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.”
“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.
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.