Merely Players

by Chad Carpenter

 

Henry stormed through the small living room.  "You know, Shakespeare was prophetic," he said, nearly shouting. "'All the world's a stage,' and now with iTube, all the men and women really are players -- whether they like it or not!"

 

"It's YouTube, dear," Nancy winked at her worked-up husband.

 

He struggled out of his soiled shirt and continued ranting.  "With all the cameras and recorders being carried around these days, there's no such thing as privacy anymore.  I can't even walk out to the dumpster with any level of anonymity.  All public spaces should have big, red signs posted which read, 'Warning, you are on a live movie set and may be recorded at any moment.  These recordings will later be played back for millions who will all laugh at you mercilessly.  If you do not wish to have your likeness used, please move to a remote island.'"

 

Henry, now shirtless and beet red, stomped into the bedroom and over to his closet.  "And you know what?  It's not just limited to the public, either.  Every time your son comes over, he's taking videos with that damned camera phone.  And the other night at Karaoke, Lacey and Bob brought that huge camera of theirs.  You know, there's a reason we get a private karaoke room, and it's not so our hip friends can share embarrassing singing pictures of us with all of Facepage!"

 

"Facebook," Nancy helped.

 

"Whatever it is, I should be getting royalties for my performances.  Someone's making money off this stuff, and I want a piece of it.  Or at least a new shirt out of the deal."

 

Henry stared sightlessly at the row of hanging shirts.  "You know where all this comes from?  Reality TV.  I told you it was a bad idea when the first Survival aired."

 

"Survivor."

 

"This internet tube is just a natural extension of reality TV.  Everyone thinks they're a director and can catch the next big thing if they just keep filming long enough.  But there's no creativity in filming reality -- not like writing a unique story with traditional structure and pacing, interesting characters, and a message applicable to the audience.  TV these days is just trash.  You think people really care if Favorite Flavor finds true love in a group of skanky hoes?"

 

"That's Flavor Flav."

 

"Don't people have their own realities to attend to?  It's a misnomer anyway; there's nothing real about reality television.  It's all staged -- planned spontaneity.  Did you know that producers make sure reality show contestants don't get enough sleep so they break down on camera faster?  And most shows keep the booze flowing lest the cast grows too boring."

 

"Yes, I know; I told you those things."

 

"They just put people under varying types of pressure so we can watch them explode.  What's the fun in that?  You want real reality TV?  They've been doing it for decades; it's called a documentary.  At least that involves some research, patience and the ability to stitch together a story from real real life.  Not this endless ballet of young, drunken party people looking to hook up, drink up, make out, break down, get off, and feud with anything and everything that has the misfortune of falling into the boundaries of their peripheral vision."

 

Henry lowered his voice and looked anew at his collection of collared shirts.  "Is that real, what they do on those shows?  I can't even tell anymore."  He sounded almost melancholy now.  "Who am I to say what's real anyway?"

 

 Henry selected a nice, salmon colored shirt and pulled it from the rack.  He shrugged himself into it and deftly manipulated the buttons from the bottom, up.

 

"Well, I can tell you this is a real mess."  Nancy held up his stained shirt into which she scrubbed some sort of solution.  "Don't blame YouTube or reality TV for this.  It's not their fault you overfilled the trash bag and then snagged it on the stairwell.  And it's certainly not their fault that, instead of coming back and getting another bag, you scooped the whole mess up in your arms and trotted it out to the dumpster.  I bet the whole building saw you walking out there like a fool -- not just those boys with the camcorder."

"Is the shirt salvageable?" was all he had to say.

"Yes, I believe so.  The spaghetti sauce looks like it'll come out."

"Wonderful, though I was hoping to wear that shirt on the plane."

Dressed once again, Henry walked over to the bed and wrestled one of two large suitcases closed.  He rolled it out to the living room and returned for the second.

"Speaking of overfilled containers, have you stuffed every item you own into this one?" he asked.

