Changing Channels

When I was a kid, I lived in a subdivision for low-income families built by the lowest bidder, as decided by the highest briber. Somehow this resulted in houses that looked like they were designed and built by M. C. Escher had his focus not been on art but rather upon researching how much meth one could consume before combusting like a Roman candle. Of course, us kids didn’t know any better, or consequently have much in the way of experience with things like “right angles.” I was in my twenties before I realized doors aren’t supposed to fall open or closed but generally stay in the position you left them.

Of course, we still had it better than the trailer park down the road. Verdant Acres was the largest housing development of any kind in the county. It was a seemingly endless expanse of hopes, dreams, and lives being strangled by poverty. The drug trade flourished and as often as not the sheriff’s office didn’t even bother responding to calls.It was also the subject of fierce debate among the residents of my town; many were certain it was a front for a money laundering plot, whereas others insisted it was part of some tax evasion scheme. It’s possible it was both, but we’ll likely never know as people have spent years tracing its exact ownership and have never been able to uncover the name of an actual person or organization, or any sort of real address. I looked into it a bit myself in college and if you ever find yourself in “Missichusemont,” send me a postcard.

Verdant Acres was huge, though just how huge was never totally clear. From the highway, you could see it sprawl across the former pasture and up over the hill far beyond it, a Gordian knot of twisting streets and cul-de-sacs. It was easy to get lost in, and many of my friends swore even their parents lost their way for hours driving along its seemingly endless streets. Some said it had no end, that if you were unlucky you’d wander a labyrinth of dusty streets and corrugated aluminum forever. Eventually you’d give up and there would be an empty trailer waiting for you.

I knew most of this even as a sixth-grader, thanks to my neighbor Crazy Teddy. Teddy was a font of fascinating stories and information despite the numerous gag orders you’d hear his dad and at least one of the family’s lawyers yelling about on the weekends. He was eighteen on paper, but whenever his psychologist noted that there were always a few asterisks next to it. He could be wise as a sage or petty as a second-grader. Our parents warned us kids to stay away from him, but they also told us not to eat too much cereal with marshmallows, and in both cases they were the best things ever to an eleven-year-old. Rumor had it Teddy got his “Crazy” moniker after hijacking an ice cream truck and treating an orphanage to the biggest party it had seen in years, but the only evidence we had of this was his seemingly never-ending supply of ice cream sticks. Teddy’s dad was rich, but our subdivision was one of the few places not zoned to exclude him by name.

I was a lonely kid in the summer of 1988. The hills of eastern Tennessee are picturesque, but sometimes I’d prefer to see a few different ones for a while. The feeling seemed common; as soon as school let out most of my friends’ families took off for places like “Florida.” I’d ask my parents about us going, but they’d just laugh and tell me to go play with the lawn sprinkler they’d point at whenever I asked for something during the summer. You could set it to three different spray patterns, all of which sent the same half-hearted stream of water nearly three feet straight up into the air. All it ever watered was itself. I had a choice of playing Episode XXVII of My Two G.I.Joe Figures Meet The Evil Geyser, or riding down the street to see if Crazy Teddy’s latest house arrest had expired.

I rode my bike onto Teddy’s front yard and marveled at how well-kept it was. The small patches where grass was still able to grow looked like soft green velvet. The bare dirt that made up the rest of the yard was mostly splotches of colors like black and orange. A brightly-colored monarch butterfly landed on a patch and immediately crumbled into dust with a faint “flooph” sound. I decided to walk up the driveway.

Teddy’s window was open, possibly because the sash had been blown out again. I pushed aside the old blanket he used as a curtain and peered inside, graced by every bit of tact my eleven-year-old self didn’t have. It was quiet, so I expected that he wasn’t home. But to my surprise, he was standing across from his desk, poking at some opened electronic device upon it with what seemed to be a screwdriver taped to a broom handle.

“Teddy?” I asked.

“CONCENTRATING” he replied, not looking up. Teddy had one of the books and magazines from his vast library open on his bed. His dad would take him to auctions all across the country and buy him anything he asked for. He had everything from ancient tomes of forgotten lore, one book had nothing but goat-like eyes on the cover that followed me no matter where I stood, to modern magazines about obscure hobbies. The wind showed this magazine to be “Cable Pirate Monthly.” No one knew how Teddy found time to read amongst his mayhem, but he swore he had over half the library memorized. I long ago had seen enough to believe it.

Suddenly there was a loud pop and a flash, and the smell of ozone briefly overpowered the smell of musty books. Teddy sighed, unplugged the device, and tossed it onto a large pile of devices just like it, all similarly scorched. He picked up a box labeled “CABLE TUNER, PROPERTY OF EAST TENNESSEE CABLEVISION” from a stack next to the desk and pulled out another of the devices, quickly unscrewing its top.

“What are you doing?” I asked, even though I knew that he’d always have an answer, and the answer would lead, ultimately, to me screaming a lot. Still, it was better than the sprinkler.

