Structured Reality

In Ali Boston’s short story debut, “Structured Reality,” Casey Walker lives in a dystopian city where she aims to be a star, no matter the cost. 

By Ali Boston

I feel the TV cameras zooming in on my fear and leg it with Jonty. My eyes strain against the blinding white of the sky, but ahead I can see grey concrete – a building. We must be back at the empty town. The place we’re calling home.

I swipe back my damp fringe from my forehead. My feet slip on the gravel, and it feels like I’m going nowhere.

I take a quick look over my shoulder and catch a flash of the Seeker’s peroxide-blonde quiff. They’ve set up a good shot of the hunter and the hunted. Will the viewers think Jonty and I stand a chance? The Seeker looks skinny but he’s all muscle.

He’s closing in on us.I pick up the pace. At school they used to say I ran like a chicken. I’ll show them.

The building ahead of us is a two-story car park, and we run straight into the ground floor. We don’t have a plan. There are only a few cars parked, which look as though they’ve been deserted for so long that rust has crawled all over them. My eyes dart to the edges of the car park, desperate for an exit out the other side.

“STOP,” the Seeker shrieks behind us.

“Down!” Jonty shouts. He flings his arms around my waist and pushes me to the ground behind one of the cars.

As we lie there, our breathing races to slow down. Jonty’s broad chest presses into my back. I resist trying to move and focus on the tufts of grass that have weaseled their way through the cracks in the concrete. I have no idea where the Seeker is now. This is the point where the viewers will probably be screaming—- “He’s behind you!”—- at the TV.

“static 3” © Paul Lin https://www.flickr.com/photos/fudj/259789991/

Then, the Seeker lets out a high-pitched cackle that makes the whole car park shiver. Oh god, oh god, he’s really mad. I close my eyes.

“And cut!” Three men clad in neon-green baseball caps pop out from behind a car. “That’ll do guys. We’ll give the viewers a nice cliffhanger this time round.” The director sniggers.

Jonty and I lie still, heavy with relief. I thought we were about to find out what happens when you get caught.

“Meet me at dusk at the weir again.” Jonty’s whisper tickles my ear.

I turn my head to respond, but he has already leapt to his feet. He offers me a hand and I accept it. His black hair is sticking up with sweat. He doesn’t take his brown eyes off mine. Face-to-face, I drop my eyes to the ground. I feel the burn of his touch on my shoulder. He smiles. “Another episode down.”

I just hope it was enough to impress the viewers, I think.

A black van pulls into the car park. The name of the show is stamped along its side: “Hide and Seek.” I glance over at the Seeker, who stands patiently as a runner pats the sweat from his bony shoulders with a towel. In training, someone told me the Seeker used to be in the military, but war turned him mad. Now they pay him thousands to tease fame-seeking civvies. I heard he learnt tonnes of different ways to torture people in the army. They say he enjoys watching people suffer. I reckon, given half the chance, he’d finish us all off properly one by one. Luckily, killing off the contestants doesn’t make good TV. Still, being chased by him is bad enough.

I fling my arms around Jonty. His hands press around my waist. “You should get some downtime before the next shoot starts,” he says. Then he pulls away and holds my face in front of his. “See you later,” he mouths.

 


 

Back at my flat, I check the shoot schedule in my welcome pack, which has been lying on the kitchen table since I moved in. “Congratulations,” the welcome letter inside says. “You are one of the lucky contestants for DigiTV’s latest structured reality series.” It explains how the script will be rewritten each week in response to viewers’ votes. It explains how the winners get fifty-thousand pounds in prize money, along with fame and glory. It doesn’t explain what happens if you get caught. No one’s told us what actually happens, but I heard one of the other contestants say they keep the captives locked up until the show ends. Someone else said they only feed the captives bread and rats. Apparently, watching people try to eat rats makes good bonus footage. I just hope I won’t ever have to find out whether it’s true.

