Written and illustrated by Pauli Kohberger
The first time I caught him on TV, I thought I was seeing things.
I was back in my neighborhood for the first time in weeks, up on leave from a long stint down below working on the generators. My name's Samuel Gale, Sammy for short, Sam for even shorter. I'm a junior foreman for the electric company. It's easy to miss a lot of news down there, especially the premiere of another new game show.
I saw him on the black-and-white television at the bar, tucked up above the bottles and cutting in and out. Even through the snow I could catch a glimpse of his white hair and his gangly limbs and that nose, and if that didn't clinch it, his laugh sure did. I hadn't heard that laugh in years.
"Holy shit," I breathed, holding my glass to my lips. "Robbie?"
"Who, him?" said the bartender, jerking a thumb behind him at the screen. "Bob Sparker. Top Tier's newest acquisition. Throws people in the electric chair on his show and gives 'em money afterwards. Not worth it, if you ask me."
"Bob Sparker," I repeated. "You sure that's his name?"
"Well, it's a stage name, bet you dollars to donuts," he replied. "Why, you know him?"
"Yeah, I know him, I think," I said, putting my glass down with a clink. "Old classmate of mine. Robert something or other, Bee...Bianchi, yeah. Robbie for short. Maybe not, though," I mused. "Anyone called him Bobby, he'd blow his top. Absolutely hated it."
The bartender leaned over to get a better look at the screen. On TV, Bob Sparker laughed and threw an arm out to the audience, and whether it was sparks or static coming off his fingers I couldn't tell.
He was a cute kid, number one class clown no contest, but he was annoying as hell, too. Always sticking his long nose into places it didn't belong, always trying to know everything so he could repeat it later and get it wrong. He laughed a lot, and when he laughed hard his voice pitched up into a squeak. When he laughed really hard he hacked and wheezed, and we all had a scare he was gonna end up in the hospital at least once. I don't remember if he ever did.
I was a year above him, but we lived close together, and I used to see him practically every day. I never had a younger brother, and he was the kind of kid who seemed like he'd never grow up, so I guess it made sense I stuck with him a lot.
I liked him, for the most part.
"Hey, Donny," I said, tapping on his hard hat. He looked up at me, his goggles catching the light. "You remember Robbie, right?"
"Robbie? Kid with the nose? Sure," he said. "But you know he's Bob Sparker now."
"Wait, so it is him?"
"Couldn't you tell?" Don said, turning back to the generator. There were dozens of them in the underground, all connected to different parts of town, and some of them busted more often than others. "Hoppin' around the stage like that? Couldn't be anyone else."
"I thought he hated being called Bob, though."
"Hey," Don said, shrugging. "If Top Tier gave me a primetime slot they could call me anything they want. This thing needs a new set of cables, by the way," he added. "These are all frayed to shit."
I chewed on the eraser of my pencil a little, then looked back down and noted it on my form. "Wow," I murmured. "Didn't think he'd actually make it."
Usually, on leave, I go back to my home in 2-3. That's the stage right below the top tier: 0 is the maintenance level way on the bottom, 1-1 is the residential tier right above it, then there's 1-2 and 1-3 going up, then 2-1, 2-2 and 2-3, and then just the top. It's a little confusing, but you get used to it.
You'd expect 2-3 to have a bit of money in it, and it does, in some parts. Kelly Kim the radio star lives down here, has a decently-sized house to himself tucked on the perimeter of town. I never listened to his show, but Robbie loved it--"Cowboy Kim's Radio Rodeo," that was it. He never shut up about it. I think he was even in the fan club.
That was on the outskirts, though. South of center was our neighborhood, smack in the middle of everything, and it was crowded and worn around the edges like everything else underground. We walked through alleys to get to school and played chicken with the buses, and when we had a day to spare we'd take them up to the top tier and walk around.
I didn't like it that much, but Robbie loved it. He said he went every weekend, but I doubt it. What kid had that much money to blow on bus fare?
I went back up top for the first time since eighth grade. I crowded onto the bus (the same bus, decades later, still squeaking on the same turns) and rode it up to Diamond Plaza.
It was just like I remembered, unfortunately. The light hurt my eyes, the cold stung my ears and the wind kept howling, howling, howling. How could anyone stand it?
I wandered around the plaza for a little while, watching the street performers, ordering food from the carts, sitting by the railing and staring at the rusty-red mountains against the charcoal-grey sky. I'm not sure what I expected to find.
When I went back down below, I decided to actually turn on my TV for once and watch an episode of his show. My set was only slightly better than the bar's, but it had color. Turns out I'd missed a lot of the show without color.
