“Oh. My. God!” Melissa screamed into the phone. “I know! And did you see the mother?”
She was talking to her girlfriend, Sandy, and Sandy was on her lunch break from work.
“I just… I couldn’t believe it. It was so…” she looked for the right word. “Intense!” She nodded to herself, wide eyed.
They both laughed, and agreed to meet up at her place when Sandy finished her shift.
Melissa hung up and reached for the remote control. She flicked through the channels. Each fragment of TV show made an appearance for no more than a second or two. Melissa paused for a moment at the sight of someone crying, but carried on when she saw it was an old movie.
She realized it was just a regular news channel she’d landed on. Melissa wouldn’t normally “choose real news,” as the slogan went, but something had caught her eye. In the top right corner she noticed a face that was very familiar to her. It was the face of Charlie.
She froze, waiting to hear what it was all about. The corners of her mouth were trembling and her heart was racing. But the voice on the TV was flat and uninteresting. She shut it out of her mind concentrated on the images.
Charlie’s face was wide and pockmarked. He had thin, grey hair and dark brown eyes, almost black. His teeth were crooked and jagged at the edges, and when he grinned it made Melissa and Sandy shudder all over with revolt and disgust. They loved it! In fact, they made a joke out of it every time his face came up on TV – they would stop, turn, face each other, stick out their tongues, and mock-shiver like they were jelly; falling about in fits of laughter when they were done.
Charlie was one of the stars of the new hit TV show, Unnatural Predators. It had been described as “no holds barred” and “ground-breaking” and “revolutionary” and came with a warning right before the show started that told viewers, in a very deep and serious tone of voice, “this program contains explicit content that all viewers will find offensive.”
All viewers, she noticed; not just some. What that meant, at least in her experience, was that the show would be pretty darn… what was the word? Intense.
Charlie was a lot of things, but most of all, he was the perfect villain. He was the guy everybody loved to hate, and the very sight of him made their spines quiver and stomachs wretch.
Charlie was a pedophile.
The girl’s mother, in the most recent episode, had spoken of the great sacrifice she was making, all in the name of “raising awareness” and “bringing an important issue to the forefront”. She spoke with the kind of sincerity that came with tears and smiles and solemn head-bobs. This was reality, after all. Melissa wasn’t even sure what the woman meant by forefront, but it sounded like a darn good cause.
The front door opened and Melissa turned her head. “Hello?”
A grunt from the hallway, and then heavy footsteps up the stairs.
“Oh,” she smiled. “Hi sweetie. I’ll put dinner on soon. Call you when it’s ready.”
A door slammed.
The small plastic container was steaming when Melissa pulled it out of the microwave with her thumb and forefinger and dropped it on a plate.
“Dinner,” she called, then made herself a Vodka and Krystyl-NRG mixer and went back to the couch. It was nearly eight o clock, and her show was about the start.
The phone rang.
“Did you hear?” It was Sandy.
Sandy breathed in and out. “They already shot the scene.”
Melissa brought her hand to her mouth. She didn’t want it to be true – it was so soon – but then something occurred to her. If the scene had already been filmed, then that meant it wouldn’t be shown live on TV, as promised. But on the other hand, if it was finished, they might…
“Do you think they’ll show it tonight?” she asked.
“Maybe,” said Sandy, and she giggled.
The show started – the theme music, the montage of photos and images, all coming together into one giant model of a planet.
They opened with footage of the little girl: Mathilda, 7 years old, from a small town called Pellegrino. She was all dolled up and ready to go. Her hair was up in a beehive and her eyeshadow was a deep blue. She turned and smiled, then blew a kiss, winking. Simultaneously the screen showed a graphic that caught the kiss and then a sparkle came off her white smile as she winked.
“Isn’t she beautiful.” Sandy cried.
An interviewer held up a big microphone with pink sequins along the edges and asked: “Mathilda, so, what’s been your most exciting moment so far?”
The girl’s finger came up to her mouth and she looked up and to one side – the perfect Shirley Temple pose. She smiled – that twinkle again – and said: “I’m gonna be a star!”
The crowd cheered.
“Okay, I’ll call you after,” Melissa said and hung up the phone.
After the next commercial break they recapped the last seven weeks, beginning with the quest for the perfect candidates. Thousands of young girls auditioned, accompanied by their mothers – most of whom were overweight – and each one performed in front of an audience. There were five judges on the panel; an eclectic mix, ranging from a teenage hip-hop star to a sixty-five year-old playwright. In the first round they used only the buzzers, which marked the bad ones as “rotten” and the good ones as “sexy”. They replayed the highlights – the freak shows!