I pick up the landline from the floor in the hall. We had to hand in our phones when training began. Now this is the only source of communication to the real world. I slide down the wall until I’m sitting on the floor with my knees bent towards my chest, and I call home.

“Well, this is a nice surprise. Shouldn’t you be out enjoying the city?” says my mother.

“Not today. Have you been on DigiTV lately?”

“No, been so busy. We’ve had guests every weekend. So how are you finding working in an office? Are you making new friends?”

I pause. “Good. Fine.”

“Wonderful, darling. Auntie Harriet asked about you the other day, so I’ll let her know you’re doing very well. You know your sister called earlier – she’s been promoted.”

“Seems like they’re promoting her every other week.”

“Well, she works very hard for it.”

“I should call and congratulate her, I suppose.”

“Yes, I’m sure she’d love to hear how you’re getting on. Anyway, I’m going to have to run, darling.”

“Miss you…”

I sit with the phone still pressed to my ear, listening to the empty tone on the other end of the line. I thought they would have heard about the show by now. I haven’t told my parents that I quit my office job to join a TV show because I couldn’t hack it at the bottom. When I finished studying I thought I was going to be an actor – they told me it was easy to make your dreams come true. But the city doesn’t have much room for dreams.

Then I remember the cameras. They keep rolling even during the downtime between episodes. I think it’s so they can air bonus footage for the diehard fans. I hope I have diehard fans out there. I wipe my face, slam down the phone and stand up. I go to the bathroom and stare at my reflection in the mirror. I pull the hair tie out of my mousy hair and let it hang on my shoulders. I pout my thin lips and try to make my baby blue eyes look fierce. In reality, I know I wasn’t blessed with movie-star looks. I scrape my hair back. I can do this. I am Cassey Walker, soon to be “Hide and Seek’s” biggest star.

 


 

As dusk rolls in over the set, I head out towards the weir to meet Jonty. Jonty and I hit it off during the first two weeks of training. We’ve been sneaking around the set ever since. I’m sure the producers like it.

Outside the flat, I see a boy around my age stalking below the building opposite. Fear is smeared across his face. I recognize him from training. His name’s David. He’s a fast runner. Faster than me.

David pauses. A lone cameraman emerges from around the corner. That’s not a good sign. Then I spot the Seeker prowling on the balcony above. David looks up. For a second it’s as if they lock eyes. Then David bolts. Nonchalantly, the Seeker waits, allowing his prey a head start. Then, he pounces.

He springs off the balcony and propels his lean body after David. He pounces on David, throwing him to the ground. Immediately, the neon-green baseball caps of the crew appear from the shadows. The Seeker keeps David’s face buried in the ground.

“Alright, alright,” I hear the director say. “That’ll do. One down already. Take him away.”

Jonty and I had a lucky escape earlier.

The Seeker gets up and brushes himself down. A crew member grabs hold of David and thrusts his hands behind his back. It makes me feel sick, thinking about what might be about to happen to him. I slip away in the opposite direction.

When I reach the river, I take the footpath upstream and into the woods. The sky is tinged with red. I can feel the cameras watching me, and I’m about to give them something to be interested in. I know that Jonty’s not far away now. My stomach wriggles at the thought of seeing him.

I come out of the trees and see Jonty leaning on the iron railings that surround the weir. He’s wearing a black leather jacket, and his dark hair is pushed back from his face. He looks more tanned than usual in the evening light. I feel suddenly self-conscious in my own pasty skin.

He smiles as he sees me. “I’m glad you came,” he says.

“I’m glad we’re still here,” I say, hugging him tightly. “I thought the Seeker had us for sure.” I feel his warmth and don’t want to pull away. “You know, I think we’ve got a chance of actually winning the show.”

Jonty doesn’t reply.

“I’ve got a good feeling about this.” I pull away and look Jonty in the eyes. He looks right back at me and I desperately want to kiss him, but he throws me into another hug.

“What, what is it?”

He puts his hand down towards the pocket of my jeans and pulls out the microphone pack. He switches it off. Then he looks at me. “I’m done. I want out. And I want you to come with me.”

