Monday, May 16, 2011

FICTION: The Kallyrigs by Aveline Benson

Kilroy was the last of the Kenneways, the sole heir to the Kenneway appliance empire. It hadn’t been an easy life, of course. From birth the Kenneway company’s Wiz privately tutored him in the ways of CEO-dom. But before he could take his first step in those shoes, the company was bought out by a rising star from China. Kilroy hadn’t been disappointed. Ruling a multi-billion dollar appliance empire sounded hard. But being sole heir to a multi-billion dollar appliance empire was easy enough.

In some ways it was the same. These days the Wiz didn’t tutor, but it was still a life dependent on it. Kilroy awoke every morning in a large, lush bed—but before that, he had breakfast in bed, cooked by appliances that were Kenneway in every way but name. Then he would take a few minutes to maneuver to a sitting position, then a standing position, and lumber to the window. He always hoped something would happen if he looked out. Movies always had something significant happen at this point in time, Kilroy thought. Then he remembered that there were no good movies anymore. He would look anyway, ignoring his reflection: an unhealthy sentimental forty-year-old man alone in an empty mansion.

This particular morning, as Kilroy peered through the glass down to the street three stories below, he spotted a jogger. They were rare these days. Kilroy allowed himself to watch her ponytail swing side to side until she at last turned a corner and the horde of cars on the street hid her away.

For almost a moment Kilroy stood there, and he felt something that the Wiz had never acknowledged, but the moment passed. He shook his head to clear it of the unexpected focus. He’d had his breakfast and his morning look out the window. He moved to the living room and landed in his overstuffed armchair in front of the wraparound screen and grabbed the remote. It was Wiz time.

The Wiz was a Kenneway invention. A chimera of entertainment systems, game platforms, television, and the internet, Kilroy’s forefathers hadn’t realized its potential until it had been bought out and redesigned beyond recognition. Under the rule of the new owners, the Wiz had become a global addiction. It had everything that could possibly stimulate a person’s mind without him leaving his seat. And it was free, too. The only catch was that every 15 minutes or so, an ad would flash by on the screen. Sometimes it was a split-second long in the form of subliminal messaging; sometimes it was a full-length 30-second blurb that irritated people in the midst of a movie.

“Buy, buy, buy. Buy this and that,” Kilroy grumbled after he saw what was on the Wiz. The screen was currently showing a 15-second badly-done advertisement for hand soap that involved dancing parakeets. “I wouldn’t buy that. Well, maybe if I liked parakeets.” Kilroy smiled a little, the corners of his mouth lifting up with effort, knowing that he hadn’t fallen for the ad and ordered it then and there with a click of the remote.

Not that he had been exempt from consumerism: he’d be the first to die in hell from gluttony. But he liked to think he was different, ahead of the masses. The Wiz tended to massage these notions by creating ads that made a mockery of themselves. Which in turn hid the subliminal message that in the end had him buying it later.

Bored, as always, Kilroy flipped to a movie that he’d seen ads for the past few days. It was an action flick involving aliens and the ancient Egyptians, but with one too few car chases to hold his attention. Even the ad that cut in at this moment was more interesting.

“Buy Mimsy Minkoddle’s kallyrigs! 10 cents a dozen!” the ad screamed in white block letters against a flashing neon green background. It cut to a quick succession of ten or twelve images, each different, each almost too fast to catch. Kilroy found himself trying to name them all but failed. There might have been a camel in a desert landscape, the Great Wall of China, and perhaps the back of a woman’s head.

It was frustrating, though it all couldn’t have lasted more than five seconds. Kilroy was used to dumb ads, especially short ones, especially ones that involved subliminal messaging. But the movie was forgettable enough and the ad out-of-the-ordinary enough that he spent the rest of the car chase scene wondering what a kallyrig was, and why they were sold in dozens.

The next day was a Saturday and Kilroy arose to continue the cycle of getting out of bed, going to the window, and then sitting in front of the Wiz until it told him good night. This morning at the window, he saw the jogger again, ponytail bouncing, cars buzzing in front of her so that she faded in and out of sight. Something made him zero in on her hair and the ad from yesterday bubbled to the surface of his mind, even though it felt like it had been so long ago. The kolly-rags: no, the kallyrigs. The ad’s subliminal messaging was really something, making him remember it after hours and hours. Kilroy was almost impressed. He’d have to place an order when the ad repeated itself, as they were bound to…but by the end of another day of the Wiz without a repetition and a string of in-game achievements in Angry Pigs, he’d forgotten about it altogether.

