By Jess Charle
There’s a new car commercial on television, have you seen it? Unsuspecting real people, not actors, are lead out from what is presumably their house to find a brand new SUV parked in the driveway. They ooh and ahh over how prestine and shiney it is, saying things like “this is the most attractive SUV I’ve ever seen” or “it’s so stylish, so modern.” Then the spokesperson, dressed appropriately for the late January weather, opens the backdoor and the subject’s real family, not actors, pop out like an overcrowded Jack-in-the-Box. Everyone squeals and screams in delight, hugging each other tightly while still finding space in their joyous meeting to coo at the car behind them, as if the surprise reunion and the SUV are now so intertwined they can’t help but think of the inanimate object as part of the family.
Now they have to buy it. Now you have to buy it. You wouldn’t not buy a member of your family, would you? You wouldn’t abandon your family, would you? Only a real animal abandons a member of their family like that. Though, I suppose, animals have a sense of loyalty one shouldn’t disregard, so only a real sub-animal would abandon their family like that. A real low-life.
You don’t want to be a low-life, do you?
Well, I was in one of those car commercials. Sort of. Let me start from the beginning.
My boyfriend, Henry, is an actor. Though the term “actor” is a real stretch. One might be inclined to call him more “real person” than “actor.” Ever since I’ve known him he’s wanted to be in front of an audience, despite having no natural acting abilities nor any desire to memorize scripts or practice. I think his logic was that if he pushed the universe enough, eventually he’d be given a spotlight. He was desperate to be famous, even if it was for only a few minutes. About a year ago he started focusing more on commercial gigs than “real” acting gigs. I guess he figured commercials would be easier.
“Lean against the counter and eat a spoonful of cereal. Act as if your life has meaning now. Do you practice mindfulness? Try to look like your practicing mindfulness as you eat the cereal.”
I was reading a novel in the tub when Henry came bursting in, screaming about how he had done it. I had been fully relaxed in my little ritual of self-care and the outburst completely surprised me, causing me to drop my book in the bath.
“God dammit!” I cried as I fished the book out from the soapy water and threw it on the floor. It sat there open, the paper pages melting into the synthetic fibers of the bathmat beneath it, completely ruined.
“I did it! I did it! Babe!” He cried, his hands raised in triumph, one clutching his phone as he looked at me, “I did it!.” The dimples in his cheeks were deep from the wide smile stretched across his face. He looked almost manic.
I inhaled, the lavender scent of the bath filling my nose as I tried to calm my frazzled nerves.
“What did you do, Henry?” I asked through clenched teeth.
“I got a gig! A gig, babe! A real gig! Isn’t that crazy, babe?” Henry had the infuriating habit of saying “babe” constantly as if he were a sheep baaing.
My anger melted with shock and happiness at my partner’s joy. I shrugged off the book. Buying another wasn’t too much of a hassle, and it could have been worse – it could’ve been my kindle. “Oh my god, that’s wonderful!” I stood, naked and wet, and we hugged in excitement. The now lukewarm water lapping gently at my calves.
“And guess what, babe! You get to be in the commercial too!”
My grip on him loosened as my enthusiasm waned. “What?” I asked, pulling away from him.
Henry straightened, his smile engulfing my entire view as he looked at me. “It’s a family commercial, babe! They want you too! Isn’t that awesome!?!”
“Why can’t they cast you a professional girlfriend?” I asked, not trying to hide the sarcasm in my voice.
“Babe, it’s a “real people, not actors” thing, so it’s got to be the real deal.” His face fell in concern, “you’ll do it with me, won’t you?”
My heart pained and I sighed, “of course, love. Anything for you.”
Henry cried out in glee, “thank you, Claire!!!” He gave me another squeeze before running out of the room, “I’m gonna call my mom!”
“You might want to change your shirt too!” I called after him as I bent down and pulled the plug.
I stood in front of a nondescript office building far outside the city holding two paper cups filled with coffee – one black, one with cream and just a touch of sugar – while Henry dealt with the casting director inside. It was chilly and I had the bulky scarf my aunt knit me for Christmas wrapped tight around the bottom half of my face. I was trying to think of a way to drink the hot brown liquid without removing the comfort of the scarf when Henry appeared beside me. He beamed as he took back his cup.
“Ok, babe, the release forms are all sorted!” He bounced on the balls of his feet in excitement and looked out over the barren parking lot, “the casting director said someone will be here soon to drive us to location.”
I nodded and looked longingly at my cup as I wondered why we couldn’t wait inside the dingy office. Turning my head, I searched the windy road we had driven up only moments before. I was impatient to get the shoot started. The sooner we started, the sooner we’d finish. Henry had warned me it’d probably take all day and I was already regretting my decision to come. I strained my eyes trying to see further down the road, willing a vehicle to manifest. I held the cup of coffee in both my hands, the warmth penetrating the skin of my fingers and palms only slightly, the rest of my body shivering in the cold.
