Friday, October 30, 2015

LIFE AND "DEATH"


          James shivered as he looked up at the tall, intricately wrought iron gate of the Morton Hills Cemetery.  It wasn’t the autumn cold that sent a chill up his spine, but the twisted and knotted iron bars that called to mind a grizzly smile with bared metal teeth.  But the five year old boy had to get past those teeth, into the mouth of the graveyard to bring back what he came for.
“You know, your mom’s in there,” his dad had told him earlier that day, referring to a black box resting next to a big hole in the ground.  
They were at this same graveyard, James knew.  It was the one down the street from his house, where his mom and dad would take him for walks every morning.  But somehow, with the sun almost set, the place looked spookier than it ever did during the day. 
“In the box?” James remembered asking his dad.  He thought that was pretty cool.  He’d seen clips of his mom get into a lot of boxes on the computer.  He’d also seen her get stabbed with swords and swallow fire and get sawed in half.  When James asked her why she did those things, she told the boy that she was a magician…and magicians did magic.
“Yeah,” James remembered his father answering sadly.  “I really miss your mom Jimmy.”
“Don’t worry dad,” James had said.  “Mom gets out of boxes real fast.  She told me that’s the easiest magic she does.”
“Son,” his dad said, getting down on both knees.  “Those were just tricks.  Do you understand?  There’s no such thing as magic.  Your mom…she’s dead.”
The rest of that day had gone by in a blur for James.  He didn’t understand what his dad meant.  He’d heard the word “dead” before, but hadn’t seen anything be “dead.”  It didn’t matter though, because for the rest of the day adults kept coming by their house to talk to James’s dad.  He never got the chance to ask more about being “dead.”  Finally, sitting on his front porch and watching the sun set, James had a great idea.  He’d go back to the graveyard, wait for his mom to reappear and bring her home.  Then everything could be normal again.
But faced with the looming gate and the coming dark, James felt scared.   He timidly took a step forward.  A breeze picked up some nearby red-yellow leaves and blew past.  He took another step.  He was on the eave of the graveyard.
“Who goes there?” James heard a whisper of a voice ask.
He looked around him; no one there.  He looked up.  On the keystone of the arch: at the very top of the gate: sat a stone gargoyle.  It was in the shape of a crow with outstretched wings looking down on passersby.  Nothing about it seemed lifelike, except for the eyes.  They had a faint, orange glow.
“My name is James Mitchell,” the boy answered in an uneven voice.  “I lost my mom.”
“The sun is setting,” the whisper said.
James looked to the sky and saw only a sliver of the sun still peeking over the tip of the horizon.
“The graveyard is dangerous after dark,” the gargoyle hissed.  “And you are too afraid.”
“I’m not afraid,” James shouted back obstinately.  He clenched his hands into fists to show his bravery, even as his arms and legs quaked with an internal dread.
“So be it,” the gargoyle acquiesced.  “I can only warn you.  Beware.”
Another gust of wind blew and the front gate slowly opened itself up.  There was a loud CRRRREEEAAAK.  James covered his ears.  When the sound had stopped, he squeezed through an opening just big enough for him and entered the graveyard.  
James took in a sharp breath.  This graveyard was different from the one he knew.  For the first time, he noticed a cobblestone path that stretched on endlessly into a sea of headstones.  Little hills, littered with graves, seemed to have sprung up everywhere.  
James was instantly nauseous.  He walked forward slowly, and as he did it seemed a gloomy fog began to cover the ground.  The further he went, the thicker it got.  As he got to the top of the first hill, he heard a loud noise behind him.
CRRRREEEAAAK
James turned and saw that the front gate had swung shut.  In the sky, the sun had set entirely and the moon was rising.  There was no leaving now, even if he had wanted to.  The only thing he could do, was find his mom.
He turned away from the gate and looked ahead down the cobblestone path.  As he stared deep into the mouth of the graveyard, James was struck with a barrage of thoughts: what if his mother didn’t want to leave?  What if she had left already and was waiting for him back at home?  What if his father was right after all, and she really was “dead”?
He took two steps off the path onto a freshly filled grave.  Suddenly, this mission felt too big for him; he was only one boy.  One small boy.  What was he thinking, coming here?
“Yes indeed,” a cold, high-pitched voice said from everywhere nearby.
“Hello?” James squeaked out.  
A hand burst out of the grave that James was standing on.  He jumped back onto the path in a seizing panic, and backed away to the headstone opposite the one he had been standing near. 
