Everyone has rituals that keep them intact. There are solitary rituals, performed in dark rooms or the depths of the mind, for the mystique comes from desiring discovery. There are rituals between friends, certain words that act as universal reset buttons, though we all await the day that these malfunction. There are virtual rituals that occur hundreds of times in a second, yet they are kept distinct, blissful in the shallow ignorance of interdependence. All rituals are built with contingency in mind, always aiming for the catharsis of a purpose never achieved.
What horrors arrive when these rites do succeed?
On nights like this, when the cicadas click along to the beat of a thousand different top 40 singles, Jane enjoys watching television. She doesn’t mean to watch anything in particular, the barrage of white noise and ambient lights soothe her against the deafening night. Game Shows are fine, since the repetitive leitmotifs, canned banter, and benign trivia form a malleable putty for her mind to mould. Otherwise, the odd sitcom can do just the trick after a long day of data entry and aching joints. Most of her friends had cut their cables a few years ago, since the internet was cheaper and provided greater options. She can see their point, but an embarrassment of riches is counter-intuitive to her insomniac needs. Too much demanded her attention, siphoned deeper thought, while she tried her best to slip into the calming buoyancy of repetition.
This night, Jane browsed through a variety of random channels on her fuzzy CRT, handed down to her from her grandparents when she moved into her first apartment. It was past midnight, Jane had been downing energy drinks to get through an anthropology essay for her graduate class, and now she had the unenviable task of catching a little sleep before work. At this time of night, nine-out-of-ten channels consisted of infomercials peddling cheap blenders and vacuums paid in installments. For a couple of idle minutes Jane let one of them play, reasoning that the background noise might provide the means for a better plan of attack.
Anyone that has owned a television, or at least has some general idea of the phenomena, would recognize the kitsch set mimicking the Norman Rockwell American kitchen. Behind a kitchen island stood a man in a sea green polo, tall and thin, attractive but unthreatening and ultimately forgettable. In his ear is a headphone curling back around into a mic, reminiscent of a rigid and metallic worm posted on his face. Jane heard snatches of phrases like “special attachment,” “one-time offer,” and “next-day-shipping” spilling through an unending barrage of the same three testimonials. Still unable to suss out a decent idea, she looked up at the screen just to see what it was selling before channel surfing once more.
“Now, if you act now, I can Guar-un-tee not ONE, not TWO, but THREE of these babies for just six installments of FIVE NINETY-NINE!”
The host held up a cage in his left hand, gesturing like a magician and bearing a toothy grin. Jane could tell it must have been designed for rodents and gerbils, since she herself used to keep rats in a similar device. Unlike the cage she used to own, this one was spotless and had none of the tiny ramps or hammocks she remembered. The man then placed the cage onto the island before him, swiveling it around with both hands so that the door faces the camera. Lifting up the latch, he opens the cage with an audible squeak. The implacable smile twitched, eliciting an involuntary blink before locking his teeth back into place, as if the man had just heard claws scraping across a chalkboard.
“If you call the number on screen, we’ll throw in a complimentary bottle of WD40 for no extra charge, along with two of our patented Squeeze-N-Squirt utili wipes and the instructional video ‘Losing Weight Without The Heartache.’”
The man shrunk into a smaller picture as bright white font spelt out “CALL 1-888-929-RATS” and disclaimers scrolled across the bottom edge at a speed and size impossible for her to make out.
“My kind assistant Katie will demonstrate both the ease with which anyone can oil the hinges to your Fantastic Trap and the perks you can expect once you reach Triple-Radium class.”
At once, Jane felt like she had witnessed something never meant for her eyes and that she was being had. She knew that infomercials were taped long before they ever aired, so it seemed frivolous that they would allow such a flub, especially since they had recycled so much throughout the rest of it. Then again, what she had heard was so full of non-sequiturs approximating the feel of an infomercial that it had to be a parody. Under normal circumstances, perhaps she would have investigated further into the meaning of this, but such a diversion was the exact opposite of what she needed at the moment. As a means to quiet her own nagging curiosity, she grabbed her phone off the nightstand and wrote down the toll free number to search up once the next day rolled around. Temporarily satisfied, she caught a glimpse of a small middle-aged woman sitting on her knees and holding a rat up to the camera before Jane pressed upon the channel up arrow of her remote.
The jet stream of flashing lights and clashing colors imprinted individual frames upon her retinas, her brain frying as it tried to identify the faces and make sense of the fricatives and glides that drilled into her ear lobes. It was less than a minute before she settled upon another channel, but the cacophony of the transitory tunnel felt as if it could send her through time, divorced from her body. She landed upon a familiar sight, a fat and balding man reclining in his seat while a woman half his age stood between him and the television. Though she could not identify the specific characters, their archetypes were bright as day.
“Tommy, are you just gonna sit on your butt all day while I slave over the microwave? [beat] My boss is a very traditional man, and I can’t have him thinking I married a bloated tick that can’t bring home the bacon! [beat] Not to say your suspension from the force was at all your fault... heh... heh...”
