TJ Moore Books

You can't spell "fame" without ME.

- CHASE JACKSON, FAMOUS GUY

LISTEN TO THE SHORT STORY - 35 MIN. FREE AUDIO BOOK

HOLLYWOOD PRANKSTERS

A Short Story by TJ Moore

     Tabloids have clear motives. They exist to make money. It’s a simple formula that has worked ever since the first bully wrote a nasty insult on the inside of a bathroom stall then charged people a dollar to keep quiet about it. This cultural phenomenon always fascinated Chase Jackson. He appreciated tabloids because he understood the people who ran them. They weren’t too different from him, either.

     While shoppers wait in line at the grocery store, they can’t help but read those bold, yellow headlines. Cancer scare! Weight-gain! Divorce drama! So and so is now a woman!

     These rumors target famous names and remind us that no one is safe from ridicule. It doesn’t matter how many albums or movie tickets the voice of a musician or the face of a movie star has sold. There will always be someone waiting for them to fail. And in the dry spells when they don’t fall on their face, the tabloids go to their teams of low-life writers to cook up something scandalous. That’s the part Chase liked the most: the creation of the monsters, those snarling lies that took on a life of their own.

     But he didn’t think those bottom-feeding writers were journalists. They were marketing experts. They knew exactly what their audience wanted. Shock. Horror. Surprise. Disgust. It’s interactive media; and more than that, it’s intoxicating.

     For many tabloids, no subject is taboo. Politicians and royalty are some of their favorite and most widely exploited victims, proving not even world leaders hold sacred reputations in the eyes of vultures like TMZ or The National Inquirer.

     Chase had a similar approach to pranking people. He loved the interaction that took place between the prankster and the prankstee. His taste for this bizarre and rewarding hobby developed through his friendship with Alex.

     Chase and Alex became friends when they turned eleven at a science competition in Portland, Oregon. They were assigned to work together as partners on a nature project. After seeing how predictable and boring their classmates’ projects were: a volcano, a mini hot air balloon, and teaching a frog how to jump through a hoop; the two middle-schoolers decided to do something original, something devious. Through their teamwork, they perfected the art of lying.

     And it all started with Chase.

     He told the science teacher they were conducting an experiment with a catapult and a rubber-band ball. Apparently, they wanted to see how far their catapult could fling the ball across the school parking lot. As promised, the stunt seemed innocent, even harmless.

     But there was a catch. There always is.

     Chase told the teacher he needed the group of students and teachers to stand in a clumped group between a marked-off section of the parking lot for safety reasons. When the teacher seemed skeptical of his plan, Chase used puppy-dog eyes and a Benjamin Franklin to seal the deal. Gullible people never got in his way. No. Dealing with gullible people allowed Chase to always get his way. Trusting, naïve people never thought through events far enough to stop the mania from taking place.

     Chase believed that most people didn’t think beyond the next fifteen minutes of life. He also assumed that most people were simpletons. They didn’t need a lot of validation or attention; they just needed rewards.

     He thought people gave themselves rewards to get through the day: snacks, phone breaks, even mini-pep talks. And without these rewards, he bet most people would be completely lost, shifting their files at work in a monotonous struggle against fears of losing their jobs.

     For Chase, the business of pranking people worked so well because it actively interrupted people’s personal reward cycles. A well-conceived, well-executed prank threw a big ol’ wrench into the constant motor of the average man, pulling the man out of his half-dead existence into a higher state.

     Of course, the consequences of a kick-ass prank ranged from anger to laughter. But either way, when it worked, when a prank clicked on all cylinders (like the powerful engine of his brand new Ferrari), Chase became fully alive.

     A truly great and unexpected prank was more valuable than fame or wealth because the resulting glee couldn’t be sealed in a jar. It couldn’t be sold on a shelf. Capitalism couldn’t touch it. Besides, even if it did exist in physical form, the radioactive energy of a truly great prank would be crackling acid, strong enough to eat away steel. Whether or not a truly great prank was appreciated right away, the power of the Internet gave it incredible influence, spreading Chase’s message of anti-predictability.

     Chase saw past the denial of responsible adults who clung to predictable outcomes. Others called this “settling” or “getting into a rut.” Chase called this fucking boring.

     The attitude of “better than thouhad nothing to do with growing up. For Chase, adulthood was all about curiosity and freedom. And freedom was the opposite of predictable. Real freedom was electric.

     He learned at a young age that you have to spend money to make it. Looking back on their scheme, Chase and Alex thought it was worth well over a hundred dollars. They never told anyone their real plan. No one would have believed them.

     The idea for their first prank came when Alex called his classmates chickens. His exact words were, “This school is full of poultry. They all run around like chickens with their heads cut off. It makes me sick.”

     For some reason, this phrase lodged itself in Chase’s eleven-year-old mind. Staying, growing, a clever sense formed from practically nothing—the result, as most things were, of a simple idea. He famously called this idea, his first viral prank since it spread like wildfire across the Portland community and later, the World Wide Web. Chase had always been relieved that technology preceded his brilliance just in time to make it accessible to the rest of the world.

     Right up until the day of the science fair, Chase and Alex tested their trusty catapult with the same, worn rubber-band ball. Since the catapult actually worked effectively, Alex had to run after the ball and find it before resetting the device. While Alex played human fetch, Chase made bets with other students during lunchtime about how far the catapult could launch the ball. A few students bet fifty or sixty dollars and lost their money when Chase added a two-foot extension to the catapult’s arm. This additional length gave the machine even more launching strength.

     To Chase’s surprise, one student was willing to bet two hundred dollars that they couldn’t put the ball through the basketball hoop. The odds were low enough, but the bet included another dimension. For Chase to win the money, the machine had to send the ball over the baseball fence and into the basketball hoop without hitting the rim.

     So, for once in his life, Chase actually studied some basic geometry and algebra, calculating the exact distance the catapult needed to be from the fence to make the hoop.

     He decided the best time to perform their stunt was the day before the science fair. That way, the impossible bet would draw a crowd and get people talking. That was, if it worked.

     Chase never thought he’d use real science to score cash, but when he showed Alex the blueprints for the catapult’s secret trajectory, Alex approved them. As if Chase needed an ego boost, Alex’s approval gave him just enough hope that the machine just might work.

     When he first came up with the idea for the prank, Chase planned to do it during the science fair. But the crowd of students asking about the “Hoop Bet” grew and grew, until lunchtime conversations buzzed with the name Chase Jackson and his ingenious invention. He was deemed the catapult kid.

     As the excitement in the school escalated, Chase used his quick wit to make a decision. They already had everything they needed. In the midst of all the anticipation, he didn’t want disappoint. Chase signaled Alex to meet him outside. A group of students watched them leave and immediately left their lunch trays, following like a herd of dumb sheep. Then another herd followed, and another. Even the lunch supervisors wanted to see what the hell was going to happen. It became an event.

     Chase somehow, even at eleven years old, had a natural talent for marketing. Without posters, T-shirts, or newspaper ads, he started a revolution of interest among the students, fully utilizing the influence attainable only through word-of-mouth.