The hand kept rising.  It became an arm; then, a head emerged.  Before long, a half-decayed corpse stood before James.  Its skin and exposed organs were pallid and pale, glimmering sickly in the moonlight.  Rotting eyes looked directly at James and a stiff mouth struggled to form a grim smile.
“What were you thinking coming here James?” the high-pitched voice of the zombie asked.
“H…h…how do you know my name?” James whispered in terror.
“We know everything here,” the zombie sneered.  “We’re dead; and getting to know everything is the gift, and the curse, of being dead.”
“Where’s my mom?” James pleaded through tears.
“Oh no.  The dead don’t help the living,” the corpse chided, taking a step towards the boy.  “You wouldn’t help me, after all.”
“I would,” James whimpered, trying to be as emphatic as he could.
“LIES!” the zombie’s high-pitched wail pierced the air.
James fell backward.  His head slammed against the headstone directly behind him.  He tried shaking it off, but the zombie was on top of him.  
“But you do have something I want James,” it said calmly.  “Your warm, healthy, skin.”  
The monster bore its putrid teeth and that grim smile returned.  It leaned forward with outstretched arms to grab the boy.
James acted fast.  Without looking, he grabbed one side of the headstone he was up against and pulled himself off to the side.  
      Just in time too.  The zombie’s lunge forced it to lose balance, and the monster’s own head hurtled toward the headstone, connecting with a sickening thud.
      James got to his feet quickly and ran down the cobblestone path; deeper into the graveyard.
      “BOY!” the high-pitched voice of the zombie raged.
      James didn’t turn back.  He kept running, his eyes only focused on what was straight ahead.  He was breathing hard and sweating profusely.  But he didn’t stop.  
      An inkling to slow down began to worm its way into the boy’s mind when he suddenly felt no ground beneath his feet.  He toppled forward, falling into darkness.
      He landed face-first in dirt.  Water, mucus, soil and a little blood all came together in his mouth.  James spit it out immediately.  He got onto his hands and knees and instantly he felt a sting in his left knee. 
      James looked around to get a sense of where he was, but all he saw was blackness.  He put a hand out in front of him and felt a wall of soft, moist dirt.  He put his other hand to his left and felt the same thing.  Then he felt to his right: more dirt.  His eyes went wide with realization.  He turned over on his back and saw the full moon, bright in the sky.  The edges of the rectangular opening he had fallen into stood three feet in the air all around him.  James had tumbled into an open grave.
      “EEEEYAHAHAHAHA!” a female cackle echoed as a black shadow flew over the boy, blocking out his view of the moon.
James quickly got up and ran to the farthest end of the grave.  Above him hovered what looked like the bristles of a broom.  But James turned his attention to the plot edge.  He jumped three times reaching for it; each jump a more frantic attempt to climb out.  He couldn’t reach it. 
      He turned back to look at the black shape that was flying overhead.  It had circled around to face him and was now fully illuminated by the moonlight.  For a moment, James stopped breathing; shocked at the horror of this new monster.
      She wore no clothes; she didn’t need them.  The witch flying overhead was nothing but a skeleton, although not an an entirely human skeleton.  She had a beak on her face, and on top of her skull sat two horns that curved into themselves at the ends.  Her hands had only three fingers that looked more like claws, and her feet were hooves.
      Then James noticed her broom.  It too was made of bone.  The handle was several femurs tied together with living snakes that lunged for a James perpetually out of reach in the grave below.  The bristles; what James had thought were bristles; were human phalanges.
      “Hello James,” the witch sneered.  “Lost your mommy?”
      James couldn’t answer.  He just stood there, with his back to a moist dirt wall: worms, beetles and ants crawled onto his neck and down his shirt.  But he couldn’t feel them.  All he could feel was the cold grip of terror, and the warm sting of tears.
      “I can take you to your mommy,” the witch hissed.
      “Really?” James asked weakly.
      “Yes.  But I need something in return,” the witch’s register dropped low.  “Your bones.”
      James closed his eyes.  He didn’t know what to do.  He couldn’t get out of this grave on his own.  He wanted his mom: his dad: anyone.  An adult would know what to do.  They always knew what to do.
      But there was no adult here now.  There was only him.  And he was so small.
James opened his eyes slowly.  He let his arms fall to his sides and took a small step forward.
      “Ok,” the little boy said meekly.
      “EEEEYAHAHAHAHA!” the witch shrieked in cruel delight.  “Grab hold of the tip of my broom.”
