night. I have just one thing to ask. What was that thing?”

“We want to get two for next year.”

Elections were coming up.

From down the hall, we heard someone screaming “OHGOD OHGOD THE TENTACLES ARE EVERYWHERE,” and sounds like someone was slapping together two catcher’s mitts full of gelatin. This was the Day the Tentacles Came, but that’s a story for another time.

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