The moon isn’t full, and he’s not sure if that makes it better or worse. Doing stuff like this when there’s a full moon, that knocks it up another notch on the creepy scale, which is something he doesn’t need at all. Of course, if there was a full moon, there’d be more to see by than the murky haze the sliver of moon throws as it tries to penetrate the dense cloud cover. Then again, he isn’t all that sure he really wants to see.
He wonders if tonight is his night. Hard to say, considering it’s a cemetery. Sometimes, it’s easy. You walk into a clearing, there’s a giant carnival tent, and someone starts babbling and shitting himself because he’s so scared of clowns, you can kind of tell. Or like the girl who started freaking out as soon as they pulled up at the deserted rodeo grounds.
But this. Shit. Who isn’t unsettled by this? Whatever’s waiting in the cemetery, it could be waiting for any of them.
“Tip me, tap me, twist me, snap me.” That’s what the business card said. It was embossed in gold foil lettering, and I assumed it was fake. But what the hell, right? I was already on my hands and knees, so I figured I might as well stuff it in my back pocket and check it out later. If nothing else, it would make a good souvenir.
“‘What’s this business card in the frame for?’” I muttered to the gutter. “‘Oh that? That’s just to commemorate the time I got my heart annihilated. I found that card while I was throwing up in the street, and figured it would make a lovely keepsake.’ ‘Oh, it does! A forged card to remember an artificial love.’ I’ll put it in a fancy frame and hang it there in the hall, where our engagement picture is.”
And then I was back to puking my guts out.
You live in this day and age, you’re probably used to all the health warnings. Big red and black signs, or tiny little writing at the bottom of the television screen. Footnotes and disclaimers, billboards and full-page magazine ads. Warning, danger, caution, important! Smoking kills you, drinking causes liver disease, electric blankets give you skin cancer. Sugar causes diabetes, sugar-substitutes cause memory loss, junk food causes high cholesterol, and healthy junk food causes anal discharge. You get worried about this stuff, the stress causes impotence, hair loss, high blood pressure, and headaches. You take medicine for the stress, or for any of the other diseases, and you suddenly have to worry about impotence, hair loss, high blood pressure, headaches, as well as dry mouth, nausea, and—figure this one out—the increased desire to gamble.
And yet, they always make love look like a good thing. They show it in cartoon movies, with uplifting music and singing animals and happy endings. They show it in romantic comedies, when the two morons who have been bumbling their way through the film making all kinds of bad decisions finally get their shit together enough to hook up for their happy ending. Pick your movie, your TV show, your book, your fairy tale. Hell, even most commercials seem to have people falling and love and living happily ever after.
The thing about love, though, is that it rarely leads to a happy ending. What it leads to is arguments, fighting, angst, misery, and loss. What it leads to is one day having to run an errand for your dickhead boss, and you end up at a red light all the way downtown, and you look over and see your wife pop up in the car next you, right out of that guy’s lap, and she’s grinning and wiping her mouth. And then she looks over and her expression of sinful happiness turns to one of shock, and the light changes, and the guy she just got finished blowing, he doesn’t even understand what just happened, and he drives away, taking your wife with him.
In the fairy tales, they never have to spend the rest of the afternoon throwing up at work because their stomach is so upset. In fairy tales, they’re either more emotionally prepared to see their wives blowing some guy at a stop light, or they have wives that are a bit more discreet.
Out of all the health warnings, the one I never saw was BEWARE OF LOVE!
Which is odd, because love should have the ultimate disclaimer: May cause dizziness, upset stomach, and headaches. May lead to poor decision-making, uncertainty, and confusion. While in love, some people have reported feelings of intense happiness followed by feelings of extreme sadness. In test studies, love has shown to leave users short of breath, with increased blood pressure. May lead to pregnancy. Do not mix with alcohol. Those who suddenly stop using this product have reported vomiting, diarrhea, feelings of depression, increased urges to drink, and an incredible desire to self-destruct.
In a fairy tale, you don’t go home that night and find a note that says “I’m sorry you had to find out like this.” One suitcase missing, and the top drawer of her dresser still open because she was rushing like hell to get out of the house before you made it home. Birth control gone from the medicine cabinet, but she left the toothbrush, and you almost suffocate on your heartbreak as you realize that she probably already has a toothbrush over at his place.
In a fairy tale, you don’t roam around the house for a second, too dazed to do anything real. Because even though you knew it was her, knew it was her, there was still a tiny part of you that was hoping you’d come home and she’d be sitting there at her desk and you’d suddenly notice that she got a haircut last week, and the woman at the stop light bares no resemblance at all, really. In a fairy tale, it’s never too late to fix things.
Because you don’t live in a fairy tale, you wander aimlessly around your house, and everything looks different. The bit of dirty laundry by the bed, the unwashed plate in the sink that still stinks of egg, the remote control tossed carelessly on the couch. It all looks fake, surreal, like you’ve fallen into an elaborate practical joke, but you’re too clever to be fooled.
And then it’s either time for the tears or time for the drink. And since you’ve still got your jacket on…
He almost shits himself when the first hand shoots out of the ground. It’s almost worse knowing that something scary is going to happen. In the course of day-to-day events, one seems a bit foolish to expect monsters around every corner. But it becomes a different story when it isn’t a question of if there are monsters around the corner, but rather which corner.
All of the group members freak out, which is pretty understandable. Random corpses are struggling up from the earth, oozing fluids and covered in dirt, insects, and worms. He steps back, right into one, feels her naked rotting breast press into his back and burst with a pop.
He turns around and punches her in the face, and her head explodes into a cloud of dust and goo. The ex-track star from Florida follows suit, beheading another one of the zombies. In a matter of minutes, they’re all running out of the cemetery, covered in dirt, embalming fluid, and whatever nastiness came up out of the ground with the corpses.
He sees a patch of mud on the front of his shirt, writhing with tiny living creatures of some sort. He rips his shirt off and tosses it to the ground. As he does, he sees something out of the corner of his eye. Burt.
Burt, the chef from Chicago, who claims to have intimate ties with the Mafioso. Shit. He changes direction without changing stride, and heads back the way he came.
“Danny, what the hell you doin’?” Jill asks. Her full name is Jillany, supposed to be a cross between Bethany and Jill, and what the hell were her parents smoking? She’s cool, though—out of all these attention-whore freaks, she’s the least obnoxious. “Let ‘im be!”
He keeps running, hoping that he’ll make it in time. Burt’s still just standing there, paralyzed by fear. Before he got into this mess, Danny always just thought that was sort of an expression. But a lot has changed in the short time since joining up with this motley crew. Four of the others froze up just like this. The girl at the rodeo grounds, she couldn’t even make it out of the car. She started bawling and shaking and pissed her pants, and after fifteen minutes, she was disqualified, and they all went back to the house.
But this is different. This time, there are things that can kill. Danny isn’t sure if they’d go so far as to kill contestants, but deaths have been known to occur. In fact, there was a rather lengthy paragraph about it in the contract they signed. What it boiled down to was this: Shit happens. We aren’t responsible.
Any one of them could have refused to sign the contract, of course, but where’s the fun in that?
There are three of them close enough to touch Burt by the time Danny gets within hitting distance. He takes out two of them at a dead run, a lunging tackle that rips them apart. He shuts his eyes and his mouth, and almost loses his stomach as he feels some sort of liquid drip from his hair into his ear. He wipes the crap off his face and turns toward Burt just as the zombie lunges forward, jaw stretched open.
It takes a pretty good chunk out of Burt’s shoulder before Danny can throw it to the ground and stomp its skull.
“Burt, let’s go!” He grabs Burt by the arm and tries to drag him back the way they came. Burt glances down at his bleeding shoulder and then promptly passes out. “Asshole.”
There are still more creatures pulling themselves from the ground, so there isn’t time to debate his next move. He throws Burt over his shoulder and begins running, realizing moments later that Burt has shit himself. Which is unfortunate, because Burt’s ass is mere inches away from his face.
“Dammit, Burt! You better be able to get me in good with the mafia for this.”
He tops a hill just in time to see the SUV that brought them all pull away from the cemetery gate. The dead are still rising from their graves, but they don’t seem to be leaving the cemetery. This has both good points and bad. Good because it means that if he can get out, he’ll probably be safe. Bad because there’s about fifty yards of zombies between him and safety, and about twenty of them are gathered right in front of the open gate he needs to get through to escape.
His heart is pounding so hard that it feels like it’s about to explode, and his lungs are burning. Plus, the shit is starting to soak through Burt’s pants.
“Dammit, Burt,” he mutters again, and begins running down the hill.
There doesn’t seem to be as many graves on the west side of the gate, so he veers that way, hoping to draw them away from the exit and then double back through. He begins screaming and waving his free arm, and instantly realizes what a terrible idea this is. The extra energy he’s expending makes it even harder to breathe, and waving his arms around throws him off balance enough to make him stumble. He falls to the ground dropping Burt. He grabs a nearby branch from the ground and swings it around at an approaching zombie, taking it out. Another one is making its way towards Burt, and he brains that one as he runs to where the other man landed.
Burt slowly opens his eyes, and looks around dazedly. Then he screams and begins thrashing wildly around on the ground.
“Burt! Calm down! You have to calm down if you want to make it out of here!”
Burt continues to scream, drawing the attention of every zombie in the cemetery. Danny stands up and swings the stick. It catches Burt in the side of the head and knocks him unconscious. After checking his pulse, Danny lifts him back over his shoulder and begins his final run.
The zombies are terribly slow, so even though there are still a dozen or so directly in front of the gate, he’s able to zig-zag in between them easily. Once out on the dirt road in front of the cemetery, he drops Burt and looks back to make sure his pursuers aren’t following.
Nothing in the cemetery moves. There is no evidence of a recent zombie uprising. A coyote howls somewhere in the distance. He falls to the ground beside Burt, then gets a whiff of Burt’s recent panic and moves several feet away before collapsing completely.
He’s still trying to catch his breath when he hears the approaching footsteps. He rolls over and sees the familiar shape of Nerevek.
“Nice job,” the newcomer says, bending down to examine Burt. “I really didn’t think you’d be able to get out of there.”
“If we hadn’t?”
“Worm food,” Nerevek says, standing. He glances at the back of Burt’s pants and wrinkles his nose. “The very definition of dignity.”
“So it was his turn, I’m guessing?”
“Yep. And I must say, I thought he’d handle it better.” Nerevek helps Danny to his feet and begins leading him down the road.
“What about him?” Danny asks.
“He’ll probably change shortly after he wakes up, and then he’ll wander into the cemetery with the rest of them.”
“He got bitten by a zombie, Danny. Don’t you watch movies?”
“He’s going to change into one of those things?”
“That’s what happens.”
“And there’s nothing you can do?”
Nerevek stops walking and looks down at Danny. He’s a tall one, Nerevek is, six-six at least. His face is smooth-shaven to the point that it almost looks like wax, and his jet-black hair is gelled to perfection. The business suit he’s wearing should make him look preposterous, but instead it makes him look even more menacing than if he’d been wearing more traditional garb.
“This is reality. We don’t fuck with reality.”
Danny glances back at the cemetery that was just recently crawling with zombies. “Obviously.”
I woke up the next day and couldn’t figure anything out. I didn’t know if it was a work day or a weekend, I didn’t know if it was morning or night, I didn’t know where my wife was, I didn’t know where I was. All I knew was that my head hurt and something smelled like puke.
The first thing I figured out was what smelled like puke—it was me. The second thing I figured out was where I was—on my kitchen floor. As I passed by the microwave, I saw on the tiny digital readout that it was 6:15, but that didn’t really answer my question about whether it was morning or night—it was the time of year where 6:15 is dark either way.
And then I saw the note on the table, and it all came back to me. I went upstairs and looked into the bedroom. Her top dresser drawer was still open a little, and she was still not in our bed. The closet door was open, the suitcase was still missing.
I went to the bathroom and saw the medicine cabinet still open, her toothbrush still there. I sat down on the toilet and commenced to take a terrible shit. It was okay, though, because as I thought about my burning asshole, I didn’t have to think about my cheating wife. As I wiped, I thought about how I wouldn’t have to have the argument about how to hang the toilet paper roll anymore.
I took a shower, careful not to think of anything other than the task at hand—now I’m washing my hair, now I’m putting in conditioner, now I’m soaping up my washcloth, now I’m washing. Once I finished with that, I brushed my teeth, careful to ignore the other toothbrush. After that, I went to my bedroom, planning on going back to sleep. I couldn’t bring myself to sleep in the bed, though, so I grabbed a blanket from the linen closet and went to the couch.
I was just settling in when I noticed the business card on the coffee table. I wasn’t sure how it had gotten there, but considering how scrambled my brain was, I figured there was a good chance that I had put it there—maybe only moments ago.
I reached out with a drunk-shaky hand and slid the card from the table. It floated to the ground, letter-side up. I looked over the edge of the couch at the card, but leaning over made me feel like puking, so I picked the card up and rolled back onto the couch.
“Tip me, tap me, twist me, snap me.”
They say that nobody who hasn’t heard of the cards has ever gotten one. Meaning, if you don’t know they exist, you probably never will. I’d heard of them, but I’d never really believed it.
You read fairy tales to your children at night before bed. You read to them about princes and princesses, and monsters and wizards. You tell them these stories with the understanding that these things do not exist. That is make-believe, this is real life. It is very dangerous to confuse the two.
But here’s the thing that nobody ever really tells you: that stuff, those creatures, those people, they’re real. Kind of.
There’s a world hidden under ours where there really are witches and wizards and leprechauns and unicorns and all of that bullshit that nobody believes in. In those fairy tales, the maiden is always pure of heart, and there’s always a hero to rush in and save the day, and the good wizard is always willing to help out.
The truth about this world is that nobody is pure of heart, there are no heroes, and wizards are pretty much the biggest assholes of them all.
I only know this because I help them launder their money. It’s a long, unintelligible process, and I only play a small part. I couldn’t begin to tell you how it all works, or even what they use as currency in the Underside. I just know that I went to work, did my thing, and went home at the end of the day, sick and damn tired of my job, just like every other nine-to-five slob.
My thing was typing numbers into a computer and running errands for my dickhole boss. The pay was pretty good, and after a while, you even believed it when you told people you were in finance. Most people let it go right there, but when someone pushed, you had a script you followed that was guaranteed to make them lose interest within seconds.
I worked for wizards, and if that seems like a hard thing to accept, it’s because you’ve never been around any wizards. You walk into a room with a wizard, and you know you just walked into a room where there’s a wizard. He can say something like, “I’m a banker,” and you say okay, but some part of you doesn’t really believe it. Whereas if he says, “I’m a wizard,” you think to yourself, “I knew it!”
So getting over that fact wasn’t nearly as difficult as you might think.
Just like at any job, you hear things. Rumors. Some might be true, others maybe aren’t. Doesn’t matter. If you’re smart, you just do your job and ignore when someone tries to tell you some bit of juicy gossip. Or you at least pretend to ignore them
Yeah, I’d heard about the business cards. “The tickets,” some people called them. I never really thought they were real.
I lifted the card to eye level, then tilted it just a bit. Then I tapped it with my forefinger. Then I twisted it a little, and finally let it snap from my fingers. It sailed across the room like ninja star, and stuck into my wall.
“Holy shit,” I mumbled, climbing from the couch. I walked over and bent down to examine the card. It had stuck in the wall about four feet above the floor, and was buried almost halfway into the sheetrock.
“So are you in?” A voice asked from behind me.
I spun around, tripping over my feet, and landing hard on my ass. “Who are you?” I yelled.
He rolled his eyes. “Like it matters. Are you in or are you out? Please make a decision—we have a lot to do before the new season starts.”
“Are you for real?”
“Look at me, motherfucker. What do you think?”
You know how I was telling you about how you can tell when you’re in a room with a wizard? Yeah.
“Okay, you’re real. What do you mean, ‘Am I in?’”
“If you didn’t know what I was talking about, you wouldn’t have known what to do with the card. So let’s stop with the games. In or out?”
I looked around at my house, and it still had that surreal feel to it. Having a wizard standing in my living room did nothing to lessen that feeling. I glanced into the kitchen and saw the note still on the table.
“Fuck it,” I said. “I’m in.”
He pulled a stack of paper from the folds of his robe and dropped it onto the coffee table with a thud. “Read through that, sign it, and do it by Monday, or you’re automatically disqualified.”
“Okay. Hey, what day is today?”
“Saturday,” he said, looking annoyed. And then, as he stepped into a nearby shadow and vanished, “Jackass.”
Everyone looks up expectantly as he walks in. They’ve all already bathed, and probably thought they were awaiting the part where they would gather around the table and Nerevek would tell them about how now they were down to three, and nobody would have to be sent away this week.
“You’re all a bunch of assholes,” Danny says. “Seriously, from now on, you’re all on your own—I’m not helping any of you.”
“Danny, come on!” Aaron says, jumping to his feet. Ex-track star from Florida. Short black guy with calves the size of tank turrets. He was probably the first one back to the car, unless he decided to run a couple of laps first. Screwed up his knee in a roller-blading accident, but continues to train, hoping that he’ll someday be able to make the Olympics. He’s a nice guy, but obsessed about how one day he’ll have his very own line of athletic clothing. That’s probably what he’s after with this bullshit. “We didn’t all want to leave you, man!”
“It was her!” Kelly screams. Kelly’s from Kansas. She aspired to be either Miss America or the next big country music star. Her voice is almost as terrible as her face. Neither one compares to her bitch-shitty attitude. She whines, she lies, she cries, she accuses. She’s the one that everyone wants off the show but will probably stay on until the very end because she causes so much tension; and tension is good for ratings. She has fat chipmunk cheeks, like she just got finished with a mouth surgery that had several severe complications, and her ass is about twice as wide as her torso, which makes her look like a cartoon character who swallowed a small table. Her hair is bleached blonde, a home-done job for sure, with her dark roots constantly showing through. Last but not least, her tits suck.