“I am trying to customize a cable box.” He replied, slipping the wood grain sheet metal off the latest device.

“Why?” I had decided it was best to get things moving so I could get the screaming part over with.

“Because my cousin Freddy got free cable yesterday, and that means FURBEAKS.”

“Teddy, maybe you should come out here with me for a few minutes, some fresh air should help.”

“That’s what my dad always says.” He paused. “And most of the social workers.” He turned back to the cable box on his desk. “What you probably do not know is that no one GIVES away cable TV.”

I did in fact know that due to being repeatedly told so, often verbatim, by my dad when I asked why we got only three fuzzy channels, and then only if it wasn’t raining.

“Cable TV is up to twenty-six channels of broadcast delight, and it’s expensive to run the cables. So, why would a company wire up Verdant Acres for free?” Even if they limited themselves to just the part that exists on the local, and mostly Euclidean material plane? The answer is simple.” He looked at me pointedly.

It sunk in that he was waiting for an answer. “M-market research?” I ventured.

“Good guess, but no. It’s because the TV isn’t the product, the residents are.” Teddy turned back to the box, which shorted out like its several dozen predecessors. Teddy snorted. “The cable company charges my dad six hundred dollars apiece for these things. You’d think they’d be more durable.” He tossed the box on the pile and grabbed a fresh one.

“Right, right.” I nodded. “So they’re using the cable TV to sell stuff.’”

“If that’s all they’re doing we’ll be lucky.” He didn’t look up from the innards of the latest cable box. “I don’t know what they’re doing yet. But they’re up to something, and this is how I’ll find out what.” The cable box made a soft ping this time. “Finally!”

“What did you do?” I asked. I was beginning to think he was just deliberately destroying the devices just to spite his dad or something. But ultimately I couldn’t take that idea seriously- a dad who was never around to get angry for no reason and who gave you all the money you wanted had to be the best dad ever, right?

“I’ve modified it. The thing with furbeak television is each channel is two in one. There’s the stuff you see, family sitcoms and deodorant commercials and the like, but that’s just to hide the real messages, what they really want you to hear and think.”

“What are furbeaks, anyway?” Most of the stuff Teddy talked about I’d at least heard of, but this had me at a loss.

“Furbeaks came from the future. I’m not sure when, just that the military was experimenting on them and ended up trapping them in an ageometric time warp while trying to make combat-ready nachos. Now they are bundles of rage who try to sow it in humans because it’s what they feed on. From time to time they get organized and try to accumulate as much anger, fear, and frustration as they can in an attempt to break free.” He picked up the box and his ever-present backpack and headed for the door. “Meet me in the backyard.”

Soon we were in Teddy’s two-seater “utility buggy,” which to the untrained eye looked like an old surplus Army jeep. He said his dad was only able to purchase it by signing a notarized paper swearing that Teddy would not “operate or modify” it under any circumstances, up to and including an “attack by Russia or any other known sources of communism.” I wondered how Teddy’s dad’s lawyers slept at night. Most people did.

“When we connect this box at Freddy’s trailer we’ll be able to see exactly what the furbeaks are broadcasting.” He revved the throttle.

“Okay, but this doesn’t have seat belts so try not to go too faAAAAAAAAA–”

Entering Verdant Acres was always a strange experience for me. Everything seemed to twist for a moment once I passed the sign. Teddy said I noticed stuff like that because I was sensitive like he was. Whatever that meant, sometimes it seemed like I was looking through a fisheye lens, and the sunlight was the wrong color, sort of yellowish-tan, like you’re watching a movie set in Mexico.

The trailers were tightly-packed, with barely enough room for a small porch between them. There were a few bikes and basketballs and other outdoor toys to be seen on the mere specks of lawn visible, but not very many. There was no room to play with them. It felt very suffocating. I found myself hoping I’d see a small park or a basketball court or something, but there were only ever more rows of trailers.

We skidded to a halt in front of a trailer that I couldn’t distinguish from any other in this vast sea. I spent the next few minutes spitting bug parts out of my mouth and pulling them out of my hair. Teddy watched distractedly. “You always do that. Never scream.” I looked up to see a trailer home only subtly different from the ones that surrounded it, a field of trailers that stretched as far as the eye could see. I wasn’t sure how we’d ever find our way out.

Teddy seemed to read my mind. “The park is ever hungry, a hunger that can never truly be sated. Tread carefully here, and mind your thoughts and moods.” He led me up the steps to the door and knocked very softly. He waited a beat and then kicked the door open.

“ALOHA FREDDY! I BRING ASSKICKINGS AND CAKE FOR ALL!” He strode into the trailer. I peered past the door.

Inside the living room were two couches and the biggest tube TV I’d ever seen. The floor sagged a little under it. It was showing what looked like an old western, except the cowboys were chasing each other with chainsaws. I decided it must have been one of those art films no one has heard of that my dad sometimes complained about winning when he watched the Oscars to see if his bets would break even. They rarely did.

