A WIDE STAGE, festooned in red and black, curtained in some dark, heavy material, formed a backdrop for four luxurious and ornate plastic chairs, two facing two. In their center, slightly behind the chairs, stood a podium. Lights glared into the scene from an intricate network of steel and wire at a lofty height. At the podium stood the game show host. The TV cameras were rolling.
“Now contestants, we enter the final phase of our program. Mark and Annabelle have lost the last round and will not be in the running to collect the six million dollar prize. We saw them exit the stage only moments ago on their way to who knows where!”
Haggis stood seven feet tall and looked flashy in his red cape. The host’s teeth showed his most winning smile. They also displayed extra-large canines. Although apparently a happy person and very accomplished, the natural aspect of his face leered, and small, not well-defined nubs seemed to push out from the sides of his forehead, no doubt a congenital abnormality. No one thought much about it…after all, he couldn’t help it and it didn’t affect his brilliance as game show host. Everybody knew that.
Paul sat with his wife Cindy in their places in silent concentration, their faces pasty. The other chairs were now empty. Paul had developed a nervous twitch, probably from relief. They’d won this round.
“Of course, I do, but…” the emcee went on.
Thirty couples had been eliminated. Thirty couples had passed through the red door. A faint odor of sulfur puffed out each time the door opened and although no contestant actually heard the sounds of screaming, they’re minds imagined it. It brought into perspective a certain strangeness of the game.
“Okay, Glyth, bring in our winners from the last four rounds.” The dwarf obediently hobbled across the big stage, his face a mask of pain. He made not a whimper, although it seemed a great effort and Paul wondered at something protruding from his back that forced the material of his ancient leather coat to stand out oddly.
Haggis turned to the TV monitor and in a low and confidential voice meant to bring the audience into some private joke, he gleefully said, “Folks, you ain’t seen nothing yet.”
The door at the other side of the stage opened and in trooped Marty and Carl, Glenda and George, Davida and Fareed and Jean and Jan. They all seemed fired up and confident, each eagerly expecting to win the six million dollar prize and be set for life.
“Welcome back. These are,” He turned to the TV camera again, “our winners in all categories since the beginning of this game show challenge. I promised you a finale you wouldn’t forget. Well, the stage is set and here we go!”
Haggis waved an arm, the opacity at the edges of the stage setting cleared, the curtains disappeared and the solid floor became transparent. All five contestant couples gasped and grabbed at each other, for suddenly they stood on nothing, a very unsettling experience. Only the red door remained where it had been, although it now stood on thin air.
The sorcerer laughed delightedly. “Nothing to worry about, contestants. I cleared the stage so our audience could see the grand finale.”
Looking under their feet, each couple saw a massive city five thousand feet below on a landmass that could have been part of Manhattan Island maybe…but no…for looking up at them were millions of people wearing multi-colored capes, their eyes sparkling. They shouted and waved, and after a few seconds the contestants could hear laughter as it rose from the crowd. It peppered the contestant’s ears and they knew as surely as they were human that those looking at them were not. Fear etched each face as they realized their place in the sky was no illusion.
Haggis waved his hand again and without sensation, the game show and its occupants swooped downward, fast as lightning, until they hung in the air a hundred feet from the crowd below. Crowd sounds blasted them visibly.
The game show sorcerer now conjured up a long table from the air and added six chairs to the original four. Haggis invited them to sit.
“Ladies on the left and gents on the right,” he said, and again his brilliant smile suffused the stage.
They took seats quietly and some of their bravura left them. They began to look a lot like Paul and Cindy until a predatory look came onto their faces. Now the contestants took time to study their opponents. Only two could win and each couple believed in their hearts they could pass any test, answer any question, or perform; whatever the challenge.
Eyes narrowed, each tried to see inside the minds of the other contestants; each sought a weakness they could exploit. Yes, they were ready! Smiles crimped the edges of some lips and Haggis saw it all.
Once more the emcee waved a hand, and in front of the five couples appeared a single opaque container rather like a mason jar.
“In front of you are identical jars, each with a lid, each containing something that could be surprising. The contents of each vary from innocuous to extremely dangerous, and one contains a promissory note for six million dollars. Yes, contestants, the grand prize! In a moment I will set the contents moving within each jar. Even I will not know which surprise will be in a particular jar at any given moment. I will now ask one of you a question in no particular order. Then I will ask your partner a question. Answer them correctly and you get to open your jar.
“Remember Rule #1. Contestants are not allowed to comment or ask questions. If either participant forgets the rule they both go through the red door immediately and are eliminated from the contest.
“Jean, who was your great grandmother?”
Smiling brightly, Jean said, “Mary Phyllis Grondin.”
Jan, what is the square of nine?”
“Eighty-one.” So easy.
“Also correct. You may open your jar.”
Jean reached for their jar and unscrewed the lid. She peered in, looked puzzled and showed it to her husband.
“A cockroach?” His face turned pale and Jean slapped her hand over her mouth. He’d forgotten Rule #1.
Haggis made a sad face. “Sorry, Rule #1. Out you go.”
“Out!” Two muscular, hairy creatures with low foreheads and beady eyes without brows appeared at the wings and grabbed each contestant, picked them up with ease and carried them to the red door. It opened like a maw and the two screaming humans were chucked through like so much firewood.
A puff of sulfur wafted briefly at the seated contestants, their faces frozen on the jars in front of them. Sweat broke out on eight foreheads as they studiously avoided watching the two fall a hundred feet to the ground. They wouldn’t look at the scene below, see a swarm of multi-colored, caped creatures surround Jan and Jean, dig in and devour them.
The emcee lifted his eyes and said, “Oh dear, how unfortunate. Best to remember Rule #1. It was the only rule, after all.” He looked at the script on his podium and brightened. “Well, the audience is waiting. On with the game! Marty and Carl, you’re next.”
Fear played across their faces. Could they win? Could they be the lucky ones? Could they beat the odds? And what were the odds, anyway?
“Carl, you first. Name the forty-four prepositions.” Haggis couldn’t help but grin. Who remembered them from grammar school? Nobody, right?
But Carl surprised the emcee and recited them in alphabetical order, starting with “about” and ending with “without.”
Marty beamed and Haggis looked astounded.
“Wonderful!” he said.
“Marty, what is Carl’s first name? Take your time. Get it right.”
How could this be a trick question? She hesitated. What could the game show host mean by asking a question with such an obvious answer? She recalled reading about Occam’s razor and recited the meaning in her mind. “All other thing being equal, the simplest answer is probably the right one.”
“Right. Made you wonder, didn’t it?”
Marty nodded. No way would she utter a sound. Haggis waited, but she’d learned Rule #1 well.
“Good, Marty. You didn’t bite. Congratulations. Carl, you may open your jar.”
Carl sat woodenly for a moment, then reluctantly reached for the jar and slowly twisted off the top. He looked in and saw a green envelope.
“You’ve won, you’ve won. Green is for go and go means you get to go home, with six million dollars. Congratulations!”
Haggis handed Carl the envelope, waved his hand and the winning contestants disappeared. The game show host turned to the two remaining couples. “You didn’t win. Davida and Fareed, you first.”
The hell with Rule #1. They cried, “No, no, you can’t!” but they went through the red door screaming.
Haggis turned to Paul and Cindy. “You next.”
The burly monsters held them over their heads and flung them violently and then they were falling, falling.
Paul shouted, “I’m so sorry, Cindy,” as she looked pleadingly back at him.
Grasping at nothingness, he awoke, covered in sweat. Damn that last night's pizza!