Shortwave Magazine

Fiction / Short Stories

"And Contributions from Viewers Like You"

a short story
by Patrick Barb

April 24, 2024
3,520 Words
Genre(s):

What if the end of the world happened years ago, decades even, but we missed it because we’d stopped paying attention? If any lifeform on Earth was stubborn enough to persist and persevere in the face of oblivion, I’d put my money on humankind.

Sorry, cockroaches and tardigrades!

I used to run through these kinds of existential questions all the time. It was how I’d occupied myself during the long, dull hours of my internship at WRTH Public Television.

Going into my junior year of college in 2004, my advisor recommended me for the gig.

“You wanna make movies and TV. Right, James?” My name’s not James, but I nodded from the other side of his old desk all the same. I filled out the internship application in the school’s records office after we finished. I needed something to do outside of classes and the idea of converting the unpaid internship into a potential paying gig held some appeal.

I wasn’t sure what I expected from the work. Maybe I imagined getting to play with the puppets from one of the kids’ shows filmed in-studio or sitting in one evening to introduce whatever British parlor room drama they serialized every Saturday night? At the very least, I figured on getting some experience working one of the bulky in-studio cameras used to record the live Sunday morning politics debate show.

But nah. Not this job.

Instead, I got assigned to work in “Archives.” Doing so consisted of the following:

Every Wednesday and Friday after classes, an old woman with jaundiced skin, a scent I’d describe as “Eau de Dog Piss,” and a bouffant hairdo straight from the ’60s, led me to the basement of the main WRTH building. By the time I stepped off the bottom step (because of course the elevator never worked), it was as though I’d been spat into the most boring video shop ever conceived.

Shelves and shelves of black video cassettes in stiff white boxes circled the room and then more waited in rows spaced out through the center, with enough clearance for one or two people to move. On the far end of the space, on a wooden desk, a small TV with a built-in VCR and a word processor straight from Mavis Beacon waited. I’d sit in the squeaky office chair provided. The one that was always too low relative to the desktop and never stayed adjusted no matter how many times I fixed it.

Then, I’d pop in a video cassette, making sure to log the series name, episode title, and date first aired of the featured program, before hitting play on the VCR. Typically, I’d watch for a few seconds to ensure closed captioning appeared on the tape. If it did, I’d mark it and return the tape to the shelves, before picking up the next one. Lather, rinse, repeat. However, occasionally some of the older tapes were missing the requisite captioning.

Then, my real work started.

Once I identified an uncaptioned recording, I’d sit through the whole half-hour, hour-length, or more program, typing as fast as possible to produce a post-facto transcript. It took a while to get used to the process of transcribing. I encountered my fair share of incidents requiring rewinding, pausing, playing things back again to make sure I got them right, and so on. But after a while, I got into the groove, and typing the occasional stray transcript became an opportunity for fun and games. I could anticipate what was said before the speaker said it. Except for this one time. . .

So, there I was in the dimly lit basement, trying to put the words into the mouths of hosts or puppets or whomever from decades past. All the voices and background noises blended into one message, squawking at me through the subtle staticky hum of the TV/VCR combo. Then, one Friday afternoon, I went to the shelves and pulled a VHS labeled “1985 WRTH Telethon Tape 2.”

I pushed aside the can of Mr. Pibb I’d snuck down to the basement (because we weren’t supposed to bring snacks or drinks into the Archives) and slid the tape into the waiting maw of the VCR. Gears turned as the tape settled into the slot. Then, I hit play.

After a few lines of static, the tape kicked off with the telethon in full swing. It took less than a minute to scan the bottom of the screen before I figured my services were required after all. Running on auto-pilot, I hit rewind, letting the tape spool back until the VCR made a clicking sound like there were fat-legged crickets hidden in the basement.

I hit pause on an image of the main studio space upstairs, a room about half the size of the Archives, with the remaining corresponding area given to the cameras and production team. Standing in the center of the space, a man and a woman dressed in ’80s Sunday School teacher chic spoke into the main camera. The man’s hair was an unnatural black and clearly a toupee, given the carrot-orange coloring of his full beard. He wore a white turtleneck and a blue sports coat with brown patches at the elbows. Creased khaki pants extended to the floor. The woman wore a blue jumper dress fringed with white and her blonde hair fell shy of her shoulders in these Farrah Fawcett waves and curls.

