A wall of video monitors stood in front of Marshall Ledbury, he leaned forward in his chair as he surveyed them all. “Standby. We are live in thirty-five seconds. Des, roll credits,” he said into his headset. He watched on a monitor as the credits ran through, making sure that all five of the cameras were in place. “Okay Kate, lights up and cue the applause.”
The house-band started to play a clean yet furious riff with intricate beats while a small crane swung a camera over the audience as they clapped and cheered, standing. Hundreds of eyes watched the intermittent glow of the applause sign, converting it to enthusiasm en masse.
“Camera one, standby,” he said, watching as a woman in her early thirties stood at the front of the studio stage. Her wavy brown hair curled under her chin, settling gently on her shoulders and neck. She quickly checked that her microphone was still clipped on to the top of her elegant white maxi-dress. She scanned the audience in front of her, her arms resting on her hips with her face projecting an impressed smile which mirrored a similar expression worn at this point on at least fifty-percent of the previous shows. She nodded her head slightly as the applause died down. The glowing sign had ceased.
Turning her attention to the camera in front of her, the woman began her routine upon Marshall’s cue. “Good evening, and welcome to Saturday Night with me, Ashley Chapman. The mayoral elections this week saw Jason Paddock take control of the capitol, after promising to cut rising fuel costs, bring in harsher punishments for criminals and reduce hospital waiting lists. He’s solved all three by personally overseeing development of the new Prius Soylent. It offers an impressive 98 MPG. That’s miles per grandmother.”
Applause and laughter. Ashley smiled back at the audience, clasping her hands together.
“A scandal rocked the royal family when it was revealed a certain member had allegedly fathered a child with a Scientologist. A bizarre collective famous for their secrecy, accusations of spying on, and sabotaging government and gaining all of their power after an exodus from a fascist land far away. Conversely, the Church of Scientology are just a bit weird.”
The same pattern again, the smile on her face grew wider as her body began to sway subtly, spurred on by the warm reception.
“A volcano erupted in Iceland, causing the destruction of thousands of homes and businesses. Our resident superhero Kinesis tried to save the town, but unfortunately he’d just changed his mask colour and couldn’t get past the border. They said he didn’t look anything like his passport photo.”
She carried on through a monologue, recounting the events of the last week, making light-hearted banter with the house-band and receiving rapturous laughter for each and every slight joke. Afterwards, she moved over to sit in one of the two red chairs which formed the centrepiece of the stage, surrounded by various potted plants and flowers. Marshall had cut to a commercial break.
A make-up supervisor came onto the stage and touched up Ashley’s face, carefully removing any signs of sweat or imperfection while the band played a song to the wings. Around the set, a flurry of people spoke into their headsets. Amidst all of this, a man appeared at the side of the set, surveying everybody carefully. A production assistant stood next to him, double-checking his remote microphone pack. He was an unassuming man, dressed in a black suit, white shirt and black tie. He also wore a thick urethane mask which formed a dome over his head, down to just above his upper-lip. His thin lips were locked stationary in an expression which revealed nothing of the mood of the man within. His eyes, visible through two vertical slits were darting left and right, analysing the crowd which sat a small distance away.
Marshall sent out the call. They were live in ten seconds. The make-up supervisor finished up and quickly left Ashley, who remained seated in her red chair, hands resting gracefully in her lap. Smiles were switched on, lights glowed, and cheers merged with standing ovations.
“Welcome back to Saturday Night. Our guest tonight, in a world exclusive, is Kinesis. A man famously adverse to the media. For fifteen years, thousands have sought to discover his true identity, none have succeeded. This marks his first ever TV appearance since he made headlines decades ago after holding up a five-storey steel frame which collapsed, threatening to bury the scores of workers below: all with the power of his mind. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you, Kinesis.”
The man in the mask walked onto the set, acknowledging the frenzied cheers with a subdued wave. He took his seat in the red chair opposite Ashley’s. She leaned forward, shaking his hand. The applause receded into silence.
“It’s a pleasure to have you here Kinesis,” she said. “We see you all over the television, the newspapers and on YouTube, yet we know nothing about you. I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking, why all the secrecy?”
He began shakily, his voice was punctuated by nervous raises of pitch and carried along by a breathless cadence. “Because who I am isn’t important. Power and fame only exist by virtue of others. We become corrupted by the eyes of others, when they elevate us above what we are and we begin to believe it. Soon they see only the power, not the person you are, not the feelings you have. You become a mask. By wearing a mask, I can take it off, by not wearing one, I’d be forced to wear one every second of every day.”
She seemed slightly taken aback by his serious tone. Usually the shows first questions were light-hearted banter. Her years of experience showed in her quick recovery and adjustment to the tone.
“You say you like to be able to take off the mask. What do you do then? Do you still use telekinesis in your everyday life?”