     The event mimicked the classic duel of an American Western film with each man representing his simple claims with money and a pistol. But instead of a firearm, Chase had a much funnier plan for the duel. He felt confident that the plan he conceived was more cunning than his counterpart. The plan was risky, even a little dangerous; but that’s what made it so damn exciting.

     At high noon, the audience of students, six-graders and eighth-graders alike, stood next to one another just on the other side of the baseball fence, anxiously awaiting the ultimate bet. And to most, it seemed impossible. Some of them thought Chase was stupid for promising the idea in the first place. Some of them thought Chase was stupid in general. But those kids didn’t know him very well.

     As the son of a lawyer, Chase understood the importance of having these kinds of agreements in writing. Even the old Westerns included details of contracts of some sort, most of them signing off on property of land or woman post-duel. His betting opponent, however, was not aware of legally binding contracts. Nothing had been drawn up. They never shook on the bet either, giving Chase the upper hand. There were no rules for this stunt, and that’s how he wanted it.

     Chase wheeled out the catapult, placing it on the exact spot from his calculations. Alex set up an ice cooler a few feet away.

     Even though some students had empty bellies, they didn’t budge, eyes glued to the contraption. Their locked gaze breached the baseball fence, and a few of them held their breath. Finn McGuire held air in his lungs long enough to turn purple. As the tension built, Chase knew he had them in the palm of his hand. They were his first captive audience.

     And with this much interest, they weren’t going anywhere. Chase had them right where he wanted.

     Still, a few students couldn’t believe what they were about to see. A handful of doubtful whispers floated across the crowd: He’ll never make it. What a Looney-Tune. Such a tiny ball, such a huge distance, into such a basket-shaped goal? There was just no way.

     Finn McGuire’s doubtful whisper was more like a soft taunt. When he spoke, it came out in a pitiful squeak: “Epic fail alert.”

     With all the other talking, not many of the students heard Finn’s taunt. But Chase heard it. He heard it loud and clear.

     Alex continued to set up the cooler.

     The students and lunch supervisors came for a show, and Chase believed it was his obligation, his responsibility as a blooming prankster to put on the best goddamn show they’d ever seen. One for the record books. A show they’d never forget. He especially wanted to prove those hecklers wrong; hecklers like Finn McGuire.

     Murmurs from the crowd muffled into a dull roar as the exhilaration became whipped and frothy, ready to serve.

     Though overcast moments before, the sky switched gears and the sun peaked over the silver lining of a puffy cloud. The striking brightness of the beam forced the students to squint their eyes, blinding the crowd temporarily.

     Chase looked at Alex.

     Alex looked at Chase.

     Then, the mayhem began.

     Chase loaded chicken eggs in as fast as he could, placing them in the device one revolution at a time, following the machine’s rhythm: Swoop, egg. Swoop, egg. The catapult spun like the wind-up of a pitcher’s arm on a revolving, nonstop loop. Splat after splat after splat after splat. And the hits just kept coming, all of them continuous, fast pitches.

     The machine came to play.

     Alex filmed the whole thing. He zoomed in to capture a few brutal close-ups as shell and yoke creamed one of his classmates. The splatter from the eggs was better than Nickelodeon’s notorious green slime. Alex shook the camera with fits of laughter.

     Chase looked over to the mixed cheers and boos from the crowd, answering their distain with a wide grin. But this glory moment distracted him long enough for the sharp edge of the catapult to catch his arm, slicing it just above his wrist. Chase didn’t really feel any pain because he knew this event would somehow transcend time, making his name legendary. And legends didn’t mind a little pain. In fact, they welcomed it. Middle school Chase believed real legends were tough.

     Former heckler Finn McGuire, the runt of the bunch, weaved through the crowd of students, trying to dodge the rain of eggs. But no matter where he stood, the eggs seemed to find him like tracking missiles, staining his shirt with greasy yokes. Finn yelled out half a dozen times and caught a smattering of explosive shells right in the yapper, mid-yell. The next egg flew over the fence and mashed him in the ear, tipping him off balance.

     Finn tripped over his feet and pulled up his shirt to shield him from more chicken slime, but Chase’s aim at the helm of the catapult was absolutely spot-on. After creaming Finn with one last egg, Chase turned the catapult back on the rest of the crowd, sending his ammunition over the fence with sticky results.

     Just then, he eyed the cooler and realized he was down to his last cartoon of eggs. Loading the catapult faster than before, Chase flung out the final dozen before reaching under the device’s cart to grab a fluffy, white pillow. He mounted the pillow between his legs and ripped it open with his teeth, shedding a wing’s worth of feathers on the baseball field. It didn’t matter. The pillow was tightly packed with high quality plumes, a whole flock’s worth.

     He pulled a rubber band from his wrist and stretched it over the pillow, attaching it to the arm of the catapult. Chase knew the force of the arm’s release would snap the rubber band clean off, but there was one problem: the pillow had much more mass than the tiny eggs. Once launched, air resistance, along with gravity’s threat to pull it down before clearing the top of the fence, would slow the pillow’s flight. And so, to counteract these physical limitations, Chase climbed onto the catapult cart, straddled it, and pressed his full body weight into the automated slingshot. He twisted his elbow underneath to act as the final lever, giving the device an extra boost.

     Chase took a deep breath, and when he rolled his fingers off the contraption, the arm clawed the air, scraping him across the chin. Startled, he leaped off the machine a split-second before it took his head off, just in time to watch the pillow clear the fence and unload its shower of white feathers.

     Some of the students saw Chase load the final payload and ran along the fence to evade their full transformation into humanoid-chickens. Other students, including Finn McGuire weren’t so lucky as their sneakers slipped and sloshed on the raw goop in the grass. With no wind to interfere, the feathers floated down in a universal blanket of shame, clinging to the sopping students like pasty dryer fuzz.

     At this point, Alex had lost control of his knees as his uncontrollable laughter turned them to putty, shaking them until they pounded into the raked dust of the baseball field. Tears from his fits of laughter blurred the camera viewfinder inches away from his nose, but he continued to hold it up, making sure he caught it all on tape. The chicken-a-fication was way more than he could’ve imagined. It was vividly, memorably better.

     For the young prankster within Chase Jackson, the outrageous realization of Alex’s joking phrase “everyone’s chicken” was only the beginning of a huge and lucrative career. The video, WRATH OF CHICKEN BOY, grew to over one hundred million views in the first few months, then expanded to new outlets and the emerging social media platforms, becoming one of the first videos to be shared all over the world. Kids couldn’t get enough of that prank. They loved the audacity of its simple premise. Other wannabe vloggers tried to replicate the success of the prank, but only made weak copycats that missed flattery altogether, falling to a lower level of online comedy: parody.

     Alex periodically checked analytics for the chicken prank and noticed many viewers watched the video multiple times. Chase’s massive online following, the Jacksters, couldn’t get enough. It didn’t take long for him to see the obvious marketing potential, expanding his brand into an entire industry of collectible merchandise including T-shirts, mugs, and rubber chickens stamped with the Jackster logo.

