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Ignorance or Bliss

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I haven't spoken about the incident since it happened but my therapist says it would be a good idea to at least write all of this out. So here we go. I feel like it shouldn't be as hard as it is to type this. I have always been the type of guy to just take on what I want to do and shrug off all the things I wanted to forget. But it seems I've lost my touch in this way. I'm going to just continue with the what happened now before I sound too much like some melodramatic teenager.

I was twenty-three when I finally saved up enough money to go on a vacation to the beach. Being the adventurer I am I thought it'd be a fun idea to take the car instead of a plane. So I packed up my bags and  started the long journey from Springfield, Missouri all the way to North Carolina. I've never been a fan of large interstates so I decided to take the back roads. I figured it'd be much more exciting that way. The slower speeds made progress sluggish but you know the old saying: "It's not the destination, it's the journey."

On day three I found myself in the sprawling, towering Appalachian Mountains. The country roads kept all of my senses awake and alive as I rounded curve after mountainous curve. But as the sun began to meet the pinnacles of the mountains I realized I'd better find a room before it gets dark and my eyelids begin to droop. So I pulled off the main highway I was on and headed toward Banner Elk, North Carolina; A fairly popular tourist town off of the Blue Ridge Parkway. I reached the town by around ten o'clock and went around to hotel after hotel. But being the middle of summer and the fact I had no reservations, every one had been booked up.

By the time I'd visited every hotel I could find it was already near midnight. I was about to give up and find a place to try to sleep in my car. Driving out of Banner Elk my eye happened to catch a small, square sign next to a small paved road. It said "Nice Motel! Carpeted! Cable! 3 Miles This Way" and had an arrow pointed down the dark little mountain path.

Desperate for a nice warm bed, I turned down the road and followed it's snaking pavement on and on until I passed a little green sign which stated "Welcome to Blithe Holler, Population 4,377."  

This was the sort of town that probably wasn't much than a pin-sized dot on a map. All of the small houses and trailers seemed to be dangling off the sides of the mountains as if they and their inhabitants would fall to their doom any second. The roads were small and the speed limits were never any higher than 30 mph. Pot holes were just filled with gravel or left to rot. And I wandered in and out of downtown so quickly I scarcely realized I'd been in it. There were two caution lights and one actual traffic light in the entire downtown area. Taking a wild guess, I hung a right and kept going. To make a long story short I wandered through the tiny town until desperation and frustration caused me to pull into the driveway of a house that still had a light on and knocked on the door.  

I was greeted by a scraggly old woman in an ancient looking nightgown and the glamorous accessory of a shotgun in her arms. That caused nervous beads of sweat to form on my unarmed palms as I asked her if she knew where the hotel was. She gave me a weary glance and muttered, "Seven miles in that direction." And pointed a shaky, prune-like finger in the direction in which I'd came. "Then you turn to the right on Sycamore Street and it's on your left up the big hill. If you see the house with the junkyard in front of it you've gone too far. That all you want?" She squinted her eyebrows down over her droopy eyes.  

"Yes! Yes, that's all ma'am. Thank you ma'am. You have a good night," I rambled out, trying to stay out of her gun's aim.

"I will now. Bye," she muttered before slamming the door. You just have to love grumpy old ladies. Nothing ever phases them. It's as if they've had so much happen in their lives they've lost their last care to give. I hopped back into my Civic and repeated her directions in my head as I drove as to not forget them.  

I turned down Sycamore Street and glanced to the left every five seconds until I saw a gravel road headed up a muddy hill. At the top there was a half burned out neon sign were I spotted the letters "Dre Mot" So that seemed like a good clue the motel was up there. I goosed the gas and propelled my little compact car up the steep drive. Bouncing all the way up and hitting many potentially car damaging potholes on the way.

When I finally reached the summit of the muddy little mountain I saw that the sign actually said "Dream Star Motel". There was a little squared off semicircle of a motel. With only one level and doors on the outside leading straight from the gravel hole of a parking lot and into the rooms. And in the middle of a lot was a run down blue and gray trailer with green mold on the side of it. I parked my car in front of the trailer and climbed up the rusty metal stairs to the front door which had a note taped to it. It read, "Need a room? Ask inside." I wondered if the owner would be okay with me inquiring about a room at such a late hour. But I decided to risk it after imagining the back ache I'd experience in the morning if I slept in my car. So I opened the door slightly and knocked. I heard a drowsy, husky voice yell, "Come on in." 

