The Squirrels of Vhuvutu

My situation was alarming.

I was harnessed into what seemed to be a giant slingshot suspended a few feet off the ground and facing the ocean. Between me and the waves was a great bonfire built before a very long wall of rocks, roughly three feet high. Gathered on either side of the bonfire were scores of chanting squirrels. They were praying. The group to the left of the bonfire faced me and were chanting “Efree Wee Lee.” The group to the right of the flames faced the ocean and were much more fervent in their chant of “Jay Su Ja Mess Reek Tair.” Perhaps the strangest bit to all of this was that far to my immediate left a quintet of enslaved chipmunks flutists played Michael Jackson’s “Will You Be There” over and over again.

I had the distinct, unpleasant idea that the squirrels were intending to slingshot me over the stone wall and into the ocean. Clearly my trip to the isle of Vhuvutu had been most disagreeable.

***

The squirrels were a group of tribal sciuridae—something Fibro, my imaginary pet raccoon, had told me about at length when he was drunk and/or stoned—that had created an elaborate society here on the isle of Vhuvutu, which is located somewhere between North America and Near Nearington. The island was primitive, though the native squirrels had an odd affinity for the films of the 1990s, the only relic of modernity to be seen. That was particularly quizzical to me, as there were no televisions or movie theaters anywhere that I could see. There was no plumbing, no electricity, and nothing more than dirt paths from the beach up to the largest village, Cluthkootu. The squirrels of Vhuvutu wore face paint and feathers and the bones of their enemies. Totem poles stood at the entrance to each village, each about four feet tall and featuring the faces of once-fearsome squirrels, legendary heroes, and chiefs from their respective village. Each totem was inscribed with the phrase tikem roodu, dikem woohu, dikem chukchoo, dikem squiruhl—which roughly translates to “Tell stories, make music, make carvings, make babies.” The totem at Cluthkootu, though, stood a staggering 11 feet, and contained a carving of the face of every one of the Vhuvutu nation’s leaders, spanning over 100 generations. At the top of the mighty totem was the carving of the current leader, Eethippi.

I came to discover, in my brief time on the island, that Eethippi was not only the chieftain of the entire population, but he was also the high priest of the local religion, which seemed to be based on the film Free Willy. Indeed, at the exact center of Vhuvutu, was a large billboard advertising the film. The poster was faded, as if it had been there since 1993 when the movie first debuted. And for all I knew it had been there that long, as nothing in my upbringing ever made me aware of this tiny island. Each night at sundown every squirrel on Vhuvutu would come to their village’s prayer square, face the billboard, and chant “Efree Wee Lee Jay Su Ja Mess Reek Ter” for nearly two hours before stopping and continuing about their nightly routine. Church consisted of a weekly gathering in Cluthkootu (Vhuvutu was tiny enough that no village was more than a one hour journey from Cluthkootu), during which Eethippi would read the script of Free Willy, translated into Vhuvutuan, followed by a sermon in which he promised of a great whale who would one day come to Vhuvutu. His story about this great whale was the faith that the whole society seemed to be built upon: that when the whale came, the squirrels would be charged by their god, Jason James Richter, to release it back into the ocean. As a reward for their service, Jason James Richter would use his divine power to see that the squirrels of Vhuvutu would be plentiful in nuts and free of harm.

Until then, the squirrels of Vhuvutu were doomed to spend an eternity of nutless winters engaged in an endless war with the chipmunks of the nearby island of Cheekogovo—heathens, according to Eethippi, who practiced the false religion of Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey. In the one and only sermon of Eethippi’s that I witnessed, he animatedly told that the squirrels’ miraculous destiny was about to be fulfilled.

Destiny! The whale had come.

Destiny! It would be returned to the sea.

Destiny! Their winter would be plentiful in nuts.

Destiny! The vile chipmunks of Cheekogovo would be destroyed.

The fulfillment of this destiny, it would seem, is the predicament I found myself in on the beaches of Vhuvutu.