     He later selected companies to sponsor, taking the highest bids. The companies wanted to put a price tag on everything Chase Jackson touched, and with double dollar signs in his eyes, Chase committed to more product development as he added a line of Jackster body spray, colorful headphones, and even red-and-white striped beanies with Chase’s signature embroidered on the front.

________

     Fueled by the wild energy that made him famous, Chase Jackson sped through the intersections of downtown Los Angeles, passing neon signs and restless souls of the Hollywood nightlife. Closing in on 112 miles per hour, he drove without fear. And tonight, adrenaline had no equal. New cars, fast cars always made him feel invincible.

     The green, yellow, and red lights flew into a blur against the city skyline. A group of drunk pedestrians scattered like cats just seconds before he zoomed through an intersection on Hollywood Boulevard. Chase noticed that one of them wore a fanny pack around his waist.

     Damn tourists, he thought. This is my town.

     The California night brought out his thrill-seeking side: a dangerous, adolescent streak that had carried over into his early twenties. But Chase didn’t care. It was time to break-in his brand-new cherry-red Ferrari 458 Italia convertible, the latest addition to his fast-car collection, which included a Lamborghini Aventado and jet-black Jaguar. Chase usually alternated between those two vehicles every other day, but now that he owned a Ferrari, he imagined the Jaguar might start to collect dust. It had a great look, but the speed capabilities paled in comparison to the two-million-dollar Ferrari.

     Faster was always better. Once you drove fast, there was no turning back. For just fifty thousand dollars (a steal by his standards), Chase added razor-chrome rims and automated parking that he’d probably never use. They just looked cool. All sizzle.

     Pressing his red Converse All Star sneaker against the pedal, he accelerated to 120mph. With a navy blue zip-up hoodie, white arcade T-shirt, and striped beanie, Chase appeared to be more patriotic than he really was. This hip style reinforced his trademark, all part of his online brand.

     With over 30 million YouTube subscribers and counting, along with his hit TV show on Comedy Central, it was too late to change his image now. The fans loved him for many reasons, but his youthful charm proved to be his most powerful asset. Unlike some stars, his charm actually increased with age. Now 21, Chase still looked 16, and he felt even younger. In Chase’s mind, his inner-kid ran the show, pressing buttons labeled RESTRICTED just to see what happened.

     Since Chase had the top down, the night air spiraled into the convertible, blowing his hair all over the place. Chase’s mirror aviators, however, didn’t budge. The red and white knit-beanie on his head kept the glasses secure. And the streetlights flickered across the aviators like a pulsing strobe, adding a kinetic movement across his face. With a strange, often misunderstood, balance between hyper and chill, Chase always seemed to be ready for the cameras. But tonight, the traffic cameras were the only ones with exclusive points of view.

     Alex Mitchell sat shotgun, gripping his armrest for dear life. He was the same age as Chase, just two weeks younger. But his recent 21st birthday didn’t really change anything. He’d been drinking and clubbing with Chase ever since their rise to stardom. And even though Alex was used to Chase’s antics, he hated fast cars, rollercoasters, or anything that could flip on a dime.

     For a moment, Alex wondered if he saw his life flash before his eyes, soon realizing they’d zipped past the fringe of the city, heading up to the hills further north. Alex thought his best friend looked like a coked-up Where’s Waldo, complete with the whimsical face that said: “Ha-ha, loser! You’ll never find me!”

     Chase Jackson tilted the rearview mirror toward his face, blinding himself from the palm-tree landscape that whizzed behind him. His waking dream of blazing around L.A. was very real.

     The Ferrari cut through the night air with aerodynamic precision. Chase had read about that feature online. More than the car, he bought it because he deserved it. The status, and yes, the undeniable thrill that came with revving the engine. In this car, time felt liquid, flowing past toward an unknown future. Chase secretly named his new vehicle The Beast. No real reason. He thought it sounded unpredictable. Wild.

     Alex turned down the radio, which blasted Crazy Train, but Chase turned it right back up to full volume, shaking his jagged brown hair in rebellious delight. He knew all the lyrics to the 1980 Ozzy classic and sang along, scrunching his nose with a rock-star sneer. His parrot bobble-head on the dashboard, a replica of his real pet bird, Echo, rocked up and down in head-banger fashion. Chase had glued the plastic parrot there just an hour before, a sort of christening ritual he did with all new vehicles. The bobble-head replica enjoyed Chase’s wild side while the real Echo, a living lucky charm, was safely perched in Chase’s trailer just outside Soundstage 14.

     As they rounded a winding road that dipped into gravel for a few miles, Chase stuck his left arm into the rushing stream of air outside the Ferrari. He did this often enough to know what happened. The wall of air fought his arm, bending it over his head. He then reached over to high five Alex, but Alex had his eyes closed. He looked like he was praying.

     “What’s wrong, man?”

     “What?!

     “Don’t you want to jam?”

     “I can’t hear you!”

     “Let’s jam, Alex!”

     “Why don’t you slow down!”

     “You’re joking right? We’ve got two million dollars of horsepower, and you want to slow down?” Chase cranked the sub-woofers to full woof, shaking the seats enough to register on the Richter scale. The rumble of gravel beneath the car kicked up waves of dust, and Chase pounded his right fist into the air. “This is the time of our lives!”

     They raced toward the Griffith Observatory and Chase yanked the steering wheel, sending the convertible into a complete doughnut. The chrome-razor rims gleamed as the tires squealed, and The Beast roared.

     Alex strained his voice over the music. “You mean the time of your life. I’m almost out of money.”

     “How? I thought…”

     “I don’t know, Chase! It just…evaporated.”

     “What are you saying? You spent it all? Is it drugs again?”

     “No, it just…”

     “Damn, Alex. I’m not gonna let you sulk, ya big baby.” Chase turned the convertible away from the observatory and headed toward the higher hills, pounding the dashboard with his fist. “We’ve got to see how this thing handles on a steeper incline.”

     The radio transitioned to Living on a Prayer.

     Chase guided them onto paved roads again, this time passing the solid yellow line, swerving around a minivan. He pulled the convertible to the left side, then twisted the wheel, almost hitting oncoming traffic.

     “Whooooo!” He laughed just before singing out the hook lyric of the Bon Jovi song.

     “Chase, slow down now!”

     “I don’t think so.”

     Tires whirring, hugging the pavement like black magnets, the convertible made the sharp turns with ease. Chase continued to give it gas as they sped uphill, gaining momentum. He zig-zagged between cars and passed two double-wide semi trucks. Turning the convertible back into opposing traffic, ready for head-on collision. Chase felt the tires bump across the safety ridges on the shoulder of the road.

     He thought the new car smelled like an expensive men’s cologne, and at this speed, the scent seemed to intensify. Chase Jackson told himself this must have been what it felt like to be James Bond. The only thing he was missing was a silencer in the glove compartment.

     Alex wanted to rip off his seatbelt and attempt a tuck-and-roll to safety, but his annoyance and fear paralyzed him. He glanced at the doors, making sure they were locked. Even Italian-made cars were fallible, and the high price tag didn’t reassure Alex about the car’s safety. He leaned back against the seat and brought his legs together, clenching his muscles to make his body more compact. The loud music made him a little dizzy. Most of his blood had rushed to his feet, which felt heavier than normal.

