By Cat Rambo
JB: I’m submitting my resignation, effective immediately.
I can hear the distant hum of the building’s heart, the slow steps of a janitor cleaning its chambers with wafts of pine and ammonia, strong and harsh. I’ll track him down and kill him when I finish. Leave a message scrawled in scarlet under one of the pastel landscapes adorning the belly of a corridor.
Years ago, when I was an intern, I loved coming into the office late at night. After I was done answering e-mail or polishing a PowerPoint presentation, I’d roll a chair up to the window and lean my forehead against the glass, relishing the coolness. Looking out across the avenues of streetlights, I’d wonder who else was awake and watching the night. I’d look at my reflection, backlit by neon, and see a skinny white woman, dressed for success in navy blue with a touch of red, and starting to climb the career ladder of professional television. Then I’d go drink a triple latte before heading to the gym.
I’m writing this in my office at 3 a.m. It’s a rainy autumn night, warm and wet, and sideways slashes of raindrops mark the window, but I don’t try to see my reflection in it. I just keep typing.
It’s been a pleasure working with you, and I thank you for the advice and assistance you’ve given me.
From my earliest days, a career in television was all I’d ever wanted. Two working parents left me to be raised by the airwaves, from the moment I got home from school to when I unrolled the plastic wrap from my microwaved dinner with its gust of steam. Letterman’s cadences swayed me to sleep every night. The television was family. There was a local variety show host I loved; he’d smile at the camera and thank me, the viewer, for inviting him into my fine home, and then he’d introduce the friends that had come with him, the new friends I’d meet that night.
There had to be a better place to start. Perhaps with gratitude.
Thank you for selecting me to act as a co-producer of Unreality TV. I know we created quality television there, of which we can all be proud.
When Kurt first proposed the idea, I jumped in full of smiles, because I didn’t think he could pull it off. If he crashed and burned, it meant one less at the conference table for a while and whoever came to replace him would be at an automatic disadvantage. Maybe even a possible ally.
JB picked me to assist Kurt, so I shrugged and figured I’d been bitten on the ass by my own scheming. Karma does that sometimes. Now the only chance I would have would be to give Kurt’s series wings and make it fly.
I didn’t think about the most important aspect of his proposal. None of us did. I don’t know if we could have, if our minds were capable of it, or if they’d put some sort of block on that avenue of thought.
“Consider the possibilities,” he’d said, throwing up a flurry of animated rain that faded to reveal his next slide. “Reality television taken to the next level: Unreality TV.”
He obliged with another burst of droplets and a slide that read “Unexploited Creatures of the Fantastic.” Underneath, smudgy photographs were heavily pixilated and hard to make out.
“A vampire, a werewolf, and a demon,” he said. “I’ve got a lead out on a good psychic. A couple of regular humans for contrast. And their location? One of the most unreal places on the planet.”
His next slide appeared: a red-roofed, several-storied mansion, surrounded by flowers and froths of blooming hedges.
“The Winchester Mystery House,” Kurt said, licking his lips with a surprisingly delicate pink tongue. “San Jose, California. A 160-room building, planned and commissioned by Winchester’s widow Sarah, on the advice of her spiritualist. She told Sarah that the ghosts of those killed by the Winchester rifle could only be held at bay by the sound of hammers. Accordingly, builders worked on the house around the clock for the next thirty-eight years. There’re stairs leading nowhere, a whispering chamber, doors opening onto other doors, an entire section blocked off by an earthquake and not seen in years…in this setting, our participants will live and compete. Compete for one million dollars–and a chance to become part of human society.”
We all know the Hidden World exists, full of ghosts and vampires and other supernatural creatures. Nonetheless, the only ones documenting them are the scientists and the scholars. Aside from a few public channel documentaries on Bigfoot and the weekly haunted castle showing on Fox, no one airs anything about humanity’s dirty little secret, that We Are Not Alone.
Despite this silence, we all know that in every major and minor city, at least one district is theirs, full of demon bars and stores with merchandise to suit their specialized needs. Every spring, a group of college kids goes slumming on a dare and ends up in an alleyway, dead. But we don’t document that either–there’s no shows shrilling the Bloodsucker Menace or selling kits to save you if you’re bitten by a werewolf. Doesn’t that seem strange? Outside the norm? It’s like we all have blind spots in our heads where They are concerned.
