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FIRE and Kids – The cost of raising children in Australia
This post has been inspired by this recent podcast featuring three of the biggest names in the Aussie FIRE blogging community, and the follow on discussions in the Aussie Firebug Facebook group about how much it costs to raise kids in Australia. As all three acknowledge they don’t have kids so it’s not something they really have any experience with. As someone who has two young kids I thought it would be useful to write about it from my perspective. Obviously my situation isn’t the same as everyone else’s, there are plenty of people who would be horrified with how much we’ve spent, and others who would wonder how we manage to spend so little. Everyone’s situation is different, so what works for my family wouldn’t necessarily work or others. My oldest child has only just started school this year so I can’t really speak from experience beyond the 0-5yo age range, but I’ll talk through some of the typical costs, what we have and haven’t spent money on so far, and what we’re anticipating in the future. The costs people actually talk about The first two things that almost always come up when people start talking about the cost of babies are prams and carseats. Yes, you can spend a lot of money on these things if you want to, prams in particular. From a quick look at Baby Bunting the most expensive pram there is nearly 3 thousand dollars, and I’m betting that with a few accessories you can easily get over that mark. No, you do not need to spend that much on a pram. Yes you can probably pick one up on the cheap from Kmart or Target etc for well under a hundred bucks, but it’s probably not going to be as sturdy or hold much of the gear you take with you. Happily a pram is also the sort of thing where you can pretty easily and safely pick one up secondhand or get a hand me down from someone else. We bought a Babyzen Yoyo, which is basically a small sized pram although it still has enough storage room for us. It folds up so that you can take it on a plane as carry on luggage, is quite light, extremely maneuverable and very sturdy. I’ve taken it running plenty of times, it’s even got a Parkrun PB of 22:06! This thing is absolutely gold. Unfortunately it’s priced as though it’s made of it as well. There wasn’t an option to get one second hand because it had only just been released so we had to pay full whack. I think we spent over a thousand dollars on it including all the accessories and the lie flat and sit up seats etc. It was worth every cent. It’s been going for 5 years and 2 kids and is still in great shape, we’ve never had a problem with it at all. My wife tells me it is one of the best things I have ever bought her, although we both use it obviously. And at the end of the day a one off cost of $1,000 for us as a family is going to have basically zero impact on when we hit FIRE. Plugging the numbers into a compound interest calculator and using 7% annual return over 30 years I miss out on $8,000, which is about a month worth of returns on my target portfolio. I can live with delaying retirement one month for about 5 cumulative years of having a really good pram that works great for us. Similarly you can spend a fair chunk of money on car seats. This is one of those things that I wouldn’t want to get second hand because you can’t see if they’ve been broken or not and safety is a huge priority for us and presumably everyone else. Happily car seats don’t tend to cost that much, you can pick one up for a couple hundred bucks or less pretty easily. If you do that it tends to be one for a much shorter age range, say 0-2yrs whereas I think you can get ones which will take your kid from 0-8 but they cost a lot more. In any case per kid you’re probably looking at a thousand bucks total, and this could easily be a lot less. Again it’s not going to make any appreciable different to us reaching FIRE. So as easy as it is to point at this sort of stuff as being ridiculously expensive and over priced etc, it’s really not going to make much of a difference to most people. Sure you don’t want to spend any more money than you have to, but you also want to make sure you’re getting something that works for you. The other one off costs There are also a bunch of one off costs for babies and young kids like cots, beds, mattresses, baby carriers etc. From what I’ve been told you want to buy a baby mattress new, but that’s only about a hundred bucks at Target, potentially cheaper elsewhere. We have an Ikea cot which cost about the same, you could easily get one second hand or likely for free just by asking around your friends who will probably be delighted to get it out of their house. Some people do co-sleeping in which case you don’t need the cot and mattress although you may like to kid yourself that your baby will actually sleep in their own bed, maybe even through the night. It’s nice to pretend sometimes! As kids get older you’ll need a proper bed for them, again you can probably pick this up second hand pretty cheap and a mattress can be easily had for a couple hundred bucks. So none of these things are really going to have much of an impact so long as you’re a decent saver already. The big costs you see When you don’t have kids it can be great to live in a studio flat or one bedroom apartment in the inner city close to all the bars and restaurants and all the rest of it. You can stay in your local area and have plenty to keep you entertained, there is probably a supermarket nearby and plenty of public transport so you may not need a car either. Once you have kids, it’s likely going to be a different story as your priorities change. It may be that you’re happy renting with kids, but lots of people tend to prioritise stability and security when they have kids and that means owning your own home in most cases. I’m not saying everyone will want this, but a lot of people will. So now that you have kids you almost certainly want a second bedroom and if you’re planning on having more kids maybe a third or fourth etc. Obviously kids can share bedrooms for a while at least but sooner or later they will probably want their own space, as will you. You’ll also be wanting parks with playgrounds nearby and somewhere you can easily take your kids for a walk or kick a football around, ideally in a good school district which can add a couple hundred thousand dollars to the cost all by itself if you’re in Sydney or Melbourne. And if you want to live somewhere cheaper but send the kids to a good private school, well that can cost anywhere from the low thousands to multiple tens of thousands per year. Similarly if you didn’t have a car before, you will very likely want one now. I’ve mentioned before that we drive a base model Corolla which works just fine for us so far, but you’re still probably looking at $20k plus if you buy one new, mid teens if you want one used. If you want an SUV or a luxury model car, be prepared to fork out a lot more. In the same vein if you were previously going on lots of holidays and plan to keep doing so, well you now have at least one more plane ticket to buy, might need a bigger hotel room etc. As I talked about in this post about big ticket items, that all comes at a real cost. We bought land and built a house, so I can say that we spent roughly $100,000 more on that than we would have otherwise. The ongoing costs There are also a bunch of ongoing costs for kids as well. They need to be fed, they need clothes and shoes, they need medicine, and a bunch of other stuff that costs money. I wrote here about a bunch of things that we do to keep costs down, but the reality is that you still have to fork over a decent chunk of change. On top of all that contrary to what you might have been told public school is not free, there are a bunch of things that you have to chip in for here as well. We’re not at the stage that we’re forking out a fortune in extra utility bills etc but we certainly use the washing machine a lot more than we would if we didn’t have kids, there are extra lights and tvs etc on so there are extra costs there as well. There are also a bunch of extra items that you don’t really need to spend, but probably will. For us this includes stuff like swimming lessons, some sports like AusKick (AFL) and Junior Blasters (cricket), occasionally taking them to a theme park or zoo etc. They also get birthday and Christmas presents, and if they get invited to other kids parties they take a store bought gift with them. The above is about what I think our 5yo costs us at the moment based on our spending, our 2yo is probably about two thirds of that due mostly to her not eating as much and not getting swimming lessons yet, as well as not being in school or doing sports. I’ve left the holiday line blank because this is hugely variable. Last year we did a trip to the UK and it probably cost us about $3,000 extra between the two of them, next time it will be another couple thousand dollars more because the youngest one will need her own seat rather being on someone’s lap for the flights. So our spending for our eldest is about two thirds of the costs quoted in this article for a 6yo girl, I would assume that apart from a boy maybe eating a bit more the costs should be fairly similar. The main difference compared to our costs seem to be education and transport. Also, it was somewhat shocking to me just how expensive swimming lessons are! This is actually at our local council aquatic centre and is the cheapest in town. We do get to use the pool whenever we want, but that only tends to be once or twice a week at most. At least the lessons will hopefully only be for a few years for each child, although after that we may be forking out for something else instead. The hidden cost of kids The biggest cost is often actually one that doesn’t show up as an expense, the opportunity cost of one parent giving up paid employment entirely for a while or doing part time hours (I’ve used the phrase giving up paid employment here because looking after kids and a house is definitely work!). If we say that you’re giving up a full time paid job that’s at minimum wage of roughly $20 an hour for 40 hours a week, 48 weeks a year, then that’s $38,400 a year ($33,605 after tax and medicare levy) that the family is giving up for however long this goes on for. If you’d otherwise be earning more than that, then the opportunity cost each year is even higher. On top of that there is the hit to your career and future earnings, because those are definitely going to be impacted as well. If you’ve got two kids that are separated by two or three years and you as a family want a parent at home until they go to school, well that’s 7 or 8 years of missing out on that money which works out as around $250k based on a full time minimum wage job. I’m pretty hopeful that my wife would be earning more than minimum wage as well so for us it’s even more than that. On the plus side, she gets to spend more time with the kids although that probably feels like a mixed blessing some of the time! Alternatively if both parents want to keep working then there will likely be childcare costs for the first 4 or 5 years and then before and after school care, as well as missing out on spending time with their kids. Because we haven’t gone down this route I don’t know exactly how much it costs, I do hear plenty of stories about it being $100 a day minimum around where I live and it’s a lot more in capital cities. There are subsidies available for this, but you can pretty easily be spending tens of thousands each year on childcare while they’re young and then once they’re old enough before and after school care. You may be lucky enough to have grandparents or other family nearby that are happy to help out with this if they live nearby, but that won’t apply to everyone and it’s unlikely to reduce the cost entirely. The costs that are yet to come At the moment our kids are still young and fairly inexpensive. Between the two of them they tend to eat roughly what a grown adult eats, but from what I’ve been told that will change fairly dramatically as they get older. They’ll need new clothes more frequently, more shoes, potentially play more sports, go on more school excursions, you get the idea. Education could be another factor. There is a public high school that will be built in the next few years quite close by, and assuming that it’s decent our kids will likely be going there. But if it’s not, then we’ll have to look into private schools which can cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars to tens of thousands. There will be extra curricular stuff as well. Given my wife and I are both horrible at music it seems unlikely that our kids will be doing extra lessons there, but there are plenty of other areas like sport or extra educational activities that we’d be considering. I know a few parents who have kids who are in elite sports programs (as in regional or state teams) and the costs here can very quickly add up, likewise if extra education is needed or wanted then that’ll be an extra expense. Government and other assistance I know that depending on your circumstances that there can be government assistance in the form of Family Tax Benefit, childcare subsidy and possibly other programs as well. We don’t get any of these which is fine, we don’t need them and they are presumably meant to be for those who do. If you’re not sure if you should be getting any of these then Centrelink does have this payment finder. We did get the one day a week Kinder program for 3yos and 3 days a week Kinder program for 4yos, although these both also came with costs of roughly $1,500 a year so it actually cost us money, again this is fine, just a reminder that it isn’t actually free. Depending on your employer you may also be able to get parental leave for a while, and there is a minimum payment which they have to make so long as you’ve met some requirements. Some employers may also have some continuing support with subsidised childcare and the like. None of this was applicable to our situation but at least some of it will likely be available for others. So what’s the bottom line? For us the biggest actual one off cost so far has been the bigger house and land that we purchased because we wanted our kids to be able to have plenty of space inside and outside the house. That cost about a hundred thousand dollars more than we would have paid if it were just the two of us. All the other stuff like a pram, car seats, cots/beds, mattresses and all the rest of it have been maybe $5,000 total, which is tiny by comparison. The opportunity cost has been bigger than this though. When we had our first child when we were in Hong Kong my wife wasn’t working much anyway as there just weren’t that many jobs she could do and my wage easily supported both of us so she was doing some very casual part time work and so not doing that work afterwards didn’t impact us much. In Australia though she probably would have been earning at least $40,000 a year after tax, so we’ve foregone almost $200,000 on an after tax basis there. Which as I’m sure you can imagine has a pretty big impact on when we will hit FIRE, particularly given we’ve got another few years or her not being in paid employment at all and then likely only working part time after that. So I would guess we’ll be looking at forgone earnings of at least $500,000 by the time all is said and done, and it could quite easily be a lot more. The actual ongoing costs of the kids so far haven’t been too bad. Between the two of them it’s about $8,000 a year at the moment, although we would anticipate that this will go up a fair bit over time as they start eating more and getting into more extra curricular activities. I get that this is spending that isn’t a necessity, but do I really want my kids to miss out on a bunch of fun stuff so that I can retire a year or two earlier? No, no I do not. So far the total costs look something like this. You can see that by far the biggest cost has been the earnings that we’ve missed out on because my wife has been at home looking after the kids and doing the household stuff (yes I do some of it because I think it’s important that we share the jobs and to role model stuff for the kids, but the reality is that she is at home a lot more than I am and does more of it). Buying a bigger house and land is next, and the actual costs of feeding and clothing and all the other one off stuff for the kids is a tiny proportion of the actual cost. All up I’m hopeful that we can keep the ongoing costs to somewhere between $125k and $150k per child from birth through to age 18, although if private school is necessary then that will push up the costs a fair bit. This is less than half of what this article suggests, so although it sounds like a lot of money it’s actually fairly frugal by comparison. To put it in perspective, it’s basically spending about 7 or 8 grand a year on each child. There are plenty of people out there who spend more than that on food alone, let alone the rest of their living expenses. As I said earlier travel costs are on top of this, and this can increase the costs quite a lot! Travel is a huge part of the reason we’re pursuing HIFIRE, and we want to be taking the kids on plenty of holidays while they’re growing up. That’s obviously discretionary spending to a large extent, but we do have close family living overseas who we want to see every couple of years or so, and it’s not fair to expect them to always be the ones travelling. I would guess that we’ll be looking at about $50k per kid in travel costs by the time they turn 18. That’s about 3 grand a year, which doesn’t sound wrong based on the cost of international travel. It may be less than that which would be great, but could also be a fair bit more. So all up for the two kids we’re looking at about a million dollars from birth to age 18. About half of that is the foregone wages from not working, which is by far the biggest impact. The actual cost of the kids is about another 30%, then travel is 10%, another 10% for the bigger house and land. And then right at the end is less than 1% for the one off stuff like prams and baby seats and cots etc. How could we spend less? Obviously there are other things we could be doing instead to keep the cost down. The biggest expense is the wages that aren’t being earned because my wife is looking after the kids and the household stuff. We could have chosen to have her work and instead pay for childcare and after school care etc. If we did though then she wouldn’t get to spend as much time with the kids (which she tells would be welcome some of the time!) and there would be a lot more house work and shopping that would need to be done after work or on weekends for both of us, we’d potentially eat out more often as it’d be more of a hassle cooking meals each night, as well as a bunch of other tradeoffs. So having her stay at home was our preferred method, and thankfully we’re in the financial position where we can afford to do it that way. Other people make different choices, or they’re unfortunately not in a position to make a choice, they need both partners working or if they’re a single parent have to do it this way. We could have also gone with a smaller house and less of a backyard. I shared a bedroom with my brother for part of our childhood and we both managed fine. It’s not ideal, but it’s certainly doable, and we could have saved a lot of money by having a smaller house. Again we chose not to because we wanted a bigger house and a decent sized backyard for them to be able to run around in and we can afford it. We don’t have to travel, although it’d be a bit rough expecting family to travel overseas to see us every year or two and then not reciprocating. Still, that would save a fair amount of money. It’s pretty hard to say how things will work out with the actual costs of raising the kids. I know roughly what we’ve spent so far, but it’s pretty difficult to know what we’ll be spending in future as they get older. They’re likely to be eating a fair bit more food, s they grow they’ll need new clothes and shoes, they’ll presumably be playing sport and doing other extra curricular stuff which will all cost money. $150k per kid from 0 to 18 seems like it’s a lot less than what it costs most people, but then we already live a fair bit more cheaply than most others so maybe it’s about right. At the end of the day we’re happy with the choices that we’ve made so far, but there has certainly been some room to have spent less money than what we have, or to have had more money coming in through both of us being in paid employment. Obviously it has an impact on when we will hit our FIRE number, but I’d rather take a little bit longer to get there than to make different tradeoffs along the way. Have you got kids or are thinking about having them? How do you think it will impact on your FIRE journey? Original post with pretty charts, pictures, tables etc is here.
