“Hold on, I gotta see why this ad isn’t posting.” Jade said, her blue eyes darting back and forth behind the laptop screen. Her soft brown hair was tucked behind one ear, she wore the northface pull-over/ripped jeans uniform which pervaded the campus. Jess stood by the dorm door dressed in a DIY giant chicken costume as a reference to a brief gag on the pilot episode of “American Family”. After two years of syndication and record-high DVD sales, AF was coming back from the dead. An impromptu party was planned at the student center for the premiere. Jess knew it wasn’t a costume party.
“Come on! It’s gonna be packed in there and if I have to sit on the floor, I don’t know if I can get back up in this thing!” Jess fluffed the yellow feathers on her bustle and straightened her visor-beak. Jade’s typing intensified.
“Gimme a sec, then we’ll shake a tail feather!” Jade winked at Jess, who shook her tail in response. “Oh, here it is! It was in my spam folder. Duh!” Jess looked over her shoulder.
“What’s Drake’s List?”
“It’s like classifieds in the paper. I need to find a home for that cat we found. HA is not going to be happy about the scratch marks all over the bedposts.”
“Yeah, well some of those are from when your French boyfriend came to visit.” Jess shooed Jade’s hand away from the mouse and made a few clicks. “There! Posted. Let’s go already!” She closed the laptop for Jade, who indulged her wacky friend and followed her to the party.
Thoo-wick. The sound of a condom being removed after sex was becoming a familiar relief, almost as satisfying as the orgasm. Jess stumbled to the bathroom and felt around for the light switch. Geometric bursts of purple light bloomed before her eyes as she sat down to pee, breathing heavy. The blunt they smoked before sex had plunged her head into that fuzzy state which made it so much easier to disconnect her mind from her body and relieve stress with a casual stranger. Alcohol was never really Jess’s jam, so rather than suffer through a bar scenario, she had taken to Drake’s List for some anonymous sex. It made dating as easy as ordering a pizza. She knew it was dangerous.
Jess pulled on her clothes in the dark bedroom and went in the living room as her date was lighting up the other half of the blunt with a small pink bic. He was a fit, black, 40-something retired Army vet with tattoos covering his muscular arms only to the half-sleeve. Jess thought they looked nice with his chestnut brown skin. She sat next to him on the couch and took a hit off the blunt. Her date lived alone in a house in northeast DC, had picked her up in a shiny red Mustang, and maintained a sedate demeanor which put her at ease.
“Wanna watch something?” He asked as he flipped through the guide on the plasma screen tv, which took up most of the room.
“What time is it? Is ‘American Family’ on?” Jess asked while blowing smoke rings.
“Usually.” He clicked on the TvFlix icon on the remote. “American Family” was the first show under “Continue Watching”.
“You like that show?” Jess asked as she inched closer to him on the couch.
“I watch it all the time.” He puffed the blunt, scrolled through the episodes, which all had a full red bar on the gray timeline. Jess leaned her head on his shoulder, he didn’t seem to notice.
“Can you do the voices?” Jess’s face was beginning to brighten. She brushed her fingertips over his as she took the blunt.
“Nah, it’s mostly background noise.” He had a far-off look in his caramel-colored half-lidded eyes. Jess studied his distant expression and saw the walls he built up around some long-repressed trauma.
“I get it.” She leaned her head against his chest, her ear to his heart. He picked one of her favorite episodes. “Did you know the network still won’t air this one on TV? There was an uproar over the abortion joke.”
“Abortion isn’t funny.” He responded. Jess moved the small gold cross out from under her ear so she could get closer to the center of his chest.
“No, it’s not. But it was a good joke.” She handed the end of the blunt back to him. “Here it is…”
INT. – COMEDY CLUB – HANNAH’S FIRST OPEN MIC – NIGHT
Hannah Foster, a short, chubby teenage girl with pink hair stands in front of a brick wall, holding a mic. She clears her throat.
My parents, they didn’t want a girl… They wanted an abortion.
Jess studied her date’s reaction to the joke. Nothing seemed to elicit any kind of emotional response from him.
“Pretty good joke.” He admitted, stubbing the end of the blunt out in the black marble ashtray on the glass coffee table.
“Yeah but then…”
(from the back of the room)
Take it off!
Her date emitted an amused “hmmph”. Jess felt satisfied with that reaction and cuddled closer to him. He put an awkward arm around her shoulder.
“So that’s the dude you like, huh?” He said, indicating Tony, who was a caricature of several Friar’s club members.
“Not really.” Jess closed her eyes, started to drift off.
“What do you like?” He asked.
She was already asleep.
Henry avoided eye contact with anyone who crossed his path as he walked towards his office in Coyote Studios. Monday mornings were never his “jam”, but in the three weeks since he missed that plane crash in Las Vegas, things had taken an ominous turn for the worse. Assistants used to light up with glee at his approach, then scurry away in self-conscious abdication. The fresh faces of the interns who looked up to him made coming to work a joyous effort. Almost a month of being greeted by hollow, pitying expressions began to dampen Henry’s enthusiasm. Haunted by what could have happened, he felt dead already, rotting from the inside out and everyone could smell him. Extra-long showers were starting to dry out his skin.
Unable to reach an itch between his shoulder blades, Henry stopped in the doorway of his office to use the frame as a scratching post. He rubbed his back on the frame, emitting soft, rumbling growls of pleasure.
