by CHRIS CASTLE
“Um, Mr. Wilson?” Bobby Fredrick muttered, as he stood by the open door. The man inside looked up from the phone and ushered him in with a wave of the hand. Bobby stuttered forward, almost hypnotized by the speed of the man’s wrist, moving as if it were a wind-up toy, set to eleven.
Bobby sat in the chair and stole a quick glance around the room. The walls were littered with framed photos from the Pre-Sickness days; times when TV still had crime shows and stories and budgets. The phone slammed down into the cradle and Bobby swung out of his reverie just in time to see the other man’s face stare hard into his.
“Looking at the days of wine and roses, kid?” He snapped; his voice the sound of cigarettes and ripped cans. “I don’t blame you. Back then, folks actually still thought TV was about something and not just…” the helicopter hands came waving back into play and again, Bobby couldn’t take his eyes off them, “…this.”
‘This’, Bobby knew, was the premiere TV output in what was left of the nation and the highest money earner in the states that still accepted money as legal tender. While it was true that over 50% of the country no longer had electricity, it was also a fact that the other half, the gated / secure / trapped of the land wanted entertainment, and this was where they got it.
“I got the civil rights groups up my ass over this one, you know,” Mr. Wilson continued. Bobby marveled at how the man’s voice sounded as if he were chewing on a Cuban cigar, even though his mouth was empty and his teeth were pearly white. “They’re saying the show’s inhumane, but the Prez loves it, so there’s not a goddamn thing they can do about it. What do you think about it, kid?”
Bobby cleared his throat and felt his cheeks blush. He knew his answer would pretty much dictate if he got anywhere near the job or was back out on his ear, wandering the streets and looking for vacancies, all the while with a pistol in his pocket and his eyes scanning avenues, preparing for another attack, which in this city, came almost every second alleyway.
“I-” Bobby began to say and then swallowed. Mr. Wilson’s helicopter hands flew into motion cutting him off before the second word crept out of his throat.
“Ah, forget it kid,” he said and Bobby felt his heart sink. “I saw the way you were looking at those photographs: you love TV, right?” Bobby nodded his head; realizing that words might not be his best option for this particular interview.
“So I know that,” he went on. “But what I really got to know, more than anything, is if you’ve got a strong stomach. This show…well truth is, kid, I’ve had six assistants already this season all run out on me. I had one broad who threw up right there during the broadcast and some other brat who says he wants to sue me for psychological damage or some other crap. Lucky for me, he got bit before it went to court, but it made me think a lot harder, I’ll tell ya that much.” He winked and Bobby held his eye, thinking about the next few, precious seconds. After what seemed like an eon, he nodded one more time.
“I like the way you operate, kid. Like the strong, silent type. That’s a good trait to have. When you start out in the business, it pays to have your ears open and your mouth shut, make no mistake. Course, the way the world is now, such as it is, it also helps to have a goddamned hand cannon in your coat pocket, too. You carrying?”
Bobby reached down to the pistol and showed it to Mr. Wilson. The man nodded, a slight smile flickering on the edges of his mouth.
“I can see it gleams under the light; means you keep it well oiled. Be prepared, kid, right? Same as me. So, I guess interview’s over for me. Next thing we do is road test you, kid. You come to a show, see if you can hold your cookies down and then we go from there. You ready to see some prime time entertainment, kid?”
Bobby Fredrick nodded.
As they rode the elevator down to the lobby, Bobby once again marveled at the wealth on display. To think that, just four blocks away, the city was burning to Hell. Sodom and Gomorrah was not so much an expression than a way of life and here they still had chilled lattes and fresh fruit. He should have been angry, even disgusted…but instead, Bobby felt something else, an emotion rarely known for most of his life: desire. Bobby wanted these small, luxurious treats. He wanted to work, hell, live in an office that was clean and was not smeared in blood and filth. In that moment, Bobby would have sold his own grandmother for a mocha and ice. In fact, if it went well today, he might even pitch the idea to Mr. Wilson.
“Into the madhouse, kid,” Wilson said, as they stepped out of the lift and into a small scrum of security guards and one other man in a suit. Three deep on either side, they ushered Mr. Wilson, the suit and Bobby - almost as an afterthought - out of the building and into the back of the waiting truck. Once they got inside, two of the guards hauled in after them, positioned by the back doors and silent.
