Stuff That Happened to Thing #5
Part 12: The Phantom Episode

Once again featuring more words, or perhaps merely continuing the new standard of length established by the previous episode!

In our last episode, Albatross the One was called away into contract negotiation, Hwango the Indistinct was run over by a steamroller, and Thing #5 went to sleep in the freezer section of a large supermarket. We join them now as they discover the title of this exciting new episode.

"What?!" screamed Thing #5. "You've got to be kidding!"

"Don't yell at me, I didn't choose the title," Hwango the Indistinct said, cowering a little.

"But, it's not even really a current joke anymore! Why bother?!" Thing complained.

"Maybe it's just coincidence," Hwango suggested. Thing glared at him for a moment while he debated whether to use violence or sarcasm in this situation. While he was doing so, Hwango's expression changed suddenly, and he seemed to be thinking very hard - perhaps even at the level of someone with only partial brain damage. "Perhaps the title refers to the length of time it's taken this episode to be produced."

"Or," said a new voice, "perhaps it's a more complex joke than you originally suspected, because it refers to Episode 1 of this story - The Phantom Episode."

Thing and Hwango turned to see who had spoken, and were mildly surprised to discover that it was Albatross the One.

"Sorry I'm late," said Albat, "but I was trying to think of a good excuse for being late."

"I see that you failed," Thing said.

Albat narrowed his eyes for a moment, possibly in anger, and possibly against the glare from the sun reflecting off the grapes to his left. I guess he was probably angry then, huh? They'd have to be pretty damn shiny grapes, otherwise.

"I see that they've renewed your contract," Thing said, with no hint as to his feelings regarding the matter.

"In a matter of speaking," said Albat. "My role in the story has changed a bit. Instead of simply being a new character added to re-energize the story and give you two an excuse to do something other than attack one another, I'm now going to act as a plot device designed to give the story new direction and allow for some variety in the action."

Hwango nodded, clearly impressed by all of this, and certain that the change was a sensible course of action. Thing just stood there for a moment in stunned silence.

"That's the same job," he eventually started to object, but was interrupted by frantic shushing from Albat.

"Changing the subject by returning to an earlier comment," Hwango began, changing the subject by returning to an earlier comment, "I thought this episode was called The Phantom Episode - but you just said that Episode 1 was the Phantom Episode."

"Ah, but it's only the title of this episode, whereas Episode 1 is the Phantom Episode, because it does not actually exist. So, this episode is called The Phantom Episode because it is about The Phantom Episode," Albat explained. Hwango nodded and smiled. Then his eyes crossed, and he slowly tipped over.

"That's ridiculous," objected Thing. "No, it's worse than that. It's dumb. I refuse to be any part of this story line."

"Now, Thing," Albat admonished, "You've barely participated in the last few episodes. You can't sit them all out, or we'll have to rename the story Stuff That Happened to Hwango the Indistinct While Thing #5 Got All Self-Important and Refused to Participate - and then we'd have to print a whole new batch of promotional materials for the movie."

"All right, all right. Just shut up before I'm compelled to insert large pieces of lawn furniture into your head." Thing capitulated.

Hwango seemed to return to what passed for his senses, and stood up.

"Have we abandoned the word 'said?' The last few elocutions appear to be labeled with a plethora of manifold verbs," he observed.

"Perhaps the narrator has become disenchanted with the frequent recurrence of the same term," Thing suggested, with his trademark perspicacity. "Perchance this heralds a new epoch of vocabularical diversity."

"There's no such word as vocabularical," Albat argued, "and both of you sound ridiculous."

"Sorry. Me speak smaller words now," Thing said sarcastically.

"That didn't last long," commented Hwango, who was oblivious to the momentary relapse of varying expression centered upon him.

"Let's get out of this grocery store so we can get to the funny situations that take place in the village outside," Thing said, using foreshadowing so heavy-handed it wasn't even really foreshadowing.

The trio kicked their way through the glass in the automatic doors and stepped outside into the sun. Well, not directly into the sun, of course. I don't mean that they physically entered the actual ball of superheated gas. It would be more accurate to say that they emerged from the building and stepped into an area illuminated by sunlight. Yes, that's much better.

Before them stood a small village. It seemed to be composed mostly of huts which were constructed of mud and straw, and which looked very odd sitting atop the yellow-lined asphalt of the parking lot in which they stood. There were some rather miserable townsfolk milling around, seemingly oblivious of what was going on around them.

"Don't worry - I'll talk to them," said Albat, as he strode forward confidently. Thing tried to figure out what he wasn't supposed to be worrying about, but remained silent, so as to conserve quotation marks.

