Today’s story, Hannah Lewis’ “He’s All the Rage,” took second prize in the 2020 Voorheesville Short Story Contest. Our judge said: “All the elements of celebrity enmeshed with the demands of a political office are made a spectacle in such a way as to demonstrate how the idolatry of such a person creates several vicious cycles.” Enjoy this engaging thought experiment that asks “What are the consequences of celebrity and self-serving policies?”
“Mr. Brooks, you’re on in ten.”
Victor Brooks knew he was on in ten, of course. Nine minutes, forty-six seconds, and some change, to be more specific. He took pleasure in watching the milliseconds tick by as they correlated with the intensity of the live audience, who had been sitting quite impatiently for a long time. Victor liked to think that the racing numbers, glowing an electric blue on the surface of the mirror in front of him, ticked by like the rapid beats of all their hearts that were surely rampant with anticipation. He wished he could have the satisfaction of watching the clock stop at 00:00:00:00, but alas, at that point, he would be stepping out into hot studio lights and taking those cheers that always manifested into some beautiful anthem in Victor’s head.
If he knew how closely he was being observed at this particular moment, he might ask if we thought he was nervous. Sure, you might respond, Why wouldn’t you be? He would laugh, folding his perfectly manicured hands in front of him, and tell you exactly how you were wrong. He might say, too, that he’s more comfortable in front of cameras than not, which wouldn’t be all that surprising. If you have done an internet deep-dive on the man, as most have, you have probably thought that he is entirely too comfortable with doing anything in front of a camera. You know, like that one video with a few pretty costars and a haphazard plot that no longer matters about three minutes in. It’s astounding that he still promotes that, isn’t it?
The clock wasn’t the only thing worth observing in that mirror lined with dozens of little iridescent lights. Victor studied his reflection, the face that was nearing sixty but not looking a day over thirty-five. That was the beauty of modern cosmetic reconstruction. The immense wealth and Victor’s unusual inexperience in the concept of stress probably helped, too.
If he closed his eyes at any given moment, he could form a perfect image of himself in his mind down to the minute detail. Knowing exactly what to expect, he grazed a hand across his cheekbone, the one that was sharp and shiny on twenty-eight covers of TIME (and counting). The hand continued to his hair, full and jet-black, which had fallen in waves on his shoulders for People’s “sexiest man alive” in 2028 and cropped short for the same title in 2032. . . but forget the outdated magazines. Those penetrating green eyes—the right one just a little lighter than the left—bore deep into the fancies of innumerable women and men by way of his constant appearances all across the world–live, onscreen, hologram, and otherwise. Not one person living outside the undercarriage of a rock didn’t recognize his chiseled roman nose, perfectly threaded eyebrows, and, of course, the smirk that seemed permanently glued onto his pale face. He had even kept it for his mugshot, and though the iconic upturned lip didn’t necessarily support his defense’s claim that the statutory rape was purely accidental, his acquittal served as a final brush under the rug. It was the same the second time around. There were far more than two instances, of course, but not according to the law. That was fine with Victor, and thus it was fine with the fans.
At 00:08:04:53, Victor went through the motions of inspecting his expressions. The toothy smile, the wink, the curt nod, the sigh of theatrical exasperation, the good-humored laugh and shake of the head that he would give when the audience was prompted with the APPLAUSE signal. Gazing at his own face, he reveled in knowing exactly why he had this role. Simply, they all loved him.
Suddenly, a brush began patting at his nose, and a puff of powder briefly interrupted Victor’s scenic view. He didn’t flinch. Instead, nonchalant, he leaned forward to pick up his script, making the woman with the makeup brush and horn-rimmed glasses lean with him. She did so naturally, as if expecting his lack of cooperation. Another with a tinier brush joined her, and the two of them adjusted and swayed together in rhythm with Victor and his frequent page flipping, seat adjusting, and throwing his head back for the last few sips of coffee. Dark roast with one cream, four sugars, and a little something extra.
In his peripheral vision, Victor spotted a familiar blonde top-knot travelling above the bustling crowds of crew and company. He snapped his fingers.
The top-knot stopped, and the crowds and things on wheels parted just enough for her dead-eyed stare to meet Victor and the satisfied glint in his eyes. The agent was younger than the man by at least a decade, but didn’t look so. With every day of Victor’s life, her wrinkles grew a little deeper, her eyebags a little lower, and her mouth a little thinner.
The makeup crew parted as Audrey, steadfast with her heels and swaying hips, approached his chair.
Victor pulled up his sleeve and jutted out his script that was opened to somewhere in the beginning. “What’s this word?”
Audrey scanned the page. “What word?”
“The one that doesn’t make sense. Here.” He slapped a finger onto the page.
“Of course. Am-a-big. . . what?”
“Ambiguous. Ambiguous? Someone’s gotta change that.”
“Why on Earth. . .” Audrey took in a controlled breath. “I suppose I can find a synonym if it really bothers you that much. But please don’t change anything else this time. It makes us look bad.”
