HOME WRECKER -by Ray O'Bannon

“So the name Awenasa, that’s an Indian name?” asked the interviewer as he thrust a microphone into the elderly Native American man’s face. “Yes” responded the man quietly with an oddly sad smile. “It’s Cherokee…it means ‘my home’. They wanted me to change it to Anderson for the show, but I didn’t want to. So finally they…”

Murphy slammed a pudgy thumb down on the stop button of his new remote control. He hated new things, and this new remote was just begging to be slammed into the wall or smashed underfoot, just like the last ones. But then he found the right button, and the image onscreen switched to a tiny Old West town somewhere in Texas. A sheriff was crouching behind a wooden barrel, squinting out across the wind blown street toward the roof of a grocery store, where a gunman was taking careful aim at him. Murphy smiled contentedly and opened another beer.

It wasn’t his favorite brand of beer, not even a very good brand. Murphy didn’t know what Heather had been thinking to buy this cheap crap instead of his favorite brand. She had been yammering something about needing to save money for a new sofa, some nasty orange thing she’d seen downtown. He glanced over at their sagging old sofa with its rips and tears, stains and worn spots gracing its faded covering. “Nuthin’ wrong with it” he mumbled, settling more comfortably into his expensive Italian leather easy chair. His gaze returned to the television, where Sheriff Caleb Hunter was firing a few more slugs into the chests of a few more bad guys.

Murphy hadn’t gotten to watch Rifle Town for many years. It had been his favorite program when he was a kid, and had remained a favorite pastime well into his teen years. He’d marveled at the first color episodes, although like most fans he still preferred the original black and white. He had gone through that odd feeling of re-adjustment when Johnny Awenasa, who played the original Deputy Rainfoot, was replaced by that other actor…Frederick Harding? Hargrove? Murphy couldn’t recall. It didn’t matter, since the show had only lasted a few months in color before being canceled by the network. Murphy had been surprised at how saddened he had felt watching the final episode.

And all these years later, there it was… the complete series of Rifle Town on DVD, every single episode! Plus interviews! The price was high, but the box was actually autographed by Weston Rialto, who had played Sheriff Caleb Hunter all those years. So let Heather gripe about the price all she wanted. He had even treated himself to something extra…several packs of Spiffy-Pop popcorn. The stuff hadn’t been available in stores for years, but he’d found a supplier online and paid a dear price for a carton of the time-honored snacks. They were exactly as he remembered them from his youth… each pack contained a little tin pan with a specially folded foil cover. When heated, the popcorn forced the foil cover to expand into a large globe that would finally burst open and serve as a bowl. The stuff was delicious, and there were several packs waiting in the kitchen this very moment. Murphy suddenly decided the best way of enjoying it would be to grab the little Coleman stove from the camping gear in the garage, and roast the popcorn right there in the living room while he watched Rifle Town! Now wouldn’t Heather just love THAT?

Heather just couldn’t seem to leave him alone, couldn’t let him have any fun. She was always complaining about chores he hadn’t finished, or whining about those old cars out back because she thought she needed a garden. It was always something, and they usually spent the first few hours of their day arguing. Murphy was always relieved to reach his cubicle at the bank. People respected him there. They maybe didn’t talk to him much, or invite him to any of there little parties, but yeah… Loan Officer Murphy got respect at the bank. Then if he was lucky when he got home he’d find Heather had been angry enough to go shopping or visit her Mom or do just anything to be gone when he arrived. And this was just such an evening. She probably wouldn’t be back till late, so why not enjoy the solitude? Murphy tossed his empty beer can aside and opened another. The Rifle Town episodes, plenty of Spiffy-Pop and beer… this was gonna be a great night! Nothing was gonna mess this up. Not even that flimsy little voice bouncing around in the back of his head, the one yelping “Please, Mr. Murphy, sir…it’s our HOME”.

They had sat there in front of his desk a few days ago, looking like condemned criminals. And why shouldn’t they? Late on their payments again, probably wasted their money on dope and porno, and now they seemed so amazed to hear the bank might actually want its payments! The lady had started pleading about how her husband’s medical bills were leaving them with barely enough for food, while the puny looking man had merely sat staring at his shoes like a wounded dog. Loan Officer Murphy had made it clear that the bank would have no choice but to foreclose and that they would have until the end of the month to get out. They rose to leave the bank as though in a state of shock, but the man had stopped just outside Murphy’s cubicle and turned back. He had looked at Murphy with eyes that held such torment, such suffering that for a split second Loan Officer Murphy couldn’t help almost caring, just a little bit. And the man had uttered that pitiful statement that haunted Murphy even now. “Please, Mr. Murphy, sir…it’s our HOME”.