I obeyed and found myself in a messy little living area decorated with brown panelling and putrid green carpet. A man in a tore up old recliner stared at me with reddened eyes. Several emptied bottles were piled in a mass grave of alcohol next to the chair and their companion was still clutched in his large, hairy fist. He staggered to his feet, rolls of fat jiggling from one side of his stomach to the other as he struggled to maintain his balance. A large hound, as if called by the squeaking cries of relief from the man's chair, rushed into the room and excitedly slammed his nose directly into my crotch, his tail wagging furiously.

I gently shoved the dog away from my sensitive area and the man bellowed, "Snapper! Get ova he'ya!" The dog cowered slightly and found his place next to his master's side. My focus returned to the portly gentleman in front of me. "Sho you needa room huh?" he asked, knowingly.  

"Uh... yes?" I asked and answered simultaneously, not sure what to make of the situation. The man waddled dizzily over to a row of hooks on the wall. He grabbed a key off of one of them and absentmindedly tossed it to me. I scooted to the left in order to catch the drunken toss. "How much do I owe you?"  

"Forty bucks a night. Stick it in the can on the porch before ya leave," he said without glancing my way. He made a b-line back to his tired old recliner and crashed back into it's warm embrace. After taking another unneeded swig from his brown bottle he fumbled with the remote control and turned on the television, clearly ending our encounter. So I mumbled a thank you he probably wouldn't remember in the morning and went to find room six. 

I opened the door to find a room that looked as if I'd somehow found a portal to the 1970s. A little twin bed who was sagging in the middle sat on top of torn shag carpeting. The television was so ancient it still had rabbit ears on the top. I doubted I could get any decent channels out of it since the big switch to digital had already occurred. But being in the strange place had made me too alert for the sleep I'd desperately been seeking all night so I flipped on the TV and began to browse the five channels I was able to view.  

The channels were listed as 0,1,2,3 and 4. I thought that was strange there was a channel zero so I tuned into that channel. It looked to be a local channel as the commercials had that sloppy, unprofessional air about them. After a ridiculously unfunny furniture store ad who was desperately trying to be otherwise finally ended the show that was airing came back on. An overly happy announcer screamed out, "WELCOME TO IGNORANCE OR BLISS! THE GAME SHOW THAT TEACHES VALUABLE LIFE LESSONS! So get the kiddies in the room for a class you won't forget anytime soon!"

A game show at this hour? Well it was better than nothing so I wiggled into a comfortable position on the worn mattress. The host was a middle-aged white man with a slightly balding head and blonde hair. He smiled happily at the camera in what looked like a dark room with one spotlight fixed right on him so that the audience nor the rest of the stage could be seen.  

"Today on the show we are going to check up on our contestant! 16 year old Johnny Manchester from Spokane, Washington! As we learned last week, Johnny is from an orphanage until he ran away thinking he is old enough to take care of himself. Well let's see if that is true."  The lights in the studio flickered to life and I saw a large sparkling sign with the game show's name pasted onto a gray concrete wall. "This obviously a low budget local thing" I thought.  

The host walked over to a young man who was strapped to a chair with large, noise cancelling headphones on. The dark haired boy stared straight ahead, absently.

"As you can see Johnny's still here listening to our special music. Let's see if Ralph in the sound booth up there can give us a taste of what Johnny is hearing... Ralph?"

Suddenly an ear-piercing screech blasted out of the television's elderly speakers. The host covered his ears, still grinning happily at the camera. Then the high-pitched sound ceased.

"Thanks Ralph. You see, Johnny should have been asleep a long time ago! Since last week to be exact!" The host then gave the teen in the chair a kindly pat on the shoulder and pulled the headphones off of his head.

"Hey there, Johnny. How are you doing?" he asked the boy sweetly. Johnny's head began to loll back and forth as if his tired body was trying to shake the noise out of his mind. The camera zoomed in on his eyes, dull, red, and surrounded by dark, worn circles. Clearly he'd been awake as long as the host had said.  The host, visibly displeased with the silence, put his face closer to the teens and repeated his question. Suddenly Johnny's eyes snapped wide awake and his mouth opened to speak.

"The scorpions they're everywhere they're in my shoes. Let me take them off. They liked the sound. Don't make me hear it again. Make them go away. I can feel them inside me!"

I watched as his body jerked and twisted trying to free himself from his shackles. His eyes were vacant, yet alert and wide. 