"Excuse me, kind sir," Albat said to the first person he encountered. Then man looked up at him, and his eyes widened momentarily. Then his expression turned back into a mask of listless apathy, and he returned his gaze to the asphalt at his feet.

"What's wrong? You looked kind of alarmed for a second there," Albat said. At first it seemed that the man wasn't going to answer, but then he seemed to summon all of his strength and will to live into one tremendous effort and then, struggling visibly against the overwhelming weight of despair, he finally spoke in a bland monotone.

"You're wearing a hat," the man said, "but it won't matter."

Albat looked back and Thing and Hwango in confusion. When neither of them volunteered an explanation for this odd response, he shrugged and turned back to the villager.

"Um...sure. That makes sense. Anyway, can you tell us where we are?" Albat said, smiling in what he must have thought was a friendly manner. The man didn't look at him, though, and remained silent.

"Can you tell us the shortest way to a major city?" Albat said, his smile seeming a bit more forced. Once again, he received nothing but silence. "Can you give us any sort of useful navigational information at all?" he asked, but still received no answer. Exasperated, Albat sarcastically asked, "I don't suppose you have a fleet of missile-laden attack helicopters that we could borrow, do you? Or could you perhaps fold space and time so as to let us travel the breadth of the universe with a single step?" All of this was met only with more silence. "Can you at least give me something to drink? Could I trouble you for a glass of water?"

The man in front of him jerked to attention so suddenly that it wouldn't have surprised Thing if his head had snapped off. The man's head, I mean. Certainly Thing would have been surprised if his own head had snapped off. Anyway, everyone around the man reacted in a similar manner. The entire crowd suddenly seemed infused with life and happiness, and several people began to laugh, or cheer, or even cry with relief.

"It is as the great prophecy foretold!" the people cheered in unison. Several of them started dancing with each other, whirling in circles and laughing with joy.

"What is?" Thing asked, totally baffled by the reaction of the townsfolk. One of them managed to calm down enough to supply a straight answer about what was going on.

"Ancient prophecy foretold that one that one day there would come to our village a man wearing a hat, and that he would ask us for a glass of water," he told them, excitement still shining in his eyes. Thing, Hwango, and Albat just stared at him in silence for a moment.

"And...?" Thing prompted.

"And nothing," the man said. "That's all."

"What, nothing like 'and he would bring with him a golden age of prosperity and joy?'"

"Nope, just that he'd be wearing a hat and ask for a glass of water."

"Why all the excitement then?!" Thing screamed at him.

The man recoiled in fear. Everyone stopped dancing and looked at them in alarm. The man replied somewhat nervously, afraid of angering Thing further.

"Well, now we can stop waiting for the prophecy to be fulfilled," he said. "We can get on with our lives."

"You mean to say that ever since this prophecy was made, no one has come to this town wearing a hat and ask you for a glass of water?" Thing asked, disbelievingly. "And that, for generations, your people have spent the intervening time just waiting for it to happen?"

"Well...yes, " the man said, still shaking with fear.

Thing started screaming, and it soon shifted into hysterical laughter. The townsfolk backed away in terror, and Hwango and Albat tried to distance themselves a bit too.

"Everyone is like this! At first I thought it was just Hwango, but it's everyone!" Thing screamed, then fell to the ground, twitching uncontrollably.

"Thing seems awfully excitable these days," remarked Albat. Hwango nodded in agreement.

One of the women of the village, apparently possessed of greater courage than her peers, stepped towards the trio of strangers.

"Please, kind sirs. You have fulfilled the prophecy that has loomed over us for as long as we can remember. Will you share our hospitality so that we might express our gratitude?"

"Can I have a balloon?" Hwango asked. The woman blinked for a moment.

"Sure," she said.

"Okay, then!" Hwango said excitedly. The woman gestured for them to follow her, and moved off through the crowd. Albat dragged Thing with them as they entered the village.

A short time later, Thing had calmed down enough to be seated with his companions at a long table in the village square. The townsfolk had quickly set up the area for some kind of celebration in honor of this momentous occasion, and Thing, Albat, and Hwango were to be the guests of honor. Hwango had a large red balloon tied around his left wrist.

"Good people," the leader of village began, addressing the assembled crowd, "we have suffered under the weight of the prophecy for many centuries, and it has sucked the life from our spirits, and made us bitter, miserable people."

"What a great motivational speaker, " Thing commented under his breath.

"But today, all of that has ended," the speaker continued. "Today, our lives have been returned to us. In honor of this great day, and to reward our kind visitors, who came to our humble village making unreasonable demands and verbally assaulting our fellow villagers..."

