UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION - 04/2008
House of Another
His first task, making the home camera-friendly, was one the former tenants had already solved, removing partial walls and foyers, cross-sectioning this, glassing that, vivisecting the whole house to make the six coeds that much more visible to the webcams, and the some ten-thousand subscribers who had paid to have unrestricted access to the girls, their arguments, their showers, their daily toilet.
As Jermaine Beckworth had had it told to him, all had gone well for the first semester. College educations were funded, perverts were satisfied, and Naughty Dorm Productions flourished. Until, that is, the school got wind of its existence, in the form of anonymous letters copied and posted all over the campus, and on telephone poles in the surrounding neighborhood. Following that, the house was investigated, and all six girls were expelled from school.
And that was the end of it, apart from a legal battle between one of the Naughty Dorm Coeds and the school, a struggle the Dean fought to keep out of the newspaper, one which everyone pretended didn’t exist, and which mainly concerned the student’s demands that her tuition be refunded for the second semester, since she was now banned from attending.
The scandal eventually blew over, compacted into the dirt under the foot of a winning football season. Life went on, and the house went to auction, and the highest bidder ended up being a very young man, one Jermaine Beckworth, who raised eyebrows by agreeing to pay the one-hundred thousand dollar price tag in cash.
Beckworth continued to draw attention upon his arrival to the neighborhood. He personally escorted the moving trucks with a nouveau riche convoy of toy SUVS belonging to him and his entourage, and he ground-guided leather sofas and gilt-edged mirrors through the front door of the house, wearing Versace sunglasses, while also pacifying his yappy terrier with liver treats that seemed to appear out of nowhere.
His immediate neighbors, being college students wrapped up in their own world, didn’t seem to mind so much. But the rest of the neighborhood didn’t know what to make of him. And the old guard didn’t like him at all; their most brazenly nosy representative introduced herself one day, without the benefit of the welcome to the neighborhood apple-pie she usually cooked as a housewarming gift for new arrivals.
She marched onto his yard one bright spring afternoon, despite the security warnings posted in a nest of whiting dandelions, and the barking of the mini-sentry that brought its owner from within the house, where together with a crew of freely-mixing manual laborers and techno geeks, Jermaine Beckworth had been attempting to cut cable, and arrange its fibrous strands in some sort of colored configuration. He continued to try at this work as the old lady talked to him. “It seems like a lot of space for just one person.” She said, hinting, but at what? It wasn’t his to guess, and he didn’t have time to care. But he spoke, just to foment the gossip, throwing the blue-rinse matron a bone to gnaw on while she sat on her rocker through the cold nights.
“I’m not living here. I’m just getting it ready for some friends.” He said.
“Oh.” She said, biding a few seconds before asking, just to ensure it didn’t sound like an interrogation. “So…who are your friends?” Jermaine braided a stray cowlick of wire, and he then answered. “Some college friends.” He shrugged it off. And she had to accept that, and the meager report of enemy terrain she brought back to the neighborhood biddies, who, now that their children had moved on, found this little drama the focus of their universe, when they weren’t vacationing in Florida.
The woman and her friends kept tabs on the house as it grew by organic stages, by bits of furniture, slight rearrangements at all hours of the night, a transient floorshow of expensive cars parked in the driveway, whose menagerie changed from day to day, without rhyme or reason. The only unchanging variable in the whole scheme seemed to be Jermaine Beckworth, and his dog Plato.
The unofficial neighborhood watch lost interest by degrees, became less zealous with their binoculars, and only found themselves rewarded at the low ebb of their stakeout, when, one day while sitting on her porch swing, the old woman finally saw a group arrive, by airport shuttle, who were unlike any of the others who had preceded them. She decided they had to be the actual tenants. For one thing, they lacked the tools of the workmen, or the bearing of the smug techno geeks who would sometimes powwow around Beckworth as he was terminating wire from his spool. They walked toward the house, and then they walked up its steps, with the slow, weary movements of wayward travelers who had finally found their way home, and were ready to unpack.
The best part was that the new tenants weren’t all women, which meant they weren’t about to have a repeat of last year. The shame of Naughty Dorm Productions existing under the nose of good Christians, blocks away from their church and its pastor sworn to protect his flock, had been almost too much for the community to sustain. They had found, in the end, that the best way to deal with it had been to ignore the whole thing. The girls hadn’t been thumbing their noses only at the Lord, no, but also at the institution where they had professed they had wanted to learn, and at their parents, who, it turned out, had actually paid their tuition. They had taken the job (if it could be called that) at Naughty Dorm for the extra money, the disposable income the woman now rocking on the porch swing was sure they had used for drugs.
