Being Real
by Sherwood Smith


So that Monday Lys lay on her bed, supposedly doing her homework.  She was actually watching fanvids on her laptop when she was interrupted by all this car and people noise outside the window.

It was not, for once, another loud, crashing fight among the people Lys’s family called the Freakenstoner Monsters, who lived across the street.  She spotted the RealTV logo on the sides of two big vans and almost put her head through the glass to see if they were just there for one of the neighbors, or . . . ?

A guy with big, white, straight teeth bustled to the front door below her,  a bright green envelope in his hand, as a young woman in jeans and an old sweater shot him with a hand cam.

Oh.  No.  Oh yeah!

Lys knew what that envelope was.  It was the Green Envelope, the one that meant your family had been picked for the Home Show, the biggest reality show on RealTV.

 Lys reacted like a typical sixteen-year-old: first she squeed. Then she reached for her cell.

 “Alyssa!  Could you please come downstairs?” Mom called out in the sugary voice that meant there was company.

Hello! Were they, like, filming right now?  You were supposed to be Totally Natural, but there was no way she was going to appear before millions in last year’s gym shorts, a ratty t-shirt, her hair like an old witch, and oh yeah, her side of the room?  Totally Natural did not include everyone in the Free World seeing underwear and stuff all over the floor.

“I’m in the bathroom!” she yelped, grabbing armfuls of laundry.

A few minutes of really hard work didn’t quite reduce her mess to the neatness of her older sister Julia’s side of the room, but at least it had been tamed to a Totally Natural that people, could, you know, see.   

A fast shower, hair and face fix, her best jeans, a cute-but-casual top--dirty clothes in the hamper--and she opened her door.  Heard unfamiliar voices, tinkly social laughter.

So she walked downstairs in her most casual walk--were the cameras swinging to get her?--no.  Nobody paid any attention.  Her parents sat side by side on the couch, facing Mr. Piano Teeth, who was talking.  Behind him, the female from outside held a camera slack in one hand.  Her eyes had that stare-into-space look of boredom.

Lys’s fourteen-year-old brother skulked on one of the kitchen bar stools, drumming with his fingers on the stool next to him.  When she sat down on it, he made a face and shifted his drumming to his knees.

“ . . . so do you have any questions?”

Dad looked around his own house as though secret cameras had sprouted in the corners.  “You’re really not filming?”

Piano-Teeth’s tone made it clear he’d already answered this question at least once.  “No.  As I said, we can’t begin until you sign the agreement.  It’s against the law to film you without consent.  That’s the Fourth Amendment.”

Dad snorted, leaning forward--Mom looked tense--Dad sat back.

Piano-Teeth kept smiling.  “After you sign, we’ll restage the surprise at the door, which is the only scene we do set up.  From then on you’re on your own.  You--your family and friends and neighbors--with me here only as a kind of invisible guide.”

Dad waved a hand. “So we sign, and these cameras you install will be in every room except the bathrooms.”  He was a big man, with a heavy face, so his frown looked like a glower.

Mom took over quickly, “You say that when the green light is on you are filming, and when it’s red, not.”  She was small and nervous, a hummingbird woman with big eyes a lighter color than her oldest daughter Julia’s.

“Yes.  But if you don’t want to be filmed, you say ‘Privacy Now’ and the cams turn off automatically.  But if there’s no film, there’s no show.” 

Silence, except for Jacob’s soft plappity-plap rhythms on his knees.  The family was too used to it to notice.  Dad shifted--Lys knew he was about to scoff. 

Mom sent him a nervous look,  rushing into speech. “And we can easily see those lights?”

“From anywhere in the room.  You’ve seen the show.  People obviously get accustomed to them.”

“But we’ve seen shows where people were half-dressed, hair messy, stuff on their faces, when things happen.”

“People who forgot to shift the cams into Privacy mode before something happened--but they were still decent  according to the privacy restrictions, which are clearly spelled out on the contract.  This is the Homeland, after all.  Television does have Family Standards.”

“Yes.  I haven’t forgotten that,” Dad said, with no smile.  “I still miss Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.  Funny thing, it never turned me into a--“

“Dear,” Mom said softly.   “I’m sure no one here was responsible for that decision.”

“I remember it when I was a kid,” Mr Piano Teeth said unexpectedly.  “It was a hoot.”  He slid his gaze to Mom, his 72-ivory grin undiminished.  “As to the Home Show. We’ve modified the design so that the cams can be heard by the blind.  You’ll remember we’ve had sight-challenged people on the show.  Equal opportunity.”

Dad snorted, Mom smiled, and Jacob sighed, looking at the stucco ceiling as if his life depended on his counting the glitter dots there.  Lys gripped her fingers, willing her family to shut up until the contract was signed.

Piano-Teeth smiled at them all.  He really did look like a Hollywood guy--his hair expertly cut, like someone had snipped a single hair at a time, then highlighted it surfer blond.  His clothes were designer jeans and a black silk shirt.

“No more questions?  Let me get to the next portion then, and this will include you kids--you’ll have to tell your sister when she gets off work.  That is, you not only don’t talk to us when filming, even when our mobile cams follow you to school or work, you don’t talk about us.  And that includes on the web.”

“You vet their blogs?” Dad asked.

Piano-Teeth chuckled.  “We don’t have to.  Our experience is, if your show makes it into the second week, names have gotten out by then, and your blogs will get a few million hits a day.  Start talking about the show and we pack up.  This show is real life with real people.  The only thing you share with actors on PrimeTV, where it’s all scripts and sets and directing, is that they never look at the camera or make any sign that they know we are there.  You have to do that, too.”  He paused, and when no one said anything, he went on in a well-rehearsed, soothing voice, “Our roving cams are all trained to be unobtrusive.  They shoot a lot--that’s their job--but the editors decide what gets shown.  Though we shoot all day, only a portion makes it to the TV.”

Dad muttered, “We get no say in the . . . .”

Mom put a hand on his wrist, and he turned his words into a cough.

Piano-Teeth gave them the full grand piano. “Hey. I’m on your side.  Your show does well, I do well as a director.  I can move up in my field, just as your skills move you up in your line of work.”

Dad snorted.  Mom held her breath--but Dad did not deliver his well-vented opinion of how “promotion” worked in the Homeland, as opposed to Corporate America up there at the tip of the political iceberg..

Piano-Teeth leaned forward and assumed a serious air.  “Back up a little. Though our timeslot is rated for thirteen and up, Standards and Practices are pretty strict.  If we have problems with language or inappropriate situations, we’ll get cancelled.  So, for instance, your sister--”  He glance down at the paper.  “Julia.  If she wants to snog with her boyfriend when the green light is on, she can go ahead.  We encourage it--she’s over eighteen, and the viewers love romance, as long as ‘naughty bits’--” (He held up his hands, crooking two fingers like quote marks.)  “--don’t appear on screen. But you--”  Lys got the full impact of the piano. Her face burned..  “You’re not sixteen yet, so you keep your romantic life strictly to kissing and petting.”

Dad said, with a laser-look at Lys,  “She doesn’t have a romantic life.  She has school to think about.”

Lys felt her face get even hotter.  “Dad!”

Jacob snickered, and shifted his drumming to the counter.  Bad move--Mom heard, sent him a quelling frown, and he sighed,  drumming silently on his knees again.

