Copyright 2012, B.K. Price
This is the third chapter in the short story entitled “Hook Ups.” Unfortunately, it may also be the last excerpt I can publish on this blog if I try to get it published. I would like to thank Mike Smith for the story idea taken from his blog. You may find the first two chapters in the Fictional Follies section of my blog.
This is my prison. I’m not incarcerated by walls or bars or electric fences. There are no guards with vicious dogs keeping me at bay. No shackles bind my wrists nor hobble my ankles. My prison is not one of brick and mortar, but of morons.
So went my thoughts as I wandered the lovely gardens fronting la Maison de Recontres – the Dating House. This charming French mansion had been co-opted as the temporary home of the vapid contestants of Hook Ups. For one whole television season we would live side by side and try to make a romantic connection or risk being unceremoniously voted out of the House by the viewing public. There was currently an uneven ratio of men to women, so not everyone gathered in the yard of the Dating House would actually make it inside. This cast party was the final push, the last hurrah for many who wanted to go far on the show. They would have to work the crowd, making connections with people so that the viewing public would vote for them as a starting couple.
A cool breeze swept through the garden, relieving the day’s heat. I briefly closed my eyes as it slid across my face. I wasn’t stressing over making connections. The mass of fools huddled together like pigs slurping from a trough. Speed dates, alcohol-induced antics, and general wandering from one potential partner to another were among the tactics being employed tonight. I wanted none of it.
At least the beer was good. I sipped from my red plastic cup as I leaned against the cast-iron fence, watching the young contestants test their mettle in this game of romance. There was probably some psychological insight to be gained from those observations. The herd mentality in regards to romance. Groupthink. It was probably a very fascinating social experiment for someone interested in that sort of thing. I was not interested. I just wanted to be alone.
Getting out of the camera’s eye would have been nice as well, but I knew there were cameras everywhere, recording every move of every contestant with the aim of broadcasting the most interesting behaviors on live television so that the viewers could call, text, or tweet their votes for whomever they thought should be paired up. Even my sulking in the shadows would be viewed – and hopefully it would cause the viewers to eliminate me.
Would the winner be the brash muscle-bound meathead from New Jersey who didn’t seem to own a shirt and thought it was funny to spit beer all over the adulating crowd surrounding him? Maybe it would be the designer-label airhead with the tiny pink purse who had all the lads around her in a lather. There were so many choices; I couldn’t imagine how the viewing public would decide the winner from among them. All I knew was that after tonight I would be nothing more than an also-ran, and I could go back to my normal life with a nice little paycheck and most of my pride still intact.
“I think Simmy might go all the way,” said a familiar voice beside me. I looked down at my side and saw Kimberly mimicking my fence lean. “He’s not a big stupid jerk or a stuck-up bitch like everyone else.”
I looked back at the crowd. “I haven’t met this Simmy yet,” I said. Of course, I wasn’t planning on meeting him either.
Kimberly perked up. “Oh, he’s the best!” she effused. “His real name is Maksim Vladovsky, and he’s in a hurry.”
I looked at her, puzzled. “What do you mean, ‘hurry?’”
“He says he’s rushin’,” she explained. I laughed. “What’s so funny?” Kimberly asked.
I almost started to explain to her that he was actually telling her he was Russian, but I thought better of it. Re-explaining the explanation would just be a headache, and I was already well on my way to one whopper of a migraine. Instead I said, “That arse holding the nozzle of the keg. I just can’t help but laugh at how stupid he is.” It was true enough, and Kimberly bought it.
“I talked to him. His name is Mike Tripp. I don’t like him at all. I’d only hook up with him if everyone else rejected me.”
I looked at Kimberly sternly. “Don’t ever settle for anyone like Mike. You’re better than that.”
Kimberly sighed. “I don’t know. I can’t seem to get anywhere with anyone here. They all have their little social groups and I can’t get in. I’m afraid, Steven. What if I can’t find anyone? I don’t want to be voted off right off the bat.”
I grabbed Kimberly’s shoulder and pulled her close. I had grown fond of her. She was a good girl, ditz though she was. She just needed some guidance. “Look, Kimberly, this is just a television program. You’re a beautiful, sweet girl. You’re more than the empty cameras around us, or this made-up fantasy of youthful romance. If you get voted off you walk away with your head held high, okay? You show the world that Kimberly Czerwinsky…”
“Simmons,” she corrected.
“…Simmons, is nobody’s doormat. You are in control of you, not anybody else. Don’t let what they think of you determine what you think of yourself.” I stopped there, a bit giddy with the fervor of my inspirational speech.
Kimberly smiled. Then she did something she had never done before. She reached up, pulled me closer to her, and kissed me on the lips. Fully on the lips – like nobody but Corinne had done recently. She lingered, too, and when she pulled back her eyes were soft and adoring. I was too startled to say anything or even move. I imagined Corinne watching this on the screen and nearly bursting with jealousy. But then again, she was the one who put me there in the first place. She had to expect this might happen.
For a moment Kimberly clasped my fingertips in hers, saying nothing but just looking up at me. The look had something underneath it that made me uncomfortable – whether it was because I didn’t share the sentiment or because I did, I couldn’t tell. Whatever the case, she released her hold and returned to the crowd of her peers.
That night we were housed in a hotel across from the Eiffel Tower. I was restless all night, but I couldn’t tell why. Any sleep I got was sporadic and fitful. In the morning, exhausted, I presented a lethargic counterpoint to the excitable idiots around me.
