RUSSEL RICHARDSON - DEATH REEL
Russell Richardson lives with his wife and sons in Binghamton, NY. His work has appeared in Fabula Argentea, Jitter Press, the Yellow Booke Journal, Story Land Literary Review, WOLVES, Cheat River Review, and more. He is also illustrator of "Poems for Children," by Larry H. Richardson; and, for charity, the books "Super Cooper Saves the Day" and "The Many Adventures of Mya." All three books are available at Amazon.com.
Sandy had to film a Death Reel.
After the late-night broadcast wrapped, she hurried down the corridor toward the station’s lounge, where a cameraman awaited her.
An office memo had ordered that all staff, whether anchors, like Sandy, or field reporters, or off-screen talent, record a “Deal Reel.” This dictum responded to a recent tragedy: a maniac had shot a rival station’s reporter on-camera and its producers lacked personal footage to air about their employee. Sandy’s station wanted to be better prepared. Sandy had suggested a less ghoulish title, “AutoBio Reel,” but no one acknowledged her email.
In the hall, Sandy practiced her diction by repeating the mouth exercise, “Mexican mice shouldn’t shave in sparkly sequins——” and so on. The top broadcasters could annunciate anything. And this, her first professional job, was only rung numero uno on a ladder to stardom.
Surprisingly, a producer named Margot accompanied the cameraman in the lounge.
“There’s our girl,” said Margot. A refined woman, she had trained for the anchor desk, but a three-inch scar on her left cheek had relegated Margot off-screen. Clapping soundlessly, she said, “Nice work on tonight’s broadcast.”
“You’re too kind,” said Sandy, performing an awkward, half-curtsy in the doorway.
Margot eased into one of the chairs arranged around the room. “Sit.” She directed Sandy to the couch at which the camera pointed. Sandy settled into the target of the lens and swept her bangs with her pinkie nail. “Is that a Michael Kors top?” she asked. “Gorgeous.”
“I’ll email notes about tonight’s broadcast, so we need not nitpick at such a late hour,” said Margot, signaling to Joe, the cameraman, that she was ready. “Let us just dive into the death reel, alright?”
Sandy shivered. “Ghastly name, isn’t it?” Margot regarded her blankly. Sandy’s clumsy fingers checked her collar and she cleared her throat. “Before we start, have you read my email?”
Tiny smile lines fanned around Margot’s eyes. “The three-anchor thing?”
Summoning her sunniest expression, Sandy said, “I hope it wasn’t too presumptuous to offer unsolicited ideas. I just wondered if you’d ever considered a three anchor combination for the 6pm slot.”
Margot sneered, but retained politeness. “Have you forgotten asking the same question outside my office a week ago? I repeat, our anchor teams have always been one man and one woman pairs. Since you included Mike on your email, I’m sure he will corroborate that.”
Carbon-copying Mike, their news director, had been a bold stroke. Sandy bowed. “Forgive me. I merely thought deviating from that old formula might distinguish us from the competition.”
“Are you unhappy on the eleven o’clock news team?” Margot asked, pouting.
“Heavens no,” said Sandy. “Fred and I are developing a rapport.” She paused. “After a year.”
Margot arched like a mantis. “Listen, I know Fred is a dimwit. He begged his way off sports and still has all the grace of a wet sock. But, he is your partner. Our A-Team is Candace Landis and Rod Booster at six o’clock; Sandy Champion and Fred Whimperbottom at eleven. I will confidently stand our line-up against those turkeys at WPNG and WSTV. However,” said Margot, flicking a thread from her pant-leg to the floor, “nothing is permanent. Have you tried field reporting yet?”
Sandy shook her slack face.
“You might find that work stimulating,” said Margot.
“Oh, I’m quite content in my position here,” said Sandy. “My outspoken streak paired with my precocity can make me challenging at times, I’m afraid. But my opinions stem from a gratitude for this opportunity and a desire to strengthen our team.”
Margot smiled cryptically. “Great. So let’s begin.” She signaled to Joe and squared off in front of Sandy. “This is straightforward. I will ask questions about childhood, schooling, hobbies, et cetera. Ready?”
“Willing and able,” said Sandy with her trademark twinkle.
“Alright,” said Margot, sleek as a jungle snake. “Let’s start with your parents.”
“Well, I was born in Plain Rapids, not far from here——”
Margot snapped, “Specificity, dear. Say New York, not, ‘not far from here.’”
“Sorry,” said Sandy. She inhaled and began again. “I was born in Plain Rapids, New York, to Barry and Shirley Wotzitski——”
“Wotzitski?” interrupted Margot. “You’re married?”
“No,” said Sandy. “I changed my name to Sandy Champion. It’s gentler on the ear.”