Then there was the hunt for the Charlie. The main thing was the look. He had to have that inexplicable look – the kind of look that people associated with all men of his kind.
And when the current Charlie finally came along the voting was unanimous. No one knew quite where he was from, or his background. At first he caught the eye of the panel and the audience with his general manner and overall demeanor, but when he stood and described his tastes and desires the old playwright had actually fainted.
Melissa called Sandy at the next commercial break.
“Did you remember that girl whose mother came up on stage with her during the third round. The mother was wearing garters and net panties. Like she was trying to upstage her daughter.”
Melissa smiled and then laughed. “Was she the one they dragged off stage?”
“Yes! That weightlifter judge came up and carried her off by her throat. It was hilarious.”
The show came back on, and there was an announcement that the main event would be broadcast tomorrow night.
Darn! Melissa couldn’t believe she had to wait a whole day to see it.
“We’ll be starting any moment now,” said one of the commentators. “Charlie is in his room preparing, and…” The camera showed the commentator knocking at a dressing room door marked, Charlie. “May we come in?”
An assistant looked at the camera and smiled, holding the door.
“So,” asked the commentator. “What’s the process involved?”
The assistant smiled, pushing out her chest. “Well, Simon, we’re getting Charlie ready as best we can. As you know, this is a one-take deal, so there will be no do-overs, no re-shoots.”
The camera panned across the large dressing room. Charlie was admiring himself in the mirror and he had another assistant sitting beside him.
“And what’s this one doing?” asked the commentator, pointing to the second assistant.
The assistant waved and held up a pair of nail clippers.
“Gotta get this one groomed and ready. He’s like an untamed animal.”
Charlie turned and faced the camera and growled, holding up his hand in a claw shape. The commentator laughed. “You carry on,” he said.
During the next break Melissa refilled her Vodka Krystyl-NRG. On the counter top beside the refrigerator she noticed a large pair of wooden scissors. She picked them up with her free hand and frowned. She’d never seen them before. It puzzled her.
Then the music blared from the TV – the show was starting again. She rushed back into the living room and sat back on the couch, spilling some of her drink on her pants.
The screen filled with Mathilda’s young face, accompanied by sombre music. Mathilda and her mother were sitting together in the dressing room. The mother was holding her daughter’s hands, and was saying, “Everything’s going to be fine, Mommy promises.”
The girl nodded and smiled, this time she didn’t show any teeth so there was no twinkle. “Am I still going to be a star?” she asked.
“Of course you are,” said her mother. “And you’re gonna make lots of money.”
The girl smiled again. There was a close-up of her face. “But I’m scared,” said the girl in a quiet voice. The audience provided their collective “awwwww” in the background.
The mother glanced at the camera and gave a small, understanding nod.
“And what did mommy say?” she asked. The girl snivelled and looked down at the ground. “Mathilda? Mat-”
She took her daughter’s chin firmly in her hand and pulled her face toward hers. “Mathilda, look at me.” The camera showed a side angle now of the two of them. “What did mommy say?”
Mathilda squeezed her eyes shut and a large tear rolled down her cheek. “Mommy says-” she snivelled again. “Mommy says, everything will be OK.”
“That’s right, that’s exactly what mommy says. And do you think mommy’s lying?”
The girl shook her head.
“That’s right.” The mother wiped the tears from her daughter’s face and yelled over at the production crew. “We need a touch-up over here.”
The makeup team took over and the mother faced the camera. She brushed the back of her hand across her forehead in a “phew” gesture, then followed this with her famous sad-eyed head-bob.
Melissa felt a lump in her throat. This was truly great TV. She was mesmerized, so much so that she didn’t even notice the front door open and close as her son left the house.
When the show was over she called Sandy again and the two of them talked for nearly two hours about the night’s events and the how each scene had made them feel. They discussed Charlie – Melissa joked that Sandy had the hots for him and Sandy made a gagging sound and this sent the two of them into fits of laughter.
The coffee was bitter when Melissa came down the next morning and she realized it was from the day before. She made a fresh pot and saw the wooden scissors once again. She picked them up and examined them. They were not real scissors, they didn’t open or close. She turned them over and saw something written on the back: Product of X-Shield Productions.
Where had she seen that name before?
Her coffee maker beeped and she poured herself a cup. The front door opened and her son came in.
“Josh,” she said. He didn’t reply. “Coffee’s on,” she said.
Melissa sipped at her own coffee while reading this week’s edition of Scandal-Breaker Magazine.