     Chase kept steering the car toward the edge of the road, which led to a hundred-foot drop-off. He looked over the ledge and saw a few cars driving past on the highway below.

     “Stop it, Chase! I mean it! Stop the car!”

     “No way.”

     Verooommmm. 130mph. 140mph. Lightning fast.

     Chase slowly allowed the left set of tires to creep toward the edge of the cliff; but as the road curved ahead, one of the front tires hit a pothole. The entire vehicle shifted several feet, swinging the back left tire over the edge. For a half-second, Chase heard only three tires on the road. He nudged the car right away, taking control. He moved forward in his seat, ignoring the speedometer completely as he forced the vehicle toward 160mph. The Ferrari manufacturer guaranteed a top speed of 200mph, and Chase wanted to get a run for his money.

       Alex looked in the passenger side mirror and saw only distant headlights behind them, but the sharp curves in the road gave the illusion that it was revolving in on itself, making it impossible to see oncoming drivers.

     “Two lanes!” Alex shouted. “There are two lanes here!”

     “Not tonight.” Chase felt the convertible smoothly purr to 180mph. “Tonight, we own this road. Be glad you’re along for the ride.”

     “Listen to me, Chase.” The pounding music progressed into an instrumental high point. Alex couldn’t talk fast enough. “You’re going to kill us. Get back in the right lane now!”

     “Or what?”

     “I’m serious.”

     “Seriously boring.”

     “Do it now, or I’ll do it for you!”

     Chase turned to face Alex and took one of his hands off the wheel. With the aviators and the beanie hat covering the rest of Chase’s face, Alex could see only that ultra-white Chase Jackson smile; the product of expensive braces when they were teenagers in Portland. Since the aviator sunglasses reflected only Alex’s terror-stricken face, he couldn’t see Chase’s eyes. But he imagined they were wide with insanity, a striking reminder that he was about to take them both over the edge to a violent death. Alex wasn’t ready to be roadkill. He couldn’t handle the thought of his parents scraping him off the Hollywood hills, searching for his shattered bones like archeologists.

     The next chain of events happened in no more than five seconds. Stretching into a U-shaped curve, the road seemed to vanish, sloping down just enough to reveal the grid of L.A. lights. Alex felt as if the road was pulled out from under them, leaving only a glass floor. In reality, the convertible was only inches from the cliff, skidding along the dirt ridge. The tires buffered against the slope, and Alex’s stomach dropped into his designer-torn jeans. With a careless chuckle, Chase let his other hand slip off the steering wheel just as headlights from an oncoming motorcycle came into view around the corner.

     Chase lifted his hands in the air and stretched out his fingers; The Beast now charging forward on its own will, ready to mow down anything in its path. Even over the blaring music, Alex heard the oncoming motorcycle. Displaying impressive reflexes, Alex bit his lip and reached over with both hands to take control of the unmanned steering wheel, yanking it right with all his strength.

     Now seeing the bright headlights of the two-wheel obstacle, Alex used his elbows to press down on Chase’s left leg, hoping it would catch on the break pedal. The combination of the breaking and swerving jerked the Ferrari across the narrow, two-lane road, just barely missing the motorcycle.

     The nightrider zoomed past them with a strong magnitude, and Alex saw a rider and one passenger on the bike when it passed out of sight. At such extreme speeds, the Ferrari should have flipped over itself six or eight times, throwing them from the vehicle. The hill, however, on the right side of the road acted as a shield, preventing the vehicle from spiraling into a haywire corkscrew of vertical peril.

     The right side of the convertible smashed against the rough part of the hill as Chase pressed his full weight onto the break, leading the tires into a high-pitched squeal.

     Alex was beat-red and angrier than Chase had ever seen him. “Pull over right now!”

     “Yes sir, officer, sir.” Somehow, the near-death experience didn’t phase Chase’s confidence. He shifted the rearview mirror again and saw another semi making headway from behind. “Yeah, I think we’ll just keep driving for now. Cool with you?”

     “No, Chase. It’s not cool with me.”

     “Don’t spaz right now. That truck is gonna ram us if we don’t move.” Chase went from 0-60mph in three seconds flat and redirected the banged-up convertible toward an alternate route back to the city. “Wow, man. Was that something or what?”

     “You’re unbelievable you know that?”

     “What? That was just a little midnight fun.”

     “I can’t even speak to you right now.”

     “Oh, what’s the big deal, Alex?”

     “This is why I don’t drive with you! This, your, your…”

     “Hush-up, you wet blanket. I hope you didn’t pee your pants.”

     “It’s like you have a death wish. What is this, some kind of joke to you?”

     “Of course it is. Everything’s a joke.” Chase turned the music to a normal volume to lower the overall stress level in the vehicle.

     “Look, pranks are great. Fantastic. I’m just not so excited about this level of crazy.”

     “Really, Alex, is it any higher than normal?”

     “Okay, not really. You’re right. Straight up normal crazy coming from you. What will the Jacksters say?”

     “They’ll never know.”

     “Come on, they have to know. I just saved your life.”

     “But that’s the best part. This is our secret.”

     “No, Chase. I don’t believe you. Where’s the camera?” Alex sat up and looked around. He noticed a GoPro camera attached to the back of the Ferrari. The camera was black, so it blended in with the leather interior. “You didn’t. Chase, you planned this? You wanted them to see your, what? Your cause of death? Like a living will or some bullshit like that? Look, I know you think you’re a big deal and all, but you’re not Elvis, you’re not James Dean, and you’re sure as hell not going to end up like Paul Walker. That’s for sure.”

     “Settle down. So much drama. Yikes. Don’t you get it, Alex? It’s going to be fine. You’re a hero now.”

     “So, hold on. You wanted me to save you?”

     “No, that part was an accident. I planned to do a jump off a ramp a few miles further north. That’s what I was trying to film.”

     “With that shitty angle?”

     “Oh, there’s a camera rigged to the front of the car as well.”

     “And you had to put our lives in danger to get your shot? That’s ridiculous. You’re not supposed to die that way. It’s not your time.”

     “Jeepers, Alex, you can’t deny it was going to go viral on our channel. Please calm down. We’re invincible.”

     “You might be, Chase. By some crazy leap of logic or luck, yes…you might be. But what about those other drivers back there? What about the people on the motorcycle? They aren’t invincible.”

     Chase reached in the back seat and tossed Alex a bottle of water. “Your throat sounds dry.”

     Alex shook his head, trying to contain his frustration. “Maybe it’s because I had to yell over all that heavy metal.”

     “I thought you were more hard core, man. We’ve been friends for what?”

     “Ten years. Don’t act like you forgot.”

     “Yeah, ten. Dude, I haven’t seen you freak out like this since we went to Six Flags for my sweet sixteen.”

     “Chase, I’m not sure why you’re so calm. We were almost buzzard food back there. And what if you would have killed those bikers?”

     “It’s L.A. Shit happens out here.”

     “That’s some life-sentence shit, though. Besides, you should be focused on tomorrow.”

     “Why?”

