A girl’s wrist is chained to a rusty pipe in a dim room. Her head is resting on a dirty toilet seat. Her eyes pop open, wide with terror. She tries to move away from the toilet, but she realizes that her shackles won’t let her. She calls for help, but no one answers. She asks the dark, empty room if this is some kind of sick joke. No one answers.
Just as she shrieks, the room is illuminated. Like some unseen eye in the sky has flipped a switch, is the idea. The girl, whom the script refers to as GIRL #1, has sighted a body on the other side of the dirty toilet. First the shapely but limp legs. Then, when she strains to look over the toilet bowl, she sees a girl her age (which the script has specified as “early twenties”). Smudged face, disheveled blond hair, athleisure bottoms and a sports bra. This is GIRL #2. GIRL #1 calls out to her, but GIRL #2 only groans.
In the newly illuminated room, GIRL #1 is able to get a better look at where she is. There are no windows in this room. Just the dirty toilet, pipes that—as the script puts it—“strangle the ceiling like rusted vines,” and above the toilet, a large, digital clock, glowing red. In the script, CLOCK is in all caps.
Now GIRL #1 hears another noise. It’s the crackle of a speaker. She startles, then twists herself, still shackled to the rusty pipe, to locate it in the room, scanning the corners with what the script specifies are “wide and frightened eyes.”
Hello and welcome. The voice that speaks sounds like the brisk, vaguely professional voice of a virtual assistant. You have been injected with a lethal dosage of botulinum toxin, the most lethal toxin known to mankind.
The girl gasps.
The voice continues in its brisk, vaguely professional way. Within the next 30 minutes, muscle paralysis will set in. Eventually, the toxin will paralyze the muscles of your respiratory system and you will suffocate to death.
The girl’s eyes fill with tears. She looks at the digital clock, which glows silently.
What follows are instructions. There is an antidote. A vial of it is close at hand. In fact, it is, right about now, in the intestines of GIRL #2. (GIRL #1 looks over at the face, then the bared midriff, of GIRL #2.) GIRL #1 has even been provided with an instrument for extracting the vial of antitoxin. This, namely, is a butcher knife that can be found in the toilet bowl. (GIRL #1 peers into the toilet bowl, which is filled, the script specifies, with human excrement. She gags. Her eyes fill with even more tears.)
Please remember that as of now you have less than 30 minutes to complete your task.
Another cut to the glowing red digital CLOCK. It has clicked into countdown mode.
“Hun. Hun.” My mother is whisper-shouting into my ear. The scent of her bubblemint gum, which she chews despite her TMJ, is strong. I look up from my phone.
A health care worker is standing over us. The deep lines across her brow look like painful incisions. “ . . . whatever we can do to make him comfortable as you make this difficult decision,” she is saying.
We all look over at the bed.
My father seems strapped to his hospital bed, but it’s just the effect of his arms lying absolutely straight at his sides and the complex colony of machines encroaching upon him. His body is the central node for the hard plastic tentacles of these beeping, humming monitors and tubes. They snake into him like charger cords into a power strip. His pink scalp gleams in the fluorescent light, and his mouth is slack, like he’s waiting for one of the machines to insert a tube there, too.
I have no idea what to do. I’m only here as a formality. He has no awareness of me, and there’s nothing I can do for him. I don’t know if I feel anything. If there is a sadness in the room, a sense of grief, I couldn’t say whether it’s mine. Somehow, the tangle of machines makes it impossible to tell.
My mother sets down her phone and urges me to let your dad know you’re here.
I stand up, tentatively, and repeat this general message in a very low voice, as close to his ear as I can get.
The machines sigh and pump and hiss.
“I’m so sorry, but I messed up the dates, honey.” My mom is glancing from the dashboard display to the road as she steers the car back to the house.
I don’t look up from the script I’m scrolling through. I’m behind on my quota today.
“I had it in my head that you were getting here on the twelfth, so I’ve got guests in your room until Thursday night.”
My mom gets a surprising number of Airbnb guests who will pay for a room in the middle of nowhere. The low, low rate she offers seems to lure budget travelers who’ll suffer the ninety-minute commute from Des Moines. Ever since my dad got sick, she’s been renting out my old bedroom, fixed it up with bunk beds and extra pillows and a coffeemaker with a tray of little packets of Colossus-brand artificial sweetener and little pods of Colossus-brand non-dairy creamer.
“You’ll have to sleep on the couch,” she says as the car squares the corner onto Highway 4. “And try to stay out of their way.”
Milton in early spring is like a desert. The unplanted fields stretch out as far as the eye can see, just dirt and the dried-out, matted-down husks of last year’s crop. There are infinitely more square miles of cropland than human-occupied space. All of it Colossus-owned. The tinny towers and tubing of grain elevators and processing plants form a strange sort of intermittent skyline here and there.
Please keep your hands on the steering wheel, the car says in its brisk, professional tones. My mom punches some sort of data into the Airbnb interface she’s called up on the dashboard.
There are infinitely more square miles of cropland than human-occupied space. All of it Colossus-owned.
The neighborhood looks the same as it always has: houses of vinyl siding and mismatched plywood porch railings, satellite dishes still sprouting like a fungus from the roofs—I can’t imagine anyone uses them anymore, but they’ve clung, like relics of the pre-streaming age. In the backyards, the long, bulbous tanks of methane sit obediently, like some kind of deformed livestock—not that there’s any livestock this close to the fields. Any cows and pigs in Greene County are warehoused in the CAFOs about five miles east of the corn processing plant, whose burnt, rancid smell my father has always called “the smell of bread and butter.” When the wind is high, though, the hot, heavy reek of lagooned manure is what hangs in the air, as if the CAFOs were just in the backyard. But the only things grown here are miles and miles—a Sahara Desert’s worth—of Colossus number 2 field corn and soybeans.
Back in the house, two rental cars are in the driveway and the door to my old bedroom is closed, so we tiptoe around the dim kitchen-cum-living room. I try to roll my carry-on bag under the couch, as if I were back on the plane, but it doesn’t fit. I stow it under the coffee table instead and settle with my phone into the person-sized indention in the middle of the couch.
