(Fiction) Scratch ‘n Sniff

Vintage TV

The neighborhood dated from the previous century. There was hardly a curb. Deep green lawns sat nearly level with the street. There were no fences. Each yard blended into the next. The Arneson house was third from the corner. A sign on the mailbox confirmed the family name. A boat of an Oldsmobile in the driveway had a square magnetic sign affixed to the doors on both sides—black text on a white back ground:

HEADACHES

are NOT from God

call,

1-507-821-1506

There were signs and placards in the yard with Bible verses over pictures of babies.

Quinn got out and stood before one. “I bet her neighbors love her.”

Nio read it out loud. “Whoever blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall stone him. The foreigner as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death. Leviticus 24:16.”

The words WHOEVER, LORD, FOREIGNER, and the last instance of DEATH were printed in red capital letters. Next to it, a smaller sign, of the type used to announce a yard sale, depicted the bust of John Adams before an image of the US Constitution. The words We The People in script letters were clearly visible. Underneath, a red box with white text gave a quote:

“Our Constitution was made ONLY for a moral and religious people.”

At the very bottom was a web address—www.Godis7.com.

“Remember the deal,” Agent Quinn said, walking to the front door.

“Mrs. Arneson?” he asked a moment later. “Mrs. Maureen Arneson?”

The door had been cracked open before they knocked. Nio could see the shape of the thin woman on the other wide but none of her details.

“It’s Miss,” she said hesitantly. “I never married. Who are you please?”

“I’m Agent Quinn of the FBI.” He held up his ID. “My associate and I would like to talk to you about the report you filed with the Brown County Sheriff’s Office. May we come in?”

There was a long pause. A few stray black flies buzzed about, and Nio swatted at one.

“Of course.” The woman’s voice shook, as did her hands when she unhooked the latch and let the door swing open. She didn’t wait to greet her guests, but walked straight to the kitchen for a glass of water, which she poured right from the tap. Maureen drank the water in one breath and gasped. She pressed the back of her hand to her mouth.

“Are you okay, ma’am?” Quinn’s feet sunk into thick but faded teal carpet. It was old but still plush, suggesting it had not only been well-maintained but hardly trod. “Should we come back another time?”

“No,” she said, turning slightly to smile at them. But she was still leaning against the counter, gripping it with on hand for support. “Please come in. Forgive my manners. I . . . I just—I guess I never expected the FBI. You know what I mean.” She smiled weakly and set the glass in the sink.

She turned confidently and stepped toward Nio with her hand extended. “I didn’t catch your name.”

“Nio.”

“Nigh-oh,” Maureen repeated awkwardly, as if intending to highlight the unusual name. “Are you with the FBI as well?”

“Ms. Tesla is a consultant,” Agent Quinn explained. “She’s helping us with one of our unsolved cases.”

“Tesla? Like the scientist?”

“Yes.”

“There can’t be many people with that name,” Maureen blurted in a half-laugh, half-cry. But she recovered immediately.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Agent Quinn asked skeptically.

Maureen walked to the door and shut it and replaced the latch. “Yes. I’m fine. Thank you.” Her hand lingered for a moment. Then she turned and walked back to the kitchen. “I just need to take my pills, I’m sorry.”

“Please don’t apologize. If this isn’t a good time—”

“No, no,” she said. “Now is fine.” She started opening cupboards. Almost all of them were bare. “I just need to take my pills. Give me a moment.”

“Take your time, ma’am.”

Nio and Quinn waited in silence. The infamous TV stood by the wall near the kitchen. Across from it was a small couch. Near the hallway stood a round, cafe-sized dining table next to a recliner adorned with a knit cover. Both faced the television. Next to a magazine holder, which was full, were three stacks of small boxes with labels indicating they had come from a local printer. Inside were pamphlets and printed materials repeating many of the same messages from the lawn. Nio lifted one titled “Scripture Lessons for Healing.” Small circular pictures of smiling faces sat next to short testimonials describing how various serious medical problems abated or were miraculously healed when sins were released. One woman’s diabetes was cleared after she admitted her infidelity to her congregation and was born again in Jesus.

The testimonials were conveniently duplicated in Spanish on the back.

“What is it you do, Ms. Arneson?” Nio asked. “If you don’t mind us asking.”

“I print and distribute God’s Holy Word,” she said after swallowing a pill. “Mostly online.” Then she swallowed several more. Her hands were shaking.

“Is that your primary source of income?” Agent Quinn followed up.

“Yes, I sell in bulk. I mean, I don’t only sell in bulk. I sell to individuals also. But mostly I sell to churches. Religious organizations. Christian schools. I work with several schools, actually. I try to sell as cheaply as I can. As you can see, I keep a very modest lifestyle. The house is paid for. Left to me by my grandfather. I can live very frugally.”