Piano-Teeth said, “So, once Julia arrives, if she agrees, you can sign--“

The front door opened then, and Julia bustled in, looking harried and tired, her large dark eyes flicking from her parents to the stranger and back. 

Piano-Teeth straightened up.  “This must be Julia.”  With genuine enthusiasm, he went on,  “Go ahead and explain. If she agrees, we can shoot the surprise scene right now.”

Even tired and bedraggled from a long, crowded bus ride, Julia was pretty, and Lys, usually so proud of her older sister, felt a pang of jealousy as Piano Teeth watched Mom take her into the kitchen.  Until she saw Julia’s expression, which was tight with disgust.  She’d forgotten that of all the types of TV Julia hated, reality shows were down there at the bottom. 

Lys pressed her forearms across her middle.  Everyone watched Julia, so they saw her expression suddenly clear after a long whisper from Mom, and then her short, tight nod.

Relief!  Julia, who despised television, had agreed!   Piano-Teeth was the only one who hadn’t been worried.  Of course she’d agree.  Didn’t everyone?

After they shot the scene (“Everyone look surprised!  And smile as we introduce you!”) the show people went away, and Lys pounded upstairs, yanked open her bottom drawer, dug under the neon pink scratchy-wool sweater her great-aunt had crocheted that she would wear “some day” (like if her aunt ever came up from Florida), and pulled out her diary.  And so excited she was to have an entry worth writing, for once, she didn’t even pause to kiss the cellpic of Ty Leung, the cutest guy of the century.  She paged impatiently past glitter-ink calligraphed details of his life and likes and dislikes that she’d managed to winnow out by tireless spying and listening, and opened to a fresh page, which she labeled Day One: Home Show!

She wrote everything down, ending with:  Okay, so Julia is older and prettier. But what about ME, Alyssa Delonne (she still wasn’t sure about her stage name) who WANTS to be an actor? This show is not going to be All About Julia.

*     *     *

From the school bus the next day Lys txted her two best friends to meet her.  She was so excited she didn’t even scan the school’s online HomeBoard (the CloneBored most schools called it, though nicknames ranged throughout the country), which was mostly school or government hype anyway.  Only once in a while did someone hack past the dorky gate to post something good--before either some school honcho or one of the government monitors saw it and took it down again, and stuck them with a semester of Supervised Community Service.  You got cool points if you spotted a hack before it got wiped.

“Ohmigod!” her best friend Andrea squeaked as soon as Lys entered the art building restroom, which was the meeting place for most of the girls in their class. Because Lys was not in her usual slouchy pants and old t-shirt--she cruised in wearing a tight black top, a floaty blouse, and her very best jeans.  Definite guy-bait.  If, that is, you were even on the guy’s radar.

“Ty talked to you?” asked her other best friend, Kayla.

 Lys drew the girls over by the janitor’s cupboard; a couple of fiercely whispered sentences later, All Was Clear.

“ . . . so before I went downstairs, because, you know, I wasn’t sure if they’d, like, burst in and start filming right away.” Lys finished in a hissing whisper.

Nobody else in the crowded restroom paid the least attention--they were all too busy talking, laughing, fiddling with their hair or their cells.  The air cloyed with clashing  shampoos, BPals, and lotions.

“They always make it look like they come right in and begin filming.”  Both girls nodded.  “Julia’s half is always perfect.  So I tossed all my old grammar-school trophies and kip from Gran and Aunt Alice and anything else that would make me look Debi-Dee.”

Lys grimaced. Kayla’s eyes narrowed. Andrea shook back her blond hair, shrugging. 

It had been the funniest thing to make Debi-Dee jokes back in eighth grade, when her family ran nearly two months, and poor Debi-Dee thought she was the teen leader of the world when actually she became famous for her clueless taste in just about everything.  Lys remembered having counted 110 Debi-Dee jokes on the web in just one day--each one meaner than the last. The three had watched the last Debi-Dee family ep on a Friday sleepover--the highest rated one of that year--when she found out everyone thought she was a loser. Lys hated that episode.  That crying had seemed really, well, real.  Andrea had thought it funny. (“So what if she was bawling?  She was the uberpose and anyway her family can buy a new house, and a new name if they want to.  Two months on that show?  They are beyond rich.”)  Kayla had stated that it was all fake.  Worse than fake, like regular TV,  because it pretended to be real.  And she seldom watched RealTV since. 

But now she was excited for Lys, who she knew wanted badly to get into acting.

Andrea, the fashion expert of the three, zeroed in on what was important. “What did you put up instead?”

“I was in way-skit meltdown about that.  But then I remembered Gran Ellie gave me her Barbie set--“

“No.”  Andrea backed away, shaking her hands as if Lys was radiating nuclear germs.  “That is soooo vapid. You didn’t.  Put. Up.  A Barbie doll.”

Kayla smacked her on the backpack.  “Chill.  Lys showed me it once.  That Barbie and all the clothes and accessories are from a zillion years ago.  So old it’s mad.”

“Yes!” Lys exclaimed.  “The hair, the clothes, all uber-sixties.  She’s even got white lipstick!” 

“Skay-yetch,” Andrea said, and shuddered.

Kayla added, “Anime figurines gone too?”

“No, I left those on the chest of drawers. Anime is cool.”  And on the others’ nods of agreement, “I think my band posters are okay, I mean, I checked about a million blogs last night, and they’re definite wicked.”

The girls okayed that as a smart move.

“Then we had a family meeting.”  Lys giggled, and Andrea giggled too, but there wasn’t anything funny, Kayla thought.  “Mom had us make wish lists.  For what to do with the money.  We’re supposed to focus on that.”

“Wish lists,” Andrea said.  “Yours of course begins with a total makeover--“

“Oh, everybody put down what you’d expect.  Me, stuff for me and my room, Julia her own apartment, car, boring stuff.  Dad a lot of stuff for the house and the future, Mom the same.  Like college funds--all boring.  Jacob uber-vap fourteen-year-old stuff like the drum set he keeps moaning about.  As if the neighbors would even let us.  The Freakenstoners would 911 if they heard anything louder than their fights.  Anyway, she said to keep thinking of the lists, and we have to cooperate with each other, and be a good example of a normal family, yadda yadda.”

They all knew Lys’s mom would have been a child psychologist if she could have managed to finish her degree when the economy was doing its slow dive just before the election that never happened--the years that Dad said the country got Bushwhacked.  That was his favorite word for any disaster or catastrophic blunder, which worried Mom. Everybody knows the Terror Laws and the special prisons apply only to them.  Terrorists. Not to normal people.  But you couldn’t help hearing scary things. And everybody knows the government hears you, in order to keep you safe.

The girls had been familiar since grammar school with Lys’s Mom pointing out that everyone needs to work to get along, they need to be civilized, and she firmly believed that communication was meant to build harmony.  So you don’t say non-nice things.

“Bor-ring,” Andrea said, rolling her eyes.

“I know.”  Lys started to bite a nail--something she hadn’t done since fourth grade--and then yanked her hand down.  “The idea is, to get this stuff. Anyway, by the time I’m home, supposedly they’ll have cameras all over. If Dad doesn’t blow it, crabbing about Big Brother--“  She looked up and around, and they all looked around as well.  They’d all heard Lys’s dad about this grue novel of the old days, called 1984--like when their parents were kids, eew!  Who’d want to read that, so who cared if it wasn’t in the libraries any more?.