We only had to wait a few minutes before a grey windowless van pulled up in front of us. I eyed it suspiciously. Rust was beginning to eat away at the wheel well and the grey paint was dull, having lost its luster long ago. I looked at Henry and silently begged him not to make me get into the van, but he wasn’t looking at me. The driver’s side door opened with a squeal and a young man jumped out.
He was slight and very chic looking. His wool peacoat was fitted, and the jeans and boots I could see beneath it were dark and fashionable. He wore round glasses and his beard was neatly trimmed close to his skin. A grey beanie was pulled over his ears and he smiled warmly at us as he brought a pen down to the clipboard in front of him.
“Henry Cooper and Claire Lane?”
“That’s us!” Henry exclaimed. I waved unenthusiastically.
“Hi, I’m Brett. I’m the production assistant for today’s shoot. The location is only a fifteen minute drive from here.” He slid the back door of the van open and Henry jumped in. I hesitated, looking from the worn cloth seat, yellow foam visible at the corners, to Brett.
Brett just smiled that warm professional smile at me. “I know it looks a little sketchy – they won’t let us drive the prop vehicles unfortunately.”
I groaned beneath the thick wool yarn of my scarf and followed Henry. Brett slid the door shut behind me and I searched futilely for a seat belt. The van bounced and swayed as Brett hopped into the driver seat. “Hope you guys like indie rock!” he called over his shoulder as the van rolled out of the parking lot and onto the main street.
The back of the van was surprisingly clean and I found myself becoming more comfortable with the situation. I could only see the road through the windshield, but the winter sun shone through the bare trees and it felt nice to be so close to nature. Henry took my hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. I rested my head on his shoulder and smiled as a Modest Mouse song played over the speakers from Brett’s iPod.
Twenty minutes later, we were both beginning to shift in our seats. My coffee cup rested empty in my hands and I had removed several layers as the dry heat of the van started to make me sweat.
“Hey Brett, are we almost there?” Henry asked, peering around the passenger headrest in an attempt to see more of the road.
“Yep, any minute now!” He called back over his shoulders. The van jostled beneath me as he turned onto a dirt road stretching through the dense trees.
“This is where we’re filming?” I asked, looking around him. “We’re in the middle of nowhere!”
Brett laughed goodnaturedly. “Yeah, easier to set up all our gear. You’ll be surprised how much lighting and camera equipment we need for a minute long commercial.”
I lurched back into my seat as the van hit a pothole, my coffee cup falling to the ground. Bending down to retrieve it from under the seat, I touched something sharp. I hissed in pain and brought my finger to my lips instinctually. My tongue traced the source and the coppery taste of blood stung against my taste buds. “The fuck?” I said under my breath as I bent my body down further so I could see. My coffee cup was rolling lazily with the sway of the vehicle, lightly bouncing off of a polished axe, the edge sharpened to a nasty point. My brow tightened in confusion.
“We’re here!” Brett cried cheerily. I sat upright and peered around him. In front of us loomed a giant house, old and brittle looking like a haunted house leftover from Halloween. Windows were smashed in or boarded up and the wood walls were rotten and sagging under the weight of their age. Shutters, bricks, and glass littered the ground.
I looked at Henry with concern, but he only shrugged.
Brett pulled up in front of the house. He turned in his seat to face us, smiling, waiting for a reaction. I sat still, disbelieving the situation around me. Brett, not phased, grabbed his clipboard from the other seat and jumped out. Henry wouldn’t make eye contact with me as the back door slid open. Brett stood there, his hand outstretched like a driver preparing to escort his fare out. I shook my head and scooted backed into Henry.
Brett laughed and turned his head, “Bob, can I get some help with the talent?”
A beefy hairy man appeared in the door. “This is Bob, the gaffer.” Brett explained as Bob reached towards me. I turned, pushing Henry to go deeper into the van. A strong hand wrapped around my ankle as I threw myself over the back of the seat. I kicked hard, but struck only the winter air. Bob tugged and my hands slipped from the seat. Pain shoot through my knee as I fell to the hard ground. Tears began to collect in my eyelashes.
Bob pulled on my leg, still in his grasp, and my chin hit the ground, more pain screaming through my body. My leg pulled at my hip socket as Bob started to drag me towards the house. I looked up to see Henry jump from the van and run towards me. Another big man, much taller than Bob, ran up to him and, using the bottom of his heavy work boot, kicked him in the side of the leg, right beneath his left knee. Henry fell with a sickening crack. He screamed in pain and I realized I was screaming as well. I clutched desperately at the dirt in front of me trying to stop Bob’s progress. My fingernails tore upward as I tried to cling to the frozen earth moving beneath me.
The tall man picked Henry up and hoisted him over his shoulder like a bag of flour. Henry cried out and squirmed in his grasp. Bob stopped and my leg fell to the ground. I rolled over and saw that I was in front of a brand new SUV. Behind it, the trees stretched out towards the cold sun like forgotten bones.
