Changing Channels

When I was a kid, I lived in a subdivision for low-income families built by the lowest bidder, as decided by the highest briber. Somehow this resulted in houses that looked like they were designed and built by M. C. Escher had his focus not been on art but rather upon researching how much meth one could consume before combusting like a Roman candle. Of course, us kids didn’t know any better, or consequently have much in the way of experience with things like “right angles.” I was in my twenties before I realized doors aren’t supposed to fall open or closed but generally stay in the position you left them.

Of course, we still had it better than the trailer park down the road. Verdant Acres was the largest housing development of any kind in the county. It was a seemingly endless expanse of hopes, dreams, and lives being strangled by poverty. The drug trade flourished and as often as not the sheriff’s office didn’t even bother responding to calls.It was also the subject of fierce debate among the residents of my town; many were certain it was a front for a money laundering plot, whereas others insisted it was part of some tax evasion scheme. It’s possible it was both, but we’ll likely never know as people have spent years tracing its exact ownership and have never been able to uncover the name of an actual person or organization, or any sort of real address. I looked into it a bit myself in college and if you ever find yourself in “Missichusemont,” send me a postcard.

Verdant Acres was huge, though just how huge was never totally clear. From the highway, you could see it sprawl across the former pasture and up over the hill far beyond it, a Gordian knot of twisting streets and cul-de-sacs. It was easy to get lost in, and many of my friends swore even their parents lost their way for hours driving along its seemingly endless streets. Some said it had no end, that if you were unlucky you’d wander a labyrinth of dusty streets and corrugated aluminum forever. Eventually you’d give up and there would be an empty trailer waiting for you.

I knew most of this even as a sixth-grader, thanks to my neighbor Crazy Teddy. Teddy was a font of fascinating stories and information despite the numerous gag orders you’d hear his dad and at least one of the family’s lawyers yelling about on the weekends. He was eighteen on paper, but whenever his psychologist noted that there were always a few asterisks next to it. He could be wise as a sage or petty as a second-grader. Our parents warned us kids to stay away from him, but they also told us not to eat too much cereal with marshmallows, and in both cases they were the best things ever to an eleven-year-old. Rumor had it Teddy got his “Crazy” moniker after hijacking an ice cream truck and treating an orphanage to the biggest party it had seen in years, but the only evidence we had of this was his seemingly never-ending supply of ice cream sticks. Teddy’s dad was rich, but our subdivision was one of the few places not zoned to exclude him by name.

I was a lonely kid in the summer of 1988. The hills of eastern Tennessee are picturesque, but sometimes I’d prefer to see a few different ones for a while. The feeling seemed common; as soon as school let out most of my friends’ families took off for places like “Florida.” I’d ask my parents about us going, but they’d just laugh and tell me to go play with the lawn sprinkler they’d point at whenever I asked for something during the summer. You could set it to three different spray patterns, all of which sent the same half-hearted stream of water nearly three feet straight up into the air. All it ever watered was itself. I had a choice of playing Episode XXVII of My Two G.I.Joe Figures Meet The Evil Geyser, or riding down the street to see if Crazy Teddy’s latest house arrest had expired.

I rode my bike onto Teddy’s front yard and marveled at how well-kept it was. The small patches where grass was still able to grow looked like soft green velvet. The bare dirt that made up the rest of the yard was mostly splotches of colors like black and orange. A brightly-colored monarch butterfly landed on a patch and immediately crumbled into dust with a faint “flooph” sound. I decided to walk up the driveway.

Teddy’s window was open, possibly because the sash had been blown out again. I pushed aside the old blanket he used as a curtain and peered inside, graced by every bit of tact my eleven-year-old self didn’t have. It was quiet, so I expected that he wasn’t home. But to my surprise, he was standing across from his desk, poking at some opened electronic device upon it with what seemed to be a screwdriver taped to a broom handle.

“Teddy?” I asked.

“CONCENTRATING” he replied, not looking up. Teddy had one of the books and magazines from his vast library open on his bed. His dad would take him to auctions all across the country and buy him anything he asked for. He had everything from ancient tomes of forgotten lore, one book had nothing but goat-like eyes on the cover that followed me no matter where I stood, to modern magazines about obscure hobbies. The wind showed this magazine to be “Cable Pirate Monthly.” No one knew how Teddy found time to read amongst his mayhem, but he swore he had over half the library memorized. I long ago had seen enough to believe it.

Suddenly there was a loud pop and a flash, and the smell of ozone briefly overpowered the smell of musty books. Teddy sighed, unplugged the device, and tossed it onto a large pile of devices just like it, all similarly scorched. He picked up a box labeled “CABLE TUNER, PROPERTY OF EAST TENNESSEE CABLEVISION” from a stack next to the desk and pulled out another of the devices, quickly unscrewing its top.

“What are you doing?” I asked, even though I knew that he’d always have an answer, and the answer would lead, ultimately, to me screaming a lot. Still, it was better than the sprinkler.

“I am trying to customize a cable box.” He replied, slipping the wood grain sheet metal off the latest device.

“Why?” I had decided it was best to get things moving so I could get the screaming part over with.

“Because my cousin Freddy got free cable yesterday, and that means FURBEAKS.”

“Teddy, maybe you should come out here with me for a few minutes, some fresh air should help.”

“That’s what my dad always says.” He paused. “And most of the social workers.” He turned back to the cable box on his desk. “What you probably do not know is that no one GIVES away cable TV.”

I did in fact know that due to being repeatedly told so, often verbatim, by my dad when I asked why we got only three fuzzy channels, and then only if it wasn’t raining.

“Cable TV is up to twenty-six channels of broadcast delight, and it’s expensive to run the cables. So, why would a company wire up Verdant Acres for free?” Even if they limited themselves to just the part that exists on the local, and mostly Euclidean material plane? The answer is simple.” He looked at me pointedly.