     “Hello! The one-hundredth episode. Live TV. Live for real this time. Not pre-taped. LIVE. And you know what that means? No redos.”

     “You worry too much.”

     “This isn’t like the old days. You can’t just expect to show up and see what happens.”

     Chase accelerated the Ferrari back up to 80mph and took off his aviators before addressing Alex face to face. “Adaptability, my dear Alex. I know what I’m doing. Now, I’m hungry. Let’s go get some late-night grub.”

________

     Money didn’t make their lives easier. For Chase and Alex, the topic of money was poisonous to their friendship. So, they tried to avoid the subject altogether. Unlike the privileged children of Hollywood superstars, they were not born into fame or money. Instead, each of them developed their comedy style through real experiences that would have been dull if only influenced by life in the spotlight. Much of Chase’s success with pranks relied on his ability to take ordinary situations and heighten them through the element of surprise.

     Not all of the pranks focused on public spectacle. Chase intentionally set up certain pranks to make an impression on just a few people, amping up the hilarity of reactions and humiliation.

     Some of the viral videos in this category of his channel included funny drive-thru orders, placing giant mirrors across department store entryways, flipping “open” signs to “closed,” replacing toothpaste with mustard at Walmart, and setting a paper bag of shit on fire on someone’s doorstep, the Jackster take on a rank Ding-Dong-Ditch. Other juvenile pranks featured spraying Liquid Ass inside an elevator while blaming passengers and drawing hyper-realistic chalk drawings of massive potholes to deter traffic from parking near sidewalks.

     The public’s perception of Chase’s pranks changed every time he released a new video. Some crazy fans who lived in and around L.A. desperately tried to track him down and figure out where he would make his next vlog. Chase was aware of these lunatics and purposefully kept his ideas secret until Alex uploaded the results. The partnership between Chase and Alex worked smoothly because Chase refused to deal with any technical aspects.

     When they made their first vlogs together in Portland, Alex was responsible for running the camera, editing the footage, and setting up all aspects of the YouTube channel. But this commitment kept Alex behind the scenes so often that the majority of the Jackster community forgot all about him, focusing all their attention toward Chase. No one really asked Alex if he wanted more time in front of the camera. And even when Chase received his own TV show, the network signed a contract that excluded Alex as an onscreen personality, giving Chase more influence than ever.

     Alex tried to find ways to get his name back in the Jackster brand by suggesting they combined his name into the title like Alexster or Chexster. Both Chase and the network repeatedly turned down these suggestions, ultimately assigning him to be Chase’s general manager. The title seemed to have some weight to it since Alex would be responsible for booking events and maintaining Chase’s schedule. Most of the logistics and details kept Alex busier than other staff members on the TV show. Whenever Chase appeared in commercials or other shows, Alex worked the system to make sure Chase landed the gig. He later referred to his position as the babysitter for Chase’s career.

     There were times when the job became frustrating, but Alex also received perks for his involvement. Alex sometimes pretended the constant attention from fans and strangers who recognized Chase’s face was directed toward him. Meant for him.

     With the excess in money and women, Alex found ways to make the job worth his while. At the end of the day, Chase had to choose what he wanted and who he wanted. But there were always extra. There were so many drunk girls. And most of the star-struck girls who threw themselves at the viral video master, grasping for a moment, a glance, a smile from Chase, didn’t get what they wanted. That’s where Alex swooped in, convincing dozens of girls he was Chase’s brother. Not as hot as the original Jackster himself, but some girls didn’t mind. Alex got the leftovers, and he always had room for more.

     These sexual experiences certainly distracted Alex from the pain of being number two. And when the girls didn’t satisfy him, he turned to cocaine, spending most of his money on the next high. For the last few years, that’s what his life had become: an extravagant bounce from one high to the next. Snorting coke and banging girls. If either of these vices fell into short supply, he went through withdrawal and he’d get the shakes, starting in his hands. Alex went through cocaine like it was candy, and the drugs flowed with the money. Big check, big brick of cocaine. Small check, shaky hands and nightmares.

     There were a lot of lows, too. Alex watched to make sure Chase ate enough food and got enough sleep. He often had to take responsibility for Chase’s actions, dealing with paparazzi, rumors, and scandals, some of which had elements of truth. Alex wasn’t a personal trainer though because Chase didn’t exercise. He didn’t need to exercise. Energy ran through Chase like a live wire, throwing sparks all around him. And wherever he went, Alex went. Not silent, but always there. The shadow of a major star.

Copyright © 2017 by TJ Moore

Who doesn't want to work for a mad scientist?

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LAB APPRENTICE WANTED

A Short Story by TJ Moore

Note: The following is a ‘help wanted’ column fictitiously published by a 17-year-old kid named Zach in Popular Science magazine. There is a huge picture of frizzy, red hair across the first page of the article.

$500,000 STARTING SALARY*

POSITION: EXPERIMENTAL ASSISTANT.

EDUCATION BACKGROUND: WELDING, PhD IN PHYSICS (AND ORGANIC CHEMISTRY, IF POSSIBLE).

OTHER REQUIRED SKILLS: HOLDING BREATH, HOLDING WRENCHES, JUST…UH…IF YOU CAN HOLD STUFF…YOU’RE BETTER THAN THE MONKEY I HIRED LAST YEAR FROM NASA. HE WAS AN IDIOT.

NOW, WIPE THAT ORANGE CHEETO DUST OFF YOUR FINGERTIPS. YOU DON’T WANT TO DROP THIS MAGAZINE ONTO YOUR OILY THIGHS. IT WILL SLIP RIGHT OFF AND KNOCK OVER YOUR DIET MOUNTAIN DEW. DON’T DENY IT. I CAN FEEL THE TINGLE OF CARBONATION FROM HERE. IF YOU SPILL THAT URINE-COLORED SODA, YOU WILL HAVE AN ANT INFESTATION FOR A VERY LONG TIME. I’VE BEEN THERE; AND YOU DON’T WANT THAT.

IF THE TECHNICAL JARGON IS TOO MUCH FOR YOU, KEEP READING. IT’S GOOD FOR YOU TO UNDERSTAND HOW REAL PEOPLE SOLVE REAL PROBLEMS. THAT IS, OF COURSE, IF YOU SEE TIME TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS AS A PROBLEM.

*(ACTUAL WAGES BASED ON PERFORMANCE)

———

Get this through your fat skull: I don’t hire spineless jellyfish.

A little background about myself (before you sell your soul to work for me, unconditionally* (insert evil laugh here).

My red hair is all part of my look.

I don’t have to do much to keep it frizzy since the static electricity in my room is equivalent to rubbing two football fields of carpet together. The frizz deflates a bit when I’m in school, but it springs right back where it was during physics class.

Some kids call me Blaze or Flame, even Fire-Fro (that’s my favorite); but my real name is Zach Burns. Fire-fro is especially cool because it accurately describes one of the ways I pass time. When I’m not in my room studying the theory of relativity, you can usually find me in the backyard setting stuff on fire. I’m not dangerous or reckless about it. But I am calculated and observant. When I light an object, like a vanilla wafer, on fire, I’m looking for very specific things:

How long does it take to burn to its essential carbon base?