I grabbed a microwave dinner and plopped down to watch. Everything was bright and super-saturated and noisy, but instead of alienating me like Diamond Plaza always did, it felt familiar and even comforting. Of course his show would be on the annoying side--everything he did had always been on the annoying side. He'd never had the money to get a bright green suit, but boy, if he had, he would have worn it day in and day out.
Robbie--Bob--ran onto the stage, waving to the audience like it was a miracle he was there at all, and he bowed so low that I thought his nose would brush the ground. "Gooood evening, Electricopolis!" he called out, and his voice was a little deeper and a little grander than I'd ever expected. "Beautiful night tonight, ain't it? For those of you just joining us, here's how the show works..."
I let out a little chuckle through a mouthful of mashed potatoes. He was practically dancing on the stage, he was so excited. "We strap in one of our contestants and fire her up," he explained. "The shocks start out low, and the higher the voltage, the higher you win!"
All of a sudden he sat down in the electric chair with a twirl, bringing his legs up to drape over the arm like he was sitting sideways on a throne. "And it's all real, too," he said. "I can prove it!"
Maybe everyone else in town already knew what was going to happen, but I sure as hell didn't, and when he went stock-stiff in the chair I jumped so hard my fork clattered to the floor. There was the bzzt bzzzzt of electricity, then he cackled and jumped up like a jack-in-the-box, sending a shower of sparks off his hair and hands.
"Just like a cup of coffee!" he laughed. "Don't try this at home, though, folks--I'm a professional!"
I groped around for my fork with my eyes glued to the screen. Part of it was kind of ghastly, but he was totally in love with what he was doing. There was so much enthusiasm and charm coming off of him in waves that it was hard not to get swept up in it, even when he introduced a construction worker as his contestant and strapped him down in the chair.
"Oh, see, you've got some meat on you," he laughed, patting the man's shoulder affectionately. "You'll be fine!"
He didn't make it to the end--apparently nobody did--but he did pretty well. He went home with a few thousand dollars in his pocket, and he didn't look any the worse for wear after he was done, except for stumbling a little as he made his way off the stage.
Hell, I thought, digging my fork into my food again, I could probably do that.
He'd been yammering to the vendor about something or other, but he froze, his mouth open, and then he whipped around. He looked nervous, maybe even a little suspicious, but I guess I would be too if that happened out of nowhere.
"Hey, it's just me," I laughed, strolling up to him. "Long time no see, huh? How've you been, buddy?"
He swallowed, looked me over, and then it clicked. "Sam!" he exclaimed. "Oh, uh, hey there! Yeah, it's been years!"
"Buddy of yours?" said the vendor, glancing from him to me. "'Robbie?'"
Bob waved a hand. Maybe it was the cold white lights of the streetlamps, but he looked even paler than I remembered. "An old classmate. And just Bob is fine, really..."
I chuckled. "Really? I thought you hated being called Bob. You used to throw a fit over it in school."
"It's Bobby that I hate, not Bob," he replied.
"Oh, sorry. Who knew?." I shrugged. "Hey, are you busy right now?"
He glanced from me to the hot dog vendor, and they shrugged at each other. "Sort of," he said. "We've wrapped up filming, but I gotta head out soon. Is there, uh..."
He took a bite of his hot dog and chewed on it for a bit. His eyes flitted up to my own, held them for a second, then settled somewhere around my shoes. "Is there something you need?" he asked.
"Something I need?" I repeated. "Just to catch up with an old friend, you know how it is. Hey, gimme one of those too, will ya?" I said, turning to the vendor. "One with everything, thanks..."
Bob was still regarding me with a little bit of a cagey look. "Hey, relax," I said. "I'm not trying to borrow money or anything, if that's what you're thinking. I was just walking around, figured I'd ask how your show was doing..."
He brightened up at that. Probably he'd gotten a lot of old acquaintances trying to wheedle money or favors out of him now that he hit the big time. It'd make sense he'd be suspicious. "Oh, it's going great," he said, smiling. "Have you seen it?"
"Oh, yeah," I replied, as I took my hot dog. "I caught it on TV the other night. You're a natural, Robbie, you really own that stage."
He grinned, and I could see some color in his cheeks, too. "Thanks. But, uh, just Bob is fine. So you like the show?"
"Oh, yeah," I mumbled, through a mouthful of food. "It's pretty good stuff. Some of those contestants really make it look easy!"
Bob laughed at that, a sharp loud laugh that echoed between the buildings. "You're telling me!" he said. "Well, I'd better get going, but maybe I'll save a spot in the hot seat for you, huh?"
"Well, not that I'm asking any favors," I chuckled. "But hey, if you're offering. Say, will you be free anytime soon? I think we're way overdue for a catch-up. Maybe over a sit-down meal."