“One of Tim Burton’s apprentices will be decorating the sets. We have free license from the Winchester people to do whatever we like as long as we restore things to their original condition when we’re done. Think “Fear Factor” with more blood. Think “Survivor” with life or death. Think “Punked” with ghosts.”
Everyone was watching JB’s face rather than paying attention to the words spilling like water from Kurt’s lips. JB nodded and smiled, and the harvest of approvals swelled before anyone got down to nitty-gritty details.
“Angela, I’m tapping you to help Kurt out with this one,” JB said. His face was flushed with the sunlight pouring into the conference room, but the depths of his eyes were air-conditioned.
I could have screamed in frustration, but I kept on smiling. Kurt let his face falter for a moment, just to make sure I knew how unwanted I was, but he paid the price–JB’s gaze slid over and noted the twinge of expression. I kept smiling at Kurt. We beamed at each other like competing spotlights over the wooden expanse of the conference table.
From the first, I knew we had a phenomenon on our hands…
When we started, I thought Kurt was bringing in ringers. Then I thought they were so convincing because they thought they were for real. Then I realized that they were. They were for real.
Where did Kurt get them? I don’t know. He wouldn’t tell me who his contacts were, no matter how much alcohol or cleavage I plied him with. Their hooks must have been into him deeply.
…mainly because of the outstanding people on the show.
The first day, a grey little man stood outside the door.
“What do you want?” I asked. I thought he might be part of the crew. Steel hair combed over a flat white scalp. Wire-rimmed spectacles. A smooth jaw line, bare of stubble.
“Invite me in,” he said. I didn’t understand until Kurt rushed up.
“Master, please, please enter,” he said with a breathless exhalation. Aside to me he said, “Vampires can’t come in unless they’re invited.”
“That’s one of them?” I asked.
“Mr. Smith is our vampire, yes.”
“Looking like that?”
We stared at Mr. Smith, who returned our gaze with placid steadiness, the round circles of his glasses gleaming in the fluorescent light.
“I would suggest,” I said, remembering that we were partners on the project. “That you have Wardrobe glitz him up. Give him some dark flash and sparkle. Glamour.”
Kurt looked at Smith with an anxious glance, but the man let himself be guided along. Wardrobe coughed up a glossy black cape and slicked back his hair. Somehow, they gave his skin a ghastly undertone that could be conveyed by the cameras. But he remained, at the heart of it all, a grey little man.
The werewolf also disappointed me. He was a fat, hairy individual, who came with a pet hedgehog in a box under one hirsute arm. Make-up trimmed him down to lend a subtle touch of menace to his swarthy face.
But the demon-possessed was satisfactory. His features were riddled with enough piercings to defeat airport security, and tattoos covered his arms with sleeves of writhing dragons. We used the design for our advertising, scaled serpents winding in and out of the logo, made from the rusted iron of a garden gate: “Unreality TV.”
Which left our humans. The medium was a forty-something with merlot hair and silver jewelry jingling along her hands and arms. Then we had one jiggle-bunny who’d driven the ratings up in Playboy’s “BunnyCam;” a college student who’d won our “Live Unreal” contest; and a handsome, hunky, heroic type whose closeted sexuality might make for a startling revelation somewhere along the way.
We started filming in May. Burton and his crew did us proud; the interior was half Beetlejuice, half Addams Family. The choice of the Winchester House was smart. Its parquet floors, gold and silver chandeliers, Tiffany glass everywhere all lent to the effect. During those early days, we used to play Count the Fireplaces. There were supposedly forty-seven, but we never could make the count come out right. It changed every day.
There were, as there always are, technical difficulties. Sarah Winchester had been four feet ten inches; we found it hard to set up equipment in the places scaled for those proportions. And some rooms seemed to affect the cameras; they’d stop working after a few minutes or, worse, distort what was being filmed. One long conversation between the medium and the werewolf was fine except for the sound of a baby wailing that inexplicably crept onto the soundtrack.
I had bad dreams every night, in my bed at the Courtyard Marriot ten minutes away.
But it was great television, I admit. Nielsen ratings like you wouldn’t believe.
I know you were pleased and surprised, as we all were, at the ratings.