It sunk in that he was waiting for an answer. “M-market research?” I ventured.

“Good guess, but no. It’s because the TV isn’t the product, the residents are.” Teddy turned back to the box, which shorted out like its several dozen predecessors. Teddy snorted. “The cable company charges my dad six hundred dollars apiece for these things. You’d think they’d be more durable.” He tossed the box on the pile and grabbed a fresh one.

“Right, right.” I nodded. “So they’re using the cable TV to sell stuff.’”

“If that’s all they’re doing we’ll be lucky.” He didn’t look up from the innards of the latest cable box. “I don’t know what they’re doing yet. But they’re up to something, and this is how I’ll find out what.” The cable box made a soft ping this time. “Finally!”

“What did you do?” I asked. I was beginning to think he was just deliberately destroying the devices just to spite his dad or something. But ultimately I couldn’t take that idea seriously- a dad who was never around to get angry for no reason and who gave you all the money you wanted had to be the best dad ever, right?

“I’ve modified it. The thing with furbeak television is each channel is two in one. There’s the stuff you see, family sitcoms and deodorant commercials and the like, but that’s just to hide the real messages, what they really want you to hear and think.”

“What are furbeaks, anyway?” Most of the stuff Teddy talked about I’d at least heard of, but this had me at a loss.

“Furbeaks came from the future. I’m not sure when, just that the military was experimenting on them and ended up trapping them in an ageometric time warp while trying to make combat-ready nachos. Now they are bundles of rage who try to sow it in humans because it’s what they feed on. From time to time they get organized and try to accumulate as much anger, fear, and frustration as they can in an attempt to break free.” He picked up the box and his ever-present backpack and headed for the door. “Meet me in the backyard.”

Soon we were in Teddy’s two-seater “utility buggy,” which to the untrained eye looked like an old surplus Army jeep. He said his dad was only able to purchase it by signing a notarized paper swearing that Teddy would not “operate or modify” it under any circumstances, up to and including an “attack by Russia or any other known sources of communism.” I wondered how Teddy’s dad’s lawyers slept at night. Most people did.

“When we connect this box at Freddy’s trailer we’ll be able to see exactly what the furbeaks are broadcasting.” He revved the throttle.

“Okay, but this doesn’t have seat belts so try not to go too faAAAAAAAAA–”

Entering Verdant Acres was always a strange experience for me. Everything seemed to twist for a moment once I passed the sign. Teddy said I noticed stuff like that because I was sensitive like he was. Whatever that meant, sometimes it seemed like I was looking through a fisheye lens, and the sunlight was the wrong color, sort of yellowish-tan, like you’re watching a movie set in Mexico.

The trailers were tightly-packed, with barely enough room for a small porch between them. There were a few bikes and basketballs and other outdoor toys to be seen on the mere specks of lawn visible, but not very many. There was no room to play with them. It felt very suffocating. I found myself hoping I’d see a small park or a basketball court or something, but there were only ever more rows of trailers.

We skidded to a halt in front of a trailer that I couldn’t distinguish from any other in this vast sea. I spent the next few minutes spitting bug parts out of my mouth and pulling them out of my hair. Teddy watched distractedly. “You always do that. Never scream.” I looked up to see a trailer home only subtly different from the ones that surrounded it, a field of trailers that stretched as far as the eye could see. I wasn’t sure how we’d ever find our way out.

Teddy seemed to read my mind. “The park is ever hungry, a hunger that can never truly be sated. Tread carefully here, and mind your thoughts and moods.” He led me up the steps to the door and knocked very softly. He waited a beat and then kicked the door open.

“ALOHA FREDDY! I BRING ASSKICKINGS AND CAKE FOR ALL!” He strode into the trailer. I peered past the door.

Inside the living room were two couches and the biggest tube TV I’d ever seen. The floor sagged a little under it. It was showing what looked like an old western, except the cowboys were chasing each other with chainsaws. I decided it must have been one of those art films no one has heard of that my dad sometimes complained about winning when he watched the Oscars to see if his bets would break even. They rarely did.

There was a man in his early twenties stretched out on one of the sofas that made me realize that the characters from the cartoon Large Dog and the Mystery Teens must be based on real people. Tall, thin, with an unruly mop of hair and the suggestion of a goatee, he looked like he would walk into the kitchen and make an enormous sandwich at any moment. Then I realized he was already eating one.

“FREDDY!” Teddy was usually only this loud and energetic when one of his projects worked on the first try.

“Hey dude.” Freddy waved without looking up. “You owe me another door. And another cake.”

“I brought the cable box and an assistant.” Teddy beckoned me in. The door crashed shut once I was out of its way. Just like home.

Freddy’s eyes widened when he saw me. “Oh man, you didn’t say a kid was coming!” He shoved something plastic under a throw pillow and waved his arms frantically, as if that would dissipate the pungent smell of what I guessed was a seriously ill skunk under the trailer that must have been wearing old gym socks. My heart went out to him as skunks liked to fight under my house most nights.

“Hey, Que pasa. Mi casa. Or something.” Freddy relaxed pretty quickly after his initial surprise. Maybe he did that yoga stuff my mom stressed about never having the chance to do.

I watched Teddy switch out the cable boxes. He then turned on the TV and sat on the other couch. I joined him, watching as he produced a huge remote control with more buttons than my mom’s typewriter had keys. He flipped a large red toggle switch on the back and all kinds of lights on it began to flash and glow.

“Wow, that’s amazing! What does all of that do?”

“It helps me find it when it’s under the couch. Now watch the TV, we only have a few minutes before the batteries in this thing die.”