What is the consistency of the smoke?

How do the flames interact with the oxygen around the wafer?

Is there much of a difference if I stack the wafers vs. lining them up like soldiers?

All of these details are an important part of how I see the world. Now, I’m not one of those kids who wants to destroy things for the sake of destruction. And I don’t, as they say, “want to watch the world burn.” But you can accuse me of being a pyromaniac simply because I burn objects regularly. And it does give me great pleasure.

Some kids at my high school used to make fun of me because I wear a pleated, white lab coat everywhere I go. I wear to it to English, Math, and even Sculpture class. I do this to protect myself from the staggering stupidity around me. Yes, stupid is a strong word, but I use it with the utmost respect. There are many other words I could use instead. Yet, I’ve found it’s more important to call things as I see them. As Mr. Forrest Gump said, “Stupid is as stupid does,” and there’s enough stupid to go around at Ridgemont High.

I’m writing this column in search of an apprentice. If you think like me, and if what I lay out in the next few pages interests you, please zap me an email at FireFroLab@gmail.com.

You may have heard of me before.

I was featured on the cover of WIRED magazine last year for shipping in 400 gallons of real molten lava from various active volcanoes in the ring of fire. I took the volcano project in Earth / Space Science class very seriously. I thought my teacher, Mr. Clayborne, was going to be furious when the lava truck arrived, but he actually coerced the principal into holding a school assembly that highlighted my demonstration.

Sometimes its healthy for every mad scientist to leave a reclusive state and attempt a foray into the public eye.

Again, fire served me well. And for the first time, I gained a few local fans. CBS news showed up, and then WIRED picked up the story from there: a natural media progression that grew from the brilliance of my concept. And best of all, I didn’t have to sell my soul on social media to gain the attention either. The idea spoke for itself.

Students have no excuse to be bored in high school. No excuse whatsoever. If they took all of the energy they put towards dramatic high school relationships, 90 percent of which fail within six months), and aimed it toward scientific pursuits, I’m confident they would find more meaning than the aforementioned alternative could ever bring.

How much enjoyment can anyone really get from kissing an acne-covered, teenage girl anyway? Adolescent faces are living petri dishes. The classifications of bacteria, if fully understood and documented, would put a stop to teenage make-out sessions once and for all, not only in the United States, but the world over.

And if adequate studies were to be published upon these grounds, there would not only be outrage, but disgust at even the thought of holding hands, not to mention all the other forms of PDA. Although the world should, I argue, be aware of the micro-organizations crawling on their own faces, I try not to let these micro issues distract me from my own experimental interests.

I have too many calculations to crunch.

If the acne bit grossed you out or pissed on your hushpuppies, you are most likely not qualified to apply for apprenticeship. Get that bag of Cheetos ready, Buster.

———

Now, I’d like to give you a virtual tour of my lab, the very lab you will work in if you are outstanding in your application and interview.

The house in which I live is notorious for tricking people with regard to its scale. A formidable optical illusion by any standards, my house is much larger on the inside than it appears from the street. This is caused by the ever-sloping incline that dictates the curved sections of the top two floors, leading into the steep roof. If viewed from an aerial cross-section, the funhouse functionality of the structure is dutifully revealed. All other perspectives skew the structure’s true form.

That being said, my lab encompasses the entire top-floor, a fully refurbished attic decked out with the latest apparatus in scientific research. On the north side, there is a hadron particle collider similar to the famous one, CERN, although much, much smaller, a flux oscillation chamber, meteorology-tracking Doppler radar, a CT scanner, forced osmosis regulator, color-dye selection, fully stocked hard drive render farm, and my very own rat maze.

On the south side, the Rube Goldberg electrical circuitry catalyst feeds into the copper-wire Tesla coil, a staple of any energy-efficient lab, salad dressing emulsifier, elemental centrifuge station complete with self-actuating cylinders, and the hydraulic lift that leads down to the lower levels of the house.

The east and west corners of the lab are meticulously organized into storage areas for all the materials I use to conduct experiments, including my welding gear, fiber-glass protective shield zone, nuts and bolts drawers, power drills, table saw, glass cutters, airbrush station, scissor-lift, and self-cleaning crane.

If you haven’t noticed by now, I don’t mess around.

And yeah, spoiled-brat is an understatement. My parents give me their full financial support including insurance coverage on all my equipment. But don’t make fun of me for these faults. I’m only 17 years old. Besides, my parents will be paying your salary, perspective apprentice, until I successfully crack the problem of time travel, which as you can imagine, may take a while.

Once you are employed, I will not pay for your meals, but I will supply an endless mini-fridge of RedBull—and trust me—it shall give you wings. Gotta love a little product placement. I’ll be expecting my monthly royalties in the mail. Unfortunately, my address is classified.

But if you are working with me when I solve the problem of time travel, thus counteracting, even dismissing and rewriting Einstein’s theory of relativity, you will experience fame that no tabloid piranhas can touch, fame that extends beyond money, and with that fame, more power than is currently knowable.

To have power over space and time is to have power in its purest form. And when I achieve that level of influence, you will be at my side. Throughout our journey to TIME LORD status—it gives me shivers—you will be financially incentivized on each project. Not if, but when we reach our goal, I will be a god, and you shall be the physical entity of our multi-trillion-dollar corporation, with our global economic reign serving as the invisible force that binds us together in an unbroken trinity.

In this modest column, I’m not able to detail every step of my goal; but I assure you, the plans have been drawn up. I must continue the work. And I cannot do it alone. That is why I need you, perspective apprentice to lend a hand. More than that, I need a beautiful mind, one capable of reaching past the boundaries of scientific pursuit into new territory, new frontiers. By the way, I heart Star Trek.

Just a brief warning: I do have an aversion for the name Lenny since that was the name of incompetent monkey from NASA I fired last year. So, if your name is indeed Lenny, don’t worry about applying. Your application will be shredded post-haste. And if you are in this particular predicament, I strongly advise an immediate name change.

However, I could be flexible on this point, since I will usually refer to you as “Igor,” a term of endearment. I’ll rephrase that. I will call you Igor when you are doing well, but in times of failure, I will call you Scum, for that is what every one of failure should be called. But never Lenny.

I hated Lenny. He almost reversed the evolutionary process by simply being alive. In the wild, natural selection would have taken care of Lenny via falling space debris. My tongue goes limp when I try to say it. The word dribbles from my lips like a lukewarm broth; and not in a good way.

There. Now you know.

Thanks for nothing, NASA.

I am the proud owner of the world’s largest collection of TV monitors. It’s no secret that time travel will be possible only through the use of electro-magnetic pulses. TVs already have that going for them. The strongest currents are conducted through the older models. I find them cheap: garage sales, curbs, and dumpster-diving at electronics stores. Ideally, once I’m a bona fide Time Lord, I’ll not only be able to visit any time period I want, but I’ll have the power to infiltrate any TV program or movie ever produced.

