We belong to the light, we belong to the thunder
We belong to the sound of the words we’ve both fallen under
“All the best things start in garages.”
My dad threw this line around proudly whenever he’d walk into our garage and see six-year-old me in my pretend cardboard radio station, complete with oversized headphones and a set of turntables that hadn’t worked since the garage flooded two years before I was born. It was another couple of years before I figured out that radio station call letters begin with “K” or “W” depending on what coast they were closest to, and that the “LCEY” written in thick, black, smelly marker on the cardboard couldn’t possibly be a real radio station. It was six more years before I got my first real signal out of the garage. It didn’t reach more than a mile at first and the only listeners I had were a few friends who lived in the adjacent couple of blocks and my parents sitting quietly in our living room, whittling or reading trashy romance novels bought from Good Reeds, Franklin Reeds’ funny little second-hand bookstore in downtown Painter’s Brush, Colorado.
That was the year Mom died. She got to hear the little garage signal belt out Dad’s ‘80s rock and Fleetwood Mac albums before she went. I’m always quick to add the second sentence when I tell people that so they don’t get too bummed out. The year after… that was bad. Dad and I didn’t talk much. It wasn’t that we didn’t love each other or even that our relationship was strained. The silence wasn’t hurtful because we both knew we had the same reason for not talking, and it wasn’t because we didn’t want to talk to each other. It was fear that if we had any kind of meaningful conversation we might accidentally talk about her. I folded the cardboard boxes in the garage and put them in a dumpster, then put my equipment into waterproof plastic tubs. Dad parked his car in the garage for the first time since I was born.
Whenever I tell this story, people’s frowns are the lowest they can get on their faces at this point. I’ve got it down pretty well, and this is the part where I start telling the good parts, to maximize the emotional high. Anyway, a year is a long time. And a lot of healing can be done over a long time. And the day came when Dad and I finally talked about Mom. The cardboard never came back, but the equipment was plugged back in and Dad swore he’d never park a car in the garage again. When my little signal started peeking out from my garage again, I sobbed like a baby. I cried for an entire day, from sunup to sundown. It was the first time I’d cried in a year, and it was long overdue, and after it was done I couldn’t remember ever having felt better.
And after a year of silence, Rod Gibraltar said his line again: “All the best things start in garages. The Ramones. The Kingsmen. Apple Computers. Harley Davidson.
He may have said it more than ever now that it was just the two of us. For the first six months after the equipment was revived on the two side-by-side card tables, 13-year-old me broadcast her little show for three years to anyone who would listen. Not many people did listen, at first, but that didn’t matter. I knew that sitting in chair pumping out a signal was my home and would always be my home.
Well, until the FCC came and shut me down.
The doorbell rang one day at the beginning of summer. Of that summer. Of the summer. I don’t remember why Dad was home. He opened the door. There were the suits. Both were men, one with slicked-back hair and a trim build that looked excellent in his black suit and black tie. His name was Johnson. Just Johnson. The other man was older and balding. His pudginess didn’t fit quite right into his navy blue suit. I liked his stripey tie, though. His name was Boscoe. Yeah, Boscoe. For real.
Johnson and Boscoe had a weird sort of good-cop-cool-cop thing going on that really worked for them. When my Dad answered the door with his nervous “…Hello?” Johnson smoothly flipped open a badge holder and introduced himself as “Agent Johnson from the FCC Enforcement Bureau Regional and Field Office.” His voice projected perfectly. It was an excellent voice for radio. I told him that. He turned his neck ever so slightly so that his sunglassed eyes were now turned a little more toward me, but weren’t actually quite looking at me.
“Thank you, miss,” he said politely and sternly. I wanted to be his best friend forever. “This is my partner, Boscoe.”
Boscoe stood behind Johnson’s left shoulder. He gave a shy, awkward wave and a little grin. I loved him like an uncle immediately. Johnson returned the badge to his inside jacket pocket and folded his hands in front of him. Dad hadn’t said a word; he was just standing with the door in his right hand and his mouth hanging a little open. I feel bad saying it, but he looked a little silly next to Agent “The Boss” Johnson.