Teddy turned the channel to some kids’ show where a puppet was telling a toddler how to count to four. As I watched, the puppet lit a cigarette and leaned forward in its chair. “Okay kid, I don’t have all day. One more time. One, two, three…”

The kid started yelling. ”I’m hungry! Where’s my mom?”

“READ THE DAMN LINE, TUCKER!” bellowed a woman’s voice from offscreen.

The puppet took a long drag off its cigarette, then picked up a grimy coffee mug. “It gets worse every year,” it mumbled.

Teddy spoke up. “See, a completely normal children’s show. But watch this.” He flipped a big red switch on the remote and everything on-screen scrambled for a moment, then changed. I saw a small hairy creature with large, round eyes, and a beak seated atop a beige counter like a news anchor. It had cat-like ears, stubby arms and flat feet like a penguin. Its fur was an intense, electric blue.

I jolted a bit as it started screaming. “BUY THE CEREAL! HERE!” It picks up an open box of cereal with a leprechaun on it and starts flinging its contents at a bowl slid onto the counter from offscreen. Most of it missed. “EAT IT ALL, THEN HAVE MORE!” it dives headfirst into the box and starts screeching unintelligible sounds. The cereal box shakes back and forth briefly before falling off the back of the counter. Then words flash on the screen: “BUY NOW! TELL MOMMY! SHE CANNOT DENY THIS! ONLY WE LOVE YOU!”

“Dammit, the furbeaks really are back.” Teddy rubbed his forehead. Teddy pulled a small notepad out of his pocket and wrote in it. “I didn’t think they’d return so soon.” He turned to me. “See how they stoke rage? Cunning and subtle little beasts. Think about it, haven’t people around here been crankier over the past several weeks?”

My mind flashed back to the school bus driver forcing a little old lady who was driving too slowly off the road and beating the hood of her car with his shoes for a good fifteen minutes. And the checkout lady at the grocery store eating an expired coupon during a shouting match with the customer trying aggressively to redeem it. And me coming home from school to find my dad burning a pile of my toys in the backyard because I left them on the floor of my bedroom overnight.

“Well, my parents have been pretty normal, but yeah, some people have been kind of on edge.”

“Exactly. And you can be sure they all live here.” Teddy replied. “Furbeaks are bat-hockey crazy.”

“Bat…hockey?”

Teddy narrowed his eyes. “Yes. Filthy words lead to unclean minds.” Teddy muted the TV and sat back. “Verdant Acres is by far the largest concentration of people in the area. The furbeaks stand to reap a lot more emotional energy.”

“How are those things running cables?” I asked. “Do they even have thumbs?” Or elbows?”

“Once they get established in a TV station’s back room, it’s easy to accumulate enough emotional energy to hire a few contractors. Money and power always find each other.” He nodded at the TV. “Look how smooth they are.” On the TV, two furbeaks are taking turns violently stabbing a fashion doll with screwdrivers while “BUY YOUR LOOKS AND KILL YOUR GODS” flashes on-screen. One of them catches fire but doesn’t seem to notice.

“Yeah, I can see that.” I said. I could somehow hear their shrieks and bellows despite the TV being silenced.

Teddy shook his head. “A master class in manipulation.”

“I don’t need any help wanting cereal.” Freddy giggled from his sofa.

Teddy turned to the news channel, where several white men in suits were yelling over each other. He flipped the big red switch on the remote again.

Three red furbeaks are on the counter. They are holding aerosol hair spray cans and are encircling some small plastic trees, like you might use with a model railroad. “OZONE LAYERS ARE TRICKS!” It gives a second furbeak a face full of hair spray. “THINGS YOU DON’T WANT TO HEAR ARE EVIL LIES!”

“KILL THE LIE WITH TRUTH!” howls the third furbeak. Somehow it lifts a full-sized pitching wedge with a large sign glued to it marked “TRUTH” from behind the counter and starts swatting at the trees, sending them flying. “MORE TRUTH! MORE!” The other two furbeaks are sent shrieking across the studio. One bounces off of the camera lens. On the screen flashes “TRUTH IS ALWAYS PLEASANT AND COMFORTABLE. CRUSH ALL THAT CONTRADICTS. STOP WASHING YOUR SOCKS.”

Teddy and I both slowly turned to look at Freddy, who folded his feet up under him. “Medieval socks didn’t bend either,” he muttered.

Teddy changed the channel again. It was a weather forecast. A man was gesturing over a map of the country while watching himself off-screen.

“And if you live in California, there are tornadoes. Tornadoes everywhere. You should probably– wait. That’s the wrong card, Seth.” A pause. “It is too! Look at it! It says ‘Oklahoma” on it! Get it together and learn what’s important.” He looked at the camera with a smile. “Anyway, if you live in California, the weather’s going to be pretty nice. Surf’s up!” He gave an exaggerated thumbs-up sign and winked.

Teddy flipped the switch.

This furbeak is pink and has a claw hammer duct-taped to each hand-flipper. “BUILD A TABLE NOW! HIT THE NAIL! HIT! HARDER!” it starts pounding on a board with a screw sticking out of it that had been lowered from above by a rope. The board swings out with each hit and back to strike the furbeak in the face, which causes it to flail about with increasing violence. “THE BOARD HURTS! I CURSE IT! I CURSE IT ALL!” It drops the hammers and starts biting the screw. The board begins to rise out of frame, taking the furbeak with it Its feet and hands flail as it shrieks in rage.. Foam drips from its beak. The words “SHE KNOWS YOUR SHAME. MITRE THE FEAR AWAY” flash on-screen.

“This is worse than I thought. They haven’t infested a TV station, but the whole cable provider.” Teddy was scribbling furiously in his notebook.

“I need a table next to me. For stuff.” Freddy was very agitated and thumbing through a hardware catalog.