"Yes, dear," Nancy said.

Henry zipped up the bag with considerable effort and rolled it out next to the first.

"Hawaii!  I can't wait!"  His shirt, trash and video problems forgotten, Henry's mood was restored to eager excitement anticipation for their vacation.

 

From the bedroom, Nancy heard her husband continue gleefully.  “The bags are packed, the house is cleaned, the cab is scheduled.  A nice, relaxing beach is just hours away.”

 

Nancy finished with the shirt and walked out to the living room.  Her husband sat on the loveseat with his feet stretched out on the coffee table, looking as if he were already relaxing on a sunny beach.  She joined him.

 

“Oh, Julius called while you were out making an idiot of yourself.  He’s stopping by; apparently he has a surprise of some sort for us.”

 

“Another ‘artistic’ performance?”  Henry asked warily.

 

“Perhaps.  Who ever knows what your son is working on at that school of his?” Nancy smiled and wrapped an arm around her husband.

 

My son?” Henry started, but the apartment door opened then and a young man walked in.

 

“Julius!” Henry and Nancy chorused.

 

“Mom, dad.  Boy, you guys are in a good mood.”  Julius left the door open and stepped through the short entrance hall.

 

“Of course we are.  Come give us a hug.”  Julius’ parents remained in their reclined positions but stuck their arms straight out expectantly.

 

“Hold on, let me give you your surprise first.  Are you ready?”  Julius turned back towards the open door which looked out into the condo hallway.

 

“Oh boy, I wonder what it could be.”  Henry rubbed his hands a bit too enthusiastically, but his tone did not betray the implied sarcasm.

 

Before Julius could exit, another person appeared in the doorway.  A large woman wearing dreadlocks and earth-tone clothes marched in dramatically and without warning.  Julius backpedaled in surprise.

 

The woman held something large and furry in her hands, and this she dumped unceremoniously on the floor before Henry and Nancy.  Behind the woman followed a tiny, timid lady who ventured no further than the entranceway.

 

The abrupt arrival brought Henry and Nancy to their feet.  They saw laying before them the bloody, mangled corpse of a dog.  Julius retreated in horror.  The woman who delivered this package to them stared in wild-eyed anger.

 

“How dare you!”  It was an accusation, not a question, and she almost screamed the words.

 

Henry and Nancy turned towards each other with a knowing look.  Henry smirked and mouthed “a play.”  The two resituated themselves comfortably on the loveseat and elevated their feet.  Henry motioned for the woman to continue.

 

She did.  “How dare you!  How could you treat one of God’s creatures with such disrespect?”

 

A long silence ensued as the woman glared at them.  Henry glanced over at Julius, expectantly, but his son just looked back as if he, too, awaited an answer to this horrible crime.

 

“Oh, I see,” Henry mumbled, “this is interactive.”  He pushed further back into his seat and brought his hands up behind his head, elbows pointed skyward.  In a loud, dramatic voice he said, “Whatever are you accusing us of, dear woman?”

 

“As if you don’t know,” she scowled.  “My friend Rachel here says she’s seen some scary things going on in this apartment.  Just this morning, she saw you mutilating something through your kitchen window, and then I saw you carrying a blood-stained pile out to the dumpster as I drove in.  I looked in the dumpster, and, sure enough, this poor thing was laying dead.”

 

“My goodness, that is quite the interesting accusation,” Henry said, glancing again at Julius.  “I did, in fact, carry something out to the dumpster a short while ago, but it was a ripped bag of trash covered with spaghetti sauce.  As far as hacking things up, I haven’t a clue what your friend was spying on from her rear window.  Perhaps she’s been watching too much Hitchcock?”

 

The crazy woman started back into them.  “Don’t you tell me—“

 

“Oh, I know!” Nancy startled everyone with her excitement.  “The next-door neighbor’s kitchen is directly on the other side of that wall.”  She indicated the boundary of their own condo.  “And I happen to know he’s,” and she paused for dramatic effect, “a butcher!  You must have seen him cutting up some meat.”