Does anyone remember a TV channel called ‘Beneath the Static’? (Part 5)
I have dreaded this moment since I started recounting what happened. It’s the same sensation of something unseen grabbing you from a nightmare before you wake up. Only now I barely sleep and the dread never goes away. I have said many times now that I am not who I say I am, that I’m sorry to those of you showing your support to me because your faith in me is so misplaced. I bear the responsibility for so much of what happened on that day, even if my friends tell me that it is not my doing. Guilt is a permanent parasite once you let it in, it nestles itself between the electrical pylons of your brain and makes sure you NEVER feel ease again. I’m stalling, forgive me, I need to do this. This may be the longest entry of them all, the one that will leave with more questions than answers, but not only is it necessary I explain things in this manner, I have no other way of doing so. I apologise in advance if the structure of what happened is confusing, I have put both perspectives together. There’s also a song at the end, indulge a broken soul, it’s all I can think about now when I relive those moments. There will be no immediate aftermath commentary, instead I will leave that onto whatever happens next. I got a text this morning sent within a group chat with the others, I’m too sleep deprived and pain addled to discern the majority of the message save for the end of it; “Flight gets in at six. We’ll see you for dinner. Time to end this.” Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 I’ll start off by apologising if any of this breaks the usual flow of things. This is Millie and I’m not the usual “dictator”, but there is no sign of Tristan or Fay in the home. We got over at the usual time, the door on the latch, and assumed that they were simply downstairs waiting for us. No car on the driveway so Mrs Muldoon was out, some soft music playing from Tristan’s room and the smell of recent cooking still hung in the air. It had the vibe of a lived in home and one that, at that moment, the four of us firmly believed was occupied. But, when we got downstairs to find snacks aplenty, Tristans laptop open and ready for dictation and the TV aptly tuned to the channel, blasting static the entire time, we grew concerned. For the sake of brevity, I’m picking things up from here and taking everything down. Tristan better hope it’s a prank or I’ll kick his stupid handsome ass into the ground and have Fay draw his busted up nose. Millie: Dammit, where are they? Preston: Maybe they stepped out to grab extra food? Or Mrs Muldoon could’ve asked them to do something? Warren: Unlikely, the 7/11 isn’t exactly far from here to walk, there’s already enough snacks for you AND your boyfriend, no reason for them to prank us when everything is so tense. There was a slight pause, Preston fumbling with his sweater. Preston: You guys… know about that? Millie: That you’re gay? Oh, yeah. We know. He’s cute, by the way. Mathias bet you asked him first, Warren said you were too much of a coward. Warren: In fairness, you aren’t the most assertive guy. We nodded in agreement as Preston held back tears and a smile. Preston: You guys are assholes, I love you. “Welcome back to Beneath The Static. Tonight’s show “Truth and Consequences” will be presented in front of a live audience!” 0:00 - A guy having more fun with a saxophone than anyone should be legally allowed to plays the fanfare as the 80s style title card floats lackadaisically over the front of the screen. A few moments later, we hear the smattering of applause from an obscured audience as the camera pans down from the top of the stairs to a large theatre stage not unlike the sort you’d see for a televised comedic special. On either side, separated by about 30ft, are two large rectangular boxes and a single microphone in the centre. “Those of you in attendance, living or dead; welcome to Truth and Consequences! Please welcome your host… JJ Watson!” At first I thought it was the continued applause of the crowd, but it was the skittering of gnarled, spiked legs as an elongated and malformed shape steadily crawls along the deep rafters of the studio, the large camera struggling to keep up with him. A pair of bright green eyes flash in the dark for a moment, staring directly down the lens before a wide grin filled with perfect teeth joins it. Like he knows we’re watching. Like he can sense it. He dives from the blackness and lands on his tiptoes, the sounds of tendons snapping and his feet giving way for but a moment. He sways, stumbles and the crowd joins in with the antics, a low “ohhh” echoing through the studio as he taps one foot, taps the other and jumps before slamming them down with force to the crowd’s adulation. His brow is sweating, eyes flushed with tears and the edges of his grin threatening to break under the pressure. But he simply takes a deep bow and grabs the microphone. Preston: Every time I convince myself that I can handle seeing him again. Then he appears and finds fresh ways to horrify me. Even when he’s not targeting ME, he knows what to do in order to send a chill down my spine. Mathias: Did anyone else dream about him? Y’know, between these meetings. We shake our heads, Mathias looks downtrodden and his shoulders fall. Mathias: Ah… just me, then. Should’ve guessed. Warren: What happens? Does he beat you up or is it creepier? Like does he eat you, tear you apart, burn you… Millie: Dude, ew. C’mon, don’t make it worse. Warren: Says the girl who wears a lucky cat’s paw around her neck and loves dead things. Well, what is it Mathias? Mathias takes a breath and looks over at the TV, JJ doing his introductory spiel and explaining the rules of the game; the interviewees are asked questions and must answer honestly or face consequences. Mathias cleans his glasses and his body shivers. Mathias: He just leans over me at night, or maybe it’s in my dreams… I don’t know. But he tells me I’m the one he likes the most, even if I’m not listening. He says it’ll be over soon… and then he shows me a chair on fire. It burns for what seems like hours before I realise there was a person sitting in it, long dead and nothing but charred bones and ash. The moment I realise this, he appears nose to nose with me, eyes wide and bulging, and asks me, “Where did the fire start?” He points to me… Then I wake up. Preston: Wow… kinda makes me glad I don’t remember my dreams. Did you look into what it could mean? Symbolism n’ all that. Mathias shook his head, muttered something about it not mattering and gestured to the TV, an obvious desire to change the subject. We looked back right as JJ was finishing his introduction. 00:04 - JJ takes the mic off of the stand and holds it candidly while leaning one of his lanky arms over it, perching himself as he tilts back and looks up at the rafters. “Y’know, folks. This is the one I’ve been waiting for. We’ve had a wonderful run so far, but all good things must come to an end and all truths must be outed. Both from our lucky contestants today and from yours truly. To that end, I’d like to share something with you before we begin tonight. Do you mind indulging an old fool?” He pauses, holds his hand up to his ears as the crowd cheers, he looks almost… tired as he displays a human smile and turns to the screen, posture returning and a haggard, withered look on his face as he talks. “Our time together grows short, and it is my duty to make sure you know the why behind it all. I am not the architect of this now obvious entrapment involving those of you watching at home, merely the tool to be utilised. We were hired by someone who knows all of you at home intimately, who wanted answers when they weren’t given and when deception was instead offered. A man who went through the grief of losing his only son one fateful summer’s eve at Mantis Reach and to this day, doesn’t know what happened to him. Dallas “Livewire” Mendoza. His father Ernesto Mendoza wanted to expose all of your faults, your fears, your flaws in the hopes that you’d give into the guilt. I’m sure if he were here with us, he’d have more to say. But, seeing as he’s not able to, he’s passed on a simple message before we begin…” We stared in stunned silence as we watched a man we’d grown accustomed to fearing, hating and filled with disgust at the mere sight of… slowly transitioned into the most human, grief rattled expression I have ever seen. Tears flowed down his face and that comical smile was twisted and turned into the deepest of frowns, no teeth to be seen but a quivering lip in its place. This was genuine grief, and when he spoke, the words shook his vocal chords and threatened to split my soul in two; “All of you, with all of your flaws and all of your pain… why did you live where my son died?” The moment hung in the air, JJ’s face a painting of suffering and our own guilt mirroring that. 5 seconds felt like 5 minutes. Preston: How… there’s no way he could… didn’t Livewire's dad… Warren: Yeah, he drank himself to death years ago. That doesn’t explain SHIT. What the fuck is this? The guy looks… he looks almost genuine. Mathias: He said it’d be over soon… Millie: You’re all missing the bigger question. They stare at me. My hands shake as I’m typing this out, knowing full well I could be documenting the worst thing imaginable, but unable to stop myself from doing it. It’s what he…no, *they* would want me to do. Millie: What’s in the boxes? 00:07 - As if the director shouted “CUT!”, each of his features sank back into their usual place. The lips curled, the eyes vacant. The lights switched off and JJ was suddenly back in the darkness. “Thank you, everyone! Now, we’ll move onto our contestants for this evening! Two remarkable people who don’t know that one of them has been keeping a small secret, while the other has been keeping a BIIIIIG one. There will be truth…there will be consequences.” He licks his lips and his eyes shake in their sockets before he saunters over to the centre of the stage and a pair of winches descend from the ceiling, latching over the top of these two boxes. With one click of his fingers, the winch lifts up, and it reveals two participants, both secured to metallic chairs with leather-bound straps, both beaten and disoriented. I see her dyed red hair that always showed off her inner fire, his distinctive wrist band that I got him for his 14th birthday he swore he’d never take off. It was Tristan and Fay. I don’t remember how I got here, only that my head is pounding and the lights and sounds are so overwhelming as I come around that I feel my skull threatening to burst. Last thing I remember is being in my room and while I don’t remember the actual song now, something in my memories replaced it over the years with a song that was released some 6 months later. To this day, I swear it was written for me, for us. Even as this all came to an end, I still hear it, like it’s a part of that moment now. My mind sticks to that for a moment before I smack across the face, jerks me back to reality. The hand isn’t fleshy; it feels like plastic and the smell of chemicals burns my nostrils. “Wakey, wakey! We have some big questions for the two of you!” That big fucking grin staring down at me like it’d done in my nightmares for so many weeks. It was finally my turn. 0:08 - Tristan and Fay, both exhausted and frightened, take in their new surroundings as each of us audibly gasps. Warren tries shouting at the TV, Mathias grows pale, Preston rocks back and forth while begging it to stop and I… well, I just feel like I’m going to puke. JJ looks as if he’s feeding off of our pain, our anguish and our suffering. He grins and walks over to one of them, smacking them in the face to focus their attention. “Wakey, wakey! We have some big questions for the two of you!” He smiles and leans his microphone to the crowd. “Don’t we, folks?!” To raucous applause and hollering. “Now… young Tristan Muldoon, it’s time for you to play:”The screen behind them flashes the neon words as the crowd chants, reminiscent of that very first show we covered; “TRUTH AND CONSEQUENCES!” The lights dim and a spotlight produces above Tristan, who only struggles for the briefest of moments before looking over to Fay, nodding and turning back to JJ, stoic and defiant. “Now, Tristan. While it’s true that you and your womb-mate over there have no horrific secret tucked away under the folds of your skin… there IS something you’ve been keeping from everyone, isn’t there?” JJ leans down to the side of Tristan, still in full view of the camera and dragging his tongue across Tristan’s collarbone, all the way up to his ear, letting it slither inside for a moment before it snapped back in his mouth. He chuckles before adding, “And I’m not talking about the whole “Mantis Reach” thing!” dramatically putting his hands in the air and waving them before hanging his head in a makeshift rope for laughs. Tristan stares and swallows, eyes fixated on JJ and looking as if he knows the second he tears them away to check on Fay, his life will end. “Now, I will ask you a question and if you answer truthfully, the consequences will be mostly spared. IF you decline to answer the way I see fit or… hell forbid you’re foolish enough to lie, that will incur… consequences. Three strikes and you’re out!” He elongated the last two words to sound like a dramatic umpire, to the crowd’s delight and to our collective horror. “So, Tristan! Your first question: Do your friends know that you went back to Mantis Reach after your pact?” If Tristan was taken aback by the answer, he tried his best not to show it. Head sweating and fingers gripping the edges of his chair, he opened his mouth before speaking and seemed to struggle for a response. “I… I don’t…” He began, JJ waving his hand in front of him, eyes closed and still smiling. “Oh, now I should remind you, son. The consequences are always there, it’s just a matter of how severe you want them to be. Remember that.” His face twitched before he pointed the mic back at Tristan. Preston: We made a promise to never go back, he wouldn’t break that promise. Tristan would never… Mathias: Definitely not, but IF he did, maybe he had his reasons? Forget that, HOW did JJ get them? He’s always made contact, but this… this is the first time he’s ever gotten to us physically. Millie: He might’ve gone back, especially if there was a good reason to visit the hideout. Warren: We need to get them outta there, beat the shit out of JJ. Can’t you find their location with your tech shit, Mathias? Millie: You’re not listening. We can’t do anything right now, this is live. Best we can do is try to figure this out along with them, what JJ wants from them and us… Preston: What would be his reason for going back? That oath was to keep us ALL safe. The only reason one of us would go back is- Prestons eyes bulged and his lip quivered. The penny dropped. Millie: Unless Livewire was still very much alive. 