The lights dim before finally flooding the stage in darkness. They’ve all taken their places, and the show is about to start. Even though it’s pitch black, they know their home and what it always looks like. Their home is all pastel colors and plastic coverups. The walls have been split in two, so that the audience can see, observe inside the dollhouse. The family’s eyes are the only thing that can be seen, wet and glittering in the dark.
A tall man stands hidden from the camera, his fingers counting down. His other hand holds a loaded gun. The show is about to begin very soon.
A family like any other,
taking care of each other,
Who can that family be?
Not you, or me
it’s time to Meet the Kellers!
They’re happy, always happy
Adventures in living, giving and raising
what more do you want to see?
Brandon walks into the kitchen, football in hand. He is twelve years old and the middle child of the family, always looking up to his older brother, Derek. But today he is glum, because the other kids tease him for being too scrawny, uncool. He asks his mother, “What’s for dinner today?”
Mother is standing by the stove and goes to open the oven and check. The lights are bright on her face, a fine sheen of sweat barely showing. Inside the oven, a meatloaf. She smiles down at her son, patting his head gently. Her dress is a pretty pink, the hem reaching her ankles. Her hair short and turning grey at the roots; the headband holding it back matches the color of her dress. “It won’t be done for another hour; why don’t you go out and practice some more?” she asks, gesturing to his football.
He sighs and turns away from her, upset. He leans on the kitchen counter. “Derek was going to show me some moves, but he isn’t home yet,” he complains.
“Honey, your brother is getting grown-up responsibilities now. He has a respectable part-time job at the pet store. You wouldn’t want him to quit his job just to be with you, right?”
“No, I guess not.”
“That’s a good boy. ”
The two of them hug and the audience sighs, touched by this maternal scene. Sentimental music plays, and the scene fades to black.
Angela is the eldest daughter, and she is always beautiful and neat. She keeps a diary, which she reads out loud to the audience, but she pretends they are not there. When she reads, she always sits by the desk in her pink room, her face carefully blank as she makes the audience laugh.
Today I almost kissed a frog. . . . ”
As if on cue (they are on cue), the audience laughs, almost gasping.
“ . . . and by that, I mean I almost kissed Brad. Not that I wanted to, but he danced with me at prom and thought it was a good time to kiss me. As if I would ever let that happen!”
Again, the audience laughs, this time harder and longer. Meanwhile the cameras zoom in on her face. Her brown hair is straightened and long, and she wears jeans and a pink cashmere sweater. There is a droplet of something red amongst the pink material. A muffled, keening sound—and then, it fades away.
Mary-Beth is the sweetest, the baby of the family.
Anything she does is adorable, acceptable. She is often accompanied by the family dog, a large golden retriever. Today, she is going outside to play on the lawn. There are no real flowers growing in it. The tree in the yard has no leaves. The plastic grass crunches underneath her feet, and she giggles when Skipper comes up to her, a neon green frisbee in his mouth, tail wagging excitedly.
“Wanna play catch, huh?” she asks, taking the frisbee from his mouth as he barks happily.
But she’s only six years old, and her throw is clumsy—the frisbee lands on the roof of their house. She claps her hands to her cheeks, looking into the camera with practiced ease.
“Oh no!” she exclaims, shaking her head as the audience laughs warmly. A gust of “wind” sweeps the frisbee back to the ground again, and Skipper barks happily.
A white picket fence surrounds the backyard. Two large hands appear atop the corner of the fence—they are not Mary-Beth’s hands. Clutching at the fence, the fingers of the hands wiggle playfully.
The scene is over now.
Father is sitting down by the dinner table, about to dig into a plate of meatloaf, when he looks around for someone—a chair at the table is empty. The meatloaf is tender, brown on the outside and grey on the inside.
“Say, what’s taking Mary-Beth so long? Wasn’t she supposed to take the dog for a walk?” he asks in between bites. Mother sighs from the other side of the table, tired.
“I don’t know, Father, perhaps you can go out into the garden and check. Angela, will you pass me the potatoes please?” she asks, and Angela does. Nobody is concerned yet. Brandon is fidgeting in his chair, plate still full.
“Derek, will you help me with my homework after dinner?” he asks hopefully, and Derek winks at him.
“Anything you say, buddy!”
“Anything you say, Buddy,” a deep, booming voice repeats. It makes the glasses on the table shudder and the lights above them flicker.