The jury is still out about the exact physics of all of that, but that’s my primary thesis. Sure, it would be neat to to travel back to Egyptian times and supervise the pyramids being built; but it would be even more fun to join Doctor Who on his travels across space and time. Since Doctor Who is a fictional character, I would have to manipulate the electro-magnetic pulses to open different portals into all forms of fictional media.

Now, you may be wondering what the potential dangers are if those portals went two ways, if they were accessible from either side. And honestly, you should be concerned. The trillions (googolplex, really) of unknown variables would definitely elevate the danger zone.

But I’m not going to let that stop me. Science moves forward when people face the risk with ideas, with ingenuity. Walt Disney always told his artists to “keep moving forward,” and he was so right. I mean, he was Walt freaking Disney. He had what it took to make magic from nothing.

And so, that’s what I’m asking of you. Simple enough.

Will it be daunting? Yes.

Will it be frightening? Yes.

Will I allow you to ask me this many questions when you’re holding the zappy end of a flux defibrillator? Absolutely not. Should that discourage you from applying? Well, that, my friend, is up to you. I do not hire spineless jellyfish. Although, it would be electrifying.

*(APPLICATIONS ARE $99, START SAVING, KIDS.)

Peace out

Zach Burns, Fire-Fro

Copyright © 2017 by TJ Moore

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TheMainAttraction_TJMoore_TJMooreBooks

Pet shops are dangerous places after dark.

THE MAIN ATTRACTION

A Short Story By TJ Moore

I’ll never work at a pet shop again. It’s more than just the terror I experienced. My morals have changed. I no longer think it’s a good thing to keep animals caged up in close quarters with no exercise and no real care. Actually, it disgusts me. I secretly believe nature sees everything. It probably wants all the animals back in the wild. That’s where I believe they belong. But I didn’t always think about animals that way. I respect them now because I fear them. I’ve seen what they can do.

Growing up, I thought animals were nature’s little angels with their oh-so-obedient whiskers. My hamster would trundle over and softly nudge my ankles with his wet nose. That was before I had any real responsibility toward animals.

Those warm and fuzzy feelings are in the past.

That was all before I met Skittles.

Mr. Vinny’s Pet Emporium was tucked away in a New Jersey town I’d rather not name. For those of you that have spent a while in Jersey, you’ll know where I’m talking about. As for the rest of you, just imagine a town where more white-trash-dumpster-divers die from falling vending machines than dump truck accidents. Of all the horrific ways to go, an unbalanced vending machine just might make the late nightly news. Oddly enough, this tragic phenomenon happens so often here in ___________ New Jersey that onlookers simply chase after rolling cans of free Mountain Dew instead of calling 911.

That’s just one example of the ass-backwards priorities in Jersey. That awful Jersey Shore TV show, staged and fake as it is, provides a small glimpse into the ongoing drama that does happen. Some people outside the state joke about that show being a documentary. And from what I’ve seen, they have a valid point.

Why is this town so insane? Has civilization declined this far in morality? These are the questions that used to keep me up at night before the animals took over.

———

I’ve worked for some memorable characters at different jobs, but none of them scared me as much as Vinny Johnson, the owner of the pet shop. He is a total douche bag and has one of those faces that looks like he sneezed wrong, scrambling his features. For example, his eyes are spread so far apart that he can watch NASCAR in the front row without turning his head. His mouth curls up in a permanent sneer—the aftermath of a nasty dog bite. There’s another scar that weaves between his eyebrows, ending just next to his bulbous nose. I’ve always wondered if his nose honks. But I’ve never been brave enough to give it a squeeze. He’d probably bite my finger off.

And boy-oh-boy, he likes to tell stories. They aren’t the kind of stories you’d tell at a picnic or family get-together. You wouldn’t—and shouldn’t—but he does.

Yeah, he’s not shy about his past. Our staff meetings were usually spent listening to one of his recent adventures. You see, he likes to travel as much as he can. When Vinny was a teenager, he began collecting snakes. He started with the kinds of snakes you’d expect: garden snakes, rattlesnakes, even vipers. But the sheer thrill of collecting the “tame ones,” as he called them, eventually lost its sting. I can’t make up this shit.

Now, I really have no idea where the hell he found one, but I’ll never forget the day—it was a Tuesday—that Vinny waltzed into the pet shop with a picture of his new specimen: a South American anaconda with thirteen stripes down its back.

I’d never seen Vinny so jacked before.

He was jumping up and down like a schoolgirl, waving the Polaroid picture around, trying to gauge our reactions. The other pet shop workers, Buzz and Phyllis, tried to act impressed. What a motely crew they are. Buzz even asked if he could get Vinny to sign a copy of the picture to post on eBay.

I could see through their empty grins.

Buzz hated snakes. He believed they slithered from volcanoes, straight from hell. His superstitious beliefs are kind of pathetic when you think about it. The snakes we kept in the shop didn’t bite since most of them were defanged.

Even so, Buzz refused to clean the snake cages. 

That job was usually up to me. 

Vinny never explained how he got the anaconda across the border or through customs. But there was a detail he wouldn’t shut up about: the price.

Vinny tucked the Polaroid into his leather jacket and took a deep breath before revealing how much legal tender he’d dumped on this prehistoric behemoth.

“Listen, guys. Listen,” he said, wiping sweat from his forehead. “You’ll never believe what I shelled out to get him. A beauty, he is. Gawd. You’ll never guess.”

“How much?” Buzz said. “Spit it out.”

“You sure you don’t want to sit down before. …”

“What?” Phyllis snapped her hand to her hip and tapped her foot. “Vinny, give us some credit here.”

 “How much?” Buzz actually looked like he wanted to know.

“Seven,” Vinny said.

Phyllis popped a bubble in her gum. “Seven …?”

“Thousand?” Buzz chimed in.

“Nah, guys. Come on,” Vinny said. “It’s a friggin’ anaconda. Not a beat up Toyota.”

“Seven million.” Phyllis leaned against the counter.

“Really, Phyllis? Nah! Naaaah, man. Seven. Ya know. Seven of the big G’s!”

“No way.” Buzz did that snapping thing with his fingers, a habit most people leave behind in middle school when they realize it leads to arthritis: the universal gesture for ‘poned.’

Vinny cracked his neck, letting off steam. “All right, enough guessing. I’ll tell you. Seven hundred thousand, baby. I’ve been saving up.”

“Holy shit!” Buzz just kept snapping his fingers into his wrist, hard and fast enough to start a fire. “You didn’t.”

“I sure did.”

Phyllis clenched one of her burly fists. “Don’t tell me that, Vinny.”

“What?”

“Don’t you tell me you burned that kind of money on a damn snake!” Her eyes went baseball wide then softball wide.

“And …?”

“God, you are really too much, Vinny. How many years have I been beggin’ for a raise? Or a rotten Christmas bonus?”

“Now look. …”

Phyllis flung her hands into the air, side-swiping the cockatoo cage. “That’s it, Vinny. I’m sick of it. I will not be upstaged by another pink-tongued serpent!”