“No, we made a pact that I’d never use them for personal gain. When they first developed, I had some very bad experiences which I’m not going to elaborate on. Occasionally I like to push myself and fly off to faraway places to relax.”
“When you say ‘we made a pact,’ who do you mean?” she asked. Occasional coughs were the only sounds which entwined with their voices. Everyone watched, listened.
“My wife. We’ve been married for twenty-five years now. Our anniversary was not too long ago actually.”
Ashley leaned forward slightly, appearing encouraged by his candour. “Is your wife here tonight?”
He stopped, adding nothing further, the silence was palpably awkward. The abruptness of his reply presented another obstacle, one which she wasn’t fazed by. Live television didn’t have room for hesitation. She continued unperturbed. “Maybe you’d like to tell us about where your powers came from then Kinesis?”
“Not really. It might have been a one-off deal, but I wouldn’t want to risk anyone else copying me. It’d be like throwing a DIY nuke into a crowded street and hoping no one evil learns to use it.”
She nodded sagely, quickly revealing that she realised the stupidity of the question imparted by the teleprompter. “If you don’t want to talk about your origins, your powers or your personal life, I have to ask, why did you come on the show?” It was a gambit of a question, the kind that no one knew the outcome of. A hundred sets of lungs ceased in anticipation.
“I came on here, Ashley, to announce my retirement.”
Eternity stretched forever.
“Retirement,” she stammered. “But you’re okay aren’t you. You just intend to stand by and watch people die?”
“Yes. Yes I do,” he replied. “It’s about time you learned to look after yourselves. Do you know, when they first opened the 999 service, people were amazed. They cheered the police as they came to their defence. Now they are the enemy. People call them, to ambush them in dark alleys. To attack the very people who give over their lives to protect them.”
“So you’re saying people are attacking you?”
“Yes, but that’s not the point Ashley. I’m saying that we become complacent to our heroes. We start taking stupid risks and then turn against them when they aren’t there to provide a safety net for us. Last week I answered a call to help a woman who claimed to be cornered by an attacker. It turned out to be a group of kids who wanted to see if a grenade they’d found could hurt me.”
“Well, I certainly apolo-”
He cut her off. “I spent most of my life protecting you people. I’ve stopped speeding trains, deflected apocalyptic comets, commandeered bullets in mid-air, seen the bottom of the infinite abyss of evil in mankind. Yet it’s all for nothing. I can’t save anyone.”
“You do Kinesis, you’ve protected so many of us.” Her voice sounded racked by genuine desperation now. Marshall ordered the cameras to zoom in to a close-up two-shot.
“I can’t stop anything real. Heart disease, old age, cancer, suicide, depression. I’m just another number on the emergency list, the guy they call before the police because I’m the easy option. I don’t get paid and if I die, nobody has to care because to you all I don’t exist.”
She shifted uncomfortably in her seat. It was probably apparent to her that lives could rest on her next words.
“What does your wife think about you letting innocent people get hurt when you can stop it?” It was a loaded question, but she asked it as tactfully as anyone with years of training could ask.
He only laughed. A laugh not from humour. The kind of laugh which comes from the very pit of a man’s soul when he realises the sickening poetry of tragedy in the world. Even the coughs had stopped now.
“She wouldn’t say much Ashley. Do you know what it’s like to live with a man who hides a part of himself from the world? She can’t have friends or family since they’d invariably ask where her husband was all of the time. She spends evenings alone watching the news, praying that she doesn’t have to see her love die live on television. She has to work countless hours to make up enough money for them to live on, because her husband is too tired to work anymore than a few hours a day. He’s so exhausted, and injured so repeatedly that he neglects everything else. He stops being there for her, he stops assuring her that everything’s alright. He just leaves her in a pit of despondency and terminal loneliness. One she could never leave because she’s too good of a woman to ever consider divorcing a man who spends his life trying to help others. So she turns to drink, she turns to pills. All the while the man continues on oblivious. So blind that he cannot see what is right in front of him.”
The light glistened off a tear which had formed in Ashley’s eye. “So you want to spend more time with her? That’s understandable.”
“There is no time for her Ashley. All my power and I couldn’t save her. When I look at you people, I don’t see innocents anymore. I see the people who took me away from her. I see the boys who called me away to a prank during her last night on this earth. I feel nothing but contempt for all of you now.”
He stood up, pulled his microphone pack off the back of his trousers and left it on the chair as he walked off the set. Some people booed, others just sat in silence. Marshall scrambled to do something. They had five minutes left of airtime and nobody was saying anything. He directed the cameras to move to a position on the side of the stage. They zoomed in and relayed a static picture to the country. For three-hundred seconds, they stared at one thing.
The crumpled black mask which lay where not long ago an unassuming man had stood.
From behind the vertical slits stared only the wooden floor now.