“We are investigating a possible violation of Section 301 of the Communications Act,” Johnson said.
My father managed an “uuuuuuh” in reply.
This must have been rehearsed, because here came Good Cop Boscoe right on cue. He smiled and waved his hand through the air as if fanning the tension away before saying “That just means we’re looking for an unlicensed radio station.”
My father’s head whipped toward me and I felt a little sick. I was pretty pleased with myself, like I said, but I didn’t want Dad to be mad at me. I needed him to understand that this was awesome.
“I didn’t realize radio stations had to have a license,” Dad said, still glaring at me. “Did you, Lacey?” That’s me. I’m Lacey. He was talking to me. Yes, I named LCEY after myself. No, I don’t have an explanation for why I didn’t name it LACY.
“I did,” I said plainly and, I hope, bravely. Truthfully, I had been waiting for two black hats to ride up to our door and shut me down. I had been counting on it. And my plan involved total cooperation and honesty from me.
My father raised both eyebrows. I tried to stay confident, to look like I knew exactly what I was doing and that this was completely within the normal course of events. I think he expected me to say something more, but when I didn’t he turned back to Good Cop and Cool Cop and invited them in by stepping aside and gesturing his hand into his home.
Johnson and Boscoe followed my Dad and me into our den. We sat on the sofa and the agents pulled two chairs around so that they were facing the sofa instead of the TV. Boscoe sat back in his chair, gripping the armrests and letting his gut poke out. Johnson sat forward with his elbows propped on his knees and his fingers intertwined together. He was still wearing his sunglasses. His long, lanky legs were spread wide. They were both quiet for a moment. Boscoe kept glancing at Johnson, waiting for him to start their scripted interrogation.
“Lacey, was it? Lacey Gibralter?” Johnson said in my direction.
“Yes, sir,” I said, perfectly professionally.
“Lacey, do you have a radio station in your garage?” Johnson said.
My Dad scooted forward in his chair and pointed an angry hand at Johnson. He wasn’t happy with me, but he had no patience for attacks on his daughter.
“Now, you wait a minute, Mister John,” he said, finger poking the air angrily.
“Johnson,” said Johnson.
“I don’t care. This is my house and that is my garage and this girl is a minor,” he said, his volume rising with each item on his list. “Now, I’m happy to cooperate, but you are going to address your questions to me.”
Boscoe chimed in nervously. “Hey, hey, nobody is in trouble, yet, Mr. Gibralter. We’re just trying to gather some information.”
“Yet?!” Dad spat. I thought Johnson was going to shoot Boscoe a dirty look through his sunglasses, but he didn’t. The “yet” must have been part of the script. Spook us into realizing there was trouble ahead, and that there was an easy way to avoid it.
“I am not a fool. I know you are not cops, no matter how badly you want to be, and you can’t charge us with a crime,” my Dad said, a little more calmly.
“Well, that’s technically true,” Boscoe squeaked and sweated. “But, we do assist the Department of Justice in an official capacity, and they do take our recommendations seriously. Mr. Gibraltar—and Miss Gibraltar, if I may—the best thing would be for both of you to be honest with us.”
Dad was silent for a moment. I was, too. If this was going to work, I needed him to be cool. And he was only going to be cool if he felt like he was in control, so I was gonna let him drive for a minute.
“I am happy to answer your questions,” Dad said flatly after a few seconds.
Johnson shifted his body around in his chair before settling in the exact same position as before. “Mr. Gibraltar, do you know what a pirate radio station is?”
“Is it, like, a radio station that…” Dad paused for a moment. He seemed to resist the urge to look at me for help.
“…steals stuff from other radio stations, or…”
Johnson interrupted him. “It is, by definition, a radio station that operates with no intention of obtaining a license. The United States government also usually profiles a pirate radio station as being a clandestine operation whose goals are anarchic.”
The blood drained from Dad’s face. Good Cop noticed.
“We are not accusing anyone of anything right now. We are just asking questions,” Boscoe said.