“I’ve never seen it this bad.” said Teddy. He changed the channel again, this time to a daytime talk show.

The host was interviewing several well-dressed white people. A man in a tuxedo was talking. The caption on the bottom of the screen identified him as Thaddeus Killmillington IV.

“Look, it’s not that I hate poor people. You’re great! You clean my houses, cook my lunches, and raise my children. There’s definitely a place for you. You can even be funny! My driver got lost and we went through a bad part of town and there was a, what are they called? ‘bag lady?’ I dunno, one of them standing on the corner, wearing these terrible rags, these blue jeans and a shirt like they wear at one of those hamburger places. pushing TWO of those baby carts! And crying like she was a baby herself! I mean, she was easily fifteen, sixteen years old! And all I could think was, if you’re going to have babies left and right, then work harder, flip more burgers, get a nice condo!” The audience whoops and cheers. “Am I right? You know I’m right! Those people, I swear, they’re having litters like they’re rats. I got a good laugh out of that.”

More whoops and laughter. A man in overalls yelled, “You tell it, Thad!”

Thad continued. “I sometimes feel guilty about where I am. But, I mean, I worked hard to get here! I only had my trust fund when I was a kid, so I had to hustle and network with the golfers at my dad’s club. I had to work on that old man for a good week before he loaned me the money to start my own investment firm. Not a lot, just a few mil. I even sold the house he gave me when I turned eighteen for a little extra upfront to show investors! So I know sacrifice and struggle. I’m a self-made man. And if I can do it, anyone can!” The audience roared. ‘Right, anyone! You just have to do the work. No one wants to do the work.”

Several “Yeahs” echoed from the audience. “We love you Thad!” screamed one woman. “You’re one of us!” bellowed a man in the back.

Thad took a sip of water from a crystal glass. “And that’s why I’m running for Senate. Well, It also seemed like fun, I gotta admit.” He winked. “I have a three-point-plan to get the economy going again. First, cut entitlements! No freeloaders!” The audience was getting louder and more excited. “Then we cut taxes! I have a progressive plan where the more you make, the more you keep!” The cheers were like a roar. ”And third, deregulation! All tried and tested strategies that are proven to work. Reagan proved it, but those people, they won’t listen!”

The crowd tries to rush the stage, but police in riot gear storm out of the wings and bludgeon them mercilessly. This does not dampen their excitement at all, as the back ranks press forward over those in front who have fallen. “Just look at me!” Thad screamed over the din. “I’m proof that people get what they deserve!”

There’s a sudden cut, and everyone is on a different stage, wearing different clothes. The host starts speaking like nothing had happened. “Thad, the topic is ‘Billionaires Talk About Their Favorite Yachts.”

“Right, right. I like the “Diamond Pile IV.’ It has a dock in the middle where I can park my smaller yachts for when I want to go on an escapade from my vacation for a week or two.”

The audience roared again. Teddy flipped the switch.

Two furbeaks sit on the counter. One is purple, the other bright yellow. They both begin screaming incoherently. The purple one picks up a blowtorch and starts setting the set on fire while the yellow one starts stabbing a pile of toy money with a large barbecue fork.

“POVERTY IS BLISS! MONEY IS SADNESS! HAPPINESS COMES FROM HARD WORK! WORK HARDER!” They begin to dance and shriek. “INVADE PARK PLACE! THE TOP HAT IS YOURS BY DIVINE RIGHT!” The cash catches fire and they both start wildly kicking it around the burning set. A light rig falls over in the background. “POOR PEOPLE ARE LAZY AND STEAL FROM YOU!” A third furbeak shows up with a fire extinguisher. “FOOD STAMPS ARE WHY YOU AREN’T RICH, YOUR MERIT OUTWEIGHS ALL” flashes on the screen as everything disappears behind a cloud, except for a furbeak riding the extinguisher around like a rocket.

Teddy shook his head in admiration. “True masters of manipulation. It’s like watching Beethoven compose the “Star Wars’ theme.”

For some reason I was reminded of my third grade gym teacher, who repeatedly tried to teach us a variant of football he’d invented where we used baseball bats instead of protective equipment. There was no ball. He was fired after the teachers turned him in when he spent the betting pool on malt liquor and tiny powdered donuts.

Something was bothering me. “You said the furbeaks are back- what happened to them before?”

Teddy scratched his head. “Back when I was twelve or so, before I moved here, there was an outbreak in the city. It was kinda similar– an affluent suburb got free cable as a part of an “experiment.” Within days they had formed a homeowner’s association and were trying to organize a sweep of a homeless encampment across the river and turn a low-income housing project into a golf course.” His eyes grew distant. “It was a dark, dark time.”

“It’s hard to get irrational fear and anger like that out of people’s heads once it’s taken root. Sometimes the best you can do is cut off the source of the poison and let it shrivel as more balanced and reasonable information takes its place.” Teddy glanced out the window at the sky. “So I found the source.”

“That time they were piggybacking on a local channel’s signal. It was easy to triangulate the source once we knew where to look for it. I got some friends together and we rode our bikes to this old trainyard near where the factories are. We kicked in the door and there was the studio. A bunch of furbeaks were staring at us, before starting to shriek and run mindlessly about. They’re as cowardly as they are loud. My friends and I had brought bats, golf clubs, any kind of sports equipment you can hit something with. Alicia brought a cricket bat. Never asked if her dad found out she’d taken it.” Teddy chuckled.

“Furbeaks can’t be reasoned with. They have no morals or compassion, just an insatiable hunger for power and influence. So we charged in and started bashing. Those little furballs were howling and exploding as they bounced off of the walls. After they were smashed or had fled, we destroyed the equipment and went home.”

I grimaced. “Smashed? Sounds gory.”

Teddy laughed. “It really wasn’t. They’re just little robots. Loud toys that spew vitriol.”

