The Nova walks into the room. Then he glides into the room. The next time, he tries coming in through the window. The producer wants to make it look as natural as possible, so they do it a few more times from a couple of different angles.
Then it’s my turn. For this episode, they’ve dressed me in what my PR guy tells me is my signature outfit. Black dress slacks, black sports coat, white button-down shirt, and skinny black tie, nicely contrasted by the scruffy black Chuck Taylors and about a half a day of forgetting to shave or brush my teeth after the last beer.
At least the shoes are comfortable. I walk in, picturing myself in slo-mo, like a reject extra in some Quentin Tarantino film. Which would probably pay more. We do it a couple times, and I can’t even pretend to be interested in what lies behind door number two.
The next take, the guy with the Steadicam gets right up in my face. They’re going for the reaction shot. Something in that room was put there just for me. I shrug and open the front door to the house I share with five other people who wish they were somewhere else too.
Did I say his name out loud? I don’t think so. My mouth is too full of spit and bile.
Nevertheless, my former partner turns his head in my general direction. His DAC—digital access camera—is sort of tilting to one side. They’re a bitch like that, always sliding around no matter how much effort you make with the straps and clips and duct tape.
I’m acutely aware of the silence surrounding us, and the ice that threatens to well up in the cavern between us. I got nothing. Somewhere some editor is cussing me out. The last time I saw Jack, everyone thought he was going to die.
That sudden anger, the flash of pure fury that always seemed to come from a deep, cold place inside me, veils my eyes momentarily. I come back to myself on the back porch, staring silently at the ocean, just the tiniest hint of frost glistening on the wrought iron railing. I don’t know how I got out here, but the camera followed me, and I guess I’m going to make the highlights reel this week.
Wilmington Beach. A second-rate vacation spot of some local fame. Chances are if you live in North Carolina or West Virginia, your grandparents spent at least one vacation here.
It’s a sort of cut-rate picturesque type of place, which is how the producers are able to afford the big house on the shore. Not big enough to give us enough space, but enough to insure that the week’s conflict can be featured in as many different rooms as possible. Viewers get bored apparently. Our viewers more than most.
I’m still not sure why people are watching this shit. None of us are famous anymore. The house, the show, the prize—this is just how far we’ve fallen. A couple of us do guest spots on other shows, but the rest, like me, were just C-List enough to get offered a big house, annoying roommates, and a chance to give America a front seat to our inevitable decline.
After the cameras go off, the producer, a kid who introduces himself by the Hollywood moniker of The Big Show, tells me that Jack is going to be staying. He’s our new housemate. But don’t worry, because he’ll be chemically sedated the whole time. Heavily sedated. I have nothing to do with that.
Or maybe I do.
I head into the kitchen. Wolf-Boy’s at the grill. He outgrew the juvenile tag twenty pot-filled years ago, but it’s one of those things. You get tagged, and what are you going to do? Not like The Big Show who everyone, except the guy who rolls the credits, calls Bob. He picked his own nickname and good luck trying to make it stick when you do that. Sometimes you work a brand and sometimes that’s not what happens.
My hands are clammy. I’m not good at this. The adrenaline starts to rush, and then I want the ice to come, and then I remember where I am and get a beer from the fridge. It’s hard, ignoring my former partner sitting across the house from me, eyes fixed on no particular place, DAC just about falling off the end of his temple on his flimsy elastic strap.
“You want a burger?” Wolf-Boy’s voice has a growl to it. He smokes about a pack and a half a day. He does it to sound cool. And maybe die quicker.
“No.” The beer will hold me over until I heat up some of yesterday’s Thai delivery.
I’m more interested in whatever the hell Venus is doing. American Venus. Her looks earned her that particular appellation, and the feminists had a field day with it. She is a cheery beacon of love. All the time. At first I thought it would wear off.
I sit and watch. She hums to herself as she bedazzles her DAC with black and gold rhinestones and little skull stickers. Wolf-Boy brings his slab of steak dinner to the table, seared on one side and mostly bleeding all over. He has this habit of playing his role to the hilt, but there are no cameras here, at least none that we know of.
“Wolfie.” Her voice is as sweet as her face. “You know I’m vegetarian.”
“It’s my dinner, babe,” he says. “You don’t like it, go glue your little doily in the living room.”