SOFT POWER is the name of the next script.
EXT. A giant steel tower with a rotating globe.
INT. Dozens of flat screens animated by flashes of different content: cartoons, sitcoms, soaps, game shows, talk shows, reality, etc.
INT. A dark underground lab, all stone walls and stainless-steel sinks and tables.
V.O. Shrieking. Endless shrieking. Dazed moaning.
CLOSE-UP of white-gloved hands slowly, slowly peeling back the skin from a flinching human flank. Hanging along the walls are what look like coils of broadband cables, their viper-like plastic heads shining in the harsh light.
“Angel,” my mother is saying in the kitchen area. “Microwave on high for three minutes.”
The low hum of the microwave begins to radiate from the kitchen area.
I scroll through about a dozen more pages of script.
Apparently, an unseen figure is drugging and capturing dozens of people, holding them in transparent glass cells, and stripping the skin slowly from their bodies in order to use their fat and muscle to power the transmission of said unseen figure’s increasingly influential media empire. I scroll some more. The flaying scenes seem to make up about two-thirds of the content. I open up the script-processing manager and try to estimate the budget.
Time up. Time up. Time up, the microwave is saying in the kitchen.
The Smoots’ house is the same pasty shade of green it has always been, a carsick, seasick hue. On the lawn, the wings of several little flat plastic birds spin frantically in the wind. When they slow, I remember, the birds look like four-winged mutants. I watch them spin round and round while I wait for someone to answer the door. They’ve been there as long as I can remember.
When the door finally swings open, Macy stares at me. I’m struck by how pale she is, like she hasn’t seen sunlight in years. Then she does a cartoon double-take. “I didn’t even know you were home!” We hug, awkwardly, as if suddenly uncertain how to operate our own bodies. Her white-blond hair almost fades into her pale skin, save for the green streaks of it that are, oddly, the same color as the vinyl siding, as if the house has begun to absorb her. “How are things in . . . Hollywood?” Her face lights up as she asks, as if even to utter the word were to summon the wattage of a movie set in technicolor.
I tell her I’m home because of my dad, which makes her somber for an appropriate amount of time. She lifts one of her heavy white arms and waves me inside. Inside the narrow house, whose kitchen-cum-living room is aligned just like my parents’, a smell of mildew mingles with some kind of too-sweet air freshener. I remember my mom saying something about flooding a few months back.
“I was just . . . working.” Macy gestures at the round table behind her, where there is a phone about the size of a pocketbook. “Otherwise I would’ve come to the door sooner.”
Music emanates from a TV screen occupying a far wall, a tune I recognize as the pulsating, semi-orchestral theme of a reality show, conjuring a spandex-clad woman’s white-knuckled grip on the suddenly 3D wall of letters that are the show’s logo, a truck crashing and mushrooming into flames, a man plunging his face into a glass bowl of giant maggots, someone else falling from a beam suspended from a work site and hitting the ground with a thud, another skimpily spandexed woman holding her breath to bursting in a tank of water, and a speeding sports car exploding and dissolving into the face of a viewer. The white-noise roar of a crowded stadium rises up.
I turn to Macy and tell her that I heard she had a baby.
Her broad face dimples momentarily, like dough poked by two fingertips at once. She gestures toward the crib just below the TV screen. “He’s sleeping,” she says, her voice dropping to a whisper. “But you can take a peek.” She gestures me over to the crib. Within its depths is a tiny, grub-like creature whose limbs are too small for its pale green-and-white-striped onesie. “Hello, baby,” Macy whispers, and the tiny creature clenches and unclenches its fists.
On the TV screen, a woman in spandex shorts and a matching sports bra has been strapped into a glass box, her arms bound to her sides. As her body is winched along some kind of conveyor belt, a flock of giant roaches is released into the tank, fluttering onto her bare skin. “The clock is ticking,” the host says, just as the woman begins to scream. “Fifty thousand dollars, fifty thousand dollars.”
“Angel,” Macy says, “Mute the TV.”
Back at the table, closer to the microwave and away from the TV screen, I ask her what kind of work she was doing when I rang the bell.
She smiles in a sheepish way I recognize. “Well, I do some Wizarding.”
“Oh, I know people who Wizard,” I say, to put her at ease. But it’s true. Kids at college, trying to get a jump on their debt, pecking at their phone for pennies. Post-degree, some of them still hunched over on a mattress, pecking away. One of my neighbors, who seems perpetually clad in down-market athleisure, at least when I see her in the package-delivery room, is also perpetually tending to an odd series of surveys and photos and blurry text images on the wallet-sized screen of her phone. It’s some kind of crowdsourcing piecework that you access via a Colossus platform called The Wizard. Be the man behind the curtain! “Which do you think has more calories?” she asked me once, swiping back and forth between what looked like two identical protein shakes. Another time, she seemed to be in the middle of scrutinizing mugshots.
“It’s all about the HITs, right?” I say to Macy.
She smiles her sheepish smile again, the indentations appearing once more on her doughy cheeks. “I have an app that tracks the highest-paying HITs. That way I can just, you know, line ‘em up and knock ‘em out.”
“Yeah.” I nod enthusiastically. “I heard that’s the trick to making money off it.”
It has always struck me as slightly creepy that these virtual odd jobs, like transcribing receipts or estimating calories, are called “Human Intelligence Tasks.” It sounds too close to what might be Newspeak for an exercise used to generate brain waves that will power the robot state, or something.
I ask Macy, conversationally, how high the highest-paying HITs are these days, and she says, her eyes blinking downward, that the real high ones are about two-seventy-five. Two dollars and seventy-five cents. I think I remember hearing that the average payment for a HIT is about ten cents. “So that’s good,” I say to Macy, about the $2.75 payoffs.
She gestures to one of the chairs at the table and asks me if I want something to drink. The drinking water hasn’t been delivered yet, she says, but there’s like three kinds of pop. I accept a plastic collectible cup of flat Diet Mountain Dew. SURVIVOR: GULF COAST, reads the ovoid label in sunset colors. OUTWIT OUTPLAY OUTLAST.