"We can make the scorpions go away but first you're going to have to take a test. You want to take our test?" the host asked loudly. The boy's squirming became more and more intense.  

"No! No please!" Tears began to stream down his face. I could feel my heart racing and my stomach feeling as if it was fighting with the food I had put in it. What sort of place would allow this to be aired? Maybe it was just acting.

"It has to be acting," I finally surmised. A pretty great show. I'd be fun to show people around Halloween for sure. For a local show the acting was phenomenal. 

"Well maybe you need a little bit of persuasion. Ralph, would you please?" He looked up to the unseen sound booth again and the high pitched squeal echoed through the room once more. Johnny's scream joined the sound at ripping at my eardrums. He shook his head violently back and forth and banged it back against the back of the chair again and again. "Make it stop!" he cried with a voice cracking from exhaustion, "Please make it stop!" 

"Will you do the test?" The host asked again. 

"Y-yes. I'll do it. Make it go away! Just make it stop!" Johnny pleaded.

Once again the host motioned to the sound booth and the noise stopped. Then the host released the teen from his shackles, pulled him up, and led him across the stage to an obstacle course of sorts. It was very crude in it's construction. A scaffolding with two planks laid across them about 15 feet up in the air. The boards led to a white board like the ones used in schools. On it there was the equation 200 divided by 4 equals. The answer spot was blank. There was a ladder leading up to the two long boards and a bucket of magnetic numbers sat at the bottom of the ladder. It was clear what had to happen. 

"Johnny, our test is simple!" the host declared jovially. "All you have to do is cross this little bridge and answer the equation with these magnets. But you can only carry one magnet at a time! If you can complete this you can leave! If not you stick around to play next week!" 

Johnny looked as if he could hardly stand, let alone do the task required. But he gave a leery glance over his shoulder at the chair he'd been strapped to and mustered up as much strength he could get.  The camera zoomed in as his shaky hand closed it's sweaty grip around the ladder rungs. Up and up he climbed. Slowly making it to the top. Finally his unsteady feet stood on the platform. His breath quickened and his left foot stepped onto the left plank. Then the right found it's way to it's plank. Holding the number five magnet he slowly made his way across the planks. Every step made my breath catch in my lungs. Once he made it around halfway across I could see him starting to tire. His legs quivered like two saplings in a windstorm. Quickly, with his last bit of energy he bounded across the home-made bridge to the whiteboard. He slapped the five onto it and took a deep breath. Swinging around, Johnny began the journey back to the number bucket. 

Every step he took across the wooden boards became more and more unstable. Every move looked as if he was about to collapse. But on and on he trudged. Then, he was only about three feet from the ladder platform when his left ankle twisted underneath him from pure exhaustion. With a scream he toppled off the boards and fell with a thud to the cold, concrete floor. When he hit, a sickening snap resounded through the studio. Johnny wailed in pain, clutching his left arm that was grossly bent out of shape from it's normal position. I gasped and covered my mouth to keep the bile from making it's full journey to the floor. Two people who had not been seen for the entire episode rushed from out of camera shot to attend to Johnny. The host continued to smile as he stepped in front of the scene.

"Don't worry about Johnny folks! He'll be well taken care of. For now, remember kids: Don't try to stay awake past your bedtimes! It can effect your thinking and school work. There's another life lesson for you from the good people at Ignorance Or Bliss!"

The screen faded to black and a phone number appeared through the darkness. A goofy sounding announcer echoed through the old motel room, "If you're interested in acting in Ignorance Or Bliss please dial this number and you will be carefully selected through a quick survey! Remember kids: You can choose ignorance or you can choose bliss! See ya next week!" I quickly dialed the numbers into my cellphone. What a great story being on a local horror series would be to tell to my friends when I returned home from vacation!

Putting the phone to my ear I was greeted by the same loony announcer. "Thanks for inquiring about acting in our TV show! We just need to ask you a few easy questions to see if you're eligible! First, what is your age?" 

"Twenty-three," I answered

"Fantastic! What is your occupation?" 

"Pizza man," I muttered sheepishly. It's not like I didn't want a career.

"Where are you from?" 

"Springfield, Missouri."

"Wonderful! Lastly, when would you be available to film?"

"Tomorrow," I answered.

"You've passed our survey! Meet us tomorrow at nine o'clock at the warehouse on North View Street."