“Why’d they pick you anyway?” Andrea asked suddenly.  “Did they tell you?”

Kayla scoffed,  “You know how they always say it’s random.”

Lys said, “Julia figures it’s because we’re a bi-racial family.”

Kayla pursed her lips.  “Yeah, probably.  What they don’t let out is what their real parameters for choosing are, but my mom says it’s not just demographic statistics and marketing studies--”

Andrea waved her hands.  “Doesn’t matter why.  What matters is that you stay on more than a week.”  She fluttered her lashes and flicked her hair.  “Which means we get to be in on it.”  She made a face.  “I heard friends don’t get paid, you have to sign a waiver, but hey! Being on TV?” 

Kayla squinted around, her almond eyes wide.  “Oh God.  This school is already a zoo.”

Lys said to Andrea, “Your job is to make us look good, so you have to share your clothes.”  None of their families had much money, but Andrea was an only child, and her mother used new clothes to bribe her to try for good grades, when all Andrea wanted was to go to Hollywood and get into movies.  Lys said to Kayla, “And you make us sound wicked.   That means we’ll plan it first.  Then rehearse.  Like drama class. So it sounds natural.”

“We’re gonna be on TV.” Andrea squeed faintly, then they all turned guiltily toward the other knots of girls crammed into the restroom, especially around the mirrors.  Andrea whispered, “You know, when they find out, everyone’s going to want to go to your house.”

The other girls in the bathroom were still busy with their cells, their make-up, and their hair--talking, talking, talking.

Andrea wrinkled her nose.  “Why is it totally irritating when other people yatter and crack gum, but we don’t notice when we do it?”

Lys, feeling her way as director of the show of her life, said, “No cracking gum when you come over.  And no squees.  We are not going to be Debi-Dee.”

Andrea squeed again, bouncing gently up and down until Kayla gave her a fish eye, and Andrea clapped her hands over her mouth. “Sor-ree.”

*     *     *

Dinner that night felt like someone had died and was buried under the table.  The linen napkins were out--the ones Lys had only seen twice in her life.   Jacob looked  slouchier than ever, wearing a t-shirt with his favorite band on it, and his oldest jeans that Lys suspected he’d thrown around outside and stomped on to make them extra grungy.  Mom and Dad had both dressed in fresh work clothes; they sat stiffly side by side, and the dinner was roast lamb.  Roast lamb!  Mom and Dad shared cooking chores because they both hated cooking after a long day of work, so mostly what the family ate were fast casseroles or frozen stuff, and Dad usually made big salads.  The kids had to clean up.

Everyone kept trying not to look at that thing in the corner of the ceiling, its green light glowing like a monster eye. Naturally that was all they could think about--so the conversation started dead and decomposed from there. Lys, desperate for her family to be interesting and entertaining, kept giggling every time someone did speak, as though there was extra comedy and style in “Please pass the mint sauce?” and “My, the rain did come down this afternoon, didn’t it?”

Julia arrived late--as always--but she’d somehow managed to dress up before getting on the bus, because she waltzed in absolutely gorgeous in an outfit she usually wore on her rare dates.

After dinner, Julia muttered to Lys as they cleared the table, “We’re so Stepford Wives, it’s scary.”

Lys tried to remember the reference.  Oh yeah, old film.  But what was it about?  “We’re not wives,”  she muttered with her face away from the camera.

As they went back for the glasses (the good ones, the ones the kids never got to touch at normal dinners),  Julia whispered, “We’re zombies.”  She turned away from the camera and made an eye-bulging, tongue-lolling zombie face.

Lys choked back a laugh so hard her sinuses burned, which caused her eyes to water.  Great.  Her make-up--which took forty-five minutes to put on--would smear and make her look like a raccoon.  “Excuse me,” she said in her most sprightly voice.  “I just need to freshen up.”  And ran upstairs not only to repair her make-up but to try to think of something to do in front of the camera.  Everyone kept hiding before they’d say anything real!  That couldn’t be good.

So . . . what to do? That was the other thing.  You couldn’t sit around and watch the tube.  That is, you could, but the camera would go off.  Nobody wanted to watch a bunch of strangers watching TV. (Though Jacob and his two trusted buds thought the Home Show would be coolest if you could watch yourself on TV and be filmed watching it, so on the TV you’d see yourself watching yourself on TV while in real life you . . . well, you get the idea.)  If you wanted to keep the cams green, you had to have Family Activities, and they had to look natural.  Sometimes on the show people had big fights or other angst fests, which of course made everyone laugh.  Last night, after they’d made their Wish Lists and agreed to cooperate, they’d promised Mom to be on their best behavior, and serve as examples of civilized people.

So when Lys came out, wondering if she could talk them into Charades--she’d thought up three clever ones that would show off her acting talent--they’d already given up and the TV was on.  Sure enough, the camera eye was now red. 

Lys flopped down on the couch.   Nobody talked.  At least not in the living room.  Every so often someone started to say something, froze, looking doubtfully up at that red eye,  then slunk into the pantry.  Whoever they’d wanted to talk to would slink in after them. There were a lot of squished, spice-scented quick conversations in the pantry that night, after which everyone retired early.

 Lys crouched down in the bathroom with her diary on the toilet seat, where she scribbled down everything that had happened that day--she even left out where she’d seen Ty, what color his shirt was, how many times he’d smiled in what might, maybe, possibly, have been her direction.  She was too full of ideas for the Home Show.

Then she updated her HomeSpace blog with a list of everything she’d worn that day.  It looked boring, she knew.  But what else could she say?  Anyway her blog was always boring.  The only people who read it were the others in drama class and her small circle of friends.  Secrets went into her diary, and her mom would be upset if she ever said anything mean about anybody.

Julia didn’t update her blog.  But then she hadn’t since the retail store added on more hours, bringing her work week to four college classes and thirty hours selling curtains, for a total of about eighty-five hours altogether--not counting time on the bus, or in the library.

Jacob  never tried to increase his hits.  He liked only being read by his own posse.  His HomeSpace blog said tersely, Invaders arrived.  Plans in place. Members of Skull Skillz: PWN! And he added some dire pix from long ago monster shows below the Skull Skillz logo. 

Skull Skillz was the band he and his buds were going to start, as soon as they could get instruments of their own, amps--and a place to practice.

*     *     *

Piano-Teeth showed up the next morning just before breakfast.  “Just call me Brian,” he said, when Mom tried to ‘mister’ him.  “Remember, I’m on your side.”

Mom murmured something polite, otherwise the house was silent except for the ticking of Great-Gran’s clock on the mantle, and the faint tinkle-ting of Jacob’s fork on his juice glass.

“I watched last night’s footage.”  Now Brian had their complete attention.  “No--no--”  He put up his hands when everyone started to talk at once.  “It’s fine.  It’s absolutely normal to be stiff the first day.  Even the first couple of days.  Remember, we have a week before the show airs, and we only need to make five shows out of all those hours.  So just . . . try to be yourselves.  Try to forget that camera.  Okay?  Now, I’ll get out of your hair, and come tomorrow morning, okay?  And remember: have fun!”

The door closed behind him.   Everyone looked at one another.  Lys said, “How about after dinner we play Charades?”

*     *     *

Thursday morning, Brian said, flashing a modest upright piano, “Well, folks, I hope you can loosen up a little today.  You are a nice family, but kinda tight.  Tight doesn’t work on TV, you’ve probably noticed when you watch. Give it a thought, all right?  Be yourselves--be real.”

