Hector was enjoying watching a live band – The Flying Ostriches – who were playing Creedence Clearwater Revival covers at The Blind Pig. He was getting increasingly drunk, against his better judgement.
“I’ve got work tomorrow,” he weakly told Candice, a regular at the bar who was taking an interest in him tonight and plying him with Tequila shots.
“I thought you were a freelancer who could work whenever he wants, baby,” she said, her ams wrapped around his neck, her sweet hips swaying.
“I do, but I’ve still got deadlines,” he said, wriggling himself free from her grip. He span around and walked into a heavyset man, spilling his own drink slightly. He wandered off from Candice towards the stage.
“Who’s that punk, Candice?” asked the heavyset, bearded man, who was wearing a sleeveless denim jacket covered in badges.
Candice tapped a cigarette, lit it and took a much-needed drag.
“Hector. The weirdest dude on earth.”
The cool, moonlit Californian night sobered Hector up somewhat as he walked home to the apartment he shared in Santa Monica with his friend Chip, who he thought was the weirdest dude on earth.
Chip didn’t work, lived in his gown, smoked exotic drugs all day but somehow had money for the rent. He also seemed to always have a new woman each week. And she was always stacked and smoking hot, according to Hector.
He had a car, too.
That night, Hector returned home to find Chip glued to the television set as usual, the lights off. This time he was sharing their coffee, booze and pizza-stained couch with a sweaty, greasy, plump male who had taken his shirt off, and who Hector didn’t recognise. He had a friendly if disgusting young face that was riddled with pimples. They were both drinking beers, and had finished a pizza off together.
“Hector, this is Big Ben. Big Ben, this is Hector. They call him Big because … actually, why do they call you Big?”
Hector nodded at Big Ben, who lazily returned the greeting.
“What are you watching?” asked Hector.
“This is a new channel that Very Big Ben here introduced me to tonight. I’ve never heard of it before. It’s called The Happy Channel. It’s goddamn amazing. It’s like crack. It’s hidden away on Channel 788. Literally no one knows about it yet. What we have discovered tonight is a miracle. Hector, there aren’t many more miracles left to discover, which is what makes tonight’s discovery all the more amazing. I ask you to bottle this moment because it may never come around again.”
“What’s so great about it?” asked Hector, unconvinced.
“All the content on this channel is designed to pump serotonin into your brain,” explained Chip. “It just gives you good news. Take the weather report. This beautiful woman – who Biggie Ben says gets naked after midnight – tells us it’s going to be sunny every single day. It doesn’t matter if it’s raining or if a hurricane is sweeping up civilians, she’s going to make us believe that it’s sunny. I’m literally drowning in serotonin, dude.”
“Sounds like a crock to me,” said Hector.
“You just don’t know how to be happy. I never need to leave the house ever again. I’m gonna live in this fantasy land and I can’t thank Ben enough for having introduced me to it.”
Hector thought it was the weirdest thing he’d ever heard of. He told Chip he was going to do some work in his room.
“Let’s get lit instead,” suggested Chip. “The sun is out, we’ve got beers and The Happy Channel is grooving.”
Hector knew the sun wasn’t out. It was 11PM. It was dark. He wondered what Chip was smoking this week.
He retreated to his room to work but soon realised it was impossible. He had a deadline in the morning, but the raucous laughter and hooting coming from the living room and the four beers and two Tequila shots he’d had were tempting him away from his work. He couldn’t focus.
“Goddamn Happy Channel. Goddamn Candice,” he muttered, before joining Chip and Ben for drinks.
He drank so much that night that he blacked out.
The next morning, Ben woke him to ask what they should do with Chip’s body over breakfast.
“Where is Chip anyway? It’s not like him to miss pancakes,” said Hector, whose head was throbbing.
Ben pointed him in the direction of Chip’s dead body. Hector could see a lifeless hand poking into his line of vision from underneath the living room table.
Hector vomited, before Ben explained what had happened last night.
“I don’t recall Chip falling over, smashing his head and dying,” protested Hector.
“You saw it happen, carried on dancing, and said we’d sort it out in the morning,” Ben explained cooly.
“You’re telling me that I saw my best friend die, and decided to let him turn into a corpse without calling the ambulance because I was having too much of a good time?”
“That’s exactly what happened. You fell over the body at one point and banged your head. That’s where you got your cut.”
Hector touched the cut on his forehead and winced from the pain. It stung.
“This is insane.”
Hector started to cry.
“You’re grieving, I get it. I’ll give you a moment,” said Ben after Hector frowned at him for asking if he could have his pancakes.
Hector was grieving for his only friend, the hedonistic, devil-may-care bum from the City of Angels who had had the most profound impact on his life. He had introduced Hector to literature, Nietzsche, peyote, girls, and even bits and pieces of happiness. Hector had thought he was the most enlightened guy he ever knew.
And now Ben was suggesting they bury his body. Just like that.
“It might look like murder if we just call the cops. We could go to jail.”
Hector wasn’t sure how it would look like murder, but since his memory of the night before was so paralysed, he went along with whatever the mad and probably dangerous Ben suggested.