“What the fuck?” My throat was hoarse, the tight and raspy sound of my voice foreign to me. My whole body shook and the tears that glazed my face were beginning to freeze.
Henry was dropped unceremoniously beside me and I grabbed him. We hugged each other, our bodies clinging together in desperate fear.
“Cameras ready?” The tall man yelled, his voice low and gravely, the words sounding as if they were rolling over jagged stones.
A small woman being swallowed by an oversized green army jacket held out a thumbs up from behind a giant camera. Brett ran up beside him, the clipboard in one hand, the axe I cut my finger on in the other. He looked towards us, that warm friendly smile from the office parking lot unmoving.
The sound of a throat clearing startled me and I looked back, ready for the next horror. Standing over us was an attractive man in a smart charcoal coat. He smiled down at me, his perfect teeth a bright white that contrasted sharply with the grey colors surrounding them.
“You guys ready?” He asked, his smooth voice viscous like oil, dripping from his lips.
“Wh-what?” I whimpered, “r-r-ready for what?”
“Places everyone.” The tall man cried from beside the camera and the handsome man looked up towards him, smiling that dazzling smile.
“Rolling.” The woman said.
“Ac-tion.” The word was spoken meticulously, the man relishing every inch of it.
The handsome man looked down at us, “what do you guys think of the new 2018 Meridian?” He asked enthusiastically, gesturing to the car.
I looked at the car, then to the camera, then back to the handsome man with the white smile.
“Cut!” The tall man yelled. He bent down to pick something up. I screamed as he stood, a crowbar hanging loosely in his grip. He began to walk towards us, his heavy boots crunching the pine needles and leaves beneath him. I turned away, preparing to stand and run when I saw Bob watching me. His arms were crossed and a smile slowly formed on his thick lips. My knee twinged with pain.
No running. I thought. There won’t be any running.
The tall man reached us and slowly knelt down so that he was eye to eye with us. He rested his weight on one knee and snarled, the crowbar resting on the ground beside him, his fingers lightly tracing its sides.
“Don’t. Look. At. The camera.” He growled. He stood stiffly, raised the crowbar, and swung it down onto my outstretched foot. The pain tore through my bone and muscle, electricity shooting through my body as I screamed in agony. The tall man walked back to the camera. I sobbed as I looked to my leg. Bone jutted out from torn flesh, as white as the handsome man’s teeth. I tried to scream but the sound that emitted was pained and small, my voice no longer functioning. Henry hugged me closer, and I tried to swallow, to give my throat some relief, any relief, but my mouth was dry.
“Ready?” The tall man asked again. There was no answer. “Action!” He said, the word chopped short.
“Henry, Claire, what are your thoughts on the new 2018 Meridian?” The smooth voice asked from behind us.
I turned to look back at the man, who never stopped smiling at me. “W-why?” I choked, barely audible.
“What was that, Claire?” The man held his hand behind his ear, “I didn’t catch that.” He dropped his hand and gestured towards the SUV, “what are your thoughts on the new Meridian?”
“I… I…” My voice caught as more tears forced their way from my eyes. I couldn’t speak without sobbing, so instead I simply nodded, hoping to somehow make this torture end.
The handsome man stepped around us, careful to avoid my injured foot, and walked towards the car.
“Well, what’s a family SUV without family?” He pulled the back door open with a flourish.
My blood curdling scream filled the quiet air around me, piercing high into the sky. Four faces starred out from the inside of the car. I screamed again as their eyes widened in recognition. My mother, father, sister, and brother-in-law began to squirm and pull against the chains binding them to the seats. Their cries were muffled by dirty rags wrapped around their mouths. My niece, only five years old, was slumped over in one of the seats, completely unconscious. I tried to focus, to see if her chest was rising and falling, but I couldn’t tell. Bruises and cuts lined their faces, their skin only clean of blood and dirt where rivers of tears had washed them away.
Before I knew it I was standing, all my weight on my good foot, my good knee. Bob’s arms were wrapped around my waist as I struggled, flailing my arms wildly. I slapped and punched his solid mass, desperately trying to push myself forward while his meaty arms held me back.
The last thing I remember is something hard falling against the back of my head and the world going black.
I woke up in a hospital room yesterday with a mild concussion, a dislocated knee, and a shattered foot. They say I was found outside the doors of the emergency room early in the morning, bloodied and unconscious. I’ve repeated this story numerous times to the police, who are still searching for my family. I pray they are still alive.
The nurses are kind. One of them tried to wash my clothes for me, but the police took them in as evidence. They were able to give me back my wallet though. All my cards and receipts were still there, even the Christmas check from my grandparents that I still hadn’t cashed. As I looked through my wallet, the familiarity of it comforting me slightly, I noticed that one of the card pockets felt oddly thick. I pulled forward at my credit card and found a small, folded up note behind it.
“I don’t expect you to understand, but they promised me fame. I’m sorry and I hope you’ll forgive me one day. I love you, babe.