Danny looks in the direction she’s pointing. At Jill.
Jillany, who won’t talk about her story any more than contractually obligated. She left home early, worked in a bar, joined a band that played at said bar. Lived in New York, hated the people, moved to L.A. and hated the people there even more. She found her business card the day she stepped out of rehab. You get the feeling that if she wins, she will spend the rest of her life ingesting dangerous amounts of drugs and screaming punk music at the masses. She has black hair, cut short just below her jaw line. Her arms are covered with tattoos and scars—some of them old needle marks, some of them clearly knife marks. She usually wears jeans and a midriff t-shirt, and tonight is no exception. Just out of the shower, her hair has dripped spots of darkness onto her black shirt.
“How ‘bout it, Jill?”
She shrugs. “Yeah. I didn’t have to talk Miss Pubic Dye there into anything, but I was the one who suggested it. Aaron tried to get us to wait, if it makes any difference.”
“It does. What the hell?”
“I was scared as shit, man. In case you didn’t notice, there were zombies trying to eat us.”
“Yeah, I noticed plenty. I had time, considering you bastards left me to carry Burt all by myself.”
“I told you to leave ‘im. You would’ve been the second one to the car if you’d kept running.”
“I couldn’t just leave him there. Next time, I’ll know better.” He turns and walks up the stairs, wanting to shower before they have to gather around the table. Just as he reaches the bedroom, he hears a familiar voice.
“It is time.”
“Fuck me,” Danny mumbles, turning around and heading down the stairs. They follow Nerevek out of the house, through the serenity garden, past the swimming pool, and into the little building at the edge of the cliff. It is a perfect cube, made from a strange sort of black and gray stone that looks a lot like marble…only it always gives the impression that it’s flowing, like water moving at an incredibly slow rate. One door, and that’s the only opening. Inside, there is nothing but a table with a line of candles burning in the middle, four chairs on one side, and a single chair on the other.
They file down the length of the table and wait until Nerevek nods to take their seats. Danny finds himself seated next to Kelly, who has turned her chair away from him a little, disgusted by the either the way he smells or the way he looks or both. He wipes a bit of zombie goo from the side of his face and lets it drip onto her leg. She glares at him, but says nothing—speech is forbidden unless Nerevek gives permission. The first contestant to get kicked off got the boot simply because she stepped on someone’s toe and said “Excuse me.” A lifetime of fulfillment down the toilet because you’re polite. Sucks.
“Congratulations to you all for making it back tonight,” Nerevek says in his deep drama voice. They all nod somberly. Danny would like to roll his eyes, but you never know what’s being broadcast. Because this whole set-up is run by wizards, they don’t need any cameras, which means you never know when you’re being beamed out to millions of people.
“As you have all probably realized, Burt will not be joining us at the table this evening. This means that there are enough positions at the table for all of you, and no one will have to be sent away. But what you may not have realized is that your ability to save yourself in the face of danger is not the only thing considered in this contest. Danny not only saved himself, but he also put himself in harm’s way to try to save another.”
Kelly opens her mouth to protest, but catches herself just in the nick of time. Jill, who’s sitting on the other side of her, mouths the word “fuck” when she realizes Kelly isn’t going to get herself kicked out just yet.
“Because of his selfless heroism, Danny will be rewarded.” Nerevek pauses and looks over at Danny. “You have two options from which to choose. You can either choose to send someone away this evening…”
Danny raises his eyebrows, indicating he’s still listening for the second option.
“Or you can have whatever you wish for supper. Which do you choose?”
Danny raises his finger, the signal asking permission to speak. Nerevek nods.
“What’s everyone else having for supper?”
“They will not be fed,” Nerevek replies, smiling.
“I’ll take the food.” The other three contestants looks at him wide-eyed.
“And what would you like?”
“Tacos, bacon, pancakes. And Skittles.”
“Excellent choice. And so we conclude for this evening. Danny, I will meet you in the dining hall. As for the rest of you, you are excused.”
“You idiot,” Kelly says, laughing spitefully. “You could have gotten rid of any of us and gotten one more person closer to winning this thing. We get whatever we want for dinner every night.”
“Not tonight you don’t,” Danny says. “And if you think it’s going to be easy, you don’t know much about wizards.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means get out of my face before I skull-fuck you to death and shit on your corpse.”
“Eww, you’re always so guh-ross,” she says, heading off towards the pool.
“Thank you, Danny,” Aaron says. “I know what we did tonight wasn’t right, and I’m sorry. Thank you so much for giving us another chance.”
Danny nods but doesn’t say anything.
“Why’d you do it?” Jill asks after Aaron has continued on down the path to the house. “You could have kicked me off for leaving you, you could have kicked Aaron off because he’s probably your main competition, or you could have kicked Kelly off because she’s an annoying twat. So why not?”
Danny pulls a pack of cigarettes from his pocket, only to find them crushed and sogged through with a strange-smelling brown fluid. He tucks them back into his pocket. “Gotta cigarette?”
Jill hands him a cigarette and takes one for herself. She stares at him while she lights her cigarette and continues to stare as he uses her lighter to light his own. “Well?”
“I didn’t do you any favors. Maybe you’ve forgotten the premise of this show, but I haven’t.”
“You think you’re going to win this thing, don’t you?”
“Honestly, I don’t give a shit. Thanks for the smoke.” He turns and walks towards the dining hall.
Everything is routine to someone. When you first step into the world of the fantastic—the Underside—everything is amazing. It’s like life cranked up a few notches. Everything moves faster, everything is more intense. The good feelings feel better, the bad feelings feel worse. The sex is more sexual, the violence is more violent.
Not only do you see things you’ve never seen before, you see things you’ve never imagined before.
I signed the contract, and the wizard showed up to escort me to the Underside where I spent three days in Pandora—the Underside equivalent of New York City. I had to have an escort, of course—a normal trying to make his way in the Underside by himself lasts about ten seconds.
I had heard of unicorns before, but had never seen one, and although I saw the resemblance after he told me what he was, I never would have guessed before then. You read fairy tales, they tell you of a magnificent, noble creature, worthy of being printed on the front of your Trapper Keeper. My escort looked more like a gorilla with an elongated face. His fur was a dirty shade of white, and his horn was chipped and stained. He wore jeans and black steel-toed work boots and a white t-shirt and a black leather jacket. He claimed the jacket was made from dragon hide, and I believed him.
“You have three days to enjoy the Underside, meat. What do you want to do?” That’s what he said as soon as I had opened my front door.
“What do you usually do?”
“Shit that’d get you killed.”
“Okay, let’s do that.”
“You got the contract?”
I handed him the stack of paper the wizard had left.
“Where’s your shit?”
“From what I understand,” I said, “I’m probably not going to last all that long once I leave Topside. What’s the point in lugging shit around, you know?”
His enormous mouth shifted into what I decided to interpret as a small smile. “You might be all right, meat.”
I was amazed by what awaited me. I spent the next three days with Burdoch, witnessing some of the coolest, mind-blowing, unbelievable shit that has ever been. He knew about all the best places to go for…well, for whatever. The best drugs, the best hookers, the best place to go when you’ve spent all your money on drugs and hookers—the guy knew how to live. He kept calling it “living to die,” and although you might think he was being poetic, he was actually being as literal as possible.
As amazing as it seemed to me, it was still routine for others. The creatures that populated this world didn’t waste time admiring the weirdness around them because to them, it was normal. To them, this was the daily grind. And at the end of the day, they just wanted to escape reality for a bit, just like everyone I know.
Enter television. Things aren’t the same on the Underside, but TV is pretty close. You’ve got the news, the sit-coms, the music channels, whatever. One thing I noticed, though, was that everything was much more violent and risqué. A long time ago, there was a show called “Married…With Children.” It raised all kinds of protest because it was raunchy and filthy and all the jokes were about sex or shitting. Replace the toilet humor with murder humor, and then make everything extra graphic, and you have Underside television.
One of the differences, however, is that there aren’t any crime shows or dramas or any of that. In a world where you can get all the crime and drama you want by stepping out the door, they didn’t have much use for it on their television.
Which is why the idea of reality television never should have worked. And it wouldn’t have, if they had tried it using Underside residents. But you get humans, just regular, idiot humans, with their silly upbringing and pampered lives and you bring them in and put them on display. You offer them fame and fortune for the rest of their lives, you stick them all in one house, and then unleash your latest idea on them. It’s better than any comedy the writers could come up with.
There were loads of different concepts, but what it boiled down to was watching us fight each other. We were the gladiators in the Coliseum, to fight amongst ourselves and to entertain while we did it.
I read through the entire contract, even the small print, and it actually sounded pretty fair, once you got over the part where you were basically giving them your life until the end of the contest. They chose what you ate, when you ate, if you ate. They chose where you lived and what you did while you were there.
They didn’t flat-out say that it was their right to murder you, but they made it understood that death was an option.
Mostly, it was the same rules you agree to when you sign up for the armed forces.
But what the wizards promised was glamour, glory, riches and fame. Although the show wouldn’t be televised Topside, they had the ability to make us famous there. Winning the contest, making it to the end of the show, it meant living however you wanted to until you died. It’s two in the morning on Christmas day and you suddenly decide you want a zebra wearing red lacy panties and two saddlebags full of heroin? Delivered by transvestite conjoined twins dressed as Batman and Robin?
That was the kind of power you were going to have if you were the last man standing. You had to sacrifice everything, but you also had the chance to win everything.
I didn’t really care about the wealth. Honestly, I never even considered winning an option. I’m pretty good at quite a bit of stuff, but I’ve never been the best at anything. There’s always someone with a better idea, a better jump shot, a hotter wife, a faster car. It’s not something I’m bitter about, and I only mention it to illustrate that I went into the contest with the assumption that I was going to lose.
I mentioned before that it was like joining the armed forces. You hear stories about those guys, they lose their girl and run off to join the Marines. That’s basically what I was doing. I wasn’t going to actually join the armed forces, of course, because the pay-off isn’t nearly as good, and the guy in charge of sending me to my death is as dumb as a jar of used condoms.
I was ready and willing to put it all on the line, though. Why? Maybe I couldn’t bear the thought of living life with a broken heart. Maybe because I didn’t care about living anymore. Maybe because I just didn’t know what to do next. Maybe because I was drunk on cheap rum.
I didn’t do it because I wanted to be a rock star or a movie star or a sports star. I didn’t do it because I wanted to prove something or win something or do something with my life.
If you really need an answer, I guess I’d say I did it because it seemed like a good idea at the time.
“How are your pancakes?”
“Delicious, as always.”
“And the tacos?”
“And the bacon?”
“Even more delicious than usual, actually.”
“Special pig—died of a heart attack.”
“No shit?” Danny looks up from his plate.
“He was raised on a diet of bacon, sausage, and Bloody Mary’s. I don’t quite understand the science behind it, but apparently it’s something the cook and the farmer have been working on for quite some time.”
“Tell them that all of their hard work paid off—this is the best bacon I’ve ever eaten.”
“I’ll be sure to pass on your compliments.” Nerevek is sitting at the opposite end of the long dining table, his hands steepled on the tabletop. Danny isn’t sure if wizards ever had to eat, but if so, he had never witnessed it.
He cuts off another section of his bacon and forks it into his mouth. Although he had spent almost an entire hour under a scalding shower, he still doesn’t feel clean enough to eat with his hands. He wonders if he’ll ever be able to again.
“That was quite a thing you did out there tonight,” Nerevek says after a few moments of silence.
“Was it? I don’t know. I guess. It was quite a thing we all did, really—running from zombies.” Danny finishes chewing his food and then looks up. “It’s crazy, you know? When I signed on for this, I never even could have imagined what happened tonight. You’re out there, you don’t know what to expect, and then all hell breaks loose, and all you can think is, ‘Man, I hope I’m not the one who dies tonight.’”
Sound bite delivered, Danny goes back to his pancakes.
“Don’t bother,” Nerevek says. “This is just you and I.”
“So you aren’t going to use that?”
“Of course I’m going to use that—your sound bites always make the best commercials. What I mean is, we’re off the record here. This isn’t for the show, this is just us, sitting here.”
Nerevek laughs. “You know, Danny, I like you.”
“No, I’m serious. I’m not saying I want you as my best man, but you’re all right. Most people who sign up for this, they spend all their time around me acting like I’m their boss. Either sucking my dick or being afraid of me. You don’t kiss ass, and you aren’t scared of me.”
“I’m terrified of you. I make it a point to fear anyone who can turn my dick into a serpent.”
“Okay, so you’re afraid of me. But you don’t let it get in the way of things. Falling from an incredible height will kill you, so it’s rational to be afraid of high places. But you don’t let it keep you from flying on airplanes. And that’s how you are with me.”
“Considering this show’s premise, it seems like it’d be a little redundant to be over-the-top afraid of you. I mean, whatever you might do to me, I’m going to see worse, right?”
“There is nothing as coolly logical as a man destroying himself over a broken heart.”
“Bullshit. Most people with broken hearts are completely nuts.”
“Why’d you do it?”
“Save him? Because it seemed like the right thing to do.”
“The rest of them didn’t think so.”
Danny puts his fork down and wipes his face with his napkin. He looks at Nerevek without saying anything.
“They get half a chance, they’ll get rid of you,” Nerevek says. “You know that.”
“But you would have saved any of them. Even if it meant risking your life you would have gone back for any one of them.”
“Maybe not Kelly.”
“I think you would have even gone back for Kelly.”
“Hopefully, we won’t have to find out. I guess I’ll go ahead and turn in for the night. Thanks for joining me for supper, though.” Danny stands up.
“One more question before you go, if you don’t mind,” Nerevek says, standing up as well.
“Not at all.”
“Why are you doing this? It isn’t for the money, and it isn’t for the fame. You aren’t like any of the others. I’d say that you’re doing it because you want to die, but you obviously want to live. So what is it?”
“We off the record here?”
“I don’t really know, Nerevek. It just seemed like a good idea at the time.”
Nerevek smiles. “I see. Well have a good night, Danny.”
“Thank you. And really, thank you for joining me—it’s nice to engage in real conversation for a change, instead of just listening to the others talk about what they’ll do once they win, or what will happen tomorrow.”
“My pleasure, Danny. Good night.”
I’ve never been on Topside TV, so I have no idea if it’s the same or not. Burdoch loaded me into the limo, said goodbye in his special way—“I hope you die as painless as possible, Meat,”—and I was driven through the dirty streets until I was out of the city. Even when we were out of the city, the country side still looked grimy and overcast. Maybe it’s just the coast, I don’t know.
After several hours, we pulled up to a massive complex. There were guards posted at the entrance, and strange, dangerous-looking wire surrounding the top of the fence that surrounded the place. Once cleared, we drove into the center of the complex, to the main building. The main building stood higher than any structure I had ever seen. It was about three miles wide, and at least twice that long. It was without frill or decoration—a giant block of a building, without windows, and only a single door in the front, rendered miniscule by comparison.
The driver pulled to a stop and opened the door for me. He handed me my backpack full of clothes and toiletries.
“Just walk to the door and wait—someone will help you shortly.”
“Thank you, sir. Best of luck on the show—I look forward to seeing you.”
“You want me to give you a shout-out or anything?”
He smiled. “I’m sure you’ll have more on your mind, but I appreciate the offer.” He bowed and climbed back into the car. I watched him drive away before approaching the door.
All of the sudden, this didn’t seem like a very good idea at all.
I stood in front o f the door, my palms sweating, and my stomach fluttery. It opened up and I saw Nerevek for the first time. I had expected a wizard in flowing robes, like the one who dropped off my contract. I was unprepared to see a wizard looking more like an executive than most executives.
“Daniel. So glad you could make it.”
“Thank you,” I said, switching my backpack from my right hand to my left so that I could shake his offered hand.
“My name is Nerevek, and I will be your host.”
“Okay. Um, you can call me Danny—nobody calls me Daniel.”
“Very well. If you’ll follow me, Danny, I’ll take you to the resort.” He pushed back the door and what I saw amazed me. It was as if someone had taken a chunk of California coastline and somehow managed to cram it into a building. A big building, sure, but not nearly big enough to house the miles of crashing waves, stretching shores, and winding highways. I rubbed my eyes and stepped into the building.
We climbed into the cherry-red convertible and then we were flying through the hills, so fast that the landscape became a blur.
“You know the concept of the show, I’m sure,” Nerevek said.
“Worst fears, right?”
“Worst fear. Singular. There is only one. People can be afraid of many things, but there is only one at the top of the list. We’ll go over this in more detail tonight, I just wanted to make sure you knew what you were getting into.”
“As much as you can know, in a situation like this.”
“Indeed,” he said, and then turned up the radio, and applied more pressure to the gas pedal.
We arrived at the mansion shortly thereafter. It was grand and gaudy, with pillars and exquisite landscaping and everything you would ever want in a mansion if you wanted the entire world to know that you had the nicest house ever, so everyone else should just stop trying. Nerevek led me through the many hallways, explaining that there would be a group tour later, but he wanted me to be able to find my room.
Once there, he pointed out the bed, the mini-fridge, the deck, the bathroom. That one bedroom was nicer than my entire house. “As you read in your contract, you’ll be expected to spend most of the day interacting with the others, or at least in the public places. You will sleep here, but other than that, your time should be spent with the rest of the contestants. There’s food and drink in the mini-fridge, so help yourself at any time. If you get hungry for anything else, you can call down to the kitchen to have something prepared. For your own safety, we suggest you stay on the house property. If you roam off, bad things will more than likely happen to you.”