Overhead, two female contestants in matching hot pink two-pieces are strapped into a bed, and giant, wriggling, maggot-like worms are poured over them, followed by giant cockroaches. With $50,000 on the line, the closed captioning reads, I will face my worst fears. The timer blinks in the corner of the screen.
“It’s been a long time.” Macy twists one of the pale green ends of her hair around her finger. “I mean, I don’t think I’ve really seen you since your graduation.”
The stale high school auditorium, the litany of three-part names that blurred into each other, the over-frosted sheet cake afterward, the brown fields just barely tipped with green.
But even then, Macy and I weren’t seeing much of each other anymore. When we were little, she’d trailed after me, duckling-like, and we’d produce complicated, serial dramas with our Barbies in the basement of my parents’ house, or stream Colossus when no one else was home. Over all the Marvel superheroes and DC superheroes and Baby Yoda stuff we watched, The Wizard of Oz was what we returned to endlessly. We watched it so often—in the after-school dark of the living room, both sets of our parents at work—that it became a kind of private ritual. We clutched each other and hid our eyes whenever the wicked witch appeared on screen, we went silent when Dorothy stepped into the glittering technicolor of Oz, we sang along with the Munchkins, trying to imitate their helium-gassed voices, and we actually leaned toward the screen to try to see into the Emerald City when Dorothy spied its towering skyline from across the field of poppies. For so many Halloweens in a row, we both braided our hair into pigtails and wore blue gingham dresses and sparkly red slippers our mothers had ordered us from Colossus. By the time I started high school, though, the age difference of three years had become too wide to bridge. I was trying to fit in with the popular girls, and Macy was still lugging around her hot pink travel case of Barbie dolls and costumes. Sometimes I’d wave to her when my mom and I passed her in the car, her pale hair glowing against the sickly green of the house.
“You know, I’ve been bragging to everyone that I have a friend who makes movies in Hollywood.” A little-girl chortle dimples Macy’s broad, soft face. As if she imagines that I just showed up in LA and stepped onto a studio lot, like Dorothy stepping from her sepia-toned farmhouse into a song-and-dance number in color-saturated Oz. “I just the other day ran into Cam on Insta—you know, Miss Milton Mill Days Cam?—and she was so impressed, she replied back with like twenty open-mouth emojis.”
I take a sip of my flat Mountain Dew. I think of how much traffic on the CL01 you have to sit in to get from the Hollywood Forever Cemetery and the broken-down bungalows off Vine to the studios in Colossus City.
When you apply to work in script development at Colossus Streaming, they give you one of three sample scripts. It’s always the same three scripts, same three genres, sent out again and again, mutatis mutandis: superhero, action, or torture porn. These are the top-grossing genres. I didn’t know this as I was leaving the interview room, clutching my phone in my sweaty palm. In the hallway, a small-eyed underling about my age was crouching down to retrieve a charger cord from a nearby vending machine. His hand in the machine, he looked over my interview ensemble of navy cardigan and khaki slacks and penny loafers that I’d dithered about sliding actual shiny pennies into, and said to me, “I bet they gave you the torture porn.” He smiled, but not really at me. And, in the gloom of the parking garage, when I glanced at my phone, sure enough: there was an attachment titled EXTREME HORROR SAMPLE. Nobody, I would learn, actually says “extreme horror”—that’s just how torture porn has to be referred to in all official documents. Some people, as a joke, call it stress position porn from time to time, but this is generally considered to be in poor taste.
I still remember the sample script. I didn’t know where I should go to read it. It seemed, at the time, too important to read in public, where I’d be subject to the distractions of the coffee orders and shop talk around me. So I ended up back at my studio, my one-room apartment that looked onto a parking lot and a dumpster. The parking lot’s chain-link gate whined whenever anyone passed through it. The dumpster exuded a sulfurous smell. Stray cats fought over its innards after dark. There was a heat wave at the time, or at least it was a hundred degrees in May, which people were still calling a heat wave. My battered A/C unit didn’t quite fit in the frame of my window, and I was terrified of that hour of the day when the sun shone directly into my small room as if I were an ant at the mercy of a small child with a magnifying glass. So I left the A/C unit wedged in the window that wouldn’t close, and it churned forcefully, as if it were emitting an extra stream of coolant to combat the heat that was filtering in alongside it. I had no desk at the time, so I lay on my stomach, prostrate on my mattress and its ivy-patterned sheets, and began to read.
It’s always the same three scripts, same three genres, sent out again and again, mutatis mutandis: superhero, action, or torture porn.
The first scene was a sort of Augean stables-type situation. A girl comes to in a filthy public outhouse. The sound of flies buzzing. She squints at her surroundings, one hand covering her nose and mouth. The walls and floor of the square room are spattered with what looks like blood and, the script specifies, human feces. The door is double-padlocked. The girl reaches for something at her neck. It’s a metal collar, just loose enough that the blades encircling the inner ring only graze her slender neck. As her fingers discover the sharp points, the girl begins to gasp. She tries to scream, but she realizes the bulging of the tendons in her neck brings the blades perilously closer. The sound of flies buzzing. The girl’s terrified gaze floats to the ceiling, where a swarm of flies undulates. Her forehead is beaded with sweat. The heat, the stench, the sound. The script compares the outhouse to an abattoir. She might pass out. The long and short of it is, there’s a tiny camera and a speaker and a countdown clock set for 22 minutes (which, incidentally, is the length of a thirty-minute television episode, sans commercials, the script notes). There’s a small bucket of water and a toothbrush, and the girl is told she has to clean the outhouse—make it spic and span—before the clock runs down. If she doesn’t? Well, that bladed collar pressing into her jugular is operated by remote control, and it will be tightened.
As I took in this first scene, the blast of air conditioning just above my head and bare shoulders seemed to take on toxic properties, as if it were directly dusting my scalp and shoulders with Freon. When I rolled over into the fetal position, carrying my phone with me to the opposite end of the mattress, the glare of the sun felt lethal. The phone itself, the face of its faintly cracked screen, had taken on an ominous aspect. Even the banal sight of its screen gone dark seemed foreboding, as if to open it was to expose myself to something not just awful but volatile, which I risked releasing, which maybe I risked being consumed by.
