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I knew instinctively that time was up when a dead bird fell out of the sky. I don’t know much about omens, but I do know weirdness pretty thoroughly, and that was completely weird.
It had been about three weeks since the world almost ended. Three weeks of me trying to get everyone to understand a couple of simple things:
1) I was a weirdness magnet.
And 2) Weirdness attracts more weirdness. You make a little room for things like talking to tombstones or eating eel burritos for lunch, and the next thing you know giant worms are erupting beneath your feet and ripping everything to pieces.
For me, being King of the Mole People was like being a walking time bomb.
I’d been trying to hand back the Mole crown pretty incessantly. But the Moles said they couldn’t accept it back without another suitable candidate. I pointed out that my humanness rendered any of them a more suitable candidate than me, and that I was giving them one month to find somebody. They agreed, but I was suspicious. I’d seen a Mole calendar. It was just a rock with another rock on top of it.
I realize I shouldn’t have permitted it go on as long as I did, and that every day that went by increased the chances that the circling weirdness would become a vortex and destroy us all. But I’d developed a bit of a soft spot for the Moles, and like I said, I’d started deluding myself that maybe the danger was all in my head.
And then the dead bird fell out of the sky. And I knew: it was the beginning of the end. I had to quit being Mole King immediately. And I had to do it spectacularly, so that the Moles all took it seriously.
I followed it up by swearing that they’d never see my face down in the Mole realm ever again.
I was never really meant to be the Mole King anyway. I was only made King by this lousy Mole named Croogy, so that he could use me as a pawn to instigate a war with the Slug People and cause giant worms to destroy the surface world. He forced me to do it by threatening to expose the embarrassing fact that I was Mole King to everyone at my school. Luckily I managed to defeat him with the help of my Royal Guard, and some Slugs, and some other creatures called Stone Goons and Mushroom Folk. And this licorice-haired, ping-pong-eyed girl who sits near me in class named Magda. She’s super weird, and won’t leave me alone, so is not at all helping my goal to eliminate weirdness from my life.
Together we rescued the true Mole King, who Croogy had kidnapped, and put him back on the throne. But that guy immediately “abdicated” (which means he took off on a bike), and left me getting my neck bones crushed under the fifty-pound crown.
I’d finally left the crown back where it belonged. But the real problem was that there was an open grave in my backyard that led directly to the Mole realm. Moles popped out of it all the time. It was like that Whac-A-Mole game, except I didn’t have a mallet, and my prize was I got to keep being the weirdest human in the Up-world.
It had become clear that I was never going to get out of being King of the Mole People as long as I lived next to a hole that led right to Mole People ground zero. The problem was that the hole was in the backyard of a creepy graveyard mansion where I lived with my dad. And moving out of a creepy graveyard mansion comes with a built-in dilemma: nobody wants to buy a creepy graveyard mansion.
We inherited the place from a relative, and we had to move in because our finances are what bankers kindly refer to as “nonexistent.” My dad said he’d be happy to sell it if we could, but he hasn’t so much as wiped a cobweb to help. I think he actually likes it here, and I think every day that goes by he and the house become more entwined.
So it was left to me to try to find someone to help sell it. But we found our mansion was what real estate agents kindly refer to as “you’ve got to be kidding.”
I wasn’t kidding, so I’d set to work using all the expertise and finesse I could muster to get the place looking polished and picturesque.
But it seemed to resist all efforts of improvement. Every tombstone I patched seemed to re-crack. Every dead bush I tore out seemed to resprout. And no matter how much dirt I shoveled into it, that grave hole to the Mole realm just would not fill in.
The interior was no better. Peeling walls, stains that changed shape before your eyes, pipes that seemed to play old maritime shanties every time you turned on a tap.
The place was the physical manifestation of weird. It was going to be practically impossible to get it into a condition that someone, even if only a forlorn misanthrope, might want to buy. And I’d started to grow tired of trying.
Then: dead bird.
I was back on that sander in a flash. Hurling the crown was meaningless if I didn’t get away from that hole.
