Wyatt’s eyes burned, the music keeping him company. He hadn’t slept much, just as he hadn’t slept much for the past several nights, and the several nights before them. Every time he lay back in bed and closed his eyes – and only when he wasn’t high – the image of his father’s stricken face following the doctor’s appointment scraped at the darkness. There was no escaping it. The next sequence of shots was also invariable: his father then roaming the backyard when he should have been at work; his mother’s increasingly stretched expression – a permanent mien of confidence hooked on both sides by doubt; Amy pulling up the driveway at the close of her one-year stint at UCLA, her tuition gone the way of Rich’s job. All of it his fault. Most of it irreparable. He stayed up at night now because only that special kind of open-eyed dark allowed him solace. It was worth his eyes burning to not have to see the truth.
For a moment, Wyatt considered the possible outcomes of his trying to right the wrongs he’d inadvertently enacted, then concluded – as he had countless times already – that they’d all already been far enough down their own destructive paths when it had happened, and for him to think he had any say in anyone’s fate – least of all his own – was foolish. So he just sat, alone, staring out into the darkness from his upstairs window. He felt angry. He felt foolish for feeling angry. He supposed that whoever was responsible for all this bullshit must surely have it out for him, a notion he quickly, and guiltily, rescinded.
And then it happened. The van pulled up the driveway just before sunrise, its pale bulk luminescent against the pines that sheltered owls and whose trunks filtered city from woods. Its approach cued him in to a certain collective consciousness that infused the house’s stillness with a quivering, near-audible edge: the rest of them lay awake as well. He felt the stillness like he was certain the rest of them felt it, which is why the van and its crunching of gravel and its obtrusive headlights – at once piercing the dark and conquering the silence – didn’t register as a shock. They knew it approached.
He sat for a moment, pipe in hand, estimating the capacity this van and whatever came inside it held for the family’s system, though he couldn’t claim much a part of it anymore. For an instant, the notion of them being separate from made him hope the barreling vehicle held some stimulus for positive change, a remedy that cured on impact. Fate had assigned him cancer, and now he was willing to lunge for about anything that seemed capable enough, new enough, to reverse their collective misfortune.
Then he decided he should probably put the pipe he held back in its trusty box, the box back under the bed, the bed again firmly set off from the outside world by the quiet sliding shut of the window he now presided over. Though he knew he sat hidden from view, he should risk none of it being seen, even by strangers. Wyatt had valued privacy as a character trait for so long it was as if he’d had the words stamped across his forehead at birth – itself an ideal his father often and loudly touted as “one of our civilization’s crown tenets.” But along with the tumor just over a year previous, the realization that even a guarded existence was susceptible to ruinous penetration had amplified this attribute to a near-obsessive degree. He’d only recently realized he lay sleepless at night now, as opposed to then, because he’d managed to hide from even himself the true bent of his emotions; his biting regret.
The van’s side door wrenched open just as Wyatt began lowering the window, so he paused. He heard movement, an orchestrated thrashing of sorts, in the room next door: Emmett. The youngest of the five of them, and invariably the luckiest. Outside, a woman stepped from the vehicle, heeled foot grating garishly on gravel. A man followed suit. He held a camera, its prominent lens glinting in the moonlight, nosing into the lawn. Sage began howling from his place on the back porch. The woman turned to face the man. She ran her hands over a striped blazer, a move that reminded Wyatt of a nurse’s brisk professionalism. “I want you recording,” she said – too loudly. “This is where it starts.” The man nodded just as light from Wyatt’s parents’ downstairs windows flooded the yard. This new perspective on the scene allowed Wyatt a glimpse of the cameraman’s nose, bandaged at the bridge and a raw purple color everywhere else. A recent, glaring injury.
The woman turned again, her gaze landing on Wyatt as if she’d scouted his window a hundred times before. She pointed; he nearly ducked from its frame, but such an action might imply guilt. “There,” she said. “Are you getting that?” The man nodded, camera bobbing. “Don’t move the camera, Kenny! Christ.” The two proceeded up the front walkway, their line of sight never breaking from Wyatt. He backed away from their gaze, at once feeling absolutely too unprepared, too blazed, for whatever this was about. He’d been incorrect. These people and their pre-dawn arrival weren’t planned for, couldn’t possibly have been expected. Some part of his consciousness – the part that breeds fear at its basest level – sent a message stinging from cerebellum to fingertips: Curiosity is not the right emotion, it said. This is not okay.
A knock sounded from the front door. He heard his father stumble, cursing, into the foyer. Rich never swore. Then, as if impacted by an echo that only gained resonance on its way up the stairwell, his own door trembled under the weight of a fist: Amy. Despite the tumult of their relationship over the past year – what he felt must be a massive unspoken resentment of Amy’s toward him – some bond kindled in childhood, a series of fine threads that still held them close, told him she’d played a part in this arrival. It was just like her.
From downstairs, Rich: “Do you have any idea what fucking time it is?” His voice came hollow, if grudging. Then, almost as an afterthought: “Who are you people?”
Toward his own door: “Who is it?”
But then, during the cursory scan of his room to make sure everything was in its proper hidden place, he saw his laptop. The HP sat on his desk where he’d left it twenty minutes earlier, backlit screen still hawking a $9.99 monthly membership for complete access to the private sexual escapades of the absurdly stacked, impeccably trimmed, and insatiably lusting Kristi Coxxx who, as her name implied, was rarely captured on camera without some massive, ambiguous penis jutting toward her mouth from off screen. The image of her own spread legs seemed, from this distance, like another poster tacked to his wall, squared away beneath Marlon Brando in grim black and white, a furious Lance Armstrong, and Nighthawks’ glassed-in couple, hunched conspiratorially over coffee. Some wiseass – Brett, no doubt – had taken a sharpie to the female diner’s red blouse, accentuated her cleavage with bolder and bolder strokes until finally her newfound breasts were really the only thing in the painting anyone could look at. From the hallway: “Amy. Duh. Open up.”
But now Kristi’s electric presence dominated the arrangement. Wyatt jumped for the laptop, slammed it shut. Two years ago, the anxiety might have overwhelmed his body’s capacity for coordination, rendered him immobile. Now, though, he’d grown accustomed to the situation, played out again and again in a hundred different settings. His bedroom. The showers at school. The first time he and Brenda had slept together, his parents thinking he was away on a single-night debate trip. Embarrassment so crushing it rendered the body immobile. The removal of his left testicle at seventeen had been beyond sobering, an event that proved capable of taking his existence and turning it neatly inside-out with the flippant nonchalance of someone washing a new pair of jeans. And the rest of them had suffered for it. Toward his own door: “I’m… naked. Be right there.”
Beyond the immediate psychological and financial ramifications of the cancer, Wyatt knew the ordeal had been emotionally draining for the entire family. Melanie, though, attempted to isolate the situation as one raw truth in a line of them, a series of vivid, matter-of-fact markers placed on top of the Smith family’s spiral of history in an attempt to smooth over the anguished details. Because if people had to know they were suffering, there was no sense in making the situation appear even more hopeless. This was his mother’s defense mechanism: a compulsive need to order and to label from such an abstract perspective that turning a blind eye on what really happened wasn’t just acceptable, but practical. She hid the truth from herself to hide it from the rest of them.
Amy knocked again, impatient. “Christ, Wyatt, it’s always about your balls.” Wyatt stood, stepped to the door, turned the knob, and met his sister square beneath its frame. She looked appropriately confused; dark, heavy coils of hair pillow-beaten in all directions around a pouting face and brilliant green eyes. The dim stretch of hallway between their rooms – a result of several light bulbs permanently winking out – exaggerated the shadows cast by the photographs, the crucifix, the framed, folded American flag that clung to the wall opposite – a relic of Rich’s own father, Magnus, who’d built the house himself two generations previous.
“Yeah?” His tongue tasted pasty and sour. Class II Cottonmouth.
“You wanna head downstairs with me?” The question read like an exclamation, its meaning parsed and warped by a theatricality at this point as much a part of Amy’s persona as any other element. Nearly every lead role since the fifth grade in both St. Francis and Evergreen’s drama departments had nurtured and bolstered her flair over the years into something that, even if it hadn’t started as a natural passion, was now integral to her function among them. And she loved it. She stood – in imposing force of hands, hips, and attitude – staring at Wyatt. He realized the answer she expected from him was crucial. Her presence at this moment served as an invitation: they could go downstairs either united or not, but she’d be fine either way. This was for him.
Amy’s gaze tightened. “Are you high right now?”
“It’s five in the morning.” Wyatt’s left hand crept up past his face, began kneading a tangled curl of disheveled blonde hair – “wild card hair,” his mother labeled it. Downstairs, Rich’s initial shouts had simmered to what sounded like a heated, two-way conversation. Amy stood on tiptoes, peering over Wyatt’s shoulder into his room. He knew what she was thinking: he never met anyone at the doorway unless he had something to hide. They used to tolerate his smoking; it kept up his weight during the Chemo, even if Melanie fretted its affording Rich some degree of access to a psychotropic. But the porn was a more recent development – his interest in it sparked only after – and there wouldn’t be any rationalizing this new habit to his family.
“Hey you two. Are we going downstairs for the argument?” Wyatt jumped at the greeting, shaken by Emmett’s wraithlike approach. The kid was always sneaking up on people, one mischievous habit of too many. A year earlier, Emmett had lost both thumbs in what the Bulletin described as an “unplanned fireworks explosion,” though the truth had actually involved pipe bombs and a great deal of consideration. It had happened within a week of Wyatt’s operation; they recovered together on the living room’s dual couches, drinking smoothies – Melanie’s orders – and catching up on the first four season of LOST in marathon stretches. Emmett’s main concern the entire time had been that now the aliens wouldn’t take him.
Amy shot one more frown over Wyatt’s shoulder, then reached for Emmett’s and pulled him near. “You lead the way, buddy.”
“Amy! I’m thirteen! Don’t call me ‘buddy.’” Emmett had no friends aside from his siblings, and Wyatt even felt guilty admitting to himself that, had they not spent an entire miserable summer down and out together, the two of them likely wouldn’t be anywhere near as close. Still, he found himself envious of his brother’s young age. The oblivion it afforded. Emmett didn’t really know what their family used to stand for, so how could he be dissatisfied with the present?
“You got it, Lieutenant Emmett.” Amy’s humor read as a galvanizing call, an attempt to rally the kid into his characteristic animated state, but his gaze remained tired. Wyatt stared at Amy, unsure of her behavior. He knew she couldn’t be trusted when her eyes flashed as they were, but then again, she had come to team up. He pulled his door shut behind him as they made their way, single file, down the hall to the stairs. Now they were together, the entire situations seemed unreal to the point of artificiality, a notion that for Wyatt recalled one of Brett’s more endearing quips – “It’s all so improbable, it’s probable!” – his best friend’s propensity for shouting the line directly proportional to the amount he drank.
“Is this happening?” Wyatt had just realized how Amy could look so comfortable given the circumstances. This was a performance.
“Well, you’ve definitely just settled something for me.” Of course that’s what she’d say. So casual. So real. So deflective. A perfect response to avoid an actual one. And he’d thought she’d reached out.
“Quiet, Amy.” Duped! But for what purpose? This is it, he thought. This is the reality you’ve created for yourself: your own sister willing to set you up.
“Quiet, both of you!” As soon as they began descending the stairs, their feet would be visible from the living room. Wyatt leaned past Amy, pushed Emmett down the first step. The kid clung to the banister, heedless of his vulnerable appearance; missing thumbs made balancing difficult in certain situations. Wyatt never let Emmett’s handicap interfere with horseplay, though, especially when it was least appropriate. Still, Amy glanced back at him, her expression incredulous. As she followed behind Emmett, Wyatt watched her hands dart across her head, her face, her pajama top. Despite the hour, a good impression was crucial. He just hoped his own eyes weren’t a glaring indicator of what he’d been up to. Wyatt fished around his memories for a single instance in which Amy appeared even in semi-public uncomposed, but he found none. Her life was an act designed to keep Rich both sane and proud, and the amount it had seeped into all other facets of her existence was distressing.
“…And now you’ve got the kids up. I really for the life of me cannot believe how inconsiderate this entire situation –”
“Ten thousand. Monthly. It’s generous. You really also need to consider the corporate sponsorship we’re offering. We’re talking groceries. Televisions. As much as you want, as often as you want it.” Wyatt’s first glimpse of the scene located Rich on the couch, legs planted so far and wide that his bathrobe hid nothing. Melanie sat beside him, silent, arms folded tight against her chest. They both stared at the woman who perched before them on the raised hearth – its surface matted in Sage hair – herself making a pointed effort not to glance at Rich below face level.
“you’re not listening,” Rich said, “I said get this camera out of my face. Please.” Kenny stood in the corner panning back and forth, an overweight metronome who’d tracked dirt clear across the living room. Though Rich now spoke politely, Wyatt caught a shadow of panic in his face, prying into both eyes. His own stomach sank from the weight of the image, and he looked to Amy for a lead. She sighed, smiled plaintively, and crossed the room to stand behind her father.
“Mr. Smith, this is an imperative opportunity for your family. Yours is a story that needs to be told.”
“Dad,” Amy said, placing both her hands on his shoulders, “What do these people want?” Wyatt’s dry gaze roamed the room – its neglected corners, the objects that occupied them; all so familiar. He suddenly wondered how he looked through Kenny’s lens. Was he comfortable here? Did the machine demonstrate that he stood precisely this way because a lifetime’s worth of osmosis dictated that this was his place when they all entered the room together? Or did he just look like the idiot standing in the middle?
“Amy, you two, get back upstairs.” Melanie pointed at Amy, whose cheeks flushed an intentional glow – “stage blush,” their mother called it. Wyatt knew Amy wouldn’t speak any more just yet. She needed a moment to assess the situation, see what was called for, then deliver. Melanie shifted on the couch, leather cushions rasping. Her nails, a fiery magenta, found their way to the armrest, began tapping. A Kahlua spill from last Christmas still shone on its stretched surface. His fault. And before everything else that had been his fault, they would have had something like that taken care of. Maybe even a whole new couch. Melanie looked at her children like she was actually looking past them – a discomfiting gaze into a world of could-have-beens. From someone’s pocket, a burp of static.
“I think Wyatt should have a say in this,” Melanie began. As she spoke, her face fell from the group to her lap. Her hand massaged the stain, pressing deep into its center. Wyatt knew what an effort it must be for her to appear in any way contentious. She always put their needs first – Rich, then children, in that order. “I don’t think we should discount it just yet, Rich. This could be an opportunity for Amy.”
Rich stared at Melanie, relaying a vulnerability Wyatt would have given anything not to see. To be fair, the last two times that expression had taken hold of his demeanor – on a dusty, lamplit street corner after a routine mugging one Spring Break in Puerto Vallarta, and again when they’d been formally introduced, in a stark fluorescent room, to the term “malignant” – they’d only been tremors of sorts, a slip that left things shaken but intact. Both times, though, she’d responded by taking control, smoothing over rough edges with a cavalcade of organizational implements and a frightening show of forward thinking.
Now, his father stood, casting a damning glance around the room’s assemblage. “I – I want no part in this… this… whatever this is.” He strode toward the stairwell, bathrobe billowing. Kenny squatted in the corner, camera angled at a dizzying position, attempting to follow Rich’s progress. The stance called further attention to his nose, its skin so tender it shone beneath the light, fit to burst. If it hurt – which it had to – he didn’t register any discomfort. As soon as Rich disappeared from sight, though, the room’s attention turned to Amy, who stood, stricken by their father’s departure. Her empty hands still hung tentatively over the seat he’d occupied, her mouth perked into a genuine “o” of concern. Amy had served as Rich’s guardian angel in a way Wyatt – even Melanie – never hoped to mimic, and this was one of the few times her attempts to soothe had failed.
The expression, though, only lasted a second before she turned to Wyatt. “What do you say?” Amy said, repeating Melanie’s statement.
“Say to what?” He genuinely had no idea what was going on, though Amy’s blasé behavior right now at once cued him into the flash of insight he’d had earlier, upstairs: she was in on this.
“To this opportunity.” Something in her voice aligned itself with his own thoughts. This was an opportunity, regardless of what it entailed; an opportunity for his decision to maybe take the hassle he’d caused her and set it right. An opportunity for the current Code-Red anxiety level they all functioned on to maybe slip back into less dire shades of yellow. Wyatt saw his agreement as the first necessary domino in a line of them, and so it really wasn’t even a decision, but rather something that flowed through him – a near-divine feeling of purpose, as if it had been fated all along.