What I had to write was five hundred words of summary and analysis pertaining to script development’s three essential criteria: familiarity, novelty, and production budget. Essentially: Could the script be favorably compared to existing blockbuster movies in its genre? Could the script be favorably compared to existing blockbuster movies, but with a twist—i.e., novel scenarios and methods of torture? And, taking into account any special effects required, could the script be made for even less than those blockbuster movies to which it compared favorably? A grade was required, a suggested action on a three-point scale from Recommend to Pass, and a logline—that one-sentence label on a can of worms, which, I later learned is really a reason for the associate above you to read no further.
My report was due at nine the next morning. So I kept reading, a slow wave of nausea spreading, dully, from my stomach to what felt like the musculature of my eyes.
Incredibly, stomach-churningly, the blade-collared girl puts her back into scouring the filthy outhouse with the toothbrush. When she runs out of water, she uses her own spit. Rivulets of sweat are running down her face, down her chest. The sweat makes the blades around her neck gleam. She’s trembling. But she does it: when the digital clock blinks 00:00, the walls and floors and even the blood- and shit-encrusted seat have been scrubbed clean, as if the girl had Lysol in her saliva. The camera in the corner of the ceiling makes one of its slightly anthropomorphic movements. Well done, the voice allows, almost in a congratulatory way, even though its tone never changes. The girl lets out a shaky breath. And just as she does, the hole, from which she has been averting her gaze this entire time, erupts. A stew of blood and shit spews forth from the hole—the innards of other captives, as the script will later show, who have not managed to complete their tasks. And the girl, now herself coated in what the script refers to as a “mantle of human filth,” gazes with nearly dead eyes at the walls of the outhouse. Now do it again, the voice says, sounding, as always, briskly professional. Cut to the timer, counting down anew. And the girl, with one hand on her collar, searches for the pail and toothbrush.
“So, what’s it like there?” Macy is twisting another strand of her pale green hair around her index finger. “I mean, to actually be working in Hollywood?”
As we got a little bit older, Macy and I watched other Judy Garland movies in the dark of my parents’ living room. Ziegfeld Girl, Presenting Lily Mars, Summer Stock, A Star Is Born. But it was as though these were just sequels to the movie we liked best—as if we were still following the adventures of Dorothy, who had made it to the Emerald City. Like the glowing city itself, haloed in its own light, Judy carried into all her other movies the aura of Dorothy in Oz.
At this point, a high-pitched, staticky sound, a little like the sound the alien makes after it punches through Kane’s chest in Alien, rises up from the crib beneath the TV. On the screen, two contestants in day-glo spandex shorts and sports bras are plunging their arms into industrial-sized tubs of bloody animal intestines as the countdown clock blinks silently.
“Well,” I say, as Macy reaches into the crib. “I should probably let you get back to the Wizarding. I’ve got tons of work myself.”
“Oh you brought your work with you?” Macy is bouncing the tiny creature like he might be motion-activated and she’s trying to find the number of bounces per minute that will quiet him.
It occurs to me that she might imagine me reporting to a movie set every day, sitting in a canvas chair and giving notes. Like all those commanding directors in Judy’s movies. Or like Gene Kelly in Summer Stock, the gentle director who discovers that Judy can soft shoe and sing.
“Yeah.” I watch her as she lowers the newly muted baby back into the crib. “I always take my work with me.”
When I knock on the Smoots’ door the next day, there is no immediate answer. But a scuffed-up compact car is in the driveway, and what sounds like action-thriller music pulses distantly behind the door. I wait a while, watch the spinning arms of the plastic birds.
Macy seems surprised to see me, but she waves me in anyway. “Sorry,” she says, about the delay. “I was in the middle of a HIT. If I stop in the middle, I could lose it.”
On the screen above the crib, a slick blond man in a leather jacket is straddling another man and pouring gallon jugs of water over the man’s towel-covered face.
“Angel.” Macy turns in the direction of the screen. “Mute the TV.”
[Sounds of struggle] the closed captioning reads. Are you going to tell me what you know?
“How’s your dad doing?” Her soft arms are folded against her chest, which is otherwise blazoned with the Milton High School Millers logo of a bearded, hooded man next to a windmill. It’s unclear why I’ve returned to her house.
“Steady state,” I say, about my dad, which isn’t necessarily true, but the machines he’s hooked up to seem indefatigable, as if they could keep pumping fluids and air in and out of him forever.
“I was just wondering.” I glance around, at the TV and the crib, the particle board table and the discolored fridge and the microwave in its special hutch and the drooping couch with afghans crocheted in geodesic patterns folded over it, all of it crammed into one narrow room, like pieces on a Tetris screen. “I know you’re working. And I have a bunch of work to do, too.” I glance again at the crib, which is currently silent. I explain that there are a bunch of Airbnb guests at my parents’ house and that I was just wondering if she would mind if I sat there and did some work. I’d be very quiet, I say.
A smile spreads over Macy’s face. “You mean, like, co-work?”
I nod. “If you wouldn’t mind.”
“Of course I wouldn’t mind.” Still smiling, she gestures with one of her pale arms. “Please, please, make yourself at home.” She giggles. “I mean, at work.”
I sit tentatively at the table, which is cluttered with slit-open envelopes, their refolded contents jammed back inside.
As she brings me a SURVIVOR: PUERTO RICO collector’s cup of Diet Mountain Dew, Macy glances at my phone on the table. “And I mean maybe . . . maybe you’ll tell me sometime about the movies you’re working on?”
I, also, look at my phone, which has taken on the ominous aspect it does when I’m behind on my quota for the day.
“I mean, out there,” Macy intones, “in the beckoning El Dorado . . . the Metropolis of Make-Believe . . .” Which is from the 1937 version of A Star Is Born, which we also watched, probably more than a dozen years ago, the way exegetes read the Old Testament in comparison to the New, searching for intimations of how Judy would play the role in 1954.