With that the phone call ended. Finally, at three o'clock I decided to hit the hay. Tomorrow was going to be an exciting day after all. 

I learned several things that night. One being the toilet in my room would not flush. Two was that the bathroom was only about as big as a rest stop stall. Three is that my back would have been better off sleeping in my car. I woke up stiff and sore on the creaky old bed at around six that morning. Three hours of sleep would have to do me for today. As I turned the key in my Civic I hoped that I could find the warehouse I was directed to over the phone. It was a good thing the town was so tiny. All it took was a few times rolling through town until I located View Street. So I headed North and eventually saw an old building made of dusty rust colored brick rise up on the horizon to the right.

I pulled into the gray gravel parking lot and a chalky mist rose up behind my blue car and covered it in dirt. The lot was nearly empty except for two identical black pickup trucks and one red sports car that looked like it was built back in the 1980s. I wondered if I was in the right place. Maybe there are more than one warehouse on View Street?

As I stepped out of the car I noticed a red arrow painted with spray paint on the pebbles below my feet. It was pointing to the back of the warehouse. I followed it and found three more arrows leading around the corner to the other side of the building. On the back wall there was a small door with a large lock and bars across the windows. After wiggling the knob and finding it locked I decided to knock on the door. After the second knock the door creaked open and I was greeted by the beaming host from last night.

"Why hello!" he exclaimed excitedly when his eyes met mine. "You must be the new contestant! Here at Nine O'clock sharp too! I like the cut of your chin, kid! Come on in!" I excepted the invitation and stepped through the door.

The hallway was dark and gray. Concrete from top to bottom. As we walked I heard a strange clicking sound with every step I took. My curiosity caused me to swivel my head in different directions until I found the source of the odd noise. Looking to the floor next to me I noticed the golden-haired hot's right leg was missing and a metal prosthetic was in its place. I hadn't even noticed the night before when watching the show.

I guess the man noticed my gaze and said, "I lost that leg several years ago. I had been a talented dancer; destined to be a great Broadway star. Then the possession that I'd prized the most was taken away from me. Would you like to know how?" His voice turned sour and bitter at the end of his question. The air suddenly felt sharp and tense with the man's obvious grief and I answered yes.

The clicking stopped as the man halted in the centre of the dark hall and leaned against the cold, slate-colored wall.

"I was headed to opening night at the community theatre. I'd never been more excited in my life. Then as I was crossing the intersection a large truck pulled right in front of me. I had no chance to brake and I hit him at full speed. The car was smashed and the metal crushed my leg. The doctor's said it was too far gone to be saved. And do you know WHY my, my whole WORLD was taken from me?!" His teeth gnashed together as he continued and his rage grew and grew. "He was a drunk! A stupid, bumbling drunk. He'd loaded himself up without even thinking, without even thinking what it may do to someone else! The whole world is full of people like this! Sick, selfish, immature brats and need to learn! Learn better!"

He took a deep breath.

"But I can put that anger behind me. And I can use it to make the world a better place. And you are a part of that now. We need to teach children what the world is like before they have their hopes smashed like I did. They need to learn of it's horrible inhabitants. And how to be better than the imbeciles who live here now. That's what Ignorance Or Bliss is all about. You see?"  

"Yeah! I sure do!" I replied. "I loved how you added a simple, childlike lesson to the horror skit in the episode I watched last night! The one with the orphan character named Johnny? He was fantastic! I hope I can act as well as he did." The host raised the right side of his mouth into a smirk and put his hand heavily on my shoulder.  

"You'll do fine I'm sure," he reassured. "Now, how about giving me your name, boy?"  

"Vince Galloway."  

"Nice to meet you, Vince. Just call me Bill!" He laughed and let me forward down the hall once more. "Just head this way and we'll prepare you for your tests. We have a few procedures we need to complete for the safety of our contestants and our staff."

At the end of the hallway was a bright red double door whose paint was slowly but surely abandoning it's frame. There was also a smaller gray door to the right. He led me through the smaller door and into a stark white, square room.  

There sitting in the room were the two who played the medical aids to Johnny, a man and a woman, sitting in brown folding chairs. They wore all black clothing from head to toe. The man stood when he saw me in the room and walked over. He stuck his husky hand out and I took it.