“We have reason to believe that there is an unlicensed radio station operating from this home, but—“ Johnson said, stopping in the middle of his sentence to share a look with Boscoe, “—we don’t think we would characterize it as pirate radio.”
I wrinkled my brow. This wasn’t part of the plan. I needed them to throw the book at me! I was a big deal, damn it!
“Why not?” I asked, then cursed in my head. I had accidentally taken control. Fortunately, Dad grabbed the wheel again immediately.
“No, the real question is, why do you have ‘reason to believe’ there is a radio station here?” Dad said, scoffing on the last few words.
Johnson leaned back in his chair and clucked his tongue once. He reached into his infinitely deep inner coat pocket and pulled out a small Philips radio. He switched it on and gently rolled his thumb over the side until the static turned into my voice.
“—EY. This is Rhythm and Lace, announcing I’m taking a break, but I’ll be back with more music later. It’s just me in my Dad’s garage, and I gotta do other stuff sometimes!”
The radio was silent for a moment before my looping station ID started up again with “You’re listening to LCEY…”
Johnson clicked the radio off dramatically and returned it to his coat.
“You have to admit, that certainly sounds like you, Miss Gibraltar,” said Boscoe. “We assume you made a long tape of that message that you could broadcast for long periods of time? That’s very clever. Didn’t really understand your DJ name, though.” He chuckled nervously. Johnson was silent.
“Look,” Dad said, adopting an amicable tone and using both of his hands to gesture widely and warmly. “We just didn’t know about the regulations. I’d be happy to purchase a license. Can we just go to the courthouse in Columbus? Or is this more of a federal thing that has to be handled in Denver?”
“Mr. Gibraltar, a station license is not like a fishing license,” Johnson said. “The licensing process is extraordinarily selective and, even if a station is selected, the licensing fees are not something that can be afforded by a simple household income,” Johnson said.
“Well…” my Dad faltered. His head dipped and he stared at a spot of carpet for a moment before raising his head again sharply and snapping his fingers. “What about college radio stations? There’s a ton of those. There’s no way they all have a license.”
“You are correct, Mr. Gibraltar,” Johnson replied almost immediately. He had expected this rebuttal. “College radio stations are classified as low-power radio stations, and getting licensure for those is difficult since the FCC eliminated class D licenses seven years ago. But, we don’t pay much attention to those since they only have about 100 watts of juice shooting through their antennas. I would be surprised if there were 10 watts moving through the wires in this room right now. But, the station in your garage—“
“Allegedly in your garage,” Boscoe cut in.
Johnson scoffed. “Yes, thank you, Agent Boscoe. The station allegedly in your garage is by no means low power, is it?”
I hesitated. I had underestimated the thoroughness of their investigation.
“Miss Gibraltar, how many watts hypothetically power your alleged radio station?” Johnson said.
I shook my head. I truthfully didn’t know, but I understood what he was driving at. I was drawing power from all over the neighborhood, and the setup was neither legal nor safe. You could hear the eyelids click in the room. Dad finally broke the silence.
“So, what now?”
Johnson turned to face each of us, then said, “Boscoe, do you want to answer this question?” Was this part not rehearsed?
“This is a very unusual case,” Boscoe said carefully. “Mr. Johnson, nor I, nor any of our colleagues at the field office have ever dealt with anything quite like it. We’ve dealt with the odd college radio station interfering with licensed broadcasts and actual pirate radio stations, but we’ve never quite handled the in between.
“Miss Gibraltar, I think you want to be cooperative, and we have no interest in pressing criminal charges against someone who is being cooperative. Let us ask you again, directly: Do you have a radio station in your garage?”
“I do,” I said.
“Miss Gibraltar, we have to shut down your station. It is the law. If you cooperate with us and do as you’re told, I’m sure we can avoid criminal charges since there was no malicious intent.”
I exhaled, smiled, stood up and clapped my hands. “Excellent, yes, do you need me to show you to the equipment? I imagine you will be hauling some of it off,” I said cheerfully. Even Johnson seemed surprised, and perhaps a little disappointed. I was going way off script.
“Yes, lead the way,” he said with some of Boscoe’s nervous politeness in his voice.
