Welcome to the Great American Bake-off. It’s the year 2078, and the world is over-populated. There has been no nuclear holocaust, nor has a pandemic wiped us all off the planet. Nevertheless, Earth is as dystopian as some post-apocalyptic tale.
Each year, people are chosen at random by the GIPC or Global Institute for Population Control — chosen at random, or so the GIPC says, but who really knows — to compete against other people in their professional field. Chefs, bakers, even plumbers, and bartenders, if selected, must battle — on live television, no less — to save their jobs. And they are also fighting to save their lives, as the winners of the competition go on to survive and thrive, while the losers, well, they die.
Greg Sampson produced a lovely carrot cake. Nancy McLaren made triple-fudge brownies and the aroma inside the studio was to die for. The show is for mature audiences only; a firing squad waits off-camera.
“The carrot is represented nicely in this, great job, Greg.”
“Thank you, judge.”
“It’s good, but it is a little dry,” said another judge.
“Nancy, your brownies are wonderfully moist,” said the third judge.
After deliberation, the judges made their decision. “Greg! You will not be continuing in this competition. Sorry.” The firing squad erupted, and the world had one less baker.
Nick Price pecked away at the kitchen table on his laptop in a tiny bungalow in Burbank, California. His fiancée, Renee, had just come in with the mail.
“How’s the story going?” She asked. Nick had been writing a collection of short stories entitled The Rainbow Road No-no, and was currently working on a short entitled Santa Clause: Lord of Karma, which is about a journalist who meets Santa Clause and finds out he is a manifestation of Saturn.
“It’s going really well,” Nick said closing his laptop. “How are you?”
The color left Renee’s face as she held in her hand the envelope. It was from the GIPC.
“Oh no,” she said. “No.”
“Let me see it,” Nick said. He tore it open and read the letter and then set it down on the table.
“Are you being selected, Nick?” He clenched his jaw and said nothing.
“Babe! Are you being selected?”
“I’ve been selected,” he said.
“Oh god, no!” Renee began to cry. Nick held her in his arms.
“It’s going to be okay. It’ll be okay.”
Renee drove Nick to the studio in Burbank on a Saturday morning.
“Is this going to be the last time I ever see you?” She asked, holding back tears.
“No”, he said. “It’s not.”
“Do you know whom you’re going up against?”
Nick hesitated to say. “Isaac McMullen.”
Renee put her face in her hands and cried.
“Babe, do you trust my writing?” Nick demanded.
Renee composed herself. “Of course I do. You know I do. But McMullen...”
Isaac McMullen is nationally known. His style is a mix of Bret Easton Ellis, Cormac McCarthy, and Haruki Murakami. Shit, even Nick is a fan.
“He’s a hell-of-a-writer,” said Nick. “But this is life of death, and I intend to live.”
“Take this,” Renee said handing Nick a gold, heart-shaped locket with a picture inside of him and Renee. “Let it inspire you,” she said. They kissed, and Nick went away not knowing if he would ever see her again.
“Gentleman!” said the judge. “You will have ten hours to write a short story — 600 to 2,000 words — on a prompt which I will soon reveal to you. But before doing so, I want to congratulate you both, for one of you is the better writer, and the other a sacrifice for the good of the population — both admirable fates.” The judge is Josh Grisham, John Grisham’s grandson — a notoriously brutal literary critic. “With no further ado, writers, your prompt is: the soul. You may begin writing now.”
Isaac began typing immediately. The two men’s desks were adjacent to one another and Isaac looked as if this were the most natural thing in the world. He lit a cigar and laughed as he typed. Nick, on the other hand, didn’t have a clue about what he wanted to write. He removed the heart-shaped locket from his pocket and looked inside the locket then put the locket back in his pocket. Then he began to write.
The soul, he thought. Perhaps there is a world in a not-so-distant future…a world that is as dystopian as the reality in which Nick is living right now. And in this world, people have to submit to eye-scans which read their souls — as the eyes are the windows to the soul, after all — and based on the scan, they are granted or denied certain privileges, for example, whether or not a person be granted a marriage license.
Nina’s eyes were blue and her soul was a beautiful soul, Nick wrote. But when she was scanned that day (just to be allowed to travel to see her mom), the scanner could not find her soul. She tried again. Nothing. Her soul had been stolen. Who could have done this? There was only one person who could help her: Detective Rick Nicholson. He specializes in cases of stolen souls, and does soul retrieval. It was a drizzly Wednesday morning when she tapped on the detective’s foggy glass door.
“Thirty minutes, writers, thirty minutes!” Judge Josh Grisham announced. Suddenly, bright lights flooded the stage where Nick and Isaac worked. “We’re live in 3…2…1…,” a producer said, and onto the stage walked Zammy Watkins, a popular television personality and former host of the trivia game show Wrong Answers Only.
“Welcome, everybody, to another exciting selection where professionals will battle to save their careers and their lives. Today we have two writers competing for best short story about the soul, in a competition we’re calling A Write to the Death!” Recorded applause blared from a speaker and Nick could hardly think.
At home, Renee watched the television in the living room with her mother. The show, which is called Selection, was airing a segment on Isaac and how he grew up on a sheep farm and when that was through, it went back to the studio where Judge Grisham was reviewing the stories. It was filmed in a such a way that the television viewer would see shots of the judge reading and reacting — smiling, or appearing shocked and hamming it up — and then we would see the writers awaiting their fate (they were told by producers to smile). And there was a voice-over that read excerpts from the writers’ stories.
“Nina’s soul had been stolen by the evil wizard Garb Ogelsby, and he was keeping it inside of a gold, heart-shaped locket,” the narrator read. Renee’s mother put her arm around her and Renee held between her fingers the matching gold heart-shaped locket she wore around her neck that had Nick’s picture inside. On the screen, nooses were fitted around the necks of the writers where they sat and there were close-up shots of the nooses being tightened and of the trap door under their feet.
“Turn it off,” Renee said. “Turn it off. I can’t watch this.” Renee’s mother, Mary turned off the TV and Renee left the room crying. After she left, Mary turned the TV back on and watched the remainder of the show at a low volume.
“Remarkable tales, both tales, quite remarkable, indeed,” said the judge. “It is a shame you both cannot continue to pursue the fine art of writing, as you are immensely talented writers. But, these are the rules of the game.” More recorded applause poured from the speakers.
For effect, Judge Grisham read a a few lines from each story, then he would make a decision and push a button on a panel that sat in front of him and either Isaac or Nick would drop through the floor.
“Detective Nicholson clasped the gold locket behind Nina’s neck and with that he had restored her soul, and they embraced and the detective felt as if she had restored his, too.” Judge Grisham lingered on the last word of Nick’s story. Nick clutched the locket. And then he fell through the floor.
That is to say…Isaac fell through the floor.