By Paula Boon
2006 Runner Up: Young Adult
Set for Life! trumpeted an army of royal blue signs in one corner of the lobby as Jason stepped off the elevator. Leaving behind the grey-haired lady who’d been eyeing his dragon tattoo since the third floor, he walked across the marble tiles, feeling conspicuous in his ripped jeans. He wondered once again if he was crazy.
The signs, swaying slightly in the air-conditioned breeze, framed a strange scene: more than a dozen teenagers were milling around in an intensely lighted space, and their every move was being recorded.
Jason had been expecting cameras – there couldn’t be a TV show without them – but the sheer numbers were surprising. It was as if the contestants were planets and the camera operators orbiting them were moons.
As Jason approached, three cameras swarmed toward him. Startled hotel guests toting leather bags darted toward the check-in desk to get out of the way.
‘Forget about moons,’ he thought. ‘They’re more like mosquitoes.’
He had to fight the urge to swat one.
“Jason Stavros,” said the figure of a man he could barely make out beyond the glare. “You made it! Now we can begin.”
Jason lifted one hand in a half-wave and let it drop. He was sure he heard the cameras zooming in, one on his hand and the other on his face, which couldn’t decide between unconcerned and apologetic.
He joined the others, who had bunched together so that the cameras were forced to the periphery. For once he agreed there was safety in numbers.
A man in an expensive navy suit stood on a riser in front of them, smiling in a way that only involved his mouth.
“Welcome to all of you,” he said. “My name is Joe Arnott and I’m the executive producer of Set for Life. Congratulations on being selected as part of the final 15. In just a few minutes you’ll board a bus and head to our top-secret filming location, where, two weeks from now, one of you will be chosen to receive a paycheck each month for the rest of your life. But now, let me introduce the person you will be seeing the most of on a day-to-day basis.”
A curvy young woman as high as Joe’s shoulder bounded toward the riser. Her grin showed at least two teeth more than most.
“This is Lucy Martinez,” Joe said.
The cameras documented hesitant applause.
“Hi guys!” Lucy chirped. “I’m so thrilled to meet you. After watching your interviews and seeing some of your test results, I feel like I already know you. But,” her eyes widened, “I’m going to be getting to know you better. Much better.” She laughed and tossed her black curls.
“It’s my job to make sure viewers get a good sense of who you really are,” she continued, “and that things stay lively and upbeat. I’ll be the one reminding you time after time to inject more life into it until you’re sick of hearing from me.”
‘I’m already sick of hearing from you,’ Jason thought, absently flicking his tongue stud against his front teeth.
“I mean, if you’re sitting staring out the window, that may be real, but you must agree it’s not great reality TV!” she laughed.
Jason only vaguely heard the rest of her pep talk, which seemed to be urging them to ignore the cameras while at the same time never forgetting that they were going to be on national television. He was too busy checking out the competition.
Just in front of him was ‘Vanilla.’ He didn’t remember her name – something starting with a K – but he’d noticed her during the previous week’s tests. Every time their paths had crossed, she had been wearing some combination of beige and white. With her long, straight blonde hair, minimal makeup and bland, polite conversation, the overall effect was very, well, vanilla.
Jason wondered what she was doing there. She certainly didn’t look like someone with a special talent or passion. It was like her main concern was fading into the background. Oh, well. That would just make it easier for him to stand out.
Beside him, a thin black kid he had dubbed Gameboy was engrossed in some kind of hand-held device, thumbs jabbing away, just as he had been in the waiting room before every test. Like before, Gameboy seemed completely uninterested in – and maybe even unaware of – the people around him.
‘Great. I’m going to be in a reality TV show with someone who doesn’t actually live in this world,’ he thought.
In fact, there weren’t many of them who seemed to have come from his world. There was the native kid in the baggy jeans and skate shoes. And the pretty Asian girl with the tight fuchsia halter top who kept smiling at him. Oh, and that kid who wanted to be a psychologist. He seemed okay – just a little too friendly.
‘It’s only a few weeks,’ he told himself. ‘However bad it is, if it means a chance at playing my own music for the rest of my life, it’s worth it.’
“This is just going to be so much fun!” Lucy concluded, actually clapping her hands in excitement.
Jason concentrated on containing the panic welling up inside.
‘Just a few weeks,’ he thought again. ‘You can do this.’
‘You can do this,’ Kate told herself as she boarded the dark-windowed bus.
Making small talk with strangers was always hard, but here every awkward moment would be documented for the whole world to see. She had no doubt it was her mistakes the producers would zero in on.
“Don’t hide your quirks,” Lucy had said in the lobby. Easy for her to say. She would be behind the scenes.
Kate chose a window seat near the front and waited for the others to position themselves.