“Certainly so,” said Margot. She turned to Joe and asked, “Do you like the names Barry and Shirley?”
Joe chewed his gum like a cow and was no great oracle of feedback.
Margot faced Sandy again. “Call them loving parents.”
“But my tongue might turn black and fall out from telling a lie,” Sandy laughed.
Margot’s impeccable eyebrows twitched impatiently. Sandy resumed. “I was born in Plain Rapids, New York, to loving parents,” she said, and her tongue neither turned black nor fell out. She cheerfully explained how a stint on her High School’s yearbook committee had ignited a journalistic passion. She recalled how she’d studied at the Community College before transferring to—--
Margot raised a finger to stop her. Bracing herself, Sandy bit her tongue with her teeth, the corrected versions of Wotzitski chompers.
Margot said, “Let’s skip the community college. Focus instead on your time at Colgate. Four year schools are more respected.”
Sandy’s hands fidgeted in her lap.
“You attended Colgate, yes?” asked Margot.
The women traded a curious flicker, but Sandy said, quickly, “Oh, yes,” and recited a description of Colgate she’d read once in a brochure. Doing so, she rediscovered her groove, hamming up the musicality of her delivery, feeling confident, until Margot asked, “What about a boyfriend?”
Sandy’s face sagged. She said, “Not currently.”
“But there’s an ex,” said Margot. “Can we call him a sweetheart? Pretend he is still around? A handsome girl like you will surely have a new squeeze by whenever this airs——God forbid. Right, Joe?”
Behind the camera, Joe shrugged.
Her eyes downcast, Sandy said, “His favorite film was Saw. He moved to Binghamton. Can’t we just forget him?”
“Our audience prefers people in relationships,” said Margot.
Sandy swallowed, tapped her fingertips against her breastbone, and heard herself saying to the camera, “My sweetheart and I enjoy hiking local trails and practicing yoga together.” She even said, “We like winding down with movies in the evening after hard days at the office.”
Miraculously, Sandy’s tongue remained pink and intact.
After Sandy fabricated an imaginary boyfriend, Margot asked, with specious sincerity, “Why journalism?”
Sandy answered, “To be loved.”
Irritation tightened Margot’s jaw. “Okay . . . but, specifically, why TV reporting?”
“To be loved by as many as possible.”
Scanning the ceiling for help, Margot said, “Well, why not venture into prostitution then? Am I right, Joe?”
Margot touched Sandy’s knee. “Dear, we need not such superficial honesty, but the subterraneous stuff. Explain why you chose this profession instead of becoming, say, a zoologist.”
Sandy thought for a moment. Her posture straightened, “I entered the field of journalism with a desire to deliver the truth to the people, to apprise them of events in their community and the world abroad,” she said. “To be a trustworthy voice in confusing and dangerous times.”
“Perfect,” said Margot, purring cat-like. “Was that not perfect, Joe?”
Margot rubbed her hands together. “That’s a wrap. Thank you for sticking around after a long day to record this. I think a cohesive piece can be assembled from that material.”
“Credit goes to a great interviewer,” said Sandy, winking. The women stood and straightened their clothes. Joe began dismantling his equipment and, observing him, Sandy said to Margot, “It’s unsettling to think this is even necessary.”
“Journalists get murdered too, you know,” said Margot, giving Sandy’s shoulder a condescending pat.
“Sad but true,” said Sandy as Joe exited without a goodbye.
“Well,” said Margot, slapping her hip. “You have a terrific night.”
Lingering, Sandy said, “There weren’t too many notes on tonight’s show, I hope.”
Margot stepped into the hall. “Some say any is too many.” She laughed, a stilted barking that made Sandy recoil. Margot stopped. “By the way, if you dare email the news director behind my back again, I’ll have your ass.”
A week later, Candace Landis leaned her head into the open doorway of Sandy and Fred’s office.
“Got a moment?” she asked in her lilting voice, the auditory equivalent of sunshine-kissed Alps.
Sandy snapped to attention and turned to greet her guest. “What are you still doing here? You guys wrapped over an hour ago.”
Clad in a shimmering blouse and customary jewelry of golden hoops, Candace strode elegantly into the office, saying, “Let’s see what you guys have done with my old room.” She scanned the sports posters on Fred’s side and the framed photos of celebrity newswomen on Sandy’s. The narrow, windowless space was lit by Sandy’s bejeweled lamp, brought from home.
Candace rested her backside on the edge of Fred’s desk. “I like your lamp, very colorful” she said.
“You, Candace, are a lamp for me,” said Sandy. “Studying you, I’ve learned so much.”
“Oh?” asked Candace, while she slid open Fred’s desk drawer and casually perused its contents. “Flatter me more.”