“I have a big favor to ask before we start, though,” I said. Johnson cocked an eyebrow over the rim of his sunglasses.
“Will you write a very detailed report of this and allow me to have a copy?”
An FCC van pulled up next to the house two hours later. When the last of the equipment was loaded on the van, Johnson produced an envelope from the bottomless black hole he hid inside his jacket. It was a copy of his report, which he had somehow magically produced in the short time since he had first arrived at the house. Both he and Boscoe had signed my copy of the report, a thing I assume they did not actually have an obligation to do. I kept up my cheerful appearance as the last of the equipment was loaded into the van. I had expected and even looked forward to this day, but it still broke my heart to watch my gear get hauled away. The suits did let me broadcast a farewell before unplugging everything, and I will always love them for that.
As the van drove away, I steeled myself for the conversation with my father I had been dreading. I would enjoy the conversation’s result, but getting there would be tiring and likely involve a lot of yelling. I stood in the middle of our driveway, fists clenched and eyes shut. I was buckling my knees and my elbows and praying I wouldn’t pass out. I heard my Dad quietly clear his throat a couple of times. I could tell he was pacing a little, scuffing the ground with his shoes as he thought about how to open the conversation. I think he was trying to figure out how to be angry without being mean. I love him.
“Lacey,” he said in his Dad voice. “Lacey, the government was at my house.”
I nodded vigorously but did not make eye contact.
“Lacey, I thought the signal barely made it to the Jacksons’ house!” he said, anger rising just a little in his voice. “Where did you get the stuff to—I mean, how were you able to rig that up?!”
I summoned my courage and turned toward him. I wasn’t quite ready for eye contact, yet.
“I mean, I got some engineering books and tech manuals and stuff,” I said. “And, you know, there’s that electronics club at school I’ve always been friends with.”
“This was dangerous, Lacey. This was illegal,” Dad said, pointing at where my setup used to be. “And not jaywalking illegal. It was illegal because it was dangerous. You were stealing electricity!”
He had me there. “I know, that part was bad. I’m sorry, Dad.”
Dad’s eyebrows went all the way up. He put his hands on his hips. “That part was bad? Not the whole thing?”
“No,” I said. Bravely, I might add. Dad straightened up. He took his hands off his hips and folded them on his chest, waiting for an explanation.
“The electricity thing was bad,” I said. “But, I’m not sorry about having a real radio station that broadcast all over town.”
Dad was quiet for a minute. He was fishing for another line from me, and his patience paid off.
“And I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” I said sheepishly.
Dad’s brow relaxed. He threw a hand toward me. “That’s what I wanted to hear. I thought we got past this, Lacey. I thought we weren’t having problems talking, anymore.”
Oh, that stung. That barb buried itself deep. I liked my privacy, and it may have been a low blow to drag Mom into this, but he was right. I had a tendency to keep too much to myself. Tears welled in my eyes, but I wiped them away.
My Dad sighed and put a hand on my shoulder. I stared at the ground. “This isn’t just a hobby for you, is it?” he asked. I shook my head.
“Why did you do all this?” he asked. His tone was genuine now instead of rhetorical.
I thrust the letter from the suits toward Dad. “I needed this.”
One of Dad’s eyebrows was raised in pure confusion. “You wanted the cops to shake you down?”
I gave my Dad a look of annoyance. “They’re not cops, Dad.”
“They’re basically cops, Lacey,” Dad said, apparently having changed his mind from before.
“Okay, sure, but I needed this report. This is physical proof that I did something significant. That I did so much… radio by myself that the FCC noticed and had to take action. This is my résumé!” I said, shaking the document as I spoke.
Dad looked at me. He drummed his fingers on one of his crossed biceps. His mouth and moustache twisted. Dad isn’t crazy strict and he doesn’t really have a temper, but he doesn’t change his mind when it comes to me being in trouble. If he decides to punish me, it’s happening. One time he thought I had sneaked alcohol into the house, but it was just brown bottle root beer. He still grounded me for seeming like I was sneaking alcohol.
He spoke finally. “Okay, first off, I’m proud of you. Okay? You really did something. Raising a lazy kid is the worst, and damn anyone who accuses you of that.”