Shaking it heartily he spoke, "Hey there, buddy! Glad to see you here!" He laughed cheerfully. "Before we start filming we need to check a few things off here. Firstly, I'm going to have to pat you down to make sure you didn't bring any weapons to our set here. Don't take it personally, we do it to everyone." He spun me around and I pressed my hands against the ivory wall. Muscular hands found their way to every piece of me and into every pocket in my cargo pants. I felt him take something out of my left pocket and I protested. 

"Hey! Man, that's my phone!"  

"It's okay, Vince," Bill spoke up. "We temporarily confiscate the phones and other breakable devices to ensure none are damaged during shooting. We simply don't have the budget to replace any that may be broken." 

"Oh." I replied. "That's understandable. Thanks."   

"Alright!" Bill's voice became even more perky than it already was.

"Looks like we're all ready to go! You ready to start filming, Vince?" 

"Sure thing!" I matched his enthusiasm and all four of us left the white room and were once again in the dark hallway. The couple in black took a left and headed toward the door I entered the building from. I took a step to follow them but felt Bill's warm hand pulling my shoulder back.   

"No, you need to go through the red doors with me. They have some technical issues to take care of." 

"Okay. So, what character am I playing? What are my lines?" I asked. 

"Well, I thought we'd test out your improv skills before we set any lines. We'll put you in a role playing situation and you just act naturally like you would if you were in that situation for real. Sometimes if an actor has lines those lines seem forced when said in front of a camera. Make sense?"  

"Sure. I don't know how talented I am at improv but I guess we can see! What is the role playing going to be about?" I questioned as we stepped through the flaking red doors. 

"Sometimes it's best if the situations are a surprise." Bill answered.  

The hallway we stepped into was just as gray as the one we'd stepped out of but not nearly as dark. Three bald, lonely light bulbs hung from the ceiling, flickering anxiously as if they were hysterically trying to keep alight. Standing in the hall was an television camera on a tripod turned my way. The man behind the camera was dressed in all black from head to toe, just as the other two workers had been. To the right along the hall were a row of old fashioned jail cells.  A chair beside the door held a microphone. Bill picked it up and gave a nod to the cameraman. He gave Bill a thumbs up and put his eye to the view finder. Bill put the biggest smile on his face and spoke loud and clear, "Welcome to Ignorance Or Bliss folks! I'm glad you decided to tune in this week! Today we've got Vince with us all the way from Springfield, Missouri!" I felt incredibly awkward and had no idea what I was supposed to do so I just waved shyly at the unblinking eye of the camera.  

"We have a very special surprise for you tonight! Vince here is going to enter each of these jail cells where a surprise is waiting for him. Each cell will have a different lesson to be learned. Just do your best, boy and you should be just fine." He chuckled and shoved me toward the first open cell and I walked inside. Once inside the lights went out and I was left in the dark.  

I jumped at the sound of the barred door slamming behind me and I reached my hands out like a blind man searching for something to grasp onto. Suddenly a single spotlight hit my figure. The glare was too bright for me to see anything past it. Like when I was five and was forced to be a bush in a school play. The theatre lights were so bright that I couldn't even see my parents waving furiously at me in from the darkened audience seats. Speaking of audience. I realized there wasn't any for this game show. Wasn't there usually a studio audience for these sorts of things? No, because it's not a real game show. It's a horror series based on one. My logic was spinning and turning thoughts in my head trying to weave together what was going on when I heard hushed footsteps beside me. Suddenly my instincts kicked in and even though I knew it was all fake I panicked.

"Hey! Who's there, man?!" I shouted.

No one answered and I turned toward where I'd heard the sound. I squinted but still could see nothing but some vague, unrecognizable shadows in the blackness. I hadn't even noticed what was in the cells when I had been given the chance.  

The scuttering was heard on the other side and I spun around.

"What's the deal?!"

A step from the left. A step from the back. The side. The front. Louder and louder. Then bam! A black blur leapt from the gloom and I found myself on the cold floor with someone on top of me. I tried to shove him off but he was pushing back hard. Too hard. Didn't he know it was just an act? I shoved him off and turned to crawl toward where I thought the cell door was. But I felt a husky hand grip my left leg and pulled me back. I turned my head and saw something glinting in the spotlight. I only realized what it was when I saw it swing down and felt it sink and slice through my left heel. The fiery sting surged through my entire leg as my Achilles tendon was severed by the knife. A scream ripped involuntarily from my throat and I heard the perky voice of Bill as the figure in black ran toward the now open cell door.  