Sandy giggled. “I’d be too embarrassed.”
Candace smiled. “Where’s roomie?” she asked.
“Fred? Probably watching a ball game with the camera guys,” said Sandy.
Candace sighed as if she should have guessed and said, “Well, then, I bring news.”
“You are the news,” said Sandy with an unctuous smile.
Candace wrinkled her nose. She said, “I thought it only polite to clue you in before my announcement.”
Sandy cupped her hand over her mouth. “You’ve won another award?” she asked.
“Not quite,” said Candace, faking a scoff. “I have accepted a job at WSTV.”
Sandy gripped her chair as the room became watery. The news came like a punch.
“I’m nearly as surprised as you,” laughed Candace, delighting in the younger woman’s shock. “I could say I’ll miss everyone here, but . . . money’s the thing.” She leaned forward and capped her knees with her hands. “Of course, I expect you’ll replace me on the A-Team. Guess you won’t campaign for a three-chair newscast now, huh?”
Sandy blushed. Candace flicked her wrist. “I look forward to a friendly cross-town competition. And of course, I expect my ratings to crush yours.”
She extended a lazy hand for Sandy to shake.
The gossip that Candace would leave in two weeks flooded the station. Everyone expected Sandy to benefit from Candace’s departure, although the producers confirmed nothing. Sandy found the secret too delicious to contain, however. From the make-up chair at the beauty salon, to her yoga class, to the upscale store where she purchased a new wardrobe, Sandy spilled the beans everywhere. She overspent in preparation for her new gig, because she expected a pay raise to accompany her A-chair assignment.
On Thursday afternoon of the second week, Mike, the news director, and Margot convened an unexpected meeting in the bullpen. Candace stood beside Margot and the assembling staff brought tissue boxes in anticipation of a tearful farewell. Rather than tears, Sandy fought off excited yips. This would be the moment when little Sandy Wotzitski of Plain Rapids was anointed Sandy Champion, first chair anchorwoman. Arriving at the meeting, however, Sandy detected a taut, sour expression on Margot’s face.
Mike raised his hand for quiet. “I regret to inform you that after a decade here, Rod Booster has been let go.”
The whole group gasped. Charlie, the overweight weatherman, swooned and grabbed someone’s arm for balance. One staff writer dabbed her wrist to her forehead. Gathering whispers buzzed the room while everyone reeled from the news.
Margot banged her fist like a gavel on a desktop. “Let this prove our zero tolerance policy,” she said. “Anyone caught with inappropriate material on your computer will receive immediate termination.” Much later, some employees claimed that Rod Booster, that once-respected and tenured newsman, had been soliciting cyber sex from Malaysian minors. What most upset Sandy, however, was the next anvil that Margot dropped: “In light of this devastating incident, Candace agreed to stay on as sole anchor of our six o’clock evening newscast.”
Sandy stood with her back against her office door. Her eyes grew wide as she surveyed the slim space. The vein in her temple beat a furious rhythm through her skull. From a desktop cup Sandy drew pens and one by one began to throw them against the far wall, each pitch harder than the last. Next she kicked her chair. Finally, in a lunge, she yanked a plug from the electrical outlet, hoisted the lamp above her head, and heaved it with both hands against the wall.
The lamp made a terrific smash and shattered. Almost instantly, a knock came. From behind the door, Margot asked, “Are you okay in there?”
Sandy groomed her bangs with her pinkie. “Dropped a lamp,” she said. She pressed her back to the door again.
“May I enter?” Margot asked.
“I’ll need a minute,” said Sandy, remaining still.
Margot hesitated and then said, “Listen, I know you expected Candace’s chair. You’re upset.”
Sandy held the base of her head firmly against the door and closed her eyes.
“Sandy?” asked Margot. Sandy heard the click of Margot’s heels as she walked away.
After that, everyone at the station, except Sandy, genuflected before Queen Candace. Mike and Margot sent her a bushel of brilliant flowers and awarded her a bigger office. Twice, when passing in the halls, Candace tried to engage Sandy, presumably to make peace. The young woman could barely manage a nauseated smile. Candace wasted no efforts on another try.
Three days later, Candace received a brown package via the station’s mail. Inside the box were a doll’s head, a brittle bouquet of dead flowers, and a jaggedly-penned note which read, “Quit or die.”
The staff learned of the package when shrieks exploded from her office.
Despite her trauma, unflappable Candace anchored that evening’s broadcast artfully. From the wings, Sandy envied Candace for having received the death threat. Successful people were targets for violence. Sandy didn’t rate. She wondered if killers even stayed up to watch the eleven o’clock news.
On the next Monday’s afternoon, Sandy was checking email in her office when Margot brought Steve, a field reporter, to her door.