 

The dreadlocked woman looked unimpressed, but her friend Rachel stepped lightly into the apartment and spoke up.  “Elaine, it’s possible I confused the apartments.  Let’s go back to my place and leave these poor people alone.  I’m sorry I said anything at all.”

 

“Rachel, if you got the wrong apartment, then we just have to go to the right one.”  She stooped to collect the limp, soggy body on the floor and hauled it up into her arms.

 

The two women turned and left the apartment as abruptly as they had entered.  The only sign they’d been there was a smear of dried blood on the hardwood floor.

 

“That had better come right up, young man.”  Nancy went to the kitchen and returned with a paper towel and spray bottle.

 

“Well, that certainly was a surprise,” Henry said.  “Are we supposed to thank you for that?” he asked Julius.

 

“What?  Why are you asking me?  What was--”

 

Julius’ words were cut short by a loud bang and a volley of intense shouting from the hallway.  The three of them saw Elaine and Rachel sprint down the hall, headed for the elevators.  A male voice thundered angrily from the other direction.

 

“I guess it’s not over yet.”  Nancy set down the cleaning supplies and regained her seat next to Henry.  She couldn’t tell if Henry was excited or annoyed that there was more to come.

 

Sure enough, a new figure filled the doorframe.  A giant of a man, he had to duck to enter, and his elbows brushed either side of the frame as he made his way through.  Both Henry and Nancy smiled as they recognized their neighbor, the butcher.  Then they scowled as he heaved the same dead dog onto their floor.  It landed with a squish and a thud.

 

“So neighbor, you accuse me of killing dog?”  Henry wondered once again where his thick accent originated from.  The man’s name was Charlie, so that didn’t exactly provide any clues.

 

Now Charlie raised a large carving knife in his meaty, oversized hand.  “Is that how it is neighbor?  I have nothing to do with dog.  Why accuse me?”

 

Henry felt uneasy but remained seated.  “Easy there, Chuck.  No one accused you—“

 

But the giant didn't let him finish.  “I am busy carving meat for business, and then interrupted by two crazy bitches who call me murderer!  Can you believe?  Me?  Murderer?”  He raised both hands high in the air to stress his lack of comprehension.  The knife dripped red droplets onto the floor, and his once white smock looked like it had been soaked in a vat of pig blood.

 

Feeling bold, Henry said, "Of course not.  I would never envision a murderer as tall, strong and covered in blood while holding a huge knife."

Charlie pointed the knife at Henry and took a step forward but came up short when a loud bark announced the arrival of a vicious new dog.  It ran with purpose into the apartment and homed in on the corpse of the dead dog.  Without pausing, the new arrival picked the body up by the scruff of its neck and shook it violently.

 

“My God, is that a pitbull?” Henry asked.  “Julius, I don’t know if—“

 

The new dog screamed in pain as Charlie landed a kick square in its gut.  The large dog dropped the smaller one and turned now on the butcher.

 

“What you doing?  Get out of here, animal.” Charlie commanded.  The dog bared its teeth and growled menacingly.  The knife danced in Charlie's hand, ready for a fight.

 

Henry and Nancy removed their feet from the coffee table and leaned forward on the love seat.  Their faces showed calm concern, but they remained quiet.  Julius stood beside them, also in silence.

 

The dog lunged first but met with the knife.  Charlie struck it in the side and sent the dog flying towards the couch where Henry and Nancy sat in alternating horror and amazement.

 

The butcher turned to leave, but the pitbull grabbed his calf and bit down hard.  The giant man twisted as he fell, and the dog jumped on top and lunged for his throat.  Charlie swung the knife again and plunged it deep into the belly of his attacker who recoiled violently.  The dog stumbled off of Charlie and fell to the floor.  Charlie did not stir, and Henry noticed a fleshy mass of red in the dog’s limp jaws.  The apartment fell silent.

