The telephone rings, and Molly sits up like she’s been jabbed with a cattle prod. She reaches across the couch, then freezes. Molly’s real name slides through the air from stage left and lurches to a stop, bubble letters bouncing.
The name slips off-screen. Molly keeps leaning. The fishhooks punched through the corners of her mouth tug her lips back into an eager smile, but—oops!—the handset is plucked away before Molly can reach it. Molly’s face falls. Beth presses the phone to her ear, blonde ponytail swinging. She twists the cord around her finger. Her eyes roll playfully up toward the ceiling.
A knock at the front door. Beth prances past the couch. She’s trying to signal Molly with her glassy blue eyes—get it together! smile!!—but then a cable jerks, and the ring looped through Beth’s chin whips her head around.
The front door opens. Molly springs to her feet, hopeful. But it’s just Dane, stepping in to wrap his arms around Beth, to dip her back for a kiss. He flashes a roguish smile at the camera through chapped, bleeding lips.
Dane’s eyes are ringed with dark circles, like he hasn’t slept in days. Weeks? It’s easy to lose track of time here. He spins Beth in a circle, the pair of them like mechanical dancers anchored to a ticking clock. Molly sinks, dejected, back into the couch.
Molly’s losing it. Her chest is hitching. She’s pouring tears and snot, murmuring please through clenched teeth. And she’s not the only one.
Little Carl is crying like a boy with both arms broken. I let my focus drift, unwilling to dwell on just how close to the mark that description hits—Carl’s little arms, bending in places that no person, no human being would ever find amusing. Little Carl’s sobbing along in perfect rhythm to the chorus. He’s beside me one second, gone the next. He rushes through the living room, multi-jointed arms flailing in his wake, as the cables launch him toward Molly.
Only, Molly’s arms aren’t ready to catch him like they’re supposed to be.
She’s torn them free.
Muscle and tendons dangle from Molly’s arms in ribbons, glistening. Her eyes are impossibly round, the lids nonexistent, lashes twitching like spiders’ legs. She’s gazing into the harsh glare of the stage lights like a deer facing oncoming traffic. Little Carl continues on his cable-drawn arc through the air, regardless. He strikes Molly in the side, then smacks into the coffee table.
I step up to the front door as the doorbell rings. Molly needs to come and open it now, so the man of her dreams can lift her up into his arms—my arms. My name slides into view, but the door remains closed.
I’m watching it all through the set window: Molly ripping her calves loose from the cables. Now brandishing a high heel in each hand, she storms the camera. She hurls the heels at the studio audience, shrieking—raw and ragged—like the caged animal she is.
Molly’s done playing her role. The cables bump me into the front door, reeling me through so I can bear witness. But Molly doesn’t get dragged away for discipline, like last time and the time before. This is Molly’s third fuck-up, and this one’s royal.
Molly doesn’t explode, she just…vanishes into a red, wet mist. She coats my face and neck, the white shirt I’m wearing. My forearms are dripping with the woman I’m supposed to be holding.
The laughter from the audience isn’t canned. They’re eating this up.
Someone’s going off-script. It’s the low, pitiful sound of a buried soul moaning through six feet of grave dirt, the cry of a child trapped at the bottom of a very deep well. Beth’s lips are white and flat as ironed sheets, pulled back against her teeth. Dane’s beside her on the couch, with Little Carl propped up on his knee. They’re silent. Smiling.
It must be me.
And—yes—I can feel the scream burning up my throat. Even with the smile plastered on my blood-streaked face, my teeth biting down on the edges of my tongue, the sound keeps leaking through. The cables drag me to the couch for the final scene.
We’re on the couch, arms linked over shoulders despite the Molly-sized gap, heads tipped together: a makeshift family. Sitcom lettering hovers between us and the audience, spelling out the show’s title. The start of the first season.
The audience settles in. They lean their recliners back and dig their many-fingered hands into crinkling bags of snacks. They’ll sit—binge-watching—for hours, sometimes days.