      The witch lowered the front half of her broom into the grave.  James reached up with one hand and grabbed it.
      “Hold tight.  I want those lovely bones intact,” the witch said.
      She lifted off and settled in the air only a few feet above the ground.  Then, the witch turned them north and flew straight.  James saw they were making for a headstone at the top of a hill not far off.
      “Is that where my mom is?” James asked.
      “Your mommy’s grave you mean?  Yes, that’s it,” the witch mocked.
      “Thanks for the directions,” James said.  He didn’t know where it came from, but instantly an idea popped into his head.  He let go.
      James fell onto some grass beneath two headstones.  He flattened his body out to keep himself under the fog before the witch could reposition her broom to look down and see where he landed.
      “EEEEAAAAHHH!” the witch’s scream of rage echoed throughout the graveyard.
James didn’t move.  He kept perfectly still.  He could hear the witch huff and puff as she looked all over.  He could hear her cursing when she couldn’t spot him. 
      It took some time, but eventually the witch’s search led her far enough away that James couldn’t hear her anymore.  He didn’t hesitate; he got up and ran in the direction she had been flying him in.  
      Headstones flew by as he raced down the cobblestone path, until he came to a pair of trees that made an arch over the stone.  But James couldn’t see what lay beyond them.  It looked like a curtain of night was draped in that archway.  Anything could lie waiting for him through there.  
      James sped up.  He had come too far to turn back, and he was too close to give up.  He raced under the arch, through the night curtain and came to a dead stop.  There, just on the other side, was his mother’s grave.
      James slowly walked up to the headstone.  Like the graveyard, it looked so different now than it had earlier that day.  It seemed bigger, more imposing; it reminded him of a ship’s anchor. 
      His eyes found the inscription on the stone.  James couldn’t read all of the writing, but he could make out his mother’s first and last name.
      “Jasmine Mitchell,” he whispered to himself.
James put a hand over his mother’s first name.  He bowed his head and closed his eyes; and he thought of his mother.
      “Mom?” he called.
      “I’m here,” he heard her answer.
      A warm light washed over the boy then.  James stepped backward, as if to make room for it.  He smiled, but he didn’t open his eyes.  He was scared to.  Scared that if he did, whatever was happening would stop.  
      “Honey, open your eyes,” he heard his mom say, as if in answer to his thoughts.
      James obeyed.
      And there she was.  His mom; sitting on top of her own headstone.  James could see right through her, but at the same time the light he felt was flowing out of her: like gentle waves spilling onto the coast.  She smiled at him; that full-faced smile that only she had.  James could never help it when she did that; he had to smile back.
      “Mom…I found you,” the boy said.
      “You did,” his mother replied gently.  “James, what are you doing here after dark?”
      “Dad said you were gone for good; that you couldn’t come home anymore.  He doesn’t believe in magic,” James explained.  “But I’ve seen your magic, and I knew…I knew you’d come back.  So I came to bring you home.” 
      “Oh, my boy…” the ghost seemed to get emotional: like it might cry if it had any tears.
      “So let’s go,” James said matter-of-factly.  “It’s gonna be hard.  I had to get past a zombie and a witch to make it here.  They’re probably waiting for us…”
      “James,” the ghost of his mom interrupted.  “Do you know what it means to be de...no.  Honey, do you know what it means to be alive?”
      “I know that I’m alive,” the boy answered.
      “Yes!  Very good, you ARE alive,” Jasmine enthused.  “And one of the things about being alive is…well…life is unpredictable.”
      James stared at her blankly.
      “Ok,” Jasmine made a backwards, arching motion with her transparent hands.  “Let me back up.  Do you remember when I tried to get you to eat broccoli?”
      “I hate broccoli,” James said reflexively.
      “Haha,” the ghost laughed quietly.  “I know.  But mommy likes…mommy used to like broccoli.”
      “Why?” 
      “Because I thought it tasted good,” she answered.  “It wasn’t always like that.  When I was a kid I hated broccoli too.  But I got older and things changed.”
      “I’ll never like broccoli,” James said emphatically.
      “You might sweetheart,” his mom’s ghost said with a sad smile.  “Because being alive means what’s true today, might not be true tomorrow.  But for mommy…now…nothing can change.”
      That all-too familiar dread came on James again.  But it was worse this time than it had been when he faced the zombie or the witch.  It was like there was one more monster coming for him: an invisible monster.  And James was stuck waiting for it on an island with nowhere to run. 
      “Can you come home?” James asked, bracing himself.