***

I rather resented being thought of as a whale, if I’m being quite frank. I had been watching my figure in the months leading up to my unfortunate detour in Vhuvutu, and I was rather proud of the 18.6 lbs. I’d lost. I hadn’t eaten a turkey leg that entire time, a fact that almost led me to change my name to No Turkey Legs Jeff. But apparently my attempts to slim down were unnoticed by the squirrels of Vhuvutu, who immediately proclaimed me the sacrificial and divine whale the moment they saw me. This was an annoyance, to be certain, as I was just trying to get home to East Elmhurst when I was shipwrecked on this unfashionable isle of rodents. Getting home was looking less and less likely, though, as my journey with Fibro—who I was mostly sure was dead at this point—had taken me on a convoluted loop through places and situations (like this one) that I would rather forget. And now here I was in a slingshot, helpless in the face of my fate of being flung into the ocean like a rejected fish. As both my feet and hands were tied, I was certain to drown unless some magical dolphins took pity on me and saved me. I didn’t like my chances, considering how my encounter with the dolphins of WowBigHappyFun ended.

After a couple of hours the chanting ended abruptly when Eethippi motioned for silence. He began a strange series of dance moves—which I eventually realized was the choreography of C+C Music Factory’s “Things that Make You Go Hmmm…” music video—assiduously accentuating each motion with extreme concentration. During this strange dance, I felt myself being pulled slowly backward. This was it. I was about to die.

My life flashed before my eyes: fried chicken, pizza, pork fried rice, egg rolls, ice cream, turkey legs, Fibro. FIBRO! I hoped that damn imaginary raccoon was still alive so that I could kill him with my bare hands the next time I saw him! I closed my eyes and imagined throttling that beady-eyed stoner. This gave me calm as I rested in the remarkably comfortable slingshot of death. I opened my eyes when I felt myself stop moving backwards. Eethippi was doing the moonwalk. He finished with a twirl and screamed out “EEEEEHEEEEE!!!!” He then thrust right hand in the air.

The slingshot was released and I was flung swiftly into the air. I careened over Eethippi and the squirrels of Vhuvutu, at least 50 feet in the air, and out over the ocean. At the same moment a large and magnificent airship swooped in from the right side of my vision and cast a net out below its bilge, into which I safely landed. The net, with me in it, was immediately reeled upwards toward the deck of the flying vessel. From my vantage point, I was able to see the shores of Vhuvutu below me, where a massive battle was taking place around the ceremonial slingshot between the squirrels and what I can safely assume were the chipmunks of Cheekogovo. Eethippi was jumping up and down in extreme anger and shaking his fist in my direction.

It seemed, from my perch, that the squirrels were outnumbered and being cornered between the sea and the mighty battalion of chipmunks. They had failed Jason James Richter, and so it seemed that their doom had come at last. I felt sad for them in that moment; I had quite enjoyed Free Willy as a child and could see how one might re-interpret it into a tribal religion.

***

I was hoisted up and across to the center of the deck of the airship, a marvelous craft the likes of which I had never seen. The wooden rails around the deck were affixed with golden fastenings, and inlaid with silver. Each of the seven propellers holding the ship up were made of pure gold and hummed nearly silently as they whirled around at a dizzying speed. On the forward end of the deck was a towering red sail. As I looked at it from behind I could tell that there was something embroidered on the front, though what it was I could not say for certain. Perhaps a horn of some sort? Magnificent cannons lined the deck, each made of solid platinum and etched with swirly brass patterns. The flying barge was larger than any cruise ship I had ever seen, and far more grand. I was unceremoniously dumped in the middle of the deck and as I looked up I found myself in the center of a ring of rhinoceroses. They looked like an unpleasant group and I immediately began to wonder if I’d just gone from the frying pan and into the fire.

Looking around the circle, who should I see but that damnable raccoon Fibro. I lunged for the overgrown rat.

“I’m going to kill you!”

“Whoa, dude! Calm down! What the crap, man? I just saved your life!”

His words fell on deaf ears, though, as I chased him around the circle of rhinos (quite aware that they were all laughing at us), snatching at his ever just-out-of-reach tail.