“You’re required to speak in the quiet room at least once a day. There isn’t exactly a time limit, but we suggest at least ten minutes, so that we can get enough for the sound bites. There are several quiet rooms throughout the property so that you never have to wait to express yourself.”
“All the better to make an ass out of myself.”
Nerevek smiled. “In these quarters, you’ll have complete privacy. Other than that, consider yourself watched. Don’t look for a camera—we don’t use them. We encourage you to be yourself—the uncensored, the better—but if you want to add a little drama, it is generally encouraged. Try not to go to over the top, though—this is reality television. Any questions?”
“I’m sure I have loads of them, and I’m sure I’ll remember them as soon as you leave.”
“As long as you know how to get to the community room, you’re fine. Everyone is meeting there at eight tonight, where we’ll go over what is expected out of the contestants.” Nerevek made his way to the door.
“All right. Thanks.”
“It’s way too early to be thanking me,” he said, pulling the door shut behind him.
The community room was the size of a theater auditorium, complete with the stadium seating. Instead of uncomfortable movie seats, though, there were lavish sofas and recliners, stuffed with softness and covered with smoothness.
Nerevek paced back and forth down in front, explaining to us the rules and expectations. I noticed that instead of listening, most of the other contestants were looking around, sizing each other up. There were twenty of us, and we would be broken up into two groups of ten. Once the groups were small enough—meaning once each one was down to five—they would be combined.
The final ten contestants would then continue on until there was only one remaining.
Every few nights, we would load up in the SUV’s and follow a road leading us to someone’s worst fear. At the end of the night, we would meet in the little building with Nerevek. If everyone had returned, we would vote someone off. There were also various contests to win bonuses—things like exemption from the next round, or a day with the celebrity of your choice.
In the beginning, no one saw me as a threat. I spent all day drinking and socializing, and spent the nights running just like the rest of them. I knew what they all thought about me—they thought I was the worthless lush who had somehow lucked his way into this thing, and would crack the first time he was put on the spot. I didn’t get voted off because they all thought I’d be an easy crumble when my time came.
Only my time kept on not coming.
And then we were down to the last ten. That’s when it became clear: our fears were getting worse. We had assumed that we were being chosen at random to deal with our fears, but in retrospect it was painfully obvious that as we progressed the things we were forced to deal with on a nightly basis became increasingly more disturbing.
In the beginning, the fears had been almost laughable—the guy who freaked out at the circus, the girl terrified by beagle puppies. But then there was the night that we were trapped in an abandoned building, being tracked by a masked killer.
As we ran for our lives, trying to avoid detection, it suddenly dawned on me that this shit was a whole lot scarier than a room full of puppies. I also realized that the wizards had to do something to keep viewers coming back as the season progressed. Saving the worst for the last would probably do the trick.
Later, as I sat in my room sipping from a bottle of Jim Beam, I considered the fact that I still hadn’t confronted my fear. If it was worse than the shit we had witnessed in the warehouse, I didn’t want any part of it. And yet I didn’t quit.
He’s almost asleep when he hears the light tapping at his door. He pulls on a pair of pants and grabs the iron poker from beside the fireplace. He hasn’t ever heard of them changing up the game where they attack in the mansion, but at this point, he isn’t willing to take chances. He opens the door just a little and peers out into the dimly-lit hall.
It’s Jill. He stands back and pulls the door open a little more. “What do you want?”
“I just want to talk.” She notices the poker in his hand. “Geez. Psychotic much?”
“Enough. Talk about what?”
“Can I come in or not?”
“In my experience, when a woman shows up in the middle of the night saying she wants to talk, it’s because she either wants to fuck you, or it’s because she wants to fuck you over. I know you don’t want to fuck me, Jill.”
“Look, I felt bad about leaving you and wanted to try to explain myself. If you’re gonna be a dick about it, you can go shit.” She turns around and starts down the hall.
“Is that even an expression, ‘go shit?’ It doesn’t seem very well thought out.”
She turns around, still trying to be angry, but fighting a smile. “I generally say ‘get fucked,’ but you had already used ‘fuck’ twice, so it would have seemed like I was copying. I had to improvise.”
“You need to work on your improvisation.”
“Are you gonna let me come in, or what?”
“Fine. Come in.” Danny steps back to allow her entry. She looks around as she walks, and takes a seat on the couch against the wall.
“So this is your place. I haven’t seen it before.”
“Have you seen anyone else’s?” Danny asks, curious.
“Yeah, man. Most of us hang, out, watch movies and shit.”
“Well, not so much anymore. But in the beginning, yeah.”
“I didn’t know that.” He sits down on the edge of the bed, taking in this new bit of information. “Like, this is what everyone did?”
“We didn’t like, all hang out. But people made friends, there were groups that hung out.”
“Seems like this whole thing would have been even more difficult if you faced the prospect of losing a friend every challenge.”
“Seems like it would be more difficult without anyone to talk to, ever.”
“Hm. So I never got invited to join in any reindeer games. Why?”
“A little put-out that I was so oblivious that I didn’t realize people could have been forming teams without me noticing—that’s just bad business when you’re in a competition like this. But am I all butt-hurt that nobody wanted to hang out with me? No. Seems like the disadvantages would far outweigh the advantages. You suddenly have to worry about friends, about cliques, about which side you’re going to be on. Politics. I have enough shit to worry about. I’m just curious as to why I wasn’t approachable.”
“At first it was because you seemed like a worthless drunk. I mean, you were fun enough to shoot the shit with during the day, but nobody wanted to see what sort of mess you’d turn into after drinking all damn day. Even on some of the challenges, you seemed like you barely had your shit together enough to make it back.”
“And yet, here I am.”
“And yet, here you are. The guy who has his shit together much more than the rest of us. Fooled everybody.”
Danny shrugs. “I doubt it.”
“You got something to drink?” Jill asks.
“Whiskey and water.”
“You mind if I have some whiskey?”
“Not at all.” He stands from the bed and unwraps a plastic cup from the top of the bar. He fills the cup nearly halfway with whiskey and hands her the cup.
“Thanks. So that was your plan? Make everyone think you’re worthless until the end, when it’s too late to vote you off?”
He takes another cup from the nightstand—this one already used—and fills it to the rim. He knocks back half of it and sits down on the bed. “I didn’t have a plan, Jill. I probably am worthless. I just came on this thing because I didn’t know what else to do with my life. I mean, what, we gonna exchange life stories, now? A little too late to be making friends, isn’t it?”
“You’re kind of an asshole.”
“You’re here because you’re looking for a way to beat me. You’re doing it under the guise of apologizing for leaving me to die in a graveyard full of zombies, which I find detestable. You know what it’s like to be abandoned in a graveyard full of zombies, Jill? It’s fucking scary. It’s the scariest thing that has ever happened to me in my entire life.”
She stands up, angry. “Okay, first of all, I’m sorry. And second of all, you don’t know me, so don’t assume to know why I’m here. It’s hard enough to suck up my pride and come here to apologize, and then you just continue to be a cock about things.”
“Graveyard full of zombies, bitch. That’s why I continue to be a cock about things.”
“I panicked, okay? I’m not proud of it. It was the scariest thing that’s ever happened in my life, too. And I wasn’t even thinking, really, just running. Hell, man, you were running, too. Just because you managed to get your shit under control, that doesn’t mean that you didn’t lose it for a second. I’ll admit that you’re the better person, okay? But I don’t want you to think that I’m like the other assholes that have been on this show. I wasn’t just trying to ditch you to make the contest easier for myself. I did it because I was terrified.”
“The zombies couldn’t leave the cemetery.”
“You think I knew that? Shit! I got in the car and was ready to haul ass. I figured they already had you, man. When you’re being chased by zombies, you don’t sit there going, ‘Say, I wonder if they can come out past the cemetery gates.’ You go, ‘Let’s get the fuck out of here.’ Which is what we did. I just wanted you to know that we didn’t do it so that we wouldn’t have to compete against you anymore..”
Danny knocks back the rest of his drink. “Fine.”
“You accept my apology?”
“Sure, why not. No reason to hold a grudge when we only have a couple of weeks or so left before this thing is finished.”
“So why didn’t you kick anyone off tonight?”
“Because you left me for the zombies.”
“So you give us a chance to win the lifetime of our dreams?”
“You’re missing the point. Those zombies, the ones that scared you all so bad that you left me? Those weren’t your worst fears. Those were just things that were scary. Whatever’s coming next, it’s gong to be even worse. And for each of us, there will be the worst. I didn’t even know I could be as scared as I was tonight. I mean, those things started crawling out of the ground, I reached levels of fear I hadn’t even imagined. And that wasn’t even my fear.”
“So you kept us all here so we’d have to face our own fear?”
“But what if we make it through? You screwed yourself.”
Danny refills his cup and lifts the bottle in question. Jill glances down into her cup and shrugs. “Maybe one more. Drinking on an empty stomach, thanks to you.”
“How long did the night seem to last?”
“I knew he wasn’t going to let you off light. Stretching time is a pretty common wizard tactic.”
“Seems like about twelve hours, now. A couple hours in, Kelly got so desperate, she snuck down to the kitchen.”
“That was probably interesting.” He replaces the bottle on the bar and sits back down on the bed.
“Oh, yeah. She opened the refrigerator and a bunch of rotten pig guts fell out onto her.”
“How did you know that they were pig guts?”
“Because Nerevek told us. He came and got us out of our rooms, made us follow him to the kitchen, and there she was, covered in that crap. It smelled so bad I would’ve thrown up if my stomach weren’t already so empty it was eating itself. He marched her down to the community showers and made her wash while we stood there.”
“Rough. Are you sure it’s okay for you to be drinking? I don’t want him showing up and doing something evil because you weren’t supposed to imbibe.”
“Nah, I asked him about drinking. It’s allowed, and so is chewing gum. Mints and candy is banned. Also, no milk.”
“I know. This whole fuckin’ thing has been weird.”
“So the community shower, huh?”
As long as you were in your room, you were safe from the cameras. You could shit, shower and shave, secure in the knowledge that you were alone. Once you left, however, you gave up your privacy. To use the community shower meant that you were on the air, in all of your nakedness. Usually, it was only used after swimming in the pool, so you were still wearing your bathing suit.
As punishment for trying to cheat, Kelly had been covered in putrid animal insides and then forced to bathe in front of millions.
“So you changed the subject,” Jill says, taking a small sip from her cup. “How are you gonna feel if you get beat by someone you could’ve banished tonight?”
“A little thankful, honestly.”
“You don’t think?”
“Hell, no! We have the promise of riches and fame and whatever we want for the rest of our lives. And all you have to do is face your fear.”
“Your worst fear, Jill. That’s the part you seem to be forgetting.”
“I’m not forgetting it. But shit, man. What’s so scary that you can’t get over it to live whatever life you want forever? I grew up with nothing, Danny. Nothing. You? You come from the ‘burbs, right? Had your bike, your Boy Scout meetings, your Little League practice, all that. You know what I had growing up? I had crackheads on the corner that wanted to rape me even though I was eight years old. I had a mom so drugged out that half the time she accidentally peddled my pussy instead of hers for heroin. I had welfare workers who showed up to check on my living conditions and approved them because my mom gave them free handjobs and free weed. Roaches the size of rats and rats the size of dogs. All I ever wanted was out, man.
“You know what my worst fear is? It’s being back there. But you know what? If I’m back there, I’ll do what I did before: I’ll get fuckin’ through it, because I know that once I do, there’s something better waiting for me.”
“Good luck to you, then,” Danny says, draining his cup a second time. “You’re gettin’ all teary-eyed, there, Jill. Probably means I should cut you off.”
“Fuck you, Danny. You think you’re so tough? Why’re you here? You spill wine on your shirt at a party and ostracize yourself out of shame?”
“I was at a red light and I looked over and saw my wife giving some dude a hummer. This woman, I gave my life to her, my heart to her, my everything to her, and there she was, sucking another guy’s dick. Got home to find out that she had left me. I went out drinking, found the ticket, and here I am.”
“Holy shit. You’re facing the gauntlet because your wife cheated on you? I don’t know if that makes you the most dangerous person here or the biggest pussy here.”
“It just makes me here, is all.”
She stumbles to the bar and pours herself another drink. She fills the plastic cup to the rim, and it sloshes over as she raises it to her lips. She wipes her mouth with the back of her hand. “So Mr. Tough Guy is here because of a broken heart? So lame, dude.”
“I never said I was tough.”
“Man, we were all so wrong about you. We thought you’d killed your family in a drunk driving accident. Like, fuck, this dude, he got nothin’ to lose, that’s why he knocks back a fifth of Jack by the pool everyday.”
“If I had nothing to lose, then why didn’t anyone vote me off?”
“Because we all knew your fear, Danny. It was gonna be seein’ your dead family, and when you did, you were going to crumble. No need to vote you off—your shit was gonna do you in. But now, here you are.”
“Here I am.”
“No dead family to knock you outta the running.”
“Just a bitch-ass broken heart. That’s why you’re here. Not enough to scare you out of the game. So what’chu got? What’s gonna do it?”
“I don’t know. If I hadn’t seen Burt paralyzed tonight, I might have thought it was the zombies.”
“Shit scared you that bad, huh?”
“I was scared, but at the same time, there was a part of me tellin’ me that it was fake. I mean, I was still scared enough to leave your ass—sorry about that—but there was still that part whisperin’, ‘This shit can’t be real.’”
“I kept trying to pretend that it wasn’t real, but there was a part of me whispering that it was deadly real. That’s why it scared me so bad. Honestly, I think I’ll be next.”
“Why you tellin’ me this?”
“Because you’re drunk as hell and I’m drunk as hell and it really doesn’t matter anyway.”
“You almost had Aaron tossed tonight.”
Danny stares at her a moment, wondering exactly how easy he is to read. He had contemplated giving Aaron the boot, but didn’t realize anyone other than himself knew it. “I did.”
“Because you didn’t want him to have to face his fear?”
“Why didn’t you, then? Because you were mad at him, too?”
“No. Because I think he’s going to be the one to win it.”
“Are you serious?”
“Why?” She staggers to the liquor cabinet again, and pours herself another drink. She makes her way across to the couch again and flops onto it, spilling liquor all over her shirt. Danny refills his glass and tucks the bottle under the bed.
“Because he’s stronger than me and weaker than you.”
“What’s that mean?”
“You’re right about me, Jill. I haven’t had to deal with much. I grew up in a regular house with a regular mom and dad. They divorced when I was ten, but it didn’t scar me. I had friends, I had flag football, I had average grades in school. My clothes came from Wal-Mart, but they were new clothes. I grew up, went to college, got a job. Met a girl, got married. All very average stuff. The worst thing that ever happened to me was that I saw the woman I was in love with giving some douche bag a blowjob at a red light. I’m surprised I’m still here, really. The fears, they’ve been getting more intense, have you noticed that? More terrifying. Honestly, I figured I’d come on here, see my wife giving a blowjob to the IRS agent who audited me last year. I thought that’d be my worst fear. But here I am. Still.”
“Here you are. Still.”
“It doesn’t add up. Those zombies scared the shit out of me. I figure that there’s not much that can scare me more than that. So it stands to reason that I’ll be next. And I doubt I’ll be able to face my fear.”
“That still doesn’t explain why you think Aaron will win. Why he’ll beat me and Kelly.”
“Okay, it’s obvious that whatever scares Kelly will be totally self-involved. She’s still here because everyone hates her. It’s good for ratings. For her, it’ll probably be something like smudged makeup at an audition or something. So she’ll freak out and nobody else will care. That’s how she’ll be gone.”
“Makes sense.” Jill tries to put her cup on the floor and knocks it over. She takes her top off and begins mopping up the spill. “Sorry, dude, sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it, man. Put your shirt back on. Here, look.” He tries to hand her a roll of paper towels, but only succeeds in spilling his own drink. Jill immediately begins mopping up his spill with her shirt. “We’re way too drunk,” Danny says, opening his dresser.
“I’ve been worse,” she says, trying to struggle back into the wet shirt.
“Here, jackass, put this on.” He tosses her the first t-shirt he pulls out of his dresser. She drops her shirt on the floor and pulls the t-shirt over her head. He almost tells her to take it off. It’s one his wife used to wear to bed, and in his drunken state he had forgotten that he’d brought it. But there it is, on another woman, and part of him is aroused by the idea, and part of him protests in rage and disgust.
But then it’s too late—she’s already sitting back down on the couch. He reaches under the bed and brings out the whiskey. He drinks straight from the bottle, telling himself that it’s just a piece of clothing.
“So why not me?” Jill asks.
“What?” He’s surprised, wondering how she knows he was just thinking she shouldn’t be wearing the shirt.
“Why do you think I won’t win?”
“You think Aaron’s gonna win. Why not me?”
“What’d you think I was talking about?”
“Nothin’. That.” He takes another swig from the bottle and screws the top back onto the bottle. “Not you because you’re too tough.”
“What kinda sense you makin’ over there, bitch?”
“People aren’t born strong. Life forms them. You hear all that shit like, ‘This’ll give you character,’ ‘This’ll build character,’ ‘This is developing character.’ I think that’s true, kind of. When we’re young, we adapt. Hardships teach us, help us, form us. When we’re old, they just break us.”
“So you think I’ll break?”
“I think you’ll be broken.”
“You don’t think I can overcome the shit I did when I was a kid?”
“I don’t think any of us can.”
“You’re a fuckin’ moron.”
“You know, I thought you were gonna win this thing. I thought you were some kind of bad ass. But after listening to you? Shit. I got this shit.”
“You’re just a pussy with a broken heart.”
“You’re no bad ass.”
She stands on wobbly legs and staggers to the door. “Gonna be a long night.”
“For you, yeah.”