“So is that what we have to do? Track them down and wreck them again?”

“Absolutely. We just need to trace where they are broadcasting from and wreck everything.” Teddy reached into his backpack and pulled out what looked like a digital multitester. He plugged it into the back of the customized cable box and after a moment, jotted down some numbers in his notebook. “That’s the frequency they’re using to piggyback on the satellite feeds.” He then held up the device and took a few steps around the room, holding it up and watching the display. “And there it is. It’s close, I think in this park.”

I heard loud noises from outside. I looked out of a window to see utter chaos. People were breaking into each other’s trailers and fighting over the loot in the streets: TVs, stereos, trash bags stuffed full of food, anything they could get their hands on. Some were running around with American and Confederate flags as well as signs painted on things like bedsheets and hunks of cardboard saying things like “FOOD STAMPS = COMMUNISM,” “IMMIGRATION IS THE ANT CHRIST” and “DOES ANYONE HAVE A TABLE SAW I CAN BORROW.”

I heard Teddy whistle over my shoulder. “We need to get moving.”

“How will we get through the crowd?”

“Don’t worry, I can help.” Freddy was digging in one of the back bedrooms, which seemed full of tall green plants and bright lights. I wondered why he needed so much corn. After a minute he walked back out with something in his arms. “Forgot to return this after I left my last job.”

Teddy cackled. “It’s perfect. Something any American will respect.”

Minutes later we were driving back out of the trailer park, people jumping out of the way of the jeep and the familiar red and blue logo of the “Donny Joe’s Pizza” lightbox on the hood. “No one likes lukewarm pizza.” Teddy had said. For once I wholeheartedly agreed with his idea.

Teddy deftly steered the jeep around the streets with his right hand, swerving around the people in the streets while simultaneously watching the tracking device he held in his left as the lights on it blinked faster and faster. I watched the pandemonium unfold as it sped by us.

“It’s close.” Teddy said.

The bleak tan daylight of the trailer park got somehow thicker, and almost painful in its intensity. I started feeling dizzy again, like when we entered. ”Teddy, something’s wrong.”

Teddy shook his head. “I’m feeling it too. The park must be working with the furbeaks. They both feed off of human misery, after all. And the best way to have a steady supply is to keep a farm of people ignorant and angry at your chosen scapegoat.”

We stopped rather suddenly at the end of a cul-de-sac, at what looked to be two trailers duct-taped together lengthwise, with a large satellite dish atop it.

“It’s so quiet here. No one rioting or looting or anything.” I peered at the closed windows.

“This is where they dump the immigrants. In the oldest trailers no one wants, in a place no one cares about. A good place to hide an illicit operation.” Teddy shaded his eyes from the glaring sun.

“At least, I hope this is it,” Teddy said. “I don’t have time to deal with any of the other stuff going on in here right now.”

“You mean like that dancing fro-”

“WE DO NOT SPEAK OF THE DANCING FROG.” Teddy was rubbing his temples. We both struggled to stand as we felt like we weighed twice as much. The air was thick, like the milkshakes my grandma would make. Her secret was classroom paste.

Teddy pulled a couple of shovels from the small bed at the back of the jeep. He tossed one to me, followed by a pair of goggles. “It’s going to be crazy in there.” he warned.

“And we’re going to make it a lot crazier.”

Teddy barked a laugh. “Damn straight. There’ll be plastic eyeballs stuck in the ceiling.”

We started toward the steps leading into the trailer. The air grew thicker, like a giant hand was pushing us back. We could only move through great effort. Teddy had it a little easier as he was bigger and stronger. Kids like me wouldn’t have a chance here.

I couldn’t move at all. I could barely breathe. Teddy was a step ahead of me, straining to reach the railing on the trailer’s steps. After a moment, he stopped moving too.

For an instant, I felt despair. We were trapped, at the mercy of the park. Maybe we’d have to live here. Maybe we’d have to die here. Down the street I saw people fighting over what were trivial amounts of food, trinkets that would break in a few years. I closed my eyes, and there were the tiny, forlorn bikes I saw when I arrived, unable to be ridden. I saw the little eyes of countless children watching me from dozens of windows. I felt their desperation, that they didn’t even recognize because it was all they’d ever known. And after all of that, I felt a new emotion.

Rage.

I was screaming. I felt like I should be forming words, but I didn’t have any. All I knew was that if I didn’t find a way to deny this oppressive, crushing weight, a lot more would be lost today than just two nosy kids entangled in something much bigger than them. These stupid loud animals, this insane trailer park, it didn’t devour anger, I realized. Emotions were just the seasoning. These things ate something far more precious. One of the most precious things anyone can have.

It ate their futures.

I don’t know if I somehow got stronger, or if my emotions somehow eroded the power of the park, but I began to move again. Inch by inch, I caught up to Teddy. I ripped every breath from the greedy grasp of the trailer bark, hissing them through clenched teeth.

Finally my hand closed around the railing for the stairs, and the resistance broke. I almost fell down with the sudden freedom to move. Teddy stepped up beside me, panting. “How did you do that?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I just got…mad, I guess?” I’d never felt angry before. I’d never been allowed to.

I looked up. The sky was blue again.

Teddy stepped up to the door. He knocked very gently. Then he kicked in the door.

I got my shovel ready.

The trailers had had all of their interior walls removed, making them into one huge room. It was set up like a TV studio, down to the lights, several home video cameras, and various electronics on one wall. It was well-appointed, all -in-all: New appliances and furniture were scattered about.The furbeaks were gathered around the beige counter I’d seen on Freddy’s TV. Three were on it using a cheese grater on a basketball while one of them was screeching some nonsense about voter fraud. They froze when they saw us.