‘Anyone but the scary tattooed guy,’ she prayed, feeling the muscles in her shoulders relax when a slight boy with straight black hair plunked himself in the seat beside her.
“Emilio Garcia,” he said, shifting the violin case he was carrying so he could shake her hand. He looked about 12, but unless the producers had relaxed the rules, Kate knew he must be at least 16.
“Kate Johnson,” she replied.
Across the aisle that nice guy Ben was chatting with a tall, tanned kid with a brown crew cut. Catching her eye, Ben smiled warmly before continuing.
“How many hours a day do you usually train, Ilya?” he asked his seatmate.
Before getting on the bus, Kate had wondered why such a large coach was necessary for just 15 contestants. Now she understood. Between each pair of them there were several empty rows of seats to accommodate cameras and their operators.
‘A layer of cameras between us so the audience can get close up,’ Kate mused as the vehicle pulled into traffic.
Emilio was in no hurry to begin a conversation. Perfect. Kate leaned her forehead against the cool window and watched the buildings go by. She tried to pretend this was just a regular bus like the one she’d taken to get here, a sandwich her mother had made waiting in a baggie in her backpack in case she got hungry. But she couldn’t do that forever. Lucy was right: it wouldn’t be interesting to TV viewers. And anyway, ‘the Patron’ would probably choose someone at least a bit social.
The patron. She swallowed. What had she been thinking coming here? Not only was she going to be on television for millions of people to scrutinize, but it was the show’s first season, so she had no idea what to expect. Her teeth sought a rough piece of skin around a cuticle.
All she knew was that this patron was looking for someone he thought deserved financial support. Forever. But how he would decide and exactly what kind of person he was interested in, she had no idea.
What if they made her eat worms to show how much she wanted to win? Or bungee jump? Or… spend time with that tattooed guy?
She gave a sharp tug and the hangnail tore. Sucking the bloody spot, Kate caught sight of a camera in the aisle, trained on her.
Smoothing the protruding skin down with her thumb, she returned her hand to her lap, pressing hard to stop the bleeding.
“So,” she ventured, “you play the violin, Emilio?”
There was a startled pause.
“Yes,” he said, drawing the case to his chest. “It’s my life.”
“Oh.” She blinked. “Wow. Neat.”
‘Wow? Neat?’ she admonished herself. ‘How lame can you be?’
“Um, how long have you been playing?”
“I’ve always played.”
She sighed and turned back to the window, taking a piece of blonde hair and winding it around her forefinger. Watching buildings slip by, she imagined how it would feel if she was chosen as the winner.
“There,” she pictured saying to her parents, showing them the first cheque. “Now I can be as impractical as I want to be. You don’t have to worry that I’ll end up starving somewhere.”
She was startled to hear the sound of Lucy’s voice.
“Okay, everybody!” the young producer called from the front, standing up and holding the back of her seat. “We’re almost at the compound. When we get there, I’ll ask you to walk one at a time from the bus to the main entrance. You may need to repeat the process two or three times to make sure we have enough footage to work with, since this footage will appear in the opening segment of the show every week. But don’t be nervous.”
Suddenly Kate couldn’t remember how to walk at all.
“Have fun! Be yourself!” Lucy urged. “This will be your first chance to impress the patron, and it’s also a statement to the viewing audience. Only one of you can win in this show, but you never know who might be watching and how they could help make your dreams come true. Take advantage of every moment.”
Kate wasn’t sure she would even remember how to breathe.
They were outside the city now, and the bus turned onto a long, pine-lined laneway. As they crested a hill, the compound came into sight.
It was like something out of a European guidebook, Kate thought. Surrounding the compound were plaster walls as tall as the coach they were in, and possibly as thick. They looked strong enough to stop an invasion.
A wrought-iron gate opened automatically to let the bus through, revealing the castle-like main building. Soaring columns, graceful arches and marble steps were the main features of the massive structure. It was perfectly symmetrical, perfectly balanced. Perfectly intimidating.
A gauntlet of people, cameras, and sound equipment stood between the bus and the building. The strange thing, Kate noticed, was that they stood on one side of the walkway for half the distance and the other side for the other half. She realized this was to let cameras take shots from both sides without showing the workers behind the scenes.
‘It’s hard work to make reality TV appear natural,’ Kate thought. ‘Maybe this will work out after all. It’s not too different from my life.’
Then Lucy said, “I’ll call out your names one at a time,” and Kate’s legs began to shake. How many people might be watching? A million? More? All right, it was a bit different.
Once she managed to get inside the building things would have to get easier, she thought. They couldn’t get much harder. Could they?
About this story
The title of this story later changed to The Patron Project. A much-edited version was shopped around by my then-agent. Editors at four big New York publishing houses were interested and took it to their acquisitions meetings. Unfortunately, it was not ultimately published.