Pleased and surprised and… puzzled, I think. JB said he hadn’t seen anything like them in four decades of television. He kept asking me what accounted for it. I didn’t have a clue, but I spun lame possibilities into gold and made them plausible.
In the first episode, we introduced our cast. The medium, Tina, wouldn’t talk to Tommy, the demon-possessed teen. We had a hard time persuading her to sit in the same room as him. For a while, we played around and showed her reaction shots whenever he spoke. A camera zooms on her forearm, showing the goose bumps. Great television. Spectacular television.
Tommy was spooky, I admit. No one liked to be alone in a room with him, ever. You’d see him looking at you sideways in a way that might have been him thinking about the center of the universe or else simply how your liver would taste, fresh and warm from your body.
Everyone loved the werewolf. Fan sites went up across the Internet. I’d thought him a fake until I saw his reaction to a silver bracelet the medium was wearing, and the blisters puddled across his skin. He inspired one of the humorous episodes, where we let loose with the comic relief and fed the ravenous cast nothing but stew, mashed potatoes, and pudding, all with no utensils.
When the college girl was turned in the sixth episode, I wanted to pull the show. But Kurt insisted on airing it, and JB backed him up. The vampire appearing in the doorway, her blank and glassy-eyed stare as she came to him, as she tilted her neck for him… must-see television.
That was when my nightmares started, after I’d seen the shot of him raising his face to the camera, his eyes as red as the blood dripping from his mouth. It beat out Janet Jackson’s nipple as the most Tivoed moment in history.
And the following episode, when she rose and he fed her the housekeeper? Some southern states refused to show it; bootleg copies sold like counterfeit crack on eBay.
By the end of it all, I was proud of our creation. I’d forgotten, somehow, that it wasn’t my idea, and that I didn’t want to be working on it. There were too many juicy, almost too-hot-to-air, moments. Tommy, making the walls weep serpents. The medium and the werewolf sneaking off to bang. The first full moon. Bringing in the exorcist. The séance where tiny Sarah Winchester appeared and screamed at us to get out, to get out of her house.
We’d filmed and wrapped it all, ready for release in September. Only two casualties, both caught on film, and the Survivor Act meant we were free and clear on all legalities there. It was all over except for the parties. I still didn’t like the vampire, but he was standing by me when we watched the credits roll by in a darkened room. At the back, a group of stagehands and techies cheered, and someone staggered by in a waft of vodka and lime.
The light from the screen fell across the vampire, the grave-toned cosmetics removed and the skin restored to its dull and unremarkable hue. His dark grey suit was an excellent, expensive cut.
“A good piece of work,” I said, making conversation. “I wonder what the public will think.”
“I do, too,” he said. He smiled. The first expression I’d seen him display. “So kind of the viewers to invite us into their homes.”
When I looked at his face, I understood the smile.
They have to be invited in. Have to be welcomed. Through the mechanism of your family and mine, the television.
If I’d kept my deadpan, he wouldn’t have known I’d understood his little joke. But something in my eyes tipped him off.
I wish I’d gotten my own turning on tape.
We’re forming our own network, JB. Taking the name Unreality TV. Kurt says he retained the rights to the name but you’ll want to check that. I’ve appended a list of the people you’ll need to replace. Not everyone watched our initial show, but we have strong faith that our network will have something for everyone, eventually.
I know what we’ve done, JB, even if you don’t. You and Kurt and I, we opened the door to the Hidden World. Not realizing that they might object or, worse, that they might come through it. Not realizing that maybe there was a reason so many people had refrained from filming it in the past.
Ten years from now, they’ll be featuring the last humans on a show. Visions of what the world was like before the Hidden and the Seen merged. That’s what Smith told me, at any rate.
I look forward to hearing your reaction to our programming, JB. Kurt sends his regards, but is currently indisposed. It takes three days for a vampire to turn, so he’ll be up and raring to go by Monday. We’ll be by with our proposal then.
Until then, I hope you’ll be watching.
More from Cat Rambo:
Cat Rambo reads and writes in the Pacific Northwest, on the eagle-haunted shores of Lake Sammamish. Her short story collection, Eyes Like Sky And Coal And Moonlight, was a 2010 Endeavour Award finalist and was recently released for the Kindle and other e-readers. You can find more of her work at http://www.kittywumpus.net/blog/fiction/.