Ping pong balls rained down from the dark storm clouds above my head. The orbs popped hollowly against the slimy rocks like laughter, adding to the jeering and mockery bubbling from the Depression Swamp.
I wept uncontrollably, allowing the swamp to engulf my feet all the way to my ankles.
A huge feathery puppet slogged up behind me, displaying an unusual resistance to felt destroying swamp water, and an even more unusual mobility of the neck. "Commander Weirdo, are those tears?"
I couldn't speak.
The black goose head craned around my shoulder. "Ohhh! Those are tears! You're going to need something stronger than chocolate to get you out this time!"
The creature wrapped its great gray wings around me, and I just balled into the feathers. Soft, downy plumage pressed against my face, weird non-human heartbeat thudding in between the creature's inhalations. "If we ever get out of here, Googly, remind me to dry clean you."
We climbed the rocks, escaping from the bog's quicksand suction. Dead trees loomed over us, branches waving threatening skeletal arms. Through the gaps, storm clouds and lightning gathered around the Rainbow Warlock's Haunted Mansion.
"Swamp thing Joey, slithering through the swamps..." an eerie voice croaked behind me.
I glanced at my bird beaked companion, but he only shrugged like `Wasn't me.'
"Swamp thing Joey, creeping across the heath..."
I reached for the holster on my red jumpsuit, whipping out the space gun prop. "All right, asshole! Out where I can see you, or, or, this thing is going to turn you into...chicken carbonara!"
The goose held up a memo pad, showing me I owed the swear jar four dollars. I gave him the finger, adding to my bill.
The creepy voice just kept singing, something about Joey eating people and dragging their dead bodies into the swamp. I held my useless prop gun out with a trembling hand, peering through the brush and dead plants. "You come out of here, Joey, before I pump your guts full of lead!"
"Ha ha ha," said the voice.
I pulled the trigger in anger, not because I thought it would work. Its flashlight bulb clicked on, revealing my complete impotence.
"You didn't say the magic words!" my avian friend hissed.
"Are you fucking kidding me!"
"Four twenty five. And no, you have to say the magic words or the gun doesn't work."
"I've fired this gun in the studio for three thousand episodes and it hasn't done shit but light up. The guys from post-production come in and add the laser beam and blaster sound effects."
"Four fifty. Commander, we're beyond the magic tunnel."
"Dammit, Paul, that tunnel is a fucking symbol of the divide between real life and fantasy, so some kid doesn't put on a bath towel and jump off their parents' roof! I'm holding a piece of plastic with a red light bulb at the end!"
Right after I said this, an emaciated white wraith leapt from the dead foliage, distending its jaw to reveal a mouth full of shark's teeth.
"Holy fuck!" I jumped back, shielding myself with the plastic toy.
The bird, in the meantime, had made himself scarce, a scrap of paper on the ground showing my current bill. Five dollars.
"C-Commander W-Weirdo S-Space Laser!" It came out my mouth like a whispered prayer. I pulled the trigger just to flash the guy in the eyeballs.
To my surprise, little sparks shot out like a bad firecracker. The monster staggered back, rubbing its eyes.
"Ha! Take that, Joey!" I straightened my weapon hand, raising my voice as my finger curled around the trigger. "Commander Weirdo Space Laser Activate."
The bony creature reeled back as a fiery golf ball sized missile struck him in the shoulder. It reminded me of that scene from T2 when they shot a cannon into the robot's stomach. Joey straightened, giving me that same cold look.
I forced a booming falsetto into my voice this time, playing it for all its worth. "Commander Weirdo Space Laser Activate!"
The gun blew a hole through Joey's chest cavity, vaporizing his internal organs, sending blood and bone flying.
But, you know, Terminator. I practically screamed when I fired again and again, pulverizing the brain, separating limbs from the body, until at last I faced nothing but a pile of smoking, bad smelling...rotten stuff.
I kicked the monster's pelvis away from its spinal column. "See you in hell, Joey."
My feathered friend reappeared from his hiding spot, his long neck shrunken a foot down inside its body until I holstered the blaster once more.
Only then did he quote the tab: "Five twenty five."