Weeks on end.
The song fades out.
The show begins.
We lose Beth midway through Episode Three.
It’s not her fault, really. If anyone’s to blame, it’s the new Molly. The new Molly is a perfect replica of the old one. From her lustrous auburn hair and green eyes, down to the delicate feet stapled into high-heeled shoes, everything about her is identical.
Except for her name, of course.
See, Beth and the old Molly—Catherine Dillard—came from the same vat, the closest thing to real sisters that the things upstairs could manage with their test tubes, the genetic tampering and behavioral conditioning, and all the rest that goes into manufacturing an authentic experience for the audience.
But the show wears us down.
It’s kind of the point.
We bend under the strain, buckle. Break. And like any well-oiled machine, the broken parts must be replaced.
We do have ratings to maintain.
Beth can’t stop laughing though. It’s the kitchen scene that’s doing her in, the part where Molly—the new one—is all dolled up for her first date with yours truly. Except Molly’s distracted by Little Carl doodling on the wall with his crayons. She forgets to put the lid of the blender on.
The sight of all that red smoothie splatter sends Beth right over the edge. Beth is laughing, and it’s this awful, strangled gasping sound, all exhale without an ounce of humor. She’s scrabbling at her chest, the corset knitted to her ribs with steel wire, the cables cinching it ever tighter until her breath is little more than a wheeze.
Poor, sweet Beth. She just wants out.
But this is only her second infraction, so Beth gets plugged with a tranquilizer. They tow her off-set for recalibration while we finish the episode with a stand-in. The stand-in is a stuffed green dummy with Beth’s blonde hair and narrow waist. They’ll insert a digital image over the top for the viewers at home, but—like us—the live audience is stuck trying to pretend this faceless doll is a real person.
Can I tell you a secret? I prefer the dummy. Beth’s getting a much-needed rest, and I don’t have to stare into the vacant blue tunnels she’s been sporting in place of her eyes since the old Molly…left. I present a bouquet of silk flowers to the dummy posing as Molly’s younger sister while Dane feigns jealousy, and then I pull the bouquet back from the dummy’s outstretched hands, delivering the flowers to Molly instead. The dummy wilts, and everybody laughs.
Little Carl is shaking.
It’s time for the banister scene. Little Carl wants to keep his smoothie-splattered mother from leaving with me, so he has the bright idea—watch his eyes go wide, his mouth go round as he holds up a finger—to get himself stuck, good and tight. The audience members who’ve seen the show lean forward, wringing their hands. Toothy grins ripple the faces of the newcomers. They have no clue what’s coming, but there must be a reason the die-hard fans keep re-watching. The first-timers can sense their anticipation.
I switch my brain off. It’s a nifty trick I picked up from the third—fourth?—Dane. I don’t feel my strong hands close around Little Carl’s skull, don’t see the others grasping his chubby arms and legs. I am not here when we all heave as one to tear Little Carl apart.
Molly puts her fists on her hips like, Aw, shucks. Now what?
It’s a valid question.
Beth is usually the one who puts Little Carl back together, but now Carl’s got the dummy to look forward to. The dummy’s paddle hands and cable-guided limbs make a mess of the reassembly. Without Beth’s nimble fingers to help, the episode is six hours longer than it should be. By the time the lights go down, half the audience is slumped in their recliners, bored or snoring.
There will be no meal tonight.
Beth returns in the early hours of morning to rub cream on Little Carl’s seams. With his head cradled against her breast, he whimpers and squirms and dreams his restless dreams.
Little Carl is the only original.
He’s lived and relived the show more times than he can count. I can’t help but wonder why no one’s ever put him out of his misery. Being the second longest-lived member of the show, perhaps that responsibility falls to me.
But like the old Molly, I can’t.
Dane stole his life back last night.
No sharp objects allowed in the dorms, so the smart son-of-a-vat used his teeth.