I beamed. He continued.
“I am also very proud of you for having a passion and taking risks to achieve that passion. Do you understand the reasons I am proud of you?”
I nodded enthusiastically. He put his hands on his hips again.
“Good. Because I am not proud of the kind of risk you took. You do not do things that are justifiably illegal or put yourself and others – especially others! -- in danger. Go find a real radio station, put your foot in the door and bug them until they give you a job or an internship or something. Okay?” he said. It wasn’t as angry of a rant as it sounds.
I nodded my head again and hugged him. He wasn’t done talking. “This is going to be a confusing week for you, because you are incredibly grounded. You are to stay home every day this week. You cannot leave the house for any reason unless I say so.
“But, I will tell you every day that I am proud of you. And we can have pizza one night.”
The FCC let me keep a couple of my babies, most notably my expensive and powerful Grundig Satellit radio and my favorite pair of headphones, named Gerald. I wasn’t allowed to leave the house, but the restrictions ended there. I spent the week listening to every signal I could get on Grundig and Gerald and taking notes.
I started with FM frequencies. I ticked to each frequency one at a time, and waited patiently to hear if anything came through the static. Some signals were clear, some stepped in and out through the noise. I took notes on both just the same. If I was close enough to get any kind of signal, then they were worth visiting. I found a dozen signals in total. I organized them in the order of how promising I thought they were (or, if I’m being honest, how much I liked them). At the top of the list was a top 40 station, which was the closest in format to LCEY. It was fine enough. Pretty good music, entertaining commentary from DJs. Everything was crisp and well-produced. It’d be a great place to start, and I could see myself being happy to get a show on it.
I turned to AM next. I almost didn’t bother with AM since radio stations were all but abandoning it and it meant 106 frequencies to tick through. I probably wouldn’t have bothered if I hadn’t been grounded, but I had nothing better to do and Dad was a pretty bad TV hog. I tuned Grundig to 540 and started rolling through 10 kHz at a time.
The first signal I found (at 720 kHz) was a sports talk radio show. I didn’t know anything about sports, but I wrote them down anyway because I know plenty about the technical side of things and a wire runner might be just what they needed. Most of the AM band was talk and religious radio or mirrors of the FM broadcasts I’d already heard.
I clicked to the last frequency on the AM band – 1605 kHz – and almost turned Grundig off and pulled Gerald off my ears. At first, I thought I was just hearing static like the last dozen or so frequencies, but I heard something just a little different. Have you ever really listened to static for a while, or stared at it on a TV screen? For such a conceptually simple thing, it is surprisingly complex in reality. Just try it sometime. There are layers of sound and the image is impossible to keep up with. Now, imagine a sound 10 times more complex and you will have an idea of what The Signal sounds like.
Of course at the time, it was just “the signal” to me, no capital letters. I sat, a dumb expression probably on my face, listening to The Signal. One of my earliest memories is staring at our old wood-paneled Zenith color TV in the den, just staring at the static, at the ghosts dancing inside of it. I don’t know why I was so transfixed by it, but that’s exactly how I felt in this moment.
So, static is just noise, right? It’s just the stuff going through the antenna when it’s not picking up a real signal. Static on a television is just a visual representation of that noise. The Signal wasn’t chaos like static is, it just seemed that way at first because there was so much going on with it. I also couldn’t make out any real information, I just had a feeling that I was listening to real information. Like it was compressed somehow, and that if I could stretch it out somehow it would make more sense. There’s a scene in WarGames where Joshua, the computer, is running through a bunch of alphanumeric strings, trying to find launch codes for the US’s nuclear missiles. Matthew Broderick is looking at the letters and numbers and knows it’s data and it’s important, but otherwise it’s gibberish. This was like that. It was like looking at tadpoles in a pond. There’s thousands of them and there’s no way to keep track of any single tadpole, but you take in the whole of it and you understand there’s something happening there. It was like looking at a tapestry and seeing that it was knitted from thread, and each of those threads was, itself, made from smaller threads.