There was a man in his early twenties stretched out on one of the sofas that made me realize that the characters from the cartoon Large Dog and the Mystery Teens must be based on real people. Tall, thin, with an unruly mop of hair and the suggestion of a goatee, he looked like he would walk into the kitchen and make an enormous sandwich at any moment. Then I realized he was already eating one.

“FREDDY!” Teddy was usually only this loud and energetic when one of his projects worked on the first try.

“Hey dude.” Freddy waved without looking up. “You owe me another door. And another cake.”

“I brought the cable box and an assistant.” Teddy beckoned me in. The door crashed shut once I was out of its way. Just like home.

Freddy’s eyes widened when he saw me. “Oh man, you didn’t say a kid was coming!” He shoved something plastic under a throw pillow and waved his arms frantically, as if that would dissipate the pungent smell of what I guessed was a seriously ill skunk under the trailer that must have been wearing old gym socks. My heart went out to him as skunks liked to fight under my house most nights.

“Hey, Que pasa. Mi casa. Or something.” Freddy relaxed pretty quickly after his initial surprise. Maybe he did that yoga stuff my mom stressed about never having the chance to do.

I watched Teddy switch out the cable boxes. He then turned on the TV and sat on the other couch. I joined him, watching as he produced a huge remote control with more buttons than my mom’s typewriter had keys. He flipped a large red toggle switch on the back and all kinds of lights on it began to flash and glow.

“Wow, that’s amazing! What does all of that do?”

“It helps me find it when it’s under the couch. Now watch the TV, we only have a few minutes before the batteries in this thing die.”

Teddy turned the channel to some kids’ show where a puppet was telling a toddler how to count to four. As I watched, the puppet lit a cigarette and leaned forward in its chair. “Okay kid, I don’t have all day. One more time. One, two, three…”

The kid started yelling. ”I’m hungry! Where’s my mom?”

“READ THE DAMN LINE, TUCKER!” bellowed a woman’s voice from offscreen.

The puppet took a long drag off its cigarette, then picked up a grimy coffee mug. “It gets worse every year,” it mumbled.

Teddy spoke up. “See, a completely normal children’s show. But watch this.” He flipped a big red switch on the remote and everything on-screen scrambled for a moment, then changed. I saw a small hairy creature with large, round eyes, and a beak seated atop a beige counter like a news anchor. It had cat-like ears, stubby arms and flat feet like a penguin. Its fur was an intense, electric blue.

I jolted a bit as it started screaming. “BUY THE CEREAL! HERE!” It picks up an open box of cereal with a leprechaun on it and starts flinging its contents at a bowl slid onto the counter from offscreen. Most of it missed. “EAT IT ALL, THEN HAVE MORE!” it dives headfirst into the box and starts screeching unintelligible sounds. The cereal box shakes back and forth briefly before falling off the back of the counter. Then words flash on the screen: “BUY NOW! TELL MOMMY! SHE CANNOT DENY THIS! ONLY WE LOVE YOU!”

“Dammit, the furbeaks really are back.” Teddy rubbed his forehead. Teddy pulled a small notepad out of his pocket and wrote in it. “I didn’t think they’d return so soon.” He turned to me. “See how they stoke rage? Cunning and subtle little beasts. Think about it, haven’t people around here been crankier over the past several weeks?”

My mind flashed back to the school bus driver forcing a little old lady who was driving too slowly off the road and beating the hood of her car with his shoes for a good fifteen minutes. And the checkout lady at the grocery store eating an expired coupon during a shouting match with the customer trying aggressively to redeem it. And me coming home from school to find my dad burning a pile of my toys in the backyard because I left them on the floor of my bedroom overnight.

“Well, my parents have been pretty normal, but yeah, some people have been kind of on edge.”

“Exactly. And you can be sure they all live here.” Teddy replied. “Furbeaks are bat-hockey crazy.”

“Bat…hockey?”

Teddy narrowed his eyes. “Yes. Filthy words lead to unclean minds.” Teddy muted the TV and sat back. “Verdant Acres is by far the largest concentration of people in the area. The furbeaks stand to reap a lot more emotional energy.”

“How are those things running cables?” I asked. “Do they even have thumbs?” Or elbows?”

“Once they get established in a TV station’s back room, it’s easy to accumulate enough emotional energy to hire a few contractors. Money and power always find each other.” He nodded at the TV. “Look how smooth they are.” On the TV, two furbeaks are taking turns violently stabbing a fashion doll with screwdrivers while “BUY YOUR LOOKS AND KILL YOUR GODS” flashes on-screen. One of them catches fire but doesn’t seem to notice.

“Yeah, I can see that.” I said. I could somehow hear their shrieks and bellows despite the TV being silenced.

Teddy shook his head. “A master class in manipulation.”

“I don’t need any help wanting cereal.” Freddy giggled from his sofa.

Teddy turned to the news channel, where several white men in suits were yelling over each other. He flipped the big red switch on the remote again.