“No honey,” his mom answered.  “Do you know why?”
“Because…” he didn’t want to say it.  
“I need you to say it James,” his mother quietly pleaded.  “It’s not fair that you have to learn this now, but I need you to.”
Nowhere to run.
“You’re not alive,” James whispered.
“Yes,” his mother assured. 
Neither one of them said anything for some time.  They just stood there in silence, together.
“I’m scared mom,” James finally said.
“I know,” she said sympathetically.  “But you know the good thing about me not being alive?”
“What?” 
“I can help you stop being scared.  Because now, I can be with you all the time.  Wherever you go,” his mom said giving him that big, full-faced smile of hers.
“How?”
“Magic,” she said.
“But magic isn’t real,” James said.
“Oh yeah?” his mother asked sarcastically.  “James, what does a fisherman do?”
“He fishes,” James answered quickly.
“And what does a fireman do?” she went on.
“Fights fires,” the boy replied.
“Ok then.  I was a magician.  How can a magician exist without magic?” she asked seriously.
James thought about this.  The logic was perfectly sound to him.  But he could still hear his dad’s voice in his head, telling him that magic wasn’t real.
“Honey,” his mom chimed in sounding irritated, as though she were arguing with the inaudible voice of his dad.  “What did you see tonight?”
“A zombie and a witch,” her son said.  “Ok, you’re right.”
“BOY!” James jumped in his skin at the scream that came from behind.  It sounded like two voices…two voices James had heard before.
“Mom?” James turned back to her in a panic.
“I know sweetheart.  Listen to me, you just have to stay on the path, ok?  It’ll take you out of here.  And if you see something or hear something that makes you feel scared, I want you to think about you and me going for a walk,” his mother began.
“We’re coming for you little one,” the hideous voice of the witch called out.
“You’re in the middle,” his mom raced on.  “And on one side of you is the scary thing.  But on the other side, it’s me, holding your hand.  And we keep walking.  Faster and faster.  Until finally, the scary thing gets left behind…and it’s just the two of us.  Think you can do that?”
“I think so,” James said.
A cold wind blew.  James closed his eyes, scrunched his body up and pulled his jacket in as close as he could.  It passed by in an instant, and when James opened his eyes again he saw that his mom had disappeared.  He was alone in front of her grave.
James took one last look at the headstone.  He kissed a hand and placed it over his mother’s first name.  Then, he turned back the way he had come and got onto the cobblestone path.
Once he passed back through the curtain of night, he was surprised to see he wasn’t as far from the entrance as he thought.  Getting to his mother’s grave felt like it had taken hours.  But within minutes, James was halfway to the front gate of the cemetery.  But all the while, he knew trouble was close.
As he walked between two headstones, the earth beneath his feet began to shake.  A grave on his left exploded into the sky and the zombie he met before was climbing out of the ground.  A shadow fell on the headstone to his right, and as he looked up he saw the bone witch hovering over another empty plot.
James stopped walking and fell to his knees in terror.
“Found you James,” the high-pitched voice of the zombie rang out.  “And you’ve kept us waiting a long time.”
“Yes, that was awfully rude of you,” the witch sneered.  “Didn’t mommy teach you any manners?”
“If she had, you would know it’s also rude to come into someone’s home without a gift,” the zombie laughed evilly.  “So I’ll be taking your skin now, if you please.”
“Or if you don’t please,” the witch retorted.  “Either way, I’ll have your bones.”
The zombie began slowly moving in on James from the left while the witch inched closer from the right.  James closed his eyes and buried his head into his thighs, covering the back of it with his arms.  He didn’t know what to do.
So he thought of his mother.  Whether his mind took him there of its own volition or she popped in to help at the last minute, James never knew.  But suddenly, he was walking down a forest path.  Trees lined either side, and to his left he felt the firm hand of his mom as she walked with him.  To his right, he saw a pair of yellow, glowing eyes keeping pace with the both of them.  He was sure the yellow eyes belonged to some hideous creature of the forest, but he couldn’t tell what it was.
He looked up at his mom then, terrified, to warn her.  But before he could, she looked down at him and gave him one of those full-faced smiles of hers.  He couldn’t help it.  He had to smile back.
James opened his eyes.  The monsters were almost on him, but he slowly stood up and began walking forward.
He walked purposefully; toward the gate.  The zombie was on him first.  It got on the path between him and the gate and raised its hands, ready to strike.  
James calmly walked up to it, got on his hands and knees, and crawled forward between the monster’s open legs.  Then the boy got up and continued walking.