The rush of her anger under the cheer is manna from heaven, hot nectar from an American goddess. I feel the familiar itching in my palms, and clench my fists, squelching the desire to offer her the opportunity to bask in the calm I could bring. She looks up and smiles. I don’t know if she realizes how close I came to getting kicked out already. Or maybe she does, and that’s why she’s smiling.
Venus starts to hum again, her pitch way, way off. Wolf-Boy’s ears twitch in agony and then I’m treated to the molasses hate that burns its way through his lanky form.
Jack sits in the corner, nodding in time to the tuneless song Venus continues to sing. Gracelessly, I push my chair back. Pouring the rest of the beer out, I toss the empty bottle in the sink and stalk out of the room. I know that later we’ll have to “talk” about this little “incident” and how it made the Lovely Venus feel, but for now I have to get out of here.
I’m standing on the porch again. Jack comes up, uncomfortably close. I can feel him breathing on my cheek. Something is rotten deep inside him, something that won’t be solved by brushing his teeth. It’s the chemicals they have him on. They’ve reached all through him, folding him into their bioengineered embrace. His eyes try hard to focus and I think I see recognition in there, but it could be my imagination and I don’t really want to think about what happened. I wish I hadn’t tossed the beer.
I can’t say I was surprised to see him here. I’d wondered when he would show up. They’d been bringing in some of the other sidekicks every couple of weeks. No one expected any of them to win, but they might get one of us to break the code. If that happened, their prize money would be just as real, and they’d probably need it more than we did. A guy like the Nova, he’d been in cheesy martial arts movies since the ’90s and with a little Miracle Hair he could keep going for another decade or so.
“Jack. You in there big guy?”
My voice startles my former partner. Instead of focusing on me, though, he cranes his head to look up at the weather-beaten wood planks of the ceiling. I leave him standing there and head down to the ocean. It’s freezing this time of year, and the water feels like heaven on my bare feet.
I made the big time when Strongman had his break with reality on a platform at Grand Central Station. One moment he had been fighting something with way too many tentacles that had slithered up one of the tunnels from the East River, the next he was demolishing anything that looked at him sideways. And given that he was shouting something about the walls having eyes, there wasn’t much left of that venerable landmark by the time I heard the call over the scanner.
I got out there in time to drop him in his tracks before he finally brought the roof down on himself and about 200 other tourists, commuters and groupies who had rushed to see their hero beat down some tentacle ass. That’s not to say there weren’t casualties.
Prior to that, I had been working as a cop. It wasn’t quite an alter ego, since nobody was quite sure what I could do. Even me.
After that, I took a couple of gigs in international security, corporate negotiations. Wasn’t as flashy as some, but seemed a good fit. Every once in a while, I got caught up in something the heavy hitters had going on, but mostly I had my steady gig at the NYPD.
Jack volunteered to be my partner once it became obvious that I was something more than a cop. We didn’t call them sidekicks. Partner was better. He was there to keep me down to earth, to call me back whenever the ice tried to lead me too far. I tasted the emotions of the crowd, or the negotiators, or the nemesis du jour, and encased them in the cold quiet of calm order.
They called it The Peace, and me The Peacemaker. I remember shivering in the pleasure of its path through my fingers.
End of the week. Time for the “house meeting.” We sit and throw one-liners at each other, competing to see who can get the prized spot of rage and potential loss of control that will be cut into the trailer for that week’s show.
I dread these things. They wreck my calm.
As I suspected, Venus launches into a rant about the respect for personal life choices, to be free from others’ tyranny toward lower species. Here Wolf-Boy growls, as though worried she is including him in that category. She probably is.
The Nova interrupts. “Not everyone can live on wheatgrass and dingleberries.”
“I don’t think that’s a very helpful remark.” Venus is conspicuous in her choice of “you” language. “It makes me feel very hurt when others don’t respect Mother Nature.”
“It’s a fucking cow,” says Wolf-Boy. “The only thing she was mother of was about a dozen calves they bred from her until it was time to turn her into hamburger.”
The emotions spark back and forth. I struggle to stay abreast of them, holding myself above the waves. I sense the guy with the Steadicam inching closer.
“Back off, Cletus.” I stand up and take a breath. I get ignored.