“Yes.” Three years of debate, of training in rhetoric under Brenda’s concerned eye, had prepared him for these moments. They calmed him, made him feel grounded in a way not much else did anymore. Wyatt straightened his posture as he spoke, stilled his now-sweaty palms. As the word rang out, even Sage’s howls, which had persisted throughout the confrontation, ceased.
The strange woman’s smile flickered, died. Amy’s gaze boomeranged from Wyatt to the woman and back again, concerned. Emmett, whom Wyatt had more or less forgotten in the span of the past three minutes, whistled the sound effect that accompanies descending cartoon explosives. Kenny hovered, clearly frozen in uncertainty. When no one spoke for several seconds, the woman cleared her throat.
“Cut, Kenny, please.” She turned first to Melanie, then Amy. “I thought he was a guaranteed ‘no.””
Amy looked at Wyatt as she spoke. “We thought he was, too.”
Melanie nodded. “You were supposed to say ‘no,’ Honey.”
The past thirty seconds had first elated, then confused Wyatt terribly: a humiliating combination. Regardless, he stood his ground. “Why am I supposed to say ‘no?’ What am I even saying ‘no’ to? One minute I’m in my bedroom, staring out my window, not bothering anyone, and the next I’m literally having my opinions written for me?” He looked to Melanie for support, but she again dropped her eyes to her lap. He knew she didn’t appreciate his acting out – his “going against the grain” – a point of contention between them that had festered since he’d stopped attending mass after graduating middle school.
Amy replied through a look of guilt that Wyatt knew had nothing to do with him and everything to do with their now-absent father, upstairs, probably listening to the proceedings through one of the heating vents nearest the bathroom. “She asked for the one who’d give a genuine negative reaction, and I thought you were guaranteed.”
The woman turned back to Wyatt. “I’m afraid everything to this point has been a bit misleading, Wyatt, but you’re just going to have to deal. My name is Joan Byrd, and everyone in your family is already under contract.” The same adrenaline that had allowed for his decision-making took each of her words, honed their point so that it stabbed at is perception of the room. “We just thought it would be best to capture at least one genuine look of shock, for believability’s sake when this thing airs. That, and we’ve kind of written you in as a malcontent.” She plowed right over his confusion, his dawning sense of betrayal. “Go ahead, keep that incredulous look – it’s great! But we have to keep filming now. Shouldn’t have cut at all, really. Kenny!”
Kenny swung back around. Joan stood from her position on the hearth. “Sit. Everyone.” She paused as Amy and Emmett walked to the couch, settled on either side of the middle cushion, which they left open for Wyatt. He remained standing.
“Are you all serious right now? I’m the only one who doesn’t know about this?” Wyatt remained in the arched entryway. Emmett stuck both his hands between his legs, a self-conscious gesture Wyatt had passed along. Amy smiled, but her head tilted in such a way as to imply Wyatt should just go with the situation. The apparent tension in her expression, though, playing itself out in near-comic spasms along the creases of her smile, betrayed her surprise at his agreement.
Melanie spoke. “Wyatt, please calm down. It’s just something to do. Television, Wyatt! And you know, with your father now…” Her eyes jumped to the camera. Would they think she meant the money? “It’s not like we’ve known for more than a few weeks. Amy sent the application not even expecting a response…”
“I am calm, Mom. I just agreed to whatever. The yelling’s only happening precisely because you’re all mad I didn’t say ‘no.’ Do you want me to say ‘no?’ Here it is. Are you filming, Kenny? I say no. I say no. I say no.”
“This is lovely,” Joan said. “Lovely. Really, truly organic. And we need to keep it that way, so let’s get back on script while everything’s still fresh.” Melanie shut her mouth, nodded. Amy looked utterly bewildered, affronted on three sides by as many emotional responses, though it seemed as if excitement was just beating out the other two. Kenny’s lens jumped around the room, settled on Joan. “Very good. My name is Joan Byrd. I’m a representative of Dynamo. We all know Dynamo?” As everyone’s head but Wyatt’s nodded in cohesive agreement, Joan turned to rest an elbow on the mantel, revealed an ass covered in residual Sage hair. “Yes. Good!”
“Wait.” Wyatt wasn’t yet ready to desist. How had they all kept this from him? He turned to Amy in appeal. “I’m not saying I’m against whatever’s going on here, I’ll do it. Whatever. But why didn’t any of you say anything? Is this really what it’s come to?” That she didn’t acknowledge his final question meant she understood too well. Instead of a response, she just shrugged, an action so delicate it looked more like a seated curtsy. “And this guy –” he flailed an arm in Kenny’s direction “– with his dirty feet and his nose. This is fucked, Amy!”
“Oh, this?” Kenny’s voice didn’t match Wyatt’s expectation. The man’s physicality suggested a nasal, perpetually out-of-breath intonation, but his words came hoarse, like he’d been screaming for hours. He brought a pudgy finger to his nose, wiped at its blackened bridge, then proffered the digit to the living room: its tip was smeared in paint. “This is fake.”
“Intrigue, you know,” Joan put in. “They’re going to want it. Nothing happens if nothing happens, and that’s not entertainment.” She nodded at Amy, beamed. “It all fits into this wicked little subplot we’ve got worked out for your sister. There’s been an abduction, you know, and Kenny just may have been involved. We’re really pushing the boundaries with this one.” Joan winked. “We’ve got a lot to work out, though. Especially since you’re all only signed on for six months. For now.”
Wyatt stepped back from the scene, closed in on the stairwell. He heard Sage scratching at the back door, wanting in on the action. “I didn’t think that’s where this was going. A reality show? Really?” He wished this were anything but real; a night terror, even. He’d known reality’s distorted capabilities through severe childhood fevers, and the ingredients were here: panicked helplessness, a crushing sense of enclosure. The concept that time and place and individuality were nothing more than constructs designed to antagonize, then isolate. Melanie again looked up at him. He knew this reaction was anguishing for her, despite her seeming disregard for Rich.
“Who could say no to that kind of money?” She said. Then, more quietly, “I thought you’d be excited. Sic months from now, we’ll have two years’ income saved.”
“And Dad?” He took another step back, watched Amy’s gaze harden as he said the words. Emmett’s hands had found their way from the sweaty compress of his thighs. They embraced before his chest, his left hand’s fingers kneading the single calloused flap that had been his right’s thumb. The boy nodded along with Wyatt’s concern. Melanie shook her head.
“That… wasn’t planned for.” At the utterance, Wyatt turned on his heels, disregarding Joan’s demands that he stay, that he was necessary for her establishing scene, that he didn’t know how any of this was going to work. He ran from his mother’s deflated presence, his sister’s sick enthusiasm, his brother’s willingness to just be, and took the stairs two at a time, the foyer’s light diminishing until each step grew indistinct from the last, his vision reduced to a familiar inky nothingness that he barreled through anyway. Joan’s voice trailed – “well, someone’s going to have to fill him in” – and then the upstairs hallway’s dim illumination again distinguished the carpet, the walls, and his father, sitting on the floor, head propped against the window at the far end of the corridor. The pines outside towered over Rich’s naked shoulders, the morning sun shining through their branches and illuminating his silhouette until his contour wavered – a radiant specter. Wyatt walked toward him, past the rows and rows of photos – his mother’s attempt to cement the present firmly over her own past – now strangely hesitant.
“Don’t think I’m sorry about that down there.” Rich spoke gruffly, an attitude congruent with his morning stubble and cowlick. The only other time Amy and Melanie regularly allowed him to slip into so disheveled a composure was Christmas morning, one of the few family traditions that had held over. “They want confrontation, so I give it to them. They ask me to swear, so I do. But I didn’t like not telling you, Wyatt, and I just couldn’t sit there and watch you scramble.” He shot Wyatt a sincere half-smile, then exhaled. “I should put on some coffee.”
Wyatt stood over the man. “Are you going to be okay? Dad?” Silence. From downstairs, he could hear excited dialogue.
Joan: “… weekly half-hour program culled from an archive of 24/7 streaming online video…”
Upstairs, Rich: “Yes. What a question. Are you?” Downstairs, Joan proclaimed the words Smith Experience in a tone that made Wyatt certain she flourished open palms over her head: an invisible sign for the living room, then the world, to read. Their show.
Wyatt: “Of course I am.”
He looked back through the window, saw himself from the outside, framed within its glass panel. He saw himself like he knew he was about to be seen – saw all of them from a removed perspective. How shiny it would look. Ornamental, almost. And then he knew why they were doing it. Why they were so willing to have their moves, their words, their dynamic captured and viewed: because the cameras could only probe surface deep. And a lens didn’t ask questions. Here was their golden opportunity to act like none of the real stuff had happened, like Wyatt hadn’t fucked up so bad. Hadn’t dragged them all down with him. No matter the audience, they would appear undismayed, walk from room to room as lightly as those who held no secrets, who had every reason to smile and love with the same reckless abandon that those who weren’t beleaguered by resentment felt so entitled to.
That and the money.
He also saw the part they’d expect him to play, the same role he’d held for the past long while in their eyes – though his own aggrieved perspective hadn’t allowed him to see it. Saying ‘yes’ had meant nothing, because all they’d heard was ‘no.’ Here he was as one thing, and all he wanted was to be another. If he could only realize what it was he wanted, as well as how to get it, then it might be okay; it finally might all be okay.
Joan held the door for Kenny, blue sky beaming. The Smiths’ front yard – its ambling walkway and stalwart pines – appeared listless under the sun, wilted somehow. It was already so hot out. She jogged toward the van’s gleaming shell, reached its far side, and snaked a hand beneath her blazer. Grasping the transceiver, she pulled it from its hidden place. She pushed a button, and its static went silent. The moment hung there, tremulous. Then, she brought the device to her mouth. “Joan here. It’s a go. Send them in.”
“Gotcha.” He lowered the walkie-talkie. “You heard her. Get a move on!” Around him, the men scattered. “I need this setup completed eighteen hours from now. Tops. We’re going viral before five in the a.m. Friday, people, ET. And no excuses for setbacks this time around.” They piled into identical white vans. The peal of a dozen engines rolled across the floor of the warehouse, thundered up its walls. Everything seemed to shake. Then, they were gone. He turned his back on the space’s vacuous emptiness, its dimensions so incomprehensible in size that, were it not contained, he half-believed it would threaten to pull the whole outside world in. He came to a door, entered a code, walked through. There was a blue phone. He picked it up. No dial tone, no ring.
“Yes?” A distinct humming behind the voice.
“This is Roman regarding the Smith family – er, number seven of twenty-two on your list of possible subjects. It’s a go.”
“Will that be all?”
“Yes, Roman. That will be all.” The man’s finger eased on the button. Around him, the craft purred. He spoke to his companion, who stood at the hull’s center swinging a pitching wedge. “Sir?”
“I heard.” He brought the club’s face low to the ground, followed through as if the invisible ball still arced across an invisible horizon.
“Will that be all from him, sir?”
“Yes. For now. And thank Christ some goddamned family was nuts enough to take us up on the offer.” He placed the club in the rack. “I almost thought we were going to have to let them know this whole thing was a bust. And then what might they say we owe?” His hand wavered over the glinting club heads, then shot left to a tray of tumblers. “You know something, Holgrave?”
“Some part of me feels like golf just isn’t my game.” They stared at each other, smiled, and laughed until they clutched at their stomachs. Then: “Sit with me.”
The clear blue sky droned with the weight of it.
Thursday, July 16, 2009
Men with drill saws and lighting equipment and flat-paneled lenses the size of shoeboxes burst into Wyatt’s room without knocking, and before he’d really even blinked sleep away they were protracting tape measures and moving his Nighthawks and telling him, in no uncertain terms, that they’d appreciate an uncluttered workspace, so could he please move his ass elsewhere.
Downstairs was no different. Melanie stood square in living room’s middle, hands on hips, silently charting the progress of the men orbiting her position. Wyatt could only imagine how this tumult must be jarring with her dry erase board of precisely placed, color-coded post-its in the kitchen, each two-by-two square dictating that week’s courses of action for her children, husband. He knew there couldn’t be a bright blue post-it placed in Thursday’s 11:30 time slot that read “systematic destruction of house,” because if there had been her face wouldn’t look so pained. Regardless, Wyatt approached.
“Mom. Are you aware I found Dad cowering at the far end of the upstairs hallway this morning?”
“We’re going to be fine, Wyatt.”
“That’s not what I asked.” He stepped plaintively over a cord that one of the men was snaking across the carpet.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake.” She turned to him, though her gaze was almost immediately distracted by a massive television being shimmied through the front door by two men who held the box as if they were pallbearers, a stunning blue bow stretched across its screen. “Are you going to make an issue out of this, too?”
“I’m just kinda worried. With Amy all distracted now –”
“Amy should be about to head back to school. This isn’t a distraction. It’s what’s left.” He heard the words he knew she wanted to come next, that her silence only amplified.
“Still, shouldn’t we be doing something for him?” She turned again to him, and what he saw in her face was a profound look of fatigue.
“Everything’s fine. We’re all going to be… fine.” His phone vibrated once, twice in his pocket: a text.
“Hey, Buddy, what’s the deal?” Wyatt glanced to his left, straight into the exasperated expressions of the two men with the television. They needed him to move. Without looking again at his mother, he weaved through the living room to the front door. Kenny crouched in the foyer’s far corner, camera angled at Melanie; he’d recorded everything. Wyatt resisted an impulse to fake a kick at the man’s side, instead pulled the door open and, in a single fluid movement, propelled himself from the porch to the front yard. The white van from earlier now sat among a dozen or more identical vehicles. The blue sky beamed. The woods beckoned.
He’d forged his own modest trail that wound its way into the Cascade’s foothills, the creation of which had been something of a therapeutic endeavor during his Cancer Months. The trail, much like his thoughts as he’d walked, led nowhere, but instead ambled here and there until petering out among an outcropping of wind-hewn boulders, which sat like prehistoric Easter eggs on the lip of a small face. When he was younger, his grandpa had shown him that if he looked hard enough on their craggy hides, he could see faint fossil imprints of angular fish. Here, atop the leftmost stone, Wyatt sat and watched the trees ripple, wishing he’d brought a joint.
This much he was sure of: Amy’s need was greatest, so Melanie would likely support her until either Rich or he himself broke down. Rich hadn’t suffered an episode since Wyatt’s diagnosis, but even that had been rather uneventful: he’d walked out on his latest job as the Redmond Airport’s Claims Director out of what he’d described as “straight-up crushing shame.” Having been a commercial pilot until the symptoms began eight years ago, anything aviation-related that didn’t place him behind a yoke was dissatisfying to the extreme. And finally Emmett, who didn’t so much pick sides or further agendas as he just sat there, at ease no matter the situation. Wyatt’s compliance earlier had been rash, a decision based on affection rather than logical thought. Where was he to stash his laundry list of guilty traits when surrounded by cameras?
The word ‘guilt,’ then, gave way to thoughts of Brenda. A year ago, the ultimatum he now felt pressing upon him would have driven him, bleary-eyed, into her arms. But that phase had passed. With the gradual reconstruction of his confidence in himself as a capable, functioning human being, he hadn’t felt the need for her presence – a necessity once so gripping. He’d lately begun viewing her again as the Brenda he’d first known: teacher, debate coach, purveyor of logic and reasoning. Utterly detached from his own existence. It hadn’t been one of those student-teacher relationships that stemmed from some inappropriate sexual deviance. It had never been like that. And now that that was the only remaining component, he didn’t feel a need for it. The more he thought – the harder he tried to extract meaning from what they were left with – the more it all felt like nothing, the empty husk of some sham he’d pulled on himself.
Then he remembered the text he’d received. Wyatt pulled phone from pocket, surprised to find two messages waiting. The first was from Brenda; the second, Brett.
Been too long. Soon? This weekend?
Dude! Ruby Red Squirt = UTI gone bad. Sorry. High.
Wyatt smiled, then wondered for a moment whether smiling when alone and in the woods made the smile any less legitimate. He jumped from the boulder and strode closer toward the ridge – reception being scarce in Bend’s outskirts – to call Brett. All he got was a voice message: “It’s Brett. Have some fun and leave a message. Or not. Nothing you do makes no nevermind to me.” Wyatt hung up, was in the process of pocketing his phone when it buzzed again. A call, this time, though there was no incoming caller number. He answered.