Something inside Murphy seemed to be pulling back his tongue, trying to keep him from saying what he said next. But it wasn’t strong enough, and he took an odd pride in overcoming that weird little tug and getting the job handled properly.
“Not any more, it isn’t! You’re the seventh couple I’ve had thrown out this week, and that’s what I call a good week! Now get out of my office before I call security.”
And Murphy had given the little runt the official Loan Officer Murphy Glare, that steely look that said ‘I am the one in charge here, you’re an unworthy inferior, and if I choose I can grind you into dust.’ The little guy had turned away and that had been that. Seven couples back out on the street where they belonged. Not a bad week at all. And no reason to worry about it now, not when it’s time for Rifle Town! Murphy headed out to the garage to grab the Coleman.

Another pan of Spiffy-Pop was slowly heating over the burner as Sheriff Caleb Hunter spurred his trusty steed Bullet forward. At his side rode Deputy Rainfoot, but not the original Rainfoot. Murphy had sat through all of the original black and white episodes and was now well into the color ones. Empty beer cans littered the floor, a fresh bowl of Spiffy-Pop was on the way, and Murphy was having a perfect evening. That little whining voice of the wimp at the bank had long since been swallowed by the gunfire as Sheriff Hunter shot down wave after wave of villains, the nagging voice of Heather had given way to the music of the cowboys as they played their harmonicas around the campfire, all of life’s cares had faded to nothing as the beer muffled his brain and the Rifle Town adventures continued. But now there was something new, just noticeable enough to be distracting. A sort of hissing sound, coming from the Spiffy-Pop as it heated.

Murphy leaned forward and listened carefully to the Coleman, wondering momentarily if there might be a leak in the hoses. But the stove was practically new, since Murphy had never actually gone camping, and he immediately realized the sound was issuing from the pan of popcorn itself. There was that familiar old sizzle that he remembered so fondly, but beneath it was an odd hiss that reminded him of rattlesnakes. He found it hard to concentrate and realized he was getting a little drunk. But that sound was peculiar, there was almost a hint of menace in it, almost as if… Murphy leaned forward until his face was within inches of the foil covered pan.
He jerked back instinctively, and then smiled broadly as a second and third kernel of popcorn began hissing frantically before popping loudly under the foil.
“Look out, Sheriff” he chuckled, “SNAKES!” And Murphy opened another can of beer.

A few hours later several empty Spiffy-Pop pans lay among the empty beer cans forming a ring around Murphy’s recliner. He was now very drunk, and the last episode of Rifle Town was just beginning. Murphy was delighted that Heather still hadn’t returned to bother him, and was hoping his luck would hold until the final show was over. A fresh pan of popcorn was heating and there was still plenty of beer, even if it was that cheap crap. Not so bad. Not a bad night at all. Except….there it was again. That angry hissing.

Murphy scowled at the Spiffy-Pop. There was almost something mocking in the first POP, and those that followed seemed somehow to nag and scold as he listened.
“Whoa, he mumbled, “Must be the beer.”
His scowl moved to the half empty can of beer he was holding. He got rid of it by drinking it down and replacing it with another. Glancing up he noticed Deputy Rainfoot, not the original one, was about to be shot in the back. But Sheriff Caleb Hunter was springing from a hillside to pounce unsuspected upon the outlaws. Murphy’s stomach was beginning to feel bloated from the numerous pans of popcorn, but the beer was washing it down just fine. He ignored the mild internal rumbling as Sheriff Hunter fired and a bad guy fell spectacularly from his horse and into a ravine. Another masked bandit was thrown from his saddle and the popcorn continued to roast. But there was definitely something odd about the popping. No there wasn’t, don’t be silly, you’re just drunk. Yes there was.

Just beneath the now constant popping, Murphy could hear something like a moaning sound. An almost sorrowful wailing, as though tortured souls were mourning some unbearable loss. A sound of hopelessness that chilled his spine as he listened.
“Get a grip” he stammered, “It’s just the beer.” But there was no mistaking it. The sound rose in volume as he leaned back away from the Coleman, his nerves insisting there was something very wrong happening here.

