Pepper’s Gameshow by Victoria K. Gonzales (Lucent Dreaming Issue 10)

“We got it! We’re going!” Mom is at the kitchen window, waving a letter. I’ve only seen her like this this when reciting lines for Pepper’s Gameshow.
Last week she stood giggling in front of the mirror, waving her hand as if to say, “Oh, stop!” She took a breath and recited: “Pepper, I’ve waited my entire life for this moment. Your show has been my reason for living. This is my dream.”
Our house is unusually quiet, so Mom’s excitement scares me. When I walk through the front door, her footsteps come click-clacking from the kitchen. She shrieks, pinning me against the door, holding the paper so close to my eyes that I can’t see what she wants me to see. I’m relieved as my brother, Patrick, pulls her off, then terrified as he takes her place, gripping my shoulders with a big smile.
“We’re going on Pepper’s Gameshow!” he shouts.
Day after day, neighbors shower our doorstep with flowers, candy, and big-eyed plushies with “congratulations,” and “good luck,” ribbons tied across their bellies. Mom poses outside, fluffing shoulder-length curls in a too tight pencil dress. Patrick stands behind her like the father we never had in a sweater vest, slacks, and pipe sticking between his lips.
I sit in the living room on the floor, spooning clumps of casserole into my mouth.
Around the corner, Mom comes in still waving to everyone, “Oh, thank you, thank you.” Patrick does a “ha-ha” kind of laugh. When the door shuts, it’s almost midnight. Mom clacks into the living room, stopping to face me, proud and pretty. Patrick looks at me over her shoulder.
“Our luck is finally changed,” she sighs.
“Is it?” I ask. “Or are we fucked?”
Her smile dissolves. “Sage, you should be thankful.”
“For the crap on our doorstep?”
Mom falls to her knees, crawling towards me. “She chose us. It could have been any family in the state. We’ll finally get what we deserve after all these years.”
I smile. “Unless we lose.”
She stands, kicking her heels at the wall.
“Then we die,” I say.
“I’m surprised at you.” She bends down to snatch the casserole from my hands. “This is our chance for a better life, and you’d rather be selfish than happy for us.”
“But it’s true. We can die.”
She laughs. “Honey, then we die. Personally, I think we’ll win, unlike your lowlife dad.”
“And if we don’t?”
She fluffs her curls once more, then stalks off to the kitchen with my plate.
Patrick shakes his head in the doorway. “Good job.”
“You know I’m right,” I say. “Three wrong answers, and we’re fucked.”
“You could try to be positive.”
“Not this time.”
Mom returns with a bundle of flashcards, announcing, “Practice time!
We do question after question: “Which Olympics did the US boycott?” “When was the printing press first invented?” “What bodily fluid surrounds a fetus?” We flip through flashcards every night after dinner until the day we leave. We’ve known, like the rest of the world, once two families are chosen, they’re collected no later than noon by guards on the first of every month. You can’t disregard the invitation; you’re pried from home and forced to compete on national television, tied at the hands and feet. Usually, resisting families lose.
The night before we go, I lay on the floor in the living room, knowing I won’t sleep in anticipation of the doorbell. I remember the families who smiled and waved on Pepper’s Gameshow, while others trembled on live television, answering random trivia questions in random categories. I remember all the 50’s costumes Pepper has worn over the years. The constant twinkle in her eye and crooked smile, her painful high-pitched cackle whenever a family loses. She was no savior.
Our world is one of little money, promising food and resources to the people capable of surviving. The better people. While the population is cut, killing the incapable. On top sits every states’ masochistic gameshow with an elected host. Politics — how wonderful they are.
In no time the ceiling brightens from the sun rising behind the living room window and the doorbell chimes. I’m frozen while Mom click-clacks to answer the door almost immediately.
“Come on, kids!” she yells. “We gotta go!”
I recognize the guards from Pepper’s show. They are big and bald, wearing pink suits with “Pepper” embroidered across their backs. They wait for us by the door, filling the hallway with their largeness, and they never say a word. Mom is tickled pink, racing back and forth between Patrick and me, excited for what’s to come. She’s had her bags packed and ready to go before they arrived.
“Are you ready?” she asks. “Let’s go!”
I have one small suitcase. Patrick has two. Mom has four. As we drive to the studio outside of town, Mom tells Pepper’s guards “I raised my kids. I never saw their scumbag dad until he was on Pepper’s show with his new family and lost. I smiled so big I didn’t think I’d ever stop. Now, look at us!” She sits between us in the backseat of the pink and white ’55 Dodge, applying lipstick in her compact mirror.
Her laughter turns into the loud buzzer that bleeds through the television when a family loses. I imagine Pepper’s game-showy voice, “Soorry! Looks like the furnace for you!” The winning family would jump, clap, while other families stuck out their tongues at the losers. Some tried to run, but they’ve always been stopped by the guards — these guards — forced into the furnace, while the audience boos, laughs, and screams, “Burn them!”