Lys tossed her hair back, tears stinging her eyes.  She’d worked hard at being real!  She’d planned every single entrance, she was always doing interesting things in her room--changing the Barbie and talking about the sixties (she’d even Googled some stuff about fashion leaders and other sixties stuff), playing her music and being a DJ.  Downstairs, every single family game idea was hers.  And she never looked at the camera, she did her most photogenic poses--copied straight out of Homegrrlz Magazine.

As soon as the door shut behind Brian, she snuck a peek at the camera, saw it was still red.  She moaned, “That’s not fair!  I try the hardest!”

“Yeah, and you sound like an idiot,” Jacob snarled.

“You should talk.” Lys turned on him.  “Dragging your knuckles on the ground and making faces like you’re being tortured.”

“That’s because I am,” he shot back.  “By that ‘hee-hee-hee-hee’.” He tittered in a penetrating, shrill pitch.  “Every time anyone says the dumbest thing,  I got to get a drink of water,  Where’s a towel? Gee, it’s time to take a dump--”

“Jacob,” Mom said.  “Language!”

“--there’s you,  ‘Wee-hee-hee!’”

“That’s just a nervous giggle,” Mom said.  “I’m sure when Lys gets used to the cameras--when we all do--”

“What’s wrong with my laugh?” Lys cried.

Julia patted her shoulder.  “It’s, um, kinda persistent.”

“Loud.”  Dad drank his coffee.  “But it’s not your fault, kiddo.  Whole thing’s a scam, just like I told you Monday when that government sleazebag showed up.”

“Government?” Jacob scowled.  “Hollywood sleazebag, ya mean.”

Dad scowled back.  “Now that Big Brother owns Hollywood, they’re all company stiffs--or they’re down in the ‘Homeland’ mud with us, and no more future than we’ve got.  It’s a scam, I tell you.  Another bread and circus from the good old Emergency Committee of Homeland Safety to keep our minds off the fact that the ‘postponed’”--He crooked his fingers to emphasize the quotation marks, making fun of Brian.  “-- election is just going to keep on being po--“

“Dad!” Three kids said just ahead of Mom’s “Dear?”  And all four of them swiveled to the camera, which was still red.

“I sure hope that thing is off,” Julia muttered.  “I don’t want to end up in the Terrorist Hilton.”

“Oh Julia,” Mom said.  “Nobody in the Free World really goes to those jails.  Unless you’re doing terrorist activities.  Your dad’s little joke hardly constitutes . . . .”

“Talking to me or to the camera?” Julia asked, then shut the front door behind her.

Dad rose, smoothed his hand apologetically over Mom’s cheek.  “C’mon, hon.  Off to work.”  He made a sour face.  “Maybe my skills, as our friend Brian put it, will earn me that big promotion, if our show doesn’t.  Just think.  All the way up to Associate Managerial Professional of  Krispy Krunchie brand snacks--woohoo, and maybe I’ll get to use the restroom on our floor, and have to wear a tie, and all that so I won’t notice that my pay has not gone up a penny since--”

“Dear,” Mom said, sounding helpless.

Dad’s voice lowered to a volcano rumble. “Spies . . . civil rights . . . yes, every step back seems so reasonable while they step right into the space we give up--” 

The door slammed behind them.  It would take until Dad dropped Mom off at work for him to finish his vent and for her to calm him down.

Lys eyed her brother.  “Come on.  Get your stuff.”

“I want that drum set.”  He glowered.

“Oh, shut up.” And because she was still angry at the way he’d made fun of her, she added,  “Just shut up about your stupid drums that you’d play for two days and then get sick of.  In fact, you wouldn’t make it two days, because the Freakenstoners would lead the lynch mob at your noise.”

Jacob ran upstairs without speaking.  She heard him banging around.  She left and started to the bus stop alone.  He could bang and crash all he wanted  and be late to school--she didn’t care.  But he appeared just before the bus arrived, and gave her a nasty smirk.

They didn’t speak on the long, crowded bus ride to school.

When they got there, he said, “You can be as big a drama queen as you want.  But I’m gonna get those drums.”    He tapped his cell like he was dropping a sinister hint.

“Talk about drama,” she retorted, and they marched off in opposite directions.

*     *     *

Lys first noticed the change in atmosphere after lunch.  Nothing big--yet.  Snickers, mostly, but when she’d turn around, as anyone would, people would be looking up or away in that way that shrinks your insides because you know, somehow, it’s about you.

She’d spent lunch with Andrea and Kayla, rehearsing their visit after school so that they would look and sound their best.  She’d even worked out where everyone would sit, so the camera in her room would get their faces and not the backs of their heads.

But after a class or two of the Looks, she noticed a lot more people than usual sneaking onto their cells.  You weren’t supposed to, of course, and technically the school could monitor your ISC.  They said it was for the safety of the school, just as monitoring everyone’s ISC in the real world was for safety, once the Homeland Committee had gotten Congress to agree that life would be more streamlined for everyone if the old fashioned social security number, your on-line service code, your personal phone number, all were combined into one easy number--Identity Security Code, ISC-- that meant you.

So Lys sat in the back and keyed up CloneBore--and what she read on the student news site made her entire body flash with tingling heat and then go snow cold.

Ty Leung’s stats.  5’9’, 128 lbs, hair black, eyes black, god i wonder what his hair feels like . . Hates broccoli, loves chocolate . . . favorite shoes Gremmies, wears boxes from--

No.  No.  Nononono!

Her eyes skimmed down the familiar words--familiar because they were from her diary--and no, no, there was her poem about him--the one she’d read in English class not two weeks ago, but she’d changed the name to Guy, so it would seem universal . . . .

She sat, unable to move, the cell clenched in her sweaty hands while her head pounded in time with her heart until the bell rang, and people got up, scraped chairs, shuffled, whispered.  Laughed!

She got through the last period by watching the ground and pretending she was invisible.  Until right before the dismissal  bell, when a pair of Gremmies stopped right in front of her own shoes.  She tried to step aside, and the feet stepped with her, so she looked up into a face.  His face. 5’9”, 129 pounds, black hair and black eyes--

“I can take a joke,” Ty said.  “But if I blogged about your underwear all over the web, I’d be expelled as a stalker.  Right?”  He walked away before she could speak.

Not that she could speak.  She could only whimper, hiding in a restroom stall until most kids were gone, sitting in as small a ball as she could on the bus until she got home, slamming through the front door.

When she saw her brother--who’d carefully taken the first bus--she screamed, “Where is it?”

“Where’s what?” Jacob asked, grinning.  And on the couch two skinny, slouchy boys sat, also grinning: Neil and Marc, the rest of Skull Skillz.

“My diary!” she shouted.

“You mean this?”   Jacob held it up by two fingers.

“ARRRRGH!”  She lunged at him, fingers crooked.

He tossed it to Marc, who tossed it to Neil.  Lys dove at him.  He fired it so fast to Jacob that the book flew past him over the breakfast bar, pages flapping, to crash into the pots and pans hanging on their hooks over the stove.  Lys slammed into Neil.  They fell onto the couch, a tangle of arms and legs, both yelling--they bounced off--whacked into the coffee table--knocked it over--thumped painfully to the floor.

“Whoa.” Jacob said.