The Nova jumps back into the conversation, raising his voice. Venus gets a hurt face on, lowers her voice, puts the pout in her lower lip. Wolf-Boy lights up another cigarette like he’s not supposed to.
I sit back down and watch Jack as he tracks back and forth, following the pitch and tone if not the conversation. It must be like someone is randomly turning a volume knob in his brain.
“Listen up, people.” I stand again and raise my hands, a neutral gesture, completely misinterpreted. Venus squeals and cowers. Wolf-Boy leaps straight into the air and comes down behind the low partition that separates the living room from the kitchen space. He crouches by the refrigerator.
Cletus gets closer, and I have an audience of one bright staring glass eye. There is a moment in which I can already hear the cheesy swell of foreboding strings they are going to layer over this moment. I put my hands down, force myself to draw the calm back in.
“We just have to work together.” It’s definitely an anticlimactic moment. Venus sits back on the couch and readjusts her cleavage.
Wolf-Boy tries to get something started again, but then Jack wanders off, Venus gets a call on her cell—which was supposed to be on silent—and the meeting kind of drifts away. It doesn’t make for exciting television, but what are you going to do?
The Big Show is not happy, standing in the living room, berating everyone unfortunate to have been caught inside when he showed up. Our ratings are dropping, which means commercial revenues are down. Way down. I think they’re starting to use some of the prize money for craft services. This week, especially, it seems that the show failed to generate any controversy; it had generally failed to spur anything online. Even hatred. They should tape this guy’s rant. It might help perk up the numbers.
While Bob wracks his brain, I stand on the back porch, watching the ocean. Drink a beer. The house grows uncomfortably small and quiet. When the cameras aren’t here, I prefer to stay outside.
I could have told him why his show was diving. People don’t watch us because we’re hip or cool or they wish they were us or had our problems. They watch to wait for one of us to lose control, for it to be THAT moment, caught live on cameras.
The laws against use of our special talents are pretty strict. I’m sorry to say I was the reason most of them were enacted in the knee jerk legislative reaction that always seems to accompany the actions of one disturbed individual.
That was me, just for the record. It seems that the calming influence I can project, both the light waves of cool collectiveness and the intense ice shards of frozen watchfulness—the physical manifestations they called The Peace—leave more than a small piece of themselves inside everyone they touched.
At first it wasn’t that noticeable. There were a few people who never got over their PTSD from the Strongman incident, just kind of sat back in their figurative rocking chairs and let the rest of their lives happen to them.
Then there were a few other things that happened. Strange growths found on some of the internal organs of various suicide victims in the City. Public Health had a fine time alarming the public with fears of some new biological weapon. Nobody could put it together, though, and like all the other amorphous threats of bio-warfare that filtered out of the media, it got tucked back into some Internet graveyard, moving out of the way to make room for the latest paparazzi shot of Venus and her Beau of the Week.
I could have noticed the change in Jack, but we weren’t that close. I mean, we were, but he had come to me a cold, reserved man, the kind who finds it easy to control what few emotions he has.
We were ideal for each other. When it got hard to be around other people, when the taste-the-rainbow waves of pain and anger threatened to become overwhelming rather than sustaining, he was there to pull me back on dry land.
He came with me on that call. It was The Rager, our friendly, local recidivist. The first time we faced each other, he had left more than one scorch mark on a sensitive part of my anatomy. The papers loved our duels—Fire and Ice they liked to call it—and published great big color pictures of The Rager and The Peacemaker, duking it out with some iconic NYC scenery in the background.
Unfortunately for the City, I had been growing steadily, stealthily more powerful, and he had been getting more angry and driven. Our final showdown was on its way, just like you see in the comic book mashup movies.
It was going to be an epic battle, but then it happened outside the wrought-iron fence walls of a high-school parking lot. That day The Peace rose quickly, violently, and when the dust settled, The Rager was nothing more than crystallized flesh and bone.
They finally figured out that Public Health crisis. The same growths found on the suicide victims matched exactly The Rager’s petrified flesh. And the flesh on the six students and three teachers killed outright, standing within the shadow of the blast.
The suicides came after. Other people—just weren’t the people they had been before.
