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Big Bird didn't remember Sesame Street being this dreary and gray in previous winters, everything covered with a thin layer of grime that only spring would get rid of. Maybe it just seemed worse because of the circumstances. In the movies, it always rained at funerals, but the most Sesame Street could summon up today was a fitful wind. It blew litter around the street in cold eddies, even though Big Bird and his neighbors had just done a community cleanup.

Right now they were all huddled together in the cold wind, dressed in funeral black and other somber colors. Big Bird was wearing a black muffler he'd borrowed from Luis, and it would have been a good day to spend curled up in his nest with a book and a couple of cups of hot birdseed tea, but none of them were ready to go home. They were family, all of them on the street. They helped each other. They played together. They took care of each other.

And today they grieved together.

"All he had to do was say something." Alan sounded numb, the way they all felt. "We don't have much, but we would have shared. I knew food stamps were defunded in the 2014 budget, but when I asked, he said he was getting by."

"We could at least have brought his trash can in out of the cold," Maria said. Her eyes were red and she looked tired and miserable. Big Bird supposed they all did.

"Me would have given him half me cookies." Cookie Monster looked close to tears. Grover put an arm around his shoulders.

Big Bird swallowed hard to keep from crying. "He wouldn't have taken them. He was too proud. I heard him yelling back and forth on the phone with one of his cousins. They wanted him to come to Florida for the winter. Get in that old jalopy of his and go where it's warm."

"He hated sunny days," Susan agreed.

Big Bird went on. "He said he'd be just fine on his own with Slimy, and his can was staying where it was. He'd lived on Sesame Street for forty-four years, and this was where he wanted to stay."

"Oscar's dead," Elmo said. "Elmo's sad now."

Elmo's sister hugged him. It made Big Bird feel a little better just to see it--he'd been missing his Granny Bird fiercely all day.

"I think we better go home," said Elmo's mother.

As they walked away through the arbor, a slick black town car rolled up past Hooper's Store and parked just past the fireplug. A man in a black suit got out, holding a stack of brightly colored papers in his hands. He walked right up to the door of 123 Sesame Street and let himself in with a key.

"That's...not the landlord," Big Bird said quietly.

Grover elbowed him, and he looked back at his friends just in time to see Linda signing, "Can't be good."

"We could go ask what he's here for," Miles suggested, but his parents both shook their heads.

"Let's wait a minute and see what happens," Gordon said. "I don't want to risk getting into an argument with anybody who drives a car like that."

A few minutes later, the man came back out, locking the building behind him. He taped one of the papers to the front door and then looked to his right, frowning at Big Bird's home.

When he started taking pictures with his phone, Big Bird couldn't stand it anymore. He walked over, spotting Miles running up to the door from the corner of his eye, with his mother trailing along behind him. "Can I help you?" Big Bird asked the man in the suit.

The man looked up at him. "Do you know who's responsible for this mess?"

"Mess?"

"This." The man waved his hand at the blue doors, which were closest. "If it's a squatter, I need to have it locked up until we can tear it down."

Big Bird gaped at him, open-beaked. "Tear it down?"

"It's a safety hazard."

"It's not a safety hazard--it's where I live!"

A cold gaze traveled over Big Bird from head to foot, as if Big Bird had stopped being a person in the man's eyes. "Squatting is illegal. If you've got anything in there, clear it out before I send the guys to put lock it up."

"I'm not squatting!" Big Bird's voice sounded shrill in his own ears. "I pay rent just like everybody who lives inside the building. I mean, I'm a little behind, we lost our jobs..."

The man in the suit took one last picture and took his phone back into his jacket. "Too bad you folks didn't pay more attention to that. Maybe the place wouldn't have been foreclosed."

Big Bird wanted to shout, but all that came out was a whisper. "Foreclosed?"

But the man didn't answer him this time, walking back to his town car as none of them even existed.

As the car pulled away, Big Bird ran back across the street to join the other residents of 123 Sesame Street. Everyone had gathered around the orange piece of paper Miles took down from the door. "We're foreclosed?"

"That's what it says. This is our formal notice of eviction." Bert shook his head. "But I don't understand. Even if the building is foreclosed, we should be able to talk to the new owner about staying on."

Gordon came back out of the building with another orange paper. "We've each got one of these on our door. The new owner's tearing the building down."