“That was awesome,” Marc added.  “Do it again.”

Incandescent with rage, Lys leaped up, dashed to the kitchen, plucked her diary from the floor, threw it down again, whirled around and yanked the pots off the hooks.

The guys took cover behind furniture.

Pitching pots as punctuation, Lys yelled, “I cannot BELIEVE you SNUCK into my ROOM and took MY DIARY!  WHYYYYYY?”

Jacob’s head popped up from behind the upended couch.  He opened his mouth, then froze.  Lys froze, frying pan cocked back over her shoulder.

The cameras!

Lys keened like a boiling teapot, her mind paralyzed.

 Jacob snapped, “You made fun of my band!”

He pumped a fist into the air, and all three boys yelled, “SKULL SKILLZ!”--just as they’d practiced.

Then they raced upstairs and slammed Jacob’s bedroom door.

Lys set the frying pan down. Stalked out of the kitchen, a grin-rictus giving her a piano-face even wider than Brian’s as she headed for the stairs.

Then the doorbell rang.

Andrea, unable to wait a second longer, opened the door, her hair perfect, her laugh perfect, her stylin’ greeting ready--but when she and Kayla saw the living room, they stopped short right on the doorstep, mouths and eyes three big circles in their faces.

“What happened?” Kayla asked.

“It--it was my brother,” Lys said, her voice breaking on the last word.

“C’mon,” Andrea said brightly, trying not to stare at that camera eye over there.  She fluffed her hair back instead.  “We’ll help you clean up this mess.”

“My parents!” Lys exclaimed, and the three went into high gear picking up,  rehanging, straightening, and squaring.

When the kitchen and living room had been restored, Lys picked up the diary, her hands shaking.  Andrea flicked her hair back again, saying in the bright, cool voice she’d practiced over and over in her mind since lunch, “So, Lys, if you could totally redesign fashions worn by sixteen-year-olds, where would you start?”

The cheery words sounded so fake, so out of the blue, Kayla just stood there staring at the camera.   

The camera!

Lys choked on a sob, then ran upstairs.  They heard her door slam.

Kayla turned her back on the camera and mouthed the words Way to go! But out loud she said in an attempt at cheer, “Hey, see ya tomorrow, Lys!”

Andrea was going to protest--she really wanted to stay in front of that entrancing green eye--but Kayla herded her firmly out.

The next day Lys wasn’t at school.

*     *     *

On Monday the family sat in front of their TV, Lys farthest from it (she hadn’t been back to school), Mom and Dad holding hands tightly, Jacob slouching in an easy chair, for once not drumming on furniture or himself.

The commercials finally ending, the RealTV Logo came on, and there was Brian charging up to the front door.  Then he was inside, and there they all sat, stupid grins on their faces as Mom and Dad signed the papers from the Green Envelope, then Brian introduced everyone.

Dad joked, “When did they sneak in and make me up to look old and fat?”

“Dad,” Jacob muttered.  “I can’t hear.”

“We’re not talking,” Dad said, chuckling, but the very next scene was Lys--at school.  People looking at her.  And then, ohgodohgodohgod, Ty Leung steps up to her and says--

Lys let out a wail that drowned out his voice, pounded upstairs.  Slam!

Mom sighed.  “I didn’t think she had cramps Friday and today.”

Dad frowned. “What’d that the boy say--something about his underwear?”

The scene shifted to home, and both parents sat upright when Jacob waved the diary, followed by the Battle of Pots and Pans.  He started snickering, and couldn’t stop until the commercials came on, just after the boys ran upstairs.

Dad turned to him.  “You’re grounded.”

“But she--”

“Grounded.  Week.  Say another word, and it’s a month.”

After the commercial, the next segment was all Julia--at work, with a lot of guys coming around the counter where she sold cheapo window curtains, shades, and blinds.  The scene switched to her sitting in a bar, head to head with a guy her parents had never seen before.  Then the second commercial.

Mom said, faintly, “Who’s that?”

“Friend of Brian’s,” Julia said shortly, then got up and went upstairs.

The last scene, before the credits, was Dad, who was his usual jokester self at his work.  He was a popular floor manager because he kept the workers on his lines laughing.  But somehow the cams missed all his best cracks.  Not a ‘Bushwhacked’ to be heard.  In fact, the editing made it seem like he loved his job, and all his jokes were just to keep the workers happy.

“I’m a clown, “ Dad observed.  “A dancing bear.”

Nobody said anything.

*     *     *

“Very promising ratings for a first ep,” Brian said the next morning.

He flicked a look Lys’s way.  So did Mom, Dad, and Julia.  But Lys didn’t react.  She’d woken to a txt from Andrea: u r 1 8!  (In txtalk:   You are SO [1=sew/needle] the mad [8=big eyes] but Y didn’t thA show k & me?  Rip!) and another from Kayla: 124 msg  since 12.  ty ok, u cool.  Kayla went to Chinese school with Ty’s sister, so her message would be two degrees from the truth.  Lys could accept two degrees, especially from Kayla.

Brian flashed the grand piano. “Keep up the good work.”  A last flash just Julia’s way, and he left.

The questions from other kids started when Lys and Jacob got on the bus.  Each sat at opposite ends, as usual.  Jacob scowled and gave wise-guy non-answers until people left him alone.  Lys kept shaking her head, and finally just took a piece of tape out of her backpack and put it over her lips.  She couldn’t see a cam person anywhere, but she hadn’t the Day of the Diary Incident, either.

Since everyone knew the show, they got the idea fast--and though the questions stopped, suddenly she had a million new best friends, all grinning, chuckling, and sneaking peeks around for cameras, leading Kayla and Andrea to become her de facto bodyguards.

There’s nothing like fame to erase all social errors, Lys thought.

Then at lunch Ty appeared out of the crowd and sat down at their bench.  Nobody spoke (though Andrea couldn’t help a faint squee); Lys gave him a sick look that Ty had no trouble interpreting.  He leaned forward until their foreheads touched and whispered, “Yeah, that Brian guy asked me to talk to you, and no, I’m not mad any more.”

So.  He was only here because of the show.  But he admitted it.  And he wasn’t angry at her any more.  Would he have stayed angry without the show?  How much, in other words, was his being in that seat right now the show, and how much Lys?

About nine hours passed inside Lys’s head, though only about nine seconds outside of it, then she whispered back--trying not to get tuna sandwich breath on him--  “You have a girlfriend.  Don’t you.”

”Yeah.  Over at the Catholic school.  But she’s okay with this.  I mean, it’s supposed to help your family, and if I’m on, talking, more than one day, they have to pay me.  My family could use that.”

So. . . . she had a fake boyfriend, then.  But it was better than being public dog poo like she was after the Diary Incident.  “Okay,” she said.

He added with his dazzling, dimpled laugh,  “So I hope you’ll get rid of that diary.  Or least the part about my boxers.”

“Shredded and flushed it Friday,” she admitted, and they both laughed.

*     *     *

Tuesday’s ep still did not include the girls’ long talk about fashion, complete with drawings they pretended to dash out, that Kayla had actually made earlier. Instead, there was a lot about Julia and her mystery guy.  The camera never showed his face, but his voice was low and rough and he kept saying things with two very different meanings.  The second half was Jacob and his friends playing air guitar, while Jacob drummed on his desk, his lamp, and his school books, using two mixing spoons.  They sang their songs, each with earphones on that played their music mixes from a music-makers program, and they sounded incredibly stupid, as people do when they sing and no one else can hear the accompanying music.