Three red furbeaks are on the counter. They are holding aerosol hair spray cans and are encircling some small plastic trees, like you might use with a model railroad. “OZONE LAYERS ARE TRICKS!” It gives a second furbeak a face full of hair spray. “THINGS YOU DON’T WANT TO HEAR ARE EVIL LIES!”

“KILL THE LIE WITH TRUTH!” howls the third furbeak. Somehow it lifts a full-sized pitching wedge with a large sign glued to it marked “TRUTH” from behind the counter and starts swatting at the trees, sending them flying. “MORE TRUTH! MORE!” The other two furbeaks are sent shrieking across the studio. One bounces off of the camera lens. On the screen flashes “TRUTH IS ALWAYS PLEASANT AND COMFORTABLE. CRUSH ALL THAT CONTRADICTS. STOP WASHING YOUR SOCKS.”

Teddy and I both slowly turned to look at Freddy, who folded his feet up under him. “Medieval socks didn’t bend either,” he muttered.

Teddy changed the channel again. It was a weather forecast. A man was gesturing over a map of the country while watching himself off-screen.

“And if you live in California, there are tornadoes. Tornadoes everywhere. You should probably– wait. That’s the wrong card, Seth.” A pause. “It is too! Look at it! It says ‘Oklahoma” on it! Get it together and learn what’s important.” He looked at the camera with a smile. “Anyway, if you live in California, the weather’s going to be pretty nice. Surf’s up!” He gave an exaggerated thumbs-up sign and winked.

Teddy flipped the switch.

This furbeak is pink and has a claw hammer duct-taped to each hand-flipper. “BUILD A TABLE NOW! HIT THE NAIL! HIT! HARDER!” it starts pounding on a board with a screw sticking out of it that had been lowered from above by a rope. The board swings out with each hit and back to strike the furbeak in the face, which causes it to flail about with increasing violence. “THE BOARD HURTS! I CURSE IT! I CURSE IT ALL!” It drops the hammers and starts biting the screw. The board begins to rise out of frame, taking the furbeak with it Its feet and hands flail as it shrieks in rage.. Foam drips from its beak. The words “SHE KNOWS YOUR SHAME. MITRE THE FEAR AWAY” flash on-screen.

“This is worse than I thought. They haven’t infested a TV station, but the whole cable provider.” Teddy was scribbling furiously in his notebook.

“I need a table next to me. For stuff.” Freddy was very agitated and thumbing through a hardware catalog.

“I’ve never seen it this bad.” said Teddy. He changed the channel again, this time to a daytime talk show.

The host was interviewing several well-dressed white people. A man in a tuxedo was talking. The caption on the bottom of the screen identified him as Thaddeus Killmillington IV.

“Look, it’s not that I hate poor people. You’re great! You clean my houses, cook my lunches, and raise my children. There’s definitely a place for you. You can even be funny! My driver got lost and we went through a bad part of town and there was a, what are they called? ‘bag lady?’ I dunno, one of them standing on the corner, wearing these terrible rags, these blue jeans and a shirt like they wear at one of those hamburger places. pushing TWO of those baby carts! And crying like she was a baby herself! I mean, she was easily fifteen, sixteen years old! And all I could think was, if you’re going to have babies left and right, then work harder, flip more burgers, get a nice condo!” The audience whoops and cheers. “Am I right? You know I’m right! Those people, I swear, they’re having litters like they’re rats. I got a good laugh out of that.”

More whoops and laughter. A man in overalls yelled, “You tell it, Thad!”

Thad continued. “I sometimes feel guilty about where I am. But, I mean, I worked hard to get here! I only had my trust fund when I was a kid, so I had to hustle and network with the golfers at my dad’s club. I had to work on that old man for a good week before he loaned me the money to start my own investment firm. Not a lot, just a few mil. I even sold the house he gave me when I turned eighteen for a little extra upfront to show investors! So I know sacrifice and struggle. I’m a self-made man. And if I can do it, anyone can!” The audience roared. ‘Right, anyone! You just have to do the work. No one wants to do the work.”

Several “Yeahs” echoed from the audience. “We love you Thad!” screamed one woman. “You’re one of us!” bellowed a man in the back.

Thad took a sip of water from a crystal glass. “And that’s why I’m running for Senate. Well, It also seemed like fun, I gotta admit.” He winked. “I have a three-point-plan to get the economy going again. First, cut entitlements! No freeloaders!” The audience was getting louder and more excited. “Then we cut taxes! I have a progressive plan where the more you make, the more you keep!” The cheers were like a roar. ”And third, deregulation! All tried and tested strategies that are proven to work. Reagan proved it, but those people, they won’t listen!”

The crowd tries to rush the stage, but police in riot gear storm out of the wings and bludgeon them mercilessly. This does not dampen their excitement at all, as the back ranks press forward over those in front who have fallen. “Just look at me!” Thad screamed over the din. “I’m proof that people get what they deserve!”

