He’s in it for the money, though he’ll probably never say that outloud. Not even in front of the others, the ones that started out their little group: by now, he’s sure some of them believe. Which is, in his not at all humble opinion, a huge irony.
Life’s funny like that sometimes.
But even Thomas has to admit that, every other day, the Man does such a good job, such a great impression, that reality is shaken for a bit. Still, not enough to turn into a starry-eyed child like the others. Do this, do that, be who we want you to be. The Man complies, but that’s just because the Man has a job to do, and that job, as far as Thomas is concerned, is to bring in money straight from the fools’ pockets.
The day everything goes to shit starts out just like any other. They gather a small crowd that will later on turn into a bigger crowd, and the Man talks big and makes big gestures, and the special effects guys do something something something, whatever that is. And it’s back to the house, where there’s a big enough room for all of the credulous to be almost comfortable, and then the big show.
Only the show goes awry. But Thomas doesn’t know that. At first.
People do like the Man. Sometimes even the Man likes himself, because he’s big and strong, but in a non-threatening way, one that makes everyone go “Oh!”, and “Ah!”, and “Woah!”. He’s got bright skin and bright eyes, and his voice is just the right side of manly deep. It is a voice one wants to follow, a voice that could rock you to sleep every night. Thomas is quite proud of the Man himself. It is not exactly as if he actually had anything to do with the Man coming to them, but he was the one to see all the possibilities that came with him. So, that must count for something.
Most of the people in the crowd are teenagers. They may not look the part, but they surely feel like angst-ridden teens, and so Thomas and the others do everything in their power to cater to teenage needs, from cool-sounding greetings to just enough actual contact to make them feel welcomed, give them a sense of belonging. He does not remember names, but he’s good with faces, and he has a smile that almost rivals the Man’s. And he’s nice, pleasant enough not to be noticed, he thinks. It almost doesn’t matter. The Man’s speaking in the room, and everything’s been muted but his voice.
Some of the other guys started falling for the Man a couple of months in. It didn’t really worry Thomas at the beginning: they were working hard, perhaps harder than they’d ever had. They organised meetings and talked to people and did taxes, and things went smoothly for everyone and he didn’t have to think too hard. And, of course, there was money, because money has never been an issue when it comes to this whole operation. There’s business in providing hope and happiness and a sort of family to people. But then, there’s business to be had in almost anything.
The first thing to go off are the lights, and for a millisecond Thomas thinks it’s all part of the act. But the Man’s face changes ever so slightly – they didn’t hire an actor for him to go berserk every time some minor problem arises -, so he knows there’s trouble. Someone’s not doing their job.
When he reaches the corridor, it is easy to see why.
There is a lot of work involved in every one of the Man’s appearances. There are lights and sound to be taken care of, there’s a guy who makes sure that everyone’s sitting in the right place, and there’s the special effects crew, a couple of dudes that used to work with Hollywood until all the CGI shit happened. And there’s them, too, the ones that mix with the people and find the easy targets, the ones that whisper suggestions at certain points and get all the right answers from them. The Man makes no sense without his team, which is perhaps the reason Thomas could never believe whatever it is the others believe him to be. Not a gym freak with a penchant for cheap alcohol and a great deal of charisma, that’s for sure. And that’s the only other character Thomas has known him to play, back when he was called Chuck and sucked at throwing darts.
He does not remember this tech guy’s name. Which makes everything a little easier, he thinks, when he finds his body leaning against the wall. Not that it would’ve mattered: the man is covered from head to toe in a sort of bluish glowing goo, and there is no way he’s coming closer to see a face that’s probably just staring in horror at something that’s not him.
The Man talks about dark times coming. In the room, dimly lit by the streetlights outside, people cheer.
With a grunt, Thomas takes off his jacket to cover the poor soul’s face before discreetly getting to the master bedroom. They’ve taken it as their main office, substituting the bed with a desk and some chairs for them to let time waste away until the Man’s done speaking. There’s a young guy sitting there, smoking. Mitch, Thomas thinks he’s called: not one of the first to arrive, but he’s been there long enough that he can be trusted. Also, he needs someone to help him move a corpse: he’s been letting himself go lately, and things are turning out to be heavier than he remembers them being.