Weirdness was picking up speed. I could feel it. Like it was trying to get my attention over the blaring sound of the power tool. I had a sixth sense about these things; I could detect abnormalities beyond the scope of others. I focused my powers and let them point me in the direction of where it was emanating from.
Dang it, Dad!
If there was anything that might undermine your attempt to not be associated with weirdness more than your dad standing in front of you with a live eel trying to get your attention over the sound of your sander getting gummed up on bat poop, I don’t know what it would be.
He was returning from the stream at the back of our property with a fresh eel that he’d just fished out. Oh, did I forget to mention? We have a stream full of eels in the back of our property. Gotta make sure to list that on the real estate feature sheet.
And with those eels, my dad began filling our pots, pans, pie plates, casserole dishes, and muffin trays. It had started as a way to save on our monthly bills. I was like, Dad, maybe if you stopped buying so many cooking containers we could afford to eat pizza.
But I couldn’t deny my dad had a knack for preparing eels. He was so good at it that he’d published a book, which at first I thought was ludicrous. Who’d want a book of eel recipes? His opinion was that there were already plenty of cookbooks centered around more typical ingredients, but nobody was doing eels, and he believed being unique is better.
I thought that was nuts. But he’s my dad, and despite his oddness he was a pretty great guy who was doing his best. So I was going to be a dutiful son, and support his goofy little book project, and even turn off the electric sander so I could hear what had got him so excited this close to dawn on a Monday morning. How bad could it be?
“Some folks from the local news are coming to our house on Friday to interview me about my book!”
“Aww, Dad, come on!” I screeched.
“Isn’t that great? They want to see how I work, where I live…”
“Dad, please! We can’t let them film this place! Everyone will see it!”
“Yes! Everyone will see it!” He beamed with his big teeth. “Won’t that be terrific publicity for the book?”
“I’m trying to keep a lid on weirdness! The last thing I need is for everyone to see the full extent of Dreadsville Manor!”
It took me a second, blinded as I was by the horrifying thought of my personal gallery of weirdness being broadcast all over town. But it finally clicked.
Everyone will see it. Regular folks. Forlorn misanthropes. This could be my chance to interest someone in buying it! All I had to do was get things shaped up by the time they arrived on Friday! This was great! This was …
Impossible. What was I thinking? I hadn’t made one bat-hair’s width of progress in all the time I’d spent sweating. How was I going to get everything looking presentable in just four days? I’d need a whole army of workers to do that, an army of workers …
ready to do …
my bidding …
“What’s ‘Dreadsville Manor’?” asked my dad.
“Huh? Oh, nothing,” I said, dropping the sander and taking him by the arm (and making a note to myself to stop calling our house by that name). “You’re right! What was I thinking? A local news story will be fantastic publicity for the book. Tell them the Underbellys can’t wait to see them on Friday!”
“Really? Oh … okay!” said my dad, almost dancing with excitement at my sudden change of heart.
I told him I could really use some eel frittatas for breakfast and waited impatiently as he shimmied happily into the house, dangling the fresh eel. The last thing I needed was him finding out about the Moles. He’d probably invite the whole lot of them to move in.
Eel frittatas are actually pretty amazing. Or at least my dad’s are. He really did deserve to have a book about cooking eels. But my mind wasn’t on food at that moment. I was too busy thinking about that army ready to do my bidding. It was the perfect solution!
There was only one hiccup.
I had to talk to Oog. Who was a Mole. Who lived in the Mole Kingdom.
I knew heading down to the Mole realm seemed like it was going backward from my plan to stop associating with weirdness. But it was dawning on me that if I played this just right, by the end of the week I’d be free and clear of weirdness once and for all. And besides, this was definitely going to be the last time they were ever going to see my face down there.
I checked my watch, then pulled off my sander goggles, dropped into the grave hole that would never fill in, and ran. I had thirty minutes to get to the Mole Kingdom and then get to school, and I could absolutely not be late. Being late for school was the scariest thing I could imagine. And I’d seen a Mega Worm the size of a steamship.
Copyright © 2020 by Paul Gilligan. All rights reserved.