There’s a sudden cut, and everyone is on a different stage, wearing different clothes. The host starts speaking like nothing had happened. “Thad, the topic is ‘Billionaires Talk About Their Favorite Yachts.”

“Right, right. I like the “Diamond Pile IV.’ It has a dock in the middle where I can park my smaller yachts for when I want to go on an escapade from my vacation for a week or two.”

The audience roared again. Teddy flipped the switch.

Two furbeaks sit on the counter. One is purple, the other bright yellow. They both begin screaming incoherently. The purple one picks up a blowtorch and starts setting the set on fire while the yellow one starts stabbing a pile of toy money with a large barbecue fork.

“POVERTY IS BLISS! MONEY IS SADNESS! HAPPINESS COMES FROM HARD WORK! WORK HARDER!” They begin to dance and shriek. “INVADE PARK PLACE! THE TOP HAT IS YOURS BY DIVINE RIGHT!” The cash catches fire and they both start wildly kicking it around the burning set. A light rig falls over in the background. “POOR PEOPLE ARE LAZY AND STEAL FROM YOU!” A third furbeak shows up with a fire extinguisher. “FOOD STAMPS ARE WHY YOU AREN’T RICH, YOUR MERIT OUTWEIGHS ALL” flashes on the screen as everything disappears behind a cloud, except for a furbeak riding the extinguisher around like a rocket.

Teddy shook his head in admiration. “True masters of manipulation. It’s like watching Beethoven compose the “Star Wars’ theme.”

For some reason I was reminded of my third grade gym teacher, who repeatedly tried to teach us a variant of football he’d invented where we used baseball bats instead of protective equipment. There was no ball. He was fired after the teachers turned him in when he spent the betting pool on malt liquor and tiny powdered donuts.

Something was bothering me. “You said the furbeaks are back- what happened to them before?”

Teddy scratched his head. “Back when I was twelve or so, before I moved here, there was an outbreak in the city. It was kinda similar– an affluent suburb got free cable as a part of an “experiment.” Within days they had formed a homeowner’s association and were trying to organize a sweep of a homeless encampment across the river and turn a low-income housing project into a golf course.” His eyes grew distant. “It was a dark, dark time.”

“It’s hard to get irrational fear and anger like that out of people’s heads once it’s taken root. Sometimes the best you can do is cut off the source of the poison and let it shrivel as more balanced and reasonable information takes its place.” Teddy glanced out the window at the sky. “So I found the source.”

“That time they were piggybacking on a local channel’s signal. It was easy to triangulate the source once we knew where to look for it. I got some friends together and we rode our bikes to this old trainyard near where the factories are. We kicked in the door and there was the studio. A bunch of furbeaks were staring at us, before starting to shriek and run mindlessly about. They’re as cowardly as they are loud. My friends and I had brought bats, golf clubs, any kind of sports equipment you can hit something with. Alicia brought a cricket bat. Never asked if her dad found out she’d taken it.” Teddy chuckled.

“Furbeaks can’t be reasoned with. They have no morals or compassion, just an insatiable hunger for power and influence. So we charged in and started bashing. Those little furballs were howling and exploding as they bounced off of the walls. After they were smashed or had fled, we destroyed the equipment and went home.”

I grimaced. “Smashed? Sounds gory.”

Teddy laughed. “It really wasn’t. They’re just little robots. Loud toys that spew vitriol.”

“So is that what we have to do? Track them down and wreck them again?”

“Absolutely. We just need to trace where they are broadcasting from and wreck everything.” Teddy reached into his backpack and pulled out what looked like a digital multitester. He plugged it into the back of the customized cable box and after a moment, jotted down some numbers in his notebook. “That’s the frequency they’re using to piggyback on the satellite feeds.” He then held up the device and took a few steps around the room, holding it up and watching the display. “And there it is. It’s close, I think in this park.”

I heard loud noises from outside. I looked out of a window to see utter chaos. People were breaking into each other’s trailers and fighting over the loot in the streets: TVs, stereos, trash bags stuffed full of food, anything they could get their hands on. Some were running around with American and Confederate flags as well as signs painted on things like bedsheets and hunks of cardboard saying things like “FOOD STAMPS = COMMUNISM,” “IMMIGRATION IS THE ANT CHRIST” and “DOES ANYONE HAVE A TABLE SAW I CAN BORROW.”

I heard Teddy whistle over my shoulder. “We need to get moving.”

“How will we get through the crowd?”

“Don’t worry, I can help.” Freddy was digging in one of the back bedrooms, which seemed full of tall green plants and bright lights. I wondered why he needed so much corn. After a minute he walked back out with something in his arms. “Forgot to return this after I left my last job.”

Teddy cackled. “It’s perfect. Something any American will respect.”

Minutes later we were driving back out of the trailer park, people jumping out of the way of the jeep and the familiar red and blue logo of the “Donny Joe’s Pizza” lightbox on the hood. “No one likes lukewarm pizza.” Teddy had said. For once I wholeheartedly agreed with his idea.