"Mr. Grump tried that once," Big Bird said. "We talked him out of it then--we can talk the new owner out of it now. This can't be happening."

But they couldn't, and it was.

***

The principal closed the folder on Big Bird's resume and let it fall into his wastebasket. "I'm sorry, Mr. Bird, but we have no open positions at this time."

Big Bird stared blankly at him. "Are you kidding? You've got kids stuffed in forty and fifty to a class. How can you not need teachers? I've been teaching first graders for forty-four years, but I'm happy to take another grade if it will help with the overcrowding."

Behind his desk, the principal glanced down at Big Bird's resume in the manila folder in front of him. "It's not that your credentials aren't impressive, Mr. Bird." He looked up again. The flat, cold look in his eyes didn't belong anywhere near children. "I'm afraid there's just no money for more teachers. As far as I'm concerned, there's only three ways to spend funds here at school: more bars, more guards, and more guns."

"Are you sure you're in the right movie? I think that's from The Shawshank Redemption. This is a school, not a prison!" Big Bird couldn't help it--his eyes flicked to the name plaque sitting on the principal's desk. It read "Principal Warden."

He had to stifle a groan. Any chance he had of winning over the principal had just disappeared.

The glare Mr. Warden fixed on him could have stripped paint. "Not as far as the parents are concerned--they just pay us to keep these kids in school. Now get out of my office, before I throw you out, you goddamn hippie freeloader."

***

With the economy on another sharp downhill slide, jobs were harder to come by now than they had been a year and a half ago. Most of the people who lived on Sesame Street still hadn't found work. Bert knew he was lucky--he was good with numbers and detail-oriented. He'd been able to find part-time work as an accounting assistant. But it had barely been enough to pay rent, and they couldn't find a new apartment as cheap as the one on Sesame Street.

When Ernie's friend Janice called from San Francisco and said she might have a job for him in the club where she tended bar, that changed everything. It was full-time, and she said the tips were usually good, but it was the other side of the country.

Ernie did a video interview over the Internet. Even when he got the job offer from the club, he and Bert were still reluctant. "Are you sure, Bert? I don't want to do it if you aren't okay with me taking the job. And we're New Yorkers--we'd be leaving everything we know. All our friends are here."

"I know." Bert certainly didn't look forward to it. "And it doesn't make me happy, but if you're comfortable with it, I think I'm okay. Mostly I don't like to think about you taking the job and me not finding work out there. We might still end up living on only one income."

Ernie sighed. "I guess you're right. I'll ask for a couple of days to think about it so you can see what the job market's like."

When he talked to the owner of the club, the owner asked what Bert did for a living. And it turned out, the club needed someone to keep their books.

No matter how hard it would be, the decision was clear.

Ernie loved everything about San Francisco. He loved the mild weather. He loved walking hand-in-hand with Bert through the Castro and no one looking twice. He loved their little apartment just north of the Tenderloin and the big claw-foot bathtub, perfect for long hot soaks with Rubber Ducky. It was great to see him so happy.

Not that Bert wasn't happy. Well, he wasn't miserable, anyway. He liked having a full-time job and he liked seeing Ernie happy. But he missed his friends from Sesame Street. He missed his pigeons, although he was sure Miles was taking good care of them at Susan and Gordon's new apartment. He wanted his home and his routine, but if all he had here was Ernie, well, that was the most important thing.

***

Musical interlude: "I'm Only Thinking of Him," to the tune of "I'm Only Thinking of Him" from Man of la Mancha

Ernie stares out at a darkened club from on stage. He's dressed as a biker in a leather jacket and heavy boots with shiny chrome bits. Quintessential stripper music plays in the background and he begins unzipping the jacket.

The opening bars of "I'm Only Thinking of Him" play over the stripper music, drowning it out:

I'm only thinking of him
I'm only thinking of him
Whatever I may do or say
I'm only thinking of him
In the club or at the store
He knows "home" is so much more
And so I'm thinking and worrying about
Him

***

Big Bird could smell sesame seeds as soon as he walked through the door. "What's for dinner, Ernie? Do you need help?"

Ernie was chopping vegetables at the kitchen counter. "Sesame seed stirfry. Go sit down--you look done in. No luck again, huh?"