00:11 - The camera zooms in on Tristan. Who, to his credit, was trying his best to keep his composure in the unblinking face of the monstrosity that is JJ Watson. It must have looked like he was standing next to a hungry predator, waiting to pounce. “I… it’s true, yes. I went back once to make sure things were… settled. That the lights had gone out.” He stuttered on the last bit, tears in his eyes. “None of the others knew, not even Fay. I had a hunch, and I was right. That’s why I went back.” There was a pause, JJ hung his head low and stood up slowly, his ungodly frame looming over Tristan like the darkness ready to swallow up the last sliver of light. He shook in place for a moment, bringing the microphone close to his sunken face before snapping back to that uncanny valley persona. “THAT IS CORRECT! Your truth has been accepted, bravo Mr Muldoon!” The applause rang out as was sat there, dumbstruck. Something drew Tristan back to the hideout, something he felt he had to finish. What the hell was it? Before we could discuss, however, there was a flash and the sound of a single, sickening crunch, followed by a horrific scream. In that moment, JJ produced a hammer and smashed it down on Tristans left hand, shattering the bones in an instant, releasing the shackles that bound him as he fell to the floor and writhed, clutching the mangled digits with agony. “And there is your consequence, as appropriate for what you did. Give him a “HAND” everybody!” He laughed, he laughed so much his skin undulated and crackled while Tristan screamed on the floor. “Now, Miss Muldoon, it’s YOUR TURN.” I couldn’t tell you what it was like to be in the same environment as JJ, especially after picturing him in my nightmares for so long. Only that he is every bit as horrifying as you can imagine. They say “don’t meet your heroes”, but they said nothing about your villains, your deep-seated fears, your trauma. JJ was all of that and more, his aura was stifling to the point where every breath felt fetid, decayed and filled with anxiety. He relished in front of the cameras, an obscured crew and a crowd hidden behind such bright lights that for all the noise they generated, I could never see them. My mind still reeling from the pain, I had no idea how he found us, if he’d let one or both of us go and most importantly; what he was gonna ask. He said three strikes and you’re out, but we didn’t realise until it was too late… The game was rigged from the start. Millie: Tristan… oh god, his hand… his FUCKING hand. Preston: We need to do something. Mathias, can’t you track where they are? Mathias: That’s not how this works, Preston. Warren: Well, what the fuck does THAT mean? You can’t or you won’t? Mathias: It means whatever you want it to mean, we just need to let this play out, horrible as it is. Figuring this out is the key to solving what’s going on. Tristan and Fay would both feel the same. Millie: Bullshit. Bull. Shit. You KNOW they would do everything to help you if you were in their shoes. Mathias shrugged. A cold stare greeting me as bitter words escaped his lips. Mathias: I’m not there though, am I? I'm here because I was smart, I was careful. Something my good-for-nothing family ingrained into me, at least... They let their guard down, this is what happens. Warren stood up so suddenly, his chair fell back. I swear he would have smashed Mathias’ face in if he thought it’d help. But no sooner had he taken a step, JJ was already interviewing Fay and our attention was drawn back. 0:14 - The same situation played out as it had with Tristan. The spotlight shone on Fay and Tristan’s screaming had grown to soft whimpers as JJ now stood behind her, hands gripped on her shoulders as the restraints were undone by unseen hands. His eyes gleaming in the darkness, voice oozing with glee as he spoke. “Now, Fay, your question requires nothing more than a yes or a no. It’s true that you were born into a loving, wealthy family. Your Father worked as an architect until he died of cancer, your mother always ensured you were cared for and indulged in your passions, your twin brother the perennial best friend. But that still wasn’t enough for you, was it?” His grip tightened on her shoulders and I could see him lick his lips before biting down hard on the lower right corner, drawing blood. “You still felt disconnected, uninspired and unworthy, didn’t you? You took to emptying the house of any alcohol or pills you could find to stop the numbness, the voices, oh the voices Fay… how they tormented you. Livewire BEGGING you to set him free, those last words echoing in your head like an ear worm with the deepest of hooks. But…” He let go of her shoulders and leaned his head out of the darkness, his appearance gaunt, pale and the eyes swivelling in their sockets like a Chameleon. When he spoke once more, his voice was deeper, gurgling and raspy, but filled with a primal sense of joy. “You still felt guilty for being so utterly miserable and worthless, didn’t you?” Fay stared forward, her face riddled with tears as she blinked and nodded. “Yeah. I still feel that way now, even more-so since…” but JJ cut her off, sinking his head back into the shadows and the studio lights blinking on once more, back to his usual self and declaring; “A SECOND TRUTH FOR THE MULDOONS!” To more uproarious applause from the crowd. We sat there in absolute silence, fists clenched and terrified for what he’d do next. With a snap of his fingers, Fays eyes rolled back into her head and her body convulsed, her nose bleeding and Tristan shouting from off-camera. “STOP! If you want to give someone a consequence… give it to me, this is all on me. Please…”The camera moved off of Fay and the wide shot showed JJ clicking his fingers as Fays head rolled forward. He sauntered over to Tristan and effortlessly hoisted him back onto his chair, ignoring Tristans howls of pain as he did so. “Well, if you insist!” He chuckled, and the spotlight was brought down one last time. They told me afterwards that I had trauma. Physical, mental, whatever. But it was because of that trauma that I couldn’t properly perceive what happened as that spotlight came down for the last time. I remember the question, the answer and the… consequence. But that’s through these transcripts that Millie dutifully took up in our absence. Because in that moment and for days afterwards, I could recall nothing, save for sound of a single shot that rang out as the show drew to a close. And the smile plastered over JJ’s face. Millie: I don’t want to write down anything else, I don’t want to be the scribe to their suffering. Warren: They did it for us because they KNEW how important it was for us and for the integrity of our search. We do it for them too. Mathias: Do not miss a single word, Millie. Cover everything. I don't want any details left out when all is said and done. Mathias was staring intently at the screen, biting his nails and body language that did not detail a man in distress, but a man filled with curiosity. Preston: Are you not the least bit worried about what will happen to Tristan and Fay? This isn’t a fucking experiment for us to emotionally distance ourselves from! Preston slammed his hand down. It was rare to see him so angry and upset, but this was a clear exception. Spit flew from his mouth as he finished talking, Mathias never looked up from his position once. Mathias: Tristan can handle himself, it’s Fay I’m worried about. You worry about your food, your family issues and your boyfriend, I’ll worry about her. She is EVERYTHING to me. Warren: They BOTH need our help, you Microsoft reject. Get your head out of your ass and stop pining for a girl who wants you as her FRIEND, Jesus Christ, dude. Again, Mathias shrugged and continued staring, coldness rippling through his words. Mathias: Well, your mom didn’t want you, but she put up with you after you killed your brother, so… maybe mind your own business? You & Fay will have something in common soon. Hell erupted after that, Warren leapt over the table separating the two before I or Preston could stop him, volleying Mathias with fists and screaming as he did, Mathias’ eyes still glued to the TV. It took a couple of minutes before we could pull Warren away, tears in his eyes and blood on his knuckles, sitting down in a heap and cupping his head in his bloodied hands, sobbing. Mathias put a shaking finger to his lips, giggling with a broken nose and pointing to the TV. Mathias: Here. We. Go. 00:20 - JJ pushed the chair to the centre of the room, turning it away from the crowd and motioning to someone off-screen to turn on the screen behind them, which began displaying photos of the twins as they grew up. Matching outfits as kids, Mario & Luigi as toddlers, birthdays screaming joyfully over new video games and art projects, 12-year-old Tristan with his arm wrapped around Fay mid-sob as she held a trophy highlighting her 2nd place award for the regional Karate championships, one of 16-year-old Fay pointing at her brother in his prom outfit like he was the star of the show. Lastly, a photo of the two of them mid-high five last spring on their birthday, happiness plastered across their faces, the rest of the gang off to the side clapping. The camera showing Tristans tear-stained face in a small reaction box on the right-hand side before fading to him fully as the last image hung on the screen. JJ sat on the ground next to him, an arm resting on his raised leg. “All those memories, a lifetime of love, bonding and togetherness. You must really love your sister, Tristan!” A chorus of “aww’s” emanating from the crowd before he continued, Tristan nodding silently. “But, I bet you didn’t know that among all that love, there was a betrayal.” JJ grinned and clicked his fingers, the screen zooming in on one of the gang; Mathias. “He loves your sister, you know. Loves her so very, very much. Now, she may not be that interested, but that doesn’t stop a man desperately in love, does it? He learned from his family that sometimes, all you need to do to get something you want… is cut a deal.” JJ swivelled his hips, so he was sitting in front of Tristan, the crowd softly chanting something indecipherable, an ominous feel came over everyone watching as Mathias whispered. “That’s the thing about unexplainable horrors… there’s always a man behind the curtain, pulling the levers and making the puppet man dance.” He holds his arms up like a marionette and jerks them around as he stands up, dancing as joints clicked and snapped, the chanting in the crowd growing more pronounced. “Mathias lived a life of keeping secrets, scouring information and learning that love can be unrequited, but still forcibly taken. Maybe he felt bad about Mantis Reach, maybe not, but he was the one willing to make a deal with Ernesto Mendoza- LiveWire’s father- and set our little ordeal into motion!” JJ turned to the camera and knocked on the glass, waving slowly as that sick fucking grin pulled at the tops of his lips and his ears wiggled. “Hi kids, this is all just for you. Even if there’s… regrets over our creative tactics and the way in which we get our information, the end result is the same. We get what we want.” There’s a pause and as Mathias silently waves, I feel the sweat run down my brow. Millie: He won’t stop until we tell him what happened at Mantis Reach. Warren: But we CAN’T. You know we can’t. Preston: Well then, what’s the alternative, Warren? Let our friends fucking die? We watch Mathias for a moment, bloodied and completely disconnected from us, staring at the screen where the bravado of Tristan has been completely replaced by fear. 00:25 - A crude advertisement for some bar flashed up at the bottom of the screen, not unlike a cartoon ad, showcasing unusual drinks and an even more unusual location between spaces. The camera panned over to JJ, taking deep breaths and hunching his back repeatedly. “Ah! I almost forgot! We have a FINAL question to ask! Forgive me, folks, this has been a LONG time coming, and we hosts can sometimes get a bit ahead of ourselves!” He swivels the chair around with almost no effort, slamming it down to face the crowd with glee. “I will never tell you what happened at Mantis Reach. No matter what you ask me.” Tristan stared up at JJ, eyes bloodshot and twitching from pain. “Oh, that’s alright. We’ll know one way or another. My question is more of a…hypothetical.” He chuckled and clasped his hands together around the mic before asking. “We know you love your sister, Tristan. The question is… would you die for her?” It happened in slow motion. Tristan spat in JJ’s face as he laughed, licking it off of his chin before smashing the hammer into Tristan’s face three times, blood spurting out like a crimson fountain, staining his clothes and the majority of it flying towards the crowd. Their chanting now audible and bone chilling: “One must stay, one must go.” As the camera did a sweeping shot, JJ let the hammer fall into the small pool of blood Tristan had made, Fay stirring off screen as we screamed in horror. He slid in the blood and danced as the image behind of the twins warped and twisted until the forms high-fiving were chunks of viscera held up by feeble bones, Mathias’ spectral shape laughing from a distance. JJ scooped up some of the blood, tasting some as it stained his perfect white teeth, much to the crowd’s delight. Walking over to Tristan, he rubbed his forehead with it before giving him a pair of light slaps, almost playfully. Stepping back and framing it with his hands, almost filled with glee. “I think we got our final truth, folks! You all know what happens at the end of the show, but before that… we need our ultimate consequence! I’m sure many of you at home spoiled it for yourselves, but I do love making everyone wait.” He winked at the camera, the crowd not even remotely reacting as they chanted louder, far more aggression in their voices that bordered on the inhuman. Then, without warning, he held a hand out to someone off camera. They handed him a gun that he pointed at Tristan as time stood still. The shot rang out, Tristan’s skull was pierced and the force sent his body back before he slumped forward. He didn’t move, Fay was nowhere to be seen. The crowd fell silent as JJ panted in a grotesque manner as the credits began to roll. The shape of Tristan was almost pulled off screen, like someone displaying an afterimage, but the screen went to static as we were left to unpack what we’d seen. Warren screamed, punching the wall over and over. Preston wailed into his sweater and Mathias… he just This fucking animal killed our friend. My better half. My everything. The shot rang out, and I felt my ears pop, my vision returned and I saw innumerable shapes, some 100ft away from me, some seated and others standing as they clamoured for the blood spurting from Tristan’s body. I swear some had horns and second mouths, but I could have just been hallucinating. But as the music played, I felt a whooshing sound and the feeling of heavy ran running down my back as I fell forward and onto the pavement. I was outside my home and I could hear the commotion downstairs, voices raised and the air thick with anger. My body moved before my mind could react to what had happened, like an extreme version of fight or flight. I rushed in, smashing my elbows against the door frame and crossing the threshold, that fateful song playing as I dashed through the hallways. “C’est La Vie” The innumerable family photos, video game nights, sibling rivalries and late night talks pulling me back from the edge. “C’est La Morte” I dashed to the basement door, trying desperately to hold back tears. “You and me” After everything, I thought it would be me. That it would be my turn. Not him… not him… “Forevermore.” Running down the stairs, I hadn’t realised the exhaustion until that moment, my legs like jelly as I stumbled down the last few and turned the corner to see my best friends in shambles, Mathias in the corner still clapping as I saw red.“Heaven or hell or somewhere in between” I grabbed him with all the strength I could muster and screamed at him. Fay: Why?! Why would you do this? We loved you… you were like a brother to us! Mathias: Because I wanted more. I still do. I spent my whole life keeping secrets, watching my family put those they love above everyone else. I did the exact same. Besides... there's always been a part of me that felt we deserved this, for what happened up on Mantis Reach. Fay: Why did we all have to suffer for what you wanted? Do you understand what you’ve done? Mathias: Oh I always knew, I was the one who got the email offering us a chance to "tell the whole story" and to "absolve us of what we did" and I don't know about you, but I WANT to be punished for what we did. Tristan was no different, it was appropriate he went first. Especially if he want back to finish what we started. I slammed him against the wall and with the thud of his skull against the wood, I half expected him to crumble, but he just laughed and said “Tristan sleeps beneath the static.” My anger raised as the group tried to wrestle me away, my face bloodied and filled with tears, the song still playing and the static beaming out of the TV. “Cross your heart and take me with you, please” It took one single voice calling from the stairs to snap me out of my rage and, for the most part, to pull us all to sanity. “Don’t go, please don’t go.” It was my mom, our mom. She was stood, drenched in the rain and utterly horrified at the sight of our group; Millie sobbing uncontrollably with her arms on my waist, Preston’s hair matted to his head in sweat and grimacing, Warren’s knuckles covered in blood and with me and Mathias in the middle of a scrap. “Fay… Where’s your brother?” “Don’t go without me.”
I'm pretty sure my parents' new church is a cult..