The witch was there next.  She flew to position herself between James and the gate.  She extended a hand toward the boy.
“Molto, enerva, tonati, kachem…” the witch began.  A sickly green was glowing around her hand.
James never stopped.  He just kept walking.  He was below the tip of her broom.  He heard the witch trip up on a word he didn’t understand and be forced to start over.  
      James was halfway under the broom.  The snakes snapped at him.  He simply bent his knees and got low to the ground.  They couldn’t reach him.
      At the phalange bristles, James straightened up and continued walking.  The witch never got to the end of her incantation.
      James made it to the gate.  He put a hand to the latch, but before he touched it he turned to look back at his foes.
      There was nothing on the path.  The zombie and bone witch had vanished, and the graveyard looked very much like it had when James was there during the day: solemn, peaceful, and small.
      He turned back and lifted the latch.  He opened the gate just enough so he could squeeze through, and then closed it behind him.
      “I take it you found your mother,” a familiar whisper came.
      James looked up at the gargoyle crow.  Its eyes had that faint orange glow that was now mirrored by the sun, just beginning to rise.
      “Where was she?” the whisper asked.
      James smiled as he thought about the question.  Then his mom was there, in his thoughts.  She was smiling that smile of hers, and suddenly there was only one answer that seemed to make any sense.
      “With me,” the boy said to the stone crow.
      James turned and continued on down the street; walking all the way home.  And all the while, his mother was with him.

Friday, October 16, 2015

THE ART OF THE SPIN
The Day Of

        “True to Life is headed in a lively, energetic new direction.  We’re expanding our demo with tailor-made shows geared toward giving that ocean that is the global audience the specificity they want, all in one place.  Like the Nintendo Wii.  Did you guys play the Nintendo Wii?”
       There were snickers of laughter at Deirdre’s joke.  That was fine.  It wasn’t meant to be a gut-buster.  Alex gave her that reference to draw a very clear line between a much beloved product and the content that True to Life was about to release.  Furthermore, it sent the message that True to Life was in the business of satisfying audiences on its own terms: just like Nintendo.  That was something this audience could respect; and it was the kind of bullshit that tided over idealists like Deirdre.
Deirdre wanted smart, scripted programming.  Alex was about to present a slate of lowest-common-denominator Reality shows that he would package as cutting edge “docu-series.”  But by allowing Deirdre to make this analogy, it told the audience (and Deirdre herself) that True to Life had more irons in the fire than just Reality.  It was a lie, but it was a comforting lie.
“We’re approaching content in the same way our viewers are: nonlinearly.  Audiences want content they can connect with on their terms, on their time, wherever they are.  Here to present some of that groundbreaking content is True to Life’s Head of Development, Alex McDonald.”
Alex strode on stage, heading to the podium with the purpose of an arrow vaulting toward its target.  When he got there, he shook Deirdre’s hand, mouthed a thank-you and turned to face the crowd.
In the bright stage lights, it was impossible to see anyone except the very front row of advertisers.  Some of them he knew; others he didn’t.  But he smiled and made eye contact with all of them.
“The first show I have for you is probably our most ‘typical’ docu-series,” Alex was off and running.  “But you’ll see quickly that it’s only ‘typical’ in the way that your neighbor is typical; or your boss; or your mom.  Unless you live in a fantasy world, or are in fact delusional, I assume those relations aren’t Kramer or Michael Scott or Marie Barone.  They’re people who tackle serious life challenges every day.  This series does the same thing.  It’s called Jews with Crews.”
A slide of the logo for Jews with Crews appeared on a massive screen behind Alex.  He gestured to it, but he didn’t look back.  He never broke eye contact with the audience.
“It shines the spotlight on a marginalized group in America: Jewish youths who are trying to break into the Hip Hop industry and be recognized as part of that community.  But being hood, doesn’t mean these kids are immune to everyday teenage problems.  Let’s take a look,” Alex finished as the lights darkened.
On screen was a talking-head clip of a young, white female.  She was dressed in a very form-fitting pants suit with a top that accentuated her breasts.  Rhinestones outlined her jacket and hat.
“Hey yo,” the girl began.  “I’m Abigail, a Jewish rapper.  There aint a lot of us.  So it’s ma goal, through ma music, to spread the word that we need to stick togetha, ya know what I’m sayin?”