When I glanced back at my victim, I only saw a papier machet sculpture with a bunch of red confetti and yarn sprawling from its innards. I shivered, hoping the art supplies didn't reanimate.
The bird seemed to know where it was going, so I followed for a few yards.
We crossed a bridge and got turned around in a thicket of weeds. "Where are you going?"
Googly shrugged. "I don't know. You're the one with the Magic Compass."
"Then why the hell were you walking ahead?"
"Five fifty. I'm trying to find the Dwinkie Village. We haven't talked to the Dwinkies in a long, long time."
"There's a good reason for that. We don't live in the eighties anymore."
"I don't understand, Commander."
"Never mind," I groaned, digging in my pocket.
The Magic Compass should have been a generic non-Boy-Scout-Boy-Scout-compass with the compass part replaced with a green plastic chip for the chroma key setup, but I actually saw pictures of the forest on it.
I turned the dial around. "Commander Weirdo Compass Activate."
"Commander," the goose chuckled. "It's already on."
"I can see that, bird. I'm trying to locate your blue friends."
More snickering. "Don't you remember how to use that? I know it's been awhile..."
"Let me guess. You make up a stupid rhyme that relates to your search."
"No form of artistic expression is stupid if it comes from your heart, Commander."
Groaning, I rubbed my face. "Magic Compass, uh...don't give me no jive, show us the location of the Dwinkie Tribe."
"Was that really from your heart?"
I only scowled. "Oh go sit on a pin! And while you're at it, smash up that swear jar of yours and sit on that too!"
"That wasn't nice, Commander, but I still approve of you not cussing."
"Bite me." I stared at the little screen. My magic words had changed the picture.
The little round disk now displayed a scene of the Dwinkie Tribal Lands, clusters of tipis standing around a raging bonfire in the moonlight, blue neon painted children in loincloths and bone breastplates tending horses and weaving textiles.
A glowing arrow pointed us back the way we came. We hiked down a boulder strewn path, through a narrow ravine and over a hill where tree roots grew like stairs.
At the base of the next hill, we found a fire, all right, but only because someone had set all the tipis ablaze.
As we neared the campsite, the bird sucked in his breath. Not only had they torched the place, the blackened skeletal remains of blue children lay scattered all around the fire ring, their handicrafts and primitive tools crushed, broken, burned to cinders along with their little bodies.
A bony African American man in a trenchcoat stood before a burning Dwinkie totem pole. He lit a cigarette, slowly inhaling as he watched flames melting the paint, eating away at the carvings.
I crept up to the stranger, hand drawing back to my magical sidearm. "Excuse me, sir, but who the hell are you, and why did you just massacre all these children in cold blood?"
The guy didn't turn around. "The name's Cancel Man. This village contained a bunch of racist stereotypes that are offensive to Native Americans and people of color."
"Uh...thank you for your service," I stammered, backing away.
"Not so fast, fatso." The man picked up a briefcase, popping the tabs. "I'd like to talk to you about the visibility of minorities on your program."
I froze in my tracks, staring in disbelief. "You what?" I sucked in my gut, straightening my back. "I'll have you know that I feature one on nearly every episode, and even when you don't see them, one of my puppeteers is black. We also did a special segment every day of Black History Month this year. I think I'm pretty well covered."
The fire light illuminated a photogenic male face, square jaw, well sculpted facial features, immaculately trimmed eyebrows. It looked like he spent hours in the gym. "Not good enough. Americans want to see more."
"Did you see the special episode with Whoopi Goldberg?"
From inside the valise, Cancel Man pulled a gun, but not a regular one. The weapon glittered like gold, writing and red tape wrapping all around it. "This little baby is a Litigation Cannon. It can pretty much erase anything from existence, including you."
At first I chuckled. "I'm an actor. I'm a real guy. How can you erase me?"
"One squeeze of this trigger, and all the news outlets will think that Commander Weirdo is a white supremacist. You'll never find work again."
I raised my hands in surrender. "What do you want?"
A smile stretched from one end of Cancel Man's attractive jaw to the other. "Your job, sir. Take off your jumpsuit and utility belt and give them to me. Please and thank you."
The goose shivered. "You'd better do what he says."