"There's a lesson all you kids should learn out there. Some people are too blind to see the things that are right in front of them. If they could open their minds they could save themselves and others a lot of trouble!"

It was then, clutching my draining leg, that I realized this wasn't role playing. I felt a sickening chill sweep through my body and I knew I had just thrown myself into a boiling pot of trouble.  

The same man that had patted me down appeared at the cell entrance next to the ever-rolling camera and I wriggled myself to the corner of the cell, leaving a trail of crimson in my wake. He lumbered to where I was curled up and reached down to me. He grabbed my arm and I used the other to punch him in the face. He didn't even wince. My slender frame was no match against someone as large as him. He pulled my limping, bleeding body out of cell number one as I thrashed and struggled wildly. Every nerve in my body felt like lightning as the adrenaline began to crash through me. My chest heaved as my breath grew quicker and quicker. As I was hauled into the hallway I looked up into the grinning face of Bill.

"You! You liar!" I spat out. He put a gently finger to my lips to silence me and a second black suited worker grasped my other arm. I took the opportunity to take a snap at the index finger that had the nerve to touch me after that. But all my teeth clasped were each other as Bill pulled his digit away. 

"Oh Vince, I thought you understood how things needed to be. You still have some lessons to learn my friend. Time for the next test," Bill said sweetly, as if he were a gentle father correcting his stubborn toddler.

Bill's two goons tugged me into the next cell as I screamed and whipped my body around as much as I could muster, my wounded foot slamming the concrete floor over and over. And the next thing I knew I was tossed to the floor and the lights were cut once more. The door slammed shut then the building was illuminated again and I realized that I was not alone in the chamber. Along with me was a large, heavy, wooden table and a black figure with a black ski mask on. And the man was holding a rope.  

I got to my feet as quickly as I could and limped to the cell door. I grabbed the bars and desperately shook them with all my might but they wouldn't budge. The antique cells were still in perfect working order.

"Please! Let me out! Just let me out! I won't tell anyone what you're doing I promise!"

An arm wrapped around my stomach from behind and began to try to carry me to the table. I gripped the black bars with all I had in me as my body was lugged in the opposite direction. It was then I saw Bill sauntering over to my cell.  

"Vince, what do you think you really, really need? More than anything else right now?" His blue eyes stared joyful daggers into mine.

"I need out of here you psycho!" I screamed. "I need to kick you in your stupid smile while I'm at it!" My anger just seemed to calm him even more as his eyes softened to their usual serene azure. He beamed lovingly then turned toward the camera.  

"Can you all figure out what Vince needs the most?" he asked his imaginary audience.

Facing me once more his hands lifted up and pried my weakening fingers from the bars and I lurched backwards to whatever Bill had in store for me next. The table was turned over on it's side and soon I found my back touching it's top so that I was sitting on the floor. The man then tied a rope around my stomach and the table so I was strapped to it. It was then I noticed something wet soaking through my t shirt. I turned my head to the side and sniffed the table and memories of watching my dad grill registered in my mind. I knew that smell. It was lighter fluid. My heart seemed to slam against my chest as I realized what was about to happen.  

As if on cue, the large man pulled a lighter out of the black hole of his pocket and flicked it to life. My eyes widened to the size of ping pong balls when I heard the tell-tale whoosh of the flames engulfing the table. I could feel the heat growing nearer and nearer as I screamed. Bill smiled at me from the other side of the cell.

"You see? What you need is..." He opened the cell door and set in a bucket. "...nice, cold, water."

His sneer as he sat it down on the other side of the chamber burned me as much as the flames that were getting nearer and nearer to my back. He turned to his camera once more.

"No one seems to know what they really need anymore. There is such a difference between a want and a need. You see, Vince wanted to go home when he really needed water. Just as you all need a good education and a loving home rather than that new toy you may have your eye on."  

A slow, steaming burn began to lick the skin on my back as I desperately tried to scoot toward the bucket of water. The heavy table groaned as it barely scraped the floor. It hardly budged a centimeter. I am no weightlifter. I strained as much as I could. My veins bulged as my skin sizzled. The flames were beginning to wrap around my shoulders like Bill's hand had in friendship just minutes ago. The table whined as adrenaline pushed me further with extra fervor. My heel felt as if it still had a knife inside it every move I made but it was nothing compared to the fire that was spreading over me.