The clip cut to a scene in a lavishly decorated studio where Abigail was recording a song.  As Abigail put the headphones on to begin another take, another white woman burst through the door.  The second woman was dragging a skinny, tall, white male in tow.  A yamaka adorned in rhinestones was on his head.
“Wassup Abi?!” the second woman shouted.  “You tryin ta steal ma man?”
“Yo, I don’t know what’u talkin bout Lorraine,” Abigail replied.
“Aw yeah?  Look at these texts!” Lorraine shouted as she waved a phone in Abigail’s face.
Abigail took the phone and walked a few steps toward the camera, seemingly trying to get some privacy.
“An what’s dis?” Lorraine asked as she walked closer to the music stand Abigail had been using.  “Is this ma song?  You stealin ma song too?  I’ma KILL YOU!”
Lorraine lunged at Abigail, taking the former rapper to the ground.  The rail thin guy stood there, looking aghast and just the tiniest bit pleased with himself at what was happening.  
      Lorraine rose suddenly into frame, her fist held aloft ready to strike again.  “MAZEL TOV BI(EEEEP),” the clip cut to black after that and the lights in the theater came back up.
There was a light smattering of applause that greeted Alex on stage.  “I promise the series dives into more than just boyfriend stealing.  But as Joel Phillips always told me, lead with your best stuff.”
“I do say that,” a male voice rang out from the front row of the audience.
“And there he is,” Alex said good-naturedly as he gestured to Joel.  “Glad you could make it.  But don’t talk again or I’ll have security show you out.”
The crowd laughed.  Alex laughed.  They were his.
“The next clip I want to show hits our fish-out-of-water comedy quota in a big way,” Alex laughed preemptively; as though he’d just remembered a hilarious scene from the show and he was about to let this select group of people in on the joke.  “Imagine fresh-off-the-boat Chinese brothers who come to this country looking for the American dream.  Only for them, the American dream is running a Mexican food truck.  Let’s take a look.”
The theater lights dimmed and the black transitioned to a new clip.  A voiceover in very broken English greeted the audience.  It intercut between two brothers talking, and was laid over clips of their arrival to the United States.  This was their origin story: how they got to the US, why they loved Mexican food and how they got a food truck.  It was all packaged into a forty-five second opening credits sequence.
The footage then cut to the brothers in their truck.  They were in the heart of San Diego, only fifteen miles north of the Mexican border (which on-screen verbiage pointed out).  Their customers were, according to more verbiage on screen, illegal aliens from Mexico grabbing a quick bite before stealing their way into the country.  
The customers began ordering in their native tongue, while the Asian brothers tried desperately to sound out the orders in phonetic English.  Obviously, hilarity ensued.  It took the form of wrong orders being delivered, mispronunciations of very common Mexican dishes and even an accidental blasphemy against Catholicism with an offering of Virgin Mary shaped churros which the Asian brothers thought would be a hit.  They were not a hit.
The screen cut to black and the house lights came back up.  Everyone was laughing hard.
On stage, Alex was beaming.  “After the presentation we’ll be serving lunch and cocktails in the main hall outside: with Virgin Mary churros for dessert.”  More laughter.
Alex let the laughter die down and then leaned in at the podium.  He was getting intimate with the audience now; as though he wanted to tell them a secret.  On cue, a lot of advertisers leaned forward in their seats.  They couldn’t wait to hear what the “Killer” had to say next.
“The last piece I want to show you is a very special one for me,” Alex began with an air of sincerity that belied how serious this new show was.  “It’s a show about finding love even when society says you don’t deserve it.  Let’s watch.”
The lights came down and the theater audience was introduced to a skinny, lanky, bearded man who looked to be in his early twenties.
“Hi, I’m Aaron Sloan,” the twenty-something said.  “When I was nine, my mom died of breast cancer.  When I turned twenty, my dad was convicted of vehicular homicide for driving drunk.  He was put away for life.  In the beginning when I’d visit him, I could see he wasn’t doing too good.  After a couple years, he was getting a lot worse.  He told me it was hard being isolated all the time.  He felt like his life was a movie that God pressed pause on.  That stuck with me, so I promised to help my dad get back some kind of normal life.  That’s how I came up with…The Love CONtract.”
A series of images barraged the audience: prisons, guards, desolate workout areas and solitary confinement spaces.  The message was very clear; prison was a very isolating place that even the toughest guys couldn’t stand for long.
“We set up an online dating site for guys like my dad: convicts,” Aaron’s voiceover said.  “We were very upfront with everyone that joined.  On every page of the sign-up process there was a disclaimer that this was a dating site for people convicted and currently serving time.  For the prisoners, the site let them record video messages, keep journals of what it was like on the inside, add photos of their friends and family; we did everything we could to show these guys as human beings.”