Three hours until the show starts up again. Three more hours spent listening to “I Want You to Want Me,” playing on a constant loop through the speakers mounted in the corners of the blank, windowless room we all share, angled down at our sparse bunks. Cranked to full volume. Long-timers like Little Carl and I learned how to lip-read early on, once we realized the theme song was getting louder to drown our voices out.
It’s supposed to keep us in character. Or maybe it’s meant to enhance our appreciation of the show, since the only time the song stops playing is when we’re acting out an episode. But it never really stops, not for Little Carl and not for me. I catch my lips moving, forming the words without my consent as the lyrics cycle through my head like a hamster on a wheel, running itself to death.
This. Fucking. Song.
Good for Dane.
The new Dane is my old one, and I can’t.
Episode One, and I’m fumbling for my lines. My third infraction is marching closer with every second I spend staring at him, slack-jawed. Dane—my Dane—is mouthing what I need to say, but all I can think about is touching him. What I need is to wrap my arms around his waist and pull him in, feel the rasp of his stubble against my mouth, my chin. I need to know that he’s real, though a sad, sick part of me is praying that he’s not. Because if this is my Dane, he’s been uprooted from the home we built together, years ago, when we were fresh from the vat and foolish enough to believe we could keep something of our own. Before I learned that even emotions like love can be stolen, molded. Hooks stuck through and rigged to cables.
Do they know, the things upstairs? They must.
This is the most-watched episode of the first two seasons. The audience is salivating.
I’m the unsuspecting fool who bursts into Molly’s bedroom to find Beth and Dane entwined on the bed. But there’s nothing erotic about the way Beth’s raking her nails across Dane’s chiseled face, carving bloody furrows into his cheeks. Sure, she’s pumping her hips, but that’s the cables trying to buck him off as the hydraulic joints in Dane’s hands squeeze her windpipe down to a whistling straw. Thanks to the implanted rod, Dane is harder than I’ve ever seen him. Beth is urging him on with her eyes, begging Dane to finish it already.
And here I stand, holding everything up, still groping for my stupid, forgotten one-liner—something-something…Ah!
It rolls off my tongue, and the scene carries on. There’s a flicker of pride in Dane’s eyes—I’ve pulled through for him, for us—and then he lowers his mouth to Beth’s bare stomach, exposing sharp, sharp teeth. Their filed points close with a loud, ripe crunch.
Oil pools around Beth’s ruined midsection. Dane’s chin is slick with it, blood and oil leaking down his naked chest. A hand on my shoulder makes me jump. But it’s just Molly, pushing to get past. She plants her fists on her hips again. Dane shrugs comically. He offers Molly a black-streaked grin.
Behind me, the laughter is roaring.
I reach for Dane, but the cables are sweeping me off-stage to make room for the credits, a scrolling list of glyphs not meant for human tongues.
There will be plenty of time for us to catch up, later.
All the time in the world, if we can last that long.
They took Little Carl.
I can’t get any details from Beth. She’s catatonic, will probably be replaced as well.
Theories circulate around our diminished circle. Like maybe the meat Beth has been shaving off of Little Carl’s heels every night for the last few months wasn’t enough to hide the growth spurt as he inched toward puberty. Molly insists it was the re-watchers who must have noticed. She thinks it was the subtle change in Little Carl’s voice that gave him away.
Dane says he saw them come for Little Carl, that the boy didn’t put up a fight at all. According to Dane, they carried him out in a limp bundle. Didn’t we notice the kid never touched his food? Didn’t we see him rocking in the corner for hours at a time, forgoing sleep as he mouthed the words to the theme song?
No—of course not. None of us eat. We don’t sleep.
Dane doesn’t know there will be a new Little Carl by morning.
I take Dane’s hands in mine and touch my lips to the tears on his cheeks, erasing them one by one. He tastes of salt and sweat and something not quite human.
I shrink away from him.
There’s something off about the new Little Carl.