“Wyatt.” The voice’s monotone was utterly chilling.
“Dynamo’s contract with your family explicitly prohibits any member from purposefully avoiding the on-premises cameras for any amount of time longer than an average bathroom trip, plus or minus three minutes. Understood?”
“Get back to the house, Wyatt. You can call her later.” Then, the voice was gone.
He had no idea how to respond. He didn’t feel anything but a vague, heavy numbness beneath the skin of his face, like he’d been slapped from the inside out by cold air. Someone else knew what he knew. Well, almost what he knew: they thought he was calling Brenda. Wyatt didn’t take a breath or grab to the rock for support, but instead turned his face toward the sky and burst into laughter. During the span of the past ten hours, his perception of himself had undergone a complete metamorphosis, and still no one was watching.
He imagined his mother, still in the living room, fretting. If his own agenda was already so skewed, he couldn’t fathom what she must be thinking. On Melanie’s value system, only family surpassed surface-level order. She’d played off his initial avoidance of church by blaming a slight liberal bent, and his cancer became her Spring’s unspoken issue because she had no other way of coping that didn’t risk flinging into chaos everything else – though, in the end, he’d taken care of that for her, too. So a year passed as he sheepishly dug further into his own private infatuations, and under Melanie’s watchful eye the rest all buried theirs for each other’s sake, and now here they were, as disparate as ever, Amy pursuing even further detachment. And it killed him. Melanie would see them all march themselves into oblivion if it allowed an avoidance of real, wrenching emotion. Of acknowledging the sentiments at play, beneath their forced smiles, that desperately needed soothing.
Why, then, he asked himself, am I just out here beside this fucking rock, staring into nothingness?
But he still didn’t budge.
He scrambled back onto the boulder, stretched out in the sun, closed his eyes. The afternoon grew hotter, then cooled. He must’ve dozed off, because the next thing he registered was a clumsy rustling in the manzanitas to his left. He sat up, and before he’d really even blinked sleep from his eyes, Kenny emerged, camera in hand.
“Didn’t you get a call? Hours ago?” His breath came in ragged bursts, his bare shins scratched and bloodied. Combined with the nose, he looked to be playing the part of an abused runaway.
“What are you doing following me out here? The cameras stay on property.”
Kenny stared through the viewfinder, then chuckled. “Kid, don’t even. These entire 200 acres are in your family’s name; Gramps must’ve bought it all up back when no one wanted within as many miles of the place.” He waved an arm. “Christ.”
“This is forest land.” Wyatt spoke like he was explaining something to a child.
“Not right here it isn’t. So I’m just gonna stand here, pointing this camera at you, until you’ve decided you’ve had enough of your little fit and head in.”
“Isn’t this the role I’m supposed to be playing?” Wyatt didn’t understand; 200 acres of prime real estate and Amy had to withdraw? And Rich had been working? And he’d felt bad about it?
“I stop caring about all that when your little act makes me drag my fat ass halfway into the boonies and back. Get going.” The walk home took four times as long as it should have: Wyatt looped in ever-widening circles just to piss Kenny off. By the time they reached the house, dusk had fallen, and only one other van besides Kenny’s still sat in the driveway. Emmett leaned from his upstairs window pointing a flashlight up into the sky. He clicked it on, off, on again. His neon shirt gleamed in the evening light, its jungle-themed print distractingly legible: “The Choice is Yours and Yours Alone.”
Ambient Audio Recording, Conference Room B:11, 14 June 2009, 15:41:12
“ –fraid this is quite outside my area of expertise, gentlemen, so –”
“Everyone hear that? There’s something old Grant here doesn’t know all about.”
“ – So I’m passing the floor to Dr. DeGroot, the man in charge of the files we’ve amassed to this point. And I’m sure we’re aware it behooves us to listen to him. [Pause] Closely, gentlemen.”
“If that was in regards to the wisecrack, Jim, I’m sorry.”
“Dr. DeGroot, gentlemen.”
“I extend much thanks to you, Jim, and indeed to all of you here. And I can appreciate the – what is it – the wise jokes, so everything is good between us. Yes? Alright. To cut straight to the chase then, Jim, colleagues: Subject 003 will present himself a challenge, to be certain. His actions have been rendered… grainier than was originally predicted. Yes? And so it is that I have been called in to speak with you all once again. I believe the best way to summarize what it is I think is happening, is what you term a defense mechanism? A purposeful misconstruction in thought designed to delude the very subject who is thinking them in an attempt to avoid any deeper, painful truths that might otherwise surface. In this case guilt an–”
[INDISTINCT DIALOGUE] “Christ, [He’s certainly got?] a way wi[th words doesn’t?] he?”
Thursday, July 16, 2009
Wyatt found himself standing at Amy’s doorway. Her room smelled like lavender candle wax, and the air hung thick with dreamy trance music she constantly streamed from Pandora. Everything was tousled in such a specific way as to suggest some subliminal organization among the mess: clothes heaped upon the bed were fanned so that none lay completely hidden, framed photographs clustered competitively around furniture, an entire desk sat transformed into a backstage makeup station of sorts – bright bulbs, ticket stubs, dried flowers.
A single technician remained from the day’s flurry of them, a brawny man hunched over her desk hurriedly fumbling with a knot of exposed wires. Amy sat on the edge of her bed, watching the man work and applying faint slices of blue eyeliner to her arms, which were already spotted in rouge: bruise marks. When Wyatt appeared from around the doorframe, she threw out her free hand and with a practiced flourish sang out the words “ta-dah!” The man jumped, dropping the wires back behind the desk.
“We should talk.” He glanced at the man, who seemingly remained oblivious to Wyatt’s desire that he leave until the silence in the room became too great to ignore.
“Don’t mind me,” he said over a shoulder. “Either I hear it or the world does in about… oh, three minutes. This is the last one I gotta put in.”
“I thought with all your debating you’d be over the whole stag fright thing, Wyatt.” She continued jiggling a foot, but swept the clothes from the side of her bed nearest him, dropped the thin makeup bottle, and swung both legs his direction. He had her attention.
“So you signed us up for this?”
“Yeah. A while ago.” Wyatt felt as if she was talking to him around a wad of pink bubblegum; such was her slackness. “We didn’t hear anything for a few months and then all of a sudden I get a call.”
“Well, you know how it’s been since UCLA.” She didn’t blink once as she said it. “Mom thought this could be an opportunity. Neither of us actually thought we’d get to the point of Stew being here.”
“Yar, that’s me.” Stew stood from the desk. “Gotta grab a cord for this bad boy. Don’t say anything that’d make me blush while I’m out.” He tipped his head at Amy – who smiled – then crossed the room, slid past Wyatt, and disappeared down the hall. Amy sighed.
“So they expect to be able to make a show out of this?” He took a step further in, extended a finger and poked at the tallest of a cluster of lit candles that blinked atop a stool-turned-guéridon. Amy hated when he played with the wax.
“Yeah.” She didn’t seem to mind this time, though. “And then this plotline they’ve got worked out! Most of the time I can just be myself, but there’re a few key scenes this first week that have to play out kind of structured.”
He’d forgotten about the abduction bit – for some reason it hadn’t seemed crucial to the goings-on that morning. But now the notion was laughable. “You really think Dynamo’s going to pull it off? They’re a wholesaler!”
“Product placement. And, like, Dynamix the store is just the tip of the iceberg, really. They’re majority shareholders in TBC.” When he didn’t respond, she leaned forward, contorted her eyebrows and forehead into a single spectacular symbol of frustration – the practiced kind, one that would have a sitcom audience in stitches. “Wyatt, we’re going to be on T-B-fucking-C! And that’s not even counting the online stuff. The whole idea is for people to get hooked on the weekly episode, then head to the Internet to watch the “raw footage” of sorts, and then get all caught up in Dynamo.”
“And you get to be in front of a camera.”
“And there’s that.” She wasn’t denying anything. Stew reappeared, cord proffered as if he held Excalibur. Wyatt had the idea this guy figured himself a bit of a character.
“And you’ve considered everything that could go wrong here?” Stew half-disappeared beneath the desk.
“Are you trying to get at something?” He knew she knew. She’d looked so stricken over it that morning, but the panic had already receded into some dim, cool area just below the skin. The Amy he stood viewing was neither the Amy he’d started with nor the one she’d be a week from now. He wondered what the face covering the face covering the face would look like.
“You’re abandoning Dad for this, Amy, and you’re his rock.” She shook her head. He didn’t realize it, but he’d been pushing his fingers deeper and deeper into the candle’s viscous wax, so much so they burned like hell.
“He did fine while I was at school.”
“That was different. You were still the same Amy. Now you’re acting for someone else.”
“One minute and counting… case either of y’all is wondering.” With his free hand, Stew smacked the underside of the desk once, twice – like someone in the movies signaling a cab’s take-off. Wyatt faltered, then dove into his last rebuttal.
“I know everything that happened before this kind of inevitably led to your whole ‘acting’ thing.” He referred to Rich, sitting on any one of a number of prescribed beaches, his first two children rolling, laughing, digging – each action, even at that young age, a conscious attempt to crack his stoicism, bring him back into life from the dim rut his mind would traverse. “And that the… that my cancer kind of fucked things up for you.” Ixtapa’s Pool Fiesta Talent Shows had ushered Amy onto her first stage, where she danced and clapped and waved her hands over and over, doe-eyed gaze searching the audience for the response of only one. “But I really feel like I’m ready to try and start righting some of these wrongs, which is why I agreed to all this earlier, even if you did expect me to be a pain in the ass again.” Family dinners around their massive oak dining table, the conversation spanning anything but truth, anything that might call attention to the great irony manipulating each of them. “So what I’m trying to say is, I really just want you to be happy, Amy. But I want Dad to be happy, too. And I’m not sure they can both happen at the same time.” Dynamo could have chosen any other family and the result, Wyatt was sure, would have been less catastrophic. So why them?
Amy’s eyes swelled. “Oh Wyatt.” She said his name like he was the sorriest-looking kid in school and he’d just asked her to prom. “You just have everything so turned around here. I mean, I honestly don’t even know what you want to hear right now.” He’d stopped toying with the candles, and now his hands were folded behind his back, fingers encased in wax. “You’re trying to play this off on guilt? You don’t feel guilty, Wyatt. That’s not it at all. And I know the thought of cameras watching you positively makes your skin crawl, so you can stop pretending this isn’t a big deal. Christ, you can hardly speak a direct sentence in front of Stew.” Hearing his own thoughts interpreted by someone else brought some semblance of cohesion to what he was feeling. “You get cancer, and believe me, I know how much that sucked. But then you let your friends go, you don’t even consider dating, your social life flatlines, and then you act like you’re unhappy because of what’s happened with us? This isn’t you, Wyatt. You’re not a ‘yes,’ you’re a ‘no.’ How about figuring yourself out first before pointing the blame at us for whatever the fuck’s the matter with you?” He wasn’t aware of making any move that indicated humiliation, but he felt truth’s hot slap burning beneath his face, swelling his cheeks.
“Annnd we’re live!” Stew emerged, dusting off his hands as if they’d somehow been dirtied. He hoisted his pants, cleared his throat, and bowed to Amy. “My lady, pleasure doing business. Now, I’ve gotta get the hell outta here before they start tuning in bec – Christ Almighty!” A man’s face, pale and bearded, materialized on the screen of what Wyatt had assumed was the lens Stew installed just above Amy’s laptop. Wyatt’s own mirrored image appeared anchored in a small frame on the larger screen’s bottom right corner. Amy sat upright at the shock, gasped, then clapped her hands.
“Oh! It’s working!”
“Wait a second.” Wyatt grabbed Stew’s sleeve as the man attempted a hasty escape. “We actually have to deal with people’s faces?” As soon as Wyatt spoke, the bearded man’s image was replaced by that of two women on a couch, both laughing. Then another man, obese and ruddy-skinned. “Those aren’t just lenses?” Stew’s jovial expression faltered, and he responded as if each word was its own secret.
“The lens is at the top. Hardly distinguishable. The cost…” He sucked air through his front teeth, whistled. “The viewer’s webcam automatically syncs up when they log onto your page. Supposed to allow for some level of personal interaction, which more than one test group indicated was pretty fucking important.” Stew’s monologue took on a stilted tone, its delivery oddly off-kilter. The man jerked his head back to Amy, who now sat reading Vanity Fair as if nothing whatsoever had happened. “Pretty thing like that, I can’t say I’d disagree. Don’t worry, though: there’re censors in place for obscene behavior.” He pulled his shirt from Wyatt’s grasp, smoothed the sleeve, and slipped through the doorway. “Be seeing you.”
The fat man remained onscreen, staring, and Wyatt already felt it happening. He wanted to curl up, run from the room, find shelter in solitude. But his bedroom must be the same. And the hall. Everywhere. Everything. All of it observed. “Amy?”
“They’re supposed to dim the screens down to almost nothing when we turn off the lights for bed.” She flipped a page, heedless. “You should leave. They’re going to think it’s weird you’re in my room after dark, after what’s happened to me.” She turned her head from the camera, winked, then mouthed. “I’m in shock.”
He turned, walked out, shut the door behind him. The far end of the hallway glowed with another screen’s electric zeal, this one framing a young Asian woman’s vacant gaze. He moved toward her, her eyes widening with each step before she disappeared, replaced by blackness. Anyone could be watching now, analyzing his stance in this hallway, forming unfounded conclusions about what he wanted, why he wanted it. As if their own lives weren’t enough. Wyatt didn’t know which was worse: the personified anonymity of a stranger’s face, or the potentially terrifying implications of an inky black eye.
He stared into the rectangle’s shallow void, extended a hand until it hovered inches from the screen. Slowly, Wyatt raised his middle finger. He was aware of the motion’s inherent ineffectiveness, of it serving as the final desperate crutch for so many daily trivialities, but at the moment he found it only fitting: a fleshy, tenuous “FUCK YOU” to the world. If Amy was right, it wasn’t out of character.
The notion terrified him.
Her face is radiant. She speaks like we’re not separate, removed by screens and pixels and the rigid governs of our own circumstances. She speaks so candid. Genuine. “I’m definitely more bored with Bend after the whole LA thing, yeah. But it’s not all bad. No! I haven’t ever been to Paris, Bobcat37.” She’s rigged a little sign with her Skype contact information so we can chat, each adorable letter copied out in clumsy calligraphy. And we wait with bated breath. There is no end to the amount we’ll wait. “I’ve only been out of the country five times before. Can you guess where?” She doesn’t care what we look like; all we have to tell her is that she’s beautiful and that we’re watching, and that’s good enough. She’ll dance for that much. “Yes! Mexico! First shot! Oh! That’s right, I did mention Puerto Vallarta yesterday.” This would normally never be allowed, this interest of ours. But the rules don’t pertain here. “No, Rico_Suave, not Canada. Too cold!” None of it matters but what we both want: us to see her, and her to know she’s being seen. To know the performance is registering. That there’s purpose and meaning in everything she does. Because it’s being shared. Because people know. “And Romulus>Remus gets it: Fiji!” She wants to be seen so bad. Her generation, they all do. “You guys… I want to thank you all so much for this distraction. It’s really helping me cope.” Amy was just improbably lucky. And for that, we all are.
Sunday, July 19, 2009
The waffles, as always, were cooked to perfection: a golden-yellow center ringed by the merest half-inch of slightly burnt batter.
“Wyatt! We don’t swear around the table, let alone around Emmett!”
“What? Since when?”
“Since… always.” Melanie paused long enough to let the notion sink in that ‘always’ was, in fact, the right answer. “At any rate, someone really should clean up those fireworks out back. If we had neighbors they’d think we were slobs.” Wyatt glanced out the floor-to-ceiling windows adjacent the dining room table. An assortment of spent cylinders jutted from the yellowed grass. He considered for a moment the logistics behind The Fourth of July, and how all those charred explosives had to go somewhere, even if they did just seem to disappear as the summer wore on.
***Leggo Wyatt’s Eggo! He can’t get enough of that crispy, buttermilky goodness!***
Across the table, Emmett sat grinning at Wyatt, chest emblazoned with the slogan “The Truth is Out There” – his favorite shirt. He kicked his legs as he ate, the tips of his socks brushing on occasion against Wyatt’s shins. “I’m not doing it,” Emmett said. “There are probably spiders all over them by now.” An eyelash clung to the center of the left lens of his glasses, though the way he stared past it convinced Wyatt the kid didn’t even notice it was there. Wyatt thought it remarkable Emmett wasn’t afraid of the fireworks themselves, considering. Behind his brother, a screen framed in a thin grey box the size of a paperback jutted from the dining room wall. Another faced Melanie from adjacent Wyatt’s place at the table. Both contained men’s faces, one of whom sat, somewhere, shirtless.