She looked up and saw Josh was still standing in the doorway. She smiled. “Hi dear.”
“Would you go somewhere with me today?” he asked.
She considered this. “Ah, sure,” she said. “Where?”
There was a pause.
“I can’t tell you,” Josh said.
Melissa looked at her watch.
“What time would this be?” she asked.
Josh was silent for a few moments and Melissa nearly went back to her magazine.
“Ten minutes?” he said.
She smiled. “Sure.”
Melissa refilled her coffee and took it into the living room. She flicked through the TV channels again, pausing briefly on what she mistook for an episode of Scandal-Breaker LIVE, before landing once again on a face she recognized well. This time, it was Mathilda’s face she saw in the top right-hand corner of the screen. There was a man talking, again in that dull voice. The choose real news voice. She was just about to turn down the volume when something stopped her.
“…the young girl is being held in the intensive care unit at the County Hospital after a…” Melissa tuned out momentarily, her mouth open. Mathilda was in hospital? What happened? She’d seen her on TV only the night before. She had to call Sandy.
“…and the brutal attack reportedly took place on the set of the hit reality TV show, Unnatural Predators. Executives at X-Shield Productions refused to comment.”
Melissa was silent for a moment, genuinely shocked. She hoped Sandy hadn’t already heard the news – she wanted to be the one to tell her. She reached for the phone.
“I’m ready mom.”
She turned and smiled. “I’ll be right out. Go wait in the car, sweetie.”
As Josh walked out the door Melissa grabbed the phone and dialled Sandy’s work line. It went straight to voicemail. Darn!
“You still not gonna tell me where we’re going?” Melissa asked. They were driving along Richmond Street.
“It’s a surprise,” he said. “Make a left on Porter, then park along there.” Then he looked at her with a face she’d not seen since he was five years old, right after his Daddy left. It was an expression of hope and anticipation as he’d handed her the Christmas card he’d made for her at school. “It’s suppise mommy,” he’d said, right before sprinkling macaroni and glitter all over the kitchen table.
Melissa parked the car and followed Josh in through the back door of an old warehouse. He was carrying a backpack and she caught a glimpse of those wooden scissors poking out the side.
As soon as they were inside two men ushered Josh through a private door and Melissa was taken through another door that was marked, backstage area. The room was small and there was a window in the corner. She was seated in front of a large monitor where she saw the blown up face of a man. The man was talking, giving introductions and making the audience laugh. Melissa smiled. Was her son going to be on a game show?
The man pointed to the screen, his face all snarly and crazed, and the dramatic music started. “…but which of these contestants will… Make. The. Cut?”
There was cheering – this time she heard it from all around her, not just from the TV screen. Melissa laughed and clapped her hands.
A man in a suit brought her over a glass. She took a sip and smiled. Vodka and Krystyl-NRG. “My favourite!” she said. “Thank you.”
This was fun, she thought.
“Shall we bring out… contestant number one?” the man on the TV shouted. When the camera zoomed out she noticed that the man’s eyes were small and beady, and his forearms were thick and hairless. His sleeves were rolled up, and what was that he was wearing down his front? A white apron?
They cut to the images of the screaming crowd, the camera panning across the faces of all the people clapping and cheering, some holding signs and banners. Big brand advertising was pasted across the walls.
Suddenly the building was blasted with heavy guitar music and Josh walked on stage, waving at the crowd, then shaking the hand of the man in the apron.
Melissa stood in the empty room and screamed and clapped in delight.
Josh sat down and the man asked him some questions about his age and his interests and where he was from; and he answered them so well, Melissa thought. She couldn’t wait to tell Sandy all about this when she got home.
“Are you ready?” asked the host.
“Yes sir,” Josh saluted, then pulled out his wooden scissors and waved them in front of him.
“You have five minutes,” said the man, then he turned to the audience and commenced the countdown: “Three…two…one…”
Melissa was on the edge of her seat. “Come on, sweetie,” she called out.
The clock started ticking on screen. Josh leaped up and threw the scissors in the air. They spun three times before they started to fall. Josh stood below, faced the ceiling and opened his mouth. The crowd gasped. Melissa wrung her hands together. Down fell the scissors, picking up velocity, and they were heading right for Josh’s face. Melissa stood and approached the TV.
“O.M.G. O.M.G.” she said.
In the last second, Josh moved his head over and turned it to one side. The scissors slid across his mouth and he bit down, catching the blade side-on in his teeth. Then he whipped his head back around again and faced the audience, showing them the scissors, then took a bow. The clock froze at four minutes and forty seconds. Clapping and cheering followed, but Melissa heard some boos as well.