It was three months before kallyrigs once again invaded his vision, this time in the middle of a terrible 3-D animated movie about goats in space. The neon green of the ad was almost like a slap in the face after the talking goats he’d just experienced in that movie. A welcome slap. He was glad for the interruption, and he remembered suddenly he’d wanted to buy a dozen, just to find out what they were. Why not? They were only ten cents. He might buy a dozen dozen. Kilroy’s thumb was out and ready to press the “Buy Now” button on his remote, but by the time he did the ad had disappeared off the screen, and was replaced by a notice saying “Advertisement Not Found! Sorry, Try Again!”

He guessed this meant he hadn’t pressed quick enough. Maybe it was a game. Some advertisers liked to do this kind of thing so that the customer would feel a greater sense of need when denied the purchase the first few times.

The next time the kallyrigs ad appeared, it had only been two weeks, and it came right in the middle of a game of Risk, in which he was actually winning against the computer for once. But he didn’t mind. With his Wiz reflexes, he was sure he could catch it. He pressed. And once again, the message. He sighed and resigned himself to Risk. He lost.

The next time was a week later. He nearly jumped in his chair when he saw it. He pressed. And the message told him, Try Again!

And try he did. With increasing frequency, until they were coming more than a dozen times a day. The Mimsy Minkoddle’s kallyrigs taunted him, each time with different images flashing at the end. He hadn’t noticed what flashed by after the first ad, but as he grew used to failure, he began to really see the images that appeared before him. There was a close-up of a lawn, the individual blades of grass sharp and green. There was a car on a lonely forest road. A basket woven out of some sort of plant material. Fresh-baked biscuits inside a sunny yellow kitchen. An octopus hiding in an underwater cave. A view from an airplane, peeking through a layer of clouds. A little boy smashing toy trucks together. Tinsel falling from a Christmas tree. A skeleton of some long-dead animal. A guitar broken in half. Small smooth rocks gleaming amber and brown. A boat lined with tires rocking on a windy sea. A man’s full-lipped face. A scarf with a glittering diamond pattern.

Advertisement Not Found. Sorry, Try Again!

They had to be clues of some sort. But nothing made any sense. And he was beginning to think the kallyrigs were some sort of joke, because he must have caught the advertisement dozens of times now, and still no success. Every new failure fatigued him and he went to bed earlier and woke up earlier as a result. Instead of requesting special meals he’d seen on the Wiz, he let the stove make what it would. He was no longer able to enjoy the Wiz mindlessly as he had for decades – he noted his lack of interest in the new 3-D movies and the war games that came out every other month – and it was uncomfortable. As annoying as kallyrig ads were, they always brought with them new and interesting things, and he found himself beginning to anticipate them, a feeling that grew stronger than the frustration at his inability to buy something as straightforward as a dozen kallyrigs. The ads and the morning look out the window became the moments he looked forward to most even as he laughed at their utter simplicity, something the Wiz did not comprehend.

It was when Kilroy was lying sideways across his armchair, eyes closed, sick from too much Wiz in the past month, that he heard for the twenty-second time that day the familiar music that always accompanied the kallyrigs. He didn’t so much as twitch. He opened his eyes in time to watch the final images, but this time they didn’t disappear. They stayed on the screen for a few seconds, and Kilroy obediently identified them: an antique compass followed a dusty road. Kilroy made no reaction to this, but when the next image came up and froze there, he started to become uneasy. It was a picture of the jogger. It was taken from the back, as if the photographer had followed her as she ran, and he recognized her dark wavy ponytail. He stared at her, waiting for the screen to change, but it didn’t.

He stared at it until the picture seemed to show her running, turning the corner onto a street he couldn’t picture in his mind, but now he saw it contained signs for libraries and cafes. There were a few people about, smiling from the sun and their surroundings, and waving to the jogger. He seemed to see their faces as she went by. They were new faces, real faces, and then there was her face: she winked one eye, then the other. Kilroy blinked. The screen was back to the movie had been watching, and it was getting into a fight scene. Muffled yelps and a scuffle issued from the sound system. He watched for a while, but he wasn’t really watching. He flipped through his currently subscribed 300 channels and 259 games, and surfed his favorite sites for something new. But nothing held his attention. The kallyrig ad popped up again and he pressed the “Buy Now” button out of habit. “Sorry, Try Again!” the speakers boomed, and Kilroy physically shuddered.

The sensation was momentous.

It all made sense now. The kallyrigs. They were out there, and they were real, weren’t they?

Kilroy heaved himself up out of the chair. He easily crossed the short distance to the wide glossy screen. He reached out a pudgy finger. He turned it off.

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