“I think your parents are in a cult,” my friend Todd said to me. It took me by surprise and I tried to pause my game, then remembered it was online and that I couldn’t. My character died a moment later. I was so stunned by what he had said I was no longer paying attention. “What are you talking about,” I asked him, passing him the game controller. We were playing a battle royale game and he was terrible at it, so I knew he would die and it would be my turn again soon. It was late at night and we were sitting in my basement on old couches – a spring poked into my back and foam material poked out of holes in the coffee-stained armrests. My parents were asleep upstairs, so I wasn’t really worried about them overhearing. Still I kept my voice down. “You didn’t think there was anything weird about that church service today,” he asked, tapping the controller against his knee. He sat up straight and held the controller more tightly, focused on lasting more than two minutes in the game this time. “Land on the outskirts,” I said. “You’re gonna die immediately if you try to land in one of the popular spots.” He waited for a while before dropping into the game, and I thought he might do a bit better this time. “That church pastor, man, he’s fucking weird. And what were they saying about a thirty day fast? Won’t they die if none of them eat for thirty days? Your mom and dad are really gonna do that?” Todd had been forced to accompany us to church, since that was a condition of the sleep-over. I had moved to Grantville with my family a couple years before and Todd was my best friend from my old hometown. He came over once in a while but less and less frequently these days. As much as I had promised myself I wouldn’t let it happen, I was losing touch with my old friends. I was hanging out with people I had met at school a lot more lately. It had taken me two full years to finally make some friends. I know, that’s a long time, tell me about it. My other friends from Bellwood hardly spoke to me anymore – Todd was the only one I still saw – we had been best friends. “It’s a juice fast. Yeah I know it’s really weird. They’re gonna have broth and soup and stuff too I guess, but still. No solid food for a month. I really don’t get it. I’m just glad I don’t have to do it.” My parents were probably worried about having children’s aide called on them, I thought to myself. They had just said I was exempted because I needed my energy for schoolwork and extracurricular activities. “Everybody in that place is so mesmerized by that pastor too, it’s freaky, man,” Todd said, focused on the game. I hadn’t noticed it before but I was really accustomed to it. From an outsider’s perspective I guessed it had been a bit strange. The church had grown over the last couple years and now had a couple hundred members. When we had first started going it was only a dozen or so of us. We had upgraded to newer and bigger buildings along the way. The people in the church respected the charismatic pastor, Steve, so much they fawned over him constantly, and revered him. They regarded him from their pews silently, respectfully, and with glowing admiration. Now there were a couple hundred people competing for his attention, and with increasing fervor. If someone even so much as coughed during one of his sermons they were shushed from six different directions and given death-glares from dozens of reprimanding eyes. Aside from that nobody ever stopped smiling at church – like a a bunch of jokers – their teeth showed constantly before and after service, to show everyone how happy they were to be there. I hated how fake it felt and refused to keep a phony grin plastered on my face every Sunday. I had gotten several comments about my “sour face" from smiling parishioners who asked me what was wrong every time they saw me. It was infuriating. The latest iteration of the church had been a huge transformation. A lot of the parishioners were involved in construction trades so it had been decided a new church would be built on the pastor’s land. He lived on a big farm and there were many acres of land there. Talk had begun about building houses on the land too, where parishioners could move if they so wished – to form a little community. My parents were excited about the prospect and I was more than a bit annoyed they were talking about moving again. I had just begun to make friends in the city and now they wanted to move out to the country to live on a subdivided farm owned by the church pastor! I was only sixteen though, so what could I really do other than voice my protests and be ignored. “Yeah I know it’s kinda weird,” I said, a bit self-consciously. “Kinda weird? Man, it’s fuckin’ bananas in that place. People speaking in tongues and casting demons out of gay people – that guy rolling around on the floor, screaming. What kinda weird shit is that anyways?” The more I thought about it, the more embarrassed I became. It was a crazy scene in there. It was a good thing he hadn’t come on rattlesnake day, two weekends ago, I thought. I doubted Todd would sleep over on a Saturday again. I took a sip from the sickly-sweet lemon vodka cooler we had gotten my brother to buy us at Todd’s request. We had successfully managed to hide them from my parents all weekend. “Well, I don’t know what to do. They said I don’t have to go anymore when I turn eighteen, so it’s only another couple years. What’s the worst that can happen?” “Just don’t drink the fucking Kool-aide, man. That’s all I’m saying.” He gave me a serious look and I nodded. It was good advice, and I vowed to follow it. * Ten months later I was on the back of a large wagon, hauling bundles of hay and stacking them in neat piles. There was a lot of work to be done in the communal fields. My mom’s hair was in disarray and she had dark circles under her eyes, but her grin was wide and manic. She had sweat stains all over the front of her shirt and under her arms. No doubt I looked the same, minus the smile. The church pastor, Steve, was up front on the tractor. He was driving the tractor which pulled the hay-wagon, wearing sunglasses and a ball cap. I noticed his white T-shirt looked clean and dry. He had soundproof headphones on to block out the noise from the tractor and a little fan was blowing into his face. He looked back at us once in a while and yelled directions while we swatted at horse flies, sweating and grunting and pulling bales of hay up from the ground. The friendly grin never left his face, and everyone followed his commands without question. The group just continued nodding and smiling regardless of how exhausted they all were. This was day three of our collective effort to bundle hay for the property so that it could be used to feed the communal livestock. There had been lots of projects like this lately, and I was always voluntold to help. I barely had time for homework anymore. But there was talk of a homeschooling program starting soon, with all the kids from church to be taught by Steve, the pastor. He had a diploma from a teacher’s college so it was only a matter of sorting out the legal paperwork. By next September we would all be his students, and not just on Sundays. A horse fly took a big chunk out of the back of my leg, behind my knee, and I yelped and swatted it. I lifted my hand and saw a large pool of blood and a squished bug body. One of the pastor’s kids, David, saw me and gave me a stern look, furrowing his brow. He wagged his finger at me and told me I shouldn’t kill living things, and said he was going to tell his dad. Oh great, I thought to myself. Any time I did anything within eyesight of the pastor’s four kids lately I was sure to hear about it later, even if it was innocent and I had done nothing wrong. Ironically, they were all hell-raisers who did nothing but stir up shit and cause trouble. My friend Todd refused to come over now, since we had moved to the communal farm. He had gotten into a fight with the pastor’s son, David, who was about our age. The fight had started because David had thrown a rock at Todd’s head, leaving a large goose egg and a laceration. Somehow, Todd had been blamed, according to my parents and the pastor, who had been quite angry with him for some reason. David was unscathed, since he was a foot taller than Todd and knocked him unconscious with one blow to my friend’s temple. I visited Todd at his house now, infrequently. My parents refused to drive me there so it was tough to find a way over. Most days I ended up stranded on the communal farm and as such was forced to help with the never-ending labour. Our house was still being built, so we lived in a large building with several other families and absolutely no privacy. It was a teenager’s worst nightmare. The wagon was full and I was told to stay behind in the hay fields and wait for them to come back. My brother and I were given vague instructions. Basically we would be standing around doing nothing, since the hay bales were already tied up and ready to go. I looked at my brother Richard with a confused expression. He was a year older so was almost free of this insanity. He said he was going to move out of the commune on his 18th birthday. We watched the wagon drive off and sat around for a while, complaining and swatting at flies and mosquitoes. We were both drenched in sweat and couldn’t wait to be finished for the day. We usually worked until dinner then called it quits, but today we had been forced to go back out afterwards to work until the sun went down. The expectations on us seemed to be getting greater and greater every day. There was only time for one more wagonload, I realized. The sun would be setting soon. The bugs were becoming more and more ferocious and I wished I had brought a bottle of bug spray. We sat there waiting for twenty minutes or so and I was beginning to wonder if they'd forgotten us out in the fields when my brother grabbed my wrist and exclaimed in shock. “What the hell is that?” He jumped backwards and I saw his eyes were wide and terrified. He was pointing into the woods. I followed his gaze and looked carefully into the foliage, straining my eyes in the dim light. I saw what looked to be a wolf, sitting in the shadows off the edge of the field. “It’s a wolf, I think,” I said, my voice trembling. I saw movement to the right and looked to see bushes swaying back from being disturbed as if something had just gone past them. I looked around, suddenly terrified. “There’s more of them,” my brother said in a whisper. I saw them now too. There were a few more, dotted around us at odd angles, like a hunting party. But wolves don’t usually hunt people, I thought. Something was strange about the wolves too. I looked closer but it was hard to see in the gathering darkness. It was their bodies – they didn’t look right. The fur was wrong, patchy and ill-fitting. I realized with alarm that these were not wolves – these were people in wolf clothing. The wolf faces were actually masks. I whispered this to Richard and he nodded his head, saying he had just noticed the same thing. I said we should run. He agreed. We got up from where we stood and bolted back towards the road. We took a logical shortcut through a patch of trees and that was our mistake – they had predicted it. I felt the world turn sickeningly upside-down and it took me a moment to realize I was ensnared in a trap. Everything was spinning and I saw I was hanging in a cargo net that swung from a high branch on a tall tree. It was like a trap from an episode of Scooby-Doo – how embarrassing. I saw that Richard had gotten past the trap somehow and was running back towards the commune. Hopefully he can get back there and call the police, I thought. I screamed after him, telling him to get help. He looked back over his shoulder and kept running, a terrified look on his face. Panic turned to dread when I saw him fall through the façade of leaves covering the pit. He disappeared from view and I heard him howling in pain a moment later. They had set two traps for us, it seemed, maybe more. “See, Jayson, this is why you need to remember not to be a sheep.” The familiar voice of Steve, the pastor, called up to me. He lifted up his wolf mask for just a second, revealing his always-present smile. Then he replaced the mask. His sermon last week had been all about not following bad examples set by people – even if we respected those people. Richard and I had looked at each other, giggling in our pews. I had looked back up at the altar and seen Steve staring at me, his sermon paused. I had looked around the church and seen the whole congregation had been staring at me, like a bad dream. A dozen others crowded around him now, all in grey fur and wearing wolf masks. They stared at me through the holes in the masks, and I realized they were the actual faces of wolves, that had been cut off and turned into face-coverings. They regarded me through the masks and it was surreal and horrifying at the same time. I recognized my mother’s eyes through one of the masks, at least I’m pretty sure it was her. She had to have known, at least. I was breathing fast and heavy, trying to make sense of the situation. In the background I heard my brother yelping and wailing, saying something about the bone, how the bone was sticking through the skin. It was hard to hear him from the bottom of that hole. Eventually he stopped screaming – no one went to check on him. “He was a lost cause. He had no plans of staying after his 18th birthday, did he, Jayson?” Steve’s voice was clear and remorseless. He waited for me to answer, saying nothing. I nodded my head. I was beginning to think they had no intention of helping him out of that pit. Much to my dismay, several of the wolf parishioners walked over to the hole, pulled shovels out from under piles of leaves, and began to cover the pit with dirt. Richard didn’t make a sound from down where he lay, at the bottom of the hole. “You have two choices. That’s the way I see it, Jayson. You can be a wolf. Or you can be a sheep. Which one do you want to be?” He looked up at me, holding a furry grey costume and a wolf mask that had materialized out of nowhere, it seemed. I realized at that moment, this wasn’t a human being I was looking at. This was something else entirely. There wasn’t any clear reason why I should think that, but looking back on it I don’t doubt it for a second. That man in the wolf mask, surrounded by his disciples, he was too convincing, too charismatic and charming. He made me want to do it, but only for a second. “Alright, alright. I’ll be a wolf. Just please, let me down.” The ropes were cutting into me painfully and it felt like I couldn’t breathe, the way I was tangled and compressed in the net. Steve made a motion with his hands and I dropped down to the ground. They untied the ropes and I stood up slowly from the net. It was good to be back on solid ground and I let my mind adjust to it for a second before what I was about to do. He handed the wolf clothing and mask to me, and I took it. I looked around at them all staring at me and said awkwardly, “I'm really shy. Just, um.. Give me a minute, I’m gonna go change.” I walked towards a big tree, pretending I was going behind it for a bit of privacy. When I got there I stepped behind it and threw the disgusting hairy garment to the pine needle strewn forest floor. I began to run. Not towards the commune, but towards the highway. They weren’t expecting this, I realized. It had been the dumbest and most impulsive escape plan ever, but it was working. I kept pumping my legs and running, jumping over stumps and fallen trees. The darkness was making it harder to see, but that could also work to my advantage, I realized. I didn’t even risk a look behind me, just continued running until I reached a clearing. I ran into the open field and something whizzed past my ear. I felt a sharp pain there a moment later and reached up with my hand. It came away covered in blood. I looked behind me and saw a wolf-man with a compound bow raised and an arrow pointed in my direction. I immediately realized it was David, the pastor’s son who had beat up my friend. He was an expert with a bow, and went hunting all the time. They were always talking about it but I never participated. Now I realized what they were hunting all these past months. The bratty, spoiled little smile he always wore now seemed even more terrifying, now that I knew the trophies he’d been bragging about were really human beings. I was suddenly very glad I had turned down the offers for play-dates our parents had attempted to implement. I shuddered to think what a play-date would be like for such a creature – still not knowing exactly what he was the offspring of. As if on cue, Steve the pastor walked up beside him with his own bow raised. They let their arrows fly simultaneously and one hit me square in the shoulder, the other caught the side of my neck, grazing it. I looked down in horror at the arrow which protruded from my shoulder, just above my clavicle. It looked like it had gone straight through without hitting a bone, at least. With dawning horror I realized I was no longer running, I was down on the ground on my hands and knees. I had apparently just passed out for a second or two. I looked back and saw Steve and David closing in on me. I jumped back to my feet and hobbled until I managed to break into a jog, then a run. I kept sprinting through the forest despite my injuries, although my pace slowed as I began to feel faint and tired from blood loss. Branches hit me in the face and sharp sticks cut me as I made my quick and careless way through the brush. The darkness had finally settled upon the forest and it was impossible to see into the distance. I realized with a wave of relief that I might get away, that the moonless night might aide my escape. I tried not to get too excited as I felt the blood squishing in my shoes like I had been walking through puddles on a rainy day. It dawned on me that no one would want to pick up a blood-soaked man standing at the side of the road with his thumb held out trying to look harmless. If I ran out into the road and waved my arms, screaming bloody murder, that would probably be the safest bet. The highway came into view suddenly as I came out of a thick patch of shrubbery. A pair of headlights came over a rise in the distance and I saw them coming towards me. I ran in that direction, my heart hammering in my chest, full of fear and hope and adrenaline. When the car was close enough I ran out into the road and began to wave my bloody arms around, screaming, I don’t even know what I was yelling but they stopped. A pretty girl with glasses and black hair rolled down her window. She appeared to be about my age and her face was unbelieving and full of shock. I jabbered and rambled and begged her to let me in. I pleaded with her, telling her they were hunting me, that they’d killed my brother. I heard the sound of the automatic doors unlocking and she told me to get in. I ran around to the other side and opened the car door. I closed it behind me as I sat down and put on my seatbelt. Someone was saying to drive, drive, drive, and I realized it was me. Her tires spun and I heard gravel flying as she hit the gas and we drove away from there, the engine roaring. I saw her hands were gripping the wheel tightly, and she was looking at me anxiously. “It’s all true. Don’t worry, I’m telling you the truth,” I said. “Look,” I pointed to the left side of the road and saw that she noticed them too. Several people in wolf fur and masks emerged from the forest holding bows and looking around side to side. She noted them without saying a word and continued driving, in the direction of the commune, not towards the city. Not towards safety. I pointed this out to her. “I know,” she said, and looked at me, smiling a wolfish grin. “I’m very well aware of that, Jayson.” JG