Freeze-frames showing people smiling always weird me out. Same for photographs. There’s something about a frozen smile, a moment of happiness, joy, ecstasy, or even the approximation of those emotions I find unsettling. Taking a deep breath, I fired up the word processor, waiting for the blinking green cursor to settle down.

Keeping the fingers of one hand on the keyboard, I reached for the play button with the other. Watching the tape of this telethon, filmed when I would’ve been around three or four, was a surreal experience. Not just for the cultural references thrown around or the casual misogyny on display and accepted.

Things picked up, taking a sharp turn for the bizarre when the children’s television personality Mr. Fredericks came to entertain the boys and girls manning the telephones.

I’m not sure my words will do the tape justice. After I completed my first viewing, I grabbed some scratch paper and a nubby wooden pencil and wrote out the whole transcript I’d typed into longhand chicken scratch.

Now, all these years later, I’m ready to take those faded graphite smudges from the yellowed notepad out of storage and translate them into a work of. . . truth?

Well, as true as I can make it.

Because I know the world didn’t end in 1985. Otherwise, how can I sit here today and write this post?

Rather than ramble on and keep you from the meat of the post, I’ll go ahead and paste the relevant excerpt from the retyped transcript of Tape 2. I know what I watched and how I captured what I heard, but I’ll leave conclusions to you, dear readers. However many of you are out there.

[theremin music plays; laughing]

CHARLES VAN PATTEN: And we’re back. Don’t you love a spot of British sci-fi, Marsha?

MARSHA THOMPSON: I love how well all those aliens speak, Chuck.

CHARLES: Indeed. You’ve got to respect something from beyond the stars with the decency to say, ‘PLEASE take me to your leader.’

MARSHA: Oh, Charles.

CHARLES: And we’re hoping you folks watching at home say ‘Please take us to the phones.’ Because it’s what we’re gonna do now, as we take a walk here. This morning we’ve got Mrs. Sankman’s sixth-grade class at Clover Leaf Middle School manning the phones for us.

MARSHA: These Clover Leafs will take your checking or credit card info for the next hour or so. And remember, any bit you give helps. At WRTH Public Television, our commitment to public enrichment and the installation of an appreciation of the arts and learning in all our viewers remains an undeniable part of our mission. If you enjoy programs like the one we showed, or our children’s programming, or any of the other news, science, or cultural content featured day after day, week after week, year after year, then please give us a call. Your contributions, no matter how small or how big, make a difference. And we promise none of these rascals helping us on the phones will steal your money or identities.

CHARLES: Well, I’m not so sure when it comes to this fella, Marsha. Young man, what’s your name?

BOY: Huh?

CHARLES: Ah, a bit camera shy, eh? Come on, son, tell the folks at home your name.

BOY: Ronnie.

CHARLES: Like our President. Are you familiar with the Gipper, Ronnie?

RONNIE: No.

CHARLES: Hm. Okay. So, on the walk over here, I noticed you were on the phone with one of our loyal and generous WRTH viewers. Correct?

RONNIE: Yeah.

CHARLES: Watch out, Marsha. We’ve got a talker here. Ronnie’s coming for our jobs. Ronnie, wanna share with the folks in our studio and those watching on the other side of the screen this morning the latest donation amount from your last caller?

RONNIE: <indistinct whispering>

MARSHA: What was it, Chuck? What’d he say?

CHARLES: Sorry, Marsh. Son, repeat what you said. . . Louder, son. Come on.

RONNIE: They said the Cataclysm comes for us all. They said their donation is the oblivion of everyone here. They told me my mom and dad are dead, they were dead before, and they will be dead soon. All at the same time. They wouldn’t stop. They wouldn’t. . .

CHARLES: Well, I’d say you fell victim to a phone prankster, Ronnie. Gotta watch out for those bad eggs. Wouldn’t you agree, Marsha?

MARSHA: Yeah. I, yes, I do.

