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art by Jonathan Westbrook

Electric Company

Melissa Mead is a member of Codex and the Carpe Libris writers group: carpelibris.wordpress.com. She has several stories in Daily Science Fiction.

When my television died I grieved. It had been a faithful little TV, bringing life to the house for many years with its bright pictures and chatter. I'm something of a Luddite ordinarily, preferring non-interactive appliances, but TVs are special. It's been that way ever since my mother's old black-and-white met me at the door when I got home from school, proudly showing my favorite cartoon.
The house felt empty with my television gone, and the neighbors began dropping hints. Wasn't I lonely in that silent house? I needed companionship, and so many televisions needed good homes....
At last I gave in and went downtown, only to be shocked at the changes that selective breeding had wrought in domestic televisions. The new breeds were sleeker than my old companion, broad and flat-screened, with assertive surround sound that I confess I found intimidating. I even let myself get cornered by a 55" bruiser with rumbling subwoofers. A sales attendant had to call it off with a clicker.
Shaken, I abandoned my search for a while, but loneliness won out. I answered dozens of "Free To Good Home" ads, but the poor creatures had been so scratched and dented, or neglected for being out of date, that they could barely hold a signal. My heart was too recently broken for me to take on the challenge of one of these abandoned models.
"You need to get out of the house," my neighbors said. So I packed a travel bag and took a shuttle to the ancestral homeland of the television: Schenectady, NY.
An unlit neon General Electric sign marked my destination: the Appliance Preserve. The door of the gatehouse showered dust on me as it creaked open. A young man looked up from behind a desk.
"The Edison Holograms are five miles that way," he said, pointing. "The Steinmetz show is at the planetarium, and if you've come for the dedication of Union's Schwennker Wing, that was last week. Sorry."
"Actually, I was looking for the Appliance Preserve."
The young man stared, and then grinned. "Really? I mean, of course! You've come to the right place, Miss... uh..."
"Stewart. Emily Stewart."
"Timothy Proctor. Like the theater. Nice to meet you, Miss Stewart. Did you come for the slide show, or the walking tour? It's quite a hike, but it's the best way to see the appliances in their natural habitat."
"Oh, the walking tour, please! I'm sure I'm up for it."
Mr. Proctor scrounged up some heavy boots and sturdy coveralls. "Protective gear," he explained. At my look of alarm he added, "It's perfectly safe! We haven't had any serious incidents since I started working here. I just wouldn't want you to get a nasty burn from a feral toaster."
It never occurred to me to ask how long he'd been working there.
Timothy Proctor opened the electric gate and bowed. "Right up that ramp, Miss Stewart. The path's elevated."
"Just Emily, please."
"Oh! Um, well, call me Tim." He hopped up on the path beside me. "Now: Stay on the path at all times, don't feed the toasters, and never get between a refrigerator and its young. Ready?"
"Who's minding the front desk?"
Tim sighed. "Don't worry about it. You're our first visitor in a week. We got a vintage range last month, beautiful fiery fellow, and no one even showed up."
"It's like people are so eager for the new breeds they can't wait to abandon the old ones," I said, thinking of my poor lost companion.
"Tell me about it. My friend at Computer Rescue says he finds month-old PCs, barely out of the box, dumped on his doorstep all the time."
We walked in silence for a while. Eventually I told him about my old friend.
"I'm really hoping to see some wild TVs. It's silly, I know, but it just felt like the right way to honor its memory."
Tim looked sympathetic. "I hope you will. Wild TVs have gotten rare. We had a pack here years ago, but nobody's seen them in ages. Keep your eyes open, though. You never know what you'll spot in here."
At first I thought the only appliances I'd get to see were the toasters. The bold little things would even scramble up onto the path to beg for bread. Then Tim stopped, put a finger to his lips, and pointed. "See there, among the trees? Avocado-green chest freezer. What camouflage!"
I just caught a glimpse of the big, boxy shape lumbering away. A flock of bug-zappers crackled overhead. To our right, the path dropped off in a series of cliffs and gullies.
"The really dangerous stuff lives between there and the Mohawk River," said Tim. "Lawnmowers, grills, that sort of thing."
The left was all broad, flat plain. A garbage disposal trundled across it, munching stray PCBs. Food processors nibbled on the grass. A washer and dryer wallowed contentedly in a pile of dirty laundry.
"They're a mated pair," said Tim with obvious pride. "And look there!"
I caught my breath. A herd of refrigerators stood by an electric stream, drinking from the flowing current.
"The largest of all land appliances," said Tim in a near-whisper. "That big fellow there can probably store six cubic feet of food at once. Aren't they beautiful!"
"Oh, look at the little baby 'fridge! It could probably fit under a desk."
"Not so loud," Tim cautioned. "See how some of them are flapping their doors? They're defrosting in this heat, and it's making them cranky. And with a little one there..."
