Shock 'Til You Drop
Written and illustrated by Pauli Kohberger
Alice Lang clung to the pole, pale and unsteady. She was already feeling sick from stress, and the rocking motions of the bus weren't helping at all. What was the staff going to do if she showed up looking like this? Would they have to cancel the show? Maybe they'd have another contestant lined up, and she could just come back some other day...no, she thought, they'd have to change their whole schedule around for that, and she wasn't worth the fuss.
She took a deep breath and held it tight in her chest, her eyes staring out one of the grimy windows. Better to just calm down. You don't want to look sick, she told herself, not on your big day.
The bus rounded a turn and began its slow climb up the ramp that led to the highest tier of the city. Electricopolis was a city built in layers: the maintenance tier below, the residential stages above, and, up top, the commerce and entertainment district. Like a wedding cake, each level was roughly ring-shaped and smaller than the one below. Alice herself lived in a little rowhome squarely in the most middling part of town. She had often traveled up top to press her face against the windows and drink in the lights and sound, but tonight she gripped the pole as if it were her first time away from home.
As the bus bumped its way up over the top of the ramp, light flooded into the bus. About a hundred feet away, some of the television studios towered high into the air, their sides covered with huge screens that blazed commercials into the black sky. Billboards jutted out into the center plaza, and one of them displayed THE LIGHT OF YOUR LIFE: TOP TIER ELECTRIC CO. before shifting to a cosmetics advertisement. A little closer, she could see the storefront windows and their clean, bright interiors, all white walls and glass.
The bus groaned to a halt about ten feet into the plaza. Alice and one or two other people stepped out onto the stones, and it turned right around and headed back down to the darkness it came from.
She clutched the rumpled set of directions in her fist, though she'd memorized them anyway. She began the trek to the buildings on the other side of the square, weaving through crowded sidewalks until she found the studio she needed. She barely had time to show her confirmation before someone grabbed her hand and yanked her inside.
As she was rushed down the hall, she struggled to make herself heard. "Excuse me," she said nervously, tottering down the corridor as the production assistants pushed her forward. "Can I just--I mean, may I just--"
"Sorry, but we're running a little behind," a tall, nosy lady sighed, tugging at Alice's hair with a stiff-bristled brush. "Takes and retakes, that sort of thing."
"But we can fit you in. Not that way," another person scolded, grabbing Alice's arm and sternly pulling her back in the group. "That's the way to the green room. You were there last time, weren't you?"
"Please!" she cried, pressing her hands to her face. "I can hardly tell where I'm going!"
"Hey, hey!" came a loud, piercing voice. "What's going on over here?"
The world slowed to a stop. The production assistants froze, their heads turning as one towards a broad, outlandish-looking man. His suit burned neon green and yellow, and her eyes almost hurt to look at it. "Give the little lady a break. She's not supposed to have a heart attack until after she wins," he chuckled. He leaned forward a little, craning, his long nose poking into Alice's space insistently as he busied his hands with straightening and smoothing his tie. It was cut in the shape of a lightning bolt.
Alice's mouth opened and closed like a fish. "Um...um," she stammered, holding out her hand awkwardly. "You must be, ah, the host...right?" This is wonderful, it's an honor to meet you, I'm a big fan, she thought, but the words died of nervousness before they reached her mouth. "Mister, Mister Sparker?"
"The one and only. Bob Sparker!" He laughed, sharp and high. "And, let's see...Miss Lang! Welcome, glad to have you!" The host made a movement as if he were going to seize her hand, then paused. For a moment she felt his gaze flash up and down, and then he took her hand with a restrained, delicate motion. "It's a pleasure to have you on the show. Ah, gimme a minute--"
He brought his arm back up and smoothly tossed it around the shoulder of a passing staff member. In hushed voices they started to talk, Bob's restless hands moving near his mouth. She caught half of something that sounded like "screening process" and before they could get any further, she raised up her voice over the din and chatter. "Excuse me!"
Bob turned his head to look at her over his shoulder, eyebrows raised. Alice continued, trying not to feel too embarrassed. "Mr. Sparker, I, um...I'm ready," she said, holding up her crumpled confirmation. "I've signed all the papers, and--" She felt her voice catch in her throat, and coughed it out. "I'm ready!"