It was a hard order to resist. Big Bird's back hurt, his feet hurt, and he still didn't have a job. He settled onto the sofa, wishing for a proper nest. "Nothing. I swear, I've applied for every position in the paper. I'm at the point of walking up and down the streets, looking for Help Wanted signs anywhere I can get on the BART. I'll have to move on soon. Where's Bert?"

"He went down to the bodega for soy sauce. He should be back any second."

Big Bird nodded. "You two seem to like it here."

Ernie slid a pile of mushrooms from the cutting board into a bowl. When he looked up, his smile was gone. "It would be perfect...if everyone from Sesame Street were here. Bert would be happier, then. I mean, he doesn't like change, but I think we could make it home, if we had everybody."

Neither of them says that it's not going to happen. Neither has to.

After a minute, Ernie clears his throat. "So, will you stay much longer, or are you going to try somewhere else?"

"I still haven't decided." Big Bird looked down at his toes. "Do you remember Dr. Honeydew and Beaker?"

The door opened as he spoke, and Bert stepped inside. He put a bottle of soy sauce down on the floor and began unlacing his shoes.

"The scientists?" Ernie asked.

Big Bird nodded. "They offered that I could stay with them and look for a job in New Mexico."

"That sounds like a fantastic idea," Bert said. He stepped out of his shoes and placed them neatly on the shoe shelf to the side of the apartment door. "Which scientists?"

Ernie answered before Big Bird could. "Bunsen and Beaker."

Bert's horrified look was funny, or would have been if Big Bird wasn't having the same reservations himself. "Are you kidding?"

"No. I can't stay here much longer. I've got to find a job. What could it hurt?" Surely Big Bird knew the answer to that, or he'd already have booked a bus ticket.

Ernie came over and collected the soy sauce while Bert tried to talk Big Bird out of going. "They almost blew up Hooper's Store! Isn't there another way?"

Shaking his head, Big Bird sighed. "I wish there was. I'll try not to get blown up."

***

Comic interlude: UsTube

Fozzie Bear stands in front of a cheap black curtain.

Okay, okay, I'm ready now.

He clears his throat ostentatiously.

A man goes in to see the doctor. He says, "Doctor, when I came in here, I had two legs. Now I don't have any!"

The doctor says, "Then you shouldn't have gone to Iran." Wocka wocka wocka!

Fozzie waits, looking expectantly at whoever is behind the camera. He facepalms, crestfallen.

Back to the drawing board.

***

"This is Kermit the Frog, reporting to you live from New York City, where Mothers Against Miscegenation is holding an informational rally for local residents."

As the camera pulled back, Big Bird and Bunsen could see an older woman with curly blue hair standing beside Kermit. Her glasses sat well down her nose, barely above the pinched expression on her face.

"How is this even legal?" Big Bird complained. "Mothers Against Miscegenation? That's only one step up from 'separate but equal.' Maybe less. It's a short hop from there to hate speech."

"And they just hopped over it," Bunsen said, nodding back at the television.

"...do not approve! More young black men means fewer white babies! We urge, no, we plead with residents: If you see any sign of this masked 'savior,' you must report him to the authorities immediately. He is not some caped hero saving the day. He is a man hiding behind a mask to prevent the law enforcement officers of this community from performing their civic duty of making the streets safe for white people--!"

It took Big Bird a moment to realize Bunsen had turned off the television. "I don't know this country anymore," Big Bird said into the silence. "Forty-four years demonstrating cultural diversity, and at the end, all we have to show for it is some poor guy being hunted for saving the lives of inner-city teenagers."

"Technically, they're not hunting him for saving lives, they're hunting him for taking justice into his own hands." Bunsen set his soda down on the edge of the coffee table, where it teetered ominously.

Big Bird rescued it before it could go over. He hadn't understood, before he got to Los Alamos, why Dr. Honeydew and his assistant had been housed in the same town home, rather than each one being housed separately. In the past week, it had become abundantly clear that even the live-in housekeeper couldn't keep up with Bunsen's roving disaster area. If it weren't for Beaker, the venerable scientist would probably have burned the house down by now.

Bunsen was already on his way to the kitchen. Big Bird trailed along behind. "I came up empty again today," Big Bird said. "I didn't really expect anything else--private schools take one look at me and decide I'm not their kind--but it was still worth a shot. I put in applications everyplace they'd give me one, but none of them are actually hiring."

