By: Douglas Hackle

The ’70 Plymouth Barracuda was already doing a steady 95 MPH down I-90, causing the ’cuda’s shotgun-riding passenger—a lamplighter by trade—to grip the dashboard with a white-knuckled hand, dig his shoes into the floor, and press his back hard into his seat, his forehead slick with terror-sweat. But when “Army of Me” came on the radio, that’s when the driver—a town crier by trade—really started pushing the pedal to the metal.

“This is my jam!” The Town Crier shouted, the burning stub of a clown tear-laced cigar clamped in the corner of his mouth. He reached for the volume knob, cranked it.

The quavering dial of the speedometer edged past the 100 MPH mark—105…110…115…120…130—as the muscle car wove in and out of the thinning, late afternoon traffic, vibrating with the thrum of the road, bleating and booming with the beating bass of the blaring Björk.

“Slow down, man!” The Lamplighter shrieked. “You’re gonna get us killed!”

The Town Crier pinched the cigar out from his mouth, bellowed maniacal laughter as he tossed his head back like The Devil.

A minute after they got off the highway, the ’cuda turned onto a narrow, unmarked road that snaked through the wooded countryside like a stream of gravel and dust. The road eventually spat the car out into a clearing where two dilapidated, closely set farmhouses jutted up from a verdant sea of waist-high grass and weeds. The ’cuda slowed to a crunching stop in front of the first house.

The Lamplighter stared up through the open passenger window at the looming edifice. “There’s really a phone in there that connects directly to Snoop? To a private line that Snoop answers without fail?”

“Still don’t believe me, huh?” The Town Crier ground his cigar stub in the ashtray. “Well, you will soon enough.”

They entered the house through a screen door barely hanging on its last rusty hinge, climbed a creaky staircase to the second floor. The Lamplighter followed the Town Crier to a room at the end of the hallway; in a corner of the otherwise empty room, an old corded telephone sat on a wooden stand.

The Lamplighter eyeballed the blank face of the telephone base quizzically. “There’s no buttons,” he said. “No dial.”

“Just pick up the handset and say hello.”

The Lamplighter reached for the handset, raised it to the side of his head.

“Um, hello? Hello…Snoop?”

Low-volume static overlaid with a discordant, squeaky noise like someone murdering an out-of-tune cello crackled through the earpiece.

“All I hear is static and noise.”

“No. That’s him,” The Town Crier said, crazy-eyed. “Keep talking!”

The Lamplighter spoke into the phone again. “Hello? Is that you, Snoop Dogg? I’m a big fan. I’ve been listening to you ever since Doggystyle came out.”

“Snoop Dogg?” The Town Crier said. “Who the hell said anything about Snoop Dogg?”

The Lamplighter let the handset drop away from his head. “You did. You said you knew of a phone in an old house that connects directly to Snoop.”

“Nah, man. I said I knew of a phone that connects to Snööp—as in Snööp spelled with two umlauts.”

“What? Umlauts? Man, I don’t even know what the fuck you’re talkin’ about now.”

The Town Crier pointed over The Lamplighter’s shoulder. “I’m talking about motherfuckin’ Snööp. As in the Snööp that’s right behind you.”

The Lamplighter did a 180, found himself facing the room’s only window, which happened to be perfectly aligned with a window on the second floor of the neighboring residence. Squinting, he peered across the short distance into the late-day gloom of the other farmhouse.

Attired in an old-fashioned, wide-lapelled suit, a figure seated before the window held the handset of a corded phone to the side of its bowler hat-topped head. The figure’s pallid face appeared to be composed of smooth, hard plastic in some places but soft skin in others, so that The Lamplighter was unsure if he was looking at a real person, a mannequin, or something in between. Below the terrible black pits of the thing’s eye sockets, an equally black mouth gaped as alien-sounding noise continued to seep through the earpiece of the handset, though the figure’s mouth did not move.

“You know, in our town,” The Town Crier said solemnly, “You and I are respected citizens. Admired civil servants. You light the streetlamps at night, snuff them out in the morning. I make public announcements in the streets and the town square. Our fellow townspeople love us. They rely on us—need us. Shit, in our town, you and I nab more ass than a goddamn Chinese zoo! But here? In this town?”

The Town Crier extended his upturned palms out before him, turned in place as he looked all around

“No one gives a blue fuck about us here! Here we’re nothing!” He pointed at the window. “Take that thing over there, for instance—that, that double-umlaut Snööp! You think double-umlaut Snööp cares about us? Do you thing he admires us? Respects us? Needs us? Pfft! Man, that fucking thing—whatever the hell it is—couldn’t give a cockroach’s swingin’ blue nutsack whether we lived or died!”

“Um, maybe we should, like, leave then,” The Lamplighter said, his voice shaking. 

***

On the way back, [Dear reader: please insert the title of your favorite song here] came on the radio as the ’cuda zoomed along I-90 at a steady 95 MPH.

“Aw, man, I hate this fuckin’ song!” The Town Crier cried, pounding the steering wheel with the bottom of a fist. “This is like the worst song ever recorded. In fact, this song sucks so much that I’m going to kill us both right now!”

“Nooooooo!” The Lamplighter screamed.

The Town Crier spun the steering wheel to the left, sending the car crashing through the guardrail and plummeting to the bottom of a deep ravine, where it exploded in a fireball, instantly killing the two knuckleheads.

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Douglas Hackle is the author of the short story collections Is Winona Ryder Still with the Dude from Soul Asylum? and Other LURID Tales of DOOM and TERROR!!! and Clown Tear Junkies (Rooster Republic Press); the novel The Hottest Gay Man Ever Killed in a Shark Attack; and the forthcoming novel TERROR MANNEQUIN. A selection of his short fiction is featured in The Bizarro Starter Kit (Red) (Eraserhead Press). You can find him on Facebook and Twitter.

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To submit to Flash Fiction Friday, send your bizarro story of 1,000 or fewer words to flashfictionfridaysubmissions@gmail.com.

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