“These guys never say a word but believe me, they are ferocious. I saw them in action one time - around about assistant four I think this was - and they tore them to pieces. I didn’t know who had more bloodlust in them. Of course, I tabled the idea of a broadcast, but it turns out they’re all ‘ex’ something or other. Not too keen on getting on camera, it turns out. Maybe one day…” The man in the suit coughed audibly and Mr. Wilson glanced over and then back to Bobby, shrugging his shoulders and making an imaginary zip over his lips.
Just as Mr. Wilson was about to make introductions, the armored truck swerved and Bobby rocked in his seat. The wheels came into contact with something and a brief crunching sound echoed through the vehicle. Something buckled and was then ground into the asphalt. The truck returned to its previous, smooth flow.
“Skulls,” Mr. Wilson said, shaking his head. “Those goddamn things might be mushy every other place but I swear, their noggins are harder than walnuts.”
“Plays havoc with the suspension on these things, too. Tim Taylor,” the suit said, clearly tired of waiting to be introduced. “I’m Mr. Wilson’s lawyer and in charge of his financial safety. I’m required to ask you to sign this disclaimer before the broadcast begins to secure you -” Mr. Wilson waved him off with a swish of the helicopter hand.
“It’s a see, no talk thing, kid, okay?” He snatched it from the lawyer and pushed it into Bobby’s hand. “If you go in there and piss your pants, then you come out with the stain and say whoever asks you got a weak bladder.” As an afterthought, he clicked his fingers and the lawyer pulled a pen from his lapel with an audible sigh. Bobby placed the paper down on his knee and scribbled his signature on the bottom sheet. The car jolted again and he noticed how similar the sound of the crushing body was to Mr. Wilson’s finger snapping.
“There you go kid! Sign it before you read it; it’s the only way to get ahead.” Mr. Wilson said and started to laugh. The lawyer retrieved the paperwork and Mr. Wilson patted Bobby’s knee. As he did, the truck leapt into the air for a third time and even the guard let out a short whistle of surprise. In the distance, the sound of the audience came, carried into the air for the first time.
“Road kill,” the lawyer said, his voice flat. “Absolutely murders the tires. This will be the third time we’ll have to change them this month. The paperwork is astronomical.” He shook his head at Mr. Wilson but he seemed far away, tapping into the noise of the crowd as it grew louder. Bobby watched as the lawyer’s face darkened, as if he was hearing bad news. Rejected, he looked over to Bobby for sympathy, who duly nodded.
“My old man used to say you had to look both ways before you crossed the road, even if it was a one way street. You know why, kid?” He looked at Bobby for a moment, who was thrown at the idea of having to respond without nodding. Before he could summon something up, Mr. Wilson continued. “It was because people are stupid. At least those poor sons of bitches, these road kill,” he snapped harshly, looking to the lawyer, whose face paled and whose eyes immediately sank to the floor, “have an excuse. I feel sorrier for those poor bastards than any of these chumps.”
The truck stopped abruptly and the guards tensed, signaling that they had arrived at the studio. Even from inside the vehicle, the sounds of the mob were almost deafening.
As Bobby scampered after Mr. Wilson and the suit into the studio, the crowd seemed as if it was there for an entirely different event. From the sidelines, Bobby saw their faces exploding with excitement, the kids’ maybe most of all. Giant foam hands waved into the air, fizzy drinks spilled and stuck to the plastic floors. Bobby glanced back and saw Mr. Wilson and the suit leaning into one another, the lawyer talking and the boss nodding. Mr. Wilson glanced up and beckoned Bobby over with a single finger - reminding him immediately of the foam hands outside - and the lawyer disappeared, as if on cue. Mr. Wilson grabbed his arm and linked it through his.
“We need you to have ringside seats for it, kid; to see if you have what it takes. In for a penny, in for a pound, right?” Bobby nodded on cue. He was drawn to the wings, just to the right of the center stage. The backstage crew toiled away, signaling, swearing and pointing. Everything seemed to freeze and in the next moment, the bright lights of the main stage lit up, the crowd responded with a scream that made Bobby shiver, though he couldn’t decide if it was through excitement or fear.