Once, Mom saw me shut my eyes when the losing family was burnt alive.
She slapped my cheek. “Watch, Sage! This is for our country, and we’re good Americans.”
“It’s scary,” I whined.
“People die every day. The population is too high, understand? There aren’t enough resources. This is the best way. Survival of the fittest!” Mom stood, striking a pose like she were wielding a sword. The winning family was dubbed the better people, and awarded a new house, new car, great jobs with better pay with a guarantee to never compete again.

Mom wraps an arm around Patrick and kisses his cheek. She reaches for my face after, but I press against the window, staring hard at passing trees and my reflection; plain-faced, pale lipped, tired. We’ve taken so many twists and turns, I don’t remember how to get home.
When the car slows, we approach a pink security gate. The bald guard who drives, let’s his beefy arm out the window to enter a code. The gate lifts, and we go forward towards Pepper’s studio. No surprise, it is big and pink like a Pepto-Bismol headquarters. We’re escorted to a pink room with pink chairs, a pink sofa, pink door, and what would the room be without pink walls. We shuffle in as the door is shut and locked behind us.
Mom spins and spins, flailing her arms out like a child. She stands apart from the pink room in her orange skirt and blouse, but so does my brother in his beige suit, and me in a black dress.
“We’re here!” she cheers. “We’re really here!”
“Great,” I say.
Patrick nudges me. “Pretend you’re happy?”
Mom pulls Patrick to dance around the room. I collapse on the pink sofa, watching them spin and laugh. They’ve been this way forever. Patrick is eight years older. He’s always wanted Mom to be happy ever since Dad left.
He had explained to me, “Dad was sleeping with his secretary. Mom found out, forgave him, but then caught them at home in their bed.”
Patrick had walked home from school to hear dishes shattering, walls being punched in, and screaming. Dad ran out, and Mom took off after him, shouting, “I’m gonna kill you!” The secretary ran out in the front yard, naked. She and Dad jumped in his car, speeding away from the house. Mom chased after them even after she threw her heels at his bumper. She ran until her feet bled. From that moment on, we watched Pepper’s Gameshow religiously. She prayed to the TV for revenge, and God must’ve heard because Dad ended up on Pepper’s Gameshow with that secretary and her kids a few years later. I remembered the way Mom had held me in her lap, pointing at the screen with a painted nail. “We want them to lose.”
“They will,” Patrick promised.
I didn’t understand the show, or the mustached man Mom and Patrick cursed at, but I clapped along, chanting, “Burn them!”
The families went back-to-back, answering questions. They both had two red X’s over their last names, which were lit in bright lights. Pepper stood pretty, pink, and regal.
She cleared her throat before speaking into the vintage microphone, “Androphobia is the fear of what?”
The family we wanted to lose were nervous, whispering amongst themselves before the mustached man answered, “Pepper…we believe Androphobia is the fear of women?” The buzzer was so loud I covered my ears, and just like that the family we hoped would lose lost.
Pepper said, “Soorry looks like the furnace for you! Thank you for your contribution. May God bless you,” and they were sentenced to death.
The mustached man screamed, begged Pepper, “Wait! There’s gotta be another way. America, wake up! This is wrong!” He was on his knees, his family behind him, holding each other, crying, while Mom was hysterical, dancing around the room with Patrick, who was just as happy.
I joined, leaping, waving my small hands, “Yay! Yay! Yay!”
Mom hoisted me in her arms, promising, “One day, we’re gonna be there, and we’re gonna win, my little Sage.”
Here we are. The pink table holds an assortment of macaroons and tea. A pitiful last meal. The door opens. I expect the guards, but instead, there she is in all her glory, wearing a pink glittery pantsuit, and large bow around her tiny waist. Her face is paler in real life, powdered to a pulp, and her lips and eyes are painted neon pink. Her blonde hair hangs in a ponytail. She enters with grace, while Mom explodes with shrieks.
I stay on the sofa. Patrick goes to Mom’s side, looping an arm around her. She’s like a feral cat, wanting to leap on Pepper, who smiles, pleased by her reaction.
“Ms. Harris and her beautiful family.” Pepper extends a pink gloved hand like a pretty hook which Mom takes, pulling from Patrick’s grip.
She shakes and shakes Pepper’s hand with a look so obsessive, she might pull off Pepper’s arm and run away with it.
“Charmed,” Pepper says.
She is a small woman. Without her guards, if I want, I can pummel her. I can stop her from killing anyone. Maybe the world can change, but I smile because it’s impossible.
“Pepper, I’ve waited my whole life for this moment.” Mom melts to the floor, hugging her ankles. “This my dream.”