Jack ended up in an institution, his attempt foiled by the misfire of his service revolver. From that time, harsh chemicals and fluorescent lights had kept him in the land of the living. Even if what he was doing wasn’t quite that.
It’s getting dark. The tide is pulling back from the shore. Three of the last beers in the house sit on the table next to me. It’s been a couple hours, but it’s cold enough outside to keep them chilled. I debate going back in the house. I could spend the night out here, with the cold as my welcome companion.
Better than the house. Jack’s taken to roaming the halls the past couple of nights. I get bad insomnia. My brain can’t shut down for a few hours after everyone goes to bed, too full from processing their offerings of jealousy and petty hate.
I can’t stand to see him. Not that I feel guilty. Sometimes I do. Every time I go near, he turns to look at me, as if realizing he knows me. But the memory slips away every time his brain gets close to grasping hold of recognition.
The screen door slams behind me with more force than I intended. I pause, holding my breath, waiting to see if I woke anyone. I don’t hear any sudden shuffling or movement, so I settle down and go to put the empty bottles in the sink. It’s a habit that pisses off the American Venus, who thinks all beer bottles should be placed in the recycling, but it’s dark and I don’t want to.
I stand at the sink, the last bottle still in my hand, looking out the window over the dark sand. The full moon casts a path across the ocean. With the breeze coming in the screen door, I can just barely still hear the waves.
The barest hint of frost forms at my fingers, leaving faint tracks across the glass bottle. I try to hold in the dark calm, but there are no cameras here, no prying housemates. Only myself and the night and The Peace.
The bottle slips from my hand and lands with a surprisingly dull thump in the metal sink. I turn to see Jack, standing in the shadows at the edge of the room. His eyes are more focused. His head drifts around. I realize he is looking for the all-seeing eye. There is nothing but the dark.
He comes closer. I lean back against the sink but he stops a few feet away this time. His eyes rest somewhere below mine, still unable to make eye contact.
“I remember you.”
Jack’s voice is loud in the room. I wince and lower my voice to reply. “Do you, partner?” I didn’t realize my voice would come out so brittle.
My attempt to get him to whisper has no effect. He says in a normal tone: “I remember.” I wait for him to continue, but he can’t.
Jack drops his gaze and looks around. Carefully, almost delicately he pulls a chair from the table and drags it to where he can see out the door into the gloom over the water. He sits there for a while. I wait for him to say something else, but that’s all he’s got for me.
I move to stand behind him, my hands resting on his shoulders. It’s a curiously intimate gesture for two men who have not seen each other in years, and who were never close, but it doesn’t feel awkward. He reaches up to my hand, clasping it in his.
There is a jolt as his pain washes over me. There is something dead under the pain, as if it, too, had metastasized under the touch of The Peace. The calm starts to rise in me again. My hand grows cold, and the ice grows cold and clear. I step forward to stand beside him.
Jack looks up at me. I know he can feel The Peace like an offering in my skin. A light flashes deep behind his eyes. Just for a second, I wonder if I miscalculated, but then he is gone under the ice.
I’ve tried, but I can’t do it. My ability to accept that something I almost had grasped—a chance for recognition, a chance to do the right thing in the world—had slipped irreconcilably away. I can’t say when it happened, but I suspect it began when I put the Strongman down on the cold filthy marble of the Grand Central Station.
Revelations that occur after midnight and before the sun rises are not to be trusted. We are more prone to act because we cannot see an end to the despair, to the blackness that settles down, makes itself part of something that cannot be excised without losing some important part of yourself.
The Peace rises in me, the cold heart of its promise begging to slip from my hold. Through the velvet silence, I feel the dim threads of dream hate, anger, worry, jealousy and just the slightest amount of love, courtesy of Venus, seep through the night.
I reach out and grasp the metal railing, the cold leaching itself into my palms, to be met by the slow, encroaching tide of ice. Questing out, I push the shadows of silent canyons through the fragile modern spaces of the house.
A sigh drifts up, the only sign that life still clings to its idea, if not its fleshly reality. There is a sound like coughing, and then I’m alone.
My bag holds a few necessities, and I don’t mind helping myself to the keys to one of The Big Show’s shiny cars. I have a long way to go. I was never much of a hero; now I realize that was never my calling. All I can offer is a final sort of Peace.
© 2014 by Rachel A. Brune
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