In the 20 years I’ve been playing, I’m fortunate to have very few horror experiences. I guess thats because for the majority of that time, I’ve been lucky to have had gm’d for the same group. As time goes by people get married, get jobs, move, schedule conflicts, and basically life arises and this group eventually moved to gaming from twice a week to once to once a month and eventually not at all. I mentioned in my previous story a sorcerer. The player of the sorcerer and i are still best friends, despite it being close to 15 years since that story happened. A about two years ago i moved in with him and one day he told me he wanted to run a mutants and masterminds adventure based on the SCP stories. I thought that sounded awesome. For those of you who don’t know, SCP is an online collection of stories about a fictional organization that tracks down and contains monsters and artifacts, locking them away and studying them and Mutants and masterminds is a superhero rpg. So in my head I’m picturing a cross between the company from heroes meets Cthulhu meets Spider-Man! He invites one of his friends from college who we will call “mark, and i invite one of my old players who we will call Kevin. Then of course there’s the GM, who I’ll call Steven and myself. On game day, Kevin can’t make it, but we forge ahead anyway. After making characters the three of us play through about half a session before Steven wraps it up for the night saying he needs time to “think about what will happen next.” We had only been playing for 2 1/2 hours, counting character creation. He told me later he hadn’t even come up with the monster yet despite it being his idea and he set up the date for playing, and wasn’t working at the time. A week later he calls the campaign because he just can’t figure out anything to do with it and its cutting into his time playing video games. This could have been the end. This should have been the end, but it wasn’t. I had played again and I liked it. We had 4 people who were committing to a regular game, whose schedules all lined up, and I wanted to run. I talk with Steven and let him know that i want to run a campaign. Ive already spoken with Kevin and mark and even got a hold of one of my other players who i will call Vince to join in a Star Wars group, and invited Steven to join. I told him the idea was that it would be fireflyesq. An episodic adventure of a crew who were an ensemble cast, sort of speak, just trying to get along. Doing missions to keep their ship up and running and get some money on the side. Those who were on the outskirts of the law and society, who could be a. Bounty hunter one week and a smuggler the next. Making friends and enemies in every port along the way. “I want to be the pilot.” Were his first words. I’m cool with that. No one else had chosen any roles on the ship yet, he was the first person who I spoke to about what the plot would be, and we’re typically first come first serve when it comes to characters. Besides, it would all be figured out in session zero. If anyone had any problems with a that they could talk it out then. I nodded and gave the ok. “And I want to own the ship.” well, i thought. The ship has to belong to someone. But still. “I don’t know....” I began. Him cutting me off “If I’m piloting it might as well be my ship.” “Fair enough.” I shrugged, not really seeing the harm that could do. Its not as if everyone wouldn’t have a stake in the ship and missions based around each character anyway. “And i want to be a member of the rebellion.” “You did catch that I wasn’t going to make the rebellion and empire a big thing. I mean, they would give you an occasional mission or sometimes you may have to outrun one of their ships, but that was about it.” “I wan’t to be in the rebellion or I’m not going to play.” That wasn’t the full threat and I knew it. From his tone he wouldn’t just not play, but he would whine and be as obnoxious as he could during game time to make it hard for the players. I sigh. I could make this work. Sure, he could be an undercover operative. That could be pretty fun. I’ve done that myself. Occasionally he would get jobs that would secretly help the rebellion cause. And then the group could start to figure it out, making it a mystery. What is in the thing they are smuggling, or whose the person they are hunting for a bounty, until they eventually figure out they are working for the rebellion. Yeah, that could be a fun thing behind the scenes. “Okay,” I begin. “But just a warning not everyone on the ship will be working for the rebellion.” About to lay out this idea for him, when he cuts me off. “If they aren’t rebellion I wouldn’t let them on my ship.” I blink. I had told him point blank that I didn’t want to run a rebellion/empire war campaign. That I didn’t want it to be a central point besides for background. “What?” I asked disbelieving. “You did catch what i said, right?” “Yeah, but if I’m the pilot AND its my ship, then I wouldn’t let anyone onboard who wasn’t a member of the rebellion. We would be doing rebellion work and jobs.” I sighed again. For the sake of my friendship and the peace in my home, I agreed. Making a retreat to my room before he could dictate the game to me further. In my room I start thinking. ‘Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad. I hadn’t told anyone else what i was planning on with the story besides for a Star Wars campaign. I didn’t have a lot of time to dedicate as a gm, so I was planning on using published adventures and adventure hooks from the fantasy flight games twitter, and I could still do that. I would just have to use some age of rebellion books instead of edge of the empire. Really, its not what i was planning on running, but i could still make it work. If this was the last of it, I wouldn’t be writing this story. Skip forward a few days to character creation/first session. I had picked up an introductory module for age of rebellion and familiarized myself with it. Steve, just as he had promised had made a pilot. It was a very well rounded character, having a little of every ability but only real focus is piloting. A good support character and honestly i was pretty happy with it. Mark had made a sniper specializing in heavy two handed ranged weaponry. Kevin made an infiltrator talker character, and Vince made an engineer droid who could only talk in imperial propaganda as he had originally been a rebel spy. Anytime anyone starts talking about their character, Steve chimes in. Someone has electronics. So does Steve. Someone has mechanics? So does Steve. Someone had medicine? Steve doesn’t, but thats okay cuz Steve is “da biggest and bestest pilot in the galaxy.” Something we heard several times during creation. The module begins with the group going to a rebel base under assault! Steve refuses to allow anyone to help him pilot despite the fact his ship was made for 2 pilots, because “I’m the pilot, so I’m the only one who should. Besides, I’m da biggest and bestest pilot in the rebellion, so i don’t need your help!” They’re being pursued by tie fighters AND have to fly through a cavern with long hanging stalactites and stalagmites while under fire, plus at a penalty with out a copilot. One of the players says they can at least use the turret and Steve tries to shoot it down, saying “this is my ship and no one will do anything in it but me!” I step in and bring up that Mark had gunnery skill, and kevin could help pilot the ship, and Vince could be repairing the ship during this. “No! This is my ship and the only thing I’m good at!” We all roll our eyes. By some miracle he brings the ship in close enough to the base for its guns to shoot off the tie fighters, but the ship is messed up, and Steven is mad. Muttering angrily under his breath mad. In the next phase of the adventure there is an ATAT making its way down a canyon right to the base, its supported with 4 at-st’s and something like 50-100 storm troopers. In the canyon there is a walkway carved that has explosives planted on it and an electronics check is needed to cause them to go boom. The droid has the bet electronics so he volunteers, playing a clip of “for the empire!” There are blaster canons along the cliff edge that can be used with a gunnery check to slow down the walkers. Marks character who had gunnery volunteers to use one. There are hidden entry ways allowing for combat with the troops in the canyon, the Kevin volunteers thinking he can use his cloaking shield and claws to take down troopers quietly, and speeders that can be piloted to help slow the walkers and provide cover for the cannons. Everyone turns to Steve is again, the ‘biggest and bestest pilot in the galaxy!’ Steve says “what’s the point? The OP will just try to screw me over like he did on the way in here! He obviously has it out for me!” I wanted to explode, but thankfully the rest of the group had my back. They reminded him how he refused to let them do anything. He didn’t let the gunner shoot, he dind’t let the copilot copilot, he didn’t let the mechanic fix, and instead they had to watch him do everything. He sighed and dropped the point, still shooting daggers at me and tried to figure out where best to go. He was reminded once again about the speeders, but just shook his head and muttered something about me. “I could do the explosives. I have one rank in computer.” The droid had 3. “I could use the turret. I have one rank in gunnery.” The Gunnar had 3. He began to argue with everyone that because he had a 1 rank in something, he obviously was the best choice for everything. I can shoot! I can use computers! I can do this, so i should do this and you should do something else. The rest of the group had had enough at this point and were arguing back. Finally, after some test roles were done and they compared the size of their cocks, i mean dice pools, he agreed to fire a blaster pistol from the canyon face. The battle itself isn’t important. The droid made the booms go boom, the group slowed down the enemies enough for him to reach the explosives, and the party won. The only noteworthy point was that that gunners canon took a hit which gave him a critical injury when it exploded. In the ffg games a critical you roll a D% and the higher you roll the worse it is. If you roll a 140 you’re dead. Each critical compounding adding +10 to the check until it’s healed. He rolled and his arm was paralyzed. That was where i called that session. Afterward, i spoke with Steve and let him know that it wasn’t just his story. This was a group campaign, and that everyone can do something, and even if it isn’t him, he can still cheer them on or offer his help. He said yeah, he knew and he would do better next session. I let it slide. He and I had spoke, he seemed to know what he had done was wrong. The party had stood up for themselves as well, and he apologized. I thought it would get better. Then the next session happened. In between sessions i had made a new character for Mark to take over since his was badly injured. I had made another heavy weapons expert, so the party didn’t lose that damage, with some medical capability, that being something the party was missing. When we begin, and people are taking out their character sheets, I inform everyone that the good part about being in an army like they were is that when someone is injured or killed, there can be someone new assigned to the unit. I take out the character i had made Mark and said if he wanted to he could play this, or he could make up a new character and bring that one in instead until his gunner was healed. Steven has a fit. “You can’t just bring in a new character!” “Why not?” I ask in a calm voice. I am very proud that i stayed in a calm, reasonable voice for this entire fight. “Because you just can’t!” “Yes, yes Mark can if he chooses to.” “How are you gonna explain it in game? It doesn’t make any sense?” “I’m pretty sure i just did. They are someone new assigned to your unit.” “But where are they gonna come from?” “The rebellion, of course.” “But what about party cohesion?” “You’re in the army. Your cohesion is whoever youre ordered to be with. Besides, its not permenant. And this character fills a void your were missing. He’s not only a heavy weapon specialist like Marks old character, but also a medic.” I say with a smile handing the sheet over to Mark. “Again that is if you choose to use him. Like i said, you can build a new..” “The rebellion won’t fix him up! He’s just some random soldier!” I can almost hear him saying “he’s not my awesome, bestest pilot in the galaxy.” Looking back at Steven, “why not. The rebellion has an entire medical frigate. And he’ll get a baseline prosthetic arms, not anything special that will give him bonuses, that is if the bacta doesn’t take care of it.” This fight went on for nearly 5 minutes with poor Mark caught in the middle. Finally Steven plays his trump card. “If i was injured, i wouldn’t want to bring in a new character or be healed. I’d want to play through it!” Mark sighed. “Its okay, I’ll stick with my Gunner.” Looking dejected he handed me back the sheet. He had actually been excited about the medic, eyes lighting up looking over, pointing out interesting things it could do. Steve looked triumphant. “Are you sure? You don’t need to let Steven dictate your character. You are a two handed specialist who lost a hand. The weapons you could use you don’t have any ranks in, plus you have a penalty from the injury, and if you take a crit it’s guaranteed to be worse. On top of that, your armor is ruined from the explosion so you’re defenseless. This isn’t Stevens decision to make, its not his character, its yours.” “Yeah, i guess I’m sure.” With Mark having made his decision there was nothing else i could do. “Okay.” Sigh. “I guess you can go to the quartermaster and get a new set of armor and a blaster pistol so you can have a weapon.” “No he can’t! We don’t have time!” Again Steve butts in. “I guess i won’t.” Mark says, giving in. I let Mark know he could but he shakes his head no and asks to move on. In the next section of the adventure its revealed there is a traitor and its up to the party to figure out who it is. The group narrows down its list of suspects, and split. Half the group goes to do background research and half go to interrogate the first suspect. Steve decides to take mark with him and talk to the suspect because he has a rank in intimidation so he can do it. “But i have more ranks in intimidate and persuasion and a higher presence...” Kevin began, being a talking specialist at that. “Its okay, i have 1 rank, and I want to do it and ill do it better.” “Okay,” said Kevin, just done with it. “I’d rather go with and help with research. I’m pretty hurt...” Mark began “I’m about to confront a traitor. You’re the only other fighter here and i want some protection.” Kevin and i scoffed, remembering that close quarters combat was a speciality of Kevin’s. I stuck with the droid and kevins character, letting them know what they found could be fed to the interrogators and help them with their checks. A few checks in and i hear “I want to interrogate the suspect!” Steven announces loudly, speaking over me while i was in the middle of letting them know what they found. “Okay, hold on just one second, let me finish with them.” “No! I want to interrogate him.” “I got that, but I’m with the other party and...” “They can wait until after i talk to him. what they’re doing doesn’t matter anyway.” Vince says “just do it. You can come back to us.” Giving me a long suffering look that only a big brother can (note, hes not my big brother, but he is Kevin’s). “Okay” i say, turning my attention to Steven. “What’s the plan.” “Me and kevin are going to interrogate the first suspect. I want to do it!” Steven starts questioning, and rolls a success, but a despair. A despair is a crit bad thing in the ffg games. The man realizing that he had been found pulls out his blaster and shoots Steven in the face with a stun bolt, knocking him out. “But thats not fair! I have one rank in intimidation!” “Yes,” responded Vince. “And hes a trained imperial spy who realized his cover was blown and protected himself. Maybe next time let the person who specialized in talking do the talking, or let the researchers finish the research because we had just found that out and could have warned you!” Mark goes down next, the guy who didn’t want to be there, and was forced to by Steve, goes down. Since he already had a critical injury, he takes another one. This time he loses his entire arm, and the spy escapes. I ask Mark if he wants to bring in a new character, because this is the time i could. “Someone could have seen what happened and come along,” i reason, pulling out the backup character i had made. “No he doesn’t!” Mark rolled his eyes and shook his head. The group tracks down the villain, and the guy who is a two handed ranged weapon specialist is forced to fight the martial artist with one arm, no armor, and no weapon already injured. He goes down in the first round, and get a new critical injury, now permenantly paralyzed from the waist down. And before the villain is taken out, the Steve, who was so proud of his 1 rank in ranged light crit misses, hitting mark and giving him one last injury, causing permanent brain damage. After they won the fight, Steve said he needed a break. I stayed behind and spoke with Steve while everyone left. “I really messed up tonight.” “Yeah.” “I’m ashamed of how i behaved in this game so far.” “Your should be.” “It’s because of me Mark needs a new character, isn’t it?” “Yeah.” “I’m gonna stay out the rest of the night.” “That’s probably a good idea. I’ll tell the guys youre not feeling well.” “Thanks.” We finished that nights session without Steven, and in the next week he texted a personal apology to every player. Despite all of us agreeing to give him another chance, he didn’t play the next week either. That was the last session as life once again reared its ugly head. To me he didn’t just apologize for the railroading, for pushing around the other players, but also for forcing me to run a game that i didn’t want to run. That surprised me, i thought he had forgotten that. Though we’re no longer roommates, Steven is still one of my best friends. We speak at least once a week. He is one of the most generous and caring people i know. He is the kind of man who will give you the shirt off of his back and ask if you’re okay while doing it. He loves to tell stories and wants to help make the world a better place, even if he doesn’t know how to. He will talk about video games and anime and cars for hours, and will help you move, even if you moved the weekend before. And i mean lifting the heavy stuff too. I put this here because its easy to judge someone based on their worse times, but with him those moments are fleeting. This is who is normally is. TLDR: player railroads the gm into playing a game he didn’t want to play, forces himself into every role, and then browbeats the other players until it kills their character. Edit. I’ve been asked a lot why I allowed him to do so much. While when he started in game i spoke to him when the events occurred, let him know he was over stepping boundaries, stealing the spotlight, and called him out on his various actions, and spoke with him after the session to remind him this was a team game, I want to explain why I allowed him so much freedom when it came to dictating terms of the game beforehand. Something I didn’t mention was that I was going through a divorce and he had allowed me to move in with him. I didn’t want to lose my home and become homeless again because of a game.