Bunsen turned away from the refrigerator, bumping a burner on the stove on in the process. "You know you're welcome to stay here as long as you want," he said. "I don't like working for the endless war machine, but it does pay well. It's no trouble to have you here."

"Thanks," Big Bird said as he worked his way around to the stove to turn the burner off. "But I think it's just time to move on. I've got a friend in Chicago I'll get to see, even if there's no work there."

Besides, I need to get out of here while all my feathers are still intact.

***

The masked monster looked down from the top of the low-rise residential tower. There was a time he could have stood there proudly in midday, his cape billowing behind him, ready to be Super Grover to the rescue, with every confidence that he could work hand-in-hand with the NYPD.

Now they were hunting him.

It was limiting--no superhero was an island. But the darkness and the mask hid him, and there was some safety in that. He couldn't be everywhere, but he could look after his friends.

With everything else they had lost when Sesame Street was plowed under, it was one small thing he could still do.

***

Big Bird's hand hurt from all the writing he'd been doing. So many places made you fill out job applications on a computer these days, but apparently none of them were within walking distance of the Kansas City bus terminal.

It would be strange, living in a city where he'd have to own a car, but it would be worth it if someone was willing to give him a job.

In the meantime, filling out job applications gave him something to do for eight hours while he waited for the next bus headed toward Chicago.

He took the completed application and went in search of the manager. When he heard yelling, he thought he was probably on the right track. Around an end cap, he found a pig shouting at the manager in front of the pharmacy window, while a pharmacist glared at her from the other side of the counter. "I have a prescription, I have insurance, and I can even pay the co-pay! He has no right not to fill--"

"I have every right not to fill a prescription in violation of my conscience," the pharmacist said mildly.

At the sound of his voice, five sobbing piglets, three sitting in a shopping cart and two more clinging to it, burst into loud wails.

The manager said, "Ma'am, I'm sorry, but I have to ask you to leave. We do not sell any drugs for birth control purposes here, and you're making a scene."

The pig looked like she might hit him. "Listen, Bub, do I look like I need five more mouths to feed?"

Big Bird began edging silently backward.

"Ma'am, I'm telling you, you need to leave now, or I'll call the police."

The piglets cried even louder, and Big Bird wanted to sing them a song or tell them a story to cheer them up. But until the shouting stopped, there was nothing he could do.

He dropped the job application in the trashcan on his way out the door. He could never work for someone who made children cry. He'd rather starve.

He stopped in a park on his way back to the bus terminal. It was much nicer to sit on the grass under a tree and eat the sunflower seeds he'd brought in his backpack than it would have been to sit around the bus terminal. A brown dog with large, floppy ears was playing a guitar not too far away with a hat sitting in front of him. Big Bird couldn't imagine he was getting many tips out here--surely he'd have been better off setting up closer to the nearby skyscrapers. He seemed to be having fun anyway, jamming out to Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction."

When he wound down, he looked over at Big Bird and asked, "A little too The Stand?"

Big Bird looked around the nearly-deserted mid-afternoon park. "Just right, I think," Big Bird said. "You can't be making much money out here, though, can you?"

The dog chuckled. "Nah, but I'm mostly just playing for myself while I wait for a bus. I had a regular gig out in LA, but since the NEA got cut, that's dried up. It was time to go home, see my kid and her puppies anyway."

"Where's home?"

"Sweet home, Chicago." The dog did a fancy key change on his guitar and started playing the song. "What about you? Where you headed?"

"Chicago," Big Bird said. "We're probably on the same bus. Hey, I'm Big Bird."

"Rowlf," the dog said. "Pleased to meet you. You got family in Chicago?"

Technically, Big Bird didn't have family anymore at all since he lost his Granny Bird. It was his friends on Sesame Street who'd always looked out for him. Now Sesame Street was gone, but in a weird way, they were still doing it. "Yeah. I do."

***

Musical interlude: "God Bless the Child Who's Got Her Lunch," to the tune of "God Bless the Child," by Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog, Jr.

Cookie Monster is sitting beside a fire plug just down the street from a public school, a large plastic tote beside him. It's morning, and children are trickling toward the school from the surrounding neighborhood.

