Authors: Andrea White
REALITY TV 2083
To the memory of Birdie Bowers—
and to the kids of Marni Hettena’s
fourth-grade class, who helped bring
his name alive again
Polly pounded her boot against the ground. The ice was hard, and she felt panic rise in her throat. The white expanse was endless. She could see for miles and miles.
“Look.” Polly spread her arms toward the horizon. “Where could a camera crew hide?”
“Good point,” Andrew said. As he stared at the white land, he understood what Polly was saying. They were completely alone.
We are not going forward like a lot of schoolboys on a holiday picnic but rather as a party of men who know what they have got to face. I for one am sure that the journey will be no child’s game but a hard one, as hard as any have ever been[,] and the Pole will not be gained without a terrible struggle…. If man can make for success we have the right stuff with us, but as I say[,] when man has done all he can do he can only trust with God for the rest.
H. R. Bowers,
from a letter to E. Bowers,
October 27, 1911
WHAT CHANCE DID
Stephen Michael have of winning his Toss? In the year 2080 there were so many fourteen-year-old kids and so few scholarships. And if he lost—he hated to think about his choices then. Sweat poured down Steve’s face as he stared at the poster on the wall in front of him:
WELCOME TO THE EQUAL OPPORTUNITY EDU-DICE TOSS, SPONSORED BY THE DEPARTMENT OF ENTERTAINMENT.
“Candidate 9426!” the Scholarship Advisor called out. She was a short, chubby woman, with a face pitted like the dice.
Steve opened his fist to stare at his number again. His sweat had drenched the slip of paper and smeared the ink. Number 9429. It wouldn’t be long now. Soon he would know whether he could go to high school and college or if he would have to find a job, any job at all. But this was silly. Why did he doubt the dice? He would win his Toss. He was going to be able to continue in school.
Candidate 9426 fought her way through the crowd. He watched her blond hair bobbing through the sea of people. The room was suddenly quiet.
The Scholarship Advisor consulted her hand-held. “We need a double six,” she said into her megaphone.
The blond girl groaned. “Not a double.”
“You all get an equal statistical chance,” the Advisor chided her.
The blond girl took a deep breath and rolled. The dice spun around on the concrete floor before stopping. Steve craned his neck to see the dice, but couldn’t. He heard the girl’s scream.
The blonde fell back.
“We have a winner,” the Advisor said into her megaphone.
A few kids cheered, but mostly Steve heard groans. The blond girl’s luck had reduced everybody else’s odds.
The Advisor handed the blonde the coveted green ticket and pointed toward the registration desk. “Now for Candidate 9427,” she said to the crowd.
Steve didn’t watch the next Toss. He was too busy reassuring himself that he could win. He had been there since early morning, and twice two kids had won back-to-back. It didn’t mean anything that 9426 had won. He could win three rolls later.
The next candidates would lose, and Steve would win. That’s just how it had to be.
In fact, 9427 already had lost. The discouraged-looking boy shuffled past him, and Steve worked to shut out the boy’s disappointment. He couldn’t let himself be distracted. He repeated the promise that he had made to himself: If I win my Toss and I’m able to get an education, I won’t be like most of the educated kids. I won’t just try to make money with my life. I’ll try to make things better for everybody. Please, dice, let me win.
Candidate 9428 held his head high, but he, too, had lost.
Steve was next. He sucked in his breath. He heard the Advisor chant his number, and as if in a dream, he stepped forward. The black-and-white dice waited for him, only him. They gleamed with hope and the promise of his future.
“You need a five and a three,” the Advisor said.
Five was a good number. He had a special feeling for fives. But the three … He didn’t feel anything for that number. There was still time.
Three. Three. Three.
He didn’t know if mind control worked, although some kids swore that it did. What else could he do?
Steve’s hands were shaking as he picked up the dice. They were cold and hard, and he pressed them deeply into his palm, memorizing the moment. Perhaps it was the last moment in his life when everything was still possible. He dropped the dice on the floor. He heard them clatter before he shut his eyes.
A kid next to him shuddered. Steve opened one eye.
Two white fives stared up at him.
Steve didn’t move. He couldn’t move. Both eyes were glued to the traitorous dice. How could they do that to him?
“Everyone can play the game. There are winners and losers. Everyone has an equal chance,” the Advisor chanted into the megaphone. She touched his shoulder and said to him, “Now go. It’s someone else’s turn.”
His feet wouldn’t budge.
Then the Advisor shoved Steve. He had no choice but to head back through the crowd, most of it eager or crying parents.
At least his mom and dad wouldn’t be disappointed. They had died in the last Superpox epidemic, along with his little brother, Sam.
The thought of his family’s death made him mad. “The Toss is not fair!” he shouted.