“The audience can’t see the teleprompters, it’s fine. Quit getting your panties in a bunch.”
In another world, Audrey’s head may have exploded, but she was practiced in the art of keeping her cool. “And does this mean that this is the first time you’re reading through your lines?”
He didn’t answer her question, but they both knew the answer was yes. He never read, just skimmed.
Victor tossed the script, only the first two pages bent with any sign of wear, onto the dresser, and waved her off. Audrey obliged without hesitation—she needed to be about 5 different places at that moment—and walked away a little more rigid than before, careful that her hips didn’t sway too much in her skirt that was purposefully a few sizes too big. Still, she felt Victor’s stare.
At 00:05:03:00, a hand clasped Victor’s shoulder. It wasn’t an action he was used to, so he abruptly uncrossed his legs and swung his head around to face the perpetrator. A single lock of hair fell out of the wave atop his head and hung down loosely over his forehead. “What?”
The large bald man behind Victor straightened his matte black sunglasses. “Sir, someone is at the stage door. They would like to see you.”
“Is it so important that it needs to happen five minutes before I go on? I’m. . .” he picked up the script he had disregarded and fleshed out the pages in front of him with flair. “. . . busy.”
“Sir, it’ll be quick.”
Victor rolled his eyes, making sure the man whose arms were barely long enough to fold across his massive torso could see it happen in the mirror. “Fine.”
As Victor got up, the man pressed a button near his right ear. “Hollywood to door E. Over.”
“Affirmative,” someone responded.
Hollywood’s posse winced and apologized as they shoved their way through the throng to keep up with the swaggering Victor, who simply expected people to get out of his way and kept his path directly in line with his location. He internally, and occasionally externally, cursed his having to go out of his way for something he hadn’t been prepped for, let alone approved.
A security staff member had to grab Victor’s arm to stop him from walking right past his destination, which he was quick to pull away from. He brushed himself off, huffing like he had just been sneezed on. “Jesus, what am I–”
But in front of him was not his staff. Staring up at him in astonishment was a young woman with a child clutching at her side who looked as if he may collapse from pure joy. When Victor briefly met his delighted stare, the boy got happy feet and giggled.
Victor tilted his head toward Audrey, who had appeared at his side again. “And this is. . . ?” he said through his teeth.
“This,” she replied, “is Karen Dodger and her son, Reggie!” Victor thought it was strange that her voice was that quite high coming from a mouth that had broken out into an unnaturally wide smile. It wasn’t the Audrey he usually dealt with.
Victor nodded, but he was visibly confused. Was that supposed to mean something to him?
Audrey patted his back in a good-spirited manner, but no one except her and Victor could tell how hard she actually slapped him. “All of those wonderful letters you received for a chance to pay you a visit? Little Reggie here wrote the winning entry.” Her eyes were wide, begging him to just go along with what he had clearly no clue about. Victor didn’t understand that, but looking stupid was the last thing he had in his repetoire. Rude, sure, but certainly not stupid.
“I have to be getting on,” Victor said, avoiding looking at the little boy. He had his arms arms wide for a hug which Victor had no desire to oblige.
“Please, sir,” the young mother said apologetically, reaching out a hand before quickly drawing it back from fear of actually touching Victor. “You’re his hero. We’ve flown all of the way out from the Bay Area, and I’ve never seen him more excited.”
It was no Grinch moment by any means, but Victor felt a sudden guilt. He couldn’t just ignore such praise! Plus, this would look good for the press.
He knelt down to the boy, snapping his fingers to get the attention of the camera at his right side. Flashing the smile he had perfected in the mirror, he. . . He didn’t know what to do, so he awkwardly patted Reggie atop his golden-haired head.
The boy’s voice wavered as he said, “C-could you sign th-this for me. . . Mister Brooks?” His eyes widened with elation when Victor guffawed at the laminated poster board he handed over. It was a screencap of Victor—dressed in a fiendish cape with glowing red eyes—from his acclaimed villain role from a film all the way back in the early 20s. Victor considered this the worst film he was ever in, figuring he–and only he–was its saving grace.
“Okay, okay,” he said waving his hand above his head for a pen that an unknown source was quick to place in his hand. He began to scribble on the picture, being sure to avoid writing over his image. “To my fan, Robbie.”
“Actually, it’s Regg—“
“There, Robbie. You’d better take your seats quick. I’m on soon.”
Victor turned on his heel and started backstage, not once looking back, vastly uncomfortable with not knowing what was on his countdown. 00:03:24:51? 00:01:45:22? 00:00:15:04? Indeed, he had forgotten about the interaction almost immediately. It wasn’t anything special or out of the ordinary.
“Mr. Brooks, you’re on in 30 seconds.”
He found himself in view of the stage, a spotlight in the center anxiously waiting for him. Just looking at it, he felt its blinding intensity and warmth on his skin. Adrenaline began to course through his body. This was the feeling he constantly craved, and at its presence the knot in his chest loosened.
A microphone squealed, and the crowd roared.“Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the stage. . . the President of the United States!”