Throughout the song, he gives old or damaged baked goods from his tote to a series of children who seek him out.

Them that's got get fed
Them that's not, they won't
So the White House said
So the lunch line don't
When Mom can't get work
And Papa's laid off
God bless the child
That's got her lunch
That's got her lunch

Yes the strong, they learn
While the weak ones fade
Empty bellies hurt
No matter what the grade
When Mom can't get work
And Papa's laid off
God bless the child
That's got her lunch
That's got her lunch

At the end of the song, Cookie is out of food, and he has to turn some children away hungry. The school bell rings and the children run for the building while the music continues, instrumental only, in the background.

Rowlf the Dog comes up to Cookie Monster, who is sadly putting his tote away.

My grandkids told me what you're doing.

Rowlf hands over a check.

Take this. Feed as many kids as you can for as long as it lasts.

Cookie Monster is visibly shocked as he reads the check.

It too much. Don't you need it?

Rowlf shrugs and puts his hands in his pockets.

Not for long. Stage III cancer. It's not enough to pay for health insurance, but I thought maybe, between the two of us, we could save some other lives.

Cookie Monster hugs him.

We will. We will.

The music fades and dies.

***

It just wasn't the same without Big Bird.

The Snuffleupagus family cave was okay, even after all the buildings on Big Bird's old block had been demolished. Snuffy's mother was afraid the rent might go up after the new tower went in, but in the meantime, they were okay. Snuffy had started working at children's birthday parties so they would have some extra money if that happened. It was a great job, where he got to play with kids and sometimes give rides. He could have been happy.

Except that he missed his best friend.

He couldn't have been more excited when his mother called him to the phone. It was Big Bird! "Hello, Bird!" he said, holding the phone to his ear. "How are you? Where are you?"

"Hi, Snuffy! I'm in Chicago, staying with Cookie Monster and his aunt and uncle while I look for a job."

Chicago. He'd started out in California.

"How's everybody doing back home?"

"It's really different." Snuffy paced a couple of steps forward and back. "My family is okay, and I do some work at children's birthday parties. And Elmo and his family found an apartment nearby, at least for a while. But someone tried to mug Rosita's mother in their new neighborhood. So she hit him." Disbelief made him stumble to a halt. No one had ever been mugged on Sesame Street. The idea of Rosita's mother hitting someone with her purse to keep from being mugged was outrageous to begin with. And things just kept getting worse. "And now Rosita says they might deport her mother!"

There was a moment of silence before Big Bird said, "What? How can they do that? They've lived here for twenty years. Her dad fought in the Army!"

At least it wasn't just Snuffy it didn't make sense to. "I don't know. Rosita was so angry she was crying. She said maybe all blue people look alike to them.

"And the Count is...having trouble." It was one thing to count because you like counting. It was something else to have to count every brick in a building before you could go inside, or every can of soup in the aisle before you could pick the ones you wanted for lunch. Snuffy had helped him with his grocery shopping last week, because if no one went with him, the Count might never buy food. "He can't get his meds anymore."

Big Bird made a pained noise over the phone. "I think it's just as bad everywhere. Cookie Monster's aunt is pretty sure he's taking the stale bread and broken cookies that don't sell in the bakery to the school kids who can't get free lunch anymore. When Cookie Monster doesn't just eat the cookies, something's really wrong."

Snuffy heaved a sigh. "But you're okay? Except for not having a job, I mean?"

"Yeah. Yeah, I'm okay. I hope I can find a job here, though. Unemployment isn't much, but it's been a whole lot better than nothing, and mine's about to run out."

He imagined Big Bird standing by the phone, with that worried look on his face and his shoulders slumping. "If there are no jobs here and no jobs there, you might as well come home, right? You can stay with us. Just come home, Bird. I miss you."

"Soon. If I don't find something here. I miss you, too."

***

If only Grover had been there sooner.

All his friends were spread out now, and by the time he reached the right building, he could already hear the dull thuds of solid objects meeting flesh. He rushed to the edge of the building, a sick, tight feeling in the pit of his stomach. In the alley below him, half a dozen men were kicking something--someone--on the ground.

"You goddamn blue people!" Whichever man was yelling, someone punctuated the words with a kick. "You come to our country. Take our jobs, blow up our planes and shoot our kids!"