They hid the body in the trunk of Chip’s car, before Ben told him they must now go on the run.
It was all too much for Hector, but Ben had the scalpel-sharp, persuasive spiel of a salesman and he was able to tap into Hector’s pain points. Hector didn’t want to share a prison cell with a “Mexican, who will sexually brutalise” him, as Ben graphically put it.
And when Hector asked how they’d survive and make money, Ben told him that he could work on the road as a freelance writer.
“Just carry on doing what you’ve been doing recently. All you need is your laptop. Your life will be exactly the same as it has been until now. The only difference is you’ll be living in Chip’s car as opposed to your flat.”
Hector knew his life would never be the same again.
Ben’s idea was for them to steal Chip’s car – which he reasoned was hardly stealing, since the guy was dead anyway – and live in it. Ben would find Hector clients, and Hector would write the articles.
They would journey across America, evading the cops and living what Ben called the Laptop Lifestyle. Ben was fantasising and getting a boner. He said they would live the American Dream, and there’d be steaks, whiskey and girls.
“And as much blueberry pie as you like.”
Hector thought Ben was a nut, and that he was living in a deluded, murderous fantasy.
But fearing prison, he went along with the chubby stranger’s idea. Just three hours after finding out that his best friend in all the world was dead, Hector found himself on the road with an overweight lunatic.
As they careered into the desert with few possessions and Chip’s corpse, the sun began to set at the end of the pale blue horizon. Ben told Hector about his theories.
“One day there will be no such thing as crime,” he insisted, a calm tranquility radiating across his puffy features.
“How’d you figure,” asked Hector, preparing for an Orwellian dystopian vision in the middle of no where.
“The Happy Channel will wipe it out. Crime won’t exist anymore because we’ll never hear about it. We’ll be hidden from the reality. A new truth propagated by the media – that crime doesn’t exist – will become music to our ears. We’ll accept it.”
“You’re really into this Happy Channel crock.”
Ben told Hector what else he was into. His interests included UFO’s – he claimed to have been abducted – and ZZ Top.
“Relax man,” he said, noticing how nervous Hector was as darkness covered the whole world before them. “Everything will be rad. You’ll see.”
Hector barely slept that night. When he woke up in the morning in the front seat, his body ached and his skin was coarse from sweat. He heard a grunting sound, and when he got out of the car he saw Ben dragging Chip’s blue jeans off his limp, horribly decaying body.
The upper half of Chip’s body was still in the trunk, while the bottom half was out in the open.
“What the fuck are you doing?” asked a panic-gripped Hector. He looked around the desert for passers-by.
“Relax, there isn’t a car in sight,” said Ben. He was flustered; his face was red, and sweat was dripping from his forehead. He took his wet shirt off and then shimmied Chip’s trousers down to his ankles.
“Come on Chip, gimme these jeans,” said Ben teasingly like a girl seducing a man. “You know you want to.”
Hector knew the scene was grotesque.
Days passed. Hector wasn’t able to piece together a decent article because all he could think about was the cops on their tail.
Each time he built momentum and fashioned a good paragraph, distant police sirens rocked his flow.
“They’re fucking coming for us, man.”
“Stop being a queen,” Ben would say.
Worse still, their use of the laptop was rationed because the battery was dying. Its death was brought about much quicker by Ben watching The Happy Channel.
Their money was running out, too. To ease the tension brought about by Chip’s death, the threat of prison, and having to sleep in the proximity of a stranger with acne, Ben suggested they go to a roadhouse that night and hook up.
Against his better judgement, Hector agreed. And so on a cool summer night, just as the sun had set, the two unlikely drifters went to get drinks at a roadhouse.
Hector took a girl back to the car. Just as he was making it with her in the back seat, Ben got into the front seat with an older man who smelled of stale beer and cigarettes. He was a hunter, who was wearing a checkered wool shirt and red hat. He called Ben his “deer.”
“What the fuck is this?” asked Hector.
“I told you we were gonna hook up.”
“But not at the same time. And not with a dude!”
Ben ignored Hector’s protests and started kissing and fondling and molesting the hunter.
The hunter, for his part, threatened to shoot Hector as things got tense.
The girl with Hector was disgusted. She fled, accusing all three of them of being perverts.
Hector, feeling sick, walked half a mile into the desert. He sat on the sand, looked up into the heavens, and asked God to tell him where his life had gone wrong.
“Please get me out of this,” he said in an emotional supplication beneath the Californian stars.
In the morning, he woke up to find the man Ben had made it with dead on the backseat. His head had been mashed.
Hector knew then that Ben was a killer.
“You murdered Chip,” said Hector, distraught.
Ben said he hadn’t killed anyone because killing didn’t exist anymore.
“Just watch. The Happy Channel will wipe it out. And it will be beautiful.”
Ben tried to kiss Hector, who punched him in the face.
“Did that punch exist? Huh?”