“Here we go,” Mr. Wilson said into his ear, as the presenter pranced out onto the stage. Immediately, the frenzy grew even louder and the presenter seemed to lap it up. Up close, Bobby noticed how thick the make-up was on his skin, how fake the dyed hair seemed. It appeared as if he was sculpted from plastic. When he grinned, Bobby thought for one horrific moment that something would fall off in a clump.
“People of this fair country,” he boomed, immediately silencing the crowd. His voice was impressive, even better than on the TV, Bobby thought. He felt himself tugged towards Mr. Wilson’s ear.
“He’s got better speech patterns than the Prez,” he whispered. “In two years he’ll be in office. Five years, he’ll be running what’s left of the country, you can bet on it.” Bobby nodded and made to move away but Mr. Wilson’s vice like grip stayed on him, holding him in place, close by.
“Ladies and gentlemen let me introduce tonight’s contestants, tonight’s brave contestants!” He waved a hand and, from the opposite side of the arena, the first of them wandered onto the stage. It was a teenager, about seventeen, trying to act cocky, but his arms clearly shook as he waved and made his gang signs to the masses.
“We take ‘em from the poorest places, sometimes, right when the things are scraping at the door. That’s what we use the guards for,” Mr. Wilson went on. His voice was hypnotic in Bobby’s ear, like an audio commentary for what was going on out on the stage. “They’re thanking us right up until they get told what comes next, and then they get the piss and shivers for about a day.” There was a pause while the next contestant came on, then the next. “Usually they calm down and make their peace with it after that. All under twenty five, all okay looking. We don’t want any uglies, but we don’t want any beauties, in case they get the bad one.” Bobby flinched and Mr. Wilson nodded his head, mirroring Bobby. ‘Hey, that’s my look,’ he thought dumbly.
“Oh yeah, we don’t rig it. As soon as they wheel ‘em out, we don’t have a clue who gets it. It’s a legal thing. If it ever came out that we were selecting any of them, the Civils could basically accuse us of setting up a firing squad. The way it is, it’s just pure chance, kid.”
The stage was soon filled with the ten contestants. The presenter seamlessly slipped to the side of the stage, allowing the viewers to get a full glimpse as the trapdoors opened and the stands elevated out of the floor. Ten pretty cakes, glistening under the studio lights.
“Sometimes I think those dumb hicks cheer the cakes more than the people. You’d think the companies wouldn’t want to be involved, right? Wrong. Sales of these cakes go through the roof after a show. The rich folks buy ‘em and recreate what happens at dinner parties. It’s the latest fad. We had one family try to sue us after one guy laughed so hard, he choked to death on his damn sponge cake.”
“Good people of this fair land,” the presenter boomed. “We give you…Zombie Cake!”
Bobby waited for more cheers but the last few words were met with an absolute silence. He peeled his eyes away long enough to see that the crowd was pin-drop silent. They were rapt on the action. Bobby swallowed hard, looking at all the faces, pale under the glare and shadows of the lights, as they went slack.
“Look more like the zombies than the things themselves, right?” Mr. Wilson whispered. Bobby nodded and then felt himself drawn back to the stage. After a moment of pure stillness, the first boy, his fingers still shaking, reached forward for the cake. A buzzer sounded and he fidgeted slightly, as if he’d just received a mosquito bite.
“No unsynchronized nibbling!” A robotic voice boomed from above the stage. The boy, cowed, returned back to his spot. A few cat-calls and jeers came from the crowd, followed by nervous laughter.
“They all have to eat at the same time, otherwise, if one goes off straightaway, there’s no tension.” Bobby watched as order was recaptured. The countdown from five smashed out and then each of them stepped forward, placing their hands around their plate, as if it were a crown and scepter.
“Begin!” commanded the presenter and each of them, methodically, began to gather their spoons and dig into their cakes. “Place your bets!” He bellowed and the audience pressed their choice button, along with thousands of others across the land.