Sure enough, some of the refrigerators rumbled their icemakers in warning, or dropped magnets, aggressively marking their territory. Tim and I started to back away. I'd forgotten all about the ubiquitous toasters--until I stepped on one's cord.
It flared up and leaped off the bridge, right into the herd of refrigerators. The startled 'fridges sprayed water from their doors, shorting out the poor toaster. The sparks frightened the refrigerators into a stampede. One slammed against the walkway support. I fell back against the right-hand railing, and heard it crack. I fell…
I came to with something nudging my face. and squinted through a lancing headache. A little VCR blinked excitedly at me.
"Well, hello! Are you a Betamax player? That would be something. Well, I'll call you Beta anyway. Is that all right with you, little fella?"
Beta frisked about my ankles while I stood up and wiped a trickle of blood from my forehead. The world still swayed alarmingly, and I wondered how I'd manage the ten-foot climb back up to the walkway. Then I looked up and realized that I had bigger problems. I couldn't even see the walkway, just trees and an alarmingly steep cliff.
"Tim!" I shouted, but the only reply was the distant shrieking of a flock of smoke alarms.
Beta ran back and forth, obviously trying to get me to follow. I limped after the little machine. I should've realized where it was leading me but, distracted by the headache, I walked right up to the pack before I noticed them.
Televisions. Over a dozen, from tiny portables to full-grown older models with glossy brown cabinets. Beta hopped up on top of a midsized specimen and settled down.
The TVs approached me cautiously, showing their test patterns.
"Hello. I'm Emily." I started to crouch down, remembered the rule about never sitting too close to a strange TV and stood up again. One of the bigger televisions switched to a shoot-em-up Western and advanced toward me. I tried to back away, but the pack had me surrounded on all sides. I wished in vain for a remote control, and remembered my father saying "Never let a machine intimidate you. Show 'em who's boss."
I took a deep breath, stepped forward and changed the channel. An old episode of "Sesame Street" came on, and the big TV's rabbit ears drooped in submission.
"That's right, behave," I told it. The others, following its lead, switched to friendly cartoons and comedies. An old black-and-white, so like the one from my childhood that it brought a lump to my throat, hobbled over to me and switched to reruns of "Underdog."
After a dry, lightly burnt supper scavenged from the local toasters, I fell asleep to the music of signoff and the glow from over a dozen friendly screens.
Morning was another story. I woke to the howl of vacuum cleaners sweeping past to scavenge remains from something else's hunt. The pack followed after them, eager to get a picture of what was happening, and I followed them, with Beta at my heels.
The vacuums led us onto a grassy plain at the edge of the Mohawk. A pride of box fans lay whirring in the sun. The vacuums circled two moving shapes close to the river. I squinted. A maddened gas grill with a leaky tank was stalking something. I'd spent enough time among the angular appliances that it took me a moment to recognize the grill's prey.
"Tim!" I shouted. The young man had burns across his left arm and a nasty fork-wound in his right, but his face lit up when he saw me.
"You're alive! Stay back. I think this poor fellow has a blocked burner, and it's making it cranky. Ouch!"
The grill flared up, scorching Tim again. Then it sensed me. It turned, its flames roaring still higher, and charged.
I knew I had to close the lid, but this was a wild grill with no safety mechanisms. Still, I ran forward. The heat baked my skin from a yard away. I looked around for an extinguisher nest, for anything to cool that hot rage. The river sparkled teasingly behind a glasscrete barrier. No pushing it in the water, then.
The old black-and white TV rushed past me, faster than I would've thought it could manage, and slammed into the raging grill. For just a moment, the flames wavered. I leapt on top of the grill, slammed the lid shut and fumbled for the shutoff valve. Instead I touched another human, bloodied hand.
"I've got that," said Tim with a sheepish grin.
I turned to the brave old TV. Its top was scorched and its picture flickered weakly.
"Poor old fellow," I murmured, stroking its unburned side. It was showing the finale of M*A*S*H.
"Tim, have you got a repairman on staff?"
"Dr. Freihofer." Tim looked at the TV's burns and dents and whistled. "This may be beyond him, but we can try."
The old fellow made it through the night, plugged into a continuous feed from a socket in Tim's office and with Beta curled up on top of him.
"Beta's company seems to do it good," Tim mused as we stood watching the pair. "To be honest, having them around has done me good too. An empty house gets pretty lonely at times."
"It sure does."
We looked at each other, and I knew I'd be moving to Schenectady permanently. By the end of the year Tim's house on McClellan Street bore a nameplate reading "Mr. + Mrs. Timothy Proctor."
Beta was our ringbearer.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, January 10th, 2012

Author Comments

My family has deep roots in Schenectady. My great-grandfather worked with Thomas Edison and Charles Steinmetz at G.E. The house at the end of this story is my Grandma and Grandpa Schwennker's, and Union College's fictional "Schwennker Wing" is my tribute to Grandpa, who graduated from there in the 1920s.

- Melissa Mead
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