The audience is silent. The family is silent, stunned.
“Who said that? Derek?” Mother asks, baffled. But Derek thinks it’s funny and laughs, meat falling out of his mouth in chunks.
“I swear, the only thing I’m doing right now is eating—perhaps it was my growling stomach,” he jests, and the family groans at his antics.
“Oh, you. Well, whoever it was better stop it or he’ll have a face full of coleslaw.”
“Brandon! What have I said about playing with our food?”
The parents’ bedroom is modest, floral, also in pastel colors. Their beds are separate, placed close to each other. A small wooden cross hangs on the wall above them. Mother is reading a book and Father is almost dozing off. The hour is late, but Mother turns to Father. She has something important to say.
“Gee, I sure hope Derek takes more responsibility at home—he spends less and less time with Brandon.”
Father snorts out of sleep, looks at his wife.
“Well, it is to be expected—he is a growing boy, you know, and has many problems of his own.”
”Yes, I suppose you’re right, dear—Brandon will understand, once he’s a bit older.”
They are the first to turn off the light in their bedroom. In the make-believe night, a banging sound can be heard from downstairs, almost like someone trying to get in—or out. But cheerful music plays over it, and the family sleeps.
The next morning comes just like any other. The stage lights are bright enough to match an early sunrise, the dog is fed, and Father goes to work on time as Mother cleans the house, waxes the floor, and takes care of Mary-Beth’s clothes, folding and unfolding them on her tiny bed. Mother hums happily as she pairs socks, takes piles of fluffy stuffed animals and puts them in black garbage bags.
Brandon gets home early that day from school, greeting his mother as he opens the front door. He looks happier than yesterday.
Mother drops what she is doing and goes to the front door to greet her son with a big smile.
“Hello, sweetheart. How was school?”
Upstairs, Mary-Beth’s room is now empty, everything tucked away.
Angela is in her bedroom, on the phone with a friend. She sits crosslegged on her bedspread, looking out the window. A pale blue backdrop with painted clouds is on the other side of the glass—the clouds do not move.
“Well, Mother says that when you are in love, it’s obvious,” she says confidently into the receiver.
“It doesn’t have to be. Sometimes boys are shy,” her friend says. Her voice can be heard loud and clear. Angela rolls her eyes and looks away from the window, browsing lazily through a teen magazine. Her nails are long and perfectly manicured, shining.
“Yeah, and sometimes they’re just jerks, like that guy you liked who worked as a hot dog.”
The audience laughs hysterically.
“That was just a costume!” her friend insists, but the laughter doesn’t let up.
Behind Angela, the window is now changing. The glass slowly cracks, as if under pressure, and the blue sky outside turns yellow. Angela stares at it, pink phone still in hand.
Now the sky is turning orange, and then slowly a very bright red. She walks up to the window and puts her hand against the glass. Still holding the receiver, she places it closer to her ear.
”Can I call you later? Someone wants to come inside and say hello,” she says brightly, before dropping it to the floor with a thud.
That night, the family has their dinner like every other night. Except now, two chairs are empty. Father cuts into his meatloaf, his plate overflowing with mashed potatoes and peas. He looks up from his meal, confounded. “Where is Angela? Still up there doing her homework?” he asks, then goes back to eating. Bits of unchewed beef fall from his mouth when he talks.
Mother smiles and shakes her head, dabbing a napkin against her delicate mouth. There are cracks in it now, red and chapped. “I wish you would talk to her about the phone lines—last night she was up talking to that friend of hers for three hours,” she complains, and Father hums in thought. ”Or we just take away her phone—though I’m scared she won’t survive without it at this point.”
Brandon sneakily feeds meatloaf and bread crumbs to Skipper, and the audience giggles.
During the night, the house is still lit from within, because it is not really night, and the lights need to be on so the cameras can see everything that is happening. There is no show, and the audience has gone home.The family is upstairs, asleep in their rooms. The kitchen lights flicker on and off, like Morse code.
The oven is burning black, and small hands press from inside, trying to get out.
Morning comes, and the audience claps and cheers as the family comes downstairs to have breakfast. Mother is even more perfect than usual as she prepares eggs on the stove: in her Sunday best, a mint-green dress, with her hair curled and her skin like peaches and cream. Her son soon sits down at the breakfast table. Father reads the paper, coffee cup in hand.