So he calls out for the guy, and he knows he’s made a big mistake when he sees him more closely. So. Frigging. Young. How did they let their pseudo-cult get full of actual teenagers?
But it’s too late.
“So, eh, yeah. Yep. There’s this thing I may need help with. If, you know, if that’s cool.” Mitch smiles, and it looks like someone cut his head in half. It seems to take up his whole face, a shit-eating grin that makes Thomas feel sort of uneasy. Possibly the second worst thing he’s seen today.
“Whatever, man. It’s not like I’m doing anything. What’s that thing you need me for?”
And that’s how Thomas finds himself trying to explain there is a dead body at their gathering. One that belongs to a man that may have been called Jeff? Maybe. Not that it matters that much. The only thing that does is getting him out of there.
Young Mitch lets out a sort of whistle when they reach the corpse, and it is not the most reassuring sound Thomas has ever heard. It is more like an admired little noise, not the one he was expecting a teenager to make when faced with gut-wrenching horror.
“This”, Mitch says, and there it is, that grin again. “Man, it’s happening!”
And so, Thomas stares at him blankly, waiting for some sort of elaboration, something a little more concrete.
“Blue goo is happening?,” he hears himself asking, at last. Mitch snorts.
“The Thing is happening, man. Don’t you listen to the Man? The Thing, dark times are here and then good times, and we’ll be saved, you know?”
And right then and there, Thomas decides it will be safer to leave the corpse there. And the people there. And, especially, to leave Mitch right there where he is, and get out slowly but surely.
“He’s the first one, you know? It’s like in the movies. Like the Apocalypse or some -”
People started believing the Man when he told them what they wanted to hear. It seemed easy enough at the beginning: you’re part of something bigger, you’re one of us, you do matter. But then it all got weirdly specific, and special effects were required, and blue lights and red lights and some makeup to get the Man to look, well, manly.
He’s in it for the money, of course. Corpses do nothing to bring in money; at least, not the sort he wants right now. Neither does the end of the world. Which is why it must be stopped.
“Why this guy?,” he asks, and Mitch seems confused for a second.
“Well, he is… was… I don’t know, man. He wasn’t true.”
“A true believer?”
“Maybe? You know, the Man’s the one with the answers. He’s the one that-”
Thomas has had enough.
“You, you listen to me right now. The Man… He’s not even real! I mean, he’s real, he’s a real guy, name’s Chuck, but everything else is -”
Something that I dreamt, he’d say. Something that I used to dream and that I told them when I was drunk, and now it seems that everybody wants to hear about it. And that’s fine, Thomas’s completely fine with selling out his dream in exchange for money. Not so much with said dream stopping the money-making thing. Whatever.
“Okay. I gotta go.”
The people in the room have started chanting. This is the time some background music would play, help them focus and get the tone right. But there is nothing outside the voices, because the tech guy is dead and perhaps the other one they have is also lying in a pool of blue goo somewhere. And, for the first time in years, Thomas gets a true, unadulterated version of what the faithful singers are doing every three nights. It almost makes him stop trying to stop the end of the world.
The voice of the Man can still be heard in that sea of tone-deaf screams. He’s not using the mic, which is, given the circumstances, a pretty smart move. But he has powerful lungs, and he’s had years to prepare this, and he’s also sort of drunk, to be honest. He always is, actually, and whenever he’s not he’s just annoying, so that’s fine with Thomas.
It isn’t hard to move around the room when one knows where exactly to use his elbow. Navigating the place has become second nature to Thomas, and getting to the other side doesn’t take him more than a couple of minutes. Which is, apparently, more than he had.
There is blue goo coming out of a woman’s mouth when he reaches the Man. She seems unfazed by it, keeps singing and spraying it everywhere, getting stains on Thomas’ shirt and pants, which would be sort of a pain if it weren’t for the other two people vomiting the stuff. And everyone else doing exactly nothing to help, which is, he thinks, kind of a shitty thing to do.