Teddy deftly steered the jeep around the streets with his right hand, swerving around the people in the streets while simultaneously watching the tracking device he held in his left as the lights on it blinked faster and faster. I watched the pandemonium unfold as it sped by us.

“It’s close.” Teddy said.

The bleak tan daylight of the trailer park got somehow thicker, and almost painful in its intensity. I started feeling dizzy again, like when we entered. ”Teddy, something’s wrong.”

Teddy shook his head. “I’m feeling it too. The park must be working with the furbeaks. They both feed off of human misery, after all. And the best way to have a steady supply is to keep a farm of people ignorant and angry at your chosen scapegoat.”

We stopped rather suddenly at the end of a cul-de-sac, at what looked to be two trailers duct-taped together lengthwise, with a large satellite dish atop it.

“It’s so quiet here. No one rioting or looting or anything.” I peered at the closed windows.

“This is where they dump the immigrants. In the oldest trailers no one wants, in a place no one cares about. A good place to hide an illicit operation.” Teddy shaded his eyes from the glaring sun.

“At least, I hope this is it,” Teddy said. “I don’t have time to deal with any of the other stuff going on in here right now.”

“You mean like that dancing fro-”

“WE DO NOT SPEAK OF THE DANCING FROG.” Teddy was rubbing his temples. We both struggled to stand as we felt like we weighed twice as much. The air was thick, like the milkshakes my grandma would make. Her secret was classroom paste.

Teddy pulled a couple of shovels from the small bed at the back of the jeep. He tossed one to me, followed by a pair of goggles. “It’s going to be crazy in there.” he warned.

“And we’re going to make it a lot crazier.”

Teddy barked a laugh. “Damn straight. There’ll be plastic eyeballs stuck in the ceiling.”

We started toward the steps leading into the trailer. The air grew thicker, like a giant hand was pushing us back. We could only move through great effort. Teddy had it a little easier as he was bigger and stronger. Kids like me wouldn’t have a chance here.

I couldn’t move at all. I could barely breathe. Teddy was a step ahead of me, straining to reach the railing on the trailer’s steps. After a moment, he stopped moving too.

For an instant, I felt despair. We were trapped, at the mercy of the park. Maybe we’d have to live here. Maybe we’d have to die here. Down the street I saw people fighting over what were trivial amounts of food, trinkets that would break in a few years. I closed my eyes, and there were the tiny, forlorn bikes I saw when I arrived, unable to be ridden. I saw the little eyes of countless children watching me from dozens of windows. I felt their desperation, that they didn’t even recognize because it was all they’d ever known. And after all of that, I felt a new emotion.

Rage.

I was screaming. I felt like I should be forming words, but I didn’t have any. All I knew was that if I didn’t find a way to deny this oppressive, crushing weight, a lot more would be lost today than just two nosy kids entangled in something much bigger than them. These stupid loud animals, this insane trailer park, it didn’t devour anger, I realized. Emotions were just the seasoning. These things ate something far more precious. One of the most precious things anyone can have.

It ate their futures.

I don’t know if I somehow got stronger, or if my emotions somehow eroded the power of the park, but I began to move again. Inch by inch, I caught up to Teddy. I ripped every breath from the greedy grasp of the trailer bark, hissing them through clenched teeth.

Finally my hand closed around the railing for the stairs, and the resistance broke. I almost fell down with the sudden freedom to move. Teddy stepped up beside me, panting. “How did you do that?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I just got…mad, I guess?” I’d never felt angry before. I’d never been allowed to.

I looked up. The sky was blue again.

Teddy stepped up to the door. He knocked very gently. Then he kicked in the door.

I got my shovel ready.

The trailers had had all of their interior walls removed, making them into one huge room. It was set up like a TV studio, down to the lights, several home video cameras, and various electronics on one wall. It was well-appointed, all -in-all: New appliances and furniture were scattered about.The furbeaks were gathered around the beige counter I’d seen on Freddy’s TV. Three were on it using a cheese grater on a basketball while one of them was screeching some nonsense about voter fraud. They froze when they saw us.

“ALOHA YOU FUZZY FOOTBALLS! WHO WANTS KICKED THROUGH A WINDOW?” Teddy charged in and started bouncing furbeaks off the walls. They started screeching even louder and running around the room.

I stepped in behind him, raising my shovel as I approached a pink furbeak in the corner. It turned to face me, showing huge, blue eyes. Its beak trembled as it stared into my eyes. I hesitated. Maybe they just needed to be understood. May we could learn to toler–

It jumped up and bit me on my hand.

I screamed, flailing about as the little demon squealed around its mouthful of my flesh. I had dropped the shovel, so I slammed it against a file cabinet until it flew apart. I saw one of its eyes when I bent back down to pick up the shovel, and I made sure to crush it under my shoe as I strode forward.