Bob thought about this, hemming and hawing, and finally he responded. "Yeah, I think I can make some time," he said slowly. "Maybe Thursday night."
"Do you listen to Cowboy Kim?"
"No," I responded.
"It's kids' stuff."
"No it's not. He had a shootout with Bankroll Bill last week," Robbie replied, sulking. "That's not kids' stuff."
I rolled my eyes. "Everything's got guns in it now, Robbie. Lay off."
"He lives on our level, you know. On the outside, near the wall," he chattered. "I wanna go visit him sometime."
"Great," I said. "Maybe he'll put you on his show."
Robbie's face lit up, and he grinned at me from ear to ear. "You think so?" he asked.
"Yeah. You can be a radio star," I said. "I keep saying you've got the face for it."
We met up on Thursday night, like he said. We grabbed a meal at a sit-down diner in the tourist district, and little by little Bob started to open up again. I asked him a lot of questions about the show, which he loved--he talked all about the process of rehearsing, costuming, recording, and how fascinating everything was. I could really see the kid in him, explaining breathlessly what it was like to be a star.
He was in such a good mood when he left that he offered to drive me home.
"So how's Cowboy Kim doing?" I said, raising my voice above the wind. I'd never ridden in a car before, and his was a top-down convertible, bright green with yellow headlights. To be honest, I didn't like it, but Bob looked like he was having the time of his life.
"He's doing great!" he yelled back. "We're gonna get together for movies on Sunday!"
"Wait...you actually met him?"
"I did!" Bob said gleefully, grinning over at me. The car slowed as we pulled up to a red light, and he managed to explain without screaming at the top of his lungs. "Nicest guy in the world. I've actually gotten a part on his show!"
I stared at him. "Really? Playing who?"
"A low-down dandy who'll do anything for a buck," Bob explained in a low, gritty voice with a Western drawl. "That no-good, good-looking Cottonmouth."
I laughed at "good-looking," I have to admit. "Well, I'm not surprised," I said. "We were always into those kinds of games and stuff. Remember how I used to chase you around?"
Bob fell quiet as the light turned green. He drove down under the plaza, following the curving road that led to the tier below. "Yeah," he said. "I remember."
"Sammy and Robbie," I reminisced, leaning back in the passenger's seat. "Robbie the rabbit. You could really run like hell. Remember?"
"Yeah, Sam. I do."
"Hey, that reminds me," I said, turning towards him. He wasn't even giving me a glance--just staring intently into the dark. "You kept saying you went up to the top tier all the time. How'd you get the bus fare for that?"
"I didn't," he responded tersely. "I walked."
Why the cold shoulder? It was like all his goodwill had suddenly been sucked inside him again, leaving him even less friendly than when I first saw him. Frankly, it annoyed me. What's wrong with making a little conversation?
I looked back at him and tried to shrug it off. "Don't get so weird about it," I laughed. "I just have a bad memory, that's all."
"What, just one?"
"Nothing, nothing," said Bob. "Hey, you're not still in your old house, are you?"
"No, I'm in an apartment on the west side of central. Pretty close, though. It's right near that blind road we used to play chicken on," I said, grinning. "You remember that too, right? That one time in eighth grade?"
I leaned back in my seat again, laughing as I thought back to that night. "That was really something," I marveled. "The way you jumped in front of that bus, man, I thought you were outta your mind!"
"Jumped, huh? That's funny," Bob said coldly. "I remember being pushed."
I blinked over at him. "Pushed?"
He didn't say anything, but his hands tightened on the wheel. Then he swerved the car hard to the left, off the main street and onto the road that led toward the bus terminal.
What you did was you leaned into the street like a marathon runner, and when you heard the sound of a car coming around the curve, you got ready to dash across. Sometimes the cars would try to get out of the way if they were fast enough, but most of the time they just kept going.
I went first. I ran across the road in front of a four-door sedan that clattered so hard it sounded like it was gonna collapse.
"Now look," I said, waving to Rob as I waited on the other side. "I'll do it again. See?"
The second car was some big truck, and I must have gone a little early because it really laid into its horn as I passed by. I made it back to Robbie's side of the street, panting, catching my breath with my hands on my knees.
"Great," he mumbled. "Can we go home now?"
"What? You haven't even gone yet."
"I don't want to," he said. "This is boring."
He pulled over on the side of the road and we walked to the blind curve near the terminal.
"It was right here, wasn't it?" he said, glancing over to me. No doubt about it: same trashcan, same lamppost, same dusty stretch of road. "It was right here."