I wailed as I finally reached for the bucket of water. Still a foot away. A little closer. A little closer. My fingers were so close I could almost feel myself gripping it when I smelled my hair beginning to singe. With one agonizing lurch I grabbed it, hoisted it over my head, and splashed it over me. The fire was extinguished but the burning continued on. My entire back, neck, and shoulders were in their own personal Hell. Then I saw a bloody knife cutting me free from my ropes. I was liberated but far too exhausted to fight. Sweat soaked the tattered, scorched remains of my t shirt and dripped down my face.  

Moaning in anguish I dropped to the soaking wet floor mixing tears and sweat with the water, blood, and fluid. I balled my hands into fists as if I was trying to squeeze the pain out of my body and I saw a shoe and a metal contraption stand in front of me.

He stooped down and murmured tenderly, "It's almost over boy. You only have one more lesson left to learn."

I scrunched my eyes shut. It was the first time in my life I'd ever wished for death to come. I know that seems cowardly now but I knew that whatever the last test was, it would be so much worse than what I'd already been through. And I didn't have the strength to fight back.  

I felt four rough hands clasp around my searing arms and yank me to my feet. I screamed as they pulled me along, gripping the spots where the skin was  peeling raw. I just followed along, limping, too tired to even protest. I just wanted it to end. "Vince has one more lesson he needs to learn. So stay tuned." Bill chimed at the camera, his voice as light and cheery as a tinkling bell.  

I was pitched in the final cell and my burned skin slammed into the unforgiving concrete floor. Bill walked up and patted my crumpled back. "Don't worry. This one will be short." Then he stepped away and the dark figure took his place once more.  

I reached deep inside myself and attempted to muster up all the strength I had left. "Vince has one last test he needs to take before he can go home. It's a very simple test."

I looked up at the barred room I was in. Inside it there were a desk, a large sheet of paper taped to the wall, and the man in black holding something very common. A pencil. "He needs to take the pencil, climb up onto the desk, and write down everything he's learned today so that you all can take notes."  

I forced myself to stand up despite the gnawing pain in my heel and turned to face the large man. But before I could take a step towards him to claim my pencil he rushed towards me, the writing utensil gripped in his fist like a weapon. I coerced my angry ankle to pull me to the side of the cell, avoiding the attacker for the moment. But I found it impossible to get my speed up to anything faster than a slow walk. I felt the impact of the man crash against my blistered back and I was once again on the floor. The man flipped me over onto my back and raised the pencil high in the air, sharpened lead pointed down. "Sometimes you have to fight for what you want in life, Vince!" I heard Bill call through the bars. As the man's arm headed down at my sensitive torso I shoved my arms up and caught his. Gritting my teeth so tight I felt they would break, I used every ounce of energy I had to push the man's arm up and away from me. My instincts kicked in and let go of his arm and used the split second I had to use mine to scoot out from under him.  

Turning over onto my hands and knees I began to crawl. I heard footsteps behind me growing closer and I picked up my speed. But I knew it was not enough. I knew I had no chance the moment I had knowledge of what I had to do. I felt the man grab me by my waist and turn me over onto my back once more. This time without hesitation he raised the pencil up above his head and then down onto my soft stomach. The pencil tip hit exactly inside my naval and the man's muscles tensed as he drove it deeper and deeper into me with sheer blunt force. I screamed until my voice cracked as I felt the intruder enter my stomach. Pain was all my brain could register as it slowly dug deeper and deeper into my gut. I choked on something and gagged only to find deep red come out. Blood oozed around the pencil as the man finally decided he'd gone in far enough and ripped the wooden stake back out of the wound. Gasping for air I turned onto my stomach and clutched it tightly as if my hands could somehow plug the hole. I heard the large man chuckle and the iron door swing creakily open as he was let out. Turning my head I saw Bill and the cameraman enter the cell.  

"This is one of the best lessons in life you could ever learn. There will be people in life who will take advantage of the weak. They will rob the disadvantaged and poor. They will scar children and they will keep you from your dreams." Bill's words hovered over my head as my body wretched and vomited scarlet. Over and over. I saw the cameraman's shoes step close to my face and he stooped down in order to get a good shot of what I'd become. "Don't worry kids. Vince will be fine. We'll take good care of him." Bill reassured the camera. "Be sure to tune in next week for another exciting episode of Ignorance Or Bliss!" He chuckled happily. "Well that's a wrap folks! Great jobs! we only needed one take. And Vince, you were fantastic! But I'm afraid it's time for you to rest. Take him to the room if you would?" He called to his black outfitted goons. Arms picked me up and I was carried down the hallway further into the warehouse and into a small room to the left. They threw me down in a bloody heap. I recognized one as the person who'd frisked me when he spoke,

"Hey Bill, should we off this one now?"  