A flash of skepticism passed over the host's pale face, but he discarded it with a shrug of his shoulders. "She says she's ready, then she's ready," he said. "All right, everyone, let's get out there and put on a show!"
He waved his arm. A small ocean of people grabbed Alice and sped her along the corridors, ejecting her out onto the stage. She squinted into the limelight, trying to force her eyes to adjust as the live studio audience cheered at the tops of their lungs. Vaguely, as if from a distance away, she heard the announcer:
"What time is it? That's right! It's time for Electricopolis' first and finest endurance show!" Alice could practically see the opening montage in her head, she'd watched it so many times. "Which one of our lucky contestants will win the cash prize, the stunning vacation, or the fabulous new car? Stay tuned for the one, the only--Shock 'Til You Drop!"
A fountain of lime-colored sparks cascaded down from all sides, showering the stage as the audience roared. Alice clapped politely and turned to see Bob Sparker run onto the stage and shake her hand before giving a brief bow to the audience. As he stood back up, he tugged at his tie and motioned for the audience to settle down.
"Good evening, Electricopolis! Gorgeous night tonight, ain't it?" The audience's cheering bubbled into laughter. Of course it was a gorgeous night: it was never anything else. "Brought to you, as always," Bob appended, "by Mr. Percy King and his fabulous Top Tier Electric Company. Long live the King, am I right?" Another cheer.
"For those of you just joining us, here's how it works," Sparker said, striding over to the electric chair bolted to the middle of the stage. It was brightly decorated with bulbous lights around the base, and it had bright green and purple straps to match the rest of the show's decor. "This baby is the star of the show!" he said, patting it affectionately. "We strap in one of our contestants and fire her up. The shocks start out low, and the higher the voltage, the higher you win!"
While he was talking, he sat down in the chair. "And it's all real, too," he said, grinning devilishly. "I can prove it!"
There was the chunk of a breaker being thrown and Bob gripped the arms of the chair. Electricity crackled across his body as the bulbs on the base lit up all the way around, from yellow to orange to red. Alice had seen the show enough times to know how dangerous the shocks could get: almost nobody made it that far, and would settle for a cash consolation prize rather than subject themselves to the full gauntlet. But the host (and this was one of the great mysteries of the town) drank it in at the beginning of every show.
"Aaahhhhh ha!" he shrieked, leaping out of the contraption as it powered down. With a whirl he stood on the electric chair, his head thrown back and his back arched hard. "See, everyone? Not so bad at all! You know, years of doing that's made my hair turn white!" He let out a laugh--more of a cackle--and tossed his head, sending sparks flying off his hair. "Enough about that, let's get this show on the road! Come on down, Alice Lang," he boomed, thrusting his hand out towards her. "Let's take you for a ride!"
He helped Alice into the chair as several attractive-looking assistants came forward to strap her in. It was, no contest, the most nerve-wracking experience of her life. Not only was she being strapped into a chair that was a few volts shy of a death machine, but it was being recorded in front of a live studio audience, and broadcasted later for the whole city to see. She clenched her fists tightly. As the assistants tightened the straps around her arms and legs, she felt a bead of sweat roll down her forehead.
"Miss Alice Lang, everybody! Let's give her a warm welcome." There was a small rumble of cheers from the crowd, and the host casually sat down on an arm of the chair. "Tell us a little bit about yourself, Alice, why don't you?" Before she even had the chance to panic, he dropped her a line: "What do you do for a living?"
"Oh..." She flexed her thin fingers nervously. "Actually, I'm...kind of between jobs right now."
"Aren't we all!" Bob exclaimed, and a burst of cheer erupted from the audience. "And what would you liketo do for a living, sweetheart?"
"Well," she said, "I think I'd like to be on your show."
"You already are!" he laughed. "Or do you mean behind the scenes?" She gave a nod, and he threw his hands up, bringing another shower of applause into the air. "Well, isn't that a first! A contestant with the noble aim of being one of my cast and crew! Well, keep it a secret from the producers," he said, leaning in and stage-whispering to her, "but maybe we can work something out! Now...are you ready, Miss Lang?"
"She says she's ready, folks!" Bob shouted, and was met with an incredible cheer from the audience. "Let's start her off gentle! You know the countdown! Three, two, one..."