Faintly, the words "Twenty-three! Twenty-three kicks!" drifted up to Grover, followed by a weak laugh. "Twenty-four! Twenty-four kicks!"

The Count was not even blue. He was purple.

Grover was in flight before the Count had stopped laughing. He could not summon a flash of lightning or a roll of thunder to intimidate bad people, but he let the heavy toilet seat he carried on one shoulder slide down into his grip.

At the bottom of his dive, he cracked one of the assailants across the head with it. The man fell like a stone. By the time Grover had turned to fly back from the other direction, half of the attackers had scattered and fled. Two more had bent down beside their fallen companion, but he saw the fear in their eyes, and they chose to run rather than rescue.

Grover landed and knelt down beside the Count, who was hunched in on himself to protect his belly, his arms flung over his face. It was too dark to see how badly hurt he was, but Grover could smell blood. He hitched his toilet seat back up on his shoulder and took his cell phone out of his utility belt, pressing the Emergency button.

The Count moaned weakly, looking up at him. "One! One masked vigilante."

As he called 911, Grover cried.

***

Comic interlude: UsTube

Fozzie Bear stands in front of a cheap black curtain.

Is it on?

He pauses, then smiles a huge, artificial smile.

Mr. Smith dies and goes to Heaven. St. Peter meets him at the pearly gates looks him up in his ledger. "Well, here you are, Mr. Smith. I see that you have led a good and honorable life. You worked hard, you raised two children, you paid your taxes, and you tried to help those needier than you. Congratulations on a life well-lived."

Mr. Smith is flattered. "Thank you, St. Peter. Does this mean I can enter Heaven?"

St. Peter looks up from the book and says, "I'm sorry, you don't have enough left on your voucher for Heaven. But I hear Detroit is nice." Wocka wocka wock--!

Fozzie stops mid-word, ducking. A tomato goes flying over his head.

***

He knew it was bad, but until he climbed the urine-smelling stairs to the Count's fifth floor walk up and saw the bandages and bruises, Big Bird hadn't really realized how bad.

Maria opened the door of the Count's one-room apartment when Big Bird arrived. The Count lay propped up in his bed, with his arm in a sling and bandages around his head and chest. He was asleep, hopefully on enough painkillers to be comfortable, and occasionally counting in his sleep.

Maria had dark circles under her eyes. "I'm so glad you're here, Big Bird. Luis and Gabi and I have been taking turns with him, and sometimes Grover. Telly said he'd stay, since he doesn't have a job, but he's such a pessimist, we hate to have him around the Count while he's healing." She kept her voice to a whisper and led him over to sit in a pair of chairs at a card table across the room.

"Snuffy can't fit up the stairs. Gordon and Susan and Miles moved too far away, right?"

She nodded. "Gordon's still out of work, so he helps whenever he can, but it's a long trip. He and Alan have been taking turns staying with him overnight."

"Well, I guess it's a good thing I don't have a job yet after all. What happened? I heard it from Grover when he called to tell Cookie Monster, but he wasn't real..." Big Bird waved a hand vaguely. It had sounded like Grover had cried himself raw, which made it hard to pick out the details. "All I know is he got mugged and hurt pretty bad. I didn't even know he'd lost the castle till Snuffy gave me the new address."

"I don't think he wanted anyone to know. He couldn't keep up with the taxes. I guess his Uncle Uno set up a trust for him years ago, but at this point, it's just enough to rent this place and keep the heat on and buy groceries. But it's not enough to cover therapy, let alone meds. When the paramedics got there, he was counting the bricks in the alley wall. He couldn't even tell them what happened, because he had to count."

It hurt to hear, and Big Bird knew it was only going to get worse. "What did happen? Or don't we know?"

Maria bit her lip hard. "The police got an anonymous call. Whoever it was had left when they got there, but the guy called it a hate crime." Her voice went bitter. "He wasn't white and he had an accent, and he couldn't even talk to them, because he was counting. Is it true? I don't think we'll ever know. I'm just glad we can manage to take care of him for now. The hospital called his uncle, and the uncle called us at the fix-it shop. It must've been the only number he had--there's no phone here."

"Uncle?" Big Bird shook his head, confused. "But Uncle Uno died years ago."