The Man’s voice keeps getting louder and louder, and when seen from such a close distance he’s not exactly as interesting as he seems from afar. For one, he has hair growing from his nostrils, and his mustache is uneven, and he smells of beer and cigarettes and some things that should not be allowed near decent people.
Also, he’s dead.
It is not exactly an obvious thing, which is why Thomas is willing to forgive some people for not noticing. And, well, he’s still moving and all, and singing, and there’s definitely something in him that seems quite alive, but. But Chuck, the man behind the Man, is gone. It isn’t hard to see, unless you are of course one of the few people in the world who does not mind watching others vomiting bluish goo and being slowly devoured by it.
The Man’s head turns to him right at that moment, once Thomas is close enough to touch him. It is fun, he says, but he says it in a voice nobody else can seemingly hear, and he’s still singing all the while. But the message is clear: it is fun, watching them dance and sing, wrecking chaos.
This, Thomas decides, has gone too far.
“Show’s over,” he says, and then yells: “There’s a fire!”
Which proves to be about as effective as one may have imagined. Only a couple of heads turn to watch him, and those who do are far too horrified by whatever is going on in their lives to care about some silly fire. So that leaves Thomas with two options: either bolt and run away, or face the Man.
He’d try the former, but a sudden change in the crowd’s standing pushes him towards the slightly elevated stage, and he climbs up. The Man’s arm is thrown around his shoulders, still attached to the Man’s body. There is blue goo all over the first row, now, and people are starting to tumble and fall. Bluish mummies shake and shriek in sudden fear, at last awoken from whatever spell the Man has had over them for the past few months.
“You’re going too far,” Thomas says, and the Man frowns.
It is the end of the world, he states, and it’s just like Thomas’s dream, only in his head he was wearing a tutu and had a huge sunflower instead of a left foot, for some reason.
“This has to stop, man,” and the frown on the Man’s face deepens, and it turns into a pout. He keeps singing, a chant with no discernible words. Thomas may or may not have wet his pants. “I mean… This, this is not what we wanted.”
This is not what you wanted, the Man corrects him. There is something glowing red at the back of his eyes, a sort of light that isn’t a light but the end of all light. The grip around Thomas grows stronger: he’s mad.
You’re not who I thought you were, the Man states. I thought you were cool.
And the blue goo starts to fill Thomas’s nostrils, and his throat, and to come out of his mouth. It is sort of pleasant, a sensation that has nothing to do with anything else he has ever felt, something that he could let himself be taken by. But it is still death, and if there’s one thing Thomas may admit he likes more than money, is living to spend that money. And so, he does what he has to.
He punches the Man. Hard. And it’s like hitting a brick wall, only the brick wall is ready to retaliate. So Thomas punches him again, open palm this time, and his thumb sort of lingers in the Man’s face long enough to find an eye and break it open. The blue goo is starting to choke him, and it is spreading to his eyes, covering his own face and turning into a solid thing he can’t get rid of.
I’m getting bored, the Man says, letting him go. Thomas’s knees buckle, and he falls to the floor. Just like his dream, only with no sunflower leg and a bit more pain.
You bore me, he hears, too.
The Man’s a little Child, in the end.
And Thomas has never been good at fighting on even terms, but he’s fine with being a bully. So he draws some strength and gets up and throws himself at the Man, and the song stops, and the Man seems suddenly so surprised his good eye looks like it wants to pop out, too.
People start to wake. Slowly, surely. But the Man’s not dead, the Man’s never dead, and so Thomas holds his throat and does what he has to do. Chuck’s eye blinks for the last time.
“You saved us,” someone says, and Thomas can barely breathe, but nods. Sort of. The blue goo is diluting, turning into a sort of colored water that he’s not sure he wants to watch closely. He coughs.
There’s a whisper. “The Man said that. There would be dark times, and then these are good times, and we’re saved!”
And Thomas thinks about the tech guy, again. About the corpse of those in the first row, the grimy eye stuff that has found a new home between his thumb and its nail. Gross and uncomfortable, to say the least. He thinks about the end of the world, too. And the money.
And he stands.
In the room, where lights have turned on again, people cheer.