“See, it’s the ultimate in what the state’s trying to do now. Let’s ignore the gambling for us, okay, we all know that’s a plus for us. You show that food’s still available, that’s one thing. Then, you go on to show that we have brave young boys and girls willing to risk everything for the Dream. Okay, so that’s your surface.” Mr. Wilson took a breath and Bobby waited, still following the contestants as they went about finishing off their cakes. Above contestant seven, a garish neon sign flashed up, pronouncing: ‘A clean plate is an empty plate!’ The crowd dutifully chanted it, informing the boy he still had traces of his dessert to finish.
“Rules are rules,” Mr. Wilson continued. “Okay, so there’s your surface but then we’ve got the other stuff, the stuff that gets us funding and approval from the Prez. Number one: You get a bright young thing turning right in front of your eyes, reminding the folks of the dangers that still exist outside their door. Number two, and this is the kicker, surprised even me, is it’s great for dealing with child obesity.” He whistled, as if he’d only just heard about it himself.
“You know…fat kids. They see someone pigging out on a chocolate log and then going crazy; it puts them off the sugar for life, apparently. The pen-pushers tell me nut sales are going through the roof. So, you got the smug, rich having their cake and eating it and the poor kids getting fit and strong. By the time I’m in the ground, I hope they’ve got strong enough to bring this whole country down in flames.”
Bobby made to look around at Mr. Wilson to see if he was kidding, but something happened on stage. Number seven, the reluctant finisher, doubled over, and some of his Victoria sponge hurtled out of his mouth. Immediately, a plastic cage flew down from the ceiling and enclosed him. A collective gasp went up as the other contestants were ushered off the stage, leaving only the boy trapped in the plastic cell.
“The scientists give it a red-ball shot of the virus, so at least it tears through quick,” Mr. Wilson said, his grip tightening. On stage, the boy began to twitch and jolt before finally crashing against the plastic wall of the cage. His eyes widened and distended, as if he was seeing the audience for the first time. Wildness ran through him for sixty seconds or so, each noise amplified by the wired up cell, drowning out what little sound was being made by the audience. The rattling and frenzied jiggling subsided and then there was just stillness. The boy was gone and what had replaced him drew up into a woozy pose, looking back to the audience, its eyes black and the body loose with un-dead, unfocused energy.
“Nine newly rich young folks returning to their families or their drugs and one left for the pile,” Mr. Wilson said, as the crowd erupted into wild cheers. “You know what the crazy part is? I care more for him now than I do for anyone else in this whole building.”
On the way back, the truck didn’t hit a single obstacle. The atmosphere was quiet, the lawyer looking relieved, while Mr. Wilson closed his eyes but did not sleep. Bobby was buzzing, taking in everything he had seen. By the time the truck fell to a halt outside the studio, he barely noticed the shuffling of guards that led them back to the building. The lawyer slipped away without a word, clutching papers as if he’d just plucked them out of the sky. That left only Bobby and Mr. Wilson. He gripped Bobby by the crook of the arm, as he had done in the studio, and led him over to one of the coffee bars. Ordering for both of them, he waved his helicopter hands to a sofa, making Bobby sit. The girl served Mr. Wilson with a smile and trailed her finger along his hand as she passed over the cups, making Bobby wonder what the two shared. She was twenty-one, if that.
“You made up your mind then, kid?” Mr. Wilson asked, placing the cups down on the table between them. The aroma of freshly ground coffee climbed into his nostrils. He looked beyond them and saw the model-beautiful coffee girl register interest at Bobby for sitting so close to Mr. Wilson. The intoxication of the building decimated the memories of the boy’s freshly black eyes, the twitching and the cheering, the smear of foamy cake that sat on the edge of the stage. His body prickled and jolted with those new feelings: Desire, Want, Greed.
“Kid, are you ready?” Mr. Wilson said.
Bobby Fredrick nodded.
Chris Castle is an English teacher in Greece. He has been published over 300 times and has been featured in various end of year and best of anthologies. He is currently writing a novel. His influences include Stephen King and Ray Carver. He can be reached for feedback at email@example.com. Chris has become a regular contributor to our journal: His stories Grid, Slumber, Last House on Vector Street and Stealing Three, all consecutively appear in the January, April, June and August 2013 issues of HelloHorror.
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