Analogies can’t really describe what I was hearing, though. It was somehow subtle while being extravagant in its vastness and complexity. I wouldn’t call it beautiful – it didn’t seem like it was supposed to be art, but it also didn’t have a sinister quality. It was… satisfying. Fascinating. I think I even whispered “What is this?” out loud.
Inspiration struck like a lightning bolt. I scrambled to unhook my Nintendo from my Sharp TV, unscrewing the coaxial cable and yanking the power plug out of the wall. I stopped short when I realized the Grundig didn’t have a coaxial, then turned back around and dug my Ham radio out of the closet, which the FCC guys thankfully didn’t know about. I wired everything up and held my breath.
The vertical and horizontal on the TV wobbled for a moment, then snapped into their holding positions. True to my hunch, an image appeared onscreen. It glowed green and hot, like it was just a little too much for the TV to handle, but it was holding it together. At first, the discovery was exciting, and I silently screamed and pumped my fists in the air. But, the excitement slowly ebbed away as the “what now”-edness of it dawned on me. There was certainly an image on the screen, but it was nothing. It changed every few seconds to a new pattern, but they were all nonsense. It felt like I had come so far, only to open an empty treasure chest. The TV started to get warm, so I cut the power, my mind racing with dumb theory after dumb theory, throwing it like spaghetti onto a wall, hoping something will stick.
Dad and I had pizza that night. I couldn’t enjoy it. Dad tried to ask me what was wrong, but I just shrugged it off. I think he assumed it was typical teenage girl stuff, which was fine by me. I was not prepared to explain my situation. I just went to bed, hoping my disappointment would exhaust me enough to fall asleep, but I didn’t get that lucky. I just let my eyes hang open. I felt incredibly sleepy and totally wired at the same time. It was a terrible feeling. I turned over in bed to look at the Ham radio still sitting on the desk. I clicked through all the possible fixes in my head. Different ways to plug it in, ways to increase the power. I didn’t even care about further grounding, I just wanted to know what was up.
I sat up in bed. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t tried the obvious thing. I crept downstairs and unplugged the TV from the den wall and channeled immense strength powered by obsessive determination. I lugged it upstairs to my room, somehow managing to not make noise on the way. I plugged everything in like earlier and hit the power.
Nothing new. Nonsense patterns changing every few seconds. I put my hands over my tired eyes. I wanted to cry, but couldn’t. Just like I couldn’t sleep. I paced around my room in the dark for almost an hour. I looked back at the television screen to give it a glowering look like a disappointed mother. The image wasn’t glowing hotly like it had been on my Sharp. Instead, its blacks and greens were better contrasted. That was something, at least—it was clearer.
I was ready to say, “not that it’ll make any difference,” out loud to nobody, but something caught my eye on the top and left edges of the picture. The edges were covered by a line of tiny triangles with their points pointing left and straight up, like they were arrows pointing at something offscreen. The triangles on the top edge were slowly moving to the right, disappearing off the right edge and appearing on the left in a perpetual cycle. The triangles on the left edge did the same, except they moved from bottom to top.
I moved close to the screen, squinting at the triangles. I could see the little horizontal points of light that made up the cells of the TV screen. I waved my arms in the air the triangles pointed at. I examined the sides of the TV corresponding to the triangle edges. I tried scooting the TV in the direction of the arrows and lifting it into the air. Nothing. Even though nobody was there to see me, I felt pretty stupid. I picked the TV up and set it on its side so that the left-pointing triangles were now pointing down.
For a moment, I thought still nothing would happen and I would give up and go back to not sleeping in my bed again. But, the horizontal and vertical on the TV bowed again like it did every time a screen showing The Signal powered on. When the image snapped into its holding position again, the image had righted itself so that, once again, the arrows were pointing to the top and left edges of the screen. It was like the TV had sensed its own orientation and changed its display accordingly.
“It’s not supposed to be able to do that,” I whispered out loud. I dug a power strip, cable splitters, and more coaxial cables out of my boxes of A/V detritus. I screwed a cable into the back of the Sharp and into one of the output plugs of the cable splitter, then attached the den TV to the other output plug. I set them next to each other—the Sharp was on the left and the Samsung from the den was on the right.