I move the muscles in my face so that it feels like I’m smiling.
“I would love to hear the details.” Macy is swirling the Cherry Pepsi in her collector’s cup, dreamily. “Like, you, know—the people you meet, the places you see.” I can almost tell, from the sing-song of her voice, that she’s picturing a Judy scenario: Dorothy stepping from the Kansas farmhouse onto the Yellow Brick Road. Esther Blodgett from Idaho just happening to be in the right place at the right time for the right people to realize she’s a star.
I take a sip of the flat Diet Mountain Dew.
About two weeks after I processed the sample script, which I think was called Human Resources, as I was scrolling through other listings on the Colossus Media site, I received an email informing me that I had won the job at Streaming Script Development. I had passed the test with flying colors. I was clearly good at writing coverage. In fact, they had been so impressed that they were assigning me to the Extreme Horror team. This assignment, the email informed me, was something I should be proud of: Extreme Horror was fast becoming the streaming genre with the greatest value. People felt most comfortable watching it in their own homes. Attached was a contract for me to sign.
“Algorithms point to yes,” one of my old college roommates texted back, when I asked her what she thought about the offer. Which is what she always texted when the answer was obvious. She was still in Iowa City, trying to grow her followers on TikTok. And, people assured me, this was the road to success. You make a name for yourself at a place like Colossus Streaming, they said, you can go anywhere you want in movie-making.
Of course I signed the contract. At the time, my student debt had reached the cartoonish figure of $999,999.99, as if it were a price tag meant to trick shoppers into buying something they normally wouldn’t consider if it were one cent more.
The Extreme Horror team sent me ten new scripts the next day.
On the TV screen, the slick blond man is holding a blowtorch to the bleeding wounds of a bearded man. [Sounds of screaming], the closed captioning reads. Give me the information I need, the slick blond man is saying.
“The thing is,” I say to Macy, “We’re not really supposed to talk about the scripts that are in development.”
Her mouth falls open, like someone’s just pulled a few strings connected to her jaw. “Oh of course!” Her pale blue eyes are suddenly wide. “I should have known!”
I apologize sincerely, which isn’t hard to do, because I feel terrible in general. “I’d love to be able to tell you about it.” I reach for my phone, the vessel of this impressively classified information, and hold it in both hands “I would if I could.”
Macy picks up her phone, too. “Well,” she says, in a tone that reminds me of her make-believe voice from long ago, “I guess we should both get to work!” Then, putting down her SURVIVOR: OGLALA LAKOTA COUNTY, SD collector’s cup, she looks at her phone. “Time is everything. If I take too long with a HIT, I might lose it. And if I lollygag in general, I just don’t make much money.”
Lollygag, I suddenly remember, is a word Macy used as a kid. A kind of antique, white elephant of a word that seems the least efficient way to indicate what you mean. It’s a word she no doubt inherited from her mom, something she’d call out when Macy was dawdling in the candy aisle at the Colossus Go. Stop lollygagging, Macy Lynn. Macy, I remember, had been a great lollygagger, a soft, daydreaming little girl who often had to be called back to the task at hand. That, her mother had lamented, was why she didn’t do better on her standardized tests.
I feel as if I am out of practice answering any questions beyond the parameters of familiarity, novelty, and budget, as they pertain to torture porn.
I suddenly think to ask Macy how her mom is. My memory of her is probably six years old—an image of a faded-looking woman with a thinning frizz of orangish hair and a tremulous, childlike voice. Her husband split when Macy was in sixth grade, and she’d worked at the Colossus fulfillment center outside of Des Moines ever since. I remember how the PR arm of Colossus did a glossy ninety-word story on her—how this strong single mom was able to start a new and lasting chapter of her life when she took a position as a packer, or maybe a picker, at the fulfillment center. It showed her smiling her fragile, watery smile in a cavernous warehouse next to a dental green cobot the shape of a sardine can. It somehow showed up in my Insta feed.
“She’s okay,” Macy says now. “Same as always, I guess.” She sips from her collector’s cup in the conspicuously dainty way I now remember her doing, lips plumped afterward, as if she learned her table etiquette from scrolling through Kardashian selfies. “Lucky, I guess, that she’s still got a job in fulfillment.”
I widen my eyes because I’m not sure what to say. It seems like a very long time to be in a warehouse.
“She does cobot support now.” Macy’s looking at her fingernails, which are the same shade as the green streaks in her hair. “I mean, not that there’s anything else. Her cobots mess up, she cleans up after them.” She shrugs. “They drop a lot of stuff, I guess.”
I tap at my phone. Payment is per report, so I try to do at least ten a day. I keep hoping someone will notice the fast pace I’m maintaining, the succinct analyses of content and budget I keep submitting, and that I myself will then be pulled from the slush of processing and be set down in a script development office, maybe even one with a window, with other people nearby. But then, I have no idea what pace the other coverage writers are keeping. It’s possible I should kick things up a notch.
Despair, the new script is called. A lot of the titles are just synonyms for “misery” or “torture.” They’re trying to hit the “familiarity” criterion right off the bat.
“You know I got my associate’s, right?”
I look up. Macy is eyeing the particle-board flatness of the table top.
I shake my head.
“I did.” She’s twisting a hank of her hair around her finger again. “I took out a loan and everything and was taking classes nearly every day over at Indian Mounds.” Indian Mounds Tech is the two-year college about forty minutes from Milton. “I was serious about it.”
“I bet you were.” This is the least I can say. She looks very serious at the moment, her whole face momentarily reconfigured to convey gravity—her pale eyebrows folding in, her lips almost disappearing into her pale face, as if their pastel color were too extravagant for her current expression.
“But, you know.” She glances over at the crib. On the TV screen, the slick blond man is holding a knife to the throat of another bearded man who is hung up by his wrists in a basement. We’re both professionals. You know that I can force this information out of you, the closed captioning reads. But we’re running out of time.
“How’m I supposed to finish my degree with a baby?” On the table, her half-clenched hands thumb out a fidgety, repetitive movement that I’ve noticed before. “How’m I even supposed to get a real job?”