“You sounded incredibly stupid,” Lys said after the credits.  Just in case Jacob hadn’t noticed.

Mom and Dad didn’t say anything.  They just got up and went to their room. 

Jacob shrugged.  “I don’t care.  I just want drums.”  He snorted, not quite a smirk.  “And everybody heard our music.”

By the next day his blog had two million hits--including DLs of his lyrics. On Wednesday the drums came, gift of a new drum maker.  It took the boys about an hour to figure out how to set them up--the logo facing the camera, according to the friendly suggestion on the accompanying card--and well before dinner, the enthusiastic rumble of concert-pitched drums rolled from all the windows.  Mom and Dad braced for a neighborly lynch mob led by the Freakenstoners.

From their house, for once, came no noise whatever.  The drumming rammled and brammled on, crash, zing!  Jacob might be tired in two days, but it was going to be a looong two days.  Unless--

The doorbell rang.  Mom raced to it, and gulped when she recognized the messy blond hair of Mrs. Franklyn--and right behind her the equally messy blond hair of Ms. Stone, plus two or three of their kids.  Nobody knew how many people lived in that house, but there were a lot, and they all seemed to talk at the top of their voices.

“We just wanted to say,” Mrs. Franklyn hallooed genially, “we are so delighted with your boy’s creativity!”

“Yes,” Ms. Stone trilled.  “Musical genius!’

“And if you’d like to come over to our place.  Cake and ice cream--a couple of our boys here play instruments--”

They could all form a band!” Ms. Stone whooped, as above them the drums thundered and a crash of cymbals sounded like a full orchestra tumbling down a flight of stairs.   Ms. Stone poked her face forward, searching wildly inside for the camera.  “Come over!”  She gave the green eye her own grand piano.  “Any time!”

“Thank you,” Mom yelled, and shut the door.

The last time the Freakenstoners had spoken to anyone in the family was to threaten to have the car towed when Dad had had to park across the street because of a fallen tree in front.   Mom and Dad looked at one another and shrugged.

*     *     *

Thursday the calls and e-mails started.

Jacob said at breakfast, “A guy celled me.  Sounded really cool.  Said he’s an investment counselor, and--”

“Scam,” Dad interrupted.  “Don’t talk to anyone calling to offer you ‘deals.’”

“But he was really cool, said he invests for rock stars--”

“Real ones don’t call.  They don’t need to, everyone goes to them.  Scammers say what you want to hear, right until they’ve drained you of cash.  Why are they calling you anyway, do they think your parents are so stupid they’ll hand over the affairs of a minor to them?”  As he said it, Dad looked puzzled. He scowled at the TV.  Then grunted.

“Dear?” Mom asked.

Dad rolled his eyes in the Talk To You Later look.  Nobody cared, they were all too busy with their own thoughts.

Lys and Jacob thumbed steadily at their cells all the way to school, deleting what seemed to be endless e-mails and calls, most of it spam.  Both of them set up their filters to block anyone but the numbers on their ISC-contact lists.

Lys was surrounded at school, and when Ty passed by, waving, Kayla commented wryly, “More proof there’s rules for ordinary people, and other rules for popular ones.”

“I’m popular?  Not really,” Lys said.  “The show is popular.”

 “Yes,” Kayla said, though Lys had half hoped she wouldn’t--but she really knew it was true.   “But you’re famous.  My mom says fame makes its own rules.  And she’s right.”

“At least you’re on every day,” Andrea grumped at Lys.  “Why do they keep cutting us?”

“We must be uber-vap,” Kayla said.

Andrea fumed, but she couldn’t argue--after all, Kayla included her own self.  “Wonder what we have to do to be wicked?” 

*     *     *

Ty joined Lys again at lunch.  This time she was prepared.  She’d written out and memorized questions. When he sat down she launched an actual conversation, careful to enunciate, leave out the you knows, and not giggle.  She asked who his favorite bands were. Ty answered, and they both forgot about being nervous because they were talking so fast about rock, who stinks, who rocks, who rules, who will rule, with everyone around adding in opinions.

When the bell rang, she said brightly, “One thing for sure.  Skull Skillz will never rule anyone but monkeys.”  Take that, Jacob!

*     *     *

The Friday ep--last of the week--stunned their parents because it ended with Julia going up the stairs to some apartment with the mystery guy, obviously late at night, and the door closed on them just before the credits.

Mom and Dad turned to Julia.  Dad just looked thunderous, but Mom said somewhat tentatively, “Julia, we agreed after you turned eighteen that your private life is your business.  But we don’t even know this young man--”

“Mom.  When have I not come home at my usual time?” Julia cut in.

Dad leaned forward, thumb jerked toward the TV.  “You mean that was fake?”

“Of course it was.  When do I have time for romance?” Julia added bitterly, so bitterly that Dad’s next comment was uttered with a lot less heat than he’d intended.

“So you’re letting the rest of the world think you fall into the arms of any sleazebag who comes around--”

“I don’t care what the world thinks,” Julia said, high spots of color in her cheeks, her eyes wide.  “I.  Don’t.  Care.  Because here’s the truth.   I will do anything.  Anything.  To have a real life--just college, and a car to school and back.  Not to have to work ninety hours a week, and then stand on the street waiting until there’s a bus that’s not overcrowded.  And Brian knows it.  So he’s sending these guys, who are all friends of his, who want a break out in L.A.”

“So your romance thing, it’s all pretend, just like me and Ty?” Lys asked.

Julia glanced her way and shrugged.  “Brian’s been setting it all up for me.  He’s orchestrated it.  You guys are doing okay on your own, so why not?”

Mom and Dad looked at one another.  Dad grimaced.  “Why not?”

*     *     *

A few days later, at breakfast Dad was saying, “ . . . so this bozo is there waiting at the lunch room soon as I come off for lunch, and he actually starts jabbering about how much he likes snack foods until I say, Buddy, I don’t eat the stuff, I just work in a place that makes it, and this is my lunch minute, and he laughs about five times what the joke is worth so I say, You gotta be selling something, and he says pleasure--well, turns out he sells yachts.  He wants to sell us a yacht!”

“A yacht?” Mom exclaimed.  “But we’re a thousand miles from anywhere we’d use a yacht.”

“That’s what I said, but he starts into this ‘people of leisure’ spiel about how a thousand miles is nothing to them--”

The doorbell rang then, and Julia got up to let Brian in.  Dad clammed up and attacked his oatmeal.  Brian gave them the studio piano and a pep talk that everyone took to mean their ratings were slipping.   Julia couldn’t be the entire show, which was about families.

Jacob muttered, “So?  I’ve been grounded.  What can I do but drum in my room?”

Lys said nothing.  Her segments had been getting shorter. The conversations with Ty were boring once they’d covered music, because they had zip in common otherwise.  He liked sports, and she couldn’t tell a baseball team from a football one.  Worse, not a single one of the conversations in her room that she and Andrea and Kayla had worked out to be interesting and meaningful had shown, not even ten seconds.  Andrea was going ballistic.

Lys didn’t listen to the others.  She sat there glaring at her healthy, low-fat cereal and thought, They want romance from Julia, but the rest of us are supposed to be clowns, like Dad said.  They don’t want smart, they want Debi-Dee.