"Yeah," I agreed. "Remember? I was on this side of the street right next to you, and then I ran across, and then you complained about how boring it was..."
"And then you said I had to go or else we weren't heading home," Bob said.
"Yeah. And then you ran and it was fine. I don't get why you'd say something like I pushed you," I said, feeling prickles of frustration on the back of my neck. "Why would I do that? We were friends."
"Come on, just do it once," I whined. "It'll be fine. I'm here."
"Okay, okay," Robbie finally said. He leaned into the street, his shoes firmly set on the ground. He waited.
"How am I supposed to know?" he exclaimed, turning towards me. "I don't know why you did it, I just know you did it! You pushed me into the street!"
"Oh, so you're calling me a liar, huh?" I shouted.
Bob started talking over me, looking away. "Listen, I'm not saying--"
"Well, one of us has to be wrong!" I yelled, jabbing a finger towards the street. "I can't believe this! I go through all the trouble of finding you, trying to be a nice guy, and you go and call me a god damned liar!"
"I never asked to be found!" Bob screamed. His voice was so sharp and piercing it stopped me right in my tracks. Had I actually ever seen him angry before? "You think you're doing me some kind of a favor by turning up? You think you can just walk up to me and tell me we used to be friends?"
It was a long moment before I could even say anything. I could hear the far-off rumbling of traffic, but that was all.
"Well...well..." I tried. "I'm just trying to..."
Bob fixed me with a look, then turned around and started to walk away.
"You can walk home," he said. "I don't have time for this anymore."
I should have just left it right there, I know, but I'd gone through all the trouble and it was just so infuriating, watching him walk away like I was nothing. I reached out and grabbed the sleeve of his coat and I spat something like "you think you can just walk away from me?"
"Let go of me," he said, trying to pull away. "I said let go!"
I yanked back on him and he leaned back harder, and I thought to myself, If I'm not careful, that sleeve's gonna rip right in half...
So I let go.
He tumbled backwards into the street at the same time as a bus rounded the curve. I remember he turned his head towards it, his wide eyes catching the headlights.
There was a big rumbling sound coming up the road. Maybe it was a truck. More likely it was a bus, but a really big one. One of the double-deckers, maybe.
Robbie leaned forward, glancing nervously down the road. I remember putting a hand on his back to steady him. "Remember, you've got to really haul it across," I said.
A bus rounded the curve and I saw his heel come up off the ground. I gave him some momentum. Maybe I shoved him.
Robbie lurched into the street.
The bus's horn rang out over and over as it swerved hard to the left, swiping the trashcan on the other side of the street and sending it crashing to the ground. The lid rolled away down the road, clattering.
The bus had kicked up so much exhaust that I couldn't see what had happened for a few seconds. I waved it away, and as it settled, I saw Bob curled toward the ground, covering his head with his hands.
Slowly Bob took his hands away from his head, blinking the dust away from his eyes. He turned and looked down the road, watching the bus as it roared off into the distance.
And then he looked at me.
I stood there, gaping, trying to croak something out. I don't know what I was going to say. I don't know what I could say to that look of horror and disbelief and anger.
But I tried.
I didn't even get out an "I'm sorry" before he was up off the ground and at my throat. He hurled himself at me so hard it almost knocked the wind out of me, and I felt him pulling at my hair, grabbing my face, trying to dig his nails into my skin with a yowl.
It was like fighting a wildcat. He got some good scratches on me, but I'd always been bigger and stronger anyway. I grabbed him by the collar and shoved him away, pushing him up against the lamppost on the side of the street.
I was only holding him there for a second, but a second was all it took for him to grab my hands with his own. I saw him pull in a breath and close his eyes tight, and I had no idea what he was going to do--pray, maybe, or something like that.
But then something slammed into me so hard it felt like a sledgehammer in the back of my head. Then came the burning-tingling, and then the bulb in the streetlight burst high above us with a pop and crack, raining down sparks into the street.
I don't remember what happened for a minute after that. I must have fallen down, because I remember looking up to see him walk away from the lamppost. I was trying to breathe straight, but my heart was pounding like a jackrabbit and the air felt too cool and sharp on my skin.
I watched Bob take a couple steps towards his car. He swayed back and forth a little, and he was rubbing at his throat.
"If I ever see you again," he said hoarsely, "I'm calling the cops. And forget about the show," he added. "Can't even take a little shock."
The bus laid on its horn, honking and kicking up a cloud of dust as it passed. I couldn't see anything for a second or two, it was so thick.
When it cleared, I saw Robbie on the other side of the street, clinging to a lamppost like it'd saved his life. He turned back to look at me, his eyes wide.
I grinned at him from where I stood, and started to laugh.