Jack gazed into the darker half of the studio and found Camera One’s red eye staring back at him. A tinny voice crackled in his ear monitor.
“Ten seconds, Jack.”
Just one more, he thought. The last segment done, he could call it a night—go home, kick his feet up, have a beer. It was a luxury, sure, but he could afford it. At five dollars per can, Budweiser had finally realized its own American dream, finally replacing the champagne budget.
In the ear monitor, the director’s voice popped with excitement.
“And five… four…”
The back half of the studio turned completely dark while the lights on stage burned brighter.
Behind him, three feet above the floor, a hologram of the show’s banner unfurled like a flag on a breeze. Blocked letters were conspicuously backdropped in red, white, and blue, a point not lost on Jack.
Jack blew a raspberry to loosen up his lips.
He took a breath. Only here, he thought. Only now.
Staring into the eye of Camera One, Jack turned on his bright smile.
“And welcome back to This is Your Life.” His sonorous voice resonated so well the techies in the sound room didn’t even have to process it. “The show where life takes center stage and everyone is finally allowed their fifteen minutes.”
“Camera Two, Jack.”
He turned his head first and then rotated his body. Below the camera lens, tonight’s script inched its way up a small teleprompter.
“So far tonight, we’ve been introduced to a farmer, a lab technician, and a day care worker.”
He had joked once that they should fade the teleprompter words back and out like George Lucas did in the Star Wars movies. Make it feel like the future. Like they had the force and knew how to use it. Nobody laughed.
“Excellent, Jack. Now forward.”
He took two steps toward the second camera, careful to keep his feet on the pre-marked line. The young man behind the camera—a new guy—looked disturbed. Jack pressed on. After the show, he thought.
He raised both hands, the left gingerly holding the right, his index finger stuck in the air like a professor making a point. A silly thing to do, he thought, and had said as much before the show, but the director assured him it would be a nice touch. Delicate. Showing compassion. Definitely not aggressive.
“Our final guest this evening is Mr. Howard Parker.” On a separate monitor that allowed him to see the show as the audience did, he looked like a meteorologist giving a weather report. The hologram switched to a face, the skin pale white and blotched with liver spots. “Mr. Parker was born in Eastland, Texas, a small town one hundred and twenty miles west of Dallas, where he graduated from the local high school and then from nearby Ranger College.”
Jack had been there once. Or rather, he had passed through the area years ago, the highway taking a steep dive into the lower valley. He made the journey at the advice of his father. “If you want to live, son, really live,” his dad had said, “then you got to be in the city, make a difference so big people can’t overlook it.” Jack’s dad didn’t know how close to the truth he had been.
“It was there at Ranger College,” he continued, “that Mr. Parker met his sweetheart. They married, later having two kids. The youngest graciously brings us this video.”
For a second, nothing happened.
In the ear monitor, Jack heard: “Where’s my video!” He ignored it and kept his smile for the viewing audience. A second later, the hologram flickered. The weathered face of Howard Parker was replaced by that of his daughter who, tears streaming down her face, talked about her dad—about his life as a father, a husband, and a civil worker who helped to build roads.
Jack’s smile faded as he turned and stepped away from the hologram. The video lasted for ten minutes, the viewing audience now watching Parker’s life unfold. He had served his country, his daughter said, and served it proudly. It was a great life, heading for even greater heights, until a tiny blood clot changed everything.
The video came to a close. The director’s voice buzzed in Jack’s ear.
“Okay, Jack, close it up.”
Jack scanned the studio and found the red eye above Camera One. He smiled.
“As with all of our guests, the producers have assembled a fair and balanced report on Mr. Parker.” Numbers and statistics popped up on the hologram, and like the hosts in other markets Jack read through the data with precision, his words conveying the costs now associated with Mr. Parker’s life. “And here, dear viewers, is tonight’s final guest.”
From the left, an interned wheeled Mr. Parker across the stage. The man’s head hung down. Saliva covered his chin.
“Our job is done,” he said to the camera. “Now it’s time to place your votes.”
The hologram image changed. Two sets of percentages grew, one faster than the other. After a commercial break, the hologram turned red, the intern wheeled Mr. Parker off the stage, and Jack closed the program.
Afterwards, he stopped to talk with the young man on Camera Two.
“It’s Carl, right?”
The young man nodded.
“Good show tonight, huh?”
Carl shrugged a shoulder.
Jack gave him a sympathetic smile. “I know how you feel. Trust me, it’ll pass. We can’t keep paying for their hopes. With global economies surging and limited resources, population has to be dealt with on both sides of the equation. Otherwise, it’ll be too expensive for everyone, you know?” Jack then pointed to the hologram. “Besides, it’s not just us.”
Carl said nothing.
Jack smiled and patted Carl on the shoulder. “C’mon, let’s go have a beer. I’ll show you how to live.”