Does anyone remember a TV channel called ‘Beneath the Static’? (Part 4)
It’s been a long, long month. Where I’ve been doesn’t matter so much as WHAT happened. This is the last part before we reach the Day of Separation and… well, to be truthful, I’ve not been fully honest with you all. I’m not who I say I am. We’ll get to that next time, I’m still trying to find the place to explain it all, but I hope you’ll forgive me. After the last entry went up, my night terrors increased exponentially and I almost could not function. Sleeping became the biggest chore imaginable, and I was close to mentally breaking until last week when a message popped up from an old friend. They want to meet, and with travel restrictions lifting, they’re aiming to come out soon. They want to “resolve this once and for all” and I’m inclined to let them. We’ll be doing a reunion soon, and I guess I’ll keep you posted on that. The Day Of Separation affected us all differently… I appreciate the well wishes and voices of concern, but my part in this isn’t so relevant right now. What I want to focus on is the matter at hand. These don’t get any easier as time goes on. As always, if you have memories of the TV Network “Beneath The Static” PLEASE let me know, I’m collating all the information in the comments as it’s the easiest for my anxiety to deal with. I hope you understand. Mantis Reach was The Sage’s old hangout before we migrated to the basement. Something did happen up there, something I don’t think any of us then or now have fully come to terms with or accepted our part within. I’ll say this much though; There weren’t always Six Sages, and we didn’t always have such a dysfunction within our group. Before what happened that warm July evening, when everything began to fall apart… There were seven. Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 5 There was no real fanfare prior to our meeting this week, Fay was having nightmares and didn’t seem ready to discuss it, drawings were kept secret and I didn’t want to push the envelope on an already tense situation. Each week we do this, I feel us gradually growing apart both as siblings and as a unit. I know many of you have said “why are we doing this?” and questioning the logic of wanting our secrets laid bare. But the truth is, it’s already happened and to explain our mindset then is almost impossible to discern now. All I can say looking back is that it’s very akin to browsing gore sites with your friends; you want to stop, but you can’t because everyone else is still invested and nobody wants to back out. Everyone shuffled in on their own, their idiosyncrasies diluted down to nothing more than some choice phrases and clothing options; Mathias repeatedly unlogged his glasses and was nose deep in a tech magazine, Warren had an earphone in blasting Bad Religion and giving a lazy fist bump, Millie shook my hand gingerly with the Cats Paw and Preston mumbled something between huge swathes of Doritos shovelled into his mouth. If I said it felt like the old gang was back, I’d be lying. We sat in an awkward malaise as the show counted down. The conversations were brief and muddled in anxiety. It seemed we didn’t really come alive until the show actually started, but Mathias was the only one to probe the question on everyone’s minds as the countdown for the show’s starting began; Mathias: Do any of you think this is related to what JJ said at the end of the last show? Fay: You mean Mantis Reach? There was a long pause, shuffling seats, and even Preston stopped eating to contemplate. That stormy night in the clubhouse, the fight, the incident, the promise. Mathias: It just seems like we’re not acknowledging the Elephant in the room here… Warren: It’s a big fucking Elephant and I’m content to keep it as far the fuck away from me as possible. Fay: Problem is, we can’t do that forever, not if JJ or whoever this is knows everything. Preston: But why would he use that info against us? What happened up there was- Millie: Don’t. We know what happened with Livewire; we don’t need to go into it. Tristan: I’m not sure who or what JJ and this network is. But we keep coming back every week, and we keep waiting to see who’s next. Something is drawing us here, and honestly? I think it’s our own desire for truth intermixed with something else… The group pause and wait for me to finish, but I’m certain that the same word ran to everyone’s minds before I even finished uttering it; Tristan: Guilt. “Welcome to Beneath The Static. Tonight’s special documentary “Life Out of Death” will be presented by Sir Barclay Wigbert.” 0:00 - A sweeping shot of an orchard with beautiful orchestral music begins the show. This is by far the most high-definition concept we have seen out of them so far. As the innumerable trees pass over the stretch of land, we have shots of small animals and insects surviving and foraging as the narrator speaks. He sounds so much like David Attenborough that if I’d not seen he was a middle-aged man from Japan, I’d have been convinced they paid him to appear. “Our planet is filled with an innumerable amount of remarkable creatures. It has been my life’s work to catalogue these strange, remarkable and potentially deadly creatures. But of course, we mustn’t forget our own place in this ecosystem. Our journey will look through some of the most unique members of the animal kingdom and our role within. I’m Sir Barclay Wigbert and this is Life Out Of Death.” Tristan: Hey, you never know, this one may actually be normal for once. Millie: Anything with animals and soothing British voices is a good start. But… Warren: But this isn’t a normal fucking station we’re dealing with. Fay: Well, then we have to ask the question that none of us wants to ask, let alone answer… Preston: Who’s next? 0:02: Our eyes turn back to the TV screen as the shot turns to a lush green forest; fauna and flora adorning the undergrowth, plants of shapes and sizes I’d have never guessed could possibly exist. Innumerable bugs crawling along the moss stricken logs, great-winged insects expertly darting through the air to avoid larger predators while small spindly rodents littered the ground, forever on the hunt for their next meal. It was a veritable menagerie of strange creatures, both familiar and unfamiliar. The scene shifts to Barclay standing by a large tree branch, the lights dimmed low and the undergrowth looking almost an indigo rather than the usual emerald green. “We’re here today for a special look at a few of this great realm’s most fascinating creatures. Starting off with Ampulex compressa…” The shot cuts to a closeup of an iridescent wasp, cleaning itself with its front legs and the shimmer of its abdomen bursting through the screen as a soft drone played in the background. Something indecipherable whispered underneath. As soon as Barclay spoke the name of the creator, however, we heard a voice in the room call out at the exact same time. Not full of confidence, knowledge and price like his, but fear and pain; it was Millie. “Behold: The Emerald Cockroach Wasp.” He said proudly as it crawled around its enclosure, Millie staring wide-eyed and a tear falling down her face. She was someone who refused to show extreme emotion or vulnerability unless it was forced out of her. This unsettled us all, but we didn’t say anything. 0:05 - The camera takes a wide angle approach to the behaviour of the Emerald Cockroach Wasp as it highlights the body structure, hive and prey. As it goes through the motions of capturing a helpless cockroach, stabbing its underbelly and dragging it into a burrow to lay an egg inside it. Sharp, loud static sounds would ring out as the scene rapidly progressed through the gestation process; each of us jumping in our seats from the sounds of crunching, gnawing and chewing of this larvae, eating the host alive with shots of pearly white teeth and cracked flesh appear momentarily. Warren: This sick fuck is enjoying watching us…how long are we going to keep playing his game? WHY are we still doing this? Fay: Because he knows about Mantis Reach. He knows about all of us and… Warren: And what? He didn’t know about that shit until last week and we STILL came back. Fay: I don’t know, I just feel there’s more to this than that. If he knows all this, why doesn’t the rest of the world? Why haven’t we been approached by anyone? Mathias: Probably limited viewership. We could be the only ones watching. Preston: Maybe they don’t know it’s us? Maybe they’re being told their own secrets, and that’s entrapping them? Warren: Bullshit, Preston. That was YOUR brother, YOUR family. What the fuck are we still doing here? Millie: Then why haven’t you gone? We turned to look at her, clutching her lucky cat’s paw and eyes wide with fear as she stared at the tv screen, tears flowing down her face and her lip bitten so tightly that a trickle of blood still flowed even when she spoke. Millie: Clearly, there're reasons we all have to go and far more to stay. Everyone has a secret they keep, everyone has a face they never show. This fucking station exposes that and right now…right now, I’m the one in the spotlight. Tristan: You know, we could just switch it off and be done with it, I can turn off the TV, close this laptop and we could just wash our hands of it all. Fay: Yeah, we could maybe hook up some Mario Kart and- Millie: Fuck that…fuck that… FUCK THAT. We stared for a moment. She stood up and had her head bowed. Millie: It’s better this way, so let’s just do it, okay? If this is gonna come out… I want it to MEAN something. Not just be useless shit that continues to fuck me up as I get older. I want to be better. 00:08 - I nodded, and we turned back. The devouring of the cockroach now finished and Barclay walking through the underbrush as multiple shadowed insects I couldn’t identify ran for cover. He stopped by a small clearing and knelt down near the burrow of one of the cockroaches and grinned. “Now, if we’re very lucky, there should be a victim in here… right at the end of its gestation period. Let’s see if we can get a good look at the specimen.” He reaches in and pulls out a small, emaciated digit. The skin melting away and exposing necrotic tissue, bone and sinew underneath. He pulls it up towards the camera and then sniffs it like a cigar before biting down hard and chewing it, in full view of the camera. “Delightful, a small morsel to satiate the pallet before the main course. The Emerald Cockroach has a remarkable ability only recently discovered by scientists, you see. It is able to-“ Millie: Secrete acidic juices from the abdomen that will allow for prey to be easily digested, no matter the size. We stare over at her, clutching her lucky cat’s paw and wide eyed with horror. No time to pause or give thought, Barclay continued on, walking through the underbrush to a larger burrow. “You see, many creatures have hidden talents that permit them to go beyond their usual hunting patterns, base instincts and feeding habits. This is not only a mark of evolution, but survival of the fittest. We see this in multiple species across the animal kingdom, but no more so than in the insect kingdom.” He pauses, still chewing the sinew and fat from the finger, the entirety of our room hoping it’s either a prop or some kind of strange looking larvae. 0:10 - The camera pans in closer as he stands there chewing, a solid 30 seconds of nothing else as his eyes roll back, he moans and savours every bite. Drool and blood dribbling down his lips as the crunching sounds become louder. Eventually, the footage begins to inter splice with varying forms of predators taking down and devouring prey. Bear grabbing fish from the streams, cheetah’s at full speed taking down gazelle and Crocodiles pouncing on unsuspecting Zebra, each bite the predators jaws producing an ear-splitting screech from the television, flashing images over the look of ecstasy on Barclay’s face. The whole sequence growing progressively faster until they melded into one and the eyes rolled down to look directly at the camera lens. Mathias: This one seems to have very little point to it, I’m almost wondering if this is an anti-meme… you know, where its entire point is to be something nonsensical and unstructured. Kinda like some of the more avant-garde German or European shows of the heyday… Fay: The flashing images just make me feel ill, though the animal takedowns aren’t bothering me too much, just might not have any meat for a while. Tristan: I give it 2 hours before you beg me to take you to Taco Bell because you either got the hunger pangs or need the energy to draw all night. Fay: Hey man, when you have a craving, you have a craving. Right, Millie? Millie hadn’t stopped staring, we knew she hadn’t. But we were desperate to bring normalcy to the group, knowing we needed to DO better to support one another when our “turn” came around, especially since we were now resolved to see this through. Her free hand was picking at the skin on her fingers so aggressively that blood was pooling down her wrist. If she was in pain, she didn’t give any notion to us. Instead, she stared ahead, nodding rhythmically with some unheard beat. Preston: What is she… Warren? Tristan? Are you guys just going to let her do that? Shouldn’t we… I dunno… intervene? Warren: No. Millie ain’t the type who’ll appreciate a handout. You guys didn’t stop me and even though that shit was scarring, I’d rather feel it and experience it. Otherwise, it’s just unresolved. All we can do is be there when she falls and catch her. Fay: Wow, that almost sounded poetic, Warren. Warren: Fuck off, I ain’t that type. Musician? Sure. Poet? Fuck that noise. Fay: They’re the same thing, y’know… 0:20 - There was a loud thump, and the scenery distorted back to the sprawling landscapes and diverse undergrowth of creatures both recognisable and not so. Stag beetles with a bioluminescent carapace, diving from the air to impale rivals or small black caterpillars that leak acidic juices. A trapdoor spider the size of a dinner plate with the exact skin tone and camouflage to match a black human hand adeptly snapping out of a deep burrow in the ground to ensnare a shrew, fangs the size of nails piercing clean through and dragging it back underground in an instant. Lastly, the image settles on that of a leaf swaying in the wind on a thick log, a rhesus monkey off in the distance, smashing rocks together. Barclays soft, pleasant voice dripping with sinister undertones as he speaks over the scene, a darkness falling around the undergrowth; “Do you know what else has a remarkable adaptation to taking down its prey? Humans. We are so good at manipulation tactics, both direct and subversive, that often times our prey simply walks right into the trap without knowing it!” The leaf sways and the camera pans back, each one of us recoiling in horror as Millie breathes heavily, saying “no” over and over under her breath, I half expected her to have a full-blown panic attack. The “leaf” was far larger than the shot made it appear, the size of a small man, and it was steadily moving towards its intended prey, the “monkey”; A child no older than 7 with a large brown hoodie on and a Totoro backpack. The “leaf’s” arms were pointed at the ends with spikes adorning the underside, the head tilted at a 90 degree axis and perfectly still, each of its legs gently moving its body forward until it was within striking range. Everything about the scene felt wrong. We knew we were being lead into something far darker than all the others, but we couldn’t look away. None of us could. “Yes, that’s right. Not every creature is as it seems. The undergrowth, much like the average suburban neighbourhood, carries all manner of unusual, violent and disturbing secrets within it. It’s just a matter of time until they’re revealed. But, of course, many of our young viewers are aware of these encounters. Especially those of us with guarded emotions and a propensity to the macabre…” 0:25 - The screen flashes again and we’re greeted with images of tribes going to war, Chimpanzees ripping each other’s limbs off for fun and devouring the young of an enemy troop, executions by the guillotine in France, nuclear bombs going off in Japan and tragedies I swear hadn’t happened by that point. As each one appeared, one of us flinched and felt it hit their innermost fears; drowning, burning, buried, eaten alive, torture. One by one we felt our energy sapped, and we were powerless to stop it or to stop watching. Imagine the sensation of not being able to look away from a car crash amplified by a thousand. We were in whether we wanted to or not. Millie: I know what’s going to come next, please don’t hate me for what you see. Please. Millie was holding her arms at the shoulders and rocking slowly in place, unable to control herself. Warren: How in the hell could you know… What is-Tristan: Not the time, dude. Don’t worry, Millie, we’re with you. The group nodded sheepishly, though everyone was wondering the same thing as Warren. We never knew how this played out, but I’m sure the group who’d been featured so far at least knew their darkest secrets and fears, so it at least made sense on what would be shown. But as it seemed the scene was reaching its apex, the camera cut to Barclay and a sherpa who were both grinning ear to ear, genuine joy displayed across their faces. “Before we get to the finale of this exciting expose on predator & prey, I must first bring you a spectacle like no other; The Suffering Tree.” They walk off screen and footage of their trail through the jungle and towards a large clearing plays as Barclay continues to talk. “The Suffering Tree, or The Ouroboros Tree as it’s known to the locals, was once thought to be that of a legend until famed explorer Archibald Maitland Williams discovered it during his 19th century expedition to the new world. He had little interest in it, save for a remarkable Tortoise that’d survived in the fields nearby, but he reported it in his exploration novels nonetheless and provided the next generation