“If it weren’t for you, my life wouldn’t NEED saving!”

“Dude, chill! Chill!”

“ENOUGH!” came a roar from the aft of the deck. The rhinos parted and I saw an enormous rhinoceros stomp toward Fibro and I, just as I had caught the scalawag and had my hands around his throat. This rhinoceros was quite clearly the captain, and obviously female. Her full-length red leather jacket was studded with precious stones, as were her over-the-knee red leather boots.

“Fibro, is this the human?”

“Yes,” he gurgled out.

“Turkey Leg Jeff, welcome to the Golden Camembert. I am Captain Matilda Paddington-Jones and you and the raccoon are my prisoners. Guards!”

And with that, Fibro was yanked from my grasp and both he and I were aggressively hauled to our feet and dragged away from Captain Paddington-Jones.

“We had a deal, Tilly!” Fibro screamed as we were pulled down a staircase into the dark lower decks of the Golden Camembert.

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Matilda Paddington-Jones: Rhino, Dreamer, & Interpreter of Awesomeness

Matilda Paddington-Jones was in her room, eating nibbles off a wheel of Henning’s Wisconsin cheddar, and rocking out hard to “Kiss Me Deadly” (on loop). She bopped around the room, which shook mightily from her enormous size, lip syncing the lyrics, checking herself out in the mirror, and using an enormous pork shank as an imaginary microphone. She wore a red leather jacket; a black tank top that failed to hide her enormous purple belly; a sexy black leather cuff, bedazzled with the cheap rhinestones she bought at Kim’s Boutique Unique; a tight jean skirt; hot pink fishnets; and a pair of Rebecca Minkoff Seta booties. She felt good. She felt strong. She felt like a temptress—like a sensual female goddess of desire, filled with jungle heat and blonde ambition… even though she had no hair on her head.

Matilda danced in front of her Nelson poster, gazing up with that look of trashy lust mixed with naive innocence that only a 15 year old girl can pull off. Gunnar, I bet you can’t live without my love and affection, she thought as she puckered her lips and gave a big, slurpy kiss to the poster, leaving behind the fragrant residue of blueberry pancake Lip Smacker. She plopped down on her bed, nearly crushing it with her 3,000-pound frame. She opened her diary—a totally bitchin’, 300-page spiral-bound with Poison’s Flesh & Blood album art on the cover—and began to write…

Dear Lita,

I went to a party last Saturday night. I didn’t get laid. I got in a fight. Just kidding. But I did go to a party. It’s late Saturday night and I just got back from the most kick-ass night of my life. I went to Patsy Hildy’s party tonight. Her parents were out of town at a cheese party in Near Nearington. I know I’ve told you that Patsy is an anus plunger, but it was a pretty chill of her to invite me to her party, even after I gave her all the wrong answers to our biology midterm. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t know I did that. LOL.

Anyway, why am I wasting time on Patsy? I have HUGE news! I kissed Jag Jagson tonight. Jag Jagson!!! Jag Jagson!!! RIGHT?!?!?!?! I know, I can’t believe it either! So here’s how it happened…

Gina came and picked me up. She just got her license and her parents bought her this janky old black Camero, which is actually really sweet since it has these cool neon pink punket decals on the side. So she picks me up and of course she is blasting Cherry Pie when she pulls into the driveway and Mom totally flips out and starts screaming at me, “Matilda! Paddington! Jones! Tell your friends to stop playing that noise when they are in this neighborhood! What will the neighbors think?” Umm… they’ll probably think we’re fat ass rhinos who can impale them with our noses?

So anyway I go out an get into Gina’s car. “My mom is spazzing out about Warrant. Turn it down,” I tell Gina.

“Eff that! I’m turning it up!” Then she totally cranked the volume up and peeled out of the driveway, which totally made that screechy squealing noise. I know Mom is going to go all thundershit on me about that tomorrow. But who cares?

We got to Patsy’s and she’s all, “So great you came!” Whatever, bitch. I hate you. You hate me (I think) and whatever, I’m here and we don’t need to talk. But she basically commandeered Gina, like she was Jack Sparrow stealing a ship, and off Gina went with a totally sour face with Patsy.