"Uh, oh." said Thing, sensing that this would not go well for them.

"...And who mocked our way of life and displayed a generally superior attitude, I say that we perform -" the village leader paused dramatically, and then shouted, "The Ceremony of Blood!"

As he finished these last words, the citizens began throwing confetti in the air, and started dancing again. Hwango, Thing, and Albat had leapt to their feet and tensed, expecting an attack, but the townsfolk just kept laughing and dancing. After a few moments of this, the trio relaxed a little. Hwango, made bold by his unfathomable stupidity, stepped over to the leader of the village, and tapped him on the shoulder.

"Aren't you going to set upon us with huge serrated knives, slash our flesh to ribbons, and bathe yourselves in our blood?" Hwango asked him, somewhat perplexed. Thing whacked him in the back of the head.

"Don't give them any ideas!" he shouted. He need not have feared, though. The townsfolk looked aghast. Hearing Hwango's question, they had all stopped dancing and were now staring at the trio. The uncomfortable silence was broken as a small child started to cry. Thing, Albat, and Hwango suddenly felt terribly embarrassed. Hwango tried to make himself inconspicuous by hiding behind Thing. Thing shuffled his feet and looked around, trying to think of some way to change the subject. Albat knelt down to tie his shoes, and tried to avoid eye contact with the crowd.

"Why on Earth should we want to do anything like that?" one man finally managed to ask. The trio looked even more embarrassed. Hwango mumbled something.

"What was that?" the leader of the village said, a little angrily. The crying child's mother tried to reassure him that the bad men would go away soon.

"I just figured that since it's called the Ceremony of Blood know." Hwango mumbled.

"The ceremony dates back hundreds of years," the man said. "The customs for celebrating it have changed considerably in that time!"

"I see - just like Valentine's Day!" Albat said, understanding dawning on him like a giant vat of molten lead being poured on a small puppy. I'm sorry, that simile was horrible, and makes no sense. Never mind.

"Anyway," said Albat, "On the first Valentine's Day, the people of the Vale of Tines needed to sacrifice human hearts to their ancient god Krunugragoth, whose fingers ended in razor sharp forks. They didn't want to sacrifice anyone that somebody cared about, so they had to figure out a way to screen out people that no one would miss. So everyone asked somebody to testify that they cared for them - to be their 'Valentine.' Everyone who found someone to be their Valentine was spared. Anyone without a Valentine was then savagely ripped apart, and their bloody heart sacrificed to the hungry god, so that the other townsfolk could avoid his wrath. That's where the heart as a symbol of Valentine's Day comes from."

There was total silence. Everyone, including Thing and Hwango, just stared at Albat. The crying child had stopped crying, since he was too overwhelmed by primal horror to do so. His eyes were enormous saucers of terror aimed directly at Albat. Albat looked around nervously, and suddenly the child began screaming at the top of his lungs, and tears streamed down the sides of his face like rivers of... um... water. Yeah, that makes sense.

The townsfolk began picking up rocks and sticks, and advanced on Albat. Thing and Hwango quietly backed away, intending to leave Albat to face the mob alone. Albat turned and ran, though, and all three of them made a break for it. They headed back the way they had come, towards the grocery store. They emerged from the outskirts of the village with the angry mob close at their heels.

"This is all your fault!" one of the characters said to another. What? Is it really necessary for me to use their names? It is? Okay, fine.

"I can't believe you just said that to me!" Thing #5 shouted at Albat.

"I didn't! It was Hwango - and he said it to me!" Hwango said.

"Wait a minute - now I'm all confused," said Albat to Thing. "Albat, was Thing talking a minute ago, or was it you?"

"We've all been talking," said Hwango, "even Albat."

"Aargh, my brain!" Thing screamed, and clutched at Hwango's head. What, you mean I can't just use their names at random? Sheesh, this narrator job is getting more and more demanding all the time.

Suddenly, a blazing ball of crackling light roared around the corner and slammed into Hwango. The force of the blow sent him hurtling across the parking lot and through one of the supermarket's windows. As broken glass fell to the sidewalk like razor sharp rain, the ball of fire seemed to be gathering itself for another strike. Albat pointed to it dramatically and supplied a verbal description of the ongoing action.

"Look!" he shouted theatrically, "Hwango has been attacked by an highly sophisticated and no doubt expensive special effect!"

Will Hwango survive this attack? Will any of them survive the wrath of the angry mob? Will a whole new set of characters replace them after they die? More importantly, what will happen to Hwango's balloon? Tune in next time for a very special episode carved entirely out of cheese!

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Feel free to send me questions, comments, and ceremonial knives.

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