I actually yelped out loud when the image on both screens reduced to a bright point in the middle of the screens, then bloomed to full resolution. The images on both had changed. The patterns still didn’t make sense, but now there all new ones on the Samsung. The images on the Sharp television hadn’t changed except that now there were no longer triangles on the side of the Sharp’s screen, only the top. The Samsung had triangles on the top and left sides now.
I studied the new patterns ticking by on the Samsung. I still couldn’t make heads or tails of the image, but after watching it for a few minutes I realized that the two images had some congruencies. Lines from one screen would hit the edge of one screen and continue on the other. If adding one screen made a difference, maybe adding more would solve my mystery.
I’d call myself a good kid, for what it’s worth. I guess it’s not worth much. I also think other people might call me a good kid, too, though, which is worth a little more. I mean, I don’t make straight A’s and obviously I commit the occasional defiance like constructing a 10,000-watt radio station antenna on top of my garage. But, I’m also not, like, a huge heart attack for my Dad. I’m not a hooligan.
Which is why I’ve never had to put my car in neutral and roll it for a block before starting the engine so I didn’t wake my Dad. I’ve never sneaked out to a party or anything. That car was so heavy. I am not a big girl by any stretch, and pushing my station wagon by myself almost didn’t happen. By the time I’d managed to swerve the car down our block I was huffing and puffing so loud that it almost rendered the whole sneaking exercise moot.
When I got to Painter’s Brush High School, I parked my car in the woods nearby. I had returned the Samsung to its rightful place in the Den just in case I didn’t make it back home in time (which I now realize would have been pointless, since my car was missing and Dad was much more likely to notice that than a missing TV), but I had brought along the little Sharp.
Even though I was about to enter the school illegally, I had promised myself I would at least not damage any school property. I knew a way into the school from Rod Roddington (I don’t think Rod was even his real first name, I think he just thought it was funny), a guy who lives down the street graduated last year. He and some friends had sneaked into the school at night to pull their senior prank, making the same no-property-destruction promise I had made. They filled the teacher’s lounge with ping pong balls; it was genuinely hilarious.
Anyway, there’s apparently roof access door on top of the school that’s never locked and just heads straight into a janitor’s closet, which is also always unlocked. Rod and Friends were able to unlock the front door of the school once they’d gained access and haul their stuff in that way. I guess the school didn’t figure out the roof thing.
Rod was just a little more athletic than me, although he was still pretty skinny, so I banked on being able to crawl up the rain gutter like he had been able to. Fun fact about me: While I am not deathly afraid of heights, they are not my favorite. I guess that might be true of most people. The rain gutter had a few handholds and footholds, just enough to get to the top, but it was nerve-rackingly slick otherwise. The roof was only one story up, which may not seem like it’s very high, but once you’re up there the true height dawns on you and you realize that a fall may not be lethal, but it would hurt.
I got my hands on a metal band bolted over the pipe and lifted my last foot off the ground and onto another band near the bottom of the pipe. My other foot was on a window sill. I felt all the muscles in my limbs and made a mental note of all their positions, then pushed up with the window sill leg. All three of my other limbs went where they were supposed to. Both my hands were caught onto another metal band near the top of the pipe. My window-sill leg was stretched out completely straight, and my other leg was now barely gripping the metal band my hand had been on a moment before. I breathed in and out slowly a few times, then pulled with both my hands.
The brick beneath the bolt holding the right side of the metal band to the wall crumbled, causing the band to bend for a second before wrenching the other bolt from the wall. The moment I felt myself begin to fall backwards was an eternity. I imagined the hard concrete smacking against the back of my head. Maybe I could twist my body on the way down and land face-first if I vaulted my feet off the pipe, but I would surely break my wrist or arm and have a few other pretty good wounds, too. My brain switched to a new, last-ditch plan and I shot my right hand out again. There was a gap between the pipe and the wall about an inch wide, and I managed to tuck my fingers in that gap and hold fast to the pipe. My whole body shuddered with the bracing jerk and the pipe made a dull clanging sound. The metal band clinked when it hit the concrete below. So much for avoiding destruction of property.
