It’s all fun and games until President Oprah makes it a law.
Madeleine can hardly breathe. She is desperately regretting having cancelled her personal trainer after only three sessions. But Paul had been so expensive.
She rounds a corner into an alley, her shins pounding with each sprinting step. She flashes a glance behind her. She seems to have lost the cops on that last turn. Would it be incredibly stupid to stop for a minute? Almost definitely, she thinks. But the cold air burning in her chest convinces her she doesn’t have a choice.
She dives behind a dumpster. In a momentary mental lapse regarding her current situation, she’s kind of proud of herself. She probably ran for twenty minutes. She can’t really be sure though as she has no idea what time it is. She realized around 21st Street that she should ditch her phone and threw it into a pile of garbage.
She leans her head back against the cool bricks. How did she get here? She doesn’t know what got into her. She got the notification that the game was starting. She was just walking down the street and she could have easily stopped. Everyone else did: 5th Avenue was a sea of stationary people staring into smartphones. One guy seemed to look up and notice as she continued to walk by. She didn’t even think about the consequences of not playing. She had just thought, it’s pretty nice for March. I want to enjoy my walk. I don’t want to do it today.
This morning, she and her husband had played the 8:00 Test over coffee like every day. The “game” definitely didn’t feel like fun now that it was mandatory, but Americans generally seemed used to it. Every day, three times a day, like clockwork, they stopped what they were doing and played. 8:00. 3:00. 9:00.
The law hadn’t been incredibly surprising given that President Oprah was an early investor in the app. Following the Trump Personal Brand Act of 2018, Presidents were no longer limited in concurrently pursuing their personal business ventures while in office. Pence started a line of golf shirts while he was still President. Even still, the mandatory use of the app had initially seemed fascist, unlawful, and bizarre considering it was created to be played for enjoyment. But when rumors began rolling in about the mysterious punishments that befell citizens who exceeded their two No-Plays, most people ignored their qualms, shut up, and participated. Three times a day.
Madeleine tries to steady her breath as she thinks back, mystified, on the days of playing for a cash prize. It seems laughable now considering that players aim solely to improve their ever-looming Personal Score, the total of which affects everything from your insurance premiums to your job prospects. People are obsessed with their Score. Some millionaires are rumored to house genius illegal immigrants in their homes to play in their stead. Even now, Madeleine cringes at the toll this will take on her tax return.
With a wave of fresh horror, she realizes that her fate is going to be much worse than getting a smaller tax return check. Like an idiot, she used her No-Plays up at only 32 years old. She used one on the day of her wedding. It was cheaper to book the venue during a Test time. It was a little unromantic that the entire congregation were on their phones during the vows, but it was worth the discount. The second she used on the day her mom died, though Madeleine’s husband had tried to talk her out of it at the hospital. Madeleine should really save one and her mother was dying, he said, so she wouldn’t be offended. Or at least not for long.
So neglecting to play today has landed Madeleine here. Surrounded by trash somewhere in Chelsea, hiding from the cops. And then, she hears them. They are shouting to each other. You take that street, I’ve got this one. They didn’t buy her disappearing act. She is wondering if it’s too late to run when she hears boot steps echo from the end of the alley. She’s trapped.
The sound of rubber soles on cement creeps closer and closer. She holds her breath as the ground crunches just feet away. She readies herself to be discovered.
In an instant, all she feels is weightlessness. A rush of air. Then wet. Wetness all over. She can’t see anymore. Everything is dark. Pain shoots down her entire back. Oh my god, she thinks. I was shot. I was shot and I’m dead. She lies in the dark waiting for something to happen.
“Am I dead?” she says out loud to the blackness.
“Shhhh,” a voice echoes.
“Hello?” She begins to reach around her frantically, but she feels only more coldness, more wetness.
“Be quiet. Please. Or they’ll hear you,” it whispers.
“Ok,” she whispers back. “But. Can you just tell me if I’m dead?”
“You’re not dead.”
“Ok.” She obeys and lays still. “But who are y-”
Echoing steps from somewhere up above resonate then get quieter and then they’re gone. Moments later, arms are lifting her up and helping her to walk. She blinks, allowing her eyes adjust to the little lanterns that dot the big open room where she now stands. The wet walls reflect in the candlelight as she puts the pieces together. The falling. The damp air. The large stream running through the center of the room. She is in the sewer. And at least a dozen people are staring at her.
“Probably goes without saying, but you ditched your phone, right?” The guy who carried Madeleine here is now visible. His frizzy hair and bathrobe communicate clearly having abandoned all societal pressures of grooming.