Alice tensed before the shock hit. It wasn't nearly as terrible as she'd anticipated; she figured the first one wasn't going to be much of a problem, but she'd still never felt anything like it before, and wasn't entirely sure what to expect. It was a zap that flashed through her body, like having a rubber band snapped all over her skin. It faded almost before she even registered it.
"How are you feeling, little lady?" the host drawled, leaning casually against the electric chair. "That wasn't so bad, was it?" Alice shook her head. "Good, good. I'd be really worried if you couldn't handle it already. And look what you've won, just by putting up with a little zap!" Alice turned her head to see him produce a small wad of cash out of his jacket, fanning them out with a flick of his wrist. "A cool three hundred dollars. Now, you can either take the cash and step off, or you can hang in there for the other seven prizes. I see that look in your eyes! You want to take it all the way, don't you?" Another nod. "Atta girl!"
The audience gave a polite, obligatory cheer. Things didn't get exciting until later. "Now for the next one. Get ready in three, two, one..."
There were eight levels of shock. Alice gripped the arms of the electric chair, setting her jaw tightly before each jolt flashed through her body, counting them down one by one. The prizes were negligible, and she turned them down almost before she even knew what they were: a washing machine, a refrigerator, a new wardrobe filled to the brim with designer clothes...
Alice's eyes snapped open and she sucked in a breath of air. She twisted, her fingernails digging curved marks into the wood of the chair, clinging to the arms with a grip she didn't know she was capable of. She could hear Bob's voice drift in and out through a haze of staticky, distant cheering. It was hard to hear him over the forceful panting of her own breath, but she strained.
"Number five! I cannot be-lieve it, folks!" She blinked away the fog in front of her eyes and looked up, her lips creaking into a smile. "She's almost into the Big Three!" Bob reached over to pat her shoulder. "Now, Alice, are you going to take your winnings and head back on home, or are you going to fight the good fight and shoot for the grand prize?"
She caught her breath before giving another automatic nod. "I'm--I want to go for the grand prize," she said, stumbling over the words.
"The grand prize, eh? Well, for those of you who are just tuning in," Bob said, turning back around to the cameras, "here's how our grand prize works. If Alice gets all the way to the end, and we do mean all the way, she can have her pick of one of these three fabulous prizes!" He turned around to gesture at some screen at the back of the stage where the prizes were being displayed. With the way she was sitting, Alice couldn't see them directly, but there was an angled mirror at the top of the stage expressly for that purpose. She tried not to look at it, but found her eyes drifting towards it for lack of anything better to focus on.
"A cash prize of a cool million dollars!" One of the attractive female assistants opened a briefcase full of money, showing it to the crowd. "Or maybe a fabulous new car! I've got 32--you can have one of my spares!" There was raucous laughter, even if the audience had heard the joke a billion times before. "Or...an all-expenses paid vacation!" he said, and the audience howled even harder. The vacation was a gag. Electricopolis was in the middle of a barren valley: where else was there to go?
"So!" he said, leaning over the arm of the chair. "Whaddaya think, little miss Lang? Wanna go for the gold, or go home with your winnings? Five hundred thousand's nothing to sneeze at!"
"No...no, thank you," she whispered, shaking her head. Bob gave her a little nudge and motioned with his hand, prompting her to speak up. "No, thank you...I'd like to go further," she said in as strong a voice as she could muster. It cracked, but he gave a very dignified nod and politely ignored it.
He turned back to the crowd and took a few steps forward, affecting a rather serious air. He swept his hat off his head and held it to his chest, extending a long arm towards the electric chair. "Lookit that, folks," he said somberly. "What a brave little lady we have here tonight! A working girl, come all the way up from the dark depths of the second tier, her heart set on one of our three grand prizes. A real rags to riches story, and I think she can do it!" he cried out, pointing emphatically at Alice's figure in the chair. "What about you, everybody? Do you think she can do it?"
The crowd nearly leapt out of their seats, and lights flashed all over the arena like confetti. Somewhere in the back of her mind, Alice knew that the theatrics were a necessity, to pad out the half-hour of screentime she knew they had to fill, but it didn't matter...