of westerners the tools to study it and bring their troubles to its roots.” As Barclay finishes, the shot of them walking into the clearing pans 180 degrees to show what they’re looking at; A gargantuan oak tree towering higher than anything I’d ever seen, the black roots digging deep into the ground and the branches sprawling across the forest. This was like some kind of mother tree but the size of a skyscraper, the tops of its branches impossible to see. Barclay puts his hands on his hips and sighs before mopping his brow and turning to the camera, Millie still shaking with fear. “The Tree gets its name not only because of its life affirming properties, but because of HOW it amasses such properties. It is provided through the will of its believers. For when they discover it and provide a darkness from their lives that is more potent and insidious than any other, the tree will do its part to excise it. So long as the user gives up a life it loves to take, a life it hates, there will always be a place within this tree’s branches for that hatred. Allow me to demonstrate.” Millie chokes on her sobs and begs it not to show, but Barclay pulls at one of the branches and a fetid growth descends from up high like it was waiting to be greeted. A thick, black and red tendril pulsing with power and bile ends in the spine of an extremely decayed man; his nude body twitching and necrotic tissue apparent all over him. Large holes where pustules had recently burst riddle his abdomen, thighs and even his head, one bursting right below his neck as an Emerald Cockroach crawls out, stinging him in a fresh spot before flying off to continue its cycle. The mans eyes are wide, his jaw open in an almost scream, save for some low gurgling moans and grunts. “This man was one of the more vile creatures accepted into the tree. His sentencer was a victim of years of painful abuse and he repeatedly told his religious family that it was HER fault for how he acted. Because, after all, if she hadn’t dressed that way or behaved so capriciously, he wouldn’t have had to do what he did…” Barclay spat on the man and dug his finger into one of the wounds, letting the digit sink all the way into the wound and black blood spilling onto his hand. “We may be monsters by your perception, but I assure you, we can be just in our behaviours. We even took measures to ensure this man NEVER forgot what he did for the remainder of his natural life.” The camera pans down and shows his lower half, mutilated and filled with parasites. Warren vomits and Millie collapses to the floor, screaming as we all struggle to comprehend what we’re seeing. “Surely, she would say it was her fault, that she was to blame. But, such is the nature of a victim, and our network deduced the only way forward was to rip the bandaid off entirely. We are not monsters, but arbiters of true justice. Through our programming, we wish to ensure every member of our esteemed audience knows that Beneath The Static, there is a truth and we will expose it to ensure you are bettered for it. With that being said…” Once more, the scene shifts back to the scene of the leaf man and the child. Something attracts the child’s attention and they dart off screen, though at this point I believe I’m the only one watching. Preston is standing in the corner looking at the wall to calm himself, Warren is cleaning up his vomit and Mathias and Fay are tending to Millie. The leaf man turns towards the camera, his head still tilted but the bug eyes and mandible’s catching my attention immediately. His cracked skin, neat brown hair still apparent underneath his camouflage as his mouth parts click and hiss. “Only two more to go and we’ll know what you did. There is an ebb, a flow, and a truth to what we do. Soon, you will know what Ouroboros truly means. Soon, you will all be exposed.” JJ leans in closer, this malformed mantis monstrosity boring its way into my skull as I feel my eyes burn, repeating back the exact same thing I’d seen in Fays drawings weeks before, the same thing in her- no, OUR nightmares. “YOUR TURN.” It was an hour after the show had ended; the TV was switched off, and we turned our armchairs to form a makeshift circle that Millie told us what had happened. We knew she was born into a very strict Mormon culture and while none of us, save for Preston, had any real religious views. But, in her culture, family and god were absolute and there was a hierarchy to be respected. Her brother being far older than her was often left in charge and, in his own words to Millie, said she “developed at a remarkably young age” and so felt it necessary to “purge the sin out of her the way only a man can”. I won’t go into the particulars, but you get the picture. When Millie was 13, she fell pregnant by way of him and was determined to get rid of it. But, after finally finding the courage (and necessity due to the pregnancy) to out her brother to her parents. They elected to side with him as the “good boy tempted by the she-devil”, casting her out and forcing her into foster care. Broken and devastated, she aborted and put up her guard over the next several years, becoming the person she always wanted to be while also striving to shed herself of that time in her life. To the surprise of nobody by this point, her brother and parents had gone on a missionary trip to South America the year prior, though Millie kept no contact with them save for knowing they were nowhere near her. The entire family went missing, and it was expected they succumbed to the elements, that natural predators lurking in the jungle or a native tribe had killed them. This brought small comfort, but some degree of catharsis, she admitted. That being said, JJ had a remarkable way of pulling out our innermost shame, our darkest secrets and laying them bare. We just didn’t know why. One by one, we all talked about how we were feeling up to that point, our anxieties over what had been said, our fears over what WILL be said and our resolve to finish this. Fay: I’m not stopping, there’s nothing he can say about me or Tristan that’d make us wanna quit, right? Tristan: Yeah, I’m with you. We’ve done some dark stuff, but nothing we’d ever wanna hide from you guys. Plus, we’d feel shitty if we dropped out now when you’d all gone through it. That ain’t the Muldoon way. Warren: I wanna smash JJ’s face in, I don’t know HOW we’re gonna find him, but we will. Because once the next episode airs and he’s done with all of us, the fuck is he gonna do then? My bet is he’ll want a face to face, settle the score. Mathias: Well, this… man, monster, whatever… has abilities we don’t fully grasp. He’s clever, has people around him who he can manipulate and knows SO much about us. I think we need to do some research ahead of next week’s meet, finally get our heads out of our asses and fight back. Right? Preston: mm, I’ll join you, you need someone like me to keep you on track and stop you overthinking too much. Mathias: I do NOT overthink too much. Fay: Remember when you had an anxiety attack over black holes? Tristan: Oh yeah, you hyperventilated thinking about being sucked into one and the “absence of nothingness” Fay: Local man is terrified of becoming space spaghetti. There was a smatter of laughter around the room and for the first time in a long time, we felt better. Mathias: It’s a normal reaction to something so fucking horrifying, okay? But sure, Preston, I’d appreciate the help. Millie: Whatever you decide, I’m in. I wanna prove that I’m not that girl anymore. We put our hands in, each one of us determined to make sure that we held up our end of the bargain. Of course, you know how this ends. The next time we met was The Day of Separation, the worst day in our lives and one that was permanently etched into our collective memories for 10 agonising years. Because, if I’m being truthful, the name wasn’t just to imply we broke up as a friendship group. Nor was it a way of explaining what happened at Mantis Reach. It was the day one of our group members was taken from us. By the network. By JJ. We watched them on air as they were stolen away. And 10 years on… we don’t know how to get them back.
Going through old issues of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter and posting highlights in my own words. For anyone interested, I highly recommend signing up for the actual site at f4wonline and checking out the full archives. PREVIOUSLY:
We start with more on the death of Davey Boy Smith, including a full-length super long obituary, because apparently 2002 is nothing but people dying. I feel like I've done nothing but recap obituaries since starting back with 2002. Anyway. in the wake of Smith's death, the reaction has sadly not been one of surprise. Anyone who saw Smith in the last 4-5 years pretty much saw it coming. The cause of death, pending toxicology results, was ruled a heart attack caused from prolonged steroid use. But until the toxicology results are back, the belief among his friends and family is that there was probably more to it. Dave talks about the staggering number of wrestlers who have died under age 40 in recent years, with upwards of 20 of them being due to drug issues.
Smith died while on vacation with his girlfriend Andrea Hart, estranged wife of Bruce Hart. Despite that, Smith was actually on good terms with most of the Hart family, although Andrea is not. The Hart family believes Andrea knows more than she's letting on about the circumstances of his death, but she's not talking to anybody. Andrea's children (that she had with Bruce) were also there and they each apparently have different accounts of how he died (he was sleeping! he was in the pool! he was eating!) but they all pretty much agree he collapsed doing whatever he was doing. Andrea told the press that she believed Smith had overdosed, but Smith's dad did his own interviews and denied it, saying his son had stopped using drugs and was clean when he died. Needless to say, most people aren't buying that given his track record. Smith's father decided against having the body cremated and instead ordered it sent back to England for examination to make sure he wasn't murdered. "I cannot believe his death was natural," he said. "If they find drugs in his body, then he didn't put them there. Davey was clean." (Eeeeeeehhhhh....) Shit got even messier when Andrea and Smith's ex-wife Diana Hart each tried to claim the body. Despite her book (in which she accused Smith of drugging, abusing, and raping her), Diana played grieving widow in the media even though they're divorced. It may not have been an act though. Some in the family believe Smith and Diana were trying to reconcile, and they were on good terms at the time of his death. Andrea claimed to be his common-law wife, even though she's still legally married to Bruce. She later claimed Smith had proposed to her 2 weeks before his death and said they were engaged, which was the first anyone had heard about that. Smith's father claims in their last conversation, Davey Boy had told him he was planning to break up with Andrea after their vacation. So who knows. Anyway, both Diana and Andrea planned their own separate memorial services, while Smith's dad is planning his own 3rd service. Smith's body wasn't at either of the Hart family memorial services because, as mentioned, it was sent back to England where authorities are launching an investigation at the behest of Smith's father.
Andrea's service was said to be small and simple, just a few dozen people, and she seemed sincere in her sorrow. Diana's service was larger and more public, with hundreds of attendees and press, along with several WWE names. Vince McMahon, Hulk Hogan, Bret Hart (who attended both services), Chris Benoit, Chris Jericho, Jim Ross, and others all attended and several of them spoke. Diana's eulogy featured a professionally produced video featuring Davey Boy footage from WWE that had never aired on television before. She thanked Vince for trying to help Davey with his addiction issues. She never acknowledged everything she wrote about him in her book last year. Smith's children as well as Stampede wrestler TJ Wilson gave speeches as well. 16-year-old Harry Smith was composed and gave a great speech about teaming with his father in his last matches. And then Ellie Hart got up there and....it went about how you'd expect. She started ranting about Andrea and blaming her for not giving the family the answers they wanted and it started to turn into some drama, but the minister gently interrupted her and got things back on track. And finally, Bret Hart gave a speech, directly addressing Smith's children and saying that Davey Boy and Owen would want the children of all these Hart family members to get along with each other better than the adults have. From here, Dave gets into the actual meat of the obituary, recapping Smith's life and career. As always, an excellent read but very long to recap.
WWE Confidential, the new show the company is producing, aired its debut episode this week, focusing on the Montreal Screwjob. Dave once again talks about how Vince McMahon tried to downplay the incident recently, giving an interview just a couple of months ago calling the Screwjob a minor incident that almost no one cares about. Vince went so far as to say he could count on one hand the number of people who even still care about that old news. Turns out one of those must be Vince because this week, they dedicated the premiere of this new show to the story and highlighted it as the most controversial night in the history of wrestling. The hook of the show was Shawn Michaels revealing publicly, for the first time, that yes, he was in on the screwjob and knew about it in advance. Dave says this isn't really a secret. Shawn denied having any knowledge of it that night but as soon as the day after Survivor Series 97, he was bragging to friends about it. Vince McMahon also later confided in Undertaker that Shawn knew ahead of time. So it was kind of an open "secret" that Shawn knew but this is the first time he's admitted it publicly. Triple H still denies knowing about it ahead of time, but Dave is pretty skeptical there too (and indeed, it's later revealed that yes indeed, Triple H also knew). Dave thinks lots of people had to know. Even the guy who cued the music had to know, because Shawn's music was queued up and ready to play the second Vince ordered the bell to be rung. Pat Patterson always claimed not to know and Bret has said he wants to believe it, because he likes Pat, but the way Pat interrupted the match-planning conversation and specifically suggested the sharpshooter spot to them makes Bret question it (I think Patterson still denies it to this day, but I have my doubts there too). Anyway, the show recapped the history of the Screwjob and if you know Dave, you know he's about to poke a whole bunch of holes in WWE's revisionist bullshit. Here we go...
The story of the episode was WWF was close to going out of business due to the WCW war and couldn't afford Bret anymore, so Vince nobly allowed Hart out of his contract so he could negotiate a better deal with WCW. Actually, Dave says, Vince first talked to Bret about deferring some of his contract to later on but that was a couple months earlier. At the time, WWF really was having some financial struggles, but it's an exaggeration to say they were almost driven out of business. They were never even close. But regardless, that's irrelevant because in Sept. 97, they raised the price of PPVs by $10. That added revenue, which was nearly $1 million per month in pure profit, was easily enough to get them out of financial trouble. By the time Survivor Series 97 rolled around, WWF was doing just fine, money-wise, and were only a couple months away from catching fire and getting nuclear hot. So no, they did not need to get rid of Bret's contract. And in fact, in October, a couple weeks before Survivor Series, Vince changed his mind and asked Bret to stay, saying that the financial situation had turned around. But by this point, Hart's negotiations with WCW were full speed ahead and Vince allowed Hart to continue negotiating. But after talking to both sides, it was clear Vince had no real plan for Bret and he didn't really seem like he wanted to keep him, so Bret took the WCW deal and the rest is history. But of course, none of that is mentioned in this show. The episode also claimed Hart refused to drop the title to anyone (again, not true. Only Shawn. Bret even offered to lose it to Brooklyn Brawler if they wanted. In fact, Dave breaks down all the different scenarios that were presented here, and Bret was willing to lose the title to anyone other than Shawn, anywhere other than that show in Montreal, at any date before or after the PPV. They had actually presented Bret with dozens of different scenarios, all of which he agreed to, only for Vince to keep coming back around to Shawn at Survivor Series, which was the one and only thing Bret wouldn't budge on). They also tried to paint the picture that Bret could have taken the title to WCW the night after Survivor Series. In fact, Bret's WWF contract didn't end until Dec. 1st, and he was booked on more than a dozen house shows after Survivor Series and had even agreed to work the early December PPV because Bischoff had given his blessing. There was zero chance Bret was going to show up with the belt on Nitro. There was concern that Bischoff would go on Nitro the next day and announce he had signed Bret, and Dave says it's true that Bischoff certainly was planning to do that. But Bret had also asked Bischoff to hold off on the announcement and Bischoff had agreed. Vince knew about that too, but in recorded conversations with Bret (from the Wrestling With Shadows documentary), Vince didn't seem concerned since the word was already out and everyone knew Bret was leaving already. This just goes on and on. We all know the story already. Anyway, TL;DR - interesting show, but WWE's version of the story is bullshit. But we all knew that.