 

“Simon!” a woman’s voice searched from the hallway.  “Simon!”

 

A gray-haired lady shuffled by.  She did a double-take when she saw the carnage just inside the open door.  Two pools of red had formed and mingled on the hardwood floor.

 

The old lady turned and shuffled in, her eyes pinned to the two lumps of fur laying motionless on the floor.  “Simon?  And...Poodles?  What—Why are—but, Poodles, I left you in the dumpster.  How did you get up here, silly puppy?”

 

The lady rubbed her hands together nervously then caressed an embroidered Labrador which smiled playfully from the front of her gaudy sweater.  For the first time, she noticed the huge body of the butcher.

 

“Oh no, Simon!  Simon, what have you done?  First poor little Poodles and now this?  That’s a bad dog!  Bad dog!”  She wagged her finger angrily at the still pitbull.  “I can’t keep hiding your no-nos for you.  What am I going to do now?  They’re going to take you and all your brothers and sisters away from me.  Is that what you want, Simon?  Oh, Poodles.”

 

Julius spoke up, and his voice cracked.  “These are your dogs?  You crazy old woman, look what they’ve done!”

 

The woman started at the sound of another human's voice but quickly collected herself.  She addressed the dead dogs again.  “No, Poodles is a good dog.  Aren't you, boy?  Poodles is a good boy, and Simon doesn’t mean to be bad.  You just get excited, don't you?”

 

“Excited?” Julius stammered.  “Your dog killed a man!  What other killer animals do you have in that apartment of yours?  I’m calling the cops.”

 

As Julius moved towards the phone, Henry and Nancy – now quite enraptured by the goings on in their condo – clapped encouragingly for their son.  "You tell that old crone what-for," Nancy added.

 

Julius delicately stepped over Poodles and made to pass by the grieving dog owner.  She produced a small black device from somewhere and shoved it hard into his side.  Julius convulsed as the tazer filled his body with angry electrons, and he dropped to the floor.

 

“Jesus, what level does she have that thing set to?” joked Henry from the couch.  He checked his watch to make sure they weren’t going to miss their taxi.

 

The old lady hovered consolingly over her two dead dogs, seemingly oblivious of Henry and Nancy.  The distant clicking of shoes broke the momentary calm, followed by a woman's pleading voice.  “Please don’t do this!"  The speaker stopped just outside the door.

 

The dreadlocked Elaine entered once again, and this time she held a large pistol at arm's length.  Rachel followed close behind; she looked mortified.

 

Elaine's eyes flew to the newest dog corpse.  “I knew it!  You bastards killed another one!”  The gun flailed around wildly as she gestured first at Henry and Nancy, then at the dog Simon.

 

Rachel saw the pitbull and lost her timidity.  She rushed to its side.  “Oh, you poor thing.”  The small woman caressed the bloody fur, and her hands found the hilt of the knife.  She grasped and pulled at the knife.  It released from the body with a sickening slurping noise.

 

The dog came to life, squirming and howling in pain.  In one swift movement its head lifted, the jaws opened, and sharp teeth ripped out the throat of the woman kneeling next to it.  Rachel didn’t have time to scream.  The dog slumped back to the floor, and Rachel’s body landed silently on top of it.

 

Elaine compensated for Rachel’s silence.  A blood-curdling cry filled the room, causing Henry and Nancy to cringe and rush to cover their ears.

 

“No, Simon!  I said no!”  The dog lady rushed over and rapped the now dead pitbull on the head.  “Bad dog!”

 

Elaine lifted the pistol and pointed it at the dog lady.  “Is that your dog?  What did it— It killed her!  It killed my Rachel.”  Tears erupted from Elaine’s eyes, but she managed to hold the gun steady.  “It killed my Rachel, and I never even told her I loved her.  I never got to tell her!”