“Okay, then, Wyatt, that leaves you.”
“I will later.” He wouldn’t. Behind Melanie, Matt Lauer’s profile announced from the TV beside the kitchen sink something about the fortieth anniversary of the first manned moon landing. Emmett made an ooooh-ing noise. “Mom?” He steeled himself against his seat, feet planted square. Since both Kenny’s revelation about the property and his conversation with Amy, he’d spent his time assessing himself, his actions, for a personality facet that might indicate denial. The result was that he’d tried to minimize his smoking, though in the absence of weed his evenings ended up consisting of crouching in his bedroom’s far corner – the only place the lenses’ gaze didn’t reach – laptop propped on a stack of neglected children’s books, surfing porn. Change was necessary, he’d chant to his aching calves during those hours: change is necessary.
“Hmm?” She didn’t look up from the stack of neon green post-its upon which she composed a grocery list – its items, Wyatt was sure, all at least a tier or two above the store brand this time around.
“Is it true we own, like, a lot of land around the house?” He added the ‘like’ on purpose – a baseline casual demeanor necessary for what was to come.
“Yes.” She kept writing.
“Do you mind me asking why we didn’t sell any of it to help out with things over the past year?” Calm was becoming a harder façade to maintain, especially when her next answer came as nonchalant as the first.
“Your father and I are saving the land for a rainy day. There’s no sense in cashing out early when alternatives still exist.” Emmett continued swinging his feet, oblivious. Wyatt placed his fork on the folded napkin beside his plate.
“And may I ask why everything that’s happened up to now hasn’t qualified as a rainy day?”
“You most certainly can.” She set her pen beside her post-it, folded her hands in front of her blouse, and pierced his eyes with her gaze. “I prayed every night for a sign that selling the land wasn’t what I was supposed to do. And it never came. And then, the very afternoon before I planned to call an agent, do you know what happened?” He did, but she waved her hands through the air anyway. “All this.” Her hands dropped, again picked up the pen. “And that’s why I know everything is going to be okay.”
Wyatt couldn’t believe what he’d heard. “A man in the sky? Answering your wishes?”
“Mhmmm.” His operation. Emmett’s. Amy’s schooling. Rich’s sanity: all of it disposed at the whim of a prayer. Wyatt’s plan of action now seemed feeble, but her response only strengthened his resolve to drop the bomb.
“One more thing. Do you ever think much of Travis?” He’d heard his mother’s first husband’s name maybe a dozen times in his life, either during an argument with Rich or while on the phone with her sister. A strict avoidance of Travis’ existence, as well as that of his son, Nathaniel – who, Wyatt estimated, had to be around 30 years old, if Amy was 21 – seemed part of the agreement she and Rich must have made upon marriage: they were starting fresh, and any mention of the past would cause nothing but harm. It was an impermeable seal, bypassed only by secondhand information from relatives
“Travis?” She still wrote, though he noticed her hand slowing. Emmett continued forking large bites of waffle into his mouth, oblivious. Travis could have been anything to him.
“The Wylers.” He only knew the last name because of his aunt, who lived for holidays and any other opportunity to speak too freely after four or five glasses of wine. She was also the one who’d told him Travis had taken to hitting his mother during the close of their relationship, and that Melanie walked out on him and the boy – who, though he wasn’t her son, was the attachment – only after sustaining three broken ribs. It was why she couldn’t exercise too intensely, instead relying on a strict diet to maintain her figure: the injury’s residual damage made heavy breathing painful. She’d always just told him running – or skiing, or hiking, or whatever the circumstance called for – bored her. That she was more of a people person.
Her first response upon hearing the name was to look at Emmett, who still stared somewhere over Wyatt’s left shoulder, smacking away – then down at her side, then straight into the lens facing her. She put wrist to mouth, as if stifling a hiccup, and then pushed her chair from the table. Wyatt analyzed each action for an emotional response, some kind of clue that might indicate how to continue, but every motion seemed to contradict the one that came before. At least she hadn’t completely denied a familiarity with the name – something she may well have done if he’d stuck only with ‘Travis.’
“No, I don’t hear from them anymore.”
“That’s not what I asked.” Startled by Wyatt’s insistent tone, Emmett stopped his chewing. Melanie, who had attempted to resume her list, raised her hand, hurled the pen against the table with such force it ricocheted into the kitchen, and then stood from her seat. Wyatt had never seen her react to anything in so volatile a manner. He didn’t appreciate seeing his mother so discomposed, but he was willing to attribute any rash action on his part to her complete insensitivity regarding their financial situation. Her reasoning seemed so incongruent with the rest of her character he didn’t much feel like he was arguing with his own mother anymore. Prayer?
He also didn’t appreciate – had never appreciated, the more he thought about it – that she keep so large a chunk of her life completely locked up, especially when its ramifications likely had a direct influence on how she’d raised him, all of them, for the past two decades.
“I don’t care if that’s not what you asked. That’s how I’m answering. We’re finished.” Emmett’s fork wavered inches before his open mouth, his hand curled around its shaft like some monkey’s paw. Wyatt took a quick breath for composure, and in that moment he glanced an amber bead of syrup swell on the crusted edge of his brother’s next bite, its mass collecting and bulging until it drizzled from food to plate in a single viscous thread. She’d made them breakfast every day of their lives unless she was sick – rare – or traveling – rarer. And now she stood before them, her hands clenched at her sides, her face twitching between looks of calm, confusion, and hurt. His mother.
“Are you not answering me because you don’t want us to know, or them?” He motioned toward the camera. “I mean, you brought them here, there’s no reason they shouldn’t here it. I’m not dropping the subject. I want to know who you really are, Mom. And I don’t know why you wouldn’t want that, as well.” He’d gone too far. Now, at least, he thought, there’s no way she can let it slide again. “So why don’t you start by telling me how old Nathan is now, anyway?” As he said the name, a name he wasn’t supposed to have known existed in this context, Melanie began to nod. She moved her hands from her sides to her hips and kept nodding, slight bobs pressed together into an almost manic rhythm.
“Wyatt.” She stopped the motion. “This isn’t the time or –“
“Oh my God, Mom, were you going to say ‘or the place?’ Were you really? This is our house! Our fucking house!” He brought his open palm down hard on the table so the dish of butter danced. “And we almost lost it because your version of composure is fucking familial suicide! So where else?”
“We don’t…” She seemed to have to speak around the words. “We don’t swear around the table.” Melanie turned and walked from the room, leaving the little green pad. Wyatt watched her go, disturbed by the adrenaline he felt coursing through his system, then glanced at the list: asparagus, arrabiata sauce, whole milk, and unsweetened tea. He was the only one who liked unsweetened tea. All the other kinds tasted like flat pop.
“And when we return,” said Matt Lauer, “we’ll talk with the family of a soldier who was one of sixteen killed today in a helicopter crash at Afghanistan’s central NATO base.”
“What was that about?” Emmett had returned fork to plate.
“No one told you, either?” The kid shook his head. “Mom was married until, like, two seconds before she met Dad. She raised some guy’s son for him for six years or something. I’m not too sure.”
“Oh.” Emmett grabbed his fork and stabbed it into the remainder of his waffle so it stood straight, then knocked the utensil over with the bat of a pointer finger. He couldn’t flick. “That was really, really mean of you.” Wyatt watched his brother toy with his silverware, oblivious to the news he’d just shared. He leaned over the table toward Emmett, picturing how the two of them must look, hunched conspiratorially over their breakfast like this.
“Doesn’t it ever get to you? All of them just walking around, following Mom’s lead, acting like it’s fine?” Emmett still pushed his fork around with his left hand. Wyatt reached out and stifled the movement. “The way I see it, Buddy, if I have to be a little mean to shake things up a bit, in the end it’s okay.” Why was he justifying himself to a thirteen-year-old? “You wouldn’t have to sit here and play with your silverware if there were actually sensible people walking around this place, having actual conversations and all. Yeah? ” Emmett stared at him, unblinking.
“Don’t. Call me ‘Buddy.’” Wyatt relinquished his grip.
“Sorry.” The swinging door at the kitchen’s far end burst open, exposing Kenny’s ass as he nosed it backwards across the wooden floor, the camera on his shoulder pointed straight at Amy, who followed after a beanpole of a man proffering a boom mic. These two were permanent staples in the van that now sat parked out front at all times; whenever Amy left the house, they followed – or, rather, anticipated her movements and tried to stay a step ahead. Rich didn’t like the tall one because he smoked; a sour, musky presence lingering in the halls long after he’d exited. Kenny’s nose was done up slightly less horrifically these days, but he never took the makeup off because the viewers of the house cameras needed continuity – an assurance that this was all, in fact, real life. Amy had been talking before they entered, and she didn’t slow as she made her way toward the dining room.
“A lot of viewers have been saying it might be, like, healing for me to spend a day in town. A massage, maybe a movie. And I can post these flyers with the composite of my abductor.” She mentioned this last part as if it was a band name, not some man who’d ravaged her for six straight days. “Plus, lots of you guys – er, sorry… lots of them wanted to meet my friends, see what they’re like, so…” She stopped staring into the camera, turning instead to Kenny. “Shit, Kenny, was that okay? Can you just, like, edit that part out? I’m trying not to do any second-person; it’s alienating.” Kenny held up a pudgy thumb. “Okay, great!” Her flip-flops smacked their way through the rest of the kitchen, and then she was upon them. “Wyatt! Emmett! Waffles?”
“Yeah…” Wyatt looked from Amy to his waffle, then back again. “Surprise, surprise.”
“Well, I’m headed into –” Her face went rigid. She stared past them both, through the floor-length windows and into the backyard; the Thin man with the boom – Micheal? Marky? – struggled to scratch nose against shoulder. Wyatt followed her gaze, saw nothing. Amy, though, only grew more agitated. “Oh!” He looked again and realized she was studying her own faint reflection in the window. “I’m remembering something… something horrible. I think – I think…” She took a step back, then turned and bolted past Kenny for the garage door. This was all part of it. Kenny and the man scrambled after her, the boom’s distal end nearly taking out a large framed photograph of the family from three years previous – the same one that had gone out on that season’s Christmas cards.
“This must be so hard for the both of you,” Matt Lauer said. Wyatt heard the Yukon’s engine rev to life in the garage. He wondered how many millions of people would eat up her performance when the first edited episode aired. How many thousands more had possibly watched it all just unfold, live. She was living her dream.
“I’ve gotta…” Emmett wasn’t listening, having resumed deconstructing his breakfast. Wyatt rose from his seat. He wound his way around the table, through the living room, past Sinatra’s elegiac crooning that emanated from his parents’ rooms – Melanie’s go-to ‘sad’ music – up the stairs, and into his own bedroom. All his belongings looked strange, the morning’s white light warping their meanings, their specific placements, and he realized that at some point he’d stopped caring about the particulars, once so crucial to his happiness, his sense of purpose. Of belonging. This might as well have been a hotel. For the moment, Wyatt didn’t care about the cameras, each peering at him from opposite ends of the room. He dropped to his knees beside his bed, fished with his left hand behind the shoeboxes filled with elaborately folded middle school notes, critiques from an endless line of debate judges, a five-years-collection worth of movie stubs, and dozens – if not a hundred – Get Well Cards. His fingers, practiced, hit wood: the only box he ever looked for down here. Pulling it from its hidden spot, he opened the lid, grabbed the bag of bud – its pungent scent already eating at his resolve – and marched back down the hall to the bathroom.
The toilet beckoned.
Wyatt didn’t allow himself to think, but rather turned the bag out over the water, spongy nuggets of green herb and a single bit of orange peel plashing its surface. Then he flushed. The water churned itself into a gyre of too-lateness, and then it was gone, all gone, the pipes in the wall, beneath the floor, groaning, satisfied. Behind it all though, he could still hear Frank.
To: All Sugarloaf Hotel Employees
From: Collin Davenport
Re: Mandatory Guest Protocol Procedures (?)
July 12, 2009
Effective immediately [9/13/2009], and under legal penalty of a contract I just signed, any and all “potential Sugarloaf Hotel guests” are to be treated cordially, if “not with familiarity.”
So, the way I’m understanding it at this point, no one is allowed to recognize a guest. I’m being kept kind of in the dark, here, but I’m assuming we might be receiving some well-known individuals, maybe even celebrities, here at the Sugarloaf, and NO ONE is allowed to point them out/ask for autographs/recognize them as being anything other than a standard hotel guest in any way. Don’t know why they wouldn’t be staying someplace nicer, but with the money we’re being given to see these wishes through, I’m not asking.
Any questions should be directed to me, per usual. Like, I said, don’t know much more. Let’s just all do a favor for each other on this one here, huh?
Thanks a million. - CD
Monday, July 20, 2009
Wyatt sat with Rich on their porch’s swinging bench, his left foot alternately petting Sage’s unkempt mane and using the dog’s back as leverage to keep them swinging. They’d just been delivered an entire USPS sack of mail and three floral arrangements, in addition to a truckload of Dynamix-provided groceries. The sack still sat beside the front door where Rich ordered it set, the flowers carried upstairs by a quasi-puffy-eyed, bedraggled Amy. Wyatt had visited their website the night before when he wasn’t able to sleep and wishing like hell he hadn’t tossed his stash. He’d never really appreciated the cocooned nature of Amy’s space in the house. Now, though, all he could think about was how boring his own must look in comparison.
Viewers of Smith Experience on Dynamo’s webpage were greeted with a detailed cross-cut of the house, each room accompanied by a thumbnail-size video feed that expanded when clicked. A running tally of the total number of each room’s viewers streamed across the top of every frame, each tally interspersed with cheeky advertisements for Eggo or soft-glow light bulbs or whatever else was presently on camera. He’d only managed to look at his own for a second; watching himself watching himself – making his own hairs stand on his own nape – was too much. Then, the knowledge that over 1,100 other gazes monitored the same image had driven him to turn his lights off. The site’s chat room consensus was against everyone but Amy: no one thought the rest of them were sympathizing an adequate amount with her plight.
A hundred feet away, Kenny reclined against the hood of the van, his camera pointed directly at them. The day was still. From Wyatt’s pocket, his cell vibrated: a text from Brenda. He held it over the side of the bench to view the message.
Been WAY too long… this week? ;)
Rich seemed like he wanted to lean and inspect, curious, but instead scratched his head. “You know why I wanted to be a pilot?”
“You were a man of adventure.” This was the phrase. One of those family things you just knew how to say. “Are.” The full truth Wyatt only heard secondhand between pulls of whiskey from their sole neighbor, a quarter mile down the highway: that if Rich had known when he was twenty he’d still be walking, as an adult, the same halls of the same house on the same property as his own father, he would’ve gone under much earlier. “At least then he’d have had a reason for it,” she’d said.
Rich had wanted out, bad; a whole new life, someplace where his values weren’t already set. Where he could do whatever the hell he wanted, whenever the hell he wanted. It would have happened, too, if Rich’s father – a war veteran turned pseudo-logger – hadn’t fell a tree on himself the same week his wife ran her Buick off a viewpoint on the way to Bachelor. The old man required some amount of care after that, so Rich’s compromise – his solution for living two lives at once – had been to take to the air. Home four days a week for bathing, cooking, and to take out the garbage, and away the rest. Gloriously, blissfully away.
“Well, that’s part of it.” This wasn’t the response. “You know where you find adventure?”
“Mmm?” He heard he faint warble of a radio from inside the van. Emmett laser-gunning his way around the backyard, a special sound effect for every tree he took down, each squirrel that narrowly evaded demise. The fevered scent of sap effused the air. Everything almost felt right.
“In the places where you still fly over and it’s still dark. Not a single light, anywhere. Just you, the sky, and an endless field of inky black. And who knows what’s there?”
“Mmm.” He was afraid if he said anything more he’d mess this up, this free-flowing dialogue. It was like the steady thunder of waves crashing, the leaden silence of falling flakes: one of those sounds that, once you distinguished, you never wanted to hear end.