I feel as if I am out of practice answering any questions beyond the parameters of familiarity, novelty, and budget, as they pertain to torture porn.
“So, you know, that’s why I’m Wizarding.” She looks at me, her pale lashes fluttering against her pale cheeks—the way she would look at me, I remember, when she spilled pop on the carpeting in the basement, next to the Barbie Dreamhouse.
I tell her it’s okay, that she doesn’t have to explain herself to me. I really don’t want her to. There’s no reason for her to prostrate herself before me in this way.
She gestures at my phone, which is only slightly bigger than hers. “But here you are, with a real job, a dream job.” Then she shakes her head. “And me . . . ” She gestures again, this time toward no object in particular. For the briefest of moments, she murmurs a few bars of something, high and thin, that sounds familiar.
“Oh, Mace.” I haven’t called her this in years. How it comes naturally, it occurs to me, to shorten people’s names when you’ve been spending time with them. But in a way that’s qualitatively different from how you get used to using abbreviations like EXT for exterior, or FLASH for flash cut, or OS for offscreen. These abbreviations are just marks of efficiency. They save you keystrokes and time and breath.
Macy’s pale lashes are sticking damply to her cheeks, but she shakes her head suddenly, like she’s just received a brisk jolt of electricity. “It’s okay.” She picks up her phone. “We both need to get to work.”
I nod. When she’s clamped on her headphones and begun scrolling and thumbing, I look down at my own phone.
INT, it reads. A dim, windowless room. An attractive 20-something’s wrists are shackled to a drain pipe.
I honestly can’t remember if I’ve read this one before.
The next time I show up at Macy’s, I bring a two-liter bottle of Diet Mountain Dew. I don’t have the heart to tell her I don’t like Mountain Dew.
“Angel,” she says, over her shoulder, as she pulls open the door. “Mute the TV.”
The baby is emitting its high-pitched, staticky sounds from the crib, and Macy spends some time bouncing him and holding a clear bottle of formula to his puckered mouth. Wrinkling and clenching in Macy’s arms, he seems grub-like again. She’s humming, murmuring, into his chin. Somewhere, over the rainbow. Is what it sounds like.
Usually, in LA, I spend my days in my apartment. I don’t like being alone with the scripts, but I can’t spend money every day at a Starbucks. The ghost town of a cubicle colony in processing that still existed when I got my contract has since been cleared to make way for an employee climbing wall that looms over a fleet of C-suite walking desks. At first, I tried working in a branch of the city library, but the rooms, devoid of the presence of physical books or librarians, seemed ghostly. I felt even less protected from the scripts I would open on my phone. And on my way in and out, I would pass through the encampment of homeless people who have hovered outside, in the no man’s land between the library’s Mediterranean Revival walls and the pre-fab Starbucks structure next door, ever since the library went paid membership only. The specter of homelessness scared me. I could barely afford the library membership myself, so I canceled it and stopped going.
It’s slightly surreal—like the mixed-up materials from waking life you find in a perplexing dream—to be reading scripts in the Smoots’ kitchen-cum-living room. But I find myself less inclined to sit with these images in my head in my parents’ own kitchen-cum-living room, listening to the rustle of the Airbnb guests in my old bedroom, toggling between scenes of vivisection and queries regarding charger outlets and extra non-dairy creamer pods.
When Macy finishes feeding the baby, she sits down with her phone, and we both get to the work that is glowing on our respective screens.
INT. A luxury condo with beautiful parquet floors, high ceilings, floor-to-ceiling windows, ceiling fans, sleekly furnished, begins the first script. From a state-of-the-art sound system in a vast, empty, but sleekly furnished room come the initial sprightly notes of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”
I swirl the day-glo liquid in my collectible cup.
The condo appears empty. Then we see hands inputting bright fruits and vegetables into a juicer, hands cleaning an already-sparkling toilet, more hands polishing the small beautiful squares of the parquet floor.
Macy turns her chair so she can face either the TV screen or the baby, which is still fussing slightly, in the crib.
As the music reaches its more foreboding tones, a medium-long shot reveals that the hands belong to people dressed in identical pale green athleisure, and that these people’s heads are clamped with a metal device that is effectively a bit and blinders.
The script is called LIVE/WORK/PLAY. Soon enough, in a flashback, we see a lineup of kidnapped, dental-green-athleisure-suited servants being informed by a voice on a speaker in an immaculate room with minimalist art hung on its walls that whoever among them brings the greatest value add to their tasks will be released, at the end of the month, with $50,000 in cash. It’s only a scene or two later that one servant is presented with a sleek pair of pliers and told, also via speaker, to remove the fingernails of another servant. They seem like they’re getting in the way of her work, the voice says with an ominous chuckle. We want to make the competition fair, don’t we?
I reach for my collectible cup, but then remember what’s in it. I think of asking Macy if the drinking water has arrived yet, but she has her headphones clamped on.
The TV screen shows a sprawling encampment of homeless people, a mess of tarpaulin lean-tos and overstuffed plastic shopping bags and banged-up shopping carts. I realize, after a moment, that Macy has connected her phone screen to the TV screen. The better to keep an eye on the baby, it seems. Campsite, Macy types in one box below the photo. Then, in another: Shopping carts.
In a moment, her screen asks, Which bathroom tile looks more stain resistant to you? Two nearly identical images appear. I watch Macy click.
Sometimes I scroll through the list of other jobs on the Colossus job site, but I’ve been at script processing for hardly a year. I’m also just afraid to do anything that could interfere with my student loan payments. The general advice, which I have absorbed via subreddits and a virtual career counselor and rumor, is that I should stay where I am and climb the next rung of the corporate ladder within the streaming department. And that once I’ve done that, once I have a line on my résumé that says junior script development associate in a blockbuster genre at the major straight-to-streaming studio, the world will be my oyster.
I sometimes worry about this, though, since I don’t think any of the higher-ups actually know who I am. Not just that they don’t know who I am, but that they’ve never actually seen me.