Steve, a baby-face, awash in grotesque brown freckles, had distinguished himself with coverage of a recent trial. Coaxing him into Sandy’s office, Margot said, “Sandy, Steve will co-anchor with you tonight.”
“What?” asked Sandy, ignoring Steve’s outstretched hand. “Where’s Fred?”
Margot raised her arms stiffly. “Who knows? He’s disappeared. So familiarize yourselves and I’m sure you two will survive.”
Margot left and Sandy shoved past Steve to catch up to her. As the women walked the corridor, Sandy said, “I don’t know where Fred is, but he’s my partner, not Steve, and——please, I should work solo rather than bring in someone with whom I have no chemistry.”
They rounded a corner and Margot stopped, crossing her arms. “Is it the freckles?” she asked.
“It’s the freckles, it’s everything,” said Sandy, flapping like a bird. “You’ve seen him. This is my career——”
“Fine,” said Margot. “Steve!” she yelled.
Steve’s blotchy face emerged from around the corner.
“Sorry, bud. She will handle the news alone tonight,” said Margot. And to Sandy she said, “Do not screw this up for me. Remember: Field reporting.”
But Margot had nothing to fear. That night’s broadcast dispelled any doubts about Sandy’s talent. She conducted herself flawlessly, all alone. At wrap, the night staff applauded her. She basked in the anchor chair longer than usual, savoring the moment, the spotlight.
The glow was short-lived.
Shutting off her computer, before going home, Sandy checked her email once more. A message arrived from Margot, but rather than compliments on a successful newscast, the text read: “Sandy. Contacted Colgate. Let’s talk tomorrow.”
Sandy sat before her monitor in silence for a long time. And then she sobbed.
“Bar none, these is the worst month of my professional life!” Margot howled. She bolted across the newsroom and slammed her office door behind her.
It was late in the afternoon and Sandy had just trudged into the office. She stood by the newsroom’s entrance and asked a nearby intern about the commotion.
“Oh my God,” said the girl, chomping gum. “Candace was killed in a hit-and-run. Mike was injured, too. Evidently they were on lover’s lane when it happened.”
Sandy sat in an open chair and set her bag on the floor.
“Who knew Mike and Candace were a thing, right?” the girl continued.
Margot came bursting from her office and blazed a path toward Sandy. She seized Sandy’s shoulders. With crazed eyes, she said, “You’re doing the six o’clock. Get ready.”
Margot marched Sandy by the arm to the prep room. Sandy was unsteady, like a Wotzitski ghost had reclaimed her body. Jostling along, she murmured, “Your email——you wanted to talk to me——?”
“No,” said Margot, shoving her through the green room doors. Her eyes afire, she hissed, “And never shall Colgate be mentioned again.”
The stylist pushed Sandy into a chair and began to powder her face. Meanwhile, a calm voice lofted an inner mantra, “I am Sandy Champion.” And gradually Sandy’s shaking subsided.
When Sandy emerged from the prep room, she wore a neat, powder blue top, and her make-up and hair were competently styled. Margot, pacing the hall, approved. As they hurried toward the studio, Margot handed Sandy the pages that she would be reading from the teleprompter.
“You will start right in with our report on Candace, the copy should come shortly,” said Margot. “And then we’ll roll her Death Reel.”
Sandy slowed, raising her eyes from the papers. A fresh confidence filled her voice. “Can’t we rename that?”
“What do you suggest?” asked Margot.
“AutoBio Reel,” said Sandy.
They passed the open door of an office that could have been a closet. Inside, a plain faced girl was saying to herself, “Amazing aardvarks blow balloon crowns carelessly—”
“Was that Becky?” asked Sandy, still bounding down the hall.
“She’ll chair the 11 o’clock tonight,” said Margot. “Want to say hello?”
“No need,” said Sandy with a wisp of a smile.
Inside the studio, Margot led Sandy to the shadowy perimeter. Joe, the cameraman, huddling behind his equipment, waved a listless greeting that went ignored.
Margot faced Sandy. “This is your time,” she said, as her careful fingers flattened Sandy’s lapel. “Now is your chance to bring the truth to the people, just like you planned.”
“Truth, lies——doesn’t matter, as long as I’m telling it,” said Sandy.
Margot caressed Sandy’s cheek and said, “You will be amazing.” She stepped back to asses Sandy in full and slapped her palms together with a satisfied crack. She asked, “Do you need a moment to call Barry and Shirley Wotzitski about your big debut?”
“Who are they?” asked Sandy, twinkling, and she crossed the studio floor to claim her throne.
Meanwhile, in the station’s parking lot, policeman crowded to inspect the damage on Sandy’s bumper.
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