"Not that uncle. The other one. Uncle Frank." She hummed under her breath, and Big Bird understood and cringed when she reached the line about doing the time warp again. "But with you back here, I think we can manage. I don't know how the hospital bills are ever going to get paid, or whether he'll be able to get surgery if it turns out he needs it for the arm."

Big Bird made a pained noise. "How bad is it?"

"Broken arm, fractured skull, lots of broken and bruised ribs. Bruised kidneys. Bruised everything, it seems like. He had a concussion, but he came through it okay. The arm may need surgery, and that's not emergency care. Let's hope not--even if he can get into the trust for this kind of thing, there may not be anything left. If the collectors can get into it for the hospital bill, they'll probably take all of it. I saw the total." She shuddered.

He leaned over to give her a hug. "We'll worry about that later. Show me what I need to know about taking care of him so you can go get some rest."

***

Big Bird couldn't believe he was doing this.

He'd tried to talk to his Congresspeople, but since he was technically homeless, he couldn't get any of his representatives to believe he was a constituent. All of his friends had written, but they kept getting form letters and nobody would actually do anything to help.

Abby said she and Rosita had done the same thing. They got back letters about voting records on healthcare issues and equality. After that, they wrote to the president, and Abby got a form letter, but Rosita didn't get any reply at all.

So Big Bird called the White House. He might not have an address in New York, but he'd been hatched in the USA. He had his hatching certificate and his Social Security card. No one could deny that the president was his president.

Except that the president didn't actually talk to his constituents, not one-on-one.

Big Bird had thought that since the president had said their losing their jobs wasn't personal, it had just been the deficit, that maybe he could make a personal appeal for compassionate aid. He was desperately afraid that, once the Count was well enough to see the itemized hospital bill and had finished counting each of those items, he might count all the pills in a bottle as he took them or each floor of the building as he jumped from the roof.

In desperation, he'd gone to the White House door and asked to see the president. He'd said he'd wait as long as it took--it wasn't like he had a job to worry about, and if breadcrumbs weren't filling, they were at least plentiful around the National Mall.

Security told him to get a job and called him yellow as they escorted him out.

Now he was hiding in the bushes around the White House, a bunch of wrens having given him a lift over the fence out of avian camaraderie.

"Forget it, birdbrain."

Big Bird almost jumped out of his feathers, turning toward the voice in shock. "Oscar?"

An eerily detailed miniature grouch sat on his left shoulder, complete with miniature garbage can. Above his head, a banged up little halo floated, framed by a pair of wings Big Bird really didn't remember Oscar having when he was alive. "No, I'm your fairy godmother. Who else do you know that's loud enough and dead enough to come talk you out of something this stupid? Your granny's way too polite."

Big Bird pinched himself. Hard. It hurt. He still wasn't sure he wasn't dreaming.

"Talk him out of it? You're out of your mind, you secondhand tree topper."

Swinging his head the other way, Big Bird saw a second little Oscar on his right shoulder, this one with horns on his head.

As Big Bird watched, Devil Oscar reached down into his can, coming up with a pitchfork twice as tall as he was. "That's better. Seriously, Big Bird, you've tried every regular way to help. The guys who keep on about austerity measures while they vacation in Bermuda aren't interested in creating jobs or feeding kids or saving lives. What else are you gonna do?"

"And breaking into the White House to talk to the president is a solution?" Angel Oscar snorted. "Scram, birdbrain. Get back where you belong."

"I belong on Sesame Street," Big Bird said softly. "But Sesame Street is gone."

"The people are still there," Angel Oscar said. "Well, here and there around the country. You think of 'em as family--they've got to take you in."

"Yeah, and if they're family, he's got to help them. What kind of help is it just to keep sponging off them when half of them don't have jobs? Even Cookie Monster gives away cookies when kids are hungry." Devil Oscar looked from his angelic counterpart up to Big Bird. "Right now, you're just just eight feet of birdseed-eating useless."

"He's right," Big Bird told Angel Oscar.

"He's gonna get arrested!"

It was true. Even if Big Bird got to speak with the president, he was sure he'd go to jail afterward for breaking in. "That's okay. If I get arrested in the White House, at least it'll be on the news. And the news will want to know why. I don't mind going to jail if that's what it takes to make people understand. There aren't enough jobs, there isn't enough food, and people are dying. You died, Oscar. How many people have to die before it's enough? How else can I make them see?"