“Out? You mean to leave the show?”

“Exactly.”

“What are you going to do? You can’t just walk up to the Seeker and tell him you quit.”

“No, I want to do it my way –- I want to stage an escape.” He puts his hands on my shoulders. “Wouldn’t it be awesome if we were the people who escaped from ‘Hide and Seek?’”

“It would be more awesome if we won!”

“Be honest with yourself. You won’t last another week here. If you want to launch your acting career, an escape is the way to do it.”

I pull back. “I’ve got this far. Maybe people like me.”

“Come on, they’ve already written the script for who they want to win. It’s rigged. And I can tell you, it’s not us.”

“It’s nice to know you have so much faith in me,” I say, turning away from him and heading back towards the path.

“Cassey, wait. Hold on. It’s me too. I haven’t got a chance in here either.” He catches up with me and grabs my arm.

I turn around, and he brushes his hand over my hair.

“I’m going to do it tomorrow. Come with me. I can’t stand the thought of leaving you here.”

“I’ll think about it,” I reply.

 


 

I turn the keys sharply in the lock and throw my shoulder against the door to push it open. I’m still trying to let Jonty’s idea sink in. This wasn’t how our story was supposed to go.

The flat is pitch black. I hate the dark. I flip the switch, but the light doesn’t come on. I flip it again. Nothing. That’s strange. I try the lamp in the hall, and it flickers with a dim glow. Must have been a bust bulb. I look up at the ceiling. There’s no bulb in the light fitting.

“1/8640” © yosuke watanabe https://www.flickr.com/photos/ywuc2010/16447003581/

I hear a crash in the kitchen. My heart hurls itself at my ribcage. I flip the kitchen light on. There’s a broken wine glass on the floor. Then I hear the camera in the corner of the room humming. It’s zooming in – setting up for a shot. He’s here.

Cold, wiry fingers clasp around my neck. “Gotcha,” the Seeker whispers in my ear and his wet breath slips down my neck. I try to prize his hands away, but they squeeze harder around my throat. He’s not supposed to be in my home. This isn’t part of the script.

I thrust my elbows into him again and again, anywhere I can, and scream, throwing my head about until I find my teeth locked down hard on the flesh of his bare arm. I hold on long enough to taste his blood in my mouth. Surprised, he lets me go, and I run straight for the front door.

I reach for the handle, but the Seeker catches up and slams me hard against the door. He flips me round so that I come face to face with him for the first time. His eyes are a sickly pale blue. His breath smells of wet cigarettes. I turn my head to the side. But he grabs my face with his bony fingers and bashes my head back against the door. Dull pain spreads across the back of my skull.

He waits for me to recover and then throws my head against the door again. I try to steady myself. Then I kick him hard in the shins and take the chance to duck down under his arm.

I fly into the kitchen and pull open every drawer I can grasp, looking for a weapon. I spot a pair of scissors and grab them. I look back. The Seeker leans in the doorway. From one corner of his mouth, a cocky smile has crept up his face. Fuck.

He saunters over to me and I stand braced, the scissors shaking in my hand. He lingers in front of me, taunting me.

I wait. But he’s still too quick for me. His hands fly up, and he snatches hold of my wrists. He twists my right wrist down towards the ground until the pain sears up my arm and I let the scissors fall to the floor. He punches me hard in the jaw. I throw out my right leg to try to get him in the shins again, but I miss.

He pounds a fist into my stomach. I start to give up. I don’t care how bad being caught is I just want it to be over. I’m nothing more than a rag doll as I let him throw me about the kitchen. I whisper, “You’ve got me. Just take me away.”

There’s a crash as the front door flies open. “Jesus, cut it out!” I hear the director’s voice shout. The Seeker lets go of me. Four crew members pile into my kitchen and grab hold of the Seeker. “What the hell is going on? You’re totally off script, mate,” the director says. The Seeker doesn’t say anything.