“Come on in! My nails just love to scratch!” Said a bright voice that made his heart leap into his throat. Henry gasped, turned to see a woman sitting at his desk, typing at a furious pace. It was Lucy. Or was it? Her blonde hair was now jet black, straight and pulled back in a tight bun. Black framed glasses perched on the tip of her nose, she sat in his chair, ankles crossed. She was wearing an elegant black business suit with a white collared shirt, pencil skirt and patent leather oxford pumps. Her cheekbones appeared sharper, her chin had a new edge, her jawline had a more severe definition. She appeared to either have gotten plastic surgery or she was in some kind of latex plaster cast makeup. Henry couldn’t fathom why she would want to change anything about her face. Those bright green eyes were the same as he remembered. They darted over the screen, devouring the words.
“Lucy! Wow, I never thought I’d see you again!” Henry was too excited to see her for all of the strangeness of the situation to register. He hadn’t seen or heard from her since before the plane crash.
“My name is Lillian, Mr. O’Connor. I’m your new assistant.” Lillian didn’t look up from the screen as Henry approached the desk, arms slightly outstretched as if he expected a hug.
“What happened to Lydia?” Henry asked, his arms falling to his sides.
“Well, she was 95.”
“Aw… She was like a grandmother to me!”
“Grandmothers are lovely, but you need an assistant who knows what an email is. The studio sent me down to sort out your file horde. You have squirreled away some excellent content here…” A hungry smile grew on her pretty pink lips. Henry was starting to get annoyed.
“Wait just a second here, I’m supposed to get a say in who works for me!” He took out his phone and looked for his agent’s number in the contacts. Slick as a viper and twice as quick, she slinked across the room and leaned within range of his coffee breath. Their lips almost touched just before she snatched the phone out of his hand.
“You can have a say or you can have a job, Mr. O’Connor. The Studio has some concerns about your recent productivity. We understand there was an incident in Las Vegas?” Lillian raised an admonishing eyebrow.
“You would know.” Henry wasn’t falling for this ruse. He knew this girl was too good to be true and now she was out to make his life a living hell.
“I know everything…” Her bright green eyes consumed his gaze. Henry twitched, but stood his ground.
“I’m not gonna stand here and be blackmailed by some fame-hungry fan girl. Now, if you want a job, you have to apply to the internship program like the rest of…” He was cut off by her piercing peel of laughter.
“Don’t be silly, Mr. O’Connor! I’m here to help…” Every word was swathed in a thinly veiled threat. Lillian sat down at his computer and continued to type. Henry could see she was deep into his password protected files. “You have been sitting on some excellent scripts, I think season 12 is going to break all previous ratings…”
“Thank you… Wait, no! They know I’m done after 11. I have to do something else with my life, something that… means something to somebody! Jesus, I haven’t had enough coffee for this conversation. What am I saying? Get your paws offa my keyboard, I don’t like people touching my stuff!” Henry was about to touch the back of her hand when she raised one dark red fingernail.
“I wouldn’t do that before you see this…” Lillian clicked on a photo file titled topsecret.jpg. Soft golden light filled Henry’s face. His expression sank.
“What do you want from me?”
“I want you to live up to your potential.” She stood up and started inching closer to his face. “Do you have any idea how valuable your voice is? What you do is essential to the survival of the human race. Comedy helps us evolve. Without the antisepsis of innovation, our collective culture becomes a fetid mud puddle, rotting on an insignificant speck of existence, hurtling through space. Your subversive commentary challenges belief structures, keeps fresh memes flowing through our consciousness, helps us understand our narrow view of the universe and survive!” All flashing eyes and ranting movements, she was beautiful in her fury. He was mesmerized. They were standing so close, he could feel her hot breath on his lips.
“They’re just cartoons…” Henry whimpered.
“That is exactly the type of attitude We are here to combat. You’re getting lost up your own asshole, Henry. We are saving you from self-destruction. Anyway, its not like you have a choice. This is happening. You will just have to trust that We have your best interests at heart.” A deranged Cheshire-cat smile curled on her lips. His throat clicked.
“So, uh… If you’re my assistant, can you get me some coffee?” Henry tried to break the tension with an attempt at a joke.
“I can tell by your breath you’ve had plenty. I’ll send one of the interns for a green tea.” Lillian gathered up some files on his miraculously clean desk and headed for the door. “Don’t worry, Henry. We’re gonna get along just fine… If ya don’t fuck up!” She winked and closed the door behind her. Henry sat in his desk chair, leaning back from the huge tent in his pants.
“What a cunt.” Henry muttered. He searched his top desk drawer for a tiny airplane bottle of Maker’s Mark that he kept in case of a zombie apocalypse… or a really bad Tuesday. It burned like a smooth, cleansing fire all the way down to his empty stomach. His heart stopped pounding and his breathing slowed. He put his elbows on the desk and rubbed his eyes.
“Where’s the girl who was handing out shoulder rubs and blowjobs like there was no tomorrow?” Bruce asked, speaking through Henry.
“Lillian ate her.” Charlie responded.
“Hey, wake up.” A gentle hand patted Jess’s shoulder. Startled awake, she looked around at the unfamiliar surroundings for a panicked few seconds before she remembered. Her date went to the fridge and got out two Gatorade bottles, one red, one blue. Jess took the blue. “You said you had to be at work at 11, I’ll drop you at the metro.”
“Thanks.” Jess said, drinking down about half the blue liquid. He drove her to the metro stop in the shiny red Mustang, both staring off into different memories. Jess got out of the car. She was about to leave without another word.
“Have a good night.” He said before she closed the door.
“You too… Sorry, what was your name again?”
“Right, thanks again, Trevor.” Jess headed for the metro and never saw him again. She didn’t tell him was her 26th birthday.