[All the telephones in the booth ring at once.]

CHARLES: Fu. . . fun. It’s what we’re having today, folks. Our phone lines are lighting up and our crack team of phone answerers will be staying plenty busy. You’ve got another call, Ronnie.

RONNIE: Hello? Uh-huh. Uh-huh. I can’t. No. I. . . hey!

[The screams of the dying echo from all telephones, rising to an ear-splitting crescendo.]

[Someone retches off-camera.]

CHARLES: Yowch. We’re having some, uh, issues with our phone lines. Probably those darn Communists, right?

RONNIE: It’s the Cataclysm calling. It speaks through the voices of the dead, the dying, and those yet to die. All is the same in the Cataclysm. Listen and you’ll. . .

CHARLES: You know what, let’s check in with another one of our student volunteers. Girl, uh, what’s your name?

GIRL: . . . hear your voice in the chorus of the damned and destined, Charles. Your shrill cries for mercy exist within the Cataclysm.

CHARLES: What the fuc—

MARSHA: Hey, kids, you all come down here. Okay. Okay? Great. We’ll let our technicians take a look-see at the phones and give you a chance to meet a special friend I’ll bet you remember. Okay?

CHARLES: Yeah, yeah. Go on. . .

MARSHA: And, for anyone trying to call and make your donation, please stay on the line. We can’t wait for your call. The quality educational programming of WRTH continues because of contributions from viewers like you.

PRODUCER: They’re all here, Marsha.

MARSHA: Thanks, Lauren. Lauren Lassiter’s our fearless lead producer here at WRTH. She keeps this ship afloat. I. . . I mean we, we don’t know what we’d do without you, Lauren.

LAUREN: You bet, Ms. Thompson.

MARSHA: Oh, call me. . . ah okay. Sorry, kids. Well, let’s show everyone watching at home your happy, smiling faces. Ready for your surprise?

. . .

. . .

. . .

[Someone coughs off camera. A sharp nasal inhale, the precursor to expectoration following.]

MARSHA: Well, um, either way. . . here he is straight from the Playground of Pretend, let’s give a warm WRTH welcome to the host of Mr. Fredericks’s Pretend Time. . . Mr. Fredericks!

[Barely audible applause, canned and mechanical. Like someone pushed the button on some automatic applause machine. Which they obviously did.]

CHARLES: Oh Jesus. What a disaster. . .

MR. FREDERICKS: Well, hello there. Do you all know me?

. . .

. . .

. . .

MARSHA: Now, children, what will your teacher or parents say?

RONNIE: They would say. . .

MARSHA: Sorry, I’m not expecting an answer. I’m sure you all remember Mr. Fredericks. Didn’t you watch his Pretend Time when you were little?

MR. FREDERICKS: I’m sure I recognize some of your faces. May I let you in on a secret?

. . .

MARSHA: They say yes, Geral. . .

MR. FREDERICKS: Ah, ah, it’s Mr. Fredericks to you, missy. Always Mr. Fredericks. Grown-ups. Right, kids? Today, my secret is. . . I’m not supposed to be here. Mr. Fredericks left the Playground of Pretend a day early. I’m supposed to arrive tomorrow.

GIRL: There is no tomorrow, there was no tomorrow, there will be no tomorrow.

MR. FREDERICKS: Is that so?

. . .

MR. FREDERICKS: Please, speak up, my friend. We wanna make sure all the viewers watching at home hear you, alright?

THE CHILDREN, ALL THE CHILDREN: We are the Cataclysm. We devour yesterday, tomorrow, and today. Until there is no moment but the Cataclysm.

MR. FREDERICKS: Well, you don’t say. . .

MIDDLE-AGED WOMAN: Alright, you jerks! Tell me which troublemaker you decided to follow for this prank. Abe Flenser, was it you? Tanya Pickard? I’m gonna make sure all your parents know—

LAUREN: Excuse me, Mrs. Sankman. You can’t just. . .

SANKMAN: No, I won’t “just.” Rose Marie, you sweet girl you, why go along with. . .

THE CHILDREN: In this time, you were, you are, and you will be the Cataclysm. Imagine. . . existing forever at the end of all things.