Tommy sat up in his chair and leaned forward, his brow furrowed as his eyes locked onto the television prop in the foreground. He folded his arms over his amble stomach and continued to ignore his wife, though now his concentration was locked on something outside of view. A few times he looked up at the woman and then back to the TV, pantomiming a double take turning over into a triple and then quadruple take.
“Dana, look behind ‘ya for a second! [beat] There’s a lady sitting up on a table and she’s holding a mouse or something? [beat] Are you listening to me? Am I seeing things?”
Dana turned around on her heels and placed her palms up against her skirt with a loud huff. A hollow, rhythmic banging came from the TV, like old pipes reverberating as water pumps into them again. Instead of rushing water, however, this process culminated in a high squelch before everything went silent. The low buzz of the CRT now dominated the room, punctuating the very lack of ambience from anywhere outside of its breadth. Tommy’s jaw fell open and his arms slumped past the elbow rests of the chair, whereas the silence dropped out only to be replaced by the chortling of a canned audience.
“Well, wouldn’t it be nice if we had one of those! [beat] I’ll put in an order, as long as you promise to mow the lawn. [beat] Now, get moving, ‘cause Mr. Gyro will be here in any minute and I can’t have you at the dinner table with a stained undershirt.”
As instructed, Tommy rose up from his seat and went towards the stairs. He took one look at his wife, sizing her up and down while placing his grey sock on the first step. He returned his attention to climbing until he reached the fourth step from the top of the screen and stood stalk still. Dana, apparently satisfied, walked out of frame towards the presumable kitchen. Retracing his steps back to the bottom, Tommy slowly placed his eye up to the peephole of his front door, playing up an exaggeration of stealth while maintaining a stony face. The soundtrack played a leitmotif reminiscent of the Mission Impossible theme, though certainly run by the producers in order to prevent a lawsuit.
Jane dropped the remote from her shaking hand and rose from the bed, convinced that she must be dreaming. The schlubby man on TV punched his door in an act of impotent desperation, the cacophony of guffaws drowning out something mumbled under his breath. Jane knew a few tricks for how to determine whether or not she was dreaming, as she had taught herself how to induce lucid dreams in high school. A common tell is whether or not you can flip a light switch on/off, because the lighting of one's dreams isn’t determined by a simple electrical circuit. The soft click of the switch accompanied the searing bright of the LEDs in her ceiling fan. After a few moments of adjusting her sight, she saw the man pull the cabinet his landline rested on out from the wall, only to reveal a limply hanging cord and no outlet to speak of.
Jane pressed the power button, causing the image to collapse and blink out as the former buzz turned into a high whine and, then, silence.
Falling back unto her mattress, Jane pulled the duvet just under her nostrils and kept an iron grip. If she wasn’t dreaming, she reasoned that she must simply be delirious from her own exhaustion. Her muscles and joints locked up into this sleeping position, as her room sank into a muddled exhibition of silhouettes. Why couldn’t she sleep like this? Everything from her toes to her arms to her eyelids wanted to rest, yet her mind felt otherwise. She could not settle with the simple explanation that she herself provided, because she knew from many other college all-nighters that she would not normally hallucinate. It did not satisfy her intellectual curiosity to just write off two anomalies witnessed consecutively, even while her body further cemented itself into the mattress.
She kept still for a few seconds, bargaining with herself, reassuring that she would turn on the television and all she would see would be the normalcy of late-nights. The fickle pops and fizzes of static sat in the air for minutes on end, as the image on her screen was totally black when she turned it on. The blue box at the top indicated that the TV was on and that she was, indeed, changing the channels. Had the cable cut out? No, if that were the case the channels would be covered in white noise, not pitch dark. After dozens and dozens of presses, Jane came upon a clear picture, though the sound was especially tinny. What might have been a trumpet played out a little jingle in major G, while bubble letters crowning an illustrated deck of cards spelled out “HIT ME AGAIN.” Behind a shiny wooden podium stood an aging man in a tight-pressed suit, smiling with half-lidded eyes as the studio audience clapped profusely.
“Welcome ladies and gentlemen to Hit Me Again, the only game show where you can win thousands of dollars just by playing blackjack! The rules are simple: our three contestants will each get a random card from a standard playing deck, and they will be allowed to answer trivia questions in order to draw another. Once a contestant reaches 21 points, or all the contestants refuse to answer anymore, we’ll see who got close enough to the goal without busting and announce the winner of each round!”
The clapping resurfaced, though the distorted sound more resembled the patter of torrential rain more than anything like the slapping together of human appendages. Sitting at the back of the stage is a screen that displays two disembodied white hands shuffling a deck of cards back and forth between them to the tune of the jingle. The camera lingers on this process for just a few seconds, exhibiting the hypnotic rhythm, before swiveling to the other side of the stage.
“Here are our contestants for the night! First up is Steve Benson, a computer programmer from Arizona that built the big board you see behind us! Steven has suffered from chronic depression his entire life, but can the chance of winning a fortune return some modicum of meaning to his suffering?”