At the latest NJPW show, Antonio Inoki came out and cut a promo. He talked about being in attendance recently at the World Cup and said wrestling needs something like that. Inoki claimed he had put together a deal with WWE for a joint NJPW/WWE show to take place later in the year. Dave doesn't know if there's any truth to that story, but this is the first he's heard of it and he doesn't think it makes any sense for WWE so he's skeptical.
Usually in Japan, TV-Asahi airs the finals of NJPW's G1 Climax tournament live. But this year that may not happen, as they're looking at airing one of Inoki's MMA shows instead. This is a direct result of the terrible rating the recent Tokyo Dome show drew when it aired live. This company is struggling mightily lately.
Random news and notes: Inoki recently recruited a 23-year old Brazillian MMA fighter named Lyoto Machida to come to NJPW (he never really does anything in NJPW other than train at the dojo, but he had a long career in UFC and still fights for Bellator to this day). Dusty Rhodes is the new co-host of Turner South's Atlanta Braves pre-game show called "Hey The Braves Are Next!" Scott Hall will be working Insane Clown Posse's upcoming Gathering of the Juggalos event. Former WCW wrestler Evan Karagis recently filmed a role on the soap opera "Passions."
In the main event of FOX's Celebrity Boxing show, Chyna lost by decision to Joey Buttafuoco. Chyna's mystique of being a woman who only wants to compete with men got pretty much obliterated here, as the larger Buttafuoco manhandled her with ease for much of the match, which probably makes all those big tough wrestlers who sold for her feel kinda silly. But Buttafuoco came in as a hated heel to the audience and despite how she got pummeled, many people felt Buttafuoco was fighting dirty and cheating, so Chyna wasn't too hurt by it. She talked about wanting a rematch and Dave says if PRIDE really wants to break into the U.S. market, they could throw it onto one of their cards. Hey, this show did a really strong TV rating, maybe a rematch would be just the kind of freak-show attraction needed for PRIDE to get attention in the U.S. Nothing else they've tried has worked. Dave also suggests NWA-TNA could book it, but a worked wrestling match between the two probably wouldn't get as much media attention.
Big Dick Dudley's ex-wife, former ECW valet Elektra, did an interview talking about his death. She said he'd had stomach pains all week and couldn't urinate. But didn't go to the doctor because he didn't think it was a big deal. Then at one point he got up to go to the bathroom but collapsed on the floor and died there on the spot. Jeez. At the time of his death, he had lost over 100 pounds from his peak weight of 320 in ECW several years ago.
Vince Russo is going to be writing a book about his time in WWF. Due to legal reasons and the ongoing lawsuit, it won't include much about his WCW tenure (I think he's written a book or two, but I've never read them, so if anyone has any insight, feel free to share).
Shaun Assael's book "Sex, Lies, & Headlocks: The Real Story of Vince McMahon and the World Wrestling Federation" will be published next month and is getting strong early reviews. Dave has talked to several of the people who spoke with Assael for the book and some of them expect it to be good while others feel that Assael fell victim to the cons and charms of wrestlers who were working him. We shall see, says Dave.
The debut NWA-TNA PPV will feature some sort of tournament to crown a new NWA champion. Dan Severn is no longer the champion after not agreeing to work the show (he already had a prior MMA booking for that date in New Mexico). As a result, the NWA (which is now working with TNA) just stripped him of the belt, which is convenient because they didn't really want to use Severn anyway, so now they can do whatever they originally planned to do with the belt without having to book an excuse to get it off him. The Jarretts and this new promotion now have full control over both the NWA world and tag team titles.
Mike Tenay has been named the lead announcer for the new NWA-TNA promotion. They're also trying to get Lex Luger to appear for the debut show, but Dave thinks its unlikely since Luger is financially set for life and has shown no interest in doing any wrestling since WCW folded.
Jeff Jarrett had talks with Bret Hart about coming in to do a Team Canada gimmick. Latest Dave heard is that Hart isn't interested, but they may bring in some of the new generation of Harts for it. There's been talk of bringing in TJ Wilson, Harry Smith, and Teddy Hart as a new version of the group. Smith is still only 16 and it's way too early to put him on the national stage yet and in a lot of states, he wouldn't even legally be allowed to perform. Wilson is also a teenager, from a bad home who pretty much grew up as an honorary Hart member in the Hart household. And Teddy Hart is a natural in-ring performer who would already be in WWE if not for the fact that during his two training camp tryouts, he had behavioral incidents both times. But they're all talented and will likely be big stars in the future. Last time WWE was in Calgary, Vince McMahon personally requested to meet with all 3 of them for a private tryout, but it didn't amount to anything.
Little bit of a change in the WWF writing teams. Brian Gewertz is now the official head writer for Raw, while Paul Heyman is the lead writer for Smackdown. Stephanie McMahon will continue to oversee creative for both shows and, of course, Vince still has final say on everything. Dave expects this to result in Raw being a more comedic show while Smackdown will be the more serious in-ring product (pretty much, yeah. And thus, we have the official beginning of Heyman-era Smackdown and soon we'll see the birth of the Smackdown Six).
Notes from Raw: show opened with Chris Benoit making his unannounced return to a huge pop. Dave still expects Benoit to eventually be managed by Arn Anderson, which has been the plan for months (and never happens). That was actually the original plan before the NWO was brought in. If Benoit was healthy in time (which, turned out he wasn't so it didn't matter anyway), the original idea was Benoit vs. Austin at Wrestlemania 18 with Anderson managing Benoit. But that obviously all changed. Anyway, what else? Dave once again mentions that Jeff Hardy looks physically awful. He seems to know about Hardy's drug issues and seems to be hinting about it without saying it. Tommy Dreamer continued his gross gimmick by drinking Undertaker's tobacco spit. Lesnar beat Bubba Ray Dudley but had to sell a ton in the match and Dave doesn't get it. For a guy that they so clearly want to turn into a Goldberg-like star, selling for midcarders every week isn't how Goldberg got over. Jim Ross went on and on about how Lesnar has never been pinned, which Dave says is an insult to all the fans who have seen Lesnar do jobs at house shows. RVD beat Eddie Guerrero in a 20+ minute ladder match and Dave says it's the longest match on Raw in at least a year. Dave gives it 4 stars and considering how messy and sloppy it was, that shows you how good it was. Lots of dangerous spots, some botched moves, and most notably a moment when a fan ran into the ring and knocked over the ladder while Eddie was climbing up. Eddie and Earl Hebner started stomping the fan until security dragged him out. Still an awesome match though. And finally, Benoit returned at the end of the show and turned heel on Austin. Dave says Benoit actually isn't ready yet and isn't supposed to be back in the ring until July, but the company is so desperate for anything to give them a shot in the arm that they may have pulled the trigger on this angle early.
Notes from Smackdown: the only thing Dave talks about is the Hulk Hogan retirement angle they did and he's got mixed feelings on it. First the positive: he gives Hogan credit for being an absolutely incredible performer when the heat is on. And Hogan gave a tremendous performance in this and Dave doesn't let it go unrecognized. But then the negative: in the promo, Hogan talked at length about when his dad was dying, he was basically expressionless except for Monday and Thursday nights when he'd watch WWF and his face would light up. So Hogan said his dad's last words were he wanted to see his son return to the WWF. So that's all sweet and nice, right? Weeeeeell....Hogan has told a different version of this story in the past. In previous interviews, Hogan said his dad was disgusted by what wrestling had become and he wanted Hogan to "clean it up." The idea that he was laying in the hospital and only coming to life when his beloved WWF was on doesn't exactly jibe with what Hogan has said before. And no matter what the truth is, Dave is uncomfortable Hogan using his dead dad as a way to get this storyline over, but hey, he ain't the first and won't be the last.
WWE's first show in Hawaii in probably 15 years is scheduled for later this month. Rock is scheduled to work the show and tickets sold out 2 hours after they went on sale. While we're at it, the Australia show in August also sold out the 47,000-seat Colonial Stadium in Melbourne in only 4 days. Once they scale the stadium for production, they plan to open up more seats.
It's "basically a sure thing" that Hogan vs. Vince McMahon will be one of the top matches at Summerslam. How they get there seems to change weekly. There's been talks of having Hogan take time off after King of the Ring and return for the Vince match at Summerslam. There's also been talk of him sticking around through the entire summer. So who knows? (Ended up being a mixture of both: Hogan stuck around the entire summer, but then he did an angle to get written off TV right before Summerslam. And he didn't come back until early 2003. And, of course, we got the Hogan/Vince match at Wrestlemania)
More info on the incident from a couple weeks ago where Kevin Nash and X-Pac reportedly threw a fit and got the script changed. They were told by writer Ed Koskey what the plans were for them on the show. Nash and X-Pac didn't like it, especially X-Pac since it involved him doing 2 jobs during the same show. X-Pac said he was quitting and told Nash he'd meet him in the car. Nash told Shane McMahon he'd go calm X-Pac down and straighten everything out. Nash and X-Pac came back, had meetings with Shane and Jim Ross, and then later with Koskey and Brian Gewertz (who wrote the show). They managed to convince the writers to change it more to their liking. Nash was also upset about how Ric Flair went on TV and said he'd fired Scott Hall. Nash didn't like the idea of Flair on TV being able to hire and fire people from their NWO, because that kinda takes away from the idea of the NWO as an autonomous, outsider group that doesn't play by WWE's rules. So that's why Nash was able to go out on TV on this night and cut the promo about how Flair doesn't control the NWO. Of course, Hall is still gone, so I guess he still does. Anyway, both Nash and X-Pac were pissed over all this and caused a scene, especially X-Pac, to the point others in the locker room wondered why they weren't disciplined instead of being given their way. But if you wonder that, you clearly ain't been paying attention to Nash over the years. Anyway, X-Pac still did the job in the Hardyz match, but not in the second match.
Random news: house shows in Alexandria and Baton Rouge, LA were both canceled this weekend due to low ticket sales. Shit's selling out in record time in Australia and Hawaii, but they can't give tickets away in Louisiana apparently. Undertakers hips were both banged up after the Hogan match at the PPV but he continued working, although he was limited (and years later, he'd have to get major surgery on both those hips). At Raw in Edmonton, Ric Flair was getting huge pops and "woo!" chants for him before the show started, so they filmed a backstage segment where he told Arn Anderson how much he hates Edmonton so they would boo him when he came out live. Lance Cade won the HWA title from Johnny the Bull down in developmental. WWF was pushing the city of Edmonton to present Benoit with the key to the city on Raw, but Edmonton wasn't so keen on the idea. And finally, during a bikini contest at the house show in Winnipeg, Ivory's top got pulled down, exposing her boob, much to the delight of many in the crowd.
Remember how MTV's The Osbournes was the only show routinely beating Raw in the cable ratings? That's changing. The Osbournes is over for the season, but this week, Raw fell to #4 behind the Lakers/Spurs NBA playoff game and 2 different episodes of SpongeBob. Patrick's a draw, brother.
Raven has been doing commentary on Sunday Night Heat, but he recently asked to be removed from it because he feels like it hurts his wrestling character. Dave thinks this is pretty risky. Raven as a wrestler is probably nearing the end of his shelf-life and lord knows WWE hasn't shown any desire to push him. And he was actually pretty fantastic at commentary. So giving up a safe job that he was excelling at for one that WWE doesn't really seem to see any value in him for seems like a good way to find yourself on the chopping block next time they decide to get rid of some people (yup, he'll be gone from the company in another 7 months or so). For what it's worth though, this isn't the first time Raven has been in this situation. Back in the 90s, he was a manager and commentator in WWF then too, under the name Johnny Polo. But when they weren't interested in using him as a wrestler, he quit the company and reinvented himself in ECW as Raven. Sometimes you gotta bet on yourself.
Jim Ross has a weekly WWE.com article where he usually just shares all the latest injuries everyone has. This leads Dave on a bit of a tangent when Ross wrote about how Triple H has a fractured patella. The injury was diagnosed by Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham and Andrews told Triple H to be careful with it, but he could continue wrestling as long as he can take the pain. Basically one of the world's top sports doctors saying, "Yeah you've got a broken knee, but throw some dirt on it, you'll be fine." It's no wonder so many of these guys end up on pain pills rather than getting the medical treatment they need.
Also in his article, Jim Ross admitted that the WWE is not doing a good job lately of providing a product the fans want to see. Dave thinks that's just about as strong a statement he's heard on the current state of WWE from someone so high up within the company. Ross admitted they need to create new rivalries, elevate new young talent, and effectively introduce new stars. However, Ross also blamed the economy and the abnormally high number of injuries everyone is dealing with right now for part of the problems too. Dave says the economy may play a small role in the declining live event and PPV numbers, but usually when the economy is in the toilet, TV ratings go up because people are staying home more. Not the case here. Injuries, yes that's a problem for sure. But the core of all WWE's problems right now comes down to the simple fact that the show pretty much sucks. And at least someone high up in the office seems to finally be publicly admitting it.
Tough Enough 2 is down to the final four. Dave talks about how Jackie Gayda is now the sentimental favorite because she tore her ACL during the show but has still refused to quit, which opened a lot of eyes on her. Speaking of Tough Enough, in a WCW-like comedy of errors, they aired a promo for next week's episode before the current episode was finished, thus spoiling who the final 4 were going to be, before it was revealed on the show people were watching.
The WWF Forceable Entry album has sold around 364,000 copies total since its release. But it's actually considered a pretty huge failure because WWF had to pay so much money in fees and up front advances to the various artists on the album, and they're nowhere close to recouping that cost. (The album eventually sells over 500,000 and goes gold but still a flop).
NEXT WEDNESDAY:A look at the dismal state of WWE in 2002, Tough Enough II finale, Riki Choshu's departure from NJPW, Dave reviews several new wrestling books, and more...
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