The footage cut to a talking-head of an attractive brunette who appeared to be in her mid-forties.  Text came up on screen identifying her as Stephanie.
“I joined the site because at my age all the healthy guys are married, and I’m stuck in a pool of men who never grew up,” Stephanie said.  “It feels like I’m a prisoner too, ya know?”
The audience then saw what looked like a first date between Aaron’s dad and Stephanie.  It was at the wall of prison phone booths where visitors got to converse with their loved ones from behind glass.  On the prisoners’ side was Aaron’s dad.  On the other side sat Stephanie.
“It’s weird, I feel kinda trapped in Boise but I don’t think I could ever leave,” Stephanie said into her phone.
“I know how that feels,” Aaron’s father joked.  Both he and Stephanie laughed.
“What’s your favorite TV show?” Stephanie asked in a jump cut.
“We’re not super up to date on TV in here, but we’re catching up on Lost.  That season three finale was amazing!” Aaron’s father said earnestly.
“Well, brace yourself is all I’ll say,” Stephanie replied with a small chuckle.
“Ok, this is a big one…belief in God is very important to me,” Stephanie said in another jump cut.
“Me too!” Aaron’s father agreed enthusiastically.  “It’s all we have in here.  I go to the prison church every Sunday.”
  The footage then cut to another talking-head, only this time no one was talking.  Stephanie was fully in frame and she had a troubled expression on her face: like she was carefully considering something.
“So how was that for you?  You can be honest, my dad won’t see this footage,” a voiceover of Aaron asked her.
“It went…well,” Stephanie said, almost as though she didn’t believe it herself.         “Better than well.  Great, actually.”
“Would you want to see him again?” Aaron’s voiceover asked.
Stephanie took a beat and then looked behind the camera to where a viewer would presume Aaron was standing.  “Absolutely.”
The footage cut to black after that.  House lights came up and so did the applause.
“Hopefully love conquers all,” Alex said at the podium.  “But we’ll have to keep watching to find out.”
More laughter from the crowd.  Another bullseye.  Now it was time for the eleven o’clock number.
“I’ve just shown you three of the top new shows coming to True to Life.  We’ve chosen to identify them as docu-series, but some of the more cynical among you may still think of them as ‘Reality’ shows.  Well, we’re not ashamed of that.  I’m not ashamed of that.  But some are, so let’s address the stigma of Reality programming head-on.  The thrust of all the criticism is that the word ‘Reality’ is a misnomer.  These shows are staged, right?  Heavily produced.  Rigged for drama.  Well, not our shows.  This slate is one hundred percent real.  By that I don’t mean that just the people and their circumstances are real.  I mean that the events you saw on screen, the events you’ll see play out over the season, would have happened regardless of whether or not we were there to document them.  This group of talent was relentless in pursuing their goals.  We’re just glad they let us partner with them.  Together, we all went on a journey.  And I can’t wait to bring you along with us on that journey this fall.  This is documentary television at its most authentic.  Nothing is prompted.  Nothing is staged.  All of it…is true to life.”
Checkmate.  The audience burst into the most rousing applause of the entire afternoon.  For Alex, the hard part was now over.  All he had to do was end the presentation and invite these advertisers to join him for lunch and cocktails outside.  He wouldn’t even have to travel, they’d come to him – and beg him to take their clients on.
“Excuse me,” a male voice rang out repeatedly from the back of the house.  The applause died down slowly as people heard the call for attention.
Alex put his hand over his eyes and squinted to try and make out who was talking, but the lights were too bright.  All he could see was a shadow, standing in the back.
“Well, it looks like someone’s hungry,” McDonald got some chuckles from that.  “You’re in luck sir, I was just about to invite you all…”
“Why are you lying to these people?” the male voice boomed again, cutting Alex off.
“I’m sorry?” Alex asked, thrown at the sudden accusation.
“It’s a simple question,” a female voice rang out this time.  “Why are you lying?”
“Is there security in here?  We seem to have some disruptors,” Alex called out.
“Yeah, is there security in here?” a third voice called out.  This one was male and sounded very familiar.  “The guy on stage is selling bullshit.”
“Ok, can we have lights up please and take care of this?” Alex was frustrated.
The house lights came up, as requested.  Standing back of house center were four young people who Alex assumed were causing the commotion.  He, along with everyone in the audience, recognized them immediately: Abi, the two Asian brothers and Aaron Sloan.