“So I did it. Follow your dreams and whatever else. And you now what?” Here Rich planted his feet on the ground, halting the swing mid-arc. “I couldn’t escape the light. Portland to Seattle, Seattle to LA, LA to Boise, Boise to Boulder: each the biggest gleaming gem in a string of them.” Rich placed his left hand on Wyatt’s shoulder, and Wyatt started: this was the first time someone had touched him in sincere affection in months. It almost felt wrong. “Man’s everywhere, Wyatt. We’ve conquered. She lies dormant before us.” The roar of an unmuffled engine dragging down Highway 97; Wyatt gave three seconds before it sped from behind the pines that now screened its approach. Chip Kelly’s blue mustang emerged, windows down, exposing a carload of young men – now Townies, but once football stars from Amy’s class during high school. Chip Kelly with the blonde hair and the cool, level gaze of a man who either knows all or knows nothing. Chip Kelly, whose dad, they said, up and disappeared one night. Grey Men, Chip’s mom said. As the car passed the driveway’s end – some several hundred feet from the house – the guy in the passenger seat leaned from the window as if jumping for a pass, cupped his hands around his mouth, yelled at the house.
“WE LOVE YOU AMYYY! WE LOVE YOU! WEEOOOOOOW!” Kenny visibly struggled not to turn the camera from Wyatt and Rich. Then, the mustang was gone, swallowed by the Deschutes’ dense underbrush. Quiet returned. Wyatt heard Emmett voice a tentative “Zing!” from the backyard.
“Your sister’s gone and done it this time.” Rich smiled as he spoke, and Wyatt was sure his father sat awash in images of his little girl on stage, online, on progressively larger screens, climbing her way to the success she’d spent so many years convincing herself she wanted, then so many more assimilating with crowds like Chip Kelly’s for: watching, mimicking, learning to be loved.
To pry her from that perch would incite nothing but devastation, both for her and Rich. Wyatt saw their dynamic, then, in a way he hadn’t before: Rich would only be satisfied when she’d reached the top – not for himself, but for her. Even if her absence might well traumatize, the loneliness was worth seeing her succeed.
Rich dropped his hand from Wyatt’s shoulder; the grip’s faint heat that still hugged his skin almost, in that moment, justifying his sister’s drive.
“I know what you must be thinking: I’m a bad mother. I don’t have any decent reason for guarding the present from the past. That he had every right to attack me like that. That it’s all a crutch. A way of keeping… everything in order this time. But if you only had been here. God, if all this had only been here twenty-two years ago. Ha! And Rich. I’m sure half of this is Wyatt still believing the first time he saw his father go under that dark wave was the first time it ever happened… he’s not too anxious to dig that one up, is he? I’m sorry, I shouldn’t. But he threw out those names as if there’s no way they could mean anything to me. He doesn’t see a reason for them to, so why should I? My son can be so… frustrating like that. But I love him. I love all of them so much. And the truth is – which I’m going to give to you because I don’t see how I could validate any of what I just did if I didn’t offer some grain of it now – the truth is I don’t care about Travis. That pig deserves everything plaguing him. And I could look anyone in the eye – Wyatt included, any of my children included – and tell them that.”
For the first time she stares me down. Like she sees through the camera. Like we’re facing each other in a moment as intimate as any I’ve experienced. She looks desperate; I wonder how long it’s been since anyone’s told her she’s beautiful. She’s silent for the longest time. “But not a day goes by – not an hour – that I don’t think about Nathan. About how I failed him by running, leaving him with that man. He had such a future ahead of him. My little boy… How can anyone look to the future when they’re trapped like that? I don’t know anymore. Jesus. Look at me now. I’m sorry.”
***Melanie uses Brawny to wipe her bitter tears. When the Kleenex are gone, Brawny won’t be.***
“And so when he brought it up – actually spoke those names here, now – it was like something popped. And all this past I’ve been trying so hard to keep out is drowning me. I know how Rich must feel when it happens. When something becomes unavoidable to the point that if you breath you let it in. Just… it’s everywhere. Everywhere. So that’s why I called him.”
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Wyatt lay in bed; one hand wrapped around his cell phone, the other his penis. Brenda’s heavy breath came through the speaker, its rough static licking at his ear. They’d only tried phone sex once before, the results laughable. But tonight, after the lights extinguished and his mind roved from pot to porn to pot again, he finally relented and called.
“Feed it to me.” She almost sounded pained.
“Oh fuck yeah.” His response resonated as childish even to himself. Was this what it had come to? Getting off under cover of darkness to the voice of a woman who’d been his teacher, then his rock, and now a fuck buddy? He imagined Brenda splayed on her Oriental bedspread; panties bunched around one ankle – the kind she wore on days she didn’t expect him.
“Mmm. Now I’m running my tongue along the scar.” Her favorite. She knew how inhibited he was of the thin white line, the emptiness it concealed. “Up… and down. Do you like that?”
“Yeah.” They’d been at it for twenty minutes, and even though he was the one who’d called, he didn’t feel any more connected than before. Even in the dark, the familiar silhouette of bedroom objects begged for his attention: anything but this. He closed his eyes, tried to focus on his hand’s rhythm. Sex in 2009, he thought, and something about the idea’s formulation at this moment nearly made him chuckle. Instead, he relaxed his hand, sighed, and again opened his eyes. “Brenda, wait. This isn’t working for me right now.”
She kept moaning. “Will you just listen, then? I only need a minute.”
He nearly relented, was a second away from agreeing, when it happened. He saw himself from above himself, lying back on his bed; even in the dark, Wyatt could see how unhappy he looked. Unhappy and alone. Then, Amy’s voice came, amassing in the dark: “You’re not a ‘yes,’ Wyatt, you’re a ‘no.’” Her words infusing his repose with a sort of warm electric charge. “Figure yourself out first.” And then he was back in his own head, staring at the spot of ceiling his consciousness had just inhabited.
“Can we talk? Soon? In person?” the room’s darkness made his saying it easier. Her heaving silenced. Several seconds of nothing; enough time to take his own deep breath and consider what a mistake this all may have been.
“If you want to end this, just say so.” A three-second turnaround, a deflective bristling, that signified the poise he’d found so alluring. Now, though, it only aggravated.
“Brend, I just said I wanted to talk. Friday?” He was already soft.
“Tennis. Saturday?” She was probably already reaching for a cigarette; Brenda kept a pack in the drawer of her night table that she only allowed for herself either after sex or before a night out. When she hung up – which she would after his next reply, he knew – she’d sit on the edge of her bed, legs folded, one arm crossed under her breasts, and smoke until she couldn’t bring butt to lips without burning herself.
“Sure. Same time, same place.” He waited for the click. It didn’t come.
“Wyatt. This better be coming from you and not the cameras.” He still heard her breath for several seconds after, and then she was gone. The silence of the room came as a swarming relief. He let his phone-hand fall from his ear. Outside, an owl’s piercing hoot preceded something rustling in the underbrush, close to the house. As a kid, that same combination of noises would have sent him straight to his parent’s bedroom. He sat up in bed, and his phone clattered onto the floor. He’d been looking for something in Brenda tonight and hadn’t found it, a conclusion that, even with the frustration it brought, indicated he was more himself now than he’d been at any point in the past few years. He felt excited, like he was rediscovering something barely imperceptible, something hidden only a layer or two below surface level.
The wall facing the foot of Wyatt’s bed began humming, a vibration that gained resonance until he detected a faint trembling even from where he sat. He squinted into the darkness, looking for a source. The sound came from no lens. Just then, as he inched himself closer, a dime-sized point at the wall’s center ruptured into flame. Something behind the plaster cracked loudly. Wyatt half-shouted, his own shock blocking what would have been a massive, hoarse scream.
The flame licked vertically at the wall’s surface, then shot away from its focal point in both directions until a thin line of fire stretched from corner to doorway. Smoke clouded the room almost immediately in a manner incongruent with what the movies had prepared him for. Wyatt jumped from his bed, shouting nonsense and searching for his underwear. He instead grabbed his phone, then slipped into a pair of jeans that hung over his desk chair. Half the room already blazed with fire. The flames crackled in sharp fits, their dancing tips emitting incandescent bursts of purple and blue. A pungent odor he was certain couldn’t be good for him scraped at his eyes, his throat. Smoke detectors in both his room and the hallway sounded at once; Wyatt registered a fleeting shock that both still worked.
His bedroom door burst open. Amy and Emmett huddled just outside its frame, both looking absolutely terrified. “Wyatt!” Amy shouted. They stood, watching. Wyatt spun around, eyed everything about to be destroyed, unable to decide what to lunge for. Another explosive cracking sound, like an iced-over waterfall caving to spring, hastened his action; he ran from the room, following Amy and Emmett down the hall, down the stairs, out the front door. Melanie and Rich already stood on the lawn, Sage yelping between them.
The scene played out with an oversaturated, hyperkinetic aura, and Wyatt felt like his limbs were moving underwater. Kenny stood at lawn’s edge, panning from Wyatt’s window – which pulsed with a near-radioactive orange glow – to his clustered family, the Thin Man running a series of cables from van to camera and back again. Already sirens sounded from beyond the pines. Wyatt turned to face his family. His back to the blinding carnage, the stars grew visible.
“Is this part of it? Was I almost fucking roasted for Ms. Hollywood’s sake?” He glowered at Amy, who had her arms wrapped around Emmett’s shoulders; the kid stared up into the sky, oblivious, his neon-purple tee – a gift from Brett following the fireworks fiasco – relaying the message: “EXPLOSIVO!”
Melanie rounded on Wyatt, stepping from Rich’s side. “You listen to me, Wyatt. You just listen. You’ve taken this all too far.” Rich turned to look at her, questioning.
“My room just exploded, Mom. And I know these people – Dynamo – had something to do with it.” As he spoke, he strode toward Kenny, then raised two open fists and jerked the camera from his grasp. “Give me this fucking thing!” Without his equipment, Kenny looked weak, pitiable even. Wyatt almost felt bad for the man, but then the skinny one was on him, pulling at the camera from his left side; Wyatt let go and it fell into the grass. Emmett darted forward and held onto Sage’s collar: the dog was making to lunge for Wyatt’s attacker. The driveway’s end erupted in a cacophony of light and sound, a fire truck followed by two police cars and another white van. Wyatt turned from the Thin Man to again face Kenny, this time balling his fists into a casing of knuckle. He’d only punched a single person before in his life – Connor Menefee, third grade, making cracks at Amy – but it felt right again: a seething frustration with no alternative for escape.
He let fly. Upon impact, Kenny fell to his knees, hands at his nose. Melanie screamed Wyatt’s name. Behind him, the tinkling of shattered glass and the kiss of warm air on his nape told him his window had just blown out. He looked at his fist, saw no immediate damage. Rich, who’d been staring at Amy and Emmett, turned from the group and walked toward the woods, his hands clasped together at the point of his head where his cowlick usually stood. Sage still scrambled under Emmett’s grasp. Amy stepped forward, and, in the midst of the chaos, Wyatt almost went to her for assurance. Instead, she pointed a finger, her eyes imploring. “He’s not the one, Wyatt.” The Thin Man had regained control of the camera, now pinballing its bulk between Kenny – who still knelt, eyes streaming – Amy, and himself. Men poured from the vehicles now parked behind the first van. Amy’s bottom lip trembled, an action that always demarked false tears. “He’s not the one who took me.”
“No one took you.” He could have shouted, had carried on with his fit, but he already knew how this was going to play out. Either he resigned himself to placidity or he would end up the raving lunatic on camera. She achieved them, then, the tears. They ran down her face in brilliant streaks, trails glinting in the firelight.
“But whoever did take me,” she continued, looking halfway between him and the camera, “whoever did take me must have started that fire. They must have thought your room was mine.” She gasped, chest heaving. “Oh God.” A crew of firemen stormed across the lawn, two separate hoses snaking over the electric cables that already coiled through the grass.
“We need everyone to back into the driveway! Please! Everyone away.” There was no telling which masked individual spoke. Wyatt saw Rich’s figure receding into the tree line, pine trunks dancing in the siren light; he made to follow, but a commanding grip on his elbow turned him back toward the vehicles: Joan. Despite the hour, she was again wedged inside a constrictive – if scant – power suit.
“Walk with me.” She didn’t release his arm as they stepped behind Kenny’s van. “You’re lucky your sister has a knack for ad-libs. She got you out of quite the tight spot back there.” Joan’s grip tightened, her faced an imposing composition of rigid angles.
“Got me out of what?” He wrenched his arm from her hand, talked over the pain of the stinging scratch marks her clenched nails left.
“Charges of Battery… and, let’s say, $20,000 in electric damages.” His griip had her arm in a vice before she’d finished the sentence, her eyes gleaming.
“You know I didn’t have a goddamned thing to do with this fire.” He glanced above the van’s hood: his window now sat dormant, smoke pluming into the night air at an incredible speed, like the image was being fast-forwarded. “You’ve been watching this entire time. That wall went up on its own. And you know what’s most curious? It’s the one wall in the room that supposedly doesn’t have a camera on it. So how do you explain that?” With his last word, he pushed her from him. Joan stumbled over her heels, stabled herself against the van. She smiled.
“Wyatt. Don’t fuck with us. We know who you were… Talking with. We know why you couldn’t sleep. We even know exactly what you’re going to do next. None of it’s a shock, Wyatt. None of what you’re doing is in any way exciting or revelatory or profound.” She reached to her face, positioned a stray lock. “We know what your problem is better than you do, and from our point of view, it’s just a matter of watching you struggle over decisions that have already been made. So stop trying.”
“How? His left hand’s knuckles had already begun to throb, a distraction he was grateful for. At the question, her smile widened. She took a hesitant step forward, then leaned in until her lips were an inch from his ear. Although the emergency vehicles still idled, a mechanized thunder, and men shouted all across the yard, the coherency of her next whispered words brought chills.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
The two men rounded one another, gloves curled in proper form under their chins. Jackets, waistcoats, and ties lay strewn in an indistinct heap beside the console. The door to the captain’s deck stood open, revealing a wall-sized portal that looked out onto the inky black sky, then the cosmos.
“You know something, Holgrave?” The one who wasn’t Holgrave took a cheap swing, his Grey pallor flushing with the thrust: a near miss.
“Sir?” The craft’s floor trembled below them; it could barely contain the energy.
“I could use another drink.”
“Very good, Sir.” Holgrave began removing his gloves.
“The button, Holgrave. It’s blinking.”
“Oh!” He rushed to the console, pressed the button.
A burp of static, then: “This is Roman from Dynamo’s end, here. I’m calling regarding the Smith family.”
“Subject 003 has been made aware,” Roman said. Holgrave looked back at the man, who shook his head over a tumbler.
“Insufficient, Roman. Our proprietors want more controls induced. They’re concerned it’s not working as precisely as its capacity indicates it might.” Holgrave looked again at the man, who nodded.
“In other words, Roman: make them squirm.” Holgrave released the button. He returned to the cleared space, sliding his hands again into the gloves. “Sir? Another go?”
The clear black sky droned with the weight of it.
Friday, July 24, 2009
Once the fire had been extinguished and the surrounding area examined for structural damage, Wyatt and the rest were allowed back inside the house. Only his room and the far end of the upstairs hallway had burned, his single remaining possession the poster of Marlon Brando, which somehow ended up at the top of the stairwell. Dynamo agreed to cover the rebuilding costs in lieu of an official investigation – a telling move, Wyatt felt, though if the rest of them suspected anything they didn’t voice it. The local news pounced on the fire story the following morning – sensationalist events a rarity in Central Oregon. Greater than KTVZ’s burgeoning interest, though, was the enthusiasm fostered by Smith Experience’s online viewers. Amy reported the following afternoon that, since the fire, over 80,000 individuals on average were logged onto their webpage at any one time. Their garbage can quickly filled with discarded bouquets – she received so many new flowers daily that any sign of wilting was cause for disposal. Also delivered were homemade jars of jam, doggie treats for Sage, a wood-carved replica of each family member with an accompanying, to-scale dollhouse, and a pair of silicone thumbs for Emmett with a note that read: Sorry! Both lefties! HA! At first Emmett hung the fingers from strings in his bedroom window, but then – in a move that made Wyatt proud – buried them in the backyard.
Brett, meanwhile, had begun texting Wyatt quotes from various critical analyses of their webshow. He seemed to relish exceptionally the ones where Wyatt came across as a cad.
“Wyatt… seems caught in a perpetual pre-adolescent angst.”
“There’re boring characters, and then there’re boring characters… and Wyatt Smith falls in the latter category. Given the choice, one would almost rather spend time with Emmett.”