She stares at him. He unscrews the cap, takes another deep swig, screws the cap back on. “What’re you doin’ pretendin’ to be a pussy?”
“Go back to your room, Jill. Go back to your room and go to bed, and hopefully, by the time morning gets here for you, you’ll be done puking.”
“You get to where you can recognize people, you know? Livin’ the life I’ve lived. You can recognize people for what they are. Not just their labels, but deep down. And you? You’re no pussy. You’re the bouncer the strippers call, Danny. But your skinny ass ain’t no bouncer. You’re the honest cop, the decent social worker, the knight in shining armor.”
“Go to bed.”
“You probably aren’t even gonna fuck me tonight, are you?”
“Pussy,” she says, and then passes out at the door.
He stares at her unconscious body for several minutes and then takes another drink from the bottle. When he’s positive she isn’t going to wake up and go back to her room, her hauls her up to the couch. She immediately rolls onto her back and vomits. He turns her to the side and uses his finger to clean out her mouth so she doesn’t choke.
He washes his hands, grabs a trash can, and makes it back just in time to hold back her hair as she pukes a second time. He keeps the whiskey bottle close, drinking just enough so that he doesn’t have to think about his wife, his lost love, his broken heart, or the passed out woman on his couch.
Everything is routine to someone. At some point, even living in a gigantic mansion on a reality television program in a world of make-believe became normal. The days became longer, and the thoughts of her became continual.
I watched the others, listened to them, ignored them. Whatever they had going on, it seemed less than what I was going through. They all seemed self-serving and self-indulgent and self-pitying; I knew I was the exact same, but because I was all of those things, it seemed okay for me to be doing it.
And then they started going. Either voted off or freezing up. The groups shrank, and they all became worried. I continued not to care. I didn’t really want to face my worst fear, but I also didn’t want to go back and try to rebuild my life without her. Sometimes, I thought that it might be one and the same.
Sometimes, even as I ran from whatever scared me, I thought about my empty room back at the mansion, at the bottle of liquor that wouldn’t make me forget her. And sometimes, I thought about my empty house, which would be even more pathetic and hurtful when I returned—by then, she would have moved out the rest of her things, and I would be left with half of a life.
He’s already nursing his second cup of spiked coffee on the balcony when she wakes up. She glances around for about five seconds and then launches herself from the bed. The bathroom door slams behind her, but it isn’t enough to mask the sounds of vomiting.
He takes another sip of his bourbon and coffee, and lights a cigarette. He’s just snubbing it out when the bathroom door opens. Jill looks around, confused, and then spots him. Her eyes are squinted to slits.
“What time is it?”
“A little after one,” Danny says. “There’s some food in the refrigerator. You should probably eat something.”
“Did we fuck?”
“You called me names and passed out. You threw up through most of the night, and at one point, you pissed in my trashcan. At no point did we have intercourse, although you were practically irresistible.”
“There are some girls in the city who would charge you big bucks for what I gave you last night for free.” She slides his pack of cigarettes across the table and fumbles around until she gets one out. “I didn’t know you smoked.”
“I just started yesterday. I think it makes me look cool.”
“Nothing can make you look cool in that shirt.”
“Isn’t that the pot calling the kettle black?”
She looks down at the shirt she’s wearing: a white t-shirt with several dolphins jumping over a rainbow. His wife’s shirt. “What the fuck?” Jill cries, and pulls the shirt away from her body to get a better look. She uses her cigarette to burn a hole in the eye of one of the dolphins. It sizzles for a second, and then she looks up, apologetic. “Oh, dude, I’m sorry—I didn’t realize this was your shirt. I mean, I know you gave it to me, but it didn’t register, you know? I’ll get you a new one or something, okay?”
He looks at her, wearing his wife’s shirt, her nipple poking partially through the burn-hole. He thinks about his empty house. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Why do you have a dolphin shirt, anyways?”
“Don’t worry about that, either,” Danny says, and dumps bourbon into his coffee cup. He pushes a plate with a couple of bagels towards her.
She takes a drag of her cigarette. “So…about last night…”
“It was just another night, Jill.”
“Sorry I got so wasted.”
“Not a big deal.”
“No, I mean…I feel like you got short-changed. If you want, we can-”
“No,” he says. He wonders if she knows he’s lying. He also wonders what paths the truth follows in this particular instance. He’s horny as hell—even while his wife was sleeping around on him, she still supplied him with enough sex so that the eight weeks he has spent at the mansion are beginning to feel like a life sentence without conjugal visits. He wants sex, but does he want it from her? She’s hot, she’s dangerous, she’s wild. She’s what he has never had, she’s something different, she’s a step towards beginning his new life. But using her for sex as a road marker seems wrong in a way he can’t live with.
“Why not?” She asks. Not offended, just curious.
“Because I’m not really over my wife, and as much fun as it’d be, I think I’d be consumed by guilt for using you.”
She laughs and stands up. “You’re a weird guy, Danny.”
“Where are you going?”
“Getting some food.”
He drinks another cup of bourbon and smokes two more cigarettes while she fools around in his room, toasting bagels, washing fruit, pouring her own cup of coffee.
“It must be hard to be a nice guy,” She says as she sits back down at the table, plate in front of her. “So many arguments about right and wrong getting in the way of living.”
“Did it ever occur to you that maybe I just like to fuck? Like maybe it isn’t about you using me or trying to replace your wife or start your new life or whatever? Maybe I’ve been here just as long as you, maybe I’m just as horny as you. Maybe I just want to fuck.”
He smiles. “It occurred to me. But the answer’s still no.”
She shrugs and eats her breakfast. When she’s finished, she stands up. She grabs another cigarette from his pack and lights it. “Well, Danny, it’s been surreal. I’ll see you tonight.”
“Later,” Danny says, and watches her leave.
I gathered my shit and went down to my usual table by the pool. I sat there and drank and smoked until I figured I better pass out if I wanted to be sober for whatever the night had in store for me.
I dreamed of my wife, and of Jill.
They were sitting at a table in my favorite coffee shop, chatting and laughing. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be with them or not, so I made my way tentatively towards them. When I got close, they both looked up.
“Took you long enough,” my wife said.
I suddenly realized that I had a cup of coffee in each hand. I sat them down on the table, and they each took one. Jill brought out a flask and dumped in some bourbon. “I like mine…hard.” She flashed a wicked grin at me and then sipped her coffee.
“Who do you have to blow to get some cream around here?” My wife asked. I looked over and saw that she had taken her shirt off. Her nipples were dark and hard under her white bra.
“What are you doing?”
“Oh, quit being such a prude,” Jill said, and took off her own shirt. I was unsurprised to see that she wasn’t wearing a bra. I was quite surprised when she leaned across the table and began mugging down with my wife. No one else in the coffee shop cared what was going on, even as the two of them crawled onto the table and began rubbing all over each other.
They knocked over the coffee and it spilled all over my lap. I expected to be burned, but the liquid was only lukewarm. As it ran off the table, I realized that it wasn’t the dark brown of coffee, but the deep red of blood. I focused my attention back on the women and saw that they were completely naked now.
Jill’s black-lacquered fingernails were dug into my wife’s back, drawing blood—enough so that it was running onto the table, dripping down to the floor. I glanced around the room again and saw that the other customers had finally noticed us. Their attention wasn’t focused on the women, though.
“We have to get out of here,” I said. The customers were all zombies. I reached out to grab Jill’s arm, and she tried to bite me. I saw that her skin was pale and drained. My wife’s throat had been torn open, and even as she bled to death, she massaged Jill’s breasts. Jill reached down and fingered the wound in my wife’s neck as if it were a porn star’s pussy.
She pulled her fingers out and slowly began licking off the blood.
And then it changed. Not in a coffee shop, not in the city. On a beach, waves rolling up to the shore lazily, a warm breeze gently drying the sweat on my forehead. I was dressed in a business suit, and I had a briefcase in my hand.
I walked down the beach until I found the perfect spot, and then I sat down to take off my shoes. When I looked up, I saw Jill and my wife walking towards me. Both of them were wearing snowsuits. I looked around for a place to hide, panic rising within me, hoping that they hadn’t seen me. But too late. My wife yelled my name, called out that I should join them. I began walking towards them, and realized my dick was bouncing around more than it should be. I glanced down to discover I was completely naked.
The panic again, screaming at me to get away, and I desperately searched around for my clothes. Nothing but ocean and sand. My wallet was in my hand for some reason. I turned to run, but was tackled to the sand within three steps. I wasn’t sure who it was until the tongue slid across my ear lobe and a smoke-scented voice whispered, “Don’t run away, Danny Boy—things are just getting fun.”
I felt her nipples against my back, and a thin strip of pubic hair pressing into my left ass-cheek. Her hand, hot as it made its way down my side, in between my legs. Sand gritty on her soft palm as she massaged my cock.
“My wife,” I whined.
“Don’t worry about me,” my wife said, stepping around in front of us. She was nude, too. There was no open wound on her neck, but I could see a large mass of scar tissue. She sat down on the sand in front of my face and scooted forwards until her crotch was pressing against my face.
“Lick it,” Jill whispered, her breath cool in my ear, her tongue hot on my neck.
“Get off of me!”
“Lick it, Danny, and we can all get on with our lives.” The voice in my ear was no longer Jill’s, but my wife’s. And the vagina pressing against my mouth wasn’t the familiar area that I’d spent years learning to maneuver.
“Lick it,” Jill said, thrusting into my face.
As soon as I did, I felt the weight leave my back. I climbed onto my hands and knees, tried to crawl away, and Jill was instantly under me, pulling me down on top of her, pulling me down inside of her.
The waves were no longer gentle. They were roaring, crashing into the shore, assaulting it, punishing it. I rammed myself into her in sync with the waves, trying to match their fury.
Just before I climaxed, I looked up and saw gulls feasting on my wife’s entrails. Her body was gray and bloated, and covered with seaweed. One of the gulls was wearing her dolphin shirt.
And then I woke up.
The sun was still lighting up the sky, but from under the horizon. My heart was hammering in my chest. I reached for my bottle and found it empty.
“You all right?” Jill asked. She had just left the sauna, and was walking towards the house.
“Yeah. Just…nightmare, is all.”
She cut her eyes down at my crotch.” Must’ve been some nightmare.”
A hard-on. Of course.
“What can I say, man? I got issues.”
“Yeah, well, you decide to work any of ‘em out, let me know.” She flashed the grin, the same one from my dream, and my dick couldn’t decide whether to wither up or double in size. I returned to my room for a shower.
If he didn’t know better, he might just think it’s a house. Two-story, the white paint a little chipped, but not enough to make him nervous; a little fence around the entire property. The grass is overgrown, and the place is definitely deserted. But nothing to be afraid of. If he didn’t know better.
“Anyone recognize this place?” Danny asks, putting the SUV in park and killing the engine. He leaves the keys in the ignition—rules of the house—and opens the door. The moon’s brighter tonight, and the air doesn’t seem as dank.
“I don’t think this is me,” Jill says. “As much as I hate Suburbia, I don’t think it’s my worst fear. It looks kind of dirty, though. Maybe we have to clean it—which would make it Kelly’s worst fear.”
“Very funny,” Kelly says. “Whore.”
“When we get back, bitch, how about that? I’ll feed you your fuckin’ teeth.”
“Knock it off, you two,” Danny says. “Aaron? You know this place?”
Aaron takes a second too long to answer, and when he says “No,” there’s almost a question mark at the end. He might not know it, but he knows something like it. Tonight’s his night.
Danny doesn’t know whether to be relieved or saddened. “Dude, maybe you better sit this one out.”
“What?” Aaron has been staring at the house as if in a daze, but at Danny’s words, he snaps back to attention. “I don’t go in, I’m automatically booted.”
“I think you’re up tonight, man.”
“How do we know it’s not your night? Huh? Maybe you trick me into skipping out, we all go back, you don’t have to see your fear, and I’m the one kicked off. That your plan, Danny?”
Aaron’s voice is climbing in pitch and volume. Not quite hysterical, but not far from it, either. Danny steps around the SUV and takes him by the shoulders.
“Listen to me, Aaron. I don’t care if you go in there or not, okay? I mean, I’m not going to try to talk you out of it. But I saw what happened to Burt. I like you, man, and I don’t want that to happen to you. So I’m just saying, I think tonight’s your night. You wanna go in, we’ll go in. But try to prepare yourself, all right?”
They stare at each other for several seconds, until Kelly’s impatience breaks the silence. “Why don’t you two just make or something? Shit! I don’t have all night to watch you guys make eyes at each other.”
“I’m not backing out,” Aaron says quietly.
“Fine. At least stay close, then. Jill, you mind staying with us? This big bastard freezes up, I’m gonna need help getting him out.”
“I don’t need your help, Danny,” Aaron says.
“I hope not.”
“What about me?” Kelly asks.
“You’re on your own.”
“What? That’s not fair! Why?”
“Because fuck you, that’s why.” Danny starts walking up the hill towards the house.
“You know what? You’re not even the boss. I’ll come with you guys if I want!”
“All right, but if we run into any monsters, I’m feeding your fat ass to them.”
Kelly gasps. “I am not fat!”
“Move it, lardo,” Jill says, passing by.
“Screw you, skank.”
“Blow me, dick-warmer.”
“Seriously,” Danny says, “You two shut up. Whatever’s in here, it’s worse than last night. I’d hate it if my last experience in the land of the living was you catty bitches ragging on each other.”
Jill laughs. “You get me all wet when you act tough.”
“Me, too,” Aaron says, and the three of them laugh. Kelly pouts. The laughter lasts a little too long. They’re trying too hard, whistling through the graveyard.
“I’m not fat, you jerk.”
“Maybe not,” Danny says, “But you’ve got a big ass, and you’ve for sure put on some weight since you’ve been here. You don’t win this thing, you’re screwed. Nobody cares about the fat girl who lost, you know?”
He knows that’s what will cut her more than any other insult. He’s messing with her, being hateful because he’s terrified; his fear is morphing into anger, and he has to take his anger out on someone. Plus, Kelly’s a bitch.
They reach the front door and stop. “Well,” Jill says, “Here we are.”
“Here we are,” Aaron says. “Whatever happens in here, I just want ya’ll to know that it’s been real nice knowin’ you. I mean, I know we haven’t been friends, really, but I’m glad I got to meet you all.”
“Don’t talk like that,” Danny says. “You’ll be coming out, man, there’s no need to be so dramatic.”
“It was nice meeting you, too,” Kelly says.
“Oh. I wasn’t actually talking to you, Kelly.”
The three of them laugh again while Kelly scowls.
“Ya’ll ready?” Aaron asks. He doesn’t wait for an answer.
Danny isn’t sure what he expected, but whatever it was, he’s pretty sure it’s not what he finds: a perfectly safe-looking entryway, decorated tastefully and warmly, the air smelling just a little like fresh-baked cookies.
The group moves as a single entity, everyone waiting for the worst. Despite his earlier belief that this is Aaron’s night, Danny is afraid. The image of his wife popping out of another man’s lap pops into his head. “Been wrong before,” he mutters.
“What?” Jill asks.
“Nothin’.” He looks around. “Where the hell is Aaron?”
“He’s right h- What the hell?”
Aaron’s gone. They’ve been walking shoulder to shoulder, and somehow, Aaron has managed to wander off.
“Down there,” Jill says, pointing down a perpendicular corridor that can’t physically exist in a house this size.
Danny breaks into a run, hoping that he can make it in time. He really does like Aaron, and wants to save him from whatever is luring him away. “Aaron! Aaron, get back here.”
Aaron walks as if he’s in a dream. Not stumbling, but dazed; hypnotized. The hallway is impossibly long, and seems to be growing with every step Danny takes. But he starts closing the distance, and it looks like he’s going to make it. He tastes blood from the back of his throat as he screams for Aaron to come back, and it looks as if his shouting is finally paying off: Aaron stops walking away, turns to the left.
And opens a door that Danny hadn’t even seen.
“Don’t go through that doorway! Aaron! Stop!”
The door slams shut, Aaron gone, and although Danny knows it’s over, he continues to run.
The first time he kicks the door, it feels like his kneecap has traveled up through his leg to punch him in the nuts. He braces himself and kicks again. No good. He uses the wall as a brace and launches his entire body against the door. He feels a pop in his shoulder, and his entire body is filled with pain.
His arm swings useless by his side as he falls to his knees.
“Holy fuck!” Jill cries as she approaches. “Look at your arm.”
Danny slams into the door again, this time using his other shoulder. Pains fills him, takes over. The dislocated shoulder is pain that he has never known, nerves pinched and twisted and angry. He feels warmth against his thigh and on some level, realizes that he has squirted piss. The civilized part of his brain hopes that it was just a little piss. The animal part just wants to break the fucking door down.
He hits it again and the pain is too much. The blackness at the edge of his vision takes over.
When he comes to, Jill is cradling his head in her lap, wiping his brow with a piece of fabric. The sleeve of her shirt is missing, and although the logical assumption would be that she tore it off to mop his brow, he doesn’t command that kind of mental power at the moment.
“Still through the door, man,” Jill says. “We tried to get it open, but it’s solid. Looks like you broke both your arms trying to break it down.”
“Maybe dislocated, I don’t know. Whatever it is, you fucked yourself up good.”
“We gotta save him.”
“There’s no saving him, Danny. I’m sorry. Whatever is going on here, it’s just for him. We’ve been sitting here for a good forty minutes, and nothing has come of it.”
“We have to get that door open.” He sits up. One arm is completely unresponsive and the other is consumed by pain. “I need help up.”
The pain as she shifts makes him cry out. Every nerve ending in his body feels exposed, and feels connected to his arms.
“We’ve got to get you out to the SUV, Danny.”