So I was alone! But the party was going pretty strong. All the polar bears were there. God, they are such assholes! They were in the living room, all gathered around this device and shouting something about diamonds. What is it with polar bears and all their tech crap? They are so obsessed with it. Anyway, I guess I was staring at them because Roddy Rufflestuff looked up and lost his fur.

“What the hell are you looking at, fatty? Isn’t there a palette of cheese somewhere for you to shove down your huge nose?” Roddy shouted at me and bared his teeth. He’s such a dick! I guess he kind of scared me a bit, since I tumbled backward into the couch and over the back.

The whole house shook and a bunch of stuff around the room fell—lamps, picture frames, and this really ugly vase too. I was so embarrassed! The polar bears all laughed and soon everyone else in the room—the zebras, the chimps, and even the cows—was laughing at me. It was so awful; I started to cry. I couldn’t really get upright, so I just rolled over and fell on the floor. That just made everyone laugh even more. I was totally mortified, so I just stampeded out of there, out into the front yard, and down to a cul-de-sac at the end of the street.

Lita, it was so awful! What the hell is wrong with me? I’m such a klutz, but it’s not my fault! Roddy Rufflestuff is such a cum dumpster. I wish I could get back at him and his whole gang of bears. They follow him around like sheep and call him “Commander.” Seriously. One day, when I’m singing on tour, I’ll come back to this crap town and those polar bears are going to wish they hadn’t been such assholes to me. It’s going to happen, I know it will.

But you are probably wondering how all of this is connected to me kissing Jag Jagson. So I’ll tell you.

I was crying. Sobbing my freaking brains out. I was sitting on the curb, facing out to the street. The Passily Woods were behind me. Obviously I didn’t realize I was sitting right outside the Passily Woods, or I would have been terrified—

OMG, before I forget, I have to write this down: I saw Pavel Codirose’s weird green hat with the red feather in the Passily Woods. TELL THIS TO MR. KELLY AT SCHOOL ON MONDAY!!!!!

—but I was sitting there and totally didn’t know it, and I was bawling like Tonya Harding when I heard a noise behind me. I jumped up and spun around and fell right on my ass. God, I am such a klutz!

I see these two yellow eyes peering out of the bramble right in front of me. That’s when it hit me—OH CRAP, THIS IS THE PASSILY WOODS AND THOSE ARE CAT EYES—and I nearly crapped my pants. I was trying desperately to get up. I must have looked like such an obese garbage barge, rolling around on my ass. There was a big ass cat in those woods and he was looking for dinner. I was only half correct.

“Hey,” came the soft voice out of the woods. “Tilly? S’that you? You need help?”

Of course, I knew right then that it was Jag!

“Fuck nuggets. Jag?” I was even more embarrassed. Why did Jag have to see me on my ass like that?

“Here, I’ll help you up.” And he came out, on all fours (I nearly fainted. How hot is that?), and did that sexy cat thing where he sort of slinked around behind me. He used his head to prop me up. He is so strong. GAH! He’s so hot! So he is able to help prop me up and he was so cool about it. Like he didn’t even break a sweat.

I mumbled a thank you. Honestly, I just wanted him to go away. I was so embarrassed that he saw me crying, and then saw me rolling around, not able to get up. But then he was so sweet; he asked if I was okay.

“Yeah,” I said. “Just fat ass rhino problems.”

“You’re not fat. You’re a rhino. Rhinos are big.”

“Whatever. It’s cool. I don’t mind my size. Like at home, everything is super big and our house is built solid so nothing falls over. It’s just other people that have a problem with me. Like those asshole polar bears.” I probably sounded like I was whining. God, I’m such a spaz.

“I hate those polar bears. They are always trying to get me in on their shit. They just assume that since I’m a cat, I want to be a misfit or something. Don’t pay attention to those paper weights. They’re jerks. I think you’re kick-ass.”

I think I blushed when he said that. No, seriously! My cheeks felt like they were violet. “You do?” I asked him.