Beth won’t go near him. She’s convinced he’s the same one, cut down to size, but when she talks about him—a reedy whisper hissed through tight lips, eyes darting to the corner where he’s been standing and swaying and staring at the wall since they brought him through the vault door, yesterday—Little Carl is no longer a he, but an it. Beth clenches her fists and rocks, rocks, rocks to the rhythm of the song forced through the speakers. She mutters about the faded map of scars twisting through Carl’s flesh like bumpy, pitted country roads. And she cries. We all do. Since the start of Season Three, they’ve been pumping tear gas through the vents at intervals. As if, even after everything they’ve done to our minds and bodies, we’re still incapable of crying on command.
They’re not wrong.
With my knees tucked to my chest, I duck into the alcove behind my thighs to spit on my thumb, then streak the saliva beneath eyes rubbed raw. Am I doing this for the benefit of the others, to convince them I’m still capable of feeling? I don’t know. It doesn’t matter, really. One more week until the series finale.
After, we’ll do it all again—start to finish. Or, some of us will.
Dane’s jittery. He’s pacing the walls of our room and clawing at his chest with one hand. Ten steps and he’s below the speaker in the corner. Another ten, and he’s at the vault door. I don’t have the heart to stop him. If I reach for him as he stalks past me a third, fourth, fifth time, I’ll have to touch him. I’ll have to hold him, and I can’t stand the feel of his skin. All that remains of the man I once loved is guttering in the haunted recesses of Dane’s eyes, threatening to go out. Still…there is something left worth reaching for.
There has to be.
I link my fingers through his, ignoring the artificial whisper of his flesh against mine, and try to slow his progress. He shakes me off. He’s mumbling under his breath. At first, I think it’s just the lyrics sinking in, taking over Dane’s tongue and mind to keep him fixed in his role. The lip-reading is no help at all, but trying to guess what he’s repeating helps to pass the time. It could be one word or two. It looks like…
An hour before they come for us, Dane stops short in the corner opposite Little Carl and shouts it out. Not you after all.
And the explosives inside him detonate.
I stare at the scorch marks beside the vault door, ears ringing from the blast. A gift from the insurgency? Dane must have joined them in my absence. Him keeping this a secret hurts more than the sight of his tattered flesh. I crawl to his side, moaning in agony as I comb my fingers through the explosive beads, clustered like metallic roe in his open chest cavity. Less than a third of them are blackened, smoking. Faulty wiring. It’s a miracle the others weren’t triggered by the explosion, or we’d all be dead.
We should be so lucky.
The tiny green lights are blinking, active.
Dane spasms. He’s still breathing when they rip him from my arms.
Molly says he was meant to take out the front row of VIPs during the series finale. She delivers this information in a hot rush, not realizing that “I Want You to Want Me” is no longer blasting through the speakers now dangling from their cords, broken and dusted with plaster. Her confession splits the silence like an axe, and now they’re back for Molly, taking her away.
All is quiet, for just a moment longer.
And then Little Carl’s lips curl back from the speaker embedded in his mouth.
The song resumes.
The show must go on.
Whatever’s happening on the outside is affecting the production centers.
The things upstairs have made it very clear that there will be no more replacements. Not by telling us—they’d never deliberately reveal weakness—but a cursory glance at the cobbled-together amalgamation of the cast, the machinery glinting and whirring between the gaps in our re-worked flesh, is enough to suggest that the names on the credits will remain the same until the series draws to a close.
Or until the revolution shaking the ground above us plays out.
The stage lights are blinding.
The intro song begins. I’m really listening this time through. I’m hanging on every word, knowing as I do that I’ll never have to hear these lyrics again.
The VIPs lean forward in their seats, greedy eyes reaching.
They want me.
The cables pull us onto the set—patchwork people, barely human.
They need me.
There’s a quiet beeping coming from inside me: a parting gift from Dane. The beeping speeds up as the theme song reaches the chorus.
I can only hope I swallowed enough to make a difference.
One way or the other, this is the end.
Copyright © 2022 R. L. Meza