“Oh, well, would you listen to that,” said the host. “Seems like some of the audience members were rooting for the scissors and not you.” There was laughter from the crowd.
“Are you ready to continue?” asked the host. Josh nodded. “Yes sir!”
The booming voice counted down, and the clock was started again. This time, Josh pulled out a second pair of wooden scissors and held one in each hand. He crouched down and slammed both handles down onto his knees. Fire erupted from both blades in a white flash and the audience clapped.
Josh tossed one of the fiery batons in the air and then the other. The second one tapped the first at the tip, sending it on a new trajectory. Josh dived to one side and slid on the ground. There were more gasps from the crowd. Josh’s outstretched arm caught the first pair of scissors, then he jumped in the air and sprinted in the other direction. The second scissors were right in front of him and he kicked his foot out to stop it from hitting the ground.
Then the entire stage turned a dark red and the deafening fog-horn tore through the studio. The action replay showed the tip of the scissors touching the ground just ahead of Josh’s shoe.
“Oh, no, Josh,” said the host with a grin. Then to the crowd: “What does our audience think?”
They entire crowd stood and yelled: “Failed!” in unison.
“Ooh,” cried the host. “You have one more act, don’t you, Josh?”
“Yes sir,” he said. His voice was tense now, less confident.
“Better make it count, or…” he turned to the audience and said, “Make. The. Cut.” Guitars sounded again and the camera panned out from the stage.
On the screen came the words: Commercial Break, and Melissa stood up and peered through the small window overlooking the stage. Men with gadgets clipped to their belts and headphones around their necks were marking various spots on the stage and taking notes. A young girl was sweeping makeup across Josh’s face and another was pulling at his hair. Melissa waved but Josh didn’t look up. She sat down again. The TV was showing Scandal-Breaker LIVE and Melissa was temporarily distracted.
“This just in,” said the Scandal-breaker reporter known as Razz Bazz. His Mohawk hair looked a different colour each time she saw him.
“We have received reports that young Mattie Jennings has just died in hospital. Mattie is better known as Mathilda from the hit show, Unnatural Predators, which is currently the subject of some controversy across the country.”
Melissa leaned in when she heard the name Mathilda mentioned.
“Our sources inside the hospital say the death was a result of massive internal trauma.” Razz Bazz touched his ear piece. “But wait,” he smiled. “We now have an exclusive interview with the mother.”
Melissa was so excited she nearly forgot where she was.
The guitars shook the building again and the monitor switched back to show the main stage. Melissa nearly cried out in protest until she saw her son waving at the crowd.
“Welcome back,” said the host, and made his introductions. Melissa tried to remember what had happened before the break and wondered whether there would be a recap when the show aired on TV.
“Are you ready for your third act, Josh?” the host asked. Melissa thought she heard something ominous in his voice and it added to the suspense.
“Yes sir!” Josh cried, and the countdown commenced.
This time, Josh held up the scissors to his face. There was something on the tip of them now – something black and round. What was it?
Gentle music faded in, and Melissa recognized it instantly as her favourite song from when she was younger.
All the lights dimmed except for one that beamed up from the stage and illuminated Josh’s face. As the camera zoomed in and focused, Josh began to sing.
Melissa decided to walk over to the small window and watch from there. As she looked over at the stage, she welled up and the tears stung her eyes. For a short moment, there was a connection with Josh she’d never experienced before, and everything else in her life faded away.
As Josh hit the last note, he looked up, directly at the window, and smiled. Melissa smiled back and touched the glass with her fingers just as the music faded out and Josh took a bow.
The enthusiastic cheering was broken apart by the aggressive booing, and the two sounds blended into one heartless drone. Melissa frowned.
“Well, well,” said the host. Then he faced the camera and frowned. His mouth turned down at the corners and his tiny eyes squinted and glared and it made him look like an insect. “Cast your votes now,” he said, pointing at the audience.
The stage went dark and they were in total silence. Once more the camera panned across the audience, this time they all had smart phones in their hands. A pie shape appeared in the top left hand corner of the screen and inside it the colours spun around before settling. The red made its way around the pie in a clockwise motion, gradually consuming the green until the pie was made up of nearly all red.
The lights came back on and Josh was now sitting in a chair. There was an audible crack as long metal rods reached out of the floor next to where Josh was sitting and clamped around each of his hands. He wriggled, but then gave up.
“I’m sorry Josh,” said the host, turning back to the audience. “But numbers don’t lie.”