One of the crew members starts to lead him out, muttering, “This is a TV show, not a war.”

The director grabs the Seeker’s arm as he passes. “Don’t go after this one, OK mate?” I watch his mouth keep moving but I’m no longer listening. I sink to the floor and lean my head back against the cupboard. Why didn’t he just take me?

 


 

I wake to birdsong in the morning. For a second I think I’m at my parents’ house. Then I move my arms, and the dull pain in them reminds me of reality. I remember the Seeker’s snigger. I roll over and face Jonty. After what happened, he wouldn’t let me stay alone.

He’s already awake and smiles. “You ready?”

I glance at the camera watching us from the corner of the room. “Yes.”
I’m sure we’ve already caught the producers’ attention. I wonder whether they’ll work out what we’re doing in time to stop us. I wonder whether the audience has any idea what’s about to happen.

We get up and prep for our escape. Jonty hands me an old rifle. “Here, take this. It’s not loaded, but you can still do some damage with the end of it.”

I look down at the clunky casing. “What do you have?”

He lifts up a hammer and smiles. He puts his arms around me. “We’re going to give them a show they won’t forget.”

Outside, Jonty takes me by the hand and together we steal down the fire escape steps. As we reach the last step, we pause to check the square. It seems deserted. We count to ten. Then we run for it. We run straight ahead to the building on the other side, then rest with our backs against the concrete wall, looking for our next move.

“The director keeps his car in a garage by the old petrol station. When we get there, you keep a look out while I get the car started. OK?”

“OK.”

“We’ll have to move fast once we’re in the garage. I’m sure there’ll be an alarm, so they’ll know about it pretty fast. But we’ll be out of there before they realize what’s actually happening. Sound OK?”

“Just about.”

He presses his lips to my forehead. “We’re gonna get out of here.” He smiles and gently shakes my shoulders.

I pull a smile.

He checks around. “Let’s go.”

“Broken” © Bill Mill https://www.flickr.com/photos/llimllib/3326624907/

We skirt around the edge of the building, until we see a playground on the other side. A broken swing rests on the ground. There’s a spade stuck up vertically in the sand pit. I shiver thinking of the Seeker here, holding onto that spade and smirking at me. There’s no sound, as if someone turned the show on mute. All I can hear is the deafening drum of my heart in my chest. Then I spot a camera crew edging towards us from one of the other streets.

“Look,” I say, nudging Jonty.

“Very good,” he says, “we’ve already got their attention.”

I watch as one of the men behind the camera tries to get his tripod in place.

“Ready?”

“Ready.”

“Come on.”

We dart across the playground. I turn my head to look at the cameras as we pass them. I hope Jonty’s right. I hope this is the way to become famous.

We disappear into an alleyway on the other side of the playground. Concrete buildings lean over us on either side. I turn around and see the camera crew hurling after us with their equipment. If we meet the Seeker now, we’re trapped.

Jonty doesn’t stop until we’re out the other side of the alleyway. He slides down behind a large skip abandoned in the street. I fall down beside him.

“The garage’s right behind us. When I say, we run for it, OK?” Jonty puts his arm round me. “We’re almost there.”

I watch the camera crew settle again a few metres away from us. Clenching my right hand around the rifle’s grip, I wait for Jonty’s signal. “Now!” he shouts, pulling me to my feet and sprinting out towards the garage.

I hurl myself after him, but I struggle to keep up. He’s a different runner with freedom in his sights. At the garage, Jonty stoops and flings up the garage door to reveal two cars parked side by side. Jonty goes straight to a red one on the left. He stands at the driver’s side, holding the hammer beside his shoulder.

“Ready?”

I nod.

He throws the hammer down through the window. I turn to face the square. The alarm screams, blocking out all other sound.

I look over my shoulder at Jonty. He’s bent forward inside the car, trying to get it to start. I look back around at the square. The camera crews have us surrounded but they’re keeping their distance. They don’t know how to react when the action goes off script.