The gimmick of the day was the distribution of keys. Everyone who got a key had been voted into a pairing. Everyone who didn’t was immediately ejected from the program. I watched the ubiquitous Korean twins hand out keys, wondering if there were just two of them. They always seemed to emerge from the Dating House with different outfits. Perhaps there was an assembly line of Korean twins constantly being churned out from behind the scenes.
In the end, six men left the program keyless and vastly dejected. Unfortunately, I wasn’t among them. Even after the Korean woman pressed a key into my hand I stared at it, dumbfounded. Surely Corinne was pulling some serious strings to keep me on the program.
However, we weren’t all in the clear yet. While all of the keys opened the front gate leading to the Dating House, only ten couples would participate in the season’s episodes. By my count twelve couples had received keys, meaning another four people would discover that their keys didn’t open any of the doors inside the mansion. The keys had no identifying marks. It was up to the contestants to try them in the various door locks to discover which room was theirs.
I meandered sullenly through the Dating House, halfheartedly checking my key in the locks and desperately hoping it would not open any of the doors. I wasn’t entirely sure what doors were to bedrooms and what doors led to other areas. That confusion brought me to a nondescript door at the end of a hallway. I tried my key in the lock, but the door was already unlocked. It swung open as I turned the knob.
The first thing that I noticed was the smell – a moist and acrid scent that smelt of decay. It was strong as a drunkard’s breath, and just as foul. The light from the hallway seemed to stop at the door, unable or unwilling to go inside the strange room. My chest became tight with a sense of dread, but at the same time I felt compelled to move into the room, despite its pitch blackness. I threw my arms out to feel my way in the darkness. Fortunately, the room (or corridor) was narrow enough to locate a wall quickly. Unfortunately, the wall, and the floor, gave way as I put my weight on them.
They didn’t break, and I didn’t fall, but they were squishy – spongy, perhaps. I commenced a tense struggle to shift the weight on my arm, resting against the spongy wall, to the weight on my feet pressing against the floor. It was not too different from trying to walk across a mattress that is suspended in the air without the firmness of a box-spring beneath it. As I struggled with the logistics of maneuvering through the strange room my eyes had acclimatized to the darkness enough to make out shapes on the floor. It was too dim for me to see what exactly they were. The scent of decay was overpowering by now. I turned toward the doorway, the light of the hall strangely dim and fuzzy. I dropped onto my hands and knees, it being the only way I could make my way back out with the precarious footing and the strong waves of nausea that had just come over me. My hand felt something on the floor. It was long and thin. I held it up. It was hard to see, but it looked like a bone, possibly human, with a fair bit of gore still clinging to it. Startled, I cried out and flung it away from me, and then scrambled across the spongy floor until I was back in the hallway again, heaving on the brink of vomiting.
I was startled to see one of the Korean twins standing there, her face smooth and expressionless. She looked at me for a moment, then into the dark room. “That room is not ready yet,” she stated emotionlessly. Her words were heavily accented, but not like a Korean. The accent was unlike any I had ever heard before.
I looked down at the gore-covered bone on the floor. “What the Hell was that?” I asked, gradually rising as the waves in my stomach subsided.
“A haunted corridor, for the Halloween party,” she explained, grabbing the bone and tossing it back inside the dark room. Sniffing the air, she added, “It looks like we will need to tone down the smell, though.” She cracked an awkward and creepy smile, completely devoid of humor. She shut the door, locking it this time to avoid anyone else wandering in and spoiling the surprise. “Tell nobody about this,” she warned. Something in the tone of her voice sent a shiver of dread down my spine. Then she examined my key and graciously guided me to the door that it was supposed to open. It worked, and I was hurriedly ushered inside, greeted by a very excited Kimberly.
“Wow!” she exclaimed. “They must have voted us together as a couple.”
My mind was numb. I looked towards the door. It had shut, and Kimberly and I were alone. But then again we weren’t. The cameras were everywhere – except the bathroom. I grasped Kimberly’s arm and shoved her into the bathroom along with me, shutting the door.
“Something’s wrong here,” I warned her.
Kimberly shrugged. “They probably just saw that kiss and thought we were making a romantic connection.” She paused, then said, “Maybe we were.”
“Not with the vote, with this place,” I said. I heard a knock on the bedroom door, followed by a voice calling my name. “Something isn’t right. You need to be careful.”
The bedroom door opened, and I could hear footsteps approach the bathroom door. It had no lock. I pulled back against the far wall, clutching Kimberly closely. I had no weapon, but I would claw and scratch if anyone tried to harm either of us. The doorknob turned slowly, then the door creaked.
One of the Korean twins poked her head into the room. “Mister Jones?” she asked. “Are you all right?”
“Get away!” I said.
The woman pushed further inside. Her outfit was different than the twin I had encountered earlier, but her appearance and voice were exactly the same. “I was told you were not feeling well.” A hand appeared through the doorway, clutching something. I pushed Kimberly behind me to shield her.
The woman shook the thing in her hand. It rattled. “I thought you might like some pills to help settle your stomach,” she said. “I’ll set them on the tub.” She put the bottle of pills on one edge of the porcelain bathtub and retreated through the door, shutting it firmly before she went across the bedroom and out into the hallway.
I dropped into a sitting position on the floor, the adrenaline subsiding in my system. Kimberly moved forward, grabbing the bottle of pills. “I’ve been feeling a little sick myself,” she said, twisting the lid open. “I could use some of these.”
It took me a moment to realize what she was doing, but when I did I leaped up. “Don’t!” I shouted, striking the bottle out of her hand. She looked at me with surprise, but she had already popped two of the pills into her mouth.
Kimberly chewed the pills, then swallowed. Her brows furrowed, and her face crinkled. Then a smile overtook her face. “Cherry,” she happily reported.