This time, no one answered him, and when he looked back at his shoulders, all he saw was the wrens looking at him funny.

"Okay, I think it's time. Which window should we use?"

***

"Honey? I heard a noise."

The president groaned as his wife shook him awake. "It's a 200-year-old house. It makes noises."

"No, it sounded like a window opening."

She was being ridiculous, but he couldn't just tell her that. He covered his eyes with his forearm and hoped it wouldn't take long to get back to sleep. "We're surrounded by Secret Service. No one's going to just open a window and--"

A distinctive thump-thump from the dressing room sounded remarkably like feet hitting the floor.

He ought to push the panic button. The Secret Service would come rushing in. If there was an intruder, they'd take care of it. If not, well, better safe than sorry.

Except he'd inherited a country full of ingrates constantly looking for the least sign of weakness or misbehavior, as if he were a naughty kid and not the leader of the free world. The press were constantly making him out to be indecisive and out of touch. His voter base would love to see a show of strength from him, especially if he proved the virtue of what they usually referred to as "home defense."

He reached beneath his bed for the shotgun he kept there. It did a lot of damage and didn't take much skill, and the Secret Service had had to suck up their protests. His advisers had insisted.

As he sat up and shoved his feet into his slippers, he listened to all the little creaks he usually ignored. Were those footsteps?

He stood and tiptoed toward the open dressing room door, trying not to make the old floors creak himself. He moved along the adjoining wall, gun first, the way you always saw soldiers and cops do in movies.

Before he could swing around the door jamb, something huge and shaped remarkably like a stretched out chicken stepped through into the bedroom, short arms raised in front of it and big pinching claws at the ends of the hands. Holy fuck, it's a velociraptor!

The shotgun's discharge was hugely loud. His ears were ringing, and he could faintly hear a muffled squawk and his wife's terrified scream as the thing crumpled to the floor. The door to the center hall burst open, and the lights came on, revealing a small army of Secret Service agents, all of them with guns drawn and pointed at him.

Oops.

The bird bleeding silently at his feet was vividly yellow. "I thought it was a velociraptor." His voice sounded distant in his own ears.

A couple Secret Service agents were talking to him, trying to get him to say he was all right, but it didn't seem important. It was his wife he heard. She said, "Looks more like an eight foot turkey."

As president of the United States of America, he didn't know how he was ever going to live this down.

***

It seemed to Big Bird like he'd been traveling for a very long time.

As bus terminals went, this one could have been worse. If the sky was gray and the fog kept him from seeing much past the trees, at least he could enjoy being outdoors for a while. He sat down at a picnic table and thought about having a birdseed breakfast bar, but he wasn't really hungry.

"Where are you headed?"

Big Bird didn't remember sitting next to anyone, but the man beside him looked familiar. He was older and mostly bald, with gray hair around the sides and back of his head, and he didn't seem to be in any kind of a hurry--as if he could wait forever for Big Bird's answer.

Big Bird thought about it. "I don't remember." And wasn't that strange? He'd ridden a lot of buses recently, and he always knew where he was going.

"Well, Big Bird, that's okay. Where would you like to go?" The man took his glasses off, polishing them with the hem of his apron.

The heavy shopkeeper's apron touched a memory. "Mr. Hooper?" Big Bird thought that was the right name. But there was something about Mr. Hooper Big Bird didn't remember. Something he ought to know.

Mr. Hooper nodded. "In the flesh. Such as it is." He put his glasses back on. "So, where do you want to go?"

Big Bird thought about it. "Someplace where the sun is shining." Looking at the sky, he wished for a good stiff breeze to sweep the clouds away. A bus pulled up next to the picnic area. He was incredibly tired of smelling diesel fumes. "Someplace the air is sweet. Can you tell me how to get there?"

Mr. Hooper stood and stepped back over the picnic bench. He offered Big Bird a hand up. "This is our ride. I know just the place."

Big Bird took the offered hand. "I'm so tired of buses," he said as he got up.

Mr. Hooper walked him to the waiting bus. "It's the last one. I promise."

"Oh good." Big Bird smiled. "Let's go."

THE END


Today's parody is brought to you by the letters WTF and the number 47.