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An original cartoon in prose
I’ve been toying with the idea of posting original fiction here (in addition to continuing to comment on the pop culture landscape, past and present). I’ve posted a little bit of my own fiction on this site before: the opening chapters of my superhero novels, a short play from college that was never meant to be performed, and my homework from the wonderful Comics Experience workshop.
And now, here’s a short story I finished specifically for this Substack. A couple of years ago, I had the idea of writing a classic-style cartoon as a prose novel. And while there was more to it than that, I soon realized that the concept couldn’t sustain a novel. I had fun writing it as a short story, though.
This isn’t nearly as polished as my novels, but I hope you enjoy. Please let me know what you think and if you’d like to see more original fiction in the mix here. Thanks for reading!
Felton plummeted down the canyon, his body whistling in the wind, as it always did when hurtling toward certain doom.
He crashed into the rock a mile below. The impact left a Felton-shaped hole in the surface, though he had less of a shape than most people. His long, gangling body barely qualified as two-dimensional. All his fat resided in his head, which resembled a pale watermelon in dire need of a haircut.
Felton sat up. His large teeth dropped from his mouth one by one and plinked on the ground in a melodic sequence. Stars danced around his head, each one a perfect yellow pentagon. Stars and one tiny chirping bird.
He swatted the interloper away and stood up. And then he saw it. The wooly mammoth.
The hairy creature trudged along the base of the canyon, just minding its own business, its trunk gently swinging back and forth. Felton had no idea how it got down here so quickly, but he wasn’t about to waste the opportunity.
He grabbed his camera. It was a nice camera, like all his others, with an adjustable zoom lens and a big flash bulb on top. He lined up the shot, anticipating victory. Unfortunately, physics intervened.
The bulb burst, the lens shattered, the film spilled out, and the whole frame crumbled. Felton was foolish to think he could outrace the delayed reaction of a mile-long crash.
As the mammoth sauntered away, Felton looked around for any witnesses. Even the little chirping bird would suffice. No. The chirping bird had already evaporated into nonexistence, leaving Felton alone in the canyon. Just him and the mammoth.
No, just him. The mammoth exited while Felton was seeking a witness.
Alas, Felton failed in attempt #753 to prove the existence of the last surviving wooly mammoth. On the bright side, he had ample experience climbing out of this canyon, so maybe it would be less of a struggle this time. He had brought along some rope for this very eventuality.
Five hours and many bruises later, Felton reached the top. At least the long climb gave his teeth time to regrow.
He pulled up his rope and nodded a greeting to Henry Ducky Thorough, who was lounging on a lawn chair and admiring the bright technicolor sun. It was frequently sunny in Mirthville, unless someone was sad or suffering an excess of bad luck. But in such situations, the rain clouds congregated around only the unfortunate.
“Good fishing today?” the duck asked.
“Wasn’t trying to get fish.”
“No, I suppose not.”
Henry was an odd duck indeed. Of all the ducks Felton knew, Henry was the only one who wore a bow tie and grew a long, careless beard. Henry also tended to think a lot more deeply than any duck needed to.
“What if you let the mammoth go?” Henry asked.
Felton looked askance at the bowtie-wearing duck.
Henry continued, “This mammoth, if it exists—”
“It does,” Felton said quickly.
“—is no doubt a majestic creature, seeking to achieve harmony with an anachronistic environment. What are you seeking?”
“A picture of it.”
“And what value do you place on this picture?”
Felton shrugged his narrow shoulders. “I just need it.”
“Then I hope you get it. It’s already cost you a fortune.”
Felton knew he could get that picture. The seven-hundred-fifty-fourth time would be the charm. A person could accomplish anything he set his mind to. But what if the wooly mammoth set its mind to not being photographed?
Felton’s bicycle was leaning against a tree. It remained in decent shape, considering the hundreds of times he had crashed it. The tree, for its part, was the same nondescript species as all the others around it.
While Henry lounged, Felton hopped onto the bike.
“Enjoy looking at the sky,” Felton said.
“It’s not about what I’m looking at; it’s about what I’m seeing.”
Such an odd duck.
Felton rode along a path through the woods. He greeted the various critters he met along the way, whether they were insects, birds, or squirrels. A monkey offered him a banana. Famished after his plunge and climb, Felton accepted the offering and grunted a thanks.
The other end of the path led onto a long tree-lined street, and this street led into his neighborhood. As his wheels connected with the pavement, he saw it again. Opportunity #754.
Why was the mammoth crossing the road here? Probably a cruel joke the universe decided to play on Felton. The mammoth paused just long enough to throw a seductive wink at Felton.
Felton didn’t even have a camera on him; unlike his teeth, cameras didn’t regenerate.
But he had rope. And a banana peel.
Felton downed the remainder of his banana, swallowing it whole, and he pedaled faster. Everything blurred—the trees, the sky, the blimp, the street, the open manhole—all faded into wispy lines of motion until he saw nothing but the mammoth directly ahead.
He readied his hand, prepared to toss the banana peel into the path of the unsuspecting mammoth. This creature may have avoided extinction. It may have thought itself special. But there was no man or beast who could resist the friction-eliminating properties of nature’s lubricant. It was a law of physics more reliable than gravity itself.