She heaved herself over the checkout counter and swung her legs over the change jar, almost scattering hundreds of nickels and dimes across the linoleum. Phyllis plopped her middle-aged muffin top in front of the cash register and pulled out a stack of 20s. She riffled through the bills and shoved the wad of greasy cash into her bra, adjusting it without breaking eye-contact with Vinny. “I should have listened to my friends, Vin. They told me you’d pull something crazy like this. I just didn’t think it’d be another damn snake, you sonofabitch!”

“Hold on now. …” Vinny took a step toward the shop entrance and propped the door open with his right foot. A grin took over his face. Then he hollered out the door, “Steve-o! I think they’re ready to see it!”

Phyllis closed the cash register and froze. “No…No…No! You’d better not be doing what I. …”

Vinny spoke over her fear. “That’s right. It’s time to show him off. Get the cage ready, Buzz. Our little shop just got a main attraction. Okay, Steve-o, bring in Skittles. And put your gloves on. She’s probably hungry.” Then he let loose a fog-horn guffaw.

Phyllis marched out the back door. “Burn in hell, Vinny!” 

Vinny didn’t follow her.

The $230 she stole from the register would be back when she returned a few days later to reclaim her job. Vinny knew Phyllis would be back. In fact, he would have bet money on it. That’s just the kind of person he was; a gambling man. He and Phyllis had history. The romantic kind. Let’s just say she broke his heart, snapped it right in half. This wasn’t the first time Phyllis acted out this scene. It was her way.

Pure, unadulterated drama. She a diva and he a douche.

Thinking back on it, they were perfect for each other.

———

Vinny made me stay overnight to keep watch over Skittles. The first night with any new animal is always touch and go. I had to make sure the cages were air-tight and to start the regimented food cycle. For a snake thicker than a fire hose, the food portions are extreme. I prepared a full meal of seared beef tips, gravy, and asparagus. Any cowboy chuck wagon cook would have been proud. I usually tried to make the first meal special so the animals created a positive association with me in their minds. It was safer that way. At least, I thought it was.

After preparing Skittles’s meal, the charred BBQ smell made me hungry. I slid the snake’s food into a rotating compartment in the cage and cooked up a T-bone steak that had been calling my name in the freezer. She watched me cook the meat, flicking her tongue into the air, tasting the cloud of seasoning coming from the grill.

It was eerie at first, eating with the snake. She kept tilting her head down, always keeping me in the corner of her eye. Skittles was sizing me up: she the prehistoric predator; I the potential prey. Thank God for that steel cage. It was the only physical barrier separating us. Sitting across from her, letting the T-bone steak melt in my mouth, I remembered my own mortality. This situation could have been avoided altogether if I hadn’t signed that damn contract.

Vinny is truly a bastard. He should have warned me about all the dangers involved in running a pet store. I’ve been clawed at, spat at; Bandit, the teenage raccoon, threw shit at me once. All this abuse for $8.40 per hour. I guess it’s better than the years I spent shoveling rocks at my uncle’s landscaping business. At least at the pet store, I got to see kids find new friends when they took home a bunny or a puppy for the first time.

Sleep came like a sledgehammer.

The excitement surrounding Skittles’s arrival must have exhausted me.

I don’t remember falling asleep. But I’ll never forget waking up.

My face was sticky with BBQ sauce, momentarily gluing my face to the workbench near the backroom grill. As my vision blurred into focus, I looked toward the grill, thankful I hadn’t left it on overnight. Vinny would instantaneously combust if I accidentally burned down the place.

A clear stripe of sunlight cut across the floor, and my eyes followed it. The light etched up the first row of cages, past legal documents and calendars, then curved toward the door near the cash register. A sharp pain shot through my lower back. I sat up and realized I was sitting on a gnawed-clean T-bone from last night. I removed the bone and threw it across the room, missing the garbage can entirely. Thankfully, no one was around. I was embarrassed without an audience.

I sat up, stretched my neck, cracked my knuckles, all those early morning tune-ups before facing the day. Getting up, the blood drained from my head, blotting my vision with purple spots. And when I took a step, my left knee locked up, pricking my skin up and down with pins and needles. Half of me was still asleep.

Then, I noticed the freezer was open. Even after I tripped over myself, an invisible force pulled me toward the freezer. Empty bags and naked T-bones were strewn all over the floor. I stepped on a few peas that had since thawed to mush. A family of flies surveyed the carnage, eating their fill.

Did I really eat this in my sleep?

I looked down to my stomach, no bigger than normal. I didn’t feel full. Actually, my stomach was talking to itself, growling.

There’s no way. Otherwise, I’m a total fat ass!

A trail of BBQ sauce weaved through more crumpled freezer bags. The sauce was speaking to me, hinting at the images I was about to witness. It was a path I didn’t want to follow, but no one else was around to walk it for me. Staggering into the main room, I heard the stacks of cages shaking with energy.

Part of the ceiling had been ripped open by a destructive force. I could hear the morning traffic filtering through the opening. Peering up, neck extended, I suddenly closed my mouth to avoid the pieces of pink insulation falling in tiny clumps like cotton candy. Scratch marks had been carved toward the opening as well, leaving a deadly etching of whatever burrowed through the roof. The scratches weren’t deep. Instead, they were smooth; almost resembling rope burns. Their cause wasn’t clear to me. But I knew the long carvings hadn’t been there when I fell asleep. And the gaping hole in the ceiling hadn’t been there either. I would have remembered that, at least.

I turned my attention back to the cages. The bunnies panicked and balled themselves up in the corners of their cells. Then, I noticed a generous collection of feathers wilting at the bottom of the birdcages. One of the cockatoos ruffled his feathers and puffed out his chest, ashamed about the new bald spot just above his tail. The birds rarely acted like this. And from what I remember, the birds didn’t shed feathers this dramatically either.

As I walked closer to them, the birds turned their heads, piercing me with sharp stares. Now, the spicy-tang-smell of the BBQ sauce was stronger than before. I turned the corner around the last birdcage and a ticking sound reached into my ears, pecking under my skull.

Click-a-clacka…tick-tick…click-a-clacka…tock-tock...

More mushed peas.

Click-a-clacka…

Water everywhere.

Tick-tick…

A pungent, rank odor.

Tock-tock…

Shards of glass, scattered like clear daggers.

Click-a-clacka…

Magnetically, I became entranced by the sound. I saw the bare, steel frames of the fish tanks, shattered beyond repair. Then lifeless, yet still vibrantly colored forms with closed gills were strewn all over the linoleum. I tip-toed around them, careful not to squish them further.

Enticed by the limitless smorgasbord just out of reach, Mittens, the one-eyed alley cat, hissed and pawed through the bars of her cage. When I looked at her, a rush of panic chilled my stiff legs.

The rascal…the prankster. That out-of-control raccoon, Bandit, was missing from his cage. But the lock was still attached to the latch. The top of the cage was dented as if something heavy and dense had fallen onto it, bending the bars enough for Bandit to escape. I looked up and over, just above Bandit’s empty dwelling. And for a moment, my heart stopped beating.

What I saw made it kick into sudden overdrive. Total turbo.

There’s a big difference between seeing and believing. That morning, I knew the difference. My gut squirmed when I finally realized…that Skittles…our striped anaconda…our new main attraction…was gone!

Copyright © 2017 by TJ Moore