“Totally! First off, you’re purple, which makes you unique. I have never met a purple rhinoceros in my life other than you. Well, your parents, but you know—your family. And your style is kick. I mean, hardcore kick. You’re so punk. I wish I could dress like that, but it’s already hard enough for people to see me as more than a cat, so I have to dress like a quadrilateral all the time. Plus, you always have those cool notebooks with all those vintage album covers. That’s so kick. I love those.”

DYING. “You like my notebooks? I didn’t know anybody but me liked Night Ranger!”

“Night Ranger’s kick! I love them.”

Then we both got quiet, but I thought Matilda, you are a Goonie and you’re down there. It’s your time. Work with this fucking moment. Work it hard. So I said, “Do you want to hang out sometime, cause I’ve got all these bitchin’ vinyls at home and we could listen to them? Plus, I make my mom by BagelBites, even though they violate my rule to never eat foods that are registered trademarks. So we could have pizza on a bagel, listen to Styxx, and just chill.”

And Jag just… looked at me. I mean not that looking at me like ‘oh, I’m just looking at you,’ but, like, looking. Like I was some piece of lead that his x-ray vision couldn’t penetrate. I guess it’s the way you look at someone when that someone is someone to you.

“Chill,” he asked, but sort of more like a statement? “Yeah. Yeah, that would be cool.”

“You seem unsure.”

“Nobody’s ever asked me to chill at their house. Ever.”

“You’re the coolest guy in school. That can’t be true.”

“I don’t think anybody’s parents will let them have a cat in their house.”

“Oh,” I said. It was a bit awkward. That’s really sad, you know? That people are so prejudiced and shit. But when I thought about in that second and like, now, as I’m writing, I’m pretty sure Mom and Dad wouldn’t (won’t) be cool with having a jaguar over for dinner, or even just BagelBites. “Well, other people are Spam juice. Purple rhinos are cool as hell. We won’t have any problem having you over our house. Seriously, any day after school is cool. Maybe Tuesday?”

He smiled at me and said, “Definitely. I can’t wait.” And then he kissed me. No, I mean seriously! It was so fast. Like he was sitting next to me and then his lips were on mine and then his tongue was in my mouth. It took me like 4 hours to respond before I started kissing him back and then, in my mind, I was like C’mon, pretty baby, kiss me! C’mon, pretty baby, kiss me! C’mon, pretty baby, kiss me deadly!!! And it felt like it went on forever and ever, and that it would never end, but that’s a good thing because it was like biting into a warm roll with melting butter on it or climbing into a freshly-made bed with sheets that smell like fabric softener. It was like something that felt comfortable and special that you don’t get too often, so when you do it makes an impression. I think that maybe this is what winning feels like.

We stopped kissing and he smiled and I could see his fangs—so hot—and he just sort of slyly slinked back into the the woods and said, “Talk to you soon, Tilly.”

I think I was stunned because I didn’t say anything back, but I should have! Why was he going into the Passily Woods? He can probably take care of himself, being a cat and all, but there are things in there. I don’t want to think about it because I’m going to bed soon and it’ll give me nightmares. And I don’t want nightmares. I want to climb into my bed and dream about Jag Jagson being here in my room with me on Tuesday.

For real, I have to go and think about how I’m going to tell Mom that there’s going to be a jaguar in our house in 3 days. She’s going to flip her shit. Anyway, I gotta go, Lita.

Live like a runaway and keep your curves dangerous,

Matilda Paddington-Jones
Rhino, Dreamer, and Interpreter of Awesomeness

Matilda closed her journal and bounded down to the kitchen. She opened the freezer and took out a box of BagelBites. She tossed a dozen onto a plate and put them in the microwave. She hummed a verse of “Unskinny Bop” while she waited for them to cook, swinging her head from side to side, thinking about tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that, until she’d get to see Jag again.

“Unskinny bop, nothin’ more to say,” she sang as she opened the microwave door, popped a BagelBite into her mouth, and ran back upstairs to lay awake and dream of jaguars and rock and roll.