"How about it?" She gave a little start as she felt Bob's hand, cool and dry, over her own. She looked up to see him staring straight at her with a penetrating look. When he asked "Now, are you sure about this? You're sure you want to do it?", it was with a note of concern that was lost on her entirely. She could feel the blood rushing to her head, and her lips stretched into a wide smile as she nodded.
There was the briefest pause before Bob pulled his hand away. There was a distant click.
Alice felt her body seize up, her back arch sharply and her chest thrust out, her heart beating wildly as fire danced along her nerves and crackled at the end of every vein...
Normally, when you woke up, you had to open your eyes first. But even as the world slowly came back into focus, Alice felt as if she'd been staring at the pale blue ceiling for hours. Her eyelids were forced open as far as they could go, frozen, and the muscles around her eyeballs ached.
So did everything else. She learned this when she tried to move, slowly turning one leg back and forth. It sent a dull ache along her frazzled nerves, and she eventually settled for turning her head.
She was in the hospital. There was a cabinet on the opposite wall, and a screen folded up in the corner, and it was all white--that pale electric blue came from the sign outside her window, and it cast deep shadows across the room. Someone sat in a chair not far away, their eyes glued to the floor, their foot tapping faintly against the tiles.
Alice stared blankly. It was only until the man brought his head up to look at her that she realized who he was, and everything clicked back into place. After all, he was still wearing those obnoxiously colored green pants, but he had taken off his hat and jacket and set them on the table. He looks smaller without his suit, she thought, blinking in mild surprise.
Bob opened his mouth as if to say something, then closed it, then opened it again. "Hey." The word dropped to the floor with a dull thud.
"Listen," he followed. "I'm glad you're awake."
Alice didn't say anything. She was surprised that Sparker was even here. The host started to rub at the back of his neck nervously, and she heard the faint hiss of breath through his teeth. "We're going to...we're prepared to take full responsibility for this," he said. "The hospital, treatments, settlement costs, everything. It'll all be paid out by the end of the week. We'll have someone come over to your house to go over the details, okay?"
"What about the show?" she asked, and found her voice hoarse and scratchy.
"Will it be okay?"
"The filming?" He shook his head, and his foot began to drum nervously against the floor. He was leaning forward, his elbows on his knees. The light carved deep shadows under his eyes, and all Alice could think of was how drained he looked when things hadn't gone as he'd expected. "I mean, we have more contestants lined up. We'll be a little bit behind schedule, but we usually record several episodes a week anyway. One episode is nothing..." He looked up at her. "Why'd you come on the show?"
"I mean, you've watched it before, right?" Bob asked quickly. It was the first sign of vitality she'd seen from him since waking up. "You know the shocks can get pretty bad. How did you get past the screening process?" he puzzled, sitting up in his chair and crossing one leg over the other. "The crew's supposed to check for this sort of thing. I don't get it."
"One of my cousins..." Alice reached up to feel her throat with a pale hand, grimacing a little. It felt as if the insides of her throat had been scraped with a nail file. "...works on your show. When I was chosen, she...helped me out a little bit."
"Helped you out a little bit, huh? Well, that explains a few things," Bob sighed. "Why would you go and pull a stupid stunt like that?"
There was a few seconds of emptiness, and then Alice's pale hand moved on the covers. "It won't be so bad," she insisted, pulling them away. "I'll be okay. How do I get back on? Do I make an appointment?"
"Make an app...?" Bob echoed her words. "Have you been listening? You think we're going to re-film something like that? With you in the hospital, still?"
"I've been in the hospital lots of times," she protested. "It's nothing."
"Yeah, well, you don't have to tell me twice. I've got my own room down the hall." Distantly, Alice heard the laughter of an invisible audience. "Why did you do it? Come on," he pressed, leaning forward. "You almost died on my show. The least you can do is tell me why."
When she finally spoke, her voice was small and thin. "It was kind of a joke, actually."
Bob was quiet, staring at her with his sharp eyes, and she continued. "I really like television," she explained, trying to avoid his gaze. "I didn't mention it earlier, but I'm really into color. I can't paint or anything, and I couldn't afford classes for design, so everyone said the only way I was going to get on a game show was if I was a contestant..."
"Oh!" Bob suddenly exclaimed. "So that explains it. Take the money, get classes, make all your dreams come true, right? And you just made a mistake, went a little overboard, right? Well, it happens to the best of us, believe me!" He stood up, puffing his chest out a little and looking extremely satisfied with himself, but Alice put a hand over her mouth to stifle a wheezy chuckle, and he deflated a second later. "What?"