Pepper lifts Mom back to her feet. “Thank you, Ms. Harris—”
“Connie, you’re sweet. I wanted to make sure everyone is nice and comfortable.”
“No place I’d rather be.”
“And the children?”
Patrick nods. “Very well, ma’am. Thank you.”
I nod. “Fine.”
“If you need anything, scream.” She waves before leaving.
Mom spins, jumping from side to side. “We met her! Can you believe it?”
Patrick spins and jumps along with her like before. I wonder if we’ll ever see home again. We wait hours. I fall asleep. When I wake up, Patrick and Mom are sitting on foldable pink chairs, surrounded by twin makeup artists speaking a strange language. They wear corsets and have pink hair down to their knees. They probably talk about what a shame it is to work on someone for hours when they might die, though at least families look presentable for a potential funeral. They’ve put eyeshadow, like Pepper’s, on Mom and painted two different kinds of pink on her lips. Patrick’s stubble is covered with concealer, and his brown eyes pop with eyeliner.
“Don’t forget my Sage,” Mom says.
The artists turn, scowling.
I shrug, “I don’t care if they do.”
The artists don’t answer. One snaps at Patrick, pointing for him to leave, while I am pointed at the chair . The twin hits my face with a brush for thirty minutes as the other artist curls Mom’s hair. They speak quick, then fall silent as they doll us up. The twin working on me grabs a pair of scissors from thin air. I open my mouth to object, but she cuts quick and doesn’t stop until my hair is gone.
“Look at you!” Mom jumps from the folding chair.
The other twin packs, and I’m pointed to get off the chair. When I move, she packs with her twin, and Mom twirls again.
“How do I look? Am I as pretty as Pepper?”
“You look better,” Patrick says.
Before the twins leave, they drape clothes over the pink sofa: two pink dresses and a pink suit. I notice the shackles around their pale ankles as they leave the room. Mom and I dress on one side of the room, Patrick on the other.
She turns to face the wall, back towards me. “Zip me up, sweetheart.”
As I zip, I tell her, “Mom, we can still get out.”
She turns back around, concerned. “Why would you want to leave?”
“Mom, this isn’t good.”
“Honey, you love Pepper.”
“You love Pepper.”
“It doesn’t matter. We’re here now.”
“We could die.”
“I’m not talking about this again.”
Patrick approaches, posing. I look away, Mom takes his face in her hands.
“So handsome,” she shrieks.
“Please,” I have tears in my eyes.
He pulls me to the sofa, shoving a macaroon in his mouth. “Don’t upset her before we have to go out there.”
“You know this isn’t good. One random question we don’t know and that’s it. We’re labeled the weakest link and done.”
He leans towards me, “You don’t think I know that? We can’t leave, Sage. If they heard you, we’d already be tied up. Is that what you want?” He grabs another macaroon. “Isn’t Mom happy?”
“Yes, but —”
“That’s all that matters.”
“There’s got to be another way.”
“There isn’t.”
The guards barge in. They escort us onto the set, which is lit so brightly I have to squint until my eyes adjust. There must be 300 people in the audience, smoking, eating popcorn. When we walk behind a long counter where our name is lit above us, they cheer, “Harris! Harris!”
I don’t look at them. Mom waves. Patrick rests a hand on her shoulder. Three canon-looking cameras point at us. The cameraman manning them gives a thumbs up. Mom grabs me around the waist, and plants a kiss on my cheek — no window to push myself up against this time.
The crowd cheers, “Carter! Carter!” as the other family piles behind the counter across the way. They have a mom, sister, and brother like us, but they also have a dad, hopping up and down with the mom. Unlike me, the Carter sister looks happy to be here, waving like her Carter brother.
Finally, Pepper steps center-stage, carrying her cordless chrome microphone. She lifts an arm over her head and freezes with a haunting smile, fire in her topaz eyes. The all-too familiar joyful tone of Pepper’s Gameshow blasts through overhead speakers. The crowd goes crazy, including Mom, Patrick, and the Carter family. I am frozen, searching for a way out, but the confines of the set are flat and doorless.
“Welcome to Pepper’s Gameshow! I’m—yup, you guessed it here, folks, Pepper! Today we have two new families, competing for the grand prize. Let’s give a loud welcome fooor the Carter family!” Pepper points with her microphone. The crowd claps, whoops, whistles, as the Carter family blows kisses and does a mini wave.
The microphone is pointed at us. “Give it up for the Harris family!” Again, the crowd goes wild. Mom jumps up and down in her poofy dress. Patrick is composed but waves, and I am still frozen.
Pepper clears her throat. The game-show theme shifts into a somber tune, “Let’s not forget why we’re here, ladies and gentlemen. We need to save our planet. For our future. For our children. Let’s remember these fine people standing here, willing to bring the world balance, to restore our country. We love