“Of course,” Agent Quinn said. “I apologize if the question seemed pointed.”

“I understand how it works,” she said. “It’s a test,” she added after a pause. “You have to decide whether or not I am a trustworthy witness.”

She took a deep breath, like she was getting up the courage to ask her boss for a raise, and stepped from the kitchen. “You want to talk about the messages, I suppose. You’re trying to figure out how it was done.”

“Well, we’d like to hear it from you before we start jumping to conclusions.”

“That’s very open-minded of you, Agent Quinn.”

“Is that the TV?” Nio asked, although she knew the answer.

“Yes.”

It sat on the patterned carpet. It was enormous, jutting out several feet from the wall. Even so the rounded square screen was terribly small by contemporary standards. The rabbit ears on top rose from a detached plastic dome connected to the behemoth underneath by a wide, grooved cord. Next to the antenna was an old Panasonic VHS player. Homemade tapes filled a stand near the window—sermons, or so it seemed by the titles, all numbered and dated.

“May I look?”

Without waiting for an answer, Nio got on her hands and knees. She pulled at one of the dusty cords. It wasn’t connected by plug the back. It was physically attached to the box, emerging from a gasket-lined hole in the particleboard. Everything looked original, even the screws, which slightly tarnished with age and unscuffed.

“Naturally, I didn’t believe it at first,” Maureen told Quinn.

“What did you think it was?” he asked.

“I don’t know. Something like that happens to you, you don’t know what to make of it, do you? It seems like it has to be fake. I know about hoaxes, Agent Quinn. The neighborhood children ring my doorbell sometimes and run away. Sometimes they leave things. Sometimes I can hear them laughing from behind a tree. I don’t blame them. I don’t blame children. I understand why they do it. Children copy what they see. They hear their parents making fun in the car, or blaspheming the Lord, and they do the same. But why would someone do this? It isn’t that I thought it was real. You know, I—” Her mouth hung open. “What was I supposed to think? So I went on with my life. I thought it was just some crazy thing. What else could I do? When it happened again, I got angry.”

“Angry?”

“Yes. I thought, ‘Leave me alone!’ I might’ve even said it out loud. Or screamed it.” She smiled. “But still, I just tried to get on with my life.”

“Like Moses,” Agent Quinn interjected.

Maureen’s head turned curiously. “Yes. Yes, that’s it exactly. He didn’t want to believe either. I suppose no one does at first. After it happened the second time, I got very worried.”

“Worried?” Nio asked,

“Yes. You can ignore anything once. Once it happens twice, it’s a pattern. It might happen again. It isn’t even that I believed. It’s the fear. The fear of not knowing when or if it will come back. Because the TV is always there. Watching you watching it. And so I started to search for the voice, not because I believed, but because I didn’t. I wanted to prove it wrong. To find the hoax. I didn’t feel comfortable in my own home anymore, not when someone can come in like that whenever they wanted. I was nervous all the time. I lost weight.” She ran her hands down her cardigan and simple long skirt, both of which were loose. “More than anything, I didn’t want it to surprise me, like a child jumping out from behind a tree. I wanted to find it first. So I looked. It become part of my routine, like locking the doors at night or brushing my teeth before bed. And when it happened again, I was relieved, not because I believed it was the Angel of the Lord but because this time it didn’t surprise me. This time I was ready. And I listened, I listened very closely for clues that would give away the huckster. It was like a puzzle, a difficult crossword. After the fourth time, I started keeping a journal—what time it happened, what it said. Because I knew I needed proof. You can’t just walk up to someone and say you’re hearing voices in your television. Imagine saying that to the local police, looking like me. Who was going to help me? My neighbors? They already think I’m crazy. If I said something and one of them went to the police first—out of concern for me, out of fear for their children, it doesn’t matter—then it’s worse. Then it looks like I’m trying to hide it. Or I made it up. I didn’t want to admit it to anyone, you see. Not until there was proof. And I wasn’t going to. Even after the fifth time. The sixth time. Even after he told me about the arson. But by then he had told me so many things, and they were true, and how is that possible?”

“What kind of things?” Quinn asked.

“Things about my grandfather. Things that happened a very long time ago.”

Nio noticed Maureen’s eyes drift to a faded photo on the wall—a man of about 40 taken circa 1980, judging from the clothes and the car in the background. The picture hung over the stand of taped sermons.

“Is that him?” Nio asked.

“Yes.”

“What was he like?”

“Is that important?”

“He left you the TV. I’m just wondering if there’s a connection. Was he a religious man? Could it be him who’s speaking to you?”

“No, no of course not.”

“Why do you say that?”

“He wasn’t . . . He believed in God, but he—” She struggled with the words. “He did his best, I suppose.”

“What else did the voice tell you?” Quinn asked.

“Besides that a swarm of black flies would descend?” She laughed incredulously.