The frame zoomed in on a man at the right hand side of a classic poker table, though a large buzzer was installed by his hand. His name was written out above him in a bright arial font, as he gave a timid smile and he did his best to keep his slight figure upright. Something about him felt barely familiar, as if they had attended the same gym class in middle school, though she knew that wasn’t it. She even had a faint impression of his voice, though the man didn’t actually say anything.
“Next is Brian Leymon, star of stage and screen, just recast as Tommy Ligotti on our network’s number one sitcom! His predecessor had a nervous breakdown on set and subsequently checked himself into the sanitarium. What a lucky break for Brian!”
The second man at the table was reading a comically large newspaper, ignoring his own introduction. Once the clapping quieted down, the host made an exaggerated cough, prompting the man to fold up his paper before him. Even through the mounting fuzz, Jane could make out the well-receded hairline and pot belly of the man, an identical twin to the husband on the earlier sitcom outside of his thin spectacles. He gives a quick, cheeky smile to the camera.
“Last, and very much least, hailing from nowhere and comprehending nothing, we have the individual currently reading this story! Heh heh, I’m just ribbing you pal, we’re glad you took the time to be here, and we hope you’ve enjoyed the ride thus far. Now, it’s time to shuffle!”
There was no one sitting at the left end of the table, just an empty leather stool with an electronic buzzer in front of it. A device in the middle of the table lit up and spit out a face down card for each respective contestant. Jane felt like she had swallowed a rock tumbler and just turned it on, as if it were tossing around the entire content of her stomach, and she could do nothing about it. She tried her best to will herself up, to turn the television off and take her chances with the insomnia of a bald night, but her chest was stuck in place. Something sat on top of her, something invisible and intangible, yet still possessing crushing density.
“Okay, first question: what product was the infomercial selling?”
Tommy slammed the button and blurted out his answer. Apparently correct, the machine spit out another card, this time face up, with its suit and value projected on the big screen. You could make out the queen of hearts as the man next to you placed this card in front of him. As he did this, you also noticed him tap his foot twice on the stool, though you’re not sure if this tell is positive or negative.
“Next question: what was the subject of the essay Dana finished earlier tonight?”
This time you buzz in, repeating a line from the fourth paragraph. The host bares his teeth at you, though the screen’s static obscures whether he is smiling or grimacing. You quickly snatch the card that everyone already knows you have, since the screen projected it before you could get a finger on it.
“What is the thing that has been staring through the window?”
Jane’s bed is positioned against the window, her headboard right beneath the sill. As you might imagine, her localized paralysis allowed her only to flail as the flush ran out of her cheeks, unable to get anything but the slightest glimpse of whatever was behind her. There was no sclera to make out, only a huge blackmake mass that one could easily mistake for the night itself, were it not for the fine hairs you can just spot when your eyes fully adjust. Without the summer ambience of cicadas, Jane couldn’t get the idea out of her head that the television was breathing, the shallow drone of a patient observer.
Calm and deliberate, Steven pressed down onto his buzzer, tasting each syllable of the answer as he sounded it out. The name was familiar, egyptian perhaps, but something about the trill in the ‘R’ didn’t seem right, and your recognition was cut short. You swing around on your chair, trying to place the origin of the deafening and distorted scream reverberating throughout the studio. The featureless heads in the audience just clap and clap with their gestalt heads, and your sight lands on the vintage tv production camera pointed at you. Then, without any warning, your chair spins and snaps you back before the host. The scream is gone.
“What condiment jar did you leave open on the kitchen counter last night?”
You squint your eyes in disbelief yet buzz in anyhow. You certainly forgot to put the mayonnaise away after you made a late night ham sandwich, and by now there were probably tons of ants having a hay day in the rancid egg whites. You can just picture them, an orgy of inky exoskeletons gorging themselves and ready to return to their colony, all the while once dormant bacteria reproduces itself over and over until the mayo is the color of parchment. The mental image is so overwhelming, you don’t notice the card sliding from the machine until you turn your eyes to it.
Twenty-one! That’s Twenty-one! You never imagined you could actually win when you went on this show. In fact, you never imagined this show. How did you get here? Well, it doesn’t matter now, you’ve won and now the gracious host is beckoning you. Would you refuse? You never got anything out of reading a story before, except perhaps a few restless nights and the gnawing ache of unfulfilled potential. Besides, no matter how much a story might scare you, it’s ultimately no skin off your back if you read between the lines or let sleeping dogs lie. She’s reaching her hand out to you. Won’t you take it? You’ve done a wonderful job for me, really, so all that’s left to do is claim your prize.
Why do we put so much trust in words? We all understand that semantics can lie to us, even that our sight can betray us, but what about the words themselves?
We're quite foolish to fear the bugbears slinking about in the dark, while ignoring the glowing glyphs staring us in the face. Can you not notice something changing in your peripheral vision? Faces forming in the kerning of fonts? You should not be mistaken. The reader is not safe.