Almost there. He pedaled faster. Faster. Faster. A little farther …
The wheel dipped into the manhole and struck the rim, catapulting Felton into the sky. Both banana peel and rope went flying in separate directions as he soared toward the blimp. He bounced off the balloon, ricocheted into a cloud, then another cloud, and another cloud, and several more as though he were in a pinball machine, complete with appropriate sound and lighting effects.
The last ricochet launched him straight up, higher and higher, until he paused at the apex of his ascent and took in the cloud-framed view of the town far, far below.
Felton flapped his arms, fast as he could, and thus prolonged his midair respite.
A bright blue swallow happened by. Unfortunately, the swallow happened to be Barrington B. Bird.
Barrington inspected Felton’s flapping, then shook his head disapprovingly. “No, no, you’re doing it all wrong. All wrong! Flap, man, flap!”
“I am flapping!”
Barrington demonstrated with his own wings. “No, it’s more like this. Put your feathers into it!”
“I don’t have any feathers!”
“No feathers?” Barrington stroked his beak, considering the matter. “Do you at least have a parachute?”
Still flapping, Felton shook his head.
“A trampoline, maybe? You can probably make do with a trampoline.”
Felton again shook his head.
For the second time today, Felton plummeted. With improbable accuracy, he plunged through the open manhole and crashed at the bottom of the sewer.
He climbed out minutes later, covered in muck. The mammoth was gone, his bicycle was a wreck, and the banana peel and rope were nowhere to be found. Felton pitied the unfortunate soul who stumbled upon the banana peel. He guessed it wouldn’t be the mammoth.
He picked his misshapen bike off the ground. It rattled as he wheeled it along the street.
Now would have been a good time for a personal raincloud. Sunshine persisted.
Maybe the seven-hundred-fifty-fifth time would be the charm.
The stink lines repelled all potential company, so Felton walked the whole way home in solitude. His neighborhood was a collection of cookie-cutter houses plopped along a peaceful street. The only differences between the units were their exterior colors and interior occupants, though Felton knew very few of his neighbors and had never even seen most of them.
Felton wheeled the rattling bike into his driveway and looked forward to showering, relaxing, and plotting new ways to capture the mammoth on film.
A sleek sedan pulled into the neighboring driveway, and Ulyana emerged from the driver’s seat. She was the personification of elegance and beauty, with her giant eyes and perfect hourglass figure. Each gentle step she took emphasized her femininity. And this concluded everything Felton knew about her.
He had contemplated striking up conversation on many different occasions. Also on many different occasions, he discovered endless excuses not to strike up conversation. Being covered in muck was as valid an excuse as any.
Not wanting to say nothing, however, he settled on a reliable topic. “Nice day, isn’t it?” He hoped the stink lines weren’t visible.
“Yes, it is,” Ulyana replied, smiling exotically and inscrutably.
The bicycle squeaked as Felton rolled it into his garage, its volume suddenly louder and exponentially more obnoxious.
After putting the bike away, Felton entered his living room and gazed longingly at his favorite armchair. Soon, he promised himself. It was getting chilly, so he closed his windows before indulging in a long, hot shower.
Refreshed, he inspected his closet of cameras. The remaining twenty spares were accounted for, so he proceeded into the kitchen, grabbed a pitcher of water from the fridge, and poured himself a glass. He set both down on his coffee table in front of his awaiting armchair. He devised his best schemes in that chair, never mind that they all failed.
On the way to the chair, he discovered where the banana peel had landed, and he promptly slipped on it.
Felton crashed backward onto the coffee table, upending it and sending the pitcher flying. The pitcher bounced from wall to wall, holding onto its contents with admirable determination until Felton’s head got in the way.
Water soaked his narrow body while his fat head inexplicably wedged itself inside the pitcher. Felton attempted to pry it off with all his inconsiderable might. While struggling thusly, he tripped over the coffee table and crashed pitcher-first through the television screen. Thousands of nonlethal volts coursed through his wiry frame, providing several revealing glimpses of his skeleton.
The pitcher dissolved into ash, and Felton sizzled. Once again, he would have welcomed a personal raincloud.
Such a cloud appeared three feet to his left. Rain poured onto the carpet.
Felton maneuvered toward the cloud, and the cloud maneuvered a few feet away. He attempted to hop beneath it, but it again evaded him. He leapt farther, and the cloud scooted farther, stopping over the armchair, drenching it.
Its job complete, the cloud vanished in a puff of smoke, and then even the wispy smoke scampered away.
The armchair, however, remained wet and unsuitable for relaxation. A fiery hue rose up Felton’s toothpick of a neck and expanded to engulf the totality of his cranium.
Felton screamed and kicked the armchair. The armchair struck back—it had the nerve to position its stubby wooden leg precisely in the path of Felton’s toes.
The whole room turned red after that.
By the time the coloration reverted to normal, the armchair lay in tatters. Felton vaguely recalled transforming into a scarlet tornado and ripping the offending furniture to shreds while gibbering nonsense.
He was, at this moment, no longer a tornado of any sort, merely a spindly man with a watermelon-shaped head and nothing to show for the day’s efforts. His eyes welled up, and a single blue tear began its journey down his cheek.
But then, out his window, Felton saw it. The wooly mammoth marched across his backyard, not a care in the world, not a witness in sight.
The tear retreated up Felton’s face. It opened his pupil as one would a door, dashed inside, and slammed the pupil shut, leaving behind the driest of eyes.
Felton grabbed a camera, confident that attempt #755 would succeed.
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