Jonty is taking a long time. I fear too long. I look over my shoulder again. Then I notice the back passenger door of the other car. It’s open. It wasn’t like that before. My eyes fly back to our car. I catch a flash of a peroxide-blonde quiff.

Jonty!” I scream.

I run over, slam the passenger door shut and throw the butt of the rifle hard into the Seeker’s shoulder. He looks up at me and stands back from the car at the surprise. I brace myself for his retaliation. But it doesn’t come.

The Seeker leans back against the other car. He just stares at me with those sickly blue eyes. I hit him across the jaw with the side of the rifle. I’ll be honest, it feels good. He overreacts and falls to the ground, raising a hand to feel the blood appearing on his face. I wait for him to get up.

“Come on, hit me then!” I shout.

But he staggers out of the garage. Quickly, I turn my back on him to check Jonty. He’s leaning with his head back against the seat. His nose is bleeding.

“Are you OK?”

“Yeah,” he replies softly. “I got it running.”

I look up again and see that the Seeker has turned and is walking away from the garage.

“Move over, then. Let’s get out of here,” I say.

I put the car in reverse and plough out of the garage. We pass the Seeker, and I half expect him to leap onto the car roof. But he just stares. I do a hard right turn away from the scene.

Jonty looks at me and holds a hand in the air for a high-five. I take my left hand off the steering wheel and slap his hard. It burns.

“We did it.” He beams. “You were amazing. He would have had me for sure if it weren’t for you.”

“I didn’t do anything,” I say quietly. I look in the rear-view mirror at the Seeker, wandering away. Seriously, I didn’t do anything.

“Feels good, right – freedom?” says Jonty.

I just look ahead.

Two jeeps full of cameras are now in pursuit. I can already see the wire fence that signals the edge of the set ahead of us. But now I’m replaying everything that just happened in the last twenty-four hours. The director’s words circle on repeat in my head: “Don’t go after this one.”

I brake hard.

“What’s going on?” says Jonty. “We’re almost there!”

“I think they like me Jonty. The viewers, I think they’re voting for me.”

“Cass.” He takes my hand and squeezes it.

“Think about it. We didn’t get caught this week, even though the Seeker basically had us. They intervened when he attacked me. And just now – he let us go. He didn’t do anything, he just stared at me.”

“Are you kidding? He nearly killed you yesterday!”

Silence.

“I’m not coming with you Jonty.”

“You’re saying you’d rather have this crazy? We can start a new life together.”

I shake my head. “I have to do this…my way.” I look out the window. One of the jeeps is parked about ten metres away – staring back at us.

Jonty doesn’t say anything.

I look back at him. The second jeep crawls into view behind him. There isn’t much time.

“I have to.” Now I squeeze his hand. “I’m sorry, Jonty.” I lean forward and press my lips to his. I know the cameras are watching – waiting to see what happens next. Then I pull away and, without looking him in the eyes again, pick up the rifle, climb out of the car and push the door shut behind me.

I watch him slide across into the driver’s seat. The car moans as he accelerates away. I turn and face the set. All cameras are on me.

 


 

 

Ali Boston is currently working on her first novel, which is set in a dystopian world plagued by the social impacts of climate change. When she’s not writing, she works for an organization that helps businesses combine forces to respond to global challenges – from climate change to inequality. Originally from the UK, she has lived in Costa Rica and Russia, and is now based in Oslo, Norway. This is her short story debut. Follow her on Twitter @ali_boston
 

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5 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Helen Aherne says:

    Great story, Ali! Had my attention from the very start. Enjoyed the action, which kept up the pace right through. Well done!
    Helen – Lumb Bank

  2. Ingrid Kjöllerström says:

    Such a good story – really enjoyed it! But, what happens next???? Can you pls write a sequal!

  3. Ali Boston says:

    Very glad to hear you enjoyed it, Helen!

  4. Ali Boston says:

    Thank you, Ingrid. I would love to write the next episode!

  5. Dan says:

    Amazing!

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