The screen showed the audience, mesmerized by the show, waiting to see what happens next.
“I’m afraid you…” a long pause, followed by loud, flowing sounds that echoed throughout the building. “Made. The. Cut.”
Melissa breathed out, closed her eyes. Yes! She thought. He made it!
The host raised his hands and another small trapdoor opened in the floor. This time, a long blade rose slowly, building up the audience into a frenzy. The two large handles appeared and the trapdoor closed.
“Oh no!” said Melissa.
The host reached down and grabbed the giant scissors, which had to be at least five feet high, and his fists clenched around each of the handles. He held them up in front of him and snapped them open, then closed, then open, then closed. The crowd screamed and clapped, expressions of awe on each of their faces.
“No, no, no!” Melissa banged her fists on the door, then tried the handle. The door opened and she bolted through, knocking over one of the sound guys.
The host approached Josh, who had begun to cry. “No use fighting, son,” he said, and he held up the scissors and opened the blades.
Melissa ran past four of the other contestants waiting in line and a security guard approached from her left before touching his ear and backing off. He watched as she ran, nodding to the instructions of the voice in his ear.
The host pushed the open blades forward until the edges brushed against Josh’s neck, grazing the skin and causing tiny beads of blood to form at the surface. Josh winced in pain and looked up at the host.
Melissa reached the door to the stage and looked around.
“Open drains,” said a man to the left of her sitting at a small desk in front of a computer. Melissa screamed and barged through the curtain and onto the stage. The security guard nodded, then sprinted on stage after her and grabbed Melissa from behind. Her legs kicked out on front of her as the guard lifted her off the ground. The audience gasped and fell silent.
“Whom do we have here?” asked the big, booming voice.
“Mom,” called Josh, distressed.
The audience gasped again, most of them raising their hands to their mouths. This was the big twist – the one that would no doubt be shown later on Scandal-Breaker! LIVE.
The security guard didn’t move, just held her there, right where she was. The host turned back to what he was doing and wrenched the handles shut, closing the blades around Josh’s neck. They cut through the first layer with no difficulty, but the host had to reposition himself to finish the job.
The camera zoomed in on Melissa’s face now, capturing all the emotions that were running through her, one by one. The host, whose apron was now a dark red, turned to face the audience.
“Join us, after the break, to find out if our next contestant will… Make. The. Cut.”
The screen showed a profile of the next contestant, listing his skills and vital statistics, then faded out.
Melissa was taken out by security. She was still kicking and screaming as they threw her out the back door and onto the sidewalk. She tried to get back in the guard grabbed her and held her still. “Ma’am?” he said. She kicked and bit and scratched. “Ma’am!”
He faced her. “Ma’am, if you don’t calm down, I’m going to have to call the police.”
She screamed at him, though she didn’t know what it was she was saying – she just couldn’t find the words.
“Ma’am, will you listen to yourself? Just listen to yourself.” His voice was incredulous. “You’re being hysterical. You’re acting crazy.”
Then Melissa stared back at the guard with an expression of moral outrage that would likely be as unfamiliar to him as it would have been to her that very morning.
“Ma’am, if I let you go, do you promise to behave like a civilized human being again?”
She nodded, too bewildered to move or speak.
“Good, thank you,” said the guard.
Melissa drove home, still uncertain what she should feel.
On the radio she heard the familiar voice of Razz Bazz and she decided it was a welcome distraction.
“We now have it on good authority that Janice Jennings, the mother of the late Mathilda, will be the star of her own TV show: The Law Suit. In an interview with the family lawyer, Ed ‘The Shark’ Voorhees, Ms. Jennings will be launching a tort action against the production company for gross negligence resulting in the death of her daughter.”
On to a sound bite: “This sort of criminal negligence just can’t go unpunished,” said The Shark. “And I intend to dedicate the next few months of my life to pursuing justice on behalf of the family. It’s just outrageous how today’s society would chew off its own arm if it meant getting in front of a camera.”
Razz Bazz continued with the report, laughing. “Wise words, Mr. Shark, wise words.” He cleared his throat. “The rights to the show have been bought by Brevacom, the parent company of X-Shield Productions, and should commence shooting this fall.”
Melissa stared at the traffic in front of her and processed the day’s events. And then an idea occurred to her.
After she got home, the first call she made was to Brevacom’s marketing department, where she explained everything, up to and including the death of her only son, and they were very interested in auditioning her for the next season of The Law Suit.
The next call she made after that was to Sandy, and she felt a buzz of excitement when she picked up the phone. After all, there was so much she had to tell her.
By Jonathan Woodrow