Script processors are anonymous, but I keep wondering if there’s some way I can put my signature on my reports, a way to make the higher-ups smile with recognition and begin to request these reports in particular. But the instructions for submitting to the script processing manager warn against including any “personal” opinions or “creative” writing. Your assessment should represent the values of Colossus Streaming. You are the primary conduit for content that fits the Colossus Streaming brand. Inputting a “pass” or a “recommend” in a timely manner is the most consequential task you can accomplish for your team.
On the TV screen, grainy footage of a hoodied BIPOC in a convenience store is playing in a loop. Guilty or not guilty, the screen is asking. A or B? Macy pauses, then clicks.
After a while, the staticky sounds begin to rise from the baby’s crib.
The TV screen is engulfed by what looks like a protein shake, its viscous texture poured thickly into a tall glass and garnished with a green plastic drinking straw. 250, Macy types in a box. Shhh, she says in the direction of the baby. Shhhh. Just a minute, hon. Just a minute.
A man in a pale green jumpsuit, his head concealed by a black bag, appears on the screen, kneeling. Standing behind him is a figure in black from head to toe, holding a Bowie knife.
Green uniform, Macy types in a text box. Knife, she types in another. After a moment, Hostage.
The volume of the baby’s staticky cry dials up a few notches.
“Shoot,” Macy says. She sets down her phone and takes off her headphones. “There goes that HIT.”
The baby’s head is red and angry when Macy lifts him from the crib. “Oh, baby,” she says. “Oh, baby.” She looks over at me. “Looks like somebody has a poopy diaper.”
As she kneels on the floor with a box of wet wipes, an odor not unlike that of the wind blowing in from the CAFOs rises in the room. The baby’s static comes in hiccups now.
“Do you remember watching The Wizard of Oz when we were little?” Her face softens as she looks up from the floor, from what she calls “poop duty.”
I nod, faintly, and place my thumb over a scene in the script in which one dental-green-athleisure-suited servant has been tasked with sterilizing another dental-green-athleisure-suited servant, using hydrochloric acid.
Macy wipes a hank of her pale hair from her cheek with the back of her hand. “I was always trying to get my red slippers as shiny as yours.” (Sometimes we watched in costume.) She lifts up the baby, whose tiny bottom half is now padded out with a bulky new diaper. “And you were there . . . and you were there. . . and you . . . and you!” She warbles into the baby’s belly, then deposits him in the crib.
“I always thought it was so funny—” she’s carrying the poop-heavy diaper to the kitchen trash bin—“how the very beginning of the Yellow Brick Road was right there all the time they were singing and dancing, right there in a little candy-like swirl at the center of Munchkinland.”
The CAFO odor has lessened, to some extent.
I think of the movie’s first shot, of the sepia-toned country road disappearing into the flat horizon of Kansas, thick fields on either side. How Dorothy bobs onto the road from the very bottom of the screen and continues, trippingly, down it, basket in hand and dog at her heels, as always. You can actually still see the road, outside her bedroom window, in the very last scene.
I look down at my phone again. “I haven’t seen that movie in forever,” I say.
Macy pauses on her way back from the trash bin. “Oh my gosh. I still remember everything about it.” Her gaze floats upwards, almost dreamy. “All the bright colors, all the songs.” She smiles at me. “We always said we were gonna fly away to Oz—all the way to the Emerald City!—just like Dorothy, and not even come back.” She’s still smiling, her soft, dreamy smile. “And you did.”
She eases herself into her chair again and picks up her phone. “You got away from this place.”
The next day, when I press the softly glowing doorbell on the Smoots’ front door, no one answers. I lean against the side of the sickly green house, assuming that Macy’s in the middle of a HIT. In the distance, the desert of brown fields makes the sky seem disproportionately huge, like a vast screen empty of content.
On my phone, I download another script from the green-and-white script-processing manager and watch as it opens onto my screen. AND YOU’RE DONE, is the title. I scroll through absently. It seems that people who receive this all-caps text message soon find themselves bound up and facing their own deaths, through any number of especially graphic means. In addition to vivisection and amputation, there are a lot of medieval torture devices, like an Iron Maiden and a Catherine Wheel. I try to estimate the production cost.
There is, I realize, a constant, frantic noise coming from inside the house. I’d assumed it was the TV, but now that seems unlikely. It’s lasted too long, without any variation that would indicate a scene change. I press the glowing doorbell again, which seems to exacerbate the noise on the other side of the door. I give a knock for good measure, then push the door open.
Like a GIF on a loop, I reach over to pat her again and tell her it’s going to be okay.
The room seems irradiated by wailing. Macy is jiggling the baby up and down, side to side, in her soft white arms, as if she’s trying to dislodge something from its system. The baby’s face is screwed up red, as if its neck has been winched too tightly, and the wet socket of its mouth, the source of all the high, wailing static, gapes.
Macy’s eyes are feverish when she looks at me. “There’s something real, real wrong,” she says, over the noise. “He’s all hot and, and, he’s been throwing up, and, and he won’t stop crying.”
I ask her if there’s still an ER in Emeryville. She nods, her chin trembling in a way that is both matronly and girlish. “But . . . but . . . I don’t have any way to, to pay for it.”
I hold her bleary gaze for a moment, and we listen to the endless, high-pitched static. In its endlessness, in the way it rises and falls and repeats itself again, wordless and timeless, like a siren or a fire alarm, is something more disturbing than any articulated speech.
“There’s always a loan officer at the desk,” is what I finally say. She looks at me blankly. “And if you can’t get a loan, we’ll crowdfund. We’ll set it up right away.”
We are alone again, in the middle of the endless static.
“You just worry about getting him to a doctor now”—is what I realize I need to say.
Macy’s soft face begins to crumple, as if the tremble of her chin has spread all the way to her forehead and eyes.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” I say, even though it clearly isn’t.
“Oh, oh, oh.” Macy clutches the bawling baby to her chest. “I think I did something real bad.” She’s bawling now too. “I think I made a real bad mistake.”
I tell her to give me her keys, that I’ll drive them to the ER. She sobs and nods, a pale vanilla pudding of distress.