Hector didn’t want to go along with Ben’s disturbed fantasy anymore. But as they sat in a diner that afternoon, he began to realise that Ben’s words had a nightmarish truth to them.
As he scanned the diner, he saw everyone holding iPads. They were watching and talking about The Happy Channel. They were smiling widely. Not a single person wasn’t smiling.
He overheard two young girls talk with enthusiasm about how it was so great that crime didn’t exist anymore, and that everyone was going to live forever.
“I’m so amazed that we’re never going to die,” said one of the girls. “But will we always look this young?”
“I don’t know, babe. I just don’t know. But I sure as heck hope so,” replied her friend.
He listened with horror as a trucker told anyone who would listen how his son, who had been missing for twelve years, was now known to be in a place called Pleasure Gardens, a place where all people assumed to be missing were.
“Isn’t it amazing?” he said to both Hector and Ben, tears pouring from his eyes.
“Amazing, brother. That’s some gone news. I’m so happy for you,” beamed Ben. He patted the emotional trucker on the shoulder.
Hector wasn’t beaming.
“Why can’t you be happy for him?” asked Ben.
Hector shook his head.
“What is going on?”
Ben took a big bite out of his burger.
“You still don’t get it do you, man?”
Hector planned to run away from Ben and turn him in to the cops. But as he ranted about his plans in the dusty desert, he knew it was pointless. He was talking to a man with a muddied brain. A man who believed he had been abducted by aliens.
“Whatever you do isn’t real anymore,” said Ben calmly, smiling all the while.
“So, being out here in the desert with a lunatic isn’t real? Having no money isn’t real? Having a dead body in the trunk isn’t real?”
Ben shook his head.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
Over the next few days, hunger began to gnaw away at Hector. His laptop had died, his sanity and reason was slipping away from him, and Chip and the hunter’s body’s were smelling something awful.
Worse still, their gas money had ran out. They were flat broke.
But Ben continued to smile with an inner radiance. He continued to talk about UFO’s as they stumbled through the desert on foot at night.
“You ever been abducted?”
Hector said that he hadn’t but wished that a UFO would swoop down right now like an angel of the stars and take his troubles away. He wanted to go to Neptune.
The next afternoon, they found a bar. It was empty, save for a barman who was entranced as he watched The Happy Channel on the big screen TV.
“Where is everyone?” asked Hector.
“At home watching The Happy Channel,” said the barman. “What can I get you two beautiful souls?”
As Ben and Hector drank, the barman casually told them how he had murdered his wife last week.
“But it doesn’t matter, because murder doesn’t exist anymore,” said the barman, with Ben chiming in for the second half of the sentence. It had become a national manifesto.
“All that exists is beauty and happiness,” said the barman.
“Ain’t that the word, brother.”
At that moment, Hector knew that humanity head reached a new, strangely cruel epoch, where people had become desensitised to reality – or unreality. He couldn’t decide which.
People were killing each other but no one would admit it.
Or no one knew.
Or no one thought they knew.
He didn’t know which. But he knew that if he did, he would go insane.
It was like he was trapped in a chaotic algorithm.
He struck out on his own. He headed for Candice’s apartment back in Santa Monica, hitching a lift off a middle-aged couple on their way home from Reno who couldn’t understand why a young man like Hector wasn’t at home watching The Happy Channel.
“That boy will be eternally depressed until he switches that channel on soon,” joked the man to his wife.
“I’ve never seen so much gloom,” said his wife. “And in this day and age, too.”
His mind warped by near-starvation and heat exhaustion, Hector thought about killing them, just to test Ben’s theory. But he had no weapon.
Moreover, his moral code kicked into gear just as he leaned forward to bonk the wife on the head with his clenched fist.
At Candice’s, he had to knock for what seemed like forever until she opened the door.
“Sorry, I was watching The Happy Channel.”
She was surprised to see him, and didn’t look half as pleased as Hector thought she would.
He had interrupted her at the worst time, she told him.
She poured him a drink. She was gone a long time and Hector heard her on the phone.
Hector, in a bid to shake her back to reality, switched through the channels to show her some bad news. He was looking for a massacre of Muslims, a car bomb in Yemen, a stabbing in Britain. Anything.
There was nothing.
All the media outlets were reporting good news only.
There was happiness everywhere Hector looked.
“I’m sick of this happiness shit, Candice. It’s a lie, can’t you see it?”
“I’ve never seen someone so unhappy,” she told him. “Watch The Happy Channel. It will cure you.”
In a rage, he smashed her television set and sawed her remote control in half with a hacksaw.
He destroyed her iPad and her iPhone.
She feared for her life. She had forgotten what an unhappy man looked like, and she thought he was going to kill her.
Tormented, Hector wandered the empty streets. Few people were around. Everyone else was inside watching The Happy Channel.
He returned to Candice’s house to get some sleep, ready to apologise for what he had done to her entertainment platforms.
But as he entered the house, he was greeted by Ben who was armed with a gun.
Ben shot him in the stomach. He stood over Hector, as the dying man gasped for air.
“All you had to do was be happy. That’s all you had to do. Why was that so hard?”