Alex “Killer” McDonald was stunned silent.
“Hi everybody,” Abi said in a voice that was deeper and much less nasally than the one the audience had heard on the clip.  “I know you saw us on tape, but I think it’s better if we introduce ourselves.”
“I think that’s a great idea Abi,” one of the Asian brothers said in perfect English without a hint of an accent.  “I’m Charlie Liu.  This is my brother James.”
“Pleasure to meet you all,” James said.  He too had no trace of an accent.
“We’re actors,” Charlie exclaimed.
“Well, improvisers really,” James clarified.  “We do a lot of comedy shows around the city.”
“Anyway, we were hired by this production company about a year ago for this new show we thought was a prank show,” Charlie continued.
“Not our proudest moment, but beggars can’t be choosers right?” James added.
“It’s true.  It was a TV job, and we didn’t wanna lose it.  So we did everything they asked; the bulk of which was to pretend that we couldn’t speak English,” Charlie said.
“Yep.  Each day we’d be taken out to the Mexican border.  They told us to offer food to anyone that ran across.  We were even asked to weed out the ones who really couldn’t speak English,” James said.  
“Which we thought was really funny, because it was REALLY racist,” Charlie mocked.
“I’m an actor too,” Abi spoke up.  “I wasn’t like these guys though.  I always knew I was doing a Reality show.  But I was told the show was an acting competition; a chance to show off your chops and have the audience vote for their favorite performer.”
“Who let them in here?” Alex had recovered his wits…and he was angry.  “Someone get security in here NOW!”
“Let’em finish Killer,” another female voice projected.  Deirdre stood up then.  She had been sitting next to Abi.
“Deirdre?  What the HELL…” Alex raged.
“Go ahead Aaron,” Deirdre forcefully interrupted.
“Sure, ok,” Aaron began nervously.  “Well, first off, I’m not an actor.  My story is pretty much what Mr. McDonald described.  I wanted to help my dad reconnect to the outside.  So I started the dating site.  It actually took off pretty quickly, but only with the inmates.  We were desperate to get more liberated members.  That’s when Mr. McDonald approached me about the show.  I said yes right away.  I thought anything I could do to get the word out would be a plus.”
Aaron fell silent for a moment.  His eyes lost focus and he just stood there reflecting; as if he was reliving the story in his head.  He looked over to Deirdre, who motioned him to go on.
“Stephanie came into the picture about a month after we started shooting.  She and my dad seemed to hit it off right away.  They liked the same things, they could talk for hours…my dad couldn’t stop talking about her hair.  But after production wrapped, Stephanie disappeared.  I found out later that she was hired to bring drama to the show.  I told my dad.  At first, he seemed ok with it.  Joked about it even.  But after a while, he started acting weird.  I’d try to go see him and the guards would tell me he was sick or he had a project and couldn’t visit with me that day.  After a couple months one guard finally broke it down for me.  My dad just couldn’t see me anymore.  He wanted to, but it was too hard.  I haven’t talked to him in eight months,” Aaron concluded.
No one in the audience said anything.  For a moment, the theater was absolutely silent.
“Deirdre, you’ve just fucked us.  You know that right?  You FUCKED US!” Alex screamed.
“No Killer.  It’s not ‘us’ that’s fucked here,” Deirdre replied, looking unblinkingly at the man behind the podium.
Still the audience was quiet.  Their heads swiveled from Deirdre to Alex every second, waiting to see how this drama would play out.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Deirdre finally broke the silence.  “I’m sorry to have wasted your time today.  True to Life will not be broadcasting what we showed you here.  We’re going to start over.  We’re going to build this network right.  I hope you’ll join me in the next couple years when we’re back with a new slate.  I can’t promise the shows we do will be as sellable as these.  But I can promise I’ll be presenting shows that I’m proud of, and that I hope you’ll be proud of too.”
It didn’t take long for people to take the hint.  The show was over.  Small groups of twos and threes started getting up and heading for the door.  Then, emboldened by the bravery of a few, the rest of the audience started getting up.  Before long, the house was empty except for Deirdre, Abi, Charlie, James and Aaron.  On stage, looking fit to bust, was Alex at his podium.
“Why did you do this?” the Killer asked dumbfounded.  “Why would you sabotage your own network?”
       “Because I believe great work sells itself,” Deirdre said simply.  “You just need the right people to fight for it.  That’s not you.  But I hope it can be me.”