To Alice's relief, tears began to brim at the bottom of her dry eyes. "No, no, that's not it..." Her dry, scratchy fingers passed over and around each other in an idle motion as she talked. "See, the thing is, I'm not really all that smart," she said, "not smart enough to be on a quiz show like Top Trivia. And I can't cook or dance, and I can't carry a tune, and I don't know how to race a car along the outside of town. But there's one thing I'm okay at."
She looked up at the host. "I'm really good at not dying."
He stared at her with a blank, petrified expression.
"So it's okay," she said, and a smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. "I mean, it's been everything. I almost starved, once, and dehydrated, and then I was misdiagnosed and the pharmacist filled my prescription wrong. Not to mention downed wires, bad food, tripping down a flight of stairs..." She pressed her hands to her eyes, eking out another scratchy laugh. "I guess I'm just lucky that there's a game show where the only thing you have to do--"
"No!" Bob Sparker suddenly erupted, throwing his hands up. "No, no! That's not it at all! Nobody's supposed to get hurt on my show! Well, I mean, they get hurt, sure," he sputtered, "but they don't die! I have people in charge of this!"
"Then it's okay," she repeated, tilting her head a little. "Right? I'm still here."
Bob stared at her, his eyes narrowing a little, trying to grasp something just beyond his reach. "I don't get it," he said, starting to pace in irritation. "Why use your cousin to get in if you didn't think you'd--handle it badly?"
"Because of my medical history," she said. "I thought it'd be a shame if I got turned down because of a few bad accidents."
"This is completely the point!" Bob exclaimed, sinking into the chair, exhausted. "We have those background checks for a reason. What do you think...I mean, seriously..." He pulled it back, and she could tell he was making a severe effort to hold his tongue. "All right, I'm not going to argue with you. I'm just glad you're here and not in the morgue."
He stood up from his chair and heaved a sigh, bringing up his thin arms to clasp himself in the cold air, and turned his head at the sound of distant chatter. "Oh," he mumbled. "Must be your doctor. I was wondering when he'd be back." He grabbed his clothes off of the table and pulled his coat on. It did make him look larger, and he even moved in a brisker, more businesslike, self-assured way. "So relax, all right? Once you're out we'll have someone come over to your house and talk the rest over with you. And like I said, the hospital costs--those are all taken care of."
He put his hand on the doorknob and gave it a turn, and gave Alice a dismissive wave with the other. "Listen, don't think too much, okay? Just get some rest, sweetheart."
He closed the door quietly, and the click echoed down the hall, with Alice laughing somewhere far away behind him. He drew in a breath and exhaled it in a long, slow sigh, his body bowing forward a little with the effort. "What a mess," he murmured. "What a mess."
Someone was sitting in a chair beside Alice's door, reading a newspaper. He looked up at Bob Sparker with a vague, unconcerned look, his dark eyes peering out from under heavy brows. "That's quite a conversation you had in there," he said. "How's your contestant looking?"
"Not bad, not bad." Bob tugged at his jacket and settled it into place. "She'll be okay, right, Mr. King?"
"Of course," said Percy King, bringing himself up to his full height as he folded up the newspaper and placed it under his arm. He was a broad, tall man with a neatly groomed mustache who practically towered over Bob Sparker, but had a restrained, confident, almost lazy air. "You know, I usually don't come down here when these things happen, but I figured I'd make an exception for ratings royalty."
"Thanks, Mr. King."
"Best healthcare money can buy, you know."
"I know, Mr. King."
"You ought to." The older man let out a low laugh and nudged his employee with his shoulder. "Don't let it get to you. There's a first time for everything. As a matter of fact, I think it calls for a drink. 'To Bob Sparker, and his very first brush with scandal.'"
"Hah. More like the last," said the host, his sizable nose starting to turn upwards. He puffed his chest out a little as they left the hospital corridors behind them. "Fire that cousin of hers, tighten up that screening process, make sure it never happens again!"
"That's the spirit!" Percy laughed, clapping him on the back. "Don't worry yourself about the whole unsightly mess. Besides," he added, "didn't she say herself she was a natural survivor?"