“We can’t leave him.”
“We can’t do anything to help him. Don’t you get that? I mean, if that door opens and something comes for us, what are you going to do? Pass out at it?”
“Just help me get to my feet.” She pulls him up, and for just a second his vision is clouded by black spots. He leans against the wall, waiting for the pain to subside. It doesn’t. “Hurts,” he says.
“You think? Maybe you’ll go into shock pretty soon and then it won’t hurt as much.”
“I’m not joking, Danny. I’m no doctor, but slamming yourself into stuff until you break your arms, it’s probably not all that good for your body. We need to get you outta here, to a doctor or something.”
“I can’t leave him.”
“Okay,” Jill says. “I can see you’re set on this.” She turns to walk away and then spins around and grabs both of his arms. She slams him into the wall as hard as she can. His scream of agony is cut short as his nervous system short-circuits and renders him unconscious.
I woke up looking at the stars. I wasn’t sure where I was, and I wasn’t sure why I couldn’t move. Then I remembered. I heard muffled conversation, and turned my head to see where it was coming from. There was only darkness to either side of me. I wasn’t sure, but it felt like I was strapped down—I couldn’t move my arms or legs, but it seemed like I could feel them. Better to think that I was strapped down instead of paralyzed.
I called out, and the muffled voices became louder. “We know you’re awake. Hold tight for just a few more minutes, okay? We’re almost finished.”
“Finished with what?” I asked.
“Just don’t panic.”
More time to think, more time to wonder. Exactly what I didn’t want. Stuck in the dark. Not stars above me—tiny lights. I was being healed, apparently. I had seen it done before, a strange combination of medical science and magic. Hospital environment, everyone dressed in white smocks, and the equipment shiny stainless steel. From what I understood, most of it was for looks—you could get healed just as well in a beat-to-shit shed with candles. But in this day and age, you pay for the atmosphere, right?
More time to think, more time to wonder. What happened to Aaron? What happened to me? How did I get here? I tried to piece it together. Obviously, Jill knew that the pain would freak my body out. Knew or hoped; either way, it worked. Did she carry me out? Tough chick, she could probably manage it.
But why? Because she didn’t want to wait around for Aaron to come back through the door? Did they need me out to the SUV before they could leave? That didn’t seem right. They had had no problem leaving the graveyard.
So why did she stay with me while I was unconscious? And why did she go to the trouble of dragging me out of the house?
Too many questions, too much time to think. I wondered how much whiskey I had consumed since my wife had left me.
I wished I had some right then.
My wife—cheating whore. Over me already, I bet, and if not, it didn’t matter. I had signed up for this shit, and win or lose, I couldn’t take her back. Lose, and I’m dead or brain-fried so bad that all I can do is spend the rest of my life shitting myself and screaming at my toes. Win, and I’d never know if she came back because she loved me or because I was suddenly rich and famous.
Would I take her back? I hoped not. Was she still with the same guy, or had she already moved on? Was it love, or just an excuse to leave me? I didn’t know which would be worse. I wished the pain in my arms would come back so that I wouldn’t have to think about the pain in my heart.
Jill was right—this was stupid. Had I signed up just to make sure that I couldn’t take back my wife? Why would I even think she would come back? I was the biggest idiot on the show. A broken heart? Had that seriously been enough to make me risk my life? Was it enough still?
“Get me the fuck out of here!” I yelled.
“Shortly,” the voice said. There was more threat than comfort in the voice, and I remembered I was not dealing with doctors—I was dealing with wizards. Scary bastards.
What had happened to Aaron? Did he make it out? Did Nerevek go in for him? We weren’t allowed to watch the show until the end of the run, after everyone else had already seen it. It was broadcast daily. Not quite in real-time, but not far behind it. I don’t know who they had editing the shit, but they did a spectacular job—I had seen reruns of the previous shows while trying to fall asleep at night.
I wondered if I would watch the show. At the end of the run, we each got a free DVD box set. I was curious to see what the others had said. I was curious to see what I had said. Most of the time, I was black-out drunk when I stumbled into the booth and talked for my mandatory minutes.
I wished for whiskey.
It occurred to me that I might already be kicked off. What if Aaron came out from wherever he had been, unscathed, and ready for more? Meanwhile, I was passed out in the hall. The idea that I might be finished on the show didn’t bother me or make me feel better. I didn’t really believe it. Despite what I had told Jill, I didn’t think any of us were going to make it out.
I thought about the time I had spent with Burdoch. We had been talking about the show, about why Underside audiences lapped it up.
“You’re all a bunch of coddled little bitches, that’s what you need to understand. The lives you bitch and moan about, that’s paradise compared to what we have to go through. And the dippy little bastards that come down here to be on the show, they all want more, more, more. Fuckin’ spineless slugs. They all get so ate up with greed that they overlook what they have to lose. And the guys that watch that shit—the wizards, the warlocks, those douchebag gnomes, everybody—that’s the part they love the best, is watching you poor suckers give up what you already have for something you could never hope to attain.”
“What about the winners?”
“Listen to me, you numb shit—there ain’t no winners. These shows, they offer so much because they know that nobody can win. What’d you sign up for? The face your fear thing? Sweet fuck, Danny, you think you can face your worst fear and come out ahead? I could show you twenty things right now that would scare you so bad you’d go into a coma, and that’s without leavin’ this apartment. And I guaran-fuckin’-tee ya that none of ‘em are your worst. Someone shows you your worst fear, you’re done. Game fuckin’ over, man.”
“All the shows are like this?”
“Yep. I don’t have much time to dedicate to watchin’ TV, what with all the horrible things I have to do to people and things all the time, but I’ve seen some of the shit they have. There’s one, the whole thing is to make you fall in love and then they take it away from you. You lose the love of your life, you have to spend six weeks in a house, all by yourself, nothing but sharp objects and guns around. Pills in the medicine cabinet, rope in the garage that’s the perfect length for hangin’ yourself. The PA system pipes in nothin’ but songs that make you remember. You get through that, they promise you that you’ll be reunited with the love of your life.”
“Nobody ever wins that one, either?” I asked
“Hell, no. That one only lasts half a season. That love hoax is the most damaging of anything.”
“I wonder if that’s what I’m really here for? I mean, my wife left me.”
“You’re wife’s a worn-out cum-dumpster, Danny—that’s not the kind of specimen the wizards would use for this kind of gig.”
“I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t say those kinds of things about her.”
He had looked at me, his killer’s eyes hard and amused. “And I’d appreciate it is you’d quite bein’ a sobby little pussy and figure out where you put your balls, but it don’t seem like that’s gonna happen anytime soon.”
And then the stars brighten, and the night explodes into a world of bright white.
I squeezed my eyes closed, cursing.
“Your eyes will adjust shortly,” the wizard said. “How are you feeling??”
“Aside from the being blinded?”
“Aside from being temporarily blinded.”
“Aside from that,” I said, “I’m fine, I guess.”
“Good. Open your eyes.”
I opened my eyes. I didn’t recognize him. A wizard, for sure, dressed like a doctor, but without any sort of bedside manner. The room was pretty much how I had imagined it—stainless steel everything overexposed by fluorescent lighting.
“Nerevek said to meet him in the dining hall in two hours.” He turned and started walking away.
“Hey! I’m still all strapped down here!”
Another blinding flash of light. I squeezed my eyes shut against the glare and rubbed my eyes. I realized I was rubbing my eyes and sat up. I was in my bed.
I sat up, expecting some sort of pain to make itself known, but I felt fine. Better than fine, actually. I showered and dressed and then went to meet Nerevek.
They’re all there when he shows up: Kelly, Jill, Aaron, and—on the other side of the table—Nerevek. The dining hall doesn’t instill the degree of somber silence like the little building out back does, but there’s still a feeling of ceremony; of seriousness.
He seats himself at the only available chair, and checks his watch to make sure he isn’t late. Still ten minutes before the deadline.
“Glad you could join us,” Nerevek says.
“Me, too.” As much as he tries not to, his eyes dart down the table towards Jill. She’s devoutly staring at a spot just over Nerevek’s shoulder.
“It seems you’ve started quite a trend with your no-man-left-behind attitude.”
“Oh?” If they were in the shack, he would be automatically kicked off for this small bit of response. He briefly wonders if the same rules apply, and decides he doesn’t care. Burdoch was right—this whole contest is bullshit. There’s no way he’s going to be able to face his fear and be around to tell the tale. Even the people who dropped in the beginning were tweaked out, and they were the ones who had fears like not getting into their university of choice. Whatever his fear is, it’s worse than zombies, and that makes it worse than anything he ever wants to deal with.
He lifts the cigarette pack out of his shirt pocket and drops it on the table. There is silence as he opens the lid, removes a cigarette, and lights it. He glances down and sees that Jill is watching him lustily. So they must have been waiting on him for quite some time. He takes a deep drag, expels. Slides the pack down past Kelly to Jill.
“I don’t think you’re supposed to smoke in the dining hall,” Kelly says.
Danny takes another drag, ignoring her. Nerevek smiles. “She’s right, Danny. No smoking in here.”
“So I’m out?” Danny asks, taking another drag.
“No. Just put it out so that we can get on with our business.”
Danny looks at the cigarette. He remembers an old trick he saw back in his high school days. The key is to have enough saliva that it puts out the cherry. You do it right, you look kind of like a badass—at least in juvenile terms. You do it wrong, you end up with burn blisters on your tongue that will make eating for the next three weeks a living hell.
He casually tosses the cigarette into his mouth, chews it up, and swallows it. It tastes like shit, and burns the roof of his mouth just a little, but it looks cool, and if he’s getting kicked off, he might as well go out with a semi-memorable gesture.
“Well then, let’s get on with business.” He smiles, just a little smile, though, in case he has tobacco or paper stuck to his teeth. A closed-mouth, somewhat-knowing smile. It’ll look good, and he thinks Nerevek will appreciate it.
“As I was saying, it seems you’ve started a trend. First, it was Burt. Then, you stuck by Aaron. And, in turn, Jill stuck by you. And Kelly, too.”
“No shit?” He’s pretty amazed, until he looks over at her. She was going for the humble, of-course-I-waited look, but there’s a hint of guilt under it. “Ah—you can’t drive?”
“I can drive!”
“It was the steering wheel, then, wasn’t it? You couldn’t figure out how to get it unlocked?” When climbing out, he had pulled the steering wheel out of habit, locking it. You have to jiggle the steering wheel just a bit, otherwise the key won’t turn.
“You know, fuck you!”
“Let’s everyone calm down,” Nerevek says. “The point is, you’re all here, and you’re all here because everyone helped each other.”
“I’m missing out on the last bit of the story,” Danny says. “If we need to move on, I understand, but if you have a second, I’d love to hear about why I’m not dead somewhere.”
“Jill stayed with you,” Aaron says. Danny looks down at him, and can barely believe it’s the same man. Built the same, the same color, the same voice, but there’s something missing. Something gone or dead. “She drug you out of the house, and she stayed there.”
“I was hoping you’d wake up or that Aaron would come out or that Nerevek would show up,” Jill interjects. She glares at Kelly, and the story tells itself: Kelly pissing and moaning to go, Jill dead set to wait until Nerevek showed up to end it, or until Aaron came out, or until Danny woke up and agreed to leave. “I wouldn’t have pulled you outside, but I figured maybe the SUV was safe, you know? Like at the cemetery.”
“We’re doing something that we’ve never done on this show,” Nerevek says. “It isn’t an ordinary vote about who has to leave. Aaron gets points because when he finally staggered out, he refused to leave until you were safely loaded up and carried to safety. Points, of course, being a very relative term.”
“Of course,” Danny says.
“The four of you have options. You can vote someone off like normal, that’s one option. Or you can vote not to vote anyone off—which would mean that from now on, Danny, Kelly and Jill would have to face their fear while Aaron had already lived through his. This will result in a special overtime game if there is a tie at the end. The third, and final option is this: Aaron has agreed to go if he can leave and forget everything about his time here. In this matter, his vote will not be counted. If you have any questions, feel free to ask. If you care to discuss the matter amongst yourselves, you are also free to do so.”
“I think we should vote Aaron off,” Kelly says, as soon as Nerevek stops talking. “I mean, I don’t have a problem with black people or anything, it’s not like that, but we had to wait on you for, like, forever.”
“If he’s leaving,” Danny says, “Then why shouldn’t we send him along without the memory of living through his worst fear?”
“You’d vote him off?” Jill asks Danny.
“Oh, uh-uh!” Kelly cries. “If I have to go through my worst fear to win this, why should he get off the hook?”
“I’d vote him off if that’s what he wants,” Danny says, ignoring Kelly. He looks at Aaron. “How bad was it, man?”
For several seconds, there is silence. Kelly is still babbling on, spewing her selfish, self-righteous bullshit, but in Danny’s mind, she doesn’t count, so there is silence.
Aaron looks up, slowly. “Like they promise, Danny—it was the worst.”
“You want to go?”
A single nod.
“It’s all down hill from here, man—you’re done with your fear. Let the rest of us crash and burn, you’re the winner of everything you ever wanted.”
“Are you even listening to me?” Kelly screeches.
“No, but if you don’t quit shrieking in my ear, I’m going to kick your fucking teeth out.”
“Did you hear that? He threatened me!”
“I didn’t hear anything except you being a whiny twat,” Jill says. She looks at Aaron. “You seriously want to go?”
“I’m for letting him leave without the memories,” Danny says.
“Me, too,” Jill says.
“Not me,” Kelly says.
“You really are the biggest bitch I’ve ever met,” Jill spits.
“And you’re the biggest whore I’ve ever met! How many guys have you fucked since you got here? I’m surprised you’re letting Aaron walk out of here before you’ve had a go! Or maybe you did have a go, which is why he wants to forget!”
“Enough,” Nerevek says. “Both of you. Aaron, you’re free to go. Gather your things, there will be a car waiting.”
Aaron stands without a word, and leaves the dining hall.
Nerevek waits until Aaron is gone, and then looks at the three of them, moving his gaze over each one in turn. Then, he stands up. “You are all free to go—our next outing will be tomorrow night.” A curt nod, and then he’s walking away, through a door Danny hadn’t noticed before.
Danny stands quickly, hoping to get away before Kelly and Jill resume their bickering.
“What’s wrong with you?” Kelly shouts to him as he leaves the hall.
He suddenly doesn’t want to be here. Sweat is pouring down his face, and his stomach is in knots. A feeling of unease has settled in, just below his skin, filling him. Everything seems ominous, sudden, dangerous.
He ducks behind a hedge and drops to his knees, trying to control his breathing. He feels like he might vomit at any moment. His hands are shaking. “What’s happening to me?” he whispers.
Jill steps around the end of the hedge. “I’d say withdrawals or a panic attack. Could be the DTs, but I doubt it. Just coming from the clinic like you did, I doubt you have to worry about stuff like that.”
“Leave me alone.”
“So, yeah, panic attack. You’re unravelin’ Danny Boy.”
“Seriously, bitch—piss off.”
“The name calling just makes me hot, Danny, you know that.”
“I’m not kidding, Jill. Please. Leave.”
Instead, she kneels beside him. She takes him in her arms and hugs him to her body. “Just calm down, big guy. It’s going to be okay.”
He realizes that it isn’t just his hands shaking—his teeth are shaking; his entire body is trembling. “Holy shit. I’m losin’ it.”
“Nothin’ that can’t be found. Just take it easy.”
“I’m next, Jill. I’m next.”
“You don’t know that.”
“We’re all gonna get our chance to be next.”
He feels like he’s drowning. His heart makes his skin throb with each beat. “I’m not gonna make it.”
“Yeah you are. Just take it easy.”
He shuts his eyes and presses his face against her, trying to block out the world. She strokes his hair and whispers, “sssh” and tells him that it will be okay, he just needs to calm down.
And eventually, he calms down.
“Wow,” he says, once he has control of himself. “That’s great—couldn’t at least make it back to my room to lose my shit.”
“Meh. We’ve all broken down. You’re tough to wait this long to do it.”
“You know what? I’m not tough. None of us are. I was talking to this guy before I came, the bodyguard they hired.”
“You talked to your bodyguard?”
“Yeah. Didn’t you?”
“Nope. Mine scared me so bad that I probably would have just pissed myself if I tried to engage in conversation.”
Danny laughs. “That’s the thing, though—we’re so soft. I mean, they bring us down here, let us squabble like children. We’re entertainment because they can’t stand us. They want us to fail, they want us to hurt and fear and die. And I don’t really blame them.”
“You’re kind of morose when you aren’t drunk out of your mind.”
“Yeah, we should go get drunk out of our minds.”
She hands him his pack of cigarettes and pulls him to his feet. “That’s my Danny Boy.”
In the beginning, people spoke. They were nervous, they were excited. This was an adventure. You’d load up into the SUV, there’d be all kinds of chatter, people making jokes, people laughing. We didn’t know what the hell we were getting into, you know? “Face your worst fear.” What the hell? Nobody believes in their worst fear.
“What’s your worst fear?” Someone asks you that, you barely even know what to say. Maybe you’re scared of clowns, maybe you’re scared of heights. Maybe you’re scared of words with more than five syllables—the first contestant to get voted off, that was his.
Things are scary, for sure, but your worst fear? Most people can’t even fathom that. And that’s how it was, at first.
We’d load up, we’d take off, and then when the goofy bastard who couldn’t handle hearing words like “pseudoprocreation” flips out, we all laughed about it on the way home. This is going to be a breeze, we said. And if we were smart enough not to say it, that didn’t mean we were smart enough not to think it.
They were brand new, the SUVs. You’d crawl in, and it smelled like new car—that smell of excitement and luxury and of good things to come.