But now, sipping her watered gin and going with the sonorous motion of the creaking chains attached to her bench, and noting the homely look of the first man out of the shuttle, and the chunky girl who followed him, with a complexion that looked bad from all the way across the street, bless her heart, this woman was sure that while Mr. Beckworth might be eccentric, and cocky (as any young millionaire might be), he was not running something little better than a whorehouse. And maybe, she decided, he was just a very enterprising young man. And she drifted off to sleep, entertaining that thought…
Months passed, and the six tenants of 114 Florentine lived in harmony, or at least kept it quiet enough to add to the perception of serenity that lingered over the neighborhood, day and night, preserved in the shaking boughs of the trees seeded from the graveyard to the elementary school. And across town, the owner of the house, a man much richer, and much smarter than any of the six in the small mansion, spoke with one of his employees, in the tiny kitchenette of the small apartment where he had watched this project, from its inception to its fruition, which would come some time the next day, after the votes were in and tallied.
He ladled himself a tablespoon of canned beans, slurped them up, and then began skimming the watery surface for bits of frank to feed Plato, who was tearing a newspaper left at his master’s feet.
“Do you know who Armin Meiles is, by any chance?”
“No.” The nervous webmaster said. Beckworth really needed him not to fall apart right now. He kept his words measured, and having finally sifted a bit of hotdog from the brine, he lowered it down to his dog, and said. “He ate a man’s penis. But that’s not the insane part. The insane part is that the man volunteered to have his penis eaten. To be killed, cooked and eaten. He responded to an internet personal ad. Now how is what we’re doing here even remotely close to that?”
Beckworth stopped speaking, and stopped feeding his dog. His employee, his accomplice, didn’t seem reassured by his little speech. Somewhere on the street below, a car honked. Beckworth tried again. “You’re worried about getting caught? Think about this.” He leaned forward in his seat. “I did some research on that house before I bought it, on behalf of Eye Three Productions. Do you know how long Naughty Dorm broadcasted around the world before someone got wind of it, and busted them?”
Beckworth paused to give his friend a chance, but the poor bastard’s mouth was still agape half a minute later.
“Six months.” Beckworth said. “Six months. We go hot, by my calculations, in…” He brought his left forearm in front of his face, and his oversized timepiece slid down to his wrist. “Twelve hours. Eleven hours and fifty-nine minutes. Ken, I need those votes tallied. And I need the first name.” With that, he stood, and bussed his plate of franks and beans to the sink, already piled with dirty dishes.
Ken the webmaster, cynically thanking the boss for his pep talk, eased back into his leaking beanbag chair and began checking the votes. An anecdote about a crazy, penis-eating German wasn’t the way to reassure your employees. He had never read any books on effective management, but he was pretty sure of that. And besides, that pact had been between two men. This was between one very crazy man and his fifteen-thousand very sick subscribers, most of who had already come in with what looked like a landslide verdict, for what looked like Chuck. It was looking very Chuck. Ken sighed, frowned, scrolled down, and read on:
GangsterGurl says: Chuck’s an asshole, and he gives me the creeps. I say ‘Give him the boot.’
1Love says: Fuc that faggot, Chuck.
These two, isolated from the blogging din, were pretty representative of what he was up against. Half of them couldn’t spell, and the other half didn’t seem to comprehend that they were talking about actual death. Or at least Jermaine was. It remained to be seen what the hamsters on his golden wheel would do, how they would react, despite the signed contracts and the cash at the end of the tunnel. And then there was the reaction of the fans, or whatever you wanted to call them. Was their bloodlust real? Was even the worst among them ready to endure a snuff film in real-time, or with a half-second lag due to a slow connection, or their being located on the other side of the world? They had subscribers in some pretty far flung corners, Ken knew; he got inscrutable e-mails in Cyrillic, or some kind of tongue that didn’t translate right to his computer, but he was sure the untranslatable messages were on the same mental and spiritual level as the ‘Fuc that faggot’ opinion which he now had to factor into the taking of a life. And while he was asking questions, here was one: How would he react when the time came? Would he look away, try to deny culpability, or would he watch in sick fascination, never to be the same again?
His boss returned from the sink, eating a small cup of yogurt with the same spoon he had used for franks and beans moments before, appetite and conscience seemingly unaffected by what he had brought about. He gave Ken a big, wide smile. Ken sunk deeper into the beanbag, and continued scrolling…
…Inside the house, it was quiet, for the first time since they had arrived. They sat on elevated barstools around the Formica and marble-topped bar, with gas ranges embedded in the center, and assorted pots and pans hung from above. Across the room was a cabinet model juke box. There was a full spice rack above the sink. It was a nice house, a rent-free, trouble-free environment, until it came time to contemplate the price, and this was the first time they had been forced to do so, and it hurt, and there were four cameras, arranged at all four corners of the room, to document it for the viewers out there watching from disparate corners of the internet.
Judd and Katherine held hands, the only true couple that had evolved from all the initial flirting. At least one hookup was inevitable, endlessly speculated on, and the platinum blond had been drawn to the scruffy athlete from that first day, and every day afterward had been torment for them both, a case of merely delaying the inevitable. They might have found their relationship tested by this first wedge, but if any body language could be divined from their hand-holding and stroking, it seemed to point toward their love lasting, at least through this first round of voting.