 

Through blinding tears and bobbing dreadlocks, Elaine moved towards the cowering dog lady who begged for her life.  "Please, I have so many babies waiting for me.  If I die, who will--"

 

With no further warning, Elaine pulled the trigger, then she pulled it again.  Both shots hit their target, piercing the crocheted labrador's chipper face.  His smile continued unabated as blood poured out of him and the old woman fell to the floor.

 

“Jeeze, those blanks are loud.” Henry shouted over Elaine’s renewed sobbing.  Nancy held her fingers to her ears and nodded.  Her patience wore thin.

A low, guttural sound rose from one of the bodies, and everyone turned to determine the source.  Tiny Rachel twisted slowly where she lay.  Her mouth opened, trying to push words through the mutilated throat.  "Elaine I..." she managed with one breath, then sucked in painfully for the next, "...love you too."

 

Her head fell, and Rachel took no further breaths.  On the couch, Nancy sniffed back real tears and grabbed for a tissue.  Henry rolled his eyes.

 

"Rachel?" Elaine dropped the gun and rushed towards her unrequited lover.  In her haste, she hopped carelessly over the body of Poodles and landed in the large puddle of blood.   Her foot skidded on the slick floor and she tried to catch herself, but her second foot came down awkwardly on Simon's outstretched legs.  Elaine toppled forward towards the coffee table, and her head smacked the sharp, metal corner convincingly.  She lay where she fell -- on Rachel's body, -- and blood poured from the wound, enlarging the already considerable pool on the floor.

 

Nancy scowled at the mess in front of her, but she shook it off.  Julius would clean up afterwards; he was a good boy.

 

Seconds passed.  Nancy and Henry waited patiently.  Two minutes went by with no further movement.  Henry became impatient.  "Well, I guess that's it then," he said, and he rose from the loveseat.

 

Nancy stood as well and joined her husband in a round of applause.  "Bravo!  Bravo!"

 

The applause died out, and silence returned.  Henry checked his watch and saw they had a few minutes more before the taxi arrived.  "Good timing," he said.  "Let's see if I caught all that, then: The first dog--"

 

"Poodles," Nancy helped.

 

"Yes, Poodles," Henry continued.  "Poodles was killed by the pitbull looking one."

 

"Simon."

 

"And the crazy dog lady -- did we ever get her name?"

 

"No, I don't believe we did."

 

"Okay, so the dog lady covered up for the pitbull--"

 

"Simon."

 

"And the lesbians--"

"Rachel and Elaine, I believe."

 

"--accused us and then Charlie for the murder of the dog.  How in the world did our neighbor get involved in this little performance, by the way?"

 

"I don't know," Nancy said, "but I think he was the sanest, most innocent of the bunch.  Except for Poodles, I suppose."

 

Before Henry could continue, they heard the crying of a young woman accompanied by the sound of something heavy being dragged or scraped.  Husband and wife stayed standing while they awaited the exaggeratedly slow approach of whoever it was.

 

"I thought everyone was dead and all strings tied up.  Are we missing someone?"  Henry began counting bodies and performing a tally in his head.

 

Soft sobbing sounded right outside the door now, and as they watched, a bloody hand wrapped around the door frame.  The silhouette of a woman peeked into the apartment from whence she had heard gunshots and screaming minutes earlier.

 

Henry and Nancy felt ill as the slight woman stumbled through the door and slid along the wall of the entranceway.  She was bruised, beaten and completely naked.  Blood soaked her hair and entire body.

 

Henry reached over and took his wife's hand. They stared with mouths agape and took in the sight of the battered woman.  Through all the blood, Henry saw darker curved lines spread across the woman's body.  He gasped as he realized they were open wounds, as from a knife.

 

 The woman dragged herself along the wall to the end of the entranceway and scanned the scene.  Her face held terror and fury at the same time.  When she saw the butcher on the floor, the terror evaporated and only anger remained.