“It mentioned flies specifically?” Nio asked.

“No,” she said defensively. “It said there would be a sign. A sign everyone could see.”

“Of course.” Nio smiled calmly. “Do you mind if we take a look around?”

“May I ask why? The TV is here.”

“With cases like this,” Agent Quinn jumped in, “where people will naturally be skeptical, we have to rule out other possible causes. Transmitters or speakers. We have to look, if only to say that we looked. It’s entirely voluntary of course.”

“I’m not making it up. I don’t need the attention.”

“I don’t think you are, Ms. Arneson. Your faith is obviously very important to you. But the people I work for haven’t met you and they’ll want to see in my report that we’ve done our due diligence and taken the matter seriously.”

“Are you Christian, Agent Quinn?”

“My mother was Orthodox.”

“I see. I’m sorry.” She shut her eyes immediately. “I didn’t mean to imply—”

“It’s alright,” he said with a smile. “No offense taken.”

“Thank you.” She motioned them forward. “Please. I have nothing to hide. You can start in the bedroom if you like, Agent Quinn. The guest bedroom, I mean,” she corrected quickly. “It’s at the end of the hall.”

“Um.” Quinn glanced to Nio, who shrugged. “Sure. Of course.” He walked toward the back, stopping to examine the row of old photos in the hallway.

“What else can you tell me about the angel?” Nio asked.

“What is there to tell?” With Agent Quinn out of the room, Maureen suddenly seemed very nervous.

“How long have you known him?”

“Is that supposed to be a trick question? I don’t know him. He speaks to me through the television. It’s not a conversation.”

“And you heard it first when you turned off the VHS?”

“Yes, exactly. It surprised me.” She wrung her hands.

“Do you mind if I turn the TV on?”

“Be my guest.”

Nio pulled the tab and the behemoth clicked. As the screen warmed slowly, static appeared. Nio knelt in front of it. There didn’t seem to be any patterns on the screen that could be confused for something else, nor was there any hypnotic strobing.

“Does he have a favorite channel?”

“Are you mocking me? We didn’t watch shows together.”

“Not at all. It’s just the TV has to be set to one channel or another.” She motioned to the dial. “I was just wondering which one. Is it always the same?”

“No. Sometimes I have to look.”

Maureen watched Nio turn the channels one at a time. “Can I get you something?” she asked. “A drink perhaps.”

“I’m fine.” Nio smiled at the woman. “What did he sound like?”

“Inhuman,” she said quickly. “The voice was deep. Deeper than any voice—any sound I’ve heard. It wasn’t like a slowed down recording. It was normal speed. And it seemed to fade out.”

“Like lose volume?”

“Like get so deep I couldn’t hear it anymore. And there were words I didn’t recognize. Not English. Not any language. I looked them up. Almost like it was speaking with two voices at once. And the static on the TV . . .”

Nio looked at it.

“You think it’s a hoax, don’t you?” she asked, walking to the kitchen.

“I believe someone is speaking to you through your television, if that’s what you mean.”

“But if it’s just a man, why did he sound that way? How did he know all those thing? Personal things. Intimate.”

Nio could think of half a dozen ways, from data mining to audio surveillance. They were all unlikely, but far less unlikely than that the Angel of the Lord was speaking through a cathode-ray tube. But indirect logic would never convince Maureen Arneson. She was a simple, modest woman. It would never—it could never—seem likely to her that anyone would take that kind of interest. What for? To her, the patent reality of God would always be the simpler explanation.

Like her, her TV was an open receiver. It would play whatever signal it received. It was also analog. Since broadcast television had gone wholly digital, there were no competing signals to obstruct a pirate transmission. TVs that could pick up an analog signal were all but extinct, making it very unlikely that anyone besides Maureen would be listening, especially if the signal were very weak—transmitted from a van down the block perhaps.

Of course, that still left Maureen’s all-important question—or what Nio assumed her question would be: why go to all that trouble? Why her?

The answer had to be in that house somewhere.

Nio stood and looked around the living room. It was tidy and sparsely furnished, but there were still a million places to hide something—not just the attic and the garage but the cabinets, the little nook of cubbies that hung from the wall near the bedrooms, the closets, the home office, stuffed with boxes and materials. It would take a team of men days to search it all.

“Has it asked you to do anything?” Nio asked. “Give money to someone, perhaps?”

No answer.

“Ms. Arneson?”

When there was no answer, Nio stood and walked to the kitchen. Maureen Arneson was staring out the back window. When she saw Nio, she looked away briefly in embarrassment and then began opening drawers stuffed with papers and coupons, as if she were looking for something.

“He said there would be a sign. He said everyone would see it. He said it was God expelling evil from the land and that having driven it forth, I should be prepared to face it in His name, but that I would not know the time of the coming and I needed to be ready.”