The next ten minutes were a chaotic blur. Teddy smashed a furbeak in a director’s chair. I flattened three with my shovel. Teddy pushed over the refrigerator and crushed three hiding under a box. I shoved one in a microwave and set it to “popcorn,” then hopped around the room crushing tiny furry robots like empty soda cans. And yes, Teddy kicked one through a closed window, using his steel-toed combat boots to full effect.

Then it was over. I stood panting, surveying the carnage. Chunks of fur and smashed circuit boards littered the room. Smashed windows were everywhere. The ceiling fan spun lopsidedly due to a blue furbeak being impaled on one of its blades. The microwave was on fire.

“Why do robots even have a microwave?” I wondered aloud. I heard a flush and saw Teddy stomping furry bodies into the blue water of the toilet. He finished and walked over to me.

“I think that’s all of them.” Teddy swung his shovel over his shoulder. I noticed it had acquired several dents, as well as many scratches in its olive drab paint. I noticed mine was worn some now as well.

Teddy looked around the well-appointed room. “They have some nice stuff here.” He said.

“What do tiny robots need with this stuff?” I peered at some sort of workout equipment. “SlavicFlex? I think I saw that on TV.”

“It’s not about need.“ Teddy replied. “It’s about getting. Having things that others can’t get. It’s a real thrill to a lot of people too.” He absent-mindedly picked up a crystal sculpture from a table and looked it over. “Entitlement.”

The trailer began to shake and groan. The ceiling and walls began to bow inward, as if the structure was being compressed by a giant fist. The power began to flicker. Lights and rigging started to fall around us, shoved out of place by the imploding trailer. The light outside started to dim. I ran through the crashing debris and reached the front door, but it wouldn’t budge. It looked like the frame of the door had warned and jammed it into place.

“Teddy!” I yelled, looking around through the flickering light. Across the trailer, something burst into flame. I heard coughing and followed it to behind a sofa, where Teddy was pinned under a lighting rig.

“Help me!” he cried. I grabbed the end of the metal and between the two of us managed to shift it off of him. He staggered to his feet.

“The door is stuck!” I yelled as we stumbled toward it. Teddy leaned back and kicked it. A sound, somewhere between howling wind and a monstrous roar echoed from outside. The light grew even darker.

“I can’t do it alone, my leg is hurt!” Teddy yelled. “I need you to help me!”

“I’m scared!” I yelled. I kept glancing over my shoulder, watching the trailer crumple and collapse toward us, adding its own roar to the cacophony..

“Listen to me! It’s okay to be scared. I’m scared! But this trailer park wants to eat us, just like it’s eating everyone else who lives here. It’s a parasite, a monster. And that makes me mad as hell. That’s why I always kick in the doors. SO IT KNOWS I KNOW I CAN HURT IT.” Teddy struggled to be heard over the din. “Find your anger! Let it protect you! Think of all the pressure in your life, all of the frustration and unfair shit! GET MAD WITH ME AND LET’S KICK THIS SON OF A BITCH!”

I kicked the door like it was a soccer ball. It hurt.

“No, plant your foot and stomp forward!” I remembered how Teddy did it. My body tried to freeze. I got frustrated. It was all too much. I felt that small spark of rage inside of me, frozen away inside of a glacier of fear. I thought of the faces of my bullies and tormentors, I thought about being left behind. The flame exploded.

“LET ME OUT!” I screamed. Teddy jumped back in surprise. I slammed the sole of my worn sneaker against the door. “I WON’T LET YOU HAVE THIS!” Kick. “I WON’T LET YOU HAVE US!.” Kick. “I SWEAR TO ALMIGHTY GOD I WILL COME BACK HERE AND DESTROY YOU TRAILER BY TRAILER YOU MOTHERF–”

BAM! The door smashed open and fell onto the ground outside. Teddy lost no time in dragging me, still screaming, through the open doorway. Outside it was suddenly still, and calm, and sunny.

We turned to view the trailers. They crumpled like a big wad of aluminum foil, compacting tighter and tighter. The size of a basketball, a softball, a golf ball, then, as a tiny silver dot, it vanished with a soft “pop.”

I was still panting as Teddy led me to the jeep. I stared, as we silently drove the cluttered but now-empty streets, shell-shocked by my own emotions.

I was surprised by the lack of the typical discomfort I felt as we approached the entrance. The park was remarkably easy to navigate- I could have sworn there were many more twists and turns on the way in. The trip was much quicker too- all in all it was almost like being in an everyday residential neighborhood.

“It’s different,” I said.

“The park wants us gone,” Teddy replied. “It’s afraid.”

I laughed. “You make lots of people afraid, Teddy.”

“Not of me. It’s afraid of you.”

“Me?” I squeaked in astonishment.

“Yeah, you. You stood up to it. You overpowered it.” Teddy looked into my eyes. “Twice.”

“Anyone could have done that.”

“I didn’t.” Teddy had never seemed so serious. “You did. Of everyone in that trailer park, which is a fluctuating quantity of infinity, only you did. And now it wants you gone. You’re a threat it can’t crush or capture.”

I blinked. I had that much power? For some reason I thought of home, and school.