The fingers on the hand clutching the gutter pipe cried out in pain. They had brutally scraped the brick, causing deep scratches along my knuckles. I could feel blood running down my hand. I quickly relieved it by carefully grabbing the pipe’s gap with my left hand. Once I was convinced I was settled, I looked down. This was maybe not the best idea, but I needed to decide if it was easier to take the last jump up to the roof or make my way back down. I gathered my courage and decided shimmying onto the roof was the best option. It was only inches above me, but it felt like miles. I stretched my left hand up and hopped a little so that I could grab the roof ledge. My heart stopped when I hopped, but I made it. I pulled myself onto the roof, wincing from the pain in my hand and thanking the stars for my light weight.
I crawled onto the roof like a marooned sailor and rolled onto my back, my face red from exertion and my eyes wet with fear. The pain in my hand kept me from lying down for long, and I quickly found the door and slipped through into darkness. Even in pitch blackness I could tell that I was in a janitor’s closet because of the distinct mop water smell that only school mop water has. I knocked over a few plastic bottles while I fumbled for the light switch. A single yellow bulb zapped to life above me. It was thankfully dim— my eyes were adjusted to the dark and a harsh fluorescent light would have stabbed me right in the pupils. I grabbed a roll of brown paper towels off a shelf and wrapped a thick makeshift gauze around my bloody hand. I could feel my knuckles throbbing underneath.
I clicked the light back off and carefully opened the door, trying to keep the mechanisms from making noise. The school didn’t have a security guard—it would have been a crazy coincidence if anyone else at all had been in the building—but my brush with injury on the drainpipe had me in an extra careful mood. When I was sure I was in the clear, I headed for the front door and propped it open.
Thirty minutes later I had my Sharp TV and a spider web of cable splitters hooked up to the Ham radio in the Electronics Club room. The Sharp told me where to put one of the other eight TVs I had gathered from around the school. High schools have a lot of TVs right now. Education’s not exactly on the uptick.
One after one, I put the TVs where the triangles told me to. Each time I plugged one in, the images bowed and snapped back, clearer than before. I plugged in the eighth TV and stacked it on top of the 3-by-3 grid I had built. At last, the triangles disappeared. Every television bowed its images one more time, then snapped them together into one, cohesive image. I stood and stared at the images as they clicked through. I was still having trouble making sense of them, but I was closer. They were complete, for sure.
Sound suddenly blared out of the TV, causing me to actually yelp and fall over. The image was unchanged, but it was now accompanied by… music? Not just music, but a song. A song I knew. “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.” I giggled. The absurdity of it, the weird pizza-induced dreaminess of it, overflowed inside of me for a second. That turned into a loud, proud laugh that echoed through the halls as the TVs bathed the dark lab in an eerie green glow.
One of the images cycling through the 9-monitor-monster I had created (the Monitster, as I called it; I inherited my Dad’s sense of humor) was a series of abstract shapes with a dot pinging inside one of them. Then, the image coalesced into a single shape. A small dot pinged slightly left of center of the shape. Then, the image transformed to something much more complicated; lines criss-crossed in an irregular grid over three-fourths of the image, and a fuzzy clump formed a boundary around that. The same small dot pinged in the fuzzy clump. Then, the first image cycled back around. The same three formations changed every few seconds, in the same order, eternally.
Could it be a circuit board? No, the patterns weren’t quite angular enough. Could it be a language I didn’t understand? Possible, but the characters would be out-of-control complicated and the message would be very short. Could it be a map? That would make sense. That would explain why the image had cohesion, yet seemed random. Yes, yes, it was a map! There was the high school I was standing in. There was my neighborhood a few miles away. There was the water tower. It was a map of Painter’s Brush, and this map was showing me the location of something just outside of town. The other pieces fell into place in my brain: The image of the abstract shapes was a map of the continents of the world, the second shape was an outline of the United States, and the last shape was Painter’s Brush. Each map had a ping that drilled down to the next map.
The Signal was a map.
And it played Meatloaf.