CHARLES: Okay. We’re gonna switch to a classic episode of “Mr. Fredericks’s Pretend Time.” And once we get those phone lines working again, we’ve got a real treat for you loyal viewers. As Mr. Fredericks mentioned, he’s a day early but we’ve gone ahead and had him autograph a whole slew of our WRTH collectible tote bags. So, if you call and donate, no matter the amount, we’ll send a Mr. Fredericks autographed tote bag to you. Perfect for carrying your Cataclysm. . . I mean, your cassettes, or whatever.

[Tape #071576 MR. FREDERICKS AND THE PLAYGROUND OF PRETEND, “IT’S RAINING / LET’S PLAY KINGS AND QUEENS” plays]

[BACK IN STUDIO, THE MAIN CAMERA TILTED DOWN, JERKS UP.]

LAUREN: Okay, everyone we’re back in the. . .

SANKMAN: You shut the hell up. All of you shut the hell up.

LAUREN: Ma’am. Please calm down.

CHARLES: Yeah, lady.

MR. FREDERICKS: Your teacher seems upset today, kids. Do you know why?

THE CHILDREN: She fights the Cataclysm. You all fight becoming the Cataclysm. But you’ve already lost. You’re already the faces worn by the Cataclysm. All of you. Even you.

MR. FREDERICKS: Mmhmm?

CHARLES: God. . .

[PHONE RINGS BESIDE CHARLES]

CHARLES: . . . is good and I’m reminded, coming up in the next hour the Rock of the Mount Gospel Choir joins us to work the phones and share some lovely songs of worship. But, uh, why don’t I answer the phone here and show the kids in Mrs. Sankman’s class how we’re supposed to receive the generous donations from our viewers. Okay?

MARSHA: Chuck?

CHARLES: No, Marsha. Let me do this. [. . .] Hello?

MR. FREDERICKS: Okay, well, if there’s one thing Mr. Fredericks and the boys and girls watching at home know all about, it’s playing pretend. In pretend, we put on someone else’s face and see the world from their point of view. Does that make sense to you, the Cataclysm?

SANKMAN: Oh, for fuck’s sake. . .

MARSHA: Mrs. Sankman!

SANKMAN: Oh, fuck you, bitch. I’m leaving. Kids, you’re all headed for detention next week when we’re back in school.

MARSHA AND LAUREN: Wait!

MR. FREDERICKS: My apologies for the interruption, Cataclysm. Sometimes we human beings, especially grown-ups, lose control of our emotions. Understand?

THE CHILDREN: Yes. The Cataclysm understands.

MR. FREDERICKS: Good, good, great. So, tell me, why pretend to be these children?

THE CHILDREN: We are these children. These children are us. We are you. And you. And you.

LAUREN: Marsha, where’s Charles?

MARSHA: What’re you talking about, he’s right by the ph— Charles? Charles! Anyone seen—

THE CHILDREN: Why do you fight?

MR. FREDERICKS: Are we fighting here? We’re asking the people watching at home to help. To give a small amount from themselves to make us all better. And by us, I mean the WRTH family. It doesn’t sound too different from what you’re doing, does it?

THE CHILDREN: We see.

LAUREN: Where’s everyone gone?

MARSHA: What now?

LAUREN: Come off the stage, Marsha. There’s no one else here. No one in the booth. No one behind the cameras. . .

MARSHA: What? Are we still filming? Still on-air?

LAUREN: I believe so. I’m gonna go and check if—

MARSHA: No!

. . .

MARSHA: Please don’t leave me.

[A lighting rig crashes onto the stage. Mr. Fredericks pulls one of the children away from it. He reminds me of my grandfather. My grandfather’s dead. They’re both dead now.]

CHARLES: They took the doors.

LAUREN: Charles? Where’d you go earlier?

CHARLES: They took away the doors. All of them.

MARSHA: Charles, where’s Mrs. Sankman? Is that blood? Where’d the blood come from, Charles?

CHARLES: They talked to me. They’ve always talked to me, but I forgot how to listen. They’ve given me so much. The least I can do is give back. Right?