And then there was the matter of a place to sleep, and clothes to wear, and not going apeshit-crazy from the sudden deprivation of his daily allotment of private Internet time – his laptop had been reduced to a charred pancake. Melanie made an attempt at pushing the couch away from their TV and into its own corner for him to use as a sleeping quarter, but she seemed to have lost interest halfway through the chore, as the couch now sat angled senselessly in the middle of the living room. No one bothered fixing it.
Wyatt didn’t venture outside because of the risk of seeing Kenny; punching the man had been satisfying like nothing much else was anymore, and the way he went down so easily, the sound of Wyatt’s knuckles as they popped against his nose, kept replaying as he moved from room to room, book in hand, trying to go unnoticed. Now that the living room was his bedroom, he couldn’t sit still in it. The space was so open, so public. His knuckles were crescent moons against pockets of deep magenta, and they made life’s navigation surprisingly difficult; Emmett really deserved more credit. He might have dwelled more on the subject, but any amount of self-conscious reflection called to mind Joan’s final utterance before she’d turned and disappeared into that night’s chaos. Besides, what could he possibly do about it anyway?
He ran across Emmett on his third trip that morning to the bathroom – Wyatt had reverted to coffee, an old habit, to keep him going in the absence of his other vices, and his bladder hadn’t made the adjustment. Emmett sat on a chair he’d pushed in front of the upstairs hallway’s camera, knees folded so that his legs tucked back under himself, using both his fingers and Scotch Tape to contort his face into various frozen grotesqueries. The house’s lenses now remained blank: Rich had spent a frenzied half hour on the phone with Joan the morning previous. He couldn’t stand all the faces peering, he’d said, and he wanted the cameras’ two-way function disabled. Joan finally relented, though Amy insisted hers be kept intact. When Wyatt approached Emmett, the kid’s eyebrows were pulled two inches higher than usual, his nose stunted against his face, and his left hand’s fingers jerked at his lower lip so that its moist, paunchy underside alternately quivered and gleeked onto the lens’s sleek surface. He didn’t look at Wyatt, but instead took his free hand and proffered the roll of tape.
“Put it unh.” Emmett’s smashed nose stymied his words. Wyatt began mumbling about the bathroom, how he had to get there, but something about his brother’s unassuming attitude, his way of acting like of course Wyatt would do what he’d asked, because why the hell not, obliged him to swing behind the chair, position his own face alongside Emmett’s so that they both were within the camera’s frame, and flare his nostrils. Their reflection, faint and slightly protracted against the glass, stared back. Wyatt took two long strips of tape, pulled his cheeks down and out, St. Bernard style. Emmett snickered, then moved both his hands to his eyes, where he aligned each nub over an eye socket so that he appeared to be poking his own eyes out. Wyatt, who’d begun to smile without realizing it, straightened his composure.
***Emmett knows how to have fun! And you can, too! Scotch Tape: wacky, sticky fun!***
“You aren’t embarrassed? In front of all these people?”
“Why whud I bnee?” Emmett showed no indication of removing the nose tape.
“Because your thumbs are raw stumps of skin.” His brother turned to face him, abandoning the camera and, with it, his smile. Wyatt extended his own mangled hand and pulled the tape from Emmett’s face. “And people don’t like disfigurement.”
“Do you know how much less fun I would have that way?”
“I think I have an idea, yeah.” Wyatt was uncertain how many levels of his psyche he’d just referred to.
“Then why are you even asking?”
“I don’t know. I guess I was hoping you’d say something else.” At this, Emmett shook his head, his massive brown curls flopping; Wyatt was reminded of a dog drying itself.
“Bummer, Wyatt.” He snatched the tape back. “All I can say is that if I just had a little scar on my balls, you best believe I would act the same as I did before.” Emmett eyed Wyatt, panning up, then down, his winsome green eyes flashing. “If you had stayed bald, maybe. Bald at nineteen is disconcerting. Anything else is golden.” These last words were an intentional echo of their grandfather, whose curt brand of sympathy had only ever aggravated. Emmett smiled. “Now go to the bathroom. I can make faces on my own.” Wyatt nodded, at once feeling an immense rush of gratitude for the little shit. Before he moved, though, the phone that sat on the oak armoire directly to the left of the stairwell’s landing rang once, twice.
“Aren’t Mom or Dad going to get that?”
“Probably not.” Emmett pulled an impractically long piece of tape from the dispenser. “You know Mom only takes calls on her cell. And Dad stopped answering the phone yesterday.” It rang again. Wyatt, troubled, walked to the armoire. He answered out of an irrational hope that whoever was calling would deliver some news, some missing piece of information potent enough for something to make sense.
“Yes?” This was the first time in two years he’d held a legitimate telephone. He’d forgotten how heavy they were, how the earpiece functioned to cut off the rest of the world’s sound.
“Hello, Mr. Smith?” A young man’s voice. Tentative. Polite.
“No. This is Wyatt. Rich isn’t available.” Their stock response for sales calls.
“I’m actually looking for a Melanie Smith. Is she available?” The voice sounded common, with none of the practiced intonation of a telemarketer. Wyatt still almost hung up, but some part of him suspected this man would just keep calling.
“I’m sorry, who is this?”
“My name’s Nathan Wyler. My father used to be married to Melanie. Is this Wyatt?” Wyatt’s arms broke into goosebumps, Somehow, his hand had found the pad and pen that sat waiting to record messages –a Marriott logo on each – and begun scribbling a furious black vortex. Behind him, Emmett sat, silent.
“Yes, this is Wyatt. And I can assure you Melanie does not want to speak with you.” How did Nathan know about him? The notion seemed to break some rule, an unspoken law of sorts that dictated circumstances like this one. There was a slight pause on the line’s other end.
“She called me a few days back. Left two numbers. Thought I’d try the one that looked like a house line first. My apologies.” A countrified twang in the last few syllables. Wyatt knew Emmett was listening now. The vortex had darkened into an amorphous black splotch at least three sheets deep.
“What did you want?” He made a conscious decision to use the past tense.
“My father’s ill. He’ll be dead before summer’s out.” Emotionless. “I – I didn’t know what to do. There’s no one to call.” Nathan’s voice cracked, the breach in demeanor impacting Wyatt in a way he hadn’t anticipated. His own vision blurred, briefly, before he blinked away whatever moisture had accrued. “And then I got this message from… Melanie, and it was like some miracle had started playing itself out.”
“I’m sorry. She’s not here. Please don’t call again.” Wyatt hung up. His hand went to the armoire’s edge for support, but when he squeezed, an intense pain shot from his knuckles. Again, he saw the fire spread in a precise line along the wall’s length.
“Who was that?” At the question, Wyatt jumped; Emmett had sidled from the chair to his side in a few silent seconds.
“Someone we don’t want talking to us.” With his good hand, he grasped Emmett’s shoulder. Out of everything he’d said in the past several weeks – either to himself or others – this was the first line he knew to be undoubtedly true, a moment of honesty so raw, so heavy it carried the capacity to hurt another person. Under any other circumstance, Wyatt would have felt guilt, but he knew he was catching onto something too important to debase with morals. He’d been honest with himself, and it felt damned good. There was no need for a stoned revelation to convince him of its magnitude, just the feeling of a great weight in his stomach lifting, lifting, lifting, until the walls around him, the rows of photographs, the armoire under its shabby coat of dust, all shone with a dormant familiarity, a sense of his belonging here, in himself, away from uncertainty, from disconnection, from a world of alternatives. The feeling was potent; he wanted more.
Only the cameras kept the despair anchored in place.
From Controlling Chaos: The Impact of “Smith Experience” on the Kolmogorovian Prediction Algorithm
File 7 of 13: Emmett David Smith (interviewee: Donald Rainier)
22 April 2033
North Stockholm, Sweden
Rainier: Let’s focus again on what you were feeling at the time of the project’s inception, Mr. Smith. Can you speak more about the interpersonal dynamics of your childhood household?
Smith: (drinks from provided water source) What more is there to say? I feel like the documentation speaks for itself.
Rainier: Yes, but the cameras didn’t have unique personalities, Mr. Smith. They weren’t thinking as they watched.
Smith: They weren’t? (both men laugh.)
Rainier: So you recall nothing, then?
Smith: Nothing we haven’t already been over.
Rainier: I’m sorry to push, Mr. Smith. It just seems as though your experience must have differed from the others in some significant manner, considering.
Smith: I was thirteen. I was without thumbs at the time. I didn’t care about what the rest of them cared about.
Rainier: But you’re here, Mr. Smith. You’re here. That says something.
Smith: All that says about me is I knew how to fly. (subject falls silent.)
Rainier: Okay, I only have a few more questions and you’ll be on your way. Among the most common inquiries we receive here, Mr. Smith, concern how you felt afterwards regarding your role in helping achieve such a breakthrough with the KPA. The lives saved since, the disaster averted, is in large part due to the choices made by you and your family. How does it feel knowing you’ve played a role in history, Mr. Smith?
Smith: Am I to understand people still think I was making choices?
Rainier: Perhaps I should rephrase…
Smith: This is the problem with history, Mr. Rainier. You people keep writing it as if it allowed for free will. (subject pauses.) Where’s a cigarette?
Friday, July 24, 2009
As it turned out, Melanie had been shut in her bedroom all afternoon practicing her lines. She and Amy now stood in the kitchen; Wyatt watched from the dining table’s far end. Between him and them, Kenny, the Thin Man, and a lighting guy stood arced: this was one of the bigger rehearsed scenes. Kenny’s nose was again bandaged, though its bruising and swelling appeared less theatric this time, less catered to spectacle.
“I don’t know, Mom,” Amy said. For no apparent reason, a single lit candle sat on the kitchen island between them. They both held glasses of Sangria. “The more I try not to remember it, the more it’s like I’m in a waking nightmare. I see his face everywhere I look.” Melanie’s hair was done up in an intimidating swirl, and she stood at least three inches taller than Amy – Wyatt was certain she’d put heels on for the occasion, a natural kitchen conversation. The Thin Man stifled a sneeze.
“What is it you think you need to do to end this?” Melanie’s left index finger circled the rim of her glass. “All I want is to have my Baby Girl back.” Behind the two of them, the door leading into the downstairs hallway swung open; Rich took half a step into the kitchen, saw what he was walking in on, then backed out. The door flapped to a standstill. Both Melanie and Amy stood quiet until it’s squeaking stopped.
“I’ve been praying on it, and I think this morning I got my answer: I need to move back to LA. I need the sun.” Wyatt watched as the two made pouting, head-cocked, smooching faces at one anther – the kind that among women of a certain variety is a stand-in for grateful tears.
“Baby Girl, if that’s what you need, we’ll find a way to make it happen.” Incredible, he thought: it’s barely been a week and she’s getting a spin-off. “I can see it now!” Melanie said, then waved a hand across the air in time with her words, “Amy’s Sunny Adventures in the City of Angels! Or something.” They set down their glasses, ran around the island, hugged one another.
“I didn’t think I’d ever be this happy again,” Amy said, her face play-buried against Melanie’s shoulder. “I didn’t think this day would ever come.”
“That girl was my daughter you’d best believe I’d be slappin’ her ass all the way back upstairs for that California talk. Family fallin’ part around her, dad goin’ off the wire, brothers actin’ like retards. Don’t none of it make any sense. Know what I’m sayin?”
“I hear you, man.”
“You hear me? Am I supposed to take that as you agree or you just hear me, because right now I’m taking it as that last one and that last one doesn’t make me none too happy.”
“Nah, man, I hear you and I agree. Shit’s all just a show, though, man. Can’t get yourself all worked up over something like that. Aint worth the energy.”
“Well I’m glad we don’t have ourself a situation. Guess I could dig the LA thing. Bitch does have a fine ass. Damn! And more bitch equals more ass. Yeah, guess I could dig it.”
Saturday, July 25, 2009
The living room was cooler at night than his own had been, though the single Inspector Gadget bed sheet – origins unknown – Wyatt lay under still stifled. He’d already removed one of Rich’s old flannels, and would have tossed the sheet away as well if he wasn’t so concerned about someone walking through the living room and seeing him, naked, sleeping. He didn’t care so much about the cameras; they were an afterthought, down here.
The more he thought, the prouder he felt about his decision to agree to the show. Yes, it had shocked for its complete discordance with the character everyone else saw him as, but it also set in motion a series of events that resulted in the phone conversation with Nathan. And something about that call had stirred something reluctant in him. Yes, he’d been angry with Melanie for her schematic sense of ordering them all, but in the end what it came down to was that she’d chosen them, not Travis or Nathan. The same went with Amy and Smith Experience. And Emmett and his… well, his maverick spirit. Rich proved the exception to this trend of chasing – despite the costs – headlong after happiness, and it showed.
But what did he want? Wyatt had spent the earlier hours of the evening working out a flow sheet of details, debate-style, in an attempt to pinpoint the cause of these perturbations. For the past hour, he’d held the paper inches from his face as he squinted through the dark, trying to make sense of the concrete nouns he’d decided ordered his present existence. Were this a legitimate debate round, these would be the words he’d fling at his opponent to crush any final defenses. His eyes followed the crisscrossed arrows and squiggles that either bolstered or invalidated the sixteen bold-faced words he’d placed into columns. “Catholicism,” one read. “Cameras,” another. “Brenda” floated directly below “Family (make them like me)” and “Drugs,” the two words circled and linked to everything else in a manner that confused rather than elucidated. Determining one’s motives, Wyatt had concluded, was hard. Here he was, clearly his own worst enemy, and, try as he might, the severing of one arrow – or even a single subject’s subpoint – only muddled further any clear path of action.
So he called Brett. His best friend never slept, held a solution to any problem so long as it wasn’t his own, and wielded razor-sharp criticism with the skill of a well-spoken samurai. Their roles as equivalent middle school sidekicks at St. Francis had evolved into a dynamic LD debate team: where Brett’s striking looks and argumentative scrappiness waned, Wyatt’s own penchant for structured, critical thought pulled through. Many a doting judge had left on his or her ballet some praise for their magnetism, the favorite reading, “obviously I’m here to comment on more than just great hair, but in that regard you two win. Hands down.” The following tournament, Brett tracked down the commentator – one Jimmy Durano, a college-aged volunteer coach for a team in the valley – and, in the backseat of a beaten blue Volvo, received from their admirer what he frequently described as “the blowjob I will compare all future blowjobs against.” Then he got Jim to buy them a half-gallon of Absolut for the bus ride home. Tonight, a certain fond intonation in Brett’s greeting suggested he’d again been drinking.
“Pleasure to hear from you, Wyatt. I thought Brown might claim me before we spoke again.”
“I replied to your last text, like, three minutes ago.”
“What do you want?” He dropped the banter.
“I can’t sleep.” Wyatt glanced up from the paper and into the lens that stared from the wall. His sudden motion caused Sage to shift on the floor beside him. Who else was up right now?
“I won’t sleep.” Brett’s voice came distracted. Wyatt imagined him kicked back in his father’s study, loafers placed on the man’s oak desk to guarantee some small mess, encased by vertiginous walls of awards, photographs, and books – in that order. Or maybe he was just roaming the halls of the Hudson residence, his parents still away at a function or a mixer or some other single-worded emblem of the elite. Whatever the case, he was holding a glass, practicing long sips and dubious glances, and more than willing to talk. To examine. To exercise wit.
“My life’s a knot. Literally.” Wyatt turned onto his side, hand throbbing, willing his gaze away from both the camera and the flow chart.
“Looking for an answer the pragmatic way?” Brett knew how Wyatt dealt. “Is it color-coded or scrawled in black pen? Never underestimate the organizational power of a highlighter, good buddy.” Wyatt thought he discerned a hiccup among the last few words.
“I’m just… trying different approaches.” He heard one of his parents walk from bed to bathroom; the intonation of the floor’s groaning suggested Rich.
“Let’s cut the bullshit, yeah? What is it you most want? One word.”
“I don’t know. If you’d asked me this morning I would have said I wanted to be anonymous again.” Rich flushed the toilet; the pipes in the walls whistled. “Now I feel like I’m past that.”
“It positively reeks of bullshit in here.”
“I want them to love me. And I want to love them. And I want to not be so angered by everything they do.” He paused; Brett didn’t speak. “I want to feel like I survived for a reason, not just a GED and an excuse for old classmates to avoid me at Safeway.” He knew he sounded hammy, but he couldn’t think of how else to put a face to the panic. His synapses firing like this also, by extreme coincidence, solved a question he’d asked himself eight days previous: that a blank screen was, in fact, infinitely worse than one containing an identifiable face. Ambiguity was always worse. Always. “I’m tired of feeling like I’m acting all the time.”
