Going Nuts in Acorn

I wrote the following story for a Loft mystery contest, the aim of which was to tell what happened, in 800 words or less, when most residents of a town lose their minds in March (March Madness). I sent Handy Mann to his hometown of Acorn, Iowa, to help solve the mystery. By the way, Acorn and its town cop, Sink, play a prominent role in the second Handy Mann novel, Mimsy.

“What brings you home, Mr. Mann?” Sink asked as we slid onto the worn vinyl benches. The booth had an unobstructed view of the highway through a big picture window. Sink got his nickname in high school because he was a human sinkhole, eating everything within reach. The name stuck even when he became Acorn’s only cop. He didn’t seem to mind any more than I mind that my neighbors call me Handy.

“Mr. Mann?” I said, and he shrugged. We’d known each other forever. “Dad called from Arizona last night. Asked me to drive down this morning and check the house.”

“You know the Linder thing wasn’t an accident, right?”

“Dad told me a pipe burst. That’s not what happened?”

Sink shook his head. He has a wandering eye that makes it seem like he’s looking two directions at once. I focused on the eye pointing at me.

“It was weirder’n hell. Alf and Alma plugged all the drains and turned on every faucet in the house. Bert Timmons stopped by to play cribbage and damn near had to swim in when he opened the door. He found them sitting on the couch, water up to their knees, watching TV like nothing happened.”

“That’s crazy.”

“I know. They’re pissed at each other for flooding the house but neither will admit doing it.”

Nobody had come to take our order. Sink drummed his fingers on the table and eyed the door to the kitchen. We were the only customers in Acorn’s only restaurant.

“What the hell?” he muttered.

I followed the eye aimed at the kitchen and thought I saw something flicker beneath the door. Sink slid out of the booth. I had just climbed out after him when the window behind us shattered. The jagged opening framed the front end of a dusty Ford pickup, tires smoking as the driver tried to reverse off the windowsill.

Sink opened the kitchen door. Fire jumped off the grill and crept up the walls. Margie Miller stood, spatula in hand, captivated by the little television mounted in the corner. Sink hooked her arm and pulled her out of the kitchen. His phone rang.

He said, “Hold onto Margie.” He dashed into the kitchen and turned off the grill and beat down the fire with a towel while he answered the call.

“That was Doc Perkins,” he said, pocketing the phone and ushering us outside.

“Hey, Sink,” Margie said, smiling.

He stared at her like they were strangers.

“Doc was at the Crawford farm all morning and said he could barely get back into town. He counted five accidents in six blocks. Saw at least two houses on fire. No fire trucks in sight. Acorn’s gone nuts . . . no pun intended.”

“Get off the gas, Vern!” he hollered as he reached for the pickup’s passenger door. Vern Mackin was wedged behind the steering wheel, his seatbelt extender tight across a Jabba-the-Hutt belly. He stared out the windshield and kept his foot on the accelerator. The truck suddenly lurched out of the window and raced through the parking lot and across the highway, launching off a crusty March snowdrift to ram into a small brick building boasting a new sign: “Rural Broadcast Services.”

We deposited Margie on the stoop and ran across the highway. Sink muscled open the driver’s door.

“Hey, Sink,” Vern said.

Sink shook his head as he faced me.

“I gotta find out what’s goin’ on. Can you make sure Vern and Margie are okay? And nobody’s hurt inside?”

“Will do. What is this place?”

“The new cable company.”

“In Acorn?”

“I know. Started broadcasting yesterday, I think.”

“Whose dumb idea was that?”

“Nobody local, that’s for sure,” he said as he loped across the highway.

I walked to the back of Vern’s truck to assess the damage. The pickup had caved in the building’s wall and popped open the entry door. I stepped around piles of bricks and stuck my head inside.

“Anybody hurt?” I shouted.

Nobody answered. I noticed light in a doorway at the end of a hall and decided to check it out.

Three huge flat-screen televisions dominated the far wall. They were the only things in the room. Black skid marks on the tile floor said it hadn’t always been empty. The screens displayed a dozen views of different parts of Acorn, each paired with a strange test pattern. On one screen, I watched Bill Peterson light the bushes around his house with a burning two-by-four. The test pattern next to it caught my eye and I stared at it, trying to figure it out.

The next thing I knew, Vern was pulling me away from the fiery cable building. He pried a lighter from my hand.

“Hey, Vern,” I said, smiling.

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