Murphy snapped forward suddenly and jerked the popcorn angrily from the stove. The tin handle seared his palm but he ignored it as he plunged his face into the globe of foil, biting savagely. Popcorn filled the air as he spat out crumpled foil like a lion tearing away the underbelly of a zebra.
“THERE!” he bellowed triumphantly, stuffing his mouth with fresh hot popcorn. That’s what you get when you start bothering Loan Officer Murphy. You get eaten! Count on it! He settled back into the recliner and returned his gaze to the screen as sunset fell across a windswept Texas desert. Sheriff Hunter and Rainfoot were gathering around a small campfire for the night, and all was right with the world even if it was in color.

The bloated feeling in Murphy’s stomach was giving way to a burning sensation, not just the nausea beer might bring but a painful sensation, almost like the pain of tissue being stretched. This was suddenly becoming a little alarming! Should he call the doctor or something? He realized it was the weekend, so he would have to call the hospital instead. Hmmm... expensive. Crap, did he have to go to work tomorrow? He puzzled drunkenly a moment before remembering that tomorrow was only Saturday, the first of another month. No work to worry about, but wasn’t there something about the end of the month? He couldn’t recall. Forget it, not important, relax. But his stomach was growing ever more painful as he continued trying to concentrate on the television screen. And it was getting hard to hear the program... the air was again filled with that horrible moaning he had noticed earlier. It was much louder now, and the indistinct wailing had given way to a single clearly discernable word, repeated endlessly by what seemed the voice of thousands…
“homes… homes….Homes….HOMES …”

Sheriff Hunter was pulling a harmonica from his pocket the way he always did at the end of a show, Deputy Rainfoot was stirring something in a pan over the small campfire, and for a moment Murphy was young again. He knew they were about to sing the Trail Song, and this was gonna be the very last time they ever sang it, and then his magical friends from television land weren’t going to come visit him anymore, and it was gonna be really awful and he was gonna be so alone, and it hurt all over again. Except this time it was even worse because this time it wasn’t that phony Rainfoot guy, this time it was the REAL Rainfoot, Johnny Awenasa, sitting there in living color even though he was only ever filmed in black and white.

“Glad you’re enjoying it, but you shouldn’t eat too much” smiled Rainfoot, and Murphy realized the sheriff was eating popcorn while reaching for the harmonica. The instrument fell back into the sheriff’s shirt pocket as he turned to face his Indian guide with a smile.
“Why not? Tastes great!”
“Yes, but it angers the spirits.”
“Really! How’s that?”
“Well… It is said among many of the Great Tribes that spirits live in the corn. Every kernel is home to a spirit, and when you heat the corn it makes the spirits angry. That’s why the corn pops.”
Sheriff Hunter chuckled and tilted back his hat the way he always used to do, and then he was pulling the harmonica from his pocket and the background music was starting and they were gonna sing the Trail Song now.

The pain in Murphy’s stomach had become an enormous raging flame that demanded his full attention. Glancing down, he realized he was actually swelling up terribly, his loose-fitting shirt now stretched to the point of tearing. He felt as though his very skin was about to rip apart. The popcorn seemed to be swelling inside him, trying to push him apart from the inside! This was insane, he must be imagining it… it was only that stupid cheap beer. But he felt a growing sense of desperation as he tried to focus on the television.

Deputy Rainfoot, the real one, was shaking the pan over the fire, except it wasn’t a caste iron pan like usual; it was a little tin Spiffy-Pop pan, and the foil was puffing up into a huge silvery globe, ready to burst right open. The moaning voices filled Murphy’s head with their insistent chanting….”HOMES… HOMES….HOMES…” and Deputy Rainfoot was looking directly at the camera, staring directly into Murphy’s eyes and smiling that odd sad smile of his, and that’s not how it was supposed to end, he never looked right at the camera, and Murphy’s stomach hurt so bad, and this wasn’t right, it wasn’t supposed to end this way! The last voice Murphy ever heard was very loud and was filled with the purest of outrage.

“Give Them BACK!”

Heather had intended to be home much earlier that evening, but one of the bald tires Murphy refused to replace had finally worn too thin and gone flat. She had walked three miles home, only to find the horrid spectacle that eventually became local legend. The medical profession could offer no explanation whatsoever that might account for a man suddenly bursting apart in such a manner. It was finally attributed to unknown causes and forgotten about. The bank was equally mystified upon realizing all of Murphy’s documentation had vanished from his cubicle. But customers with missing records were eventually granted new loans, and life went on as usual. The insurance paid for a proper burial, with enough money left over for Heather to purchase a very tasteful orange sofa she had greatly admired. And two matching chairs.