In the hordes of people pushing past him, only one person bothered to reply. She was carrying a clipboard.
“I played the Toss and won. Stop whining, loser!” she snapped.
Before Steve could protest, she disappeared into the crowd, and Steve did the only thing he could think of.
He headed for the door, his wet number still clutched in his hand.
THREE YEARS LATER
Andrew Morton was lounging in the soft spot in the tattered couch where he always watched television. He tried to feel cozy and warm, as he usually did in his hollow, but he couldn’t. His dad was screaming at him.
His father, a big man, wore an undershirt and pants. “If you fail teleschool again, your mom and I will have to watch sixty hours of parenting classes. Sixty hours of idiots telling me how to get my son to do better on his television tests. Do you know how boring those parenting classes are?” His voice dropped. “You read me?”
“The law says you have to pass eighth grade. You’re the unluckiest kid I’ve ever known. You’re sure to lose your Toss. You only need to make a sixty-five or above. After you pass, you’re finished studying for your whole life. Are you ready?”
“Yes, sir.” Andrew had watched reruns of
Historical Survivor, Dialing for Dollars
for the past week.
“I’m going to turn on the test.” His father clicked the remote.
RETAKES FOR EIGHTH GRADE FINAL EXAMS, JULY 15, 2083
appeared on the screen.
A voice broke in. “But first a special message from the Secretary.”
The redheaded Secretary of Entertainment was young to be so important. She leaned toward Andrew and seemed to be speaking only to him. “I’m sponsoring something very special for eighth graders this year. Apply to be a contestant on my new upcoming
series for kids. If you finish the game, you’ll be paid ten thousand dollars, and if you’re voted Most Valuable Player, you’ll win an extra ninety thousand dollars, for a grand total of one hundred thousand dollars. The series is set in Antarctica, one of the coolest places in the world. Press
now if you’re interested.”
” Andrew’s dad barked.
on the keyboard.
“After the test, an application will appear on the screen,” the Secretary concluded. “Complete it and submit it, along with your test. Good luck.”
“Do it!” Andrew’s dad ordered. “Maybe your mother and I’ll get lucky and you’ll go to Antarctica. You know you had an ancestor who was an explorer there?”
Andrew had heard his aunt speak of a distant uncle, a man named Bowers.
EIGHTH GRADE HISTORY FINAL RETAKE
appeared on the screen.
“When did Bowers explore Antarctica?” Andrew asked.
His father pointed sternly at the question on the screen. “You can’t put your test off any longer.”
QUESTION 1: WHICH PHARAOH BUILT THE MOST PYRAMIDS IN ANCIENT EGYPT?
He should know this answer. He had watched every episode of
Egyptian Pyramid Historical Survivor.
“Remember!” his dad thundered before leaving. “A sixty-five or above!”
It was a cool day, but Andrew wiped the sweat off his face before he began to work.
From her stall at the flea market in Times Square, Polly Pritchard watched the bustle of the vendors behind aging stands, the brightly colored signs of all shapes and sizes, and the crowds of worried-looking people carrying shopping bags. She reminded herself that she didn’t know what else to do. Although she had been a nationally recognized student on EduTV, she had lost her Toss. Her mother was disabled. A few years ago, her father had died of tuberculosis. Without the help of a Toss scholarship, she had no money to continue in school. When the flea market offered her father’s old stall, she had to take it. So here she was today, working as a memorist for the first time. Mr. Pebst, her father’s former partner, had willingly given her the money for the stall in exchange for an agreement that she would give him twenty percent of her take.
“Are you as good as your father?” Mr. Pebst had asked her. Before she could speak, he shook his head. “Nobody was as good as him. In the twenty years that I knew him, he never once got anything wrong. He was the best.”
Her customers might ask her anything—the date of George Washington’s death, the distance to the moon, the calories in a peanut. She had learned many of her facts from reading the
encyclopedia. But most of her business would be from shoppers. Polly’s head was full of jumbled phrases from the morning’s paper and from the bulletin boards she had read on her way to work: “Instant Travel, the world’s first human fax.” “Fastgrow: Watch your hair grow one foot each night or your money back.” “Dream Hat: Finally you can photograph your dreams.” “Help the victims of the Urban Trash Wars by donating to …” And she found herself wondering, not for the first time, if the kids on her street were right, if the Memory was a curse. Casey Duncan claimed that Polly’s brain would explode before she was twenty.
A customer, her first, hobbled toward her.
The old woman scrutinized Polly’s face for a second before bursting out, “I need to know if there are any used televisions for sale. They’ll take my grandkids from me if I don’t have a television.”
Polly nodded. Everybody knew that the law required all kids under the age of fourteen to watch thirty hours of teleschool a week.