“Oh. Yeah,” she answers. “I threw it on the street somewhere.”
“Ok awesome. Sorry, we have to ask. I’m Frank,” he ushers her into the room and offers her a seat on an overturned plastic crate. “Welcome.”
“Thanks. I’m Madeleine.”
“This is the gang. Everybody here is hiding out in protest of the game, like you. Sorry for pulling that manhole cover out from under you like that. We didn’t get to you in time to you know…have a conversation first.”
“What do you mean, get to me in time?”
“Well the rebel networks are pretty interconnected. We got the signal from another group of Anti-Testers down on 23rd.” He waves a walkie talkie.
“Wow. So do you guys…live down here?”
“Yes, honey,” a sixty-something woman wearing a Sponge Bob sleeping bag with arm holes hands Madeleine a warm cup of something. “That’s kind of a root…tea. Basically.”
“Thank you. It smells. Earthy.”
“Yeah, Rhonda has gotten a pretty great little sewer garden going,” Frank chimes in. “And of course we send somebody up most nights to scavenge. Willie has been working on his home brews. We’re getting pretty self-sufficient down here.”
Madeleine looks down to see a giant rat scurry across her shoes. She screams as she jumps to stand on her crate, spilling some of her garbage tea.
“Jesus Christ! That’s the biggest rat I’ve ever seen.”
“Oh that’s not a rat! That’s Second Felix.” A scrawny teenage boy picks up the monster rat, revealing two strips of old socks fastened to its ears. “First Felix was my dog back at home. This is my new dog.”
Wow, thinks Madeleine. That’s the saddest fucking thing I’ve ever heard.
“Oh and we’ve got TV now!” The boy drags Madeleine over to an old TV set in the corner with a towering network of antennae. “It only gets E! So far.”
The voice of a pretty entertainment news reporter comes in clips through the static. Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber finally reveal the name of their baby girl…and it’s also the name of a popular condiment! We’ll tell you which one after the break.
“This is kind of the entertainment corner,” Frank says with a sweep of his arm. He indicates some drawings on the wall near the TV. “Janine invented a kind of ‘hand art,’ like the kind of thing you would draw with a computer. But with your hands.” Janine, presumably, looks down at Madeleine from a makeshift hammock and winks.
Suddenly, Rhonda bangs loudly on a cooking pot. Frank grabs Madeleine’s arm and pulls her to the side of the room, where all of the residents have begun banging on the walls and shouting.
“SCREAM AS LOUD AS YOU CAN!” Frank calls over the cacophony of voices and stomping and hands hitting cement. She confusedly joins in, as Frank nods toward the stream and shrugs. “SEWER GATOR.”
Madeleine turns to see a giant alligator floating through the middle of the room. It looks annoyed by the noise and continues swimming on its way.
“That’s the only way to scare them off, but it works really well,” Frank says as the screams die down. “The only thing that sucks is we have to do it about every 25 minutes.”
“How long have you been down here?” asks Madeleine.
“Me? One year here, six months with another defector group before that. I just got sick of it one day, dropped my phone in the East River, and went off the grid. I couldn’t deal with the constant government surveillance.”
“They use the game to track where you are, what you know…no thank you,” says Janine.
“And the god damned music,” Rhonda shudders. Everyone in the room groans remembering the Test’s incessant soundtrack.
“I mean, it sucks we can’t talk to our families now or whatever,” adds Frank. “But it isn’t so bad down here. Better than the punishment that would be waiting for us up there.”
“But I thought no one knows what the punishment really is-”
“A 24-hour quiz,” a raspy voice from the corner cuts Madeleine off. A thin man with the sunken eyes of a war veteran leans into the light. “No bathroom breaks. And the host. He just goes on. And on. My god, that voice. I hear it. Awake and asleep. I hear it…” The man breaks down into soft sobs.
“Carl got caught once,” Frank whispers. Carl has already receded back into his corner, catatonic. Frank throws an arm around Madeleine’s shoulder as if he’s known her longer than the ten minutes of their friendship. “Look. I know it’s a lot to give up out there and it’s far from swanky, but you’ll be safe here.”
Madeleine looks around the room at the strange cast of characters: at sweet Rhonda, at Willie and his home brews, at poor, damaged Carl. She thinks about her apartment and her husband and what she’s supposed to do now. Most of all, she wishes she had a clean shirt.
Megan Stein is a writer living in Brooklyn, NY. She satirizes pop culture to justify watching so much Real Housewives.