But things quickly changed. The laughter was the first thing to go. Loading up into the SUVs wasn’t nearly as fun. There was anticipation, but it was no longer good-natured. The adventures we were going on, they weren’t the kind you look forward to. There were still conversations—mumbled fragments of communication passed back and forth to pass the time and to keep the mind occupied—but they weren’t light-hearted and joyous. They were whistled songs as we passed by the graveyard…or while we drove to it.
The new car smell faded. More accurately, it was overridden. It came on slowly, the new smell. Not what you’d call overpowering, by any means. In fact, it was so subtle that it seemed more like your imagination than anything. You tell yourself that you have to quit drinking so much, or watching so much TV. You tell yourself you’re letting the freaks get to you.
And then one day, you get in, and you realize it’s not in your head at all—it’s in the car. It’s in every fabric, every molecule.
And the only thing worse than smelling it coming from the headrest, from the seat cushion, from the volume knob on the stereo; the only thing worse than smelling it from the ceiling and the floor and the air conditioner vents; the only thing worse than smelling it coming from all around you, is smelling it coming from you.
“I don’t see why I have to ride in the back,” Kelly whines.
“If I let you ride up front, do you promise not to say a word until we get there?” Danny asks from the passenger seat.
“I’m not making that promise, that’s stupid.”
“Fine.” He turns up the stereo, drowning out further complaint with music. It’s Jill’s music—she’s driving so she gets to pick the tunes—and he has no idea what it is. Some sort of chick punk thing that he doesn’t really dig on, until it gets to the part where they moan the chorus in sexy voices. Not really his kind of music, but he figures it’s as good as anything to keep from hearing Kelly.
He looks out the window and wonders about what is his kind of music. He used to buy albums, a long time ago, back before he met his wife. Cassettes, actually. What did he listen to back then? He chuckles softly. White Snake? Really? Or was it White Shark? Def Leppard? All kinds of animals. Is that the kind of music he liked? No. He bought it, sure, like bubble gum for the ear, back in the day—chew it up, spit it out; no nourishment, not meant to be of any substance. So what did he like?
When he was married, it was whatever his wife listened to—not because they shared the same tastes, but because she was always buying music, and it didn’t really matter to him. She’s break out a bottle of wine, some candles, and her new CDs, and they’d sit on the living room floor, listening to music and discussing whatever it was that seemed important back then.
But what does he like?
Blues. Muddy Waters. Asie Payton. Robert Johnson.
He spins the volume knob down so quickly that the sudden silence almost seems rude, like a librarian peeking in while you’re trying to take a shit.
“You got any Robert Johnson?”
Jill nods towards the mp3 player sitting on the console, connected to the car stereo. “Go to ‘playlists,’ and then ‘Suicide Faves.’”
“You don’t want ‘em finding you dead with MC Hammer blasting from your earphones.”
“You listen to MC Hammer?”
“Only when I beat off.”
“You’re a screwed up little chick.”
“When I was in college, it was Kriss Kross.”
“Kriss Kross? They were popular like, ten years before you were in college.”
“Yep,” she says, and turns up the volume. The SUV is suddenly flooded with the voice of a long-dead bluesman singing about the sun going down, about standing at the crossroads.
It’s followed by Muddy Waters telling them that everything gonna be all right this mornin’.
“But now I’m a man!” Danny sings along. “Yeah!” Jill screams along with the backup ladies. And for a song-length, the fear is forgotten.
Kelly sulks in the back seat.
Jim Morrison is just beginning to tell them about strangers being strange when they reach their destination.
“Well,” Jill says, “It was good while it lasted.”
“Speak for yourself,” Kelly says from the backseat.
“Eat donkey shit, foot scum,” Jill says pleasantly, and hops out of the vehicle.
Danny laughs as he opens his door. The laughter dries in his throat as he sees their surroundings.
Being in the SUV is generally deceptive—all of the scenery looks the same until the occupant steps out. That’s when everything changes. That’s when the truth shows itself.
It isn’t as bad as he’d expected. He isn’t frozen by fear, he isn’t pissing himself or crying. Of course, neither was Aaron, at first. Neither was Burt.
It doesn’t make sense, not logically. It’s an old-west town, tucked away in the mountains. The mountains are green and vivid, but the town itself—the buildings, the ground, even the air has a grey color. Monochrome and moody, dark and empty.
It’s a single dirt road, wooden buildings lining each side. Not typical old-west buildings, though. Suburban houses, with identical porches, identical lawns, identical driveways. Insane hybrid of Suburbia and the O.K. Coral.
A tumbleweed blows past, its washed-out edges like fangs in contrast against the deep black of the SUV.
“Well…this is fucked,” Jill says.
“It’s me,” Danny tells her. “I think it’s me.”
“You’re scared of the old west taking over the suburbs?”
“No, but…whatever’s here, it’s here for me.”
“Cowboys?” Kelly asks. “Are you scared of cowboys?”
“I’m not scared of cowboys.”
“Indians? Like cowboys and Indians? Are you scared of Indians?”
“Shut up, Kelly.”
He starts walking down the road, right down the middle, unsure of where he’s going, but sure he’ll know when he gets there. A strange mixture of serenity and terror fills him. It’s his turn; it’s all over. Knowing that the jig is up gives him a calmness. On the other hand, he is moments away from facing his worst fear, and that thought makes his heart thunder and his legs weaken. It takes all of his courage to continue away from the SUV.
“So what is it?” Jill asks. “I mean, a little heads-up would be nice. Vampires?”
“I don’t know what it is. Not vampires.”
“I don’t know how you should take this, Danny Boy, but a freakazoid like you, your fear has me more worried than any so far.”
“Me, too.” His voice is shaky. So much for looking cool in front of the cameras. Of course, he already blew his cool image behind the hedges.
“I wish you were afraid of fluorescent pink turtles.”
She laughs. “Well, you know—it’d look cool, plus I wouldn’t have to worry about pissing myself. I’m serious, dude—whatever scares you, I don’t want to see it.”
“Did you ever find out what got Aaron so bad?”
“He was molested as a kid—screwed him up real bad. He had forgotten. When he went in that room, he was a kid again, all by himself, having to deal with that shit.”
“Yep. Is it gonna be something like that with you, you think?”
He takes a cigarette out of his pack and offers her one. “I don’t know—I don’t think so. If that’s what it turns out to be, I’ll be pretty damn surprised. What about you?”
“I’m pretty sure mine will have something to do with my little sister. I was eight when she died. My mom was out fucking, left me in charge. My sister was barely a year old. She started choking, I didn’t know what the hell to do. Living the kind of life I do, I’ve ended up with lots of nightmares. But I have that one, where I’m going through that all over again, watching my sister die and not being able to do anything about it, it’s all over—I know better than to even try to go back to sleep.”
“Yeah. Either that, or it’ll come out of left field. Like, it’ll be a giant plastic dinosaur with a cock shaped like petunia, chasing me around with a cookbook and a telescope.”
“What?” The laugh that accompanies the question echoes down the empty street.
“I’m just sayin’—something weird.”
“You guys know what I think mine will be?” Kelly asks, tired of being left out of the conversation.
“What’s that?” Danny asks before Jill can say something rude.
“Well, like, I grew up on this farm, right? And I never thought I’d be able to get away, and like, have a real life. But I did. I mean, you have no idea how important I am back in the real world. And-”
“There it is,” Danny says. “That’s where I have to go.” It looks like every other house on the street—one-story brick house with a small lawn and a sedan parked in the driveway.
“Why that one?” Jill asks.
“Because that’s the one that’s scaring me.”
“Okay. Just remember—stick together.”
“Okay,” Danny says, but he already knows that won’t be an option. He takes two steps and glances back. Jill and Kelly are already ten feet behind him, still back at the curb while he’s almost to the front door. They’re moving in slow motion, and he knows that no matter how long he waits, they’ll never catch up.
“Fuck it,” he says, and stomps out his cigarette. He enters the house.
It doesn’t smell like piss, exactly, and it doesn’t smell like mildew. It smells like old and used up. It smells like slight neglect, and sadness. The place seems familiar in a foreign way, like seeing a The Simpsons on a Spanish network. He still has no idea what awaits him. But he knows where it awaits him. There’s a dull light coming from the light at the end of the hallway. It’s a bedroom.
He walks towards the light, fear building up inside. By the time he reaches the door, he doesn’t even have the strength to push it open. The feeling of suffocation is back, even more intense, and he wonders if he’s going to drop dead right in the hallway.
And then he’s pushing the door open.
The light isn’t coming from within the room, but rather from a window on the other side of it. In front of the dim light sits a figure. Danny can’t see any specific features, only the silhouette. There’s a wet breathing sound coming from the figure, and that’s the only noise. The breathing is uneven and the irregularity of it is almost enough to make Danny scream.
He takes one step into the room, towards the figure. He waits. Nothing happens; the wet, uneven breathing continues. He takes another step. Still nothing happens.
The door slams behind him, and he spins around, too afraid to scream. Nothing there. He suddenly realizes that it was a diversion, and he spins around to confront whatever kind of creature has launched itself from the chair at him. He staggers as he turns, and stumbles back against the door.
The figure is still in the chair. The breathing continues, but Danny can barely hear it over his own heavy breathing and the sound of his frantic heartbeat.
He leans against the door, trying to calm himself. He tries the knob and is surprised to find it unlocked. He thinks about running; he thinks about how easy it would be to go right back out the front door, gather up Jill and Kelly, and head back to the mansion, a failure, but at least a sane failure.
But then he thinks about what kind of a life that would be, knowing that he was too afraid. Too afraid to confront whatever fear lurked within him. Even worse, the fear that whatever it was still might await. The only way to know for sure was to face it.
He steps forward. Another step. Another step. The thing in the chair shifts, and Danny almost breaks for the door. What the hell, right? Who ever has to face their worst fear? Almost nobody, he thinks. Would it be so bad being a failure and coward for the rest of his life? Hell, he’s probably a failure and a coward, anyway—if he runs, at least he won’t be a traumatized cowardly failure.
But something keeps him there. Morbid curiosity or reckless abandon, or maybe even strength—he isn’t sure. He takes another step and draws even with the thing in the chair. It’s a wheelchair, he sees.
The figure turns to face him, and Danny screams.
It seemed to take forever. I mean, I understand caution, and I understand fear, but holy shit. And then he finally made it, and I turned to face him, and he screamed like a little bitch. I screamed like a little bitch, I guess you could say, but that gets a little confusing.
“Somebody’s jumpy,” I said, when he had finished screaming.
“Who…who are you?”
“What a way to handle introductions. Imagine if that’s how you handled it every time you met someone—you shriek like a little girl for ten seconds and then ask who they are. Probably make life much more interesting.”
“I know that,” I said. “In fact, I probably know that better than you do.”
He backed up until he bumped into the wall, and barked out another high-pitch shriek. At least he had the frame of mind to look embarrassed about it.
“So…my biggest fear is…myself?” He asked.
“No, of course not. That’d fuck a guy up for life. Being afraid of yourself. No, Young Me, your biggest fear is not yourself. You can keep trying to guess, but I’m pretty sure you won’t get it.”
“What is it, then? What is my biggest fear?”
“You know gummy bears?”
“You know the ones that come with that sour stuff on them?”
“That? Gummy bears are my biggest fear?”
“Sour gummy bears.”
“Are you serious?”
“No. My you’re a gullible little thing. No, I’m just messing with you. Sour gummy bears are not your worst fear.”
“You’re insane,” he says.
“We’re insane.” I hate to admit it, but I was having a lot of fun with this. I mean, how often do you get to flat-out fuck with yourself? Pretty much never. I mean, maybe sometimes you’ll find the sugar in the refrigerator, or the milk in the dishwasher, but that’s more an issue of absentmindedness. You don’t get any enjoyment out of it, because when you’re sticking the sugar in the refrigerator, you don’t realize it, so you don’t get any of the pleasure of screwing with yourself.
“What’s going on here?” Young Me asked.
“Honestly,” I said, “I don’t know.”
“What do you mean, you don’t know?”
“I mean, I remember, right? I remember being on the show. I remember finding the card, I remember going through the whole thing, while everyone else got eliminated. Hell, I even remember the dream we had by the pool, when we woke up sporting a glass-cutting hard-on. I remember all of that. And then I was here. I remember making breakfast this morning, or maybe it was yesterday. I…don’t know. I know I’m supposed to wait here for you. When the door opened, I knew it was you and not some robber.”
“Just call me ‘you’—it’s easier.”
“You have Alzheimer’s”
“That and more,” I tell him, and it sucks, because I didn’t remember that I had Alzheimer’s Disease until he mentioned it. It fell into place, then. The loss of time, the confusion about waking up in strange place at strange times. I tried to remember if I had a pet dog. I hoped not, because if I did, I hadn’t been taking care of him. I had a sudden image of a dog chained in the backyard, starving slowly to death. Emotion overpowered me, and I sobbed. “Shit.”
“Can you…I know this is weird, but can you check to make sure I don’t…make sure there aren’t any dead pets around? Check the back yard.”
He looked worried, and I didn’t blame him a bit. This whole situation was weird, and as unsettled as I was, it was probably even worse for him, knowing that he was going to encounter his worst fear somewhere along the line.
“Go check for dead pets?”
“I don’t know if I have any. If I do, I probably haven’t been taking care of them. I’d like to know for sure.”
“You’re not screwing with me?”
“No. As far as I know, I’m done screwing with you.”
He started for the door.
“Danny?” I said.
“Be careful. I don’t mean to scare you, but I honestly don’t know what I’m doing here. I’m not playing a trick on you, but I might be unwittingly setting a trap for you.”
“Well, at least I live, right? I mean, you’re here, so I at least grow old.”
“I wouldn’t count on it.”
“Are you serious?”
“I could just be something summoned to life by the wizards. I don’t feel like I am, but be careful, all the same. I’d rest easier if I could remember the last forty or so years of my life.”
He left the room and I waited. It was a strange wait, wandering if I had sent myself to my death. I looked out the window. Jill and Kelly were still there, still at the curb. I wondered if they had seen Young Me move towards the house, perhaps in super-fast motion. Or perhaps they were frozen in time, and would only reanimate once the bad business was done. Would they wonder where Young Me had vanished to?
He finally returned.
“No pets,” he said.
“That’s good to know.”
“Speaking of things to know—what’s up with my biggest fear? I mean it sucks to grow old, but everyone has to do it. And it sucks about the Alzheimer’s, but it doesn’t seem like that’s my worst fear.”
“No,” I said, and the realization hit me all at once. “No, your biggest fear is dying alone.”
“Yeah,” I said. Sadness and fear filled me. It seemed to start from the middle of my chest and radiate out, a dark dread that would soon consume me. It was a fear like none I had ever felt. The only thing that even came close to comparing was when I had entered the house—this house—as Young Me. But this time, the fear was not unknown. It was very known, and it was very real.
“No offense, but that seems kind of lame. I mean, I’m sure it sucks to die alone, but how is coming here going to make me afraid of that?”
“Funny you should ask,” I said, and another wave of emotion hit. The tears burned hot on my cheeks, and I was ashamed of my weakness and my fear. An old man. Nothing more than an old man, and soon, I wouldn’t even be that. “When you leave this house, that’s it for me. Game over.”
“Cease to be, actually. This room, this house—gone. And me along with it. I know what you’re thinking, Young Me. You’re thinking that although that sucks for the old guy, it doesn’t quite relate to you. You think you’ll leave, this place will vanish, and if dying alone is your worst fear, you’ll deal with it when you’re the one sitting in the wheelchair.”
He looked guilty—of course that’s what he had been thinking.
“But that’s where the bad news gets worse,” I told him. And then, almost as if it were an apparition, the fear transferred to him. No, not transferred—that implies that it left me. We were suddenly both under the same dark cloud of miserable terror. When he left, he would feel as I would feel—the incredible loss, and the tremendous fear. And he would know that he had left me—and himself—to deal with that fear, and to die alone.
“Shit,” Young Me muttered. He took out a cigarette and handed me one. The flame of the lighter looked vividly alive in this room of death. I inhaled the smoke and savored the sharp taste of tobacco. I couldn’t remember if the smoking thing ever caught on—had I ever been a real smoker, or had the phase passed once I left the mansion?—or if I had been one of the many who had become addicted and had to battle the addiction; either way, it tasted wonderful.
“So I suppose I did, in fact, lead you into a trap,” I said
“Yeah, back when we picked that fucking ticket up out of the gutter.” He stood staring out the window at the unchanging scenery. “Okay, here’s what, then—I stay.”
“It’s obvious that time isn’t moving forward outside. You have a shit-ton of food in your kitchen and in your basement. And—again, no offense—you don’t really seem to have much time left. So I stay here. I mean, I guess we’ll technically still die alone, but I’ll be here for you. Better than nothing, right? I’ll be here for you, and once you go, I’ll head back out, gather up Jill and Kelly, mission accomplished.”
And it seemed like he was right. Immediately, the cloud of fright began to dissipate. But then a strange something happened: a building erupted from underneath the house across the street. It was like a steel and glass finger, stories and stories and stories, and instead of a house across the street, there was suddenly a skyscraper.
How tall? I don’t know. Compared to the one-story houses all around it, it seemed to reach to Heaven itself. But if Heaven were involved, the flames wouldn’t have been there. The entire structure was burning.
“Oh,” Young Me mumbled.
“What?” I asked. My eyes were too bad to see whatever it was he was seeing.
“There’s a bunch of kids in that building. If I stay here, they’re going to burn to death.”
The dread cloud was back. And honestly, my first thought went something like, Screw those kids—don’t leave me here to die alone. I felt bad about it. I would have felt worse about it, but I know he had the same thought. Of course we would have talked ourselves away from our selfishness. Right? Of course.