MARSHA: Charles, I. . .

CHARLES: Right?

MARSHA: Charles, please, you’re scaring me. You’re scaring the childr—

CHARLES: Let me show you, Marsha. Let me show you the Cataclysm’s true face. It hurts, you understand? It hurts so bad, but you’ll understand.

LAUREN: Get the hell off her.

[Wrestling noises, grunts, and cries of pain. The camera crashes to the studio floor, the wet smack of the gray-colored encasement traveling through Charles’s head.]

LAUREN: Marsha, you okay? Marsha?

MARSHA: I don’t want it to be over. I don’t want to. . .

LAUREN: I know. I know. But maybe it won’t be like that. Maybe it’ll be this. Forever.

MR. FREDERICKS: Okay, the Cataclysm, let’s play a game of pretend. Is that alright?

THE CHILDREN: Yes. What should we pretend?

MR. FREDERICKS: Let’s pretend we’re not here. Not now, not then, not later. Let’s pretend we’re gone. Or let’s pretend we never were. Pick one or the other or all choices at once. It’s all pretend, right? We can be whatever we want. Can you do it for me? Can you do it for everyone?

[White light hums, filling the broken-angled view of the camera. Everyone breathing at once. Everyone. The sound of the world asleep.]

Tape 2 ended there. I never found a Tape 3.

But it didn’t make sense. I knew, for a fact, Mr. Fredericks’s Pretend Time aired for close to another two decades after ’85. Fredericks died one day after his last episode in 2001. He still reminded me of my grandfather. The telethon hosts, Marsha and Charles, both had long careers at WRTH. They got married in the ’90s. They made meet-and-greet appearances around town, for county fairs, used car lot openings, those sorts of things. Always smiling.

Smiling and smiling.

I even dug around online and found out about some of the kids. None of them died or disappeared or anything like that in 1985. One of them, Ronnie, was in my college frat. I remember he’d come to Homecoming tailgates. Goateed and sweaty, but not possessed.

Back in the WRTH Archives, I finished cleaning up the transcript and finished my longhand notes as well. I intended to seek out the woman with the beehive hairdo. I wanted to ask her about the tape and what she knew about the ’85 Telethon.

One of the steps leading from the basement creaked before I made it to the stairs. But there was no one there.

No one waiting.

I’m not sure what stopped me from following through on what I’d intended. For whatever reason,  I couldn’t bring the tape out from the light-saturated confines of the Archives. I turned tail and marched back to the spot on the shelves where I’d pulled the VHS cassette. I slotted the tape back where it belonged. I’d pulled it from the VCR without stopping the video. As a result, an afterimage got left behind, burning quickly like a match head, under the television glass.

It covered part of my dark reflection, so I saw myself and something from the end. Overlapping worlds.

Let me know what you think in the comments below.

—Not-James

COMMENT (1): I don’t know who you are, but this blog, or whatever the hell, is in really poor taste. My brother disappeared while interning at WRTH Public Television in 2004. If this is some game, or you get off on pretending to be someone else, you oughta know you’re hurting a lot of people. My family, mom, and dad, and me. Take this down. Now.

REPLY: We are the Cataclysm. We devour yesterday, tomorrow, and today. Until there is no moment but the Cataclysm. We are everyone you lost, everyone you have, everyone you never had. We are everything, nothing, and we are contributions from viewers like you.

COMMENT (2): <<Click here to get your free tote bag.>>

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About the Author

Patrick Barb is an author of weird, dark, and spooky tales, currently living (and trying not to freeze to death) in Saint Paul, Minnesota. His published works include the dark fiction collection Pre-Approved for Haunting (Keylight Books), the novellas Gargantuana’s Ghost (Grey Matter Press) and Turn (Alien Buddha Press), as well as the novelette Helicopter Parenting in the Age of Drone Warfare (Spooky House Press). His forthcoming works include the themed short-story collection The Children’s Horror (Northern Republic Press) and the sci-fi/horror novel Abducted (Dark Matter Ink).

patrickbarb.com

Copyright ©2024 by Patrick Barb.

Published by Shortwave Magazine. First print rights reserved.

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