Well, if that’s what they wanted, that’s what they’d get.

She excused herself.  No one paid any attention.  As usual, their eyes and ears were all for Brian--and his were on Julia. 

Lys slipped out the kitchen door.  Her heart thumped against her ribs as she crossed over to the Freakenstoners for the first time.  Now to test Kayla’s theory about the power of  popularity.

Mrs. Franklyn opened the door.  Beyond was a roar of voices from their kitchen.  The woman frowned, then her face cleared into a big grin.  She even looked past Lys’s shoulder.

“No cameras,” Lys said.  “Not until after eight a.m.”

A little frown came back.  “Dear, it’s a tad inconvenient right now--”

“I just wanted to ask, do you want to be on TV?”

Mrs. Franklyn’s face changed from impatience to a wary sort of interest.  “What do you have in mind?”  Her tone was much nicer.

“If you want to be on TV, it has to be exciting.  That’s what the guy in charge told us today.   So, I figured, what could be more exciting than if you came over and got all mad at us about Jacob’s drum playing?  I mean, make a big mob scene.  The bigger the better.”

Ms. Stone appeared at her shoulder.

“I gotta go,” Lys said.  “If you want to be on TV, that’s the way to do it.  Soon’s we all get home this afternoon.”

She left, returned to the house through the kitchen door, and found everyone sitting where they had been.

While waiting for the bus, she said to Jacob,  “I told the Freakenstoners to come over and lynch you for your playing this afternoon.”

Jacob scowled.  “What did you do that for?”

“Because.”  Lys simpered.  “Brian said we’re vap.  All except Julia, who’s the total romance madness.   You and I can’t be romance mad.  You have all day to think of something for the Skull Skillz to do about it.”

Jacob’s scowl cleared.  Then he grinned.  And flipped up his hand: high five.

Lys smacked it.

*     *     *

That afternoon  Jacob and his buds took the first bus home.  Working in assembly line, they made up a bunch of  water balloons with green yoghurt added.    Then they opened Jacob’s windows, which like Lys’s overlooked the street.  They moved his CD player just below a window, cranked the bass, and launched a CD of themselves playing, the volume turned to max, while they executed Stage Two of their Evil Plan.

When the Freakenstoners came storming over, half the kids following, Jacob fired a barrage of balloons through the windows at the kids. Splop!  Splat!  Glurp!  Jacob had excellent aim.  The Freakenstoner kids were soon covered with green guk.  They howled and shouted, shoving head-butting each other (as they sneaked peeks for the camera), wiping the stuff on and trying to throw it back.

The other two Skull Skillz joined Jacob for the second round.  When they’d emptied their arsenal, they ran downstairs, yelling insults interspersed with their  “SKULL SKILLZ ROCK!” rebel yells. The Freakenstoner kids, veterans at instant battles, launched the muck back at them, and then followed with themselves.  Soon the front lawn was covered in slime-covered kids rolling, wrestling, yelling insults while the Freakenstoner women danced about the periphery, shrieking and punching and kicking the air, and Lys on the opposite side.

Mom and Dad arrived home.  Lys ran up to them and said, “It’s fake,” then went back to yelling.  This time she thought she spotted two cams, one behind a tree, another in a van parked down the street.

Dad threw up his hands and went inside. Mom looked from the kids to the neighbors to the lawn, then marched up to the women.  “I’m going to report you hooligans to the police!”  Her voice was a bat squeak.

Mom!  Lys was entranced.  Mom was getting into it?  Mom and Dad were definitely up to something.

“How dare you!” Mrs. Franklyn screeched.

She had gotten her hair done, a towering do that made the eighties big hair look flat.   Her hair wiggled and wobbled as she went on yelling at Mom, who couldn’t quite yell back--too many years of harmonic communication--but she shook her finger a lot, and Ms. Stone shook hers right back.  In fact, the two women started fencing with their fingers, and then laughed, Mom turning away and holding her middle.  Oh no, the cam would hate that.

Lys ran upstairs.

And stopped in the doorway of her room.

Everything--bed, bureau, desk, floor--was covered in green slime.  On an upturned carton, all the yoghurt cups were built into a tower, and on it sat a little paper skull with SKULL SKILLZ ROCK! on it.

Her scream stopped everyone downstairs mid-hurl, mid-yell, and mid finger-duel.

*     *     *

“Your ratings are through the roof,” Brian said a week later. 

*     *     *

Two weeks later, “Your ratings are dropping.” He pointed at Lys and Jacob, who had been the most active with their imaginative vengeance on one another--but that got real tiring on top of homework and everything else.  ”You two need to update your blogs.  Talk about your feud.  And get the energy level back up!”  He glanced down at his handheld.  “Network says to remind you, if you can casually work in mentions of the sponsors of the shows, there’s another point in the pay-level.”

Jacob and Lys both turned their Dad’s way.  He’d been really quiet the past few days.  They knew he would hate that suggestion of blatant commercialistic pandering--but he said nothing.

“We’ve been too busy to blog,” Lys said.  What she was actually thinking was, she hated checking her blog, which now had a kazillion hits--but the comments were mostly spam, scam, or insults.  Some were friendly, but did they just want something?  They couldn’t know Lys because it wasn’t the real Lys on the show.

“Okay,” Jacob said.  “Can we make fun of their stupid commercials?”

Brian pursed his lips and tapped a finger to them.  “At this point in your ratings levels you might try it, as long as you don’t say anything you can be sued for.  You’ll see what I mean if you read the contracts again.”  He flashed a couple of octaves at Lys.  “You and your girlfriend, what’s her name?  Kaylee?  Katie?”  He glanced down at his handheld.  “Kayla.  Audience response lists her as funny.  That scene when the two of you put Jacob’s furniture outside on the sidewalk in the rain and his boxers tied to the tree branches hit as high as the Neighbor Lawn Fight.  The audience also liked the homey touch, when you and your mom went to buy your new furniture at your sister’s workplace.”

Brian had insisted the furniture for Julia and Lys’s room had to come from a normal, every day shop, even though they had a enough money now to fit up a dream room.  By now Brian was pretty much directing their lives, but they were getting paid big money for it.  Weren’t they?

Dad had been uptight since the night before, and Mom quiet, Lys realized.

“Those were good brainstorms, but they were a week ago.  We need new energy,” Brian said, and left.

Lys said, “Dad?  Is something wrong?”

“I had a talk yesterday with an accountant who knows the Corporate world,” Dad said.  “It took me a while to find one who didn’t give me the runaround.  Either we lose most of what we earned in ‘windfall profits’ next year, or we spend it.  So fire up those Wish Lists.  Soon’s we’re thrown off this show, we shift into consumer mode.”

“Why can’t we invest?” Julia asked, her hands tight.  “Put it to work and let it earn something really big?”

Dad shook his head.  “Here’s the skinny.  The government is not going to let us get rich enough to break the glass window into Corporate, where of course no one pays taxes.  Homelanders pay double if we win something or inherit or whatever. We can spend it all, or lose it--or invest it in government stocks, which pay a tiny percent back each year in ‘earnings.’  That’s reality.”

Julia looked stunned.

Dad opened his hands wide.  “So the real truth is, we are performing clowns.  All of us.  As long as we dance to the puppet-masters’ tunes.  Here’s what else I’ve found out. Every family that’s been successful runs out of their money, one way or another, within a couple years after their show is cancelled, and we all know there is no second chance.  So it’s right back to where we were.”