But the powers in charge, they weren’t convinced, and saw it fit to place Jill on one of the upper floors.
“Fuck,” Young Me mumbled.
“Jill’s up there, too.”
Jill. I had no idea how old I was, and I had no idea what all was wrong with my brain, but I remembered Jill. Imagine being lost in an underground cavern with no matches, no flashlight, no anything. You stumble around, no concept of time, no concept of anything but your own impending death. And then you see a light.
I’m not saying she was my salvation—what rule says that any light you find in a tunnel is salvation?—but she was a light when I needed light.
“Go,” I said. “You leave her up there, she’s as dead as Burt. Go.”
“Of course you can. Open the damn door, go down the hallway, and open the other fucking door. It isn’t rocket science.”
“Big talk coming from the guy who doesn’t have to do it. You can sit there and tell me to go, and the fear’s there, and just telling me to go takes bravery, I admit that. But you don’t have to do anything. You don’t have to run through those fucking doors, you don’t have to deal with your worst fear.”
“The way I see it, you can stand there while I sit here, and we can both watch Jill and those children burn up alive. Hell, maybe they’ll even throw in some baby penguins—you ever see how cute those bastards are? Some puppies, some kittens, maybe Martin Luther King Jr. will end up there at some point, or Kennedy or Lincoln, or Washington. Hell, maybe President Cameron will end up there, how about that?”
I looked at him, wondering how I could have ever been so stupid. “Does it matter, you jackass?”
“I was just curious.”
“Jill’s about to be burned alive and you’re ‘just curious?’”
“If my point was taken, you’d already be through the door and on your way to save her.”
He dropped his cigarette onto the floor, and for a split second, I worried that instead of just vanishing when he left, I’d actually burn to death because his butt started my house on fire. And then he was dumping me out of my wheelchair.
I felt my left wrist twist as I tried to catch myself, and I screamed in pain. Even as I screamed, I registered another sound—breaking glass as he hurled my chair through the window. And then I was lifted, thrown over his shoulder in much the same manner as I had carried Burt from the cemetery. And then we were moving, and the fear enveloped me completely.
I screamed louder, and he was screaming along with me as he launched us out the window. The house vanished. I didn’t. I had hurt my wrist, and I had snagged my arm on a shard of glass as we went through the window frame, but I was still alive.
“Holy shit,” I mumbled.
“I know,” he said, as amazed as I was that the plan had worked. “Okay, stay here—I have to go get Jill.” He placed me gently on the ground and then took off running. I noticed that Kelly was still in the front lawn. No longer frozen in time, she stood and watched him cross.
“There are little kids up there,” I yelled to her. “Go help him!”
“Who are you?”
“Does it matter? Go help him save those kids!”
“I’m not going up there. In case you didn’t notice, the building’s on fire.”
“That’s why the kids need to be saved, you dizzy bitch.”
She ignored me, and walked further down the street. I stood, slowly. I couldn’t remember why I had been in a wheelchair—I didn’t seem to lack the use of my legs. The building looked to be about ten stories. Jill still hadn’t moved, and neither had the kids. They just stood there, looking out, as if hypnotized. I saw Young Me run up behind one set of children—the ones on the third floor—and as soon as he touched them, the trance broke. Instead of vacancy, their faces suddenly showed fear and confusion.
I started across the street, feeling stronger by the second. I don’t think I had ever been feeble, but it had probably been awhile since I had tried climbing a shitload of stairs. I walked up the driveway and marveled at the surrealism of seeing a skyscraper jutting out of a section land previously occupied by a small suburban house. It was so tall and narrow—the entire thing couldn’t have been more than thirty feet by thirty feet—that it looked like it might topple at any moment.
“For all you know,” I muttered to myself, “It might.” And with that pleasant thought, I entered the front doors and began making my way up the stairs.
“What the hell are you doing, old man?”
He was herding a group of about ten kids down the stairs when I met him on the second floor. “You’re just gonna be one more person I have to save.”
“Shut up and listen. You start at the top. Wake up Jill, and then the two of you can split up and cover more ground. Send the kids to the stairwell, I’ll lead them out to safety.”
“Look, man, I appreciate the sentiment, but I’m not even sure how you managed this many steps without keeling over dead.”
I grabbed him by the shoulders. “The same way I’ll do it again and again. Danny, there’s no other way to save everyone. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be the guy who let a bunch of kids burn to death. Especially not on TV—bad for the image.”
He stared at me for a second. “If you drop dead, do it out in the street so I’ll know you aren’t around to help anymore.”
“Asshole,” I said.
“You shouldn’t use that kind of language in front of the kids,” he said, and began running up the stairs two and three at a time.
“All right kids, let’s get out of here.”
“I want my mommy,” a little boy bawled.
“I want your mommy, too, but I bet it’d piss your daddy off something fierce.”
“Nothin’. Quit crying and let’s go.” There would be time to be nice later, but right now I needed to be the adult authority.
I got them out and was back up to the fourth floor when I encountered Jill.
“We’ve got another few floors to go,” she said. “You holding up all right?”
“I’m fine. Come on, kids.”
I couldn’t remember what I had told her. I couldn’t remember anything that Young Me was doing, and I wondered what that meant. I decided not to think about it too much. If we lived through this, we could spend all the time we wanted thinking about the time/space paradox.
I led the second group of kids down to the yard, and heard Jill call out from a window above.
“Stay down there! This is the last group, and we’ll bring ‘em out!”
I nodded my head and turned around just in time to see Kelly striding towards the building with a bundled blanket in her arms.
“What the hell are you doing?” I yelled to her.
“No way am I letting those two bastards get all the credit for saving the kids.” She suddenly seemed to remember that she was on television. “I mean, I can’t stand by without doing something to help those children!”
“They’re coming down right now, just stay out here.”
But she was already through the doors.
Several minutes later, Jill and Young Me came out, leading a group of kids. The heat from the building was enough so that the children and I could feel it even where we were standing down the block.
“That’s everybody?” I asked Young Me.
“Yeah, we checked every room on every floor on the way down.”
“So where’s Kelly?”
“What? Last I saw, she was standing out here.”
“She went back in. Didn’t want you guys to get credit for saving all the…holy shit.” It suddenly dawned on me. They hadn’t seen her because she had hidden. She had hidden because she wanted to be the last to escape. She wanted to be the last to escape, and she wanted to do it with a rescued child in her arms.
I started running towards the building. My knees ached and my lungs burned, but I ran like a young man. I could hear Jill and Young Me yelling after me, and I could hear footsteps as Young Me followed.
“What the hell are you doing?” he yelled as he drew even with me.
“She took a kid back in with her. She had a bundle in her arms, I thought it was just a blanket, but I think she was smuggling a child back in to ‘save.’ We have to make sure she gets back out.”
And then I saw the child, screaming out a second-story window.
“No way!” Young Me cried. “We checked every room.”
And then Kelly was behind the kid, trying to drag it away from the window. We ran to the doors and saw that everything inside was on fire. The fake plants, the reception desk, the leather couch.
“We go in there, we aren’t coming back out,” I said.
“We can’t give up.”
“I’m not giving up. Listen to me—I can get to that kid. I know I can. But once I get to him, I can’t get him down. But I can drop him down.”
“Are you fucking insane?”
“If there was another way, we would do that. There isn’t. I’ll drop him down, you catch him. That’s the only way.”
“That’s not a plan, you idiot, that’s just killing the kid even faster.”
“Well, either way, he won’t be burning to death, will he? Just go stand out front.” And before he could argue, I yanked open the door and ran through the burning lobby. I grabbed the metal handle on the stairwell door and my hand sizzled like frying bacon. It didn’t smell nearly as good as bacon, but as I ran up the stairs, I decided that in a pinch I could probably eat myself, if I was cooked just right. It was an incredibly odd thing to be thinking, but it kept my mind off of the fact that I was running up the stairs of a burning building.
I got to the second floor and found that there was a bunch of burning debris piled in front of the door, which was probably why Kelly was still up here. I slammed against the door and felt a familiar pain in my shoulder. I couldn’t afford a dislocated shoulder, so I braced myself and kicked at the door until there was enough room for me to squeeze through. I shoved my way through, and felt the hair on my arms and on my face singe away as I passed too close to the burning debris.
Kelly was yelling down to Young Me. “Get me down, asshole! What are you doing, just standing there?”
He was yelling something back to her, but it couldn’t be heard over all the noise—burning buildings are surprisingly loud. I shoved her out of the way and bent down to talk to the kid. Both of my knees popped, and a jolt of pain shot up my back.
“She took me!” Tears were pouring down his face, leaving pale tracks in the soot and ash.
“I know, but I’m here to take you back. What’s your name, buddy?”
“Okay, Alan. You ever been to a circus?”
“Yeah, once. I want my mom.”
“We’ll get you to your mom. Here’s the thing—my friend down there, he’s in the circus with me, and we’re always doing all kinds of tricks and stuff, you know?”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Kelly screamed from behind me. I grabbed a burning chunk of wood and hurled it in her direction without looking. I heard her shriek and call me an asshole.
“We’re gonna get you out, but it’s going to be a little scary. I’m going to throw you out to him. We do this all the time, so for us, this is nothing new. In fact, that’s why the fire department hired us.”
“I thought you worked for the circus.”
“We work for both. So I’m going to pick you up, okay? And I need you to just shut your eyes as tight as you can, and next thing you know, you’ll be safe and sound.
“It’s too high.”
“I know it seems that way, but I promise you it’s not. But you have to stay really still, or else it’ll be hard for him to catch you. I mean, he can do it, but we might as well make it easy, right?”
A large chunk of the ceiling crashed down, and several desks tumbled down from the floor above. It crashed through the floor and the crap that had been blocking the emergency exit fell down after it. Kelly bolted towards the door. She pulled it open, and a fireball erupted out at her. She squealed in pain, and staggered back. There wasn’t even time to warn her, and then she tumbled back into the hole in the floor. She fell, a screaming burning mess, and I turned my attention back to Alan.
“She wasn’t part of the act,” I said. “Okay, so are you ready to do this, or what?”
“Of course you’re scared. What kind of weirdo wouldn’t be scared about getting thrown out the window?” I laughed, and he smiled a little.
“Yep. Just cross your arms across your chest like this.” I put my left hand on my right shoulder and my right hand on my left shoulder. He did the same, and then I picked him up. He wasn’t too heavy, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to hold him long. “Okay, squeeze your eyes shut.”
I carried him to the window, and held him out over nothing. Two stories down, Young Me was waiting with a horrible look on his face. Jill was running towards us, screaming something. I held Alan there for just a moment, one arm under the back of his knees, and the other under his neck. Had he opened his eyes, he would have been staring straight up at the sky, his view obstructed only by the burning building from which I was about to throw him. And then I dropped him.
I leaned out and saw Young Me catch the kid as if he really were part of some lunatic circus act. He put the kid down, and looked back up at me, signaling me to jump.
And then the rest of the floor above me crashed down, and I suddenly found myself draped over a burning desk in the lobby. I saw Kelly’s burning corpse sprawled over a little refreshment table. Her head had smashed into a coffee maker, and there were shards of glass sticking out of her face at odd angles. I smelled that smell again, not quite like bacon, but not too much different. I wondered if it was her I was smelling, or me.
Either way, it was making me kind of hungry. I wasn’t afraid, and that was nice, but I was damn hungry.
I was distracted from my hunger by the noise of the rest of the building collapsing down on top of me.
Danny has to fight to control his temper. Whatever else he is, Nerevek is still a wizard, and you don’t get up in a wizard’s face, no matter how angry you are.
“Who the hell are these kids, anyway? You’re just going to kill a bunch of kids for your game show?”
“Of course not,” Nerevek says. “They are nothing more than imaginary figments.” As he speaks the mob of whimpering, sobbing children, turn to wisps of smoke and float away on a light breeze that seems to have come along specifically for this purpose. Nerevek glances around at the strange neighborhood, and it too fades to smoke.
They are in the middle of a bland field, the SUV the only scenery other than themselves. No, not the only other thing—there is a charred pile of ash where there had moments before been the ruins of the burned skyscraper.
“Kelly?” Danny asks.
Nerevek nods a small nod. “Shall we be going, then?”
“You’re riding back with us?” Jill asks.
“No, of course not. I will meet you back at the mansion tonight.” With that, he turns and walks away, into the wisps of smoke still caught in the breeze.
“You ever seen him do that before? Vanish into thin air like that?” Jill asks.
“You want me to drive?”
“Yeah, I think that’d be for the best.” He stumbles towards the SUV, unsure of what he’s thinking and unsure of how he’s feeling. He’s worn out, and as the adrenaline works its way out of his system, he feels tired and light-headed. It’s almost a sensation of emptiness, as if someone has reached into his soul and pulled out everything. “I feel like a gutted pumpkin,” he says, and chuckles a strange laugh.
Jill doesn’t say anything. She starts the car and U-turns back around to the road they followed to get here. It doesn’t matter where they drive when it’s time to go out—wherever they drive, that’s where they need to go. Neither does it matter where they drive after the night’s ordeal—they always end up back at the mansion.
The silence is overwhelming, and finally Jill has to break it.
“So…you made it.”
“We’ll see. Aaron made it, too, but that didn’t keep him from taking off.”
“You gonna split? Try to get the same deal?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so. I mean, it was all over so quickly. We’ll see how it goes after it settles in, you know?”
She wants to ask, she’s dying to know, but he can’t tell her, not yet. Instead of asking about his worst fear, she asks about the old man.
“Who was that guy, anyway?”
“That was me. That was me when I’m old.”
“Holy shit! You just watched yourself die?”
“That wasn’t it, if that’s what you’re wondering. Watching myself die, that wasn’t my fear.”
“That doesn’t mean it isn’t all fucked up. No wonder you’re shell-shocked. I mean, that, in addition to…whatever.”
“I can’t believe that whore Kelly. I was talking to that little boy, he said she was hiding behind that desk, waiting for us to leave. He got scared, though, and took off. There was already too much fire by the front door, which is why he ran up the stairs. Make-believe or not, kids are idiots.”
He tries to think about Kelly, about what kind of twisted wiring she must have had to take a kid into a burning building just to make herself look better. But they weren’t even real kids, and he doesn’t feel like thinking about Kelly.
“I wish I had a drink,” he says.
Jill leans over and opens the glove compartment. There’s a silver-plated flask inside. “I figured if you made it through, you’d want that.”
“You’re a helluva girl.”
That’s what I hear.”
“Did you really sleep with everyone in the mansion?”
“What an odd time to ask,” she says, taking a pack of cigarettes out of her bag and lighting one. “I know we aren’t supposed to smoke in here, but considering how we smell, I don’t think one cigarette’s gonna make a difference, do you?”
He chuckles. “I can’t believe that after running through a smoke-filled building, the first thing you do when you get to safety is light up.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“Not all of them. A few, though, yeah. You gonna go all Puritan on my ass?”
“Nah.” He takes a swig out of the flask. The bourbon burns his smoke-raw throat.
“Why do you ask?”
“I was just curious.” He takes a cigarette from her, lights it, and then puts it out. He takes another drink from the flask. “We flirt back and forth, you know? I just wondered if there was anything to that.”
“Just because I slept with other guys doesn’t mean what we have isn’t unique.”
“And what do we have?”
She laughs. “Danny Boy, what we have is the perfect foundation for a totally screwed up relationship.”
He laughs along with her, but he isn’t sure if he means it. When the laughter dies, he leans the seat back and closes his eyes.
“Was it bad?” She asks.
“I’ll have to think about it.” He screws the cap back on the flask and goes to sleep.
They had left the mansion at dusk. Apparently, they spent all night saving imaginary children from a very real fire, because by the time they arrive back at the mansion, it’s noon. Danny tries to remember if he ever saw the sun set, but then decides it doesn’t matter.
Jill wakes him up when they arrive, and he stumbles up to his room and takes a shower. The water is hot enough to burn his skin, and he spends almost an entire hour scrubbing, but he still smells smoke. Smoke and something that smells almost like bacon.
He dresses and goes down to his usual pool chair. Jill is waiting for him.
“Just the cool kids now,” she says.
“Guess so.” He opens his bottle of bourbon and offers it to her. She shakes her head.
“I don’t know why, but I thought it’d fix you,” she says.
“Am I broken?”
“Hell yeah, you’re broken. Guys who aren’t broken, they don’t drink a fifth of Jack every day.”
“Hm. I might not drink the whole thing today.”
“My point is, I thought that you’d be all like, ‘I got a new lease on life, and I won’t let it go to waste!’ I thought…I don’t know, I thought things would be different with you.”
“They are different. I have one more screwed up thing that I have to try not to think about. And as trivial as it might seem to you that my wife was blowing some guy, and that she left me and all that, it doesn’t lose its power just because I found out that my greatest fear is dying alone.”
“So that was your fear? Dying alone?”
“Apparently. Not very exciting, really. I mean, it sucked, but it was also, I don’t know…kind of anticlimactic. After Burt’s zombies, it seemed like mine should be all kinds of crazy.”
“I hear ya. I was about to pee my pants the whole time we were walking down that dirt street. Waking up in a burning building, that was almost a relief, ‘cause I was like, well, whatever Danny Boy’s afraid of, we’re dealing with it.”
“Yeah. But…I don’t know. It really doesn’t seem like I faced my fear. I kind of escaped it.”
“The old you still died. Alone.”
“Unless he was imaginary, too. Like the kids.”
“The only other option is that it’s one of those things that will eventually eat on me, and I’ll end up freaking out later. I don’t know.”
“So you faced your worst fear, and it wasn’t enough? Man, what does it take to get your mind of your cheating whore of a wife?”
“I don’t know. More.”
“I could fuck your brains out. We have the entire mansion and eight hours before we have to meet with Nerevek. We could try to do it in every room.”
