Michael C. Keith
It happened while Susan Collier was watching Fat Loss. The words in her head became those of the popular television show’s leading contestant.
“I want a Twinkie!” blurted a large male in sweatpants in answer to the host’s question about what he hoped for in life now that he had lost over one hundred pounds.
It was not the answer the host expected.
So do I, thought Susan, amused that both she and the show’s star contestant would be thinking of the same thing.
When she returned from the kitchen with a package of Twinkies and a glass of milk, the host of Fat Loss was interviewing another weight reduction competitor.
“So what’s it like being on Fat Loss and shedding 75 pounds?”
It’s not that great, thought Susan, as she took her first bite of the Twinkie.
“It’s not that great,” replied the contestant, to the show’s perplexed emcee.
“Huh?” muttered Susan, thinking she’d heard her thought mimicked by the television. How crazy is that, she contemplated, putting aside the disappointing snack.
“Crazy?” asked the television host, and Susan starred at the screen in astonishment.
Could it be repeating her thought, she wondered, deciding to test the bizarre possibility. Again she looked intensely at the television screen––focusing on the female contestant––and formulated a sentence in her mind.
“You’re a hot looking guy,” said the game show contender to her startled host, Lyle Connor.
Oh my god! Whoever I look at on the TV says what I’m thinking, concluded Susan in total disbelief.
Susan hit the off switch on the remote to further consider the astonishing revelation without distraction. How can I do that, she wondered, but then her thoughts turned to other things. What would she do with the newfound ability? Was it something she could use to her benefit? If nothing else, she could have some fun, she figured, and then questioned whether it was only the content on her own television that she could alter.
Susan got her answer the next morning at work at the Coyne Elder Care Facility when a fellow nurse’s aid and good friend, Sally Morse, remarked about the strange comments by the contestants on Fat Loss.
“This guy on the show said he wanted a Twinkie and this chick came on to the host. It was hysterical.”
“Really?” replied Susan, saying nothing about her possible role in the spectacle.
“Lyle Connor looked like a deer in the headlights. Didn’t know how to respond. Like, what do you say to a guy on Fat Loss asking for a Twinkie? I almost peed my pants. Lyle probably crapped his. It was sooo funny,” recounted Sally, chuckling.
So it really happened, mulled Susan, experiencing both excitement and a tinge of apprehension.
When Susan returned home after work and grocery shopping, she was eager to see if she still had the power to alter the words of television personalities. During the course of the day, she had considered many possibilities of what she might do with her miraculous skill . . . if she still possessed it.
She quickly stored her groceries and nuked an enchilada for supper. When it was ready, she took it along to the living room with a glass of white wine and pressed the power button on the television remote. Her favorite program, Rough Love, was about to start, and Susan planned to toy with the dialogue of the program’s most detested character, Price Everlowe. For several years Susan had witnessed Everlowe ruin the lives of people she loved on the show, and if she could get him to say things out of character, it would give her tremendous satisfaction.
As soon as Everlowe appeared on the screen, Susan began manipulating his speech. Indeed, finding that her strange ability was still very much intact.
I would like to apologize to everyone for all of the pain and heartbreak I’ve caused over the years, thought Susan, and Price Everlowe repeated her words verbatim.
This caused the other actors to look at him strangely, although they continued with their dialogue as if Everlowe had remained in character.
“Why must you treat me like a common street urchin instead of your child?” asked a young actress forging ahead with her part in the melodrama.
“I am eternally sorry for behaving so cruelly to you, my dearest daughter,” replied Everlowe, whose words belied his malevolent expression.
Susan could not contain her delight, and laughed loudly as she continued to apply her odd powers.
By the end of Rough Love, she managed to reduce its foremost antagonist to that of a pathetic whiner. Tickled with her handiwork, Susan called her friend to get her reaction to the show.
“Do you think they’re trying to kill off Everlowe? Why would they change him so much? I liked him better when he was a bastard,” responded Sally.
Again, Susan felt exhilaration knowing that she could alter television’s content.
“I did it,” blurted Susan, impulsively, immediately regretting her words.
“You did what?’ asked Sally.
“Nothing,” replied Susan.
“Come on, you did what?” pressed Sally.
“Well . . . I think I can make people say things on television,” admitted Susan, reluctantly.
“What do you mean?”
“You know how the people on Fat Loss acted weird the other day?” asked Susan.
“Yeah, that was really funny,” responded Sally with a giggle. “You’re not saying you did that, are you?”
“I think so. I mean, yes. I did that,” asserted Susan.
After a short silence, Sally spoke, “That’s crazy. How could you do that? Are you joking?”
“No, I’m not joking. Come over and I’ll show you,” answered Susan.
“I’ll be right there!” shouted Sally into her cellphone, and within twenty minutes she was at Susan’s door.
For the balance of the evening, Susan demonstrated her wizardry to the complete amazement of her friend.
“Wow, this is outrageous. You could do other things, you know. What about if you made the lottery host call your numbers?” inquired Sally, excitedly.
“I can’t change what you see, only what you hear. The numbers would be there, so whatever he said, you could still see the actual winning figures,” replied Susan.
“Well, there must be something,” said Sally, getting up to leave.
“Don’t tell anybody about this, okay?” pleaded Susan.
“Why not? This can make you famous,” replied Sally, surprised at her friend’s modesty.
“It would make me a freak, more than anything. And it will probably go away. Could be just a temporary thing. Then where would I be?”
“Well, think about it anyway, and I won’t tell a soul . . . I promise. See you tomorrow at work,” said Sally as she was leaving.