Mom flushed.  “They seem to pick people who don’t think.”  Her voice quivered.  “That’s how we looked on paper.  Like people who go along with the rules, and never think.”  She looked out the window, and they knew she was blaming herself and her make-peace, don’t-make-waves harmonic communication.  Dad’s arm went round her, and Julia gripped her shoulder.

“So what?   I don’t care what they think about us. We’re having fun,” Jacob said.  He grinned.  “And I got my drums.  And enough dough to soundproof my room now that my furniture’s all gone.” 

He stuck his tongue out at Lys, who stuck hers out right back.  She knew he liked his room almost empty, except for a mattress on the floor.  More room for musical equipment that way--his own ready-made sound stage.

Later that night, when Julia and Lys were sitting up in their beds, the light and camera both off,  Lys whispered, “I thought Mom and Dad were beginning to like the show, but now they seem to hate it.” 

“Just as well.  Brian thinks we’re probably getting the axe next week, if not this.” Moonlight painted the contours of Julia’s face, leaving her eyes in shadow. “Dad never cared about the show, it was the money.  He thought we could earn our way out of the Homeland. He’d be promoted due to his fame--a real promotion, not a new job title and dress code and no increase in pay.  We'd earn enough to eventually break the bottom level of Corporate, that is, gain a voice in deciding what matters.  But it’s not going to happen.  The glass ceiling is way lower than any of us knew.  As Dad says, Big Brother has us firmly locked into the play pen.  The show is like throwing toys in, so nobody in the Homeland notices.”

Lys felt weird--but she’d felt weird ever since Day One, when reality became unreal, and only being fake seemed real.  “You and the parents notice.”

“And other people.  You just have to learn to find them.  And get together . . . and talk where there are no cameras.”

“Are you talking about . . . like, like revolution?”

“No,” Julia said quickly.  “If you study real history--not the new textbooks full of patriotic pablum--you’ll find that the cost of neighbor fighting neighbor was far too high in the Revolutionary War, and even worse, the Civil War.  No one wants that.  And Big Brother knows it, and so keeps smiling, and reassuring us that we have to make sacrifices in order to be the guardians of the Free World.  But what we’ve sacrificed is our rights. I’m only beginning to see it.  You kids don’t, because what we have now is what you’ve always known.  So you think it’s just Dad’s grump.”

Lys hated this kind of talk, because what could she possibly do?  She’d decided when she was little to ignore Dad’s grump.  It just worried Mom, and didn’t change anything.  But now Julia was talking the same way.

“We need to find a way to push back.  Regain what we lost, but without weapons in our hands.”  Julia sighed.  “I don’t know how yet, but I’m going to find out.  Why do you think I’m going to college to study law?” 

“So . . . that’s what we should all do?” Lys asked tentatively.

Julia stared out the window a long time.  Lys waited.

Julia said finally,  “I’m too tired for this conversation, really.  And I’m not going to tell you what to do.  You have to make up your own mind.  So I’ll say this.  I’m going to push back in the courtroom.  One person, one battle, one right at a time. Maybe, some day, you’ll choose to push back through the entertainment industry.  Make stories about people who push back one person, one battle, one right at a time. And maybe Jacob will write songs about people who push back one person, one battle, one right at a time.  And if enough people read, or see, or hear about it, and think it the right idea, and choose to push, then, well, something’s gotta give.  Let it be Corporate, and not Homeland.  Maybe we can be a real republic again, who knows?  Until then, yeah, we stay in the play pen, just like Dad said.”   She snorted.  “As for the show, I’d just like to pick the time, not be told.  Just because.”

*     *     *

All the fun had gone out of Lys’s fake life.  By morning she was sick of fake popularity, of her fake romance, her fake feud with her brother, of worrying about cameras if she wanted to scratch her nose.   Even the Wish List didn’t matter any more, not if it was all going to be taken away.  And what kind of stupid last ep would they want?  Debi-Dee, that’s what they’d want!

And so that Friday when she arrived at lunch, and there was the usual crowd, Andrea still sulky (she still couldn’t get over the fact that she had been at the orthodontist the day Kayla helped Lys put Jacob’s furniture outside),  Lys mumbled to Kayla, “It’s ending soon.  I don’t care.  I’m sick of being fake.”

Kayla laughed.  “Lys, don’t think of it as fake.  Think of it as living in a story.  Haven’t you learned anything from Shakespeare about the power of stories?”

“Not much power when they pull the plug,” Lys muttered, sulky and unsettled.  She threw her books and lunch down on the table.  She felt an overwhelming urge to find the hidden cam person and yell “I quit!”  But that seemed so weenie, somehow.  Like she was giving up before they could even tell her to give up. 

So when Ty sat down with her, she thought of the power of popularity--what Dad said--what Kayla said--what Julia said, and it just came out, “I have to dump you.”   

He looked up, startled, but of course he wasn’t upset.  He was just along for the ride, after all.  “Why?” he asked.  “What did I do?”

“Nothing, Ty.  Nothing.  But I’ve been thinking--”  Yeah!  Big Brother--glass ceiling--rights--Family Standards.   All the things she couldn’t say, they’d just cut it right out.  So what could she say?

Oh, why not go out in style?   

“It’s just that I’m gay.”

The gasps around her nearly removed every molecule of air from the lunch room.

She stood up.  “Lesbian!  That’s me!  It’s such a relief to be the real, real me!” She whirled around, laughing.  “The real me!  The real me!”

Then Andrea marched up, jerked her around, and with the romantic sweep of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara on the bridge with Atlanta burning in the background, she bent Lys back and kissed her.   

And Lys kissed her back.

The outrush of breath from a couple hundred pairs of lungs sent birds flapping to the cafeteria rooftop.

*     *     *

Brian eyed Lys.  “That was supposed to end up on the cutting room floor.  Callers--Programs and Practices--the Homeland Social Secretary--you can’t imagine the calls.  But.  It got the highest ratings ever.”

Dad laughed so hard Mom had to pound him on the back.  “Way to go, Lyssie!  Way to go!”

“It was that kiss, see.  The editor--she’s always been fast, stylish, instinctive.  Nobody knew she was a lesbian.  Or that the network engineer is a Quaker.  Or that the CEO of our biggest advertiser--”  Brian cleared his throat. “The network wants a new deal.  With you.”

Lys studied the faces of her family.  They looked back, all of them clearly on her side, but the next step was hers.

Popularity makes its own rules.

You’re not a fake, you’re living a story. 

Push back.

She leaned forward.  “So what do you have to offer?”



About the Author:

Sherwood Smith began making books out of taped paper towels when she was five years old, and at eight began writing stories about another world full of magic and adventure--and hasn't stopped yet.

She studied history and languages in college, lived in Europe one year, and has worked in jobs ranging from tending bar--to put herself through grad school--in a harbor tavern to various jobs in Hollywood. Married twenty-six years (two kids, two dogs, and a house full of books) she is currently a part-time teacher as well as a writer.                 

She has over twenty-five books out, ranging from space opera to children's fantasy, many of which have appeared overseas in Russia, Israel, and Denmark; she has also published numerous short stories.   Her latest books are Inda from DAW and Trouble under Oz from HarperCollins.


Story © 2006 Sherwood Smith.