Tiffany, more level-headed, more homely, but more intelligent than both of them put together, sat with her head in her hands, both of which were invisible within the sleeves of her hooded sweatshirt. Her eyes were moist. To her right was Chuck. He sat like a man crucified by his own personality, forced to realize that the antics which he had enjoyed up until now might actually cost him his life, if not on this first turn, then some time in the near-future. But that prospect still hadn’t been enough to get him to show up to the roundtable discussion with his shirt on.
Jeremy’s face was a steel mask, pulsing at the jaw-line when he grinded his teeth, at a loss for words, which was fine with Jill, who had taken a heap of insults for her plethora of piercings, her strange tattoos, and her religion, from the intolerant oh my gosh valley girl and her boyfriend sitting over there. It was time.
“So…” Tiffany finally said, in the absence of any kind of alpha male. “I guess I’ll go to the booth, and confess how I’m feeling. Even though it’s pretty obvious that we all feel like…”
“…Shit?” Jill ventured, breaking the mood, and forcing everyone to let out a little tense laughter. “Yeah.” Tiffany said. “I mean-”
“I mean.” Katherine said, stealing her words and running on a tangent that was bound to be worth less to everyone assembled, except for maybe her starry-eyed boyfriend. “I might not have gotten along with you guys sometimes, but…It never got to the point where I wanted to hurt someone.”
But it had, for Jill and Tiffany, who lacked a man like Judd, who, for the all the air in his head, still packed diesel in his forearms, which kept Chuck at bay when it came to Kathy, but did nothing to subdue him from attacking Jill in the shower, and making Tiffany feel uncomfortable on multiple occasions. His behavior had earned him a cult following, with a misogynistic minority out there among the subscribers, but it had gotten to the point where even the omnipotent Third Eye of Beckworth had contemplated delivering a little mace with the weekly groceries, just to keep the ornery Chuck on a level playing field with the girls.
And so that night, when the beacon sent out text messages to the five sleeping spared ones, the two women among them had added incentive not to hesitate, because according to the contract, whoever struck the decisive blow was given at least one round to coast. That meant avoiding death for another turn. The next morning found them staged outside of Chuck’s bedroom door, the five weapons democratically sorted for each according to their abilities, with Judd getting the Louisville slugger, and a post off to the left of the door, Tiffany with a carving knife off to the right, Jill and Jeremy hiding in the closet with butcher knife and meat cleaver respectively, and with the first sounds of struggle agreed upon as their cue to enter the fray. Then there was Katherine, the center around which the whole plot would revolve. The other two women resented her getting to be the bait, since it would only confirm the superficial trajectory of her life from inception to prom queen, flattering her with the timeless cliché: to die for. Jill, personally, would have been happy to stab the bitch, and her metal stud glinted above the pulse of her twitching nose.
The bedroom door creaked, the cameras whined from their sentries, and Kathy let the white bathrobe fall further from her shoulders, so that it was dangling precariously from her forearms, and like a white dove, she greeted Chuck upon waking. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes, grinned, scratched his matted hair, and then scratched the prominence of his hairy beer belly, visible beneath the tee he had worn to sleep. “Hey, this is better’n breakfast in bed. Where’s the quarterback? Getting the gold ‘V’ on his letterman jacket re-stitched?” A reference to her boyfriend, her guardian, and her unavailability up until this moment. She smiled, bracing through it, fighting the desire to wretch like an exotic dancer faced with a halitosis-cursed drunk, and he believed it, taking a step toward the dream and her seashell bikini, into a knife that bounced harmlessly off the hard marrow of his sternum, and into a baseball bat that connected with a solid thwack, making a pumpkin, a piñata out of his forehead, staggering him down the staircase.
His agony was silent, but Tiffany’s shrieks brought Jeremy from the closet, and Jill, who put them all to shame with her eyes arching into pools of daggers above their very real counterpart, plunging and plunging so that the others had to fight to get their punches, their kicks, their own stabs in, and the cameras had to fight to drink it in for themselves, and the viewers at home, in Austria and Japan and Ohio, had to fight to see it, everyone struggling, except for Beckworth, who giggled in his kitchenette over the strains of his conscience-stricken webmaster vomiting into the toilet bowl, because Jermaine knew, better than anyone else, that there was no reason to sweat this game in its early stages, and that four more would have to die before anyone touched that million dollars, and they would all pay him, first, for the opportunity to kill one another.
Joseph Hirsch was born in Ohio in 1982. His previous credits include 'The White Hole' and 'Instant Ghetto', both published in 3AM Magazine, and he was a finalist in Glimmer Train Magazine's recent Short Story competition. He currently lives in El Paso, Texas, where he is serving out the remainder of his contract with the US Army.
© 2008 Underground Voices