On the TV screen, which I realize has been playing mutely, two contestants lie flat on their backs in a shallow cage as liquid cement is poured over them. A countdown timer appears on the screen, and the contestants begin to fumble with the steel bars.
In the car, which smells faintly of artificial evergreen, which must be the trace of the faded deodorizer tree dangling from the rearview mirror, Macy continues to sob and clutch at the staticky baby. I have strapped a seatbelt over them, which seems inadequate, but we are moving now. The baby’s tiny arms and legs are a sallow color. Somehow, the soft spot on its head seems to throb. I look away.
Along Highway 4, the brown desert of early spring fields spreads out on either side of the car. Many of the square fields are now being raked over by tractors pushing centipedal planters in inhumanly straight lines. The tips of the corn won’t be visible till mid-June, but the whole brown expanse of the earth is now being slotted full of specially programmed seeds. I have always found this knowledge slightly unnerving, the sense of the billions of identical seeds seething just under the surface, just about to emerge into identical stalks and leaves and ears, exactly the right shape for the claws of the harvesting machines that will appear, like clockwork, in the fall.
We drive past my dad’s processing plant, its tin-can-like towers and pipes and chutes and conveyors now the pale surgical-scrub green and white of Colossus. I think of him, for a moment, of the machines and their tubes plugged into him.
As we swerve round an atypically curved bend of Highway 4, I’m swept up for a moment, despite the staticky baby, by the sense of driving round that curve as a teenager. When I would take the car and just drive aimlessly, as some playlist of soaring songs streamed from the speakers. The lyrics hardly mattered, just the crescendo. How the motion of the car and the fields going by and the throb of the music could make it seem like there was some larger possibility of liftoff. As if motion, of any kind, would eventually result in some kind of palpable change. Even though I knew I had to eventually return the car to my parent’s garage.
“I think I did something real wrong,” Macy is saying again. She’s smoothing her palm over the baby’s soft spot, which is still bulging, worrisomely. “I think I made a real bad mistake.”
I turn a corner too rapidly and then ask her what she did.
“You know . . . you know . . . how we’ve been out of drinking water?”
I tighten my grip on the steering wheel, as if that will get us there faster.
“It was supposed to come two days ago, but . . . it never did.” Her voice is wobbling, even as she raises it to speak over the eerie static of the baby. Water delivery has gotten spottier lately, people have been saying. The price has gone up, and you can’t count on it either.
She needed water, Macy says, to mix the baby’s formula. Even what she set aside just for him, like she always does, had run out. And so she boiled some water from the tap—she boiled it, really she did—and used that. She was just crossing her fingers, hoping it’d be okay for just the next little while. But then he started throwing up, she says. Not spitting up. She’s shaking her head limply. Throwing up. “And . . . ” her voice, behind the baby’s static, seems like it’s coming from a speaker phone with a bad connection. “And he won’t stop crying.” She sobs. “Oh my god he won’t stop crying.”
Like a GIF on a loop, I reach over to pat her again and tell her it’s going to be okay. Then I take my hand back, grip the steering wheel. I don’t know what else to do but drive faster, go faster, and so I press, grimly, on the pedal beneath my foot and tell Macy we’re almost there, that we’ll be there soon. The digital display on her dashboard glows like a countdown clock.
My mom and I, maybe through sheer perseverance on her part, are in my dad’s hospital room when he begins to slip away. His face is slack, as it has been for a long time, as if whatever vital spirits animate a person have drained out of him.
Sometimes I try to count the machines that surround him, but there are so many different parts to each of them that it’s hard to tell where one ends and another begins. So many digital displays and hard plastic arms and PVC bags hung like transparent bladders from metal hooks. There’s the wire that goes from the tip of his finger to a monitor that shows fractions and degrees and something like the stalagmites of a quarterly earnings chart. There’s the long, thick, corrugated tube emanating from a black-screened machine that’s segmented in an almost anatomical way, which plugs into a plastic socket in his neck. There’s the thin strip of a translucent straw that issues from one of the dangling PVC bags and snakes into one nostril. There’s the opaque tube that emerges from the bedsheets and drains into a different PVC bag, lower down. There’s the other thin, clear tube that sprouts from a drip bag and burrows into the veined back of his hand. All of them with their own monitors displaying their own continually updated data. The room glows with the light cast by the monitors and reflected off the clear hanging bags and tubes.
So we are there when some of the machines begin to beep their up-tempo distress signals, and we are there when two health care workers rush in and tap at my father’s wrists and throat and stretch his eyelids up to reveal his vacant eyes and place their palms on his chest, and then reset the machines and tap at my father again, and finally bow silently to us and then back out. My father is here, but he’s gone. And we sit and are still again, my mother crossing herself, as the machines whirr and pump and steadily beep all around us, back to their regular tempo.
The night before, I watched Macy sign her shaky but still girlishly round signature to a screen that the loan officer at the Emeryville ER presented to her (contingent on a second mortgage), and eventually an ambulance carried her and the now-sedated baby to the same hospital where my father has been all this time. She’s texted me the room number, a series of repeating ones, so I set out through the brightly lit corridors that smell of hospital disinfectant and reverberate with the stiff meter of automated announcements and are traversed by patients gripping medical devices on wheels and health care workers in identical pale green scrubs walking briskly, until I hit a corridor where the bright yellow linoleum and rainbow-painted walls signal a pediatric unit.
When I approach the room number Macy’s given me, it is pulsing with the same sounds, the same whirring and hissing and steady beeping that fills the room I have just left. Here is the digital display like a quarterly earnings chart, and here is the display that looks like a video game, and the one that only glitters blackly. Here are the PVC bags on their hooks, and here are all the long, thin tubes, snaking down into a transparent little tank, where the baby is lying, very still.
Beside the little transparent tank, Macy is sitting, her chalky face turned down. She has her headphones clamped on, I notice, and it’s her phone in her hands that she’s frowning at. She thumbs rapidly at the screen, waits for a moment, then begins thumbing again. She’s Wizarding, of course.
I think about interrupting her, but then I look down at my own phone and begin scrolling through another script. I have five more to get through today.