I didn’t know what to say.

Thirty-two years later, I still don’t.

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 flouted the laws of both man and nature with the casual ease, expertise, and lack of consequence of a career Senator.

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 stuffing a backpack with Mountain Dew, Doritos, a sandwich, Mountain Dew, a compass, and more 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. A ghost werewolf. But lightning struck their VW Bus and disrupted the ritual so they instead summoned Bloody Mary, who inhabited the rear-view 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 over-encumbered 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 bags and pouches full of random items while trying not to slide off the back fender of a dirt bike. I hadn’t seen such hopping across treacherous terrain since the news cornered the CEO of the local plutonium refinery. 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 had such better judgment 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, a few nearby groundhogs 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 that 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. I was sure I had been on the bike for forty years and was late for an Important Meeting at the office. At some point, we stopped. I slid from the fender and thumped onto the ground without ever leaving the fetal position I had long since 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 Cheez-it 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 from what looked to be a cut-up monogrammed leather bowling ball bag 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 vague shape of a human 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 that might be.

“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, often in response to mentioning my notebook full of solitary rules for board games.

I was brought back to the present by a chill on the back of my neck. I couldn’t move. “Teddy…” I managed to croak out.

“Don’t move.” Teddy said, gingerly moving toward me with his arms extended.

“I can’t move.” I pointed out.

“Well don’t can’t move less. The ghost is sniffing you. It’s making sure you’re not a werewolf.” Teddy fired a blast of deodorant over my shoulder. “We mean you no harm, ghost. We come in peace to run off a skunk ape.”

“Todd.” came a pitch-perfect eerie voice from behind me.

“Okay, Todd. How can we help you move on? What’s your unfinished business?”

“Titty mags” came the bowel-shrinking voice.

Teddy nodded. “We are all bound to what we treasure in life. There’s a certain romance there. Perhaps even poetry.”

“Fear not, old soul. I shall send you into the light.” Teddy reached into my fanny pack and pulled out another lighter. He took a deep breath and stepped further back into the cave. I saw a flicker of light, then the pile of old magazines started burning. It seemed every time I thought the smell could not possibly get worse, it did in spades.

Teddy lit another blast of deodorant and lit the ghost on fire again, chanting strange words. “Et-gay Ost-lay.” The flames puffed out.

I could move again. “What did you say?” 

“That was Latin. It’s too difficult to explain.” He took a few gasping breaths of the relatively cleaner air closer to the cave entrance.

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

“Well, maybe not that odd. The ghost might have been driving him from the cave.” He punctuated his sentence with another drink of the Mountain Dew. “Skunk apes are related to werewolves, so they are extra sensitive to ghosts.” 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 commercial 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 Soda, or MEDS.’ 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 week-long 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 figure. 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. 

I twitched slightly, something that would continue for the next several weeks and be mentioned in a neurology paper.

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 surf 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 MEDS-boosted 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 panelling 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 afterwards like they had with sock hops and MTV before.

The skunk ape’s heart and central nervous system, already outperforming the pistons in the cars behind it, goes full speed 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 his MEDS drink 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 headed for Florida on a freight train, and the consensus is that it 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 heat.

“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 a 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 would buy him absolutely anything he wanted when he was around. He once bought him an emu. 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 in the county was consumed. There were more roaches than in 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 them 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 quickly ignited. The flames rapidly grew until they were ten feet above the top of the forty foot heap. 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 all 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 playing with 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?”

My eyes grew wide as I tried to find words.

“We want to get two for next year.” The sheriff continued.

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.

On paid content…

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But never fear!

In the near (couple weeks-ish) future, we will be previewing FULL POSTS for your mighty consumption! Every week we will cycle a new post for your mighty consumption, so that you can make your decisions with the confidence of the Thunder Deities you are!

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The Pudgemoon Chronicles, Vol 1

Greetings Brainiacs, our first fantasy serial is up and running. Titled “The Pudgemoon Chronicles”, it details the life and adventures of mighty titans and evil science-wizards! Action! Magic! Bonemauls! Whale Mammoths! Subscribe to the Patreon to get full access to the serial!

On the insignificant moon of Pudge, one of many satellites trapped in the seventh orbit of an unnamed star, all was peaceful. The green canopy overhead danced with ethereal light as the planetary disk cast its minty glow across the forest. Birds and other things whistled and squealed, disrupting the treetops with their antics, as below giant cats hunted silently through the shadows. Lemursnakes jumped from branch to branch, arguing over the bright orange clusters of fruit sprouting from low-hung limbs. Whispers of fog reached up through the brush, obscuring the tiny birds brave enough to feast upon fat red berries in the underbrush. Boaruins, massive yet docile bear-boar hybrids, snored with their families in their dens, honking peacefully through the day. This day was, by and large, sickeningly perfect, with the billowy cotton candy clouds and warm (but not too humid) air. Suddenly, cutting through the midmorning chatter of the jungle, came the calamity of Norge Beefhammer…