“ALOHA YOU FUZZY FOOTBALLS! WHO WANTS KICKED THROUGH A WINDOW?” Teddy charged in and started bouncing furbeaks off the walls. They started screeching even louder and running around the room.

I stepped in behind him, raising my shovel as I approached a pink furbeak in the corner. It turned to face me, showing huge, blue eyes. Its beak trembled as it stared into my eyes. I hesitated. Maybe they just needed to be understood. May we could learn to toler–

It jumped up and bit me on my hand.

I screamed, flailing about as the little demon squealed around its mouthful of my flesh. I had dropped the shovel, so I slammed it against a file cabinet until it flew apart. I saw one of its eyes when I bent back down to pick up the shovel, and I made sure to crush it under my shoe as I strode forward.

The next ten minutes were a chaotic blur. Teddy smashed a furbeak in a director’s chair. I flattened three with my shovel. Teddy pushed over the refrigerator and crushed three hiding under a box. I shoved one in a microwave and set it to “popcorn,” then hopped around the room crushing tiny furry robots like empty soda cans. And yes, Teddy kicked one through a closed window, using his steel-toed combat boots to full effect.

Then it was over. I stood panting, surveying the carnage. Chunks of fur and smashed circuit boards littered the room. Smashed windows were everywhere. The ceiling fan spun lopsidedly due to a blue furbeak being impaled on one of its blades. The microwave was on fire.

“Why do robots even have a microwave?” I wondered aloud. I heard a flush and saw Teddy stomping furry bodies into the blue water of the toilet. He finished and walked over to me.

“I think that’s all of them.” Teddy swung his shovel over his shoulder. I noticed it had acquired several dents, as well as many scratches in its olive drab paint. I noticed mine was worn some now as well.

Teddy looked around the well-appointed room. “They have some nice stuff here.” He said.

“What do tiny robots need with this stuff?” I peered at some sort of workout equipment. “SlavicFlex? I think I saw that on TV.”

“It’s not about need.“ Teddy replied. “It’s about getting. Having things that others can’t get. It’s a real thrill to a lot of people too.” He absent-mindedly picked up a crystal sculpture from a table and looked it over. “Entitlement.”

The trailer began to shake and groan. The ceiling and walls began to bow inward, as if the structure was being compressed by a giant fist. The power began to flicker. Lights and rigging started to fall around us, shoved out of place by the imploding trailer. The light outside started to dim. I ran through the crashing debris and reached the front door, but it wouldn’t budge. It looked like the frame of the door had warned and jammed it into place.

“Teddy!” I yelled, looking around through the flickering light. Across the trailer, something burst into flame. I heard coughing and followed it to behind a sofa, where Teddy was pinned under a lighting rig.

“Help me!” he cried. I grabbed the end of the metal and between the two of us managed to shift it off of him. He staggered to his feet.

“The door is stuck!” I yelled as we stumbled toward it. Teddy leaned back and kicked it. A sound, somewhere between howling wind and a monstrous roar echoed from outside. The light grew even darker.

“I can’t do it alone, my leg is hurt!” Teddy yelled. “I need you to help me!”

“I’m scared!” I yelled. I kept glancing over my shoulder, watching the trailer crumple and collapse toward us, adding its own roar to the cacophony..

“Listen to me! It’s okay to be scared. I’m scared! But this trailer park wants to eat us, just like it’s eating everyone else who lives here. It’s a parasite, a monster. And that makes me mad as hell. That’s why I always kick in the doors. SO IT KNOWS I KNOW I CAN HURT IT.” Teddy struggled to be heard over the din. “Find your anger! Let it protect you! Think of all the pressure in your life, all of the frustration and unfair shit! GET MAD WITH ME AND LET’S KICK THIS SON OF A BITCH!”

I kicked the door like it was a soccer ball. It hurt.

“No, plant your foot and stomp forward!” I remembered how Teddy did it. My body tried to freeze. I got frustrated. It was all too much. I felt that small spark of rage inside of me, frozen away inside of a glacier of fear. I thought of the faces of my bullies and tormentors, I thought about being left behind. The flame exploded.

“LET ME OUT!” I screamed. Teddy jumped back in surprise. I slammed the sole of my worn sneaker against the door. “I WON’T LET YOU HAVE THIS!” Kick. “I WON’T LET YOU HAVE US!.” Kick. “I SWEAR TO ALMIGHTY GOD I WILL COME BACK HERE AND DESTROY YOU TRAILER BY TRAILER YOU MOTHERF–”

BAM! The door smashed open and fell onto the ground outside. Teddy lost no time in dragging me, still screaming, through the open doorway. Outside it was suddenly still, and calm, and sunny.

We turned to view the trailers. They crumpled like a big wad of aluminum foil, compacting tighter and tighter. The size of a basketball, a softball, a golf ball, then, as a tiny silver dot, it vanished with a soft “pop.”

I was still panting as Teddy led me to the jeep. I stared, as we silently drove the cluttered but now-empty streets, shell-shocked by my own emotions.

I was surprised by the lack of the typical discomfort I felt as we approached the entrance. The park was remarkably easy to navigate- I could have sworn there were many more twists and turns on the way in. The trip was much quicker too- all in all it was almost like being in an everyday residential neighborhood.

“It’s different,” I said.

“The park wants us gone,” Teddy replied. “It’s afraid.”

I laughed. “You make lots of people afraid, Teddy.”

“Not of me. It’s afraid of you.”

“Me?” I squeaked in astonishment.

“Yeah, you. You stood up to it. You overpowered it.” Teddy looked into my eyes. “Twice.”

“Anyone could have done that.”

“I didn’t.” Teddy had never seemed so serious. “You did. Of everyone in that trailer park, which is a fluctuating quantity of infinity, only you did. And now it wants you gone. You’re a threat it can’t crush or capture.”