Half of the kitchen is burned black, the plastic counter melted down. The cabinets, once pale yellow, are now deep amber and falling apart. The ceiling is covered with soot, and the window above the sink is in pieces. The audience is holding their breath now, nervously whispering.
But Mother smiles the same as always, serving the eggs with practiced ease and kissing her young son’s forehead like nothing is amiss. Brandon is quiet, his mouth opening and closing as if he’s forgotten what he’s supposed to say. His eyes look sunken and sickly, and when he looks at his parents, they flicker strangely.
The oven is the only thing that remains untouched by the fire. There is a light on inside, a dark lump of something visible within.
Mother ignores him and looks down at Skipper eagerly wagging his tail and looking at the food on the table. She puts her hands at her sides and huffs with indignation.
“Now Father, I hope you can teach Skipper not to beg for any more food!” she exclaims, and the audience titters.
Father looks up from his paper and turns to his son, blinking. “I don’t think he begs that often, does he, Brandon?”
But Brandon is silent, and an awkward moment follows while the parents wait for something, anything to come out of the boy’s mouth. The bright stage lights are making them sweat, and it is becoming more obvious now. There is a tension between them all that was not there before. When it is clear he won’t answer, Mother continues.
“Oh, I suppose he doesn’t, but it is terribly awkward at dinner parties,” she says, nodding to herself. Her tone is uncertain, her wide eyes shifting back and forth, looking at something offstage.
Brandon has grabbed the fork and knife next to his empty plate, his breathing strange and uneven, his head bowed. Father rearranges the morning paper in his lap and looks up toward Mother. He is calm, unaffected.
“Say, do we have any leftover meatloaf from last night? I was thinking I might bring some with me today for lunch,” he asks, and Mother tilts her head and hums, a finger tapping against her chin. She looks off into the distance again. This time her expression doesn’t change, but her hands start to shake so much she has to hide them behind her back.
“Oh, I don’t know. Let me see if there is some still in the oven.,” she says, turning on her heel.
Smoke is coming out of the corners of the oven, wafting up toward the ceiling. When Mother reaches it, she freezes, hesitating. Her shoulders start to move strangely, and when she glances back at us, her audience, her cheeks are wet.
“Well, it sure smells good, doesn’t it?” she asks, her white teeth glowing as she smiles, but there is desperation in her face, her perfect makeup slowly melting off in the heat. Her hands are on the oven now, with nothing to protect her from the heat.
When she opens the hatch and looks inside, the camera man zooms in, not wanting to miss this moment. At first, there is nothing to see but a ball of grey-green smoke. Once that evaporates, the lump inside is visible to all.
The oven walls are covered in a thick, white layer of fat. Bits of it drip down like candlewax, mixing with a brownish liquid on the bottom. The lump, we can now clearly see, is not another meatloaf. While parts of it are unrecognizable, one long bone protrudes under sagging flesh that varies in color from golden brown to charcoal black. The entire lump of twisted limbs wears a dress with daisies on it, two heads poking through the top. The heads look decayed but in fact have just been inside an oven for twenty-four hours, which is why there are no eyes or lips or any soft flesh left. Instead there is a reddish, quilted mess of purple veins and muscle, mouths gaping wide open.
We can hear Mother’s voice now, cracking, gasping. Her garbled sobs are muffled by the sudden and thunderous applause in the background.
The audience is delighted, thoroughly pleased. They stand up in their seats, shout and wolf-whistle.
Before the lights dim over the stage completely, the remaining cast is made to grasp one another’s hands and bow. Mother is still crying, while Father squeezes her hand so tight blood flows freely from his grasp, drops hitting the floor.
Two cages are rolled out on the stage. One of them contains Derek, hanging from a noose. His throat has also been slit, since nobody voted for him last episode.
Nobody voted for Mary-Beth or Angela either.
The other cage is empty, and it is time for the remaining cast to step inside. Even as they are caged and rolled away, people still applaud and cheer. A booming voice resounds throughout the sound stage. A booming voice resounds in our television sets.
Vanessa Crispin is a Swedish columnist and writer of darker prose. Her hobbies change radically, but right now she enjoys eating chocolate and giggling at the moon. You can plunge into her official website to read more of her work : https://vanessa-crispin.wixsite.com/official