 

With some effort, the tiny, dying woman pushed away from the wall and stood over the body of the butcher.  She opened her mouth and the most horrific, ghostly voice erupted from her.  "You son of a bitch!  You bastard!  This is all that's left of my husband!"

 

The woman threw something small at Charlie's body.  As it bounced off into a pool of blood, Henry and Nancy saw the severed finger, still encircled by a silver band.  They shivered visibly.

 

The woman dropped to her knees and pounded weakly on the butcher's chest.  "You bastard!  You bastard.  You bastard."  Barely comprehensible now, the woman's blows subsided, and she collapsed beside her tormentor.

 

Henry and Nancy remained standing, hand in hand.  Neither spoke for a full minute, soaking in the numbing finale of a brutal sequence of events.  Finally, Henry shook himself out of his reverie.

 

"Well," he said, dropping Nancy's hand and feeling a bit foolish.  He clapped, and Nancy joined him a second time, though the applause was considerably more reserved.

 

Nancy found her voice and addressed her son who lay face down in front of them.  "Julius, that was disturbing but amazing.  I've never seen anything like it."

 

Henry mumbled something in agreement before glancing at his watch and regaining his composure.

 

"Crap!  The taxi's probably waiting downstairs."  He hurried over to the suitcases and grabbed their handles.  "We've got to go."

 

Henry wheeled the cases a few feet until he was blocked by the corpse of the dog lady.  She remained in character, unmoving.  Only slightly annoyed, Henry hefted one suitcase and carried it over the bodies to the entrance hall before returning for the second.

 

"Jeeze, look at all the blood," he scowled.  "Come on, hon.  We've gotta book it."

 

Henry helped Nancy over the mess.  They said their goodbyes over their shoulders as they fled the apartment.

 

"Goodbye, sweetie!  Be sure to clean up after yourselves.  We love you."

 

"Yeah, and lock up when you leave.  We'll call you when we get home."

 

Out in the hallway, Henry tripped over a small basket.  He cursed as he regained his balance and kicked at the object in his way.

 

"Now what?" he grumbled.

 

Nancy stooped down and righted the wicker basket.  It held a bottle of sunscreen, two pairs of cheap sunglasses, a couple bottles of water, two plastic leis and a hand-held fan which doubled as a water mister.  Shredded paper and plastic sea shells filled the base of the basket.

 

Nancy removed a card taped to the handle and read aloud, "Mom and Dad, happy 30th anniversary.  I hope these will help on the fabulous isle of Maui.  Love, Julius."  She grasped the card to her chest.  "Oh, Henry.  How sweet!"

 

Henry scrunched his eyebrows.  "That's not like him to do a performance and get us something else."

 

Nancy turned to rush back into the condo and give her son a hug, but Henry grabbed her hand.  "We've gotta go, sweetie."

 

"I know," she agreed.  She called back into the apartment, "Julius, thank you so much!  For everything.  I love you!"

 

Husband and wife headed hastily toward the bank of elevators, luggage in tow.  They trailed streaks of red onto the elevator and all the way to the lobby.

 

Once settled into the taxi, they looked at each other with the same thing on their minds.

 

"My son is so talented," Nancy said.

 

The taxi driver pulled out of the condo parking lot and onto the main road.

 

"Your son?"  Henry smiled, then contemplated, "I really wonder how they made all that violence look so darned real."

 

"Reality's subjective.  I thought the color of the blood was all wrong.  And that gun sounded like a cheap cap gun."

 

Traffic stopped abruptly as an ambulance sounded its way through an intersection ahead.

 

"Well, now we can look forward to some real reality on a real beach. What a great start to our vacation."

 

Traffic started back up for a moment then stalled again as a line of police cruisers screamed past the stopped cars, headed in the opposite direction.

 

"I agree.  I just hope Julius and his friends clean up quickly.  The last thing I want is to have to deal with a bloody mess when we get home."