I blinked. I had that much power? For some reason I thought of home, and school.

I didn’t know what to say.

Thirty-two years later, I still don’t.

Fireworks

On that day, Paul and I were spending a July afternoon playing with bottle rockets, just a couple of ten year olds in the brutal Tennessee heat.

“Our neighbors must be so jealous.” I said, lighting a rocket and absently watching it fly into the air and explode with a loud “bang” over a neighbor’s pool.

“Why is that?” Paul immediately lit another and watched it sail into the air and explode over the pool.

“They can hear us out here having whimsical, innocent childhood fun with the steady explosions of our bottle rockets almost every fifteen seconds, but with just enough variation to keep them noticeable.” I lit another rocket. It sailed out over my neighbor’s new boat, but didn’t explode.

“That one missed the pool.” Paul observed.

Down the street, old man Petersen started yelling. “You skipped one, you hooligans!” He threw a shoe at us.

“He must be getting tired.” I said. “That one barely cleared his driveway.”

“Yeah, he got much better distance with the potted fern.”

We heard someone yelling from behind us. We turned to see Crazy Teddy driving his golf cart toward us with something large and colorful dragging behind it.

“Guys, guys!” He panted as he came up next to us. “Look what I have!”

What he was dragging was a large red, white and blue column emblazoned with all sorts of symbols and warnings saying “DANGER” in several languages, including what appeared to be Braille and some sort of hieroglyphs. At least, that’s what I assumed “bird-bird-sun-mummy” meant.

“What did your dad buy you this time?” Teddy’s dad would buy him absolutely anything he wanted when he was around. He once bought him an emu. Teddy quickly lost interest once he realized he couldn’t ride it and stopped closing the pen door. It took six cops, two fire trucks, four zookeepers and one track-and-field star to capture it again, and by then it had hit the freeway and made it to the next county. And the Canoe Incident got him mentioned on the news. He was the only sixteen-year-old we had heard of who had lost his driver’s license three years before he was old enough to have one, purely based on precaution. The petition was a wild success.

Teddy proudly puffed out his chest. “This is the Freedom Annihilator 40K. It is the world’s first Smart Firework.” He grinned. “It was made by reverse-engineering a crashed cruise missile. It was originally intended for stadium demolition but was banned for being a hazard to air traffic, so the designers added copper and chlorine to it for color. Every country ratified the UN resolution to ban it except here in the US on account of the Second Amendment. Owning it is a violation of international law, and setting it off is considered a war crime.” His smile got bigger and bigger with every word. “It’s computer controlled. I forget everything the salesman said it does because it came with a free lighter and I was playing with it.” He scratched his head. “I was going to ask him to tell me more about it but he remembered an important appointment in Tijuana and was driving away by the time we got it loaded in the van.”

“The Second Amendment applies to fireworks?”

“Well, it’s still making its way through the courts, but the NRA has their best lawyers on it.”

“What’s that smell?” Paul asked.

“Oh, I just dumped a bunch of gasoline on it so it’d go up more quicker.”

Paul and I stared in wonder. To a ten-year-old, this had the effect on us that our parents wished church did.

A strange new feeling stirred inside of me. A sort of clenching feeling of doubt and dread. I would later realize that this was the activation of my self-preservation instinct, something that would become finely honed over the next few years of living near Crazy Teddy.

I decided to read some of the warnings on the firework’s wrapper. “Says here it should only be ignited on a barge anchored in a body of water at least five miles from any land or human habitation.”

“Blah blah blah BORING.” Teddy replied.

I decided I had to be the voice of reason here. “Crazy Teddy, we’re in the middle of the street in a residential neighborhood. We can’t set it off here.”

“Then where?”

“Let’s take it to the abandoned grain silo in the pasture behind the houses.”

“That dusty old place?” Paul was skeptical. “That’s where everyone dumps their old tires and motor oil. It stinks.” The old silo was where 80% of the liqour in the county was consumed. There were more roaches than in the school cafeteria.

“Exactly. Nice and safe.”

“That sounds like adding a lot of time between now and explosions.” Teddy said.

“You get to take your golf cart off-road.”

“Okay, fine, have it your way.”

Soon we were jostling across the cornfield in the cart with the Freedom Annihilator bungie-tied to the roof.

“There are a lot more tires here than I remember.” I said.

“It reeks of oil too. It’s everywhere.” Paul added.

I noticed several liquor bottles with labels like “Night Punch” and “Ol’ Jake’s Wooden Leg,” as well as that a recent storm had blown off part of the silo’s top and every time a gust of wind blew the air would get thick with dust. There were gentle moos as a large herd of cattle grazed nearby.

“See, no one’s here.” I said. “It’s perfect.”

The other two nodded. “I swear, Daniel, sometimes I’d almost think you’re as smart as I am.” Teddy laughed.

It was twilight and we could barely see the lights of houses and the rest of the town twinkling in the distance. The earth and fields around us were parched after nearly three weeks with no rain. It was a good night for fireworks. Teddy got out his blowtorch.

We lugged the Freedom Annihilator to the top of the huge hill of oily tires and shifted them around until it was snugly seated in a sort of pit. We found a few large steel barrels with large orange letters in what looked to be Russian on them, under a picture of a tentacle inside a circle with a line through it. It took a couple of hours to drag them out of the way. One leaked on Paul, but it only made him itchy.

We then uncoiled the fifteen-foot long piece of kerosene-soaked rope that served as the fuse. “We’re going to be legends.” Teddy crowed. He lit the fuse. We felt the heat from the burning fuse and the smoking tires beneath it.

That weird clenching feeling came back.

“Uh, guys?” Teddy and Paul were transfixed by the fire. They didn’t react.