Susan found it difficult to sleep. She wondered if she’d done the right thing revealing her peculiar talent to Sally. She also pondered what she could do with her gift that would have a positive effect. She might be able to do something good . . . but what? Susan contemplated. It was nearly sunrise when she finally fell asleep. But by that time she had devised a plan that might help change the world . . . or so she hoped.
The next evening, Susan awaited the State of the Union Address by the President––a broadcast she seldom, if ever, watched. It had been a long day at work, made more protracted by her eagerness to implement her idea. Susan was also concerned by the seeming aloofness of Sally, who barely spoke to her other than to tell her that the news was filled with reports of what she had done to last night’s television shows. Because of her friend’s apparent coolness, she decided against confiding her intentions to alter the speech of the nation’s leader.
What was behind Susan’s plan was her anger at the President for his recent commitment of thousands of troops to several countries. His decisions had resulted in global condemnation and a growing casualty count among soldiers and innocent civilians. While Susan didn’t care much about politics, she was worried about the country’s ever-growing military involvement in the affairs of nearly a dozen foreign nations while at home the U.S. economy continued to falter. She knew too many people that were suffering the consequences of her country’s bad decisions, and it disturbed her.
Susan settled into her chair as an announcer introduced the President. Not long into his address, she began to put words into his mouth.
"For too long we have sent our soldiers and resources to far off lands while the national debt has climbed and unemployment has soared. It costs billions of taxpayer’s dollars to send our military to places where we have no business being. This unnecessary expense has contributed to the continuing deterioration of our nation’s roads, highways, and historical structures, as well as the loss of programs designed to provide humanitarian assistant to disadvantaged citizens. Our lust for war and global dominance has nearly destroyed this once great nation . . ."
The furor over the President’s speech raged for days but received kudos from the international community. The headlines in Le Monde, Pravda, El Mundo, The Guardian, Deutsche Welle, and Times of India, to name just a few, expressed both surprise and delight, commending the U.S. President for the radical shift in his foreign policy strategy. While his critics appeared mystified though at the same time pleased with his sudden change of heart, his own supporters and party leaders were confounded. The President himself was aghast by what had occurred during his national address.
“I must have had some sort of spasm or something,” he speculated to his staff and the heads of his now-shaky political alliance.
Given the favorable response from the global community, the President’s people were at a loss as to what to do next. They feared a conspiracy by the liberal media but were not inclined to go public with the assertion, because they had heard the networks had experienced similar disruptions with other broadcasts, though not of a political nature.
When Sally returned from a visit with her mother in Wheeling, she had lunch with Susan at work.
“I can’t believe what you did to the President,” whispered Sally, excitedly. “They could get you good for that. Isn’t it treason or something like that? I mean, messing with the President’s speech . . . oh my god! ”
“I wanted to do something worthwhile with my . . . my gift. I hate to see all those innocent people killed in the wars. All that money spent on destruction when people here at home don’t have jobs and are losing their homes.”
“That’s really nice. Will you do something for me?” asked Sally, moving closer to Susan. “Will you get me on Ellen?
“What?” replied Susan,
“You know, The Ellen Degeneres Show. I love her. I want to be on her show so bad, and you can do it. Just make her invite me, and then she’ll have to let me on,” pleaded Sally.
“I can’t,” answered Susan, moving away from Sally, who was practically in her lap.
“Why not? It’s not a big thing that I’m asking. I mean, not like changing the President’s address,” retorted Sally.
“I don’t feel right about doing it. I know I did some things before, but I’m just going to try to do some good with my ability . . . while it lasts.”
“Well, you’d be doing me some good . . . like, hello, I’m your friend sitting here.” protested Sally, stiffening in her seat.
“I’m sorry. I just don’t think it’s right. This power was given me for a purpose, and I should use it in a positive way.”
“Oh, and doing something for me wouldn’t be a positive thing?” said Sally, perturbed.
“You know what I mean, Sally. Please don’t be mad,” begged Susan, but Sally stood up and stormed away.
Susan heard nothing from Sally for several days. She had not even appeared at work nor did she return her phone calls. At that point, Susan feared her friend had reported her to the authorities. Nonetheless, she was committed to her plan to use her powers for peaceful purposes. To her satisfaction, she quickly got another opportunity when the President’s staff decided to throw caution to the wind and scheduled a televised news conference to allow him to clarify the statements he made during his ill-fated State of the Union Address.
“Good evening, my fellow citizens,” greeted the President, as Susan leaned toward the television screen and began projecting words into his mouth.
“I wish to restate my determination to create peace in the world through the reduction of our military forces and our involvement in the politics of other nations. No longer will our soldiers take up arms against foreign lands. America will mind its business and focus its attention exclusively on its own challenges and problems. The government will treat its citizens with the fairness and openness they deserve. You have my wor . . ..”
At that exact moment, the signal from the White House ceased and Susan slumped lifelessly to the floor. She never heard the shot. Beyond the shattered pane in her apartment window, a camouflaged figure scurried away.
Michael C. Keith is the author of over 20 books on the electronic media, including Talking Radio, Voices in the Purple Haze, Radio Cultures, Sounds in the Dark,and the classic textbook The Radio Station. In addition, he coauthored Waves of Rancor, The Quieted Voice, The Broadcast Century, Global Broadcasting Systems, and Dirty Discourse with Robert Hilliard, Queer Airwaves with Phylis Johnson, Sounds of Change with Christopher Sterling, and Norman Corwin’s ‘One World Flight’ with Mary Ann Watson. The recipient of numerous awards Keith is also the author of dozens of journal articles and short stories and has served in a variety of editorial positions. In addition, he is the author of a critically acclaimed memoir— The Next Better Place, a young adult novel––Life is Falling Sideways, and two story anthologies––And Through the Trembling Air and Hoag’s Object. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and PEN/O.Henry Award.