"Leave him, sir. He's already leaving us. You have an easy job today." The friendly voice answered. With that the men in black turned and left, slamming the door behind them. Alone in the dimly lit room I squirmed and writhed trying to get a grip on the pain that was wracking inside me. Finally I managed to sit up, gasping for my tired breath. The room was very small. About the size of a small office. In fact that was what it looked like it used to be as there were an old desk and filing cabinet decorated with cobwebs. I noticed a small beam of light hitting the ancient furniture and I followed it's trail up to a tiny window high up on the wall to my left. I knew my only way out was to somehow get up there. I lurched myself onto my hands and knees and crawled forward, eyes fixed on my destination. Suddenly I felt my left hand enter something wet and squishy. I looked down and felt myself gag, pulling my hand out and toppling backwards. I had stuck my hand into the torso of a gutted human being. I stared at the messy black matted hair that accompanied the torso and knew exactly who it was.  

My ragged breath grew faster as I gazed at Johnny's mangled form. After gagging a few more times and leaving the room with a little more blood than it already had, I pushed myself to continue my journey to the window. After what seemed like an eternity I realized I'd crawled to the base of the desk who sat directly below my escape. Groaning in agony I reached up and gripped the edge of the desktop. After taking a deep breathe I managed to hoist my wrecked body onto the desk. "Almost there. Almost there." I told myself internally. The hope that thought brought gave me just enough energy to place my form into an upright position one last time and after almost slipping on my own dripping blood, reach up and raise the small window. I reached a tired arm through the opening and gripped the bricks on the outside. A determined growl escaped my lips and I flexed my muscled and I heaved myself through the opening and fell down onto the scraping gravel of the parking lot.  

For a few seconds I relished in the fact that I was outside. In the daylight. Out of that nightmare I'd volunteered for. Then I searched my pockets for what I knew wouldn't be there. It wasn't just my cell phone they had stolen from me. They had taken my car keys. I looked over at my useless Civic and bid it a fond farewell. I crawled across the hot, sharp pebbles, scraping them against my stabbed stomach. The pain was agonizing but I urged myself on. I headed not for the open road but instead the cover of the trees beside the old warehouse. I needed to keep myself hidden in case Bill or one of his workers went outside and found my trail. At least I'd have a chance of hiding then. I pulled myself through the green brush for at least an hour until I saw the light pouring through the canopy more and more. The trees were lessening. Maybe I was almost back to town.  

It seemed that my luck had decided to return to me because I pulled myself through the clearing and my blurred eyes saw the back of a downtown building glowing from my blood loss. With the final bit of energy left in me I screamed as loud as I could and collapsed onto the ground. The last thing I saw were running feet heading my way. Then I blacked out.  

I awoke in the hospital with tubes and needles stuck to what seemed to be every inch of me two days later. I'd been given emergency surgery to save my gastric organs from the damage the pencil had wreaked on them. My Achilles tendon was pieced back together but I was told I'd never walk normally again. And I would be in the hospital for the next several months receiving skin grafts for my burns. Once the nurse saw I was awake she sent for the doctor. After telling the doctor what had happened to me the police were called and I gave them the address of the warehouse and Bill's name as well as details of everything that I'd witnessed on the television and what I'd been through myself.  

The police went to the warehouse and searched it thoroughly but I was given news they found no evidence of the story I'd given them. There were no fingerprints, no dead Johnny, no blood stains. The vehicles were gone, including my Civic. After asking the population, none of the locals saw the episode I'd seen in my motel room. And when the police visited the Dream Star channel zero was gone. Off the air. The doctors concluded that I was mentally ill and has hallucinated the entire television show and the wounds were self inflicted. I was given medication as well. I tried my best to convince them that what I said was the truth. They still don't believe me due to lack of evidence. So now I'm maimed for life and been stuck with a schizophrenic label I don't deserve. But I know better. A man from Topeka, Kansas just went missing on his vacation to Virginia. There is no leads as to where he went. The only clue to his whereabouts is that he told the owner of the small motel he was staying at that he'd been invited to be on a game show. Looks like Bill has set up shop somewhere new now.

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