The tires quickly ignited. The flames rapidly grew until they were ten feet above the top of the forty foot heap. I kicked each of my companions in the shins.

“We should move back.” They both stared at me, but right then a loud pop sent a steel-belted radial rolling between us. We headed for the cart.

Teddy started to let off the accelerator when we were half a mile out, but at this point the blaze cast a shadow ahead of us. I stomped my foot on top of his and pressed on farther. Finally we stopped nearly a mile out and turned around. “Man, we won’t see nothin’ from here.” The bright light reminded me of a night launch of a Space Shuttle I watched on TV. I could see nervous cattle, silhouetted against the blaze, moving away from it with increasing speed.

The wind picked up.

We saw a flash and a moment later, a massive fireball was accompanied by a loud boom. We had to turn away, but turned back a moment later after the heat died down, watching the inferno ascend into the sky. What I thought was the explosion reverberating in my skull was in fact terrified cattle charging in all directions. They burst through the fences and into the subdivisions and roads surrounding the pasture. I could hear yelling, screeching tires, and car horns in the distance.

Teddy swore from beside me. “Oh turkey toenails, Is that firework ever gonna–”

A bright blue flash nearly blinded us. A moment later came intense heat and a massive BADOOOM that shoved us backward and sent us tumbling, cart and all. The wind howled all around us.

I sat up and faced toward the heat. The firework was spinning incredibly fast, hovering in the air about a hundred feet above the greatly diminished, but still burning, tire hill. Higher in the sky, lots of orange specks flew about.

No, not flying.

Falling.

Flaming tires began to fall all around. I heard a cacophony of crashes, screams, and car alarms from our subdivision behind me as we clutched each other in terror. Sparks and flaming debris rained everywhere, causing small and not-so-small blazes in the dry pasture grass around us.

A robotic voice came from the blue sphere. “COMMENCING PATRIOTIC ACTIVITIES. PLEASE STAND AT ATTENTION, CITIZENS.”

“Three Cheers For The Red White And Blue” began blasting from the Freedom Annihilator and flaming mayhem rained down upon everything we knew. We saw flashing lights as police and fire vehicles worked their way down the old access road leading to the silo. The light and heat kept them at bay. Jets of water from the fire tankers were steam by the time they got to the orb of blue fire.

Lasers erupted from the top of the burning blue light and began to draw images in the sky. An American flag with an eagle next to it. The eagle spread its wings, which were guns, and used them to shoot a group of children climbing over a wall. Red, white, and blue confetti fell.

“NO ONE SHALL DESECRATE THIS SACRED LAND.” “God Bless America” started playing. A laser fixed on us. “ARE YOU LEGAL? ARE YOU SOCIALISTS? WHERE ARE YOUR PAPERS?” Teddy was trying to remember how to put the cart in reverse as we all screamed.

A missile flew at the Freedom Annihilator from behind us. I realized I could hear a helicopter nearby, from the Air Force base in the city, I realized. The Smart Firework shifted its laser from us to it. “FAKE NEWS DETECTED.” It destroyed the missile. “SUPPORT OUR TROOPS.” It shot the helicopter and I heard its engine straining as it retreated into the distance.

The firework changed from blue to white. “PHASE TWO COMMENCING. IGNITE BARBECUE GRILLS.” The lasers swept the area, and finding no grills, locked onto the silo. “GRILL CREATION COMMENCING.” The silo exploded into another orgy of flame. “ENJOY YOUR MEAT, CITIZENS.”

The emergency vehicles on the access road started moving and a tank started driving up to the Smart Firework. There was a loud boom as the tank fired its main gun. The shell hit the firework, but bounced off and went spinning into the night. Again, it retaliated. “WE CANNOT AFFORD DISSENT WHEN THERE ARE HOMELESS VETERANS ON THE STREETS.” A laser shot out and melted the tank’s gun. “DEFUND THE VA. TAX DOLLARS ARE WASTED ON FREELOADERS.”

The Freedom Annihilator changed again, this time to red. “PHASE THREE. PATRIOTISM ESTABLISHED. GRAND FINALE COMMENCING. OPEN BEERS AND CONSUME.” The Star-Spangled Banner began to play. “FINALE IN FIVE. FOUR. THREE. TWO. ONE.”

There was a brief moment when time seemed to stop. Despite the pandemonium, there was no sound. A moth fluttered by.

Then the Freedom Annihilator detonated. Red, white, and blue flames spewed into the sky. The silo turned to sand. The tire fire was blasted out. A massive mushroom cloud rose into the sky. We could see the shock wave rip across the pasture toward us.

A giant fist slammed into us and sent us flying as the loudest sound we ever heard blasted across the valley. There was heat, light, tumbling, and the nothing.

I woke up in a hospital room. I looked around and tried to sit up, but a gentle hand pushed me back down. It was my mom. I was surrounded by flowers and loved ones.

“He’s awake!” my dad shouted.

“What happened?” I asked. My mom explained the Navy Seals had found us in the field with the remains of the golf cart and turned us over to the paramedics.

“Your friends are both fine. Teddy keeps playing with a combat knife he swiped from a Seal and Paul won’t stop eating raw fish.” She patted my head. “We’re so lucky.” Her eyes focused on something in the distance. “So lucky…”

A man pushed his way through my gathered family. He looked at me with a solemn expression as he pushed back his cowboy hat. It was the sheriff.

“Son, we know you were a part of what happened last night. I have just one thing to ask. What was that thing?”

My eyes grew wide as I tried to find words.

“We want to get two for next year.” The sheriff continued.

Elections were coming up.

From down the hall, we heard someone screaming “OHGOD OHGOD THE TENTACLES ARE EVERYWHERE,” and sounds like someone was slapping together two catcher’s mitts full of gelatin. This was the Day the Tentacles Came, but that’s a story for another time.