“Thanks for the offer, but I’m gonna have to pass.”
“I figured you’d say that, which is why I have a Plan B.”
“And what’s that?”
“Scoot over.” She slides onto the padded chair beside him and rests her head on his chest. Within minutes, she’s gently snoring.
Danny takes another drink from the bottle, and screws the lid back on. He isn’t all that tired, but decides that going to sleep next to a beautiful woman beats the hell out of sitting around thinking about dying alone.
“I hope you’re both feeling rested,” Nerevek says after the three of them have taken their places at the table.
Neither one of them speak.
“We’re going to do things differently this time. As I’m sure you both understand, there is only one more challenge. Instead of waiting until tomorrow, this challenge will begin shortly after this meeting.”
Jill’s face pales, and her mouth opens, but she doesn’t say anything. Danny’s stomach tightens in apprehension.
“You will both go out tonight. If you both return from this challenge, we will go on air tomorrow, and the audience will vote for the winner. By tomorrow night, we will have a winner. Good luck.”
And with that, he stands and walks out his secret door.
Danny stands on numb legs, and pulls Jill to her feet. He guides them outside, and as soon as they’ve cleared the door, Jill breaks down. Her sobs shake her body, and he pulls her to him, unsure of what to say. He plagiarizes the sounds of comfort she used to calm him through his breakdown, petting her softly and assuring her that it will be okay. Somewhere deep in the suspicious part of his mind, a voice whispers that he better do this right—he owes her. Her words of solace allowed him to face his worst fear, and now he must return the favor. He cannot let her down.
And then she’s done, and she’s her strong, assured self once again.
“Well, shit,” she says. “Let’s do this.”
Even over the smoke smell, there’s the fear smell. And under the banter, the witty, upbeat back-and-forth, there’s the fear. She talks tough, he talks analytically. Her ideas revolve around kicking whatever awaits in the balls. His ideas for sticking together involve tethering themselves together with his belt.
“Obviously, holding hands doesn’t work—there’s always something that can pull us apart.” That’s what he says. “But if we’re tied together, it’ll take us both.”
“What would be great if it’s some creature that’s made exclusively of testicles.” That’s what she says. “I spend all night kicking it in the nuts, and then it’s back home for my prize. Because no offense, buddy, but kicking a ball monster in the balls all night is loads cooler than saving a bunch of pretend kids.”
“Oh, come on—won’t I at least get the chick vote? A dude that risks his life to save a bunch of little kids—even if they do turn out to be fake—a panty-dropper like that has to pull some votes.”
“I don’t think those kinds of chicks watch the show we’re on. Plus, I was right there with you, so I might get those votes, too. And on top of that—” She lifts her shirt up, exposing her breasts. “I gotta get the 18-30 male demographic right there.”
“That can’t be fair.”
And so it goes, back and forth, whistling through the graveyard once more, until he reaches the end of the road.
Danny puts the SUV into park and cuts the ignition. There is a heavy silence, the kind of silence that can only be when there are too many things to say and not enough time in which to say them.
“Good luck out there tonight,” Danny says.
“Great tits.” He leans over, licks her on the side of her face and jumps out of the SUV, laughing. Perhaps it would have been better to tell her that even if their friendship was formed from desperation, it is a friendship he will cherish forever. But that seems too final, too much like he won’t get to tell her later.
That superstitious voice whispers again, that this is the last chance he had, and he ruined it; the last chance he had at expressing emotion, and he used it to lick her in the face.
“You nasty bastard,” Jill yells, jumping out from her own side. “You never, ever, ever lick a girl in the face unless you’re in the throes of passion! Everybody knows that.”
“Were we not? I thought we were.”
“You know, for you that probably counts as passion. You and junior high boys across the world.”
“Passion, no. Romance, yes. Here, come here.”
“You better not lick me again.”
“Shut up and come here,” Danny says. He keeps the laughter in his voice, hoping to keep her from getting scared, but a heaviness has settled inside of him. He takes off his belt—a length of strong silk cord he asked for special before they left—and ties it around his waste. He reaches out to tie the other end to her, and she’s gone.
There is nothing but night sky and the SUV. He calls her name, but he knows it’s pointless. He continues to tie the slip-knot in the other end of the cord, just in case he sees her again, and then he goes in search for her. He knows he won’t find her, but he looks nonetheless, until the voice tells him that she’ll show up near the SUV and he’ll miss her.
He heads back and waits. After a while, he opens the passenger door and fishes in the glove compartment until he finds her pack of cigarettes. He smokes them, one by one, until there’s only one left. He doesn’t notice the tears running from his eyes.
How long? Hours, for sure, but how many? The sliver of moon is hanging high in the sky at one point, and then settling down behind the horizon, and still the sun refuses to show itself. He sits in darkness, scanning the horizon for any change.
He hears the buzz first. Electrical, like a robot that doesn’t understand how to hum a tune. Like a fluorescent light that doesn’t have long to last. Like a neon sign in the worst part of the worst neighborhood.
And there she is, stumbling into the pool of light cast by the pink neon that proclaims, “DRINKS!! GIRLS! ALL NITE!!”
He rushes to her, and she screams.
“It’s just me, Jill, it’s Danny.”
He takes a step back, hovering over her, wanting to make it right, unsure of how. “Jill, it’s okay. It’s okay, you made it. Listen to me, Jill. Follow my voice back, okay? It’s over.”
She’s on her knees, shaking, shivering, weeping. He reaches for her once more, and she flinches away, screaming. He decides not to do that again.
Instead, he sits down on the ground beside her.
“I don’t know what happened in there,” he turns to look at the cinderblock building with the pink neon sign, but there is nothing—only the night. Only the dark. “But I’m right here, okay? You need me, I’m right here.”
Save her the voice whispers, Bring her back. But he doesn’t know how.
“Did I ever tell you about my dog? Probably not. I only ever had one dog in my life, back when I was, heck, probably eight. I got this dog, and my mom didn’t think I’d ever take care of it.”
He tells her about his dog, about how it chewed his stuff, and about how it always seemed to shit on the floor right where his foot touched down when he climbed out of bed in the morning. He tells her about his clubhouse, the one his dad built him in the backyard. He tells her about the school supplies he got in third grade—the first time he remembers ever going school shopping. He tells her about the time he and his family moved, he tells her about a movie he saw the other day, he tells her about the best cheeseburger he has ever eaten.
He talks and talks and talks, all the while assuring her that it’s going to be okay, all the time gently prodding her to come back.
The sky turns from black to gray to blue, and he talks and talks and talks.
And then she says, “You’re kind of boring, Danny Boy.”
And he laughs and tears stream from his eyes and he wants to hug her, but doesn’t.
“Are you okay?” He asks.
She shrugs. “Be better if I had a cigarette.” He hands her the last cigarette.
“I smoked the rest of them, though, so that’s the last one.”
“I guess we should head back, then,” she says lighting the cigarette.
The ride back isn’t quite awkward, but it isn’t far from it. Like meeting up with a good friend whom you haven’t spoken to in years, trying to feel out the allowed topics.
After a few minutes, she reclines the seat back and pretends to sleep. When they arrive back at the mansion, she tells him that she’ll meet him down by the pool, unless she crashes out in her room.
Danny spends the day sober, worrying.
By five, when she still hasn’t come down, he decides to check on her. Her bedroom door swings open as he knocks. He calls her name and listens. Nothing but the sound of dripping water from the bathroom. He calls her name again, hoping he isn’t disturbing her while she’s trying to shit or something. He knocks on the bathroom door, and it doesn’t swing open. He turns the knob.
Her pale skin seems almost iridescent in the scarlet water. The slashes run like slick ribbon from wrist to elbow on each arm, and the years-accrued tattoos decorate them like stained-glass on a cloudy day.
He screams for Nerevek, and kneels down beside the tub, checking her neck for a pulse. He screams again; it’s not too late. There are wizards about, death is nothing. He screams again and again and again, for what seems like hours, and finally Nerevek is there. But then he only shakes his head sadly, places his hand on Danny’s shoulder for a moment, and leaves.
Danny lifts her from the tub and sits on the bed with her, covering her cold body with a warm blanket, rocking her back and forth, telling her that it will be all right. And then the sun sinks, and two wizards arrive and tell him that he must meet Nerevek in the ceremonial room. He contemplates refusal, but they will take her away even if he doesn’t leave.
He walks without feeling to the little building. He takes his seat and waits. His clothes are soaked with diluted blood, and his hands are puckered—the lines of his palms are etched with crimson where his pruned hands are stained.
Nerevek enters the room solemnly. He sits down and waits for Danny to look at him.
“I’d be a fool,” Nerevek says, “To think that this is a time of celebration. But the fact of the matter is that you entered a contest, and you won. I congratulate you. I am not heartless, although you may not believe that. So while I congratulate you, I also offer my condolences on your loss. She will be missed.”
“You didn’t care about anyone else dying,” Danny says, more defensive than he would like, forgetting that he isn’t even supposed to be speaking.
“No,” Nerevek says simply. He offers nothing more.
“Why her? Do you honestly care, or is it for the show?”
“I thought she’d make it, Danny. That’s why her. I knew from the beginning that it would come down to the two of you. Honestly, I thought she’d win. But either way, I knew that the two of you were going to emerge without the damage that everyone else would suffer. I…was wrong.”
Danny stares down at his hands, at the blood-stained wrinkles. “So…what now?”
“The end. It’s over. You live the rest of your life exactly how you want. The second you leave this room, you’ll never want for anything. We never expected you to win, if you want to know the truth. Humans…kind of a joke on this side of reality.”
“Yeah, I’m laughing my ass off.”
“If it’s any consolation, you’ll forget.”
“Forget all of this. You’ll go back to your life, and you’ll happen upon an incredible run of good luck. Maybe you’ll suspect that there’s more to it, but it’ll never be more than a strange thought when you’ve stayed up too late or had a little too much to drink. The horrors, the loss…Jill? You won’t remember any of it.”
“What if I don’t want to forget?”
“If you don’t want to forget, you have to make that decision before you leave the mansion tomorrow. But you should think hard on it, my friend. Once you leave the mansion, that knowledge is there to stay.”
“When do I leave?”
“You have until midnight tomorrow.”
Danny sits in silence, unsure if their business here is finished. He has no more questions, and it doesn’t seem to be the time for pleasant conversation.
“Well,” Nerevek says after several seconds of silence. “Unless you have anything to add, I would say we’re finished here.”
“I don’t have anything to add.”
Nerevek stands up. “I’ll walk you out,” he says.
They leave the little building, and Danny considers glancing back, seeing it one more time as the mystical little place where fates were decided. But then he realizes that he doesn’t care if he ever sees it again.
“I’m sorry that your victory came like this,” Nerevek says. “I really was hoping to enjoy a celebratory evening with the two of you. She…she was a special girl.”
Danny looks up to see if he’s being patronized. Nerevek is looking towards the ocean, at the crashing waves and jagged rocks and fierce tide. There’s a look in his eyes—not dreamy, by any means, because wizards don’t ever look dreamy. But perhaps just a bit remorseful.
“She was a light when I needed it,” Danny says. For just a moment, he almost slides into a contemplative daze himself. But he has a lot of solitary thinking to do, and he can’t afford to be distracted by the majestic ocean or the moods of a wizard. “Nerevek, I wish we could have met under different circumstances,” Danny says, offering his hand. “I wish we could have been friends.”
“Danny, it was a pleasure meeting you. I wish more of your race could aspire to follow in your footsteps.”
“I don’t think humanity’s collective liver could keep up with me.”
“No,” Nerevek says, chuckling. And then, in a manner of serious that only wizards can attain, he says, “But nor could their collective heart.” He turns, and strides into the shadows.
So what happened next, is that what you want to know? I don’t blame you—I’d want to know, too, if I had hung on to this story for so long.
In the end, I didn’t have the courage to remember. Before I left the mansion, the wizard in the nice suit asked me what I had decided. He wanted so bad to look like a stupid executive, but it doesn’t matter how a wizard dresses or acts—they always look like wizards. Probably why so many of them elect to go with the long flowing robe—if you can’t be discreet, you might as well be comfortable.
I told him I wanted to forget, and he said very well, and then he told the driver to load my bag, and I told the driver not to worry, I could get my own bag.
The journey back to Topside was uneventful. I’d be lying if I said that there wasn’t a part of me that wished I could stay in the Underside, but it was a small part. A very small part.
It started raining. Pouring, actually, so that you couldn’t see more than three feet in front of the car. The driver didn’t seem to care, and it didn’t screw with his driving at all. When the rain let up, we were pulling up to my house.
For just a second, I couldn’t wait to rush in and tell my wife all about my adventures. They were fading already, but there was still enough to tell her a helluva story. Sure, she’d look at me like I was insane, but once things started happening—once the good luck started pouring in—she’d see. And then I remembered that she was gone. I remembered that the house was empty.
I climbed out of the car before the driver could get around to open the door. I shook his hand. “Man, I hate to say it, ‘cause you’re going to think I’m a total asshole. But I forgot your name.”
He laughed. “No problem. If it makes you feel better, you remembered it until we got back Topside. Also, after I met you that first time, I decided to put some money on you. So you helped me win enough so that I can retire.”
“You bet that I’d win?”
“Hell, no. Nobody thought you humans would win. I just bet that you wouldn’t die. Truthfully, you had me cursing you name a few times, but you really pulled through.
“If you can retire, why the hell are you still driving my ass around?”
“Just wanted to say thanks.” He smiled and I smiled back, and then I walked up the sidewalk to my door. I turned when I heard an engine start, and was surprised to see a limo pulling away from the curb. There was a flitter of recognition—perhaps he had stopped and asked me for directions—and then I decided it didn’t matter, and unlocked my front door.
I smelled her; that was the first thing. I smelled her and I smiled. I dropped my bag, unsure of why I was even carrying it, and strode through my front room, following her scent.
And there she was, sitting at the table, cigarette in the ashtray. She smiled at me as I entered. “Glad you could make it.”
“Glad you could, too,” I said. “Wasn’t sure if you’d be able to.”
“Well,” Jill says, “It was a pretty fuckin’ weird night. But here we are.”
“Here we are,” I said, “With the rest of our lives in front of us.”
She crushed out her cigarette.
And then we fucked in every room of the house.
We had a great life. I’d tell you about it, but that’s a different story and one that isn’t nearly as interesting. And frankly, I think it’s about time to wrap this one up, don’t you? So we’ll skip over all the things that happened between the time that I got out of that limo and the time that I stepped into That Bar.
That was the name: That Bar. It wasn’t supposed to be there. One day it wasn’t, the next day it was. No one else seemed to notice it.
I sat down and ordered a bourbon, double. I didn’t bother looking around.
“Sorry for your loss.” The voice was familiar, but foreign. I didn’t care to think about it.
“If you were sorry, you’d buy my next drink,” I said.
“Keep him filled,” the voice said to the bartender, and that’s when recognition hit me. That’s when I remembered.
He looked good. A little older, but not sixty years worth of old like me.
He laughed. “I was half-afraid you’d be all drooly and weak. I should have known better.”
I knocked back my shot and signaled the bartender for another. I knocked that one back, too, and signaled for another. The bartender glanced at Nerevek.
“Don’t look at me,” Nerevek said. “He’s the drinking man.” He tossed a wad of cash onto the bar. One of the bills landed on a ring of spilled liquid and sucked the moisture up like rain on a desert floor.
“So it’s that time?” I asked. It wasn’t all clear yet, but it was getting close.
“Just about, champ.” That was a different voice, but one that was just as recognizable. I turned to find Burdoch sitting on the other side of me. “Miss me?”
“There were a couple of times that a hardass like you would have come in handy. You here to escort me back?”
He grabbed the bottle of bourbon off the bar and drank it down. “Yep. Only the best for our grand champ.”
And it suddenly made sense. Time to go. I knocked back my last shot.
Even wizards don’t like to muck around with bringing the dead back to life. Too many things can go wrong, and it takes a lot of time and energy. Plus, it’s generally frowned upon. Before I left the mansion, I had sought out Nerevek, and I had made a deal. If he brought her back, I’d return willfully to play my part in the house on gray street. I’d come back and die alone in a burning building.
“Why’d I last so long?” I asked Nerevek. “My fear wasn’t worse than some of the others.”
Nerevek smiled. “No, your fear was…lame, at best. But nowhere in the rules did it say the fears had to get progressively worse. We did that to keep the audience coming back for more, but that’s not how we always played it. But they liked you.
“If you would have gotten voted off, there’s nothing we could have done. But we saved you for last because the viewers liked watching you. You, Jill, Aaron—you were the ones that the audience were actually pulling for, in a way. They wanted you all to lose, but you were their favorites. He held off on Kelly’s fear, of course, because everyone hated her. In most cases, the audience tends to watch with more loyalty to see the person they hate lose, rather than to see the person they like win.”
I thought back to that time—I was remembering everything as I sat between Burdoch and Nerevek.
“You gave me an option once, when I left the mansion. Do I get the choice again?” I asked Nerevek.
I thought about it. Did I want to think about my long happy life with Jill? Did I want to remember her death? Those agonizing weeks while she withered away, and no amount of crying, cursing, or praying would help.
“Meh—might as well stick with what I know.”
“You want to forget?”
“Yeah. Give me enough to work with, though.”
“I’d say trust your judgment, but I don’t trust your judgment at all,” I told the wizard. “Trust his judgment,” I said, pointing to Burdoch.
Burdoch laughed. It was a surprised laugh, like he wasn’t used to doing it. “Still batshit insane—I like that.” He laughed again. A good laugh—I remember that. And then I was sitting in a chair—a wheelchair—and I heard the front door opening, and I knew it wasn’t a robber.