“And what were you supposed to do?”

“He said there would be a sign,” she repeated. She was searching frantically. Her hands were shaking. “Say what you want, but a plague of flies of a pretty big effing sign!” She covered her mouth and gripped the counter as if for dear life.

“Ms. Arneson, are you okay?”

Maureen pulled something from the drawer.

 

 

 

Agent Quinn wandered out of the guest bedroom and into Maureen’s. The four-post bed appeared to be original, as did the quilt on top. Framed photos were set about, mostly of staid individuals smiling genuinely but standing stiffly erect for the camera. The small nook closet was half-covered by a folding door. There was an old sewing machine on a chair in the corner. Under it was a basket of supplies. The mirrored dresser was topped with a knit cover on which Maureen kept her makeup and two prescriptions. Quinn felt awkward invading the woman’s private space for no reason, and he turned to leave, sweeping his eyes over it once as he had been taught at the academy, looking for anything that stood out.

He stopped.

He glanced down the hall to make sure no one was coming. Then he walked around the bed. There was a leather-bound Bible on the nightstand. A place-marking ribbon was draped over the top. Stuffed inside was a manila envelope. It was the only thing in the room that didn’t appear to be at least two decades old. Glancing again to the hall beyond the door, which he could see at an angle, Agent Quinn removed the envelope, leaving the Bible open at the correct page in the Book of Daniel.

Quinn removed the contents—a stack of papers, some of which were folded. On top was a wide photo of a line of teenagers. They were all turned toward the camera but not facing it. They were smiling and joking with each other, as if the photographer had taken the image surreptitiously between formal sets. The title read: The Da Vinci Kids Turn 13. The caption at the bottom listed all of their names in order of appearance. Quinn read across until he found Nio’s name. Third from the last. It was her. She was young. Her face was round and soft. But it was undoubtedly her. Unlike the other eleven, she wasn’t engaged with her peers. She alone gave the camera a casually suspicious look, as if she had guessed what the photographer was doing. She held the hand of the boy next to her, who was looking at a friend several places away and laughing, as if the two of them had just shared a joke. The caption listed his name as Ergod Guevara.

Agent Quinn’s skin pimpled in gooseflesh.

Why would Maureen have this?

 

 

 

Maureen leaned against the kitchen counter, clutching a religious pamphlet. But it wasn’t one of hers. The style was different. It was rough, more like a collage of disjointed messages than a glossy brochure. It conveyed anger and chaos more than order and judgment. The giant cross at the center was made of harsh red scratches. Over it was a grid of thick paper tabs affixed at the top to the pamphlet underneath, as if they were meant to be torn away. But they were tiny. Stamped on each in different color ink was one of four images: a saint with raised hand, a fish, a loaf of bread, a crown of thorns. Maureen scratched one and pressed it to her nostrils, sniffing deeply, orgasmically, with eyes closed. Then she exhaled with force, scratched, and sniffed deeply again.

Nio glanced to the pills she took earlier. The bottle was bare. Completely unmarked. Nio scowled.

Then her eyes went wide.

Maureen saw the reaction. “You’re an abomination,” she cried, clutching at Nio’s arm, keeping her from fleeing. “I will send you back to Hell, soulless creature! In the name of the Lord our God, who has called upon His faithful servant, I strike at thee!”

Nio tried to pull away but Maureen held her, falling to the vinyl floor like an anchor.

“Nio!” Quinn called. His articifical feet pounded down the hall.

“OH!” Maureen doubled over and clutched her abdomen as if suddenly striken with terrible pain.

Freed from her grasp, Nio turned for the door and ran into Agent Quinn, who was rushing to secure Maureen. Nio bounced off the big man’s chest and fell to the floor next to her and was grabbed. But Maureen wasn’t trying to hurt her. She was clutching Nio, holding on like she didn’t want her to leave.

Agent Quinn pulled one of Maureen’s arms free, but she was a spider and clung with the other.

“Get out of here!” Nio kicked Agent Quinn in the shin.

He stepped back in shock.

“She’s going to EXPLODE!”

What?

“OH!” Maureen moaned again louder, gripping her abdomen again.

Nio jumped to her feet just as she heard Maureen’s flesh pop twice.

Pop-pop.

The woman’s blouse puffed out in two places. It was as if she were made of popcorn.

A chemical pin had been pulled. They had seconds.

Mere seconds.

Nio launched herself forward and tackled Agent Quinn over the recliner. The big man fell back, as much from shock as from the force of her tackle, and the two hit the carpet. There was another pop, a much larger one, as Nio lifted the table and held it like a shield over them.

One side of Maureen’s belly exploded, ripping her body in half, followed almost immediately by her upper left breast and her thighs. The successive blasts ripped through the house, each with the force of a grenade, blowing out every window and sending the front door bouncing across the lawn.