“You’ve just described the mindset of Earth’s every living human. Scratch that: America’s every living human. Those Third World-ers are definitely too preoccupied with, I dunno, surviving to ever stoop to a level of thought this petty. What makes you so special?”
“Exactly.” He let his damaged hand slip off the couch, where Sage sniffed, then licked at it. “This whole Dynamo experience has made no sense. There’re probably 2,000 people spending their free time staring into our living room right now, and there’s absolutely nothing to see.”
“Oh yeah! Am I on TV? Or that website, or whatever?”
“My disembodied voice having a one-way conversation with yours is, if that counts for anything.” Rich’s heavy footsteps creaked down the hallway and into the kitchen, where Wyatt heard the refrigerator door swing open.
“Wyatt, you’re on the phone with me at two in the morning detailing a slight existential panic. Dynamo’s done something for you.” Brett was right. Wyatt couldn’t deny that the sudden intrusion on his life of a spectator – the mere presence of those quiet cameras watching, recording, reporting – had contributed hugely to this new sense of being. The Wyatt he was before had settled for the belief that if life sucked, it at least wasn’t getting any worse. Now, though, limitless potential seemed just around the corner. Still, he didn’t want to voice this optimism to Brett just yet.
“There’s a man named Nathan trying to get in touch with my mother. And tomorrow I’m meeting with Brenda.” A non sequitur, but a fitting one – another of their debate tactics.
“Sounds heavy. Guess that leaves your sister vulnerable and for the taking.”
“Keep your hands to yourself, you pansexual perv. I know where those fingers have been.” They could stay up the rest of the night slinging names.
“Decisiveness in spontaneity, Wyatt. That’s my motto.” There was the sound of Brett sucking in a quick breath, then a distant tinkling of glass. “Dammit. I thought if maybe I threw hard enough I’d get the tumbler through the window. Two expensive birds with one stone… and the stone, in this case, is also one of the birds…?”
“You’re a dumbass.”
“And you’re horny. Don’t ask how, I can just tell. Don’t fuck Brenda tomorrow, Wyatt; it’ll only make whatever more confusing. One last thing: are we watching the premier at my place?” Brett’s house boasted a movie room only slightly less opulent than an opera house.
“What premier?” Sage stopped licking Wyatt’s hand, stood, and ambled into the kitchen to investigate Rich’s presence.
“Who’s the dumbass? Smith Experience. Duh. Wednesday night. Don’t you watch TBC? It’s all over everything.
“I guess I just figured they need a lot more footage and, you know, editing time before they cranked one out.” What he’d really figured was that this part would never come, that any of them had actually done anything exceptional enough to even be edited into a twenty-one minute tale of woe. Or ridicule. Or whatever angle they’d cooked up. “But yeah, I’ll be there. Definitely not watching it here.”
“Well then I shall see you Wednesday, good buddy, if not prior to. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go mix another drinksy. And ogle your sister.” The last part came in a rapid string of syllables, and then he was gone. Wyatt kept the phone at his ear. For a moment, he became acutely aware of the process he was playing into even as he lay there, felt it all clunking around him, an invisible chain of events, producers, editors, tech geeks, sales reps, viewers, commentators and dissenters, their actions all influenced, perhaps even ordered, by him. By them. The thought daunted him.
Wyatt laid that way for several prolonged minutes, listening through the door to his father weep over the dining room table. He would have gone in, asked what was wrong, but that would have meant turning on the lights. That would have meant speaking. That would have meant making a scene where none was necessary, and the last thing he wanted right now was to have any part in a scene. So he did nothing.
“Dad’s Mazatlan Shenanigans”
Youtube.com. Added 19 July 2009. User: *Amy_Sm1th*
Between shaky segments of a much blonder version of Wyatt burying Amy in sand, Melanie swings the camera ninety degrees to the left, where Rich stands in front of a crisp-dressed, leather-skinned vendor. The man holds a case of silver jewelry, though in the video the sun’s intense glare off the metal makes it look like he’s proffering the universe’s ultimate blinding secret.
“Cuantos pesos?” Rich asks. The whole scene plays oddly coherent given the ocean’s raging background noise and the camera’s grainy, mid-nineties ability to capture action.
“Doscientos, señor.” At the sound of the number, Rich, in an uncharacteristic fit of humor, goes rigid as a board, clutches at his chest, hand clenching.
“Ayayay!” He falls backward into the sand, does not flinch or attempt to break his fall in any manner. Melanie first gasps, then chuckles.
“Riiiiich…” she groans. The vendor stands, stoic, before the collapsed. He doesn’t even blink – though again, it’s kind of hard to tell given the quality of the image. Rich lies, motionless, face contorted in a final look of horror. The vendor turns toward the camera.
“Doscientos, señora.” The camera briefly segues back to Wyatt and Amy. Wyatt has dropped his shovel into a pile of loose sand. He stares at Rich’s inert body, concerned. His face screws up into a typical child’s blend of confusion and terror. A shriek issues from his mouth as at the same time Melanie begins to speak, impatient. The camera lowers until the only perceptible image is sand and the outermost fringes of Amy’s splayed hair.
And that’s it.
- I know that vendor! – TomChuck4life
- Does anyone else think the whole Amy/Wyatt thing is weird? Also, where’s Emmett? – DebbieLittleDebbie
- Only slightly better camerawork than what’s capturing their lives currently. Let’s hope TBC pulls it together or else I predict… [read more] – Video^Kritik
- @ Debbie: Emmett wasn’t born yet, you f***ing moron. Why are you so stupid? – SidneyBristow2000
Saturday, July 25, 2009
The day’s forecast had promised thunder, though from the parking lot of the Sugarloaf the sky looked as blue and arid as it had for the past several weeks. Wyatt had biked into town for their meeting, which he normally wouldn’t have done because of how sweaty the exercise made his groin: Brenda complained about the taste. After he’d fixed his ten-speed to a pine trunk, he leaned against the bark and rubbed a hand across his throat, chin, cheeks. Brenda liked stubble; he’d shaved twice. In this heat, the cropping of pines that separated him from the highway gave a fevered smell of sap. Across the four lanes of sparse traffic, a billboard emblazoned with the words Smith Experience, a picture of Amy and Melanie hugging, and a date (July 29) and a time (8:00 pm) lorded over the highway: the countdown had begun. He had three minutes until she’d call with a room number. Brenda was never late. Her composure calmed him; its methodic, reasoned approach to making sense of life’s complexities the exact opposite of his mother’s.
At one time, the idea of not seeing her like this again would have devastated. He’d needed her in a way he couldn’t imagine anyone else his age – or anyone still in the discovery stage of life, for that matter – understood. It hadn’t been love, and it hadn’t been lust, but something more specific than both that was fulfilling in a way neither could rival. Brenda had devoted herself to the frayed endings of his existence, did the best she could to soothe those raw nerves, and he, in return, gave her a body to sleep against. It was really that simple. He might have felt ashamed if she hadn’t told him, many times, it was exactly what she wanted.
Wyatt had received the phone call from the doctor’s office during a Debate tournament at Willamette University two springs previous. He was in his hotel room, watching another teammate simultaneously iron a dress shirt and mug for himself, bare-chested, in the body-length mirror that hung next to the TV: a pre-tournament tradition. Wyatt expected the call, having spent five consecutive hours in the waiting room of an Urologist earlier that week. The movies had prepared him only for a curt, ambiguous exchange that would result in his having to return to the doctor’s office to receive the news in person. Reality, though, never played out as he imagined, and the woman on the other end of the line spoke candidly only seconds after she’d identified him as Wyatt Smith. “We need to get you back in here as soon as possible, Mr. Smith. The tests came back positive for testicular cancer, and now we need a biopsy. I’m very sorry.” And then he’d hung up.
She was a minute late now. The arrival of a bee hastened his descent from the trees, as well as his trek across the parking lot – its scorched, wavering surface still charred in areas from tourist’s fireworks. He passed the lobby’s windows, head down. His cell phone vibrated.
They met here whenever her roommate was home, which was often. 127. The number seemed perfect, somehow. He wondered if he’d ever be here again, walking the open-air East wing of the Sugarloaf. What would the circumstances be? Would he remember this moment? The cracks and blemishes that caught his eye? The imperfections that suffused each visit with a new tone? No. Depending on the day, the mood, the level of need, it always looked different. As soon as he got to 127, this would be over, and he’d never get it back. The end.
“Wyatt. Here.” Her voice came from the path that led to the little gate that opened onto the pool. No one ever swam here. He turned, confused, to Brenda sitting on a lounge chair just inside the fence. She held up a hand. He walked toward the gate, at once aware of the stillness of everything around him. The hotel, it seemed, had settled into a reverie of sorts. No matter what happened now, the rows and columns of hotel windows, the glass-paneled walls screening the reception area, would see nothing. Report nothing. It was all for them.
“Hey.” He went to open the gate with his good hand, but it stayed locked. “Will you open this for me?”
“No.” Her eyes hid behind sunglasses. He couldn’t see her expression, but the careful posture of the rest of her body indicated it to be cool. She’d painted her toenails some shade of blue, and her legs stretched in languid repose from beneath a coal-black sarong, which contrasted strikingly with her icy blonde hair. She looked as though she waited for someone – her husband, disgruntled and equally attractive – to materialize from the below the pool’s edge. Wyatt was surprised how this word, this “no,” sounded coming from her – he must’ve heard it only a handful of times, if at all.
“Listen, Brend, I’ve got a lot I want to say to you.” The way both his hands clutched at the fence made him feel like a prisoner, trapped here on the outside. Even as he spoke, though, he had no idea what it was he felt he needed to say. That he was through using her? That he’d really only been looking for someone who wouldn’t gloss over his pain with the practiced air of his own mother? That this entire situation was plain wrong for him? “Please, let me sit. For a few minutes. Please.”
“No.” Just after the call from the doctor’s, he’d stumbled from the room, tripped over his roommate’s iron’s cord, left an obvious burn stain on the hotel carpet in the process. The walk down the muted hallway had been a dizzy one, its crimson carpeting and striped beige wallpaper bleeding into each other until the colors and his knocking and her opening the door and him falling into her shoulder, crying, breathless, hating so much his cheap suit jacket and his strangling tie and being so far from home, all swarmed around him, all formed itself into a single, malicious, all-caps word:
And she understood. Before anyone else’s sympathy, there had been her silent assimilation. She’d held him, cradled him – an action he wasn’t ashamed to recall, even now. The team bussed to the tournament without them, had to pay an extra $400 in judging fees because Brenda took the day off, didn’t show up to a single one of her seven required rounds.
Now, he didn’t recognize the woman who intentionally lay on the far side of a fence from him. Why hadn’t she called if this was the way she wanted it to be? What was the point of his being here to watch her lounge, out of grasp? “I’m angry with you, Wyatt.” She spoke, raising her torso a few more degrees with every word. “You needed something. And you got it from me. And now that you don’t need a mom, or a confidant, or someone to teach you how to eat a woman out, you’re done.” She removed the sunglasses; her eyes, even if determined, were fixed in folds of swollen red tissue. Any emotion they once held had been spent. “If you hadn’t spent so much time between my legs, I’d half think maybe you were turning queer.”
He at first didn’t process what she’d said, but then the words hit. His grip on the fence slackened. She looked straight at him for several seconds, put her glasses back on, and fell back into her seat. When he remained silent, she gave a frantic laugh, the kind that belonged in a Fellini movie. “I look at you now, and I just want you to get the fuck away from me. Now. Before you say anything else I’m gonna have to work out later.”
He remained standing silent for nearly thirty seconds, hoping his mere shocked presence would eventually guilt her into another glance his direction, the glance then providing another outlet for him to try and say something. Anything. The more he thought about what it was he’d say, though, the more he realized this was exactly what he’d come to do. He just hadn’t expected her to beat him to the punch. Everything she’d said had been accurate to the point of frightening him. If he’d expected to feel better, though, to experience any budding sense of relief, the situation’s reality only smothered. When he realized what he’d done, it was already too late to go back.
Wyatt took a final look, then, at the woman on the other side of the bars. How many times had this happened to her? What had she seen in him that made her expect anything different? He experienced another one of those moments, then, where he saw himself from above. He didn’t deserve the fence he clung to, the parameters of the situation he’d created for himself. It was all a sham. He turned from her, walked back down the path, the irregularities he might have noticed on any other occasion now overshadowed by the memory of the first time he’d left her, and the disparity that stretched between that afternoon and this one:
They’d pulled back into Evergreen’s expansive parking lot a day later, and he hadn’t wanted to leave her side. The team – save Brett – remained oblivious. But she persuaded him – a push and a whisper – and he’d hopped into the front seat of Melanie’s Yukon – Emmett in back, thumbing a Game Boy – with a feeling that this could be done. Her words had given a strength he never would have found himself. Wyatt remembered the final deep breath he took before he delivered the news to his mother. If he’d known how long it would later seem he’d held that same breath for, he never would have taken it. Then the operation. The Chemo. The sense of loss, in all its forms. The clumps of hair that came free, like brittle tufts of cotton candy, in the shower. Even more than the testicle, the clumps brought nightmares. Like losing teeth, but worse. The lack of control, the horror of decay. Brenda was the only one who would look at him with the same level gaze before he withdrew for the remainder of the semester. He was seventeen going on eighteen, and needed something – anything – to balance the serious amount of shit the world had dumped on him; she a wizened, understanding thirty-seven.
Ambient Audio Recording, Cubicle B:33, 27 July 2009, 19:43:03
“This is Joan. [Pause.] Yes, that Joan. Something’s about to happen. We’re going to need the B and C crews much sooner than expected. We’ve reached the first significant forking. [Pause.] Yes, I know I didn’t put in a request earlier, but this is coming from the other end, not Dynamo. You understand? [Pause.] Good. We expect everything to run smoothly this time. Nothing that even might possibly start a fire… No, I don’t care the size of the cameras. What’s that? [Pause.] All I can say is things are progressing more rapidly than could have been foreseen. [Pause.] Yes, that’s a good thing. I’ll be in touch.
Tuesday July 28, 2009
Wyatt was again headed to his room to try and salvage any surviving belongings when Amy’s hand lunged from the bathroom’s dim entry, pulled him in. She shut the door behind them. Emmett already straddled the bathtub’s porcelain rim, arms folded. His face said he’d been there a while, and the way his bare toes deftly lifted, then dropped the drain stopper suggested he was plenty bored. He shook his head in Amy’s direction, exasperated. “I Lost My Thumbs in a Fireworks Explosion and All I Got Was this Crummy Tee,” his shirt read: another gift from Brett.
“There’s a problem with Dad.” She spoke, hands planted a firm distance from each other on the countertop, her eyes only meeting Wyatt’s through the reflection of the mirror she stared into.
“Yes, Wyatt, ‘oh.’”
“So we’re all in here to discuss buying him flowers?”
“I posted some videos on Youtube.” She ignored his commentary, focusing instead on her own level gaze. “A few clips from old family videos just to, you know, familiarize the audience.”
“You don’t think they’ve got a fairly accurate version of us by now?” Wyatt didn’t appreciate the thought of himself on Youtube.
“They were the ones who suggested it.”
“You’re taking suggestions?” She shrugged, innocent. Emmett stopped toying with the drain stopper, began kneading his stumps.
“So one of the videos I posted was that one of Dad on the beach in Mazatlán, remember? With the vendor?” Wyatt remembered.
“So what’s the big deal then?”
“Well, it’s been up for three days, and it has over 400,000 hits. And I showed Dad this morning. He was on the couch in the living room. He’s still there.”
Wyatt should have noticed – the man was sitting on his own makeshift bed, after all. A familiar wave of guilt washed over him. “Is that why Mom pretty much won’t come out of their room?”
“Maybe. Probably. I don’t know. She won’t say anything she really means in the house anymore.”
“We’ll have to order pizza.” Emmett’s single contribution, other than the head-shaking.
“Listen, Buddy,” Amy said, “pizza is not the point, here. Why don’t you go run around or something?”
“Um, hello? I was running around and you dragged me in here.” Emmett stood, maneuvered past Wyatt, opened the door, disappeared. His absence ushered an uncomfortable silence into the space. Amy closed her eyes, rotated her stance so that she looked directly at Wyatt, and opened them again.
“I need to apologize.” She was crying.
“No, Amy, I need to.” She shook her head.
“No. This isn’t how it ends between us. This is too redemptive.”
“Redemptive of what?” He felt like maybe he should hug her, but he hadn’t in so long he didn’t think there was any way he could pull it off as genuine.
“Everything. Just… everything.” She dried her eyes; the emotions were over. “I’ve turned Dad into some sort of softie.”
“He did that to himself, Amy. Trust me.”
“I’m going to LA.”
“I know.” He wondered for a moment what was up with him and final conversations these days, then decided it was a notion not worth agonizing over, what with the Third World to consider, and all…
“I’m not coming back here. Ever.” Her eyes said something she couldn’t. He examined them, curious, and realized the same Amy was still in there, somewhere; that even with a face covering a face covering a face, there were still the eyeholes to consider. That a person, no matter how buried, always relied on the same set of eyes to observe, order, interpret. He knew what he had to say next.
“I’ll take care of him.” Something about the utterance was too familiar.
“Wyatt…” He knew she didn’t think him capable.
“I’ve got my own shit to figure out, Amy.” She shook her head. “None of that head-shaking business. You told me the same thing, like, a week ago.” And then she was wrapped around him, squeezing, her head buried in the crook of his neck. No camera rendered her actions a performance: this was as genuine as it ever would be. “Don’t worry.” He wrapped his arms around her, then, too. “Something tells me he and I will get along famously.”
“I’m telling you, man, it’s been crazy. So last night, right, the parents are all locked up in their bedroom, and they’re totally sobbing, right, and then they just hug, standing there, with all the lights on, for, like, two hours. I shit you not. And then today the brother and sister are in the bathroom, and God only knows what they’re doing in there, and then they come out practically wrapped around one another. Which is weird, right? I’m not the only one here thinking that’s weird, am I? Okay, good. Just so long as we’re on the same page, here. Because what happens next – and don’t start thinking I’m obsessed, here, because I’m not. I’d just like to see you try and navigate an entire day’s worth of free time without Netflix or a car. Shut the fuck up, Jessie. Hey! Same goes for you, smartass. Okay, are we paying attention here? Because this next part was seriously too much. So the one kid who had to move into the living room – yeah, that’s the one – he goes to bed, right? And normally that’s when I flip over to Amy because, well, you know… But so anyway, for some reason I was just hanging out, before you two showed up, and I’d kinda forgotten about the show, and then all of a sudden the lights in their living room turn back on, which kinda startles me because I’m just sitting here in the dark, kinda… Again, Jessie, kindly shut the fuck up. And this kid, this Wyatt kid, he’s just standing in front of the camera bare-ass naked, and he’s just staring, like, straight at me. And he doesn’t move for, like, five minutes. And then I start to feel like he’s not looking at me – even though obviously he’s not really looking at me, I know – but more like through me, or it, or whatever. He’s just having this total serious moment, like a sort of trance-like moment or something. But it lasts for like five minutes! And he’s got his whole packing just hanging out in front of him, like a statement or something. But it wasn’t crude or anything. It was like a real moment. And the weird thing is, it reminded me so much of that one ti –”
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
When Brett picked Wyatt up from the house, Emmett had just successfully completed his first zip-line from the window of the upstairs bathroom to the aspen in the front yard – the same tree that had held a tire swing until lightning claimed it two summers previous. Kenny whooped and hollered from the van; Wyatt, sitting on the porch, grimaced at the man’s pleasure. Melanie and Rich argued in the living room, their voices barely covered by the music that Amy’s speakers – placed on the sill of her bedroom’s open window when she’d sunbathed earlier – still cranked. She’d disappeared back inside to change for a “premiere party” Chip Kelley was throwing. Rich hadn’t budged from the couch since Wyatt had vacated his makeshift bed that morning, and his father didn’t seem ready to get up and walk to the dining room for dinner, either. One thing was clear from the situation: the man was going under, and it was happening fast.
Brett’s Corvette stormed into the driveway just as Emmett charged back up the porch’s steps, eager for another go on the zip line. “Did you see it, Wyatt?” The kid shouted, half crazed, as he bolted past. “It’s like I’m flying!” The Corvette amped its speed until it seemed as if the only possible outcome was a collision with the parked van. Over the sound of the music, the automobile, the argument – even the faint vibration of the wind – an owl hooted, melancholic in the dusk. Wyatt attached himself to that single thin note until it disappeared behind everything else. The Corvette’s acceleration shifted to a halt, gravel popping and spitting, until its hood stopped two feet from the van’s bumper – Kenny already halfway across the front lawn. Wyatt stood from the swinging bench, walked across the yard a safe distance from the cameraman, and left the noise of the rest of them behind.
“Hey.” He maneuvered into the low-riding passenger seat, his good hand leveraging the door rim for support. One of Wyatt’s favorite bits of life was sliding into a friend’s car, those first few moments thick with the promise of adventure that stretched into the evening. He’d had too few of them in the past year.
“Hay’s for horses,” Brett said. The car’s interior smelled like leather, a product of the bomber jacket Brett was always sunk into – once belonging to his father, and now about the only point of connection between them. “What happened with Teacher Lady?” Wyatt shut the door, and Brett spun the vehicle back around in one of those hairpin turns that usually only works out in the movies. Brett ran both hands across the top of his head as his knees navigated them down the driveway; he’d shaved his hair to a faint stubble out of boredom.
“It’s over. But I don’t really want to talk about it.” Wyatt watched his house recede in the rearview mirror, his own scorched bedroom window – a sore the rest of the house’s neat trim had to suffer – gaping more harshly after them the smaller it shrunk. Brett nodded, extended a single manicured index finger to his iTouch: the music roared, and they didn’t speak for the rest of the ride. Rather, Wyatt watched the trees slide past, each one popping into focus for a sliver of a second before falling comfortably back into place beside the road, one of a thousand. The faster the corvette ate pavement, the faster their tips lapped at the sky, until it seemed as if an undulating black wave held up that infinitely blue dome, and the contrast seared at his eyes until he was forced to blink. Brett put on his sunglasses.
After they’d stopped at the gate that divided the Hudson residence from the rest of the world, and after Brett entered a code without really even having to look, Wyatt found himself walking through a labyrinthine structure of halls and living spaces, the route to the proper room embedded in his consciousness after all these years. This was where they came for the entertainment. He sat in the middlemost of the couches – also routine – and waited as Brett mixed them drinks – the only rule that they be strong. When he reappeared at Wyatt’s side, he held a silver tray featuring two filled glasses and a substantial joint. Brett smiled an impish grin, one side of his mouth raised slightly higher than the other. He only started smiling that way after he’d fallen off a horse in the seventh grade. “I kind of went all out, it being your big night and all.” He set down the tray and disappeared again to navigate the control panel that operated the 200-inch-screen projection system that hung, waiting, behind a wall of sheening red velvet. After the curtains slid open to the automated applause of an invisible crowd, and the masks above the screen had their plasticine features warped from sad/happy to happy/sad – a once- stunning showcase of home theater wonderment – Wyatt experienced a curious nervous edge creeping upon him.
“I don’t think I’m gonna smoke or drink quite yet, Brett.” His palms were sweaty; he rubbed them against his jeans. “For some reason I feel like barfing.” The time was 7:59. Brett reappeared, slid onto the couch beside Wyatt, placed a firm hand on his knee. As a preview for District 9 played out on the screen before them, Brett spoke, each syllable certain, poised for a victory.
“That’s okay. It’s all going to be all right.” Those words again. Wyatt might have cried if he hadn’t been so nervous. Brett remained composed, solid, beside him. The only indication his friend gave of any similar swelling of emotion was an increasing pressure in his grip on Wyatt’s knee. Wyatt attached himself to that single stimulus, but it wasn’t enough to keep the words distanced. How had no one spoken them toward him for so long? Why were they too inconvenient for anyone to share, and how did they always have this same effect? It’s all going to be all right, he thought. It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay.
Onscreen, an alien gunned the preview into blackness.
In the audience, two boys watched as the blackness again animated, a blank cue card reading – in consciously typewriter-esque font –
“I’ve always wanted to be an actress,” Amy says over a shot of Bend’s ‘Welcome to’ sign. “I’m always trying to perform. Wherever I can. But it’s hard here.” Sagebrush. A lone eagle. Citizens walking along a downtown street. “Sometimes that means I have to go to the more divey bars.” Amy, talking to the camera, her hair done up. “And that might have been how he found me.” The music sombers. A close shot of an arm’s bruises. A subliminal snip of a bloodied, bandaged nose. “I was abducted July 4, while the rest of my family watched the parade downtown. The police found me four days later.” Charred fireworks in a lawn. “I’d escaped, but I’d blacked nearly the entire experience out. I came home to try and keep living.” The Smith house, shot at an angle so that it looms over the camera. “It’s been a difficult time for all of us.” The Smiths in their living room, Wyatt standing, alone. “I say no,” he says. A rapid cut to Wyatt flipping off the camera. “My brother Wyatt is a cancer survivor, and ever since his scare, life’s been difficult for him to deal with.” Wyatt sitting in his bedroom, staring at Marlon Brando. Wyatt walking into the woods. “And then there’s Emmett.” Emmett making faces in front of the camera, alone, Scotch Tape dispenser proffered. “He’s… well, he’s a lot of fun.” Amy, laughing. “My dad isn’t around much.” Rich at the dining room table, half-hidden behind a newspaper, a box of Eggo waffles open beside him. “He’s a very busy man and doesn’t get to spend much time at home. But he’s just decided to take a leave of absence from work, so we’re all hoping to get some quality time in with him.” Rich and Wyatt on the front porch, swinging. “And finally there’s my mother, Melanie. She spends a lot of her time trying to keep everything together.” Melanie in the kitchen, a bottle of window cleaner in the foreground. Melanie and Amy hugging. Melanie on the phone at the top of the stairwell, crying. “We’re all just trying to get along, and I’m trying to let go of the past and make it big. So far, it’s been quite the experience.” The music swells. Another cue card, this one bold-faced.
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Wyatt knew something was wrong both from the glaring, empty patch of driveway that Kenny’s van usually occupied and the way the front door hung open – not cracked, but wide open. The night air was heavy; heat still radiated from the wilted ground. Amy’s music hadn’t been turned off, its notes rolling from her upstairs window in eerie procession. Brett had dropped him off with a nod and a few choice words of encouragement, Wyatt not wanting to leave his side. Somehow, tonight was a beginning.
Smith Experience had concluded its telecast with Amy’s declaration that she intended to head to Los Angeles in search of her abductor, whom, she speculated, was also the arsonist responsible for the fire in Wyatt’s room. Many of the episode’s camera angles and unexpected scenes revealed there were dozens, if not hundreds more cameras in the house than Dynamo’s few obvious lenses let onto. Wyatt wasn’t sure how the company intended to proceed: if the rest of them felt half as violated as he did by the disclosure, he didn’t think there’d be much more interaction worth filming, even in any “safe” corners of the house.
When he stepped into the foyer, Sage came dashing from the living room, tongue lolling. The mutt whined as Wyatt bent to pat him, the sound betraying some ambient anxiety that hung in the stillness of the house – its static tone so complete someone had to be sitting just around the corner. He knew because it was an authentic replication of the feeling horror movies worked so hard to achieve just before a big scare. But this wasn’t a movie. It was his life.
“Wyatt? That you?” Rich. Of course. Wyatt rounded the corner into the living room, saw his father sitting on the floor next to the fireplace. The TV was on, its sound muted, Amy’s muffled playlist from upstairs heightening the contrast between the present situation and the episode of Friends Rich stared at. For the first time in his life, Wyatt wondered what would become of this house once they’d all moved on. He could see its dilapidation already at work in the room’s shadowed corners, fiending for someone to turn the lights off a final time.
“Dad.” Not a question or an exclamation, just an assurance that the word still functioned as it should. Rich repositioned his gaze so that it took in Wyatt’s stance. Though the man wore his bathrobe, he didn’t look haggard or disoriented, just tired. And lonely. The TV’s flickering light danced across half his face, a certain shot the episode kept returning to superimposing a dark shadow over his eye every few seconds.
“Wyatt.” Sage ambled from Wyatt’s side to Rich’s, where he again sat. “Your mother took Emmett to bury some man.”
“I know about Travis, Dad.”
“Oh.” He puckered his lips as the sound slid out – the expression once Wyatt’s favorite of Rich’s funny faces. Wyatt felt he should say something comforting.
“She’s doing it for the kid. For Nathan.” Rich nodded, silent. “And I’m supposing Amy’s disappeared south?”
Rich nodded again, then corrected himself. “No. She will be soon. Dynamo took her someplace for some sort of initiation. Kenny’s driven her.”
“You want to get out of here?” Rich’s gaze slid back to the TV. Joey and Chandler danced their way into a commercial break. The room flashed dark.
“Yes. But we’ll have to call a cab.”
From Controlling Chaos: The Impact of “Smith Experience” on the Kolmogorovian Prediction Algorithm
File 11 of 13: Brettly Donovan Hudson (interviewee: Donald Rainier)
7 December 2029
Rainier: Would you care to comment on the public’s speculation regarding the nature of your relationship with Wyatt Smith?
Rainier: At the time, were you aware of the impact your actions may have had on what is now viewed as so significant a landmark case in the history of the KPA?
Hudson: All I’d been told was that my presence constituted a substantial influence on what they’d then termed “the ripple effect.” But that doesn’t necessarily mean anything, considering the nature of the effect.
Rainier: Please elaborate.
Hudson: [subject repositions in chair.] Well, I mean we all know now the Smith’s weren’t the first family to have gone through the ringer, yes? They were what, number eight? Nine? I don’t fucking know. [subject drinks from self-provided flask.] The whole thing with Wyatt, with all of them, the whole reason it was different, was because it was the first attempt at incorporating thousands, millions, even, via the “internet.” And television. God, what a laugh. [subject does not laugh.] But that’s what made the whole thing work, apparently. The ability to track all those ripples. To collect so many responses to such an intricate system of cause and effect.
Rainier: And you were fortunate enough to be numbered among the few “human” ripples.
Hudson: If that’s how you’re going to label it, Mr. Rainier, you’ve a sick definition of “fortunate.”
Saturday, August 1, 2009
The waves rolled across the beach in comforting rhythm. Rich followed their foamy lines of residue up and down the waterfront, at times having to step around children running with little plastic shovels and teenagers on boogie boards who’d managed to successfully catch and ride a wave until it broke. Wyatt watched from his stretched beach towel, positioned beneath a palapa’s shady confine. On occasion, his father would look out over the great stretch of blue, and Wyatt imagined him measuring sky against sea, weighing the value of that thin, nearly imperceptible line that signaled a transition from one to the other. He wondered if there was silence out there, way out there where the line they now looked at became all encompassing, where sky and water were everything, and at night the blues would become a single hue of black, the stars the only indication of which way was up and which way wasn’t. You could really get used to that feeling, Wyatt thought, could fall back and back into it until there was no stopping, and all you’d have to do is keep falling, the stars never getting any smaller, just twinkling – a million indistinct gems in a sea of black.
Rich walked to the palapa. He stopped just before its shadow claimed his feet. “You could really get lost out there,” he said.
“I don’t imagine there’re many lights,” Wyatt replied, smiling. He made it a point to smile now; his father seemed to place such great importance on the precise curvature of his lips.
“At night I bet it’d all turn into one. And nothing would bother with you being there but the stars.”
“And even then, it’s only because they’re shining in every direction at once.”
Rich smiled back, this time. “Exactly.” He dug the big toe of his left foot in the sand, an action Wyatt thought made him appear rather child-like. “Although,” he continued, still digging, his face turned up into the vapid heaviness of the clear blue sky, “what else is there for them to look at besides us?”
He had a point.
The two men now lay on their respective bunks, faces turned to the ceiling. The button, it indicated, was due to go off any second.
“You know, something, Holgrave?” The man on top said.
“I can’t imagine a time ever arriving when anyone says this was worthwhile.” Holgrave shifted, the tone of the voice having made him uncomfortable. “That’s not to discourage you, though,” the voice continued. “It could be much, much worse.”
“How so, Sir?” Holgrave waited a day if he waited a minute: so much hinged on the response.
“I’ll tell you. We could be on the other end of all this.” At the joke, both men laughed. They laughed until the walls of the vessel rang with recycled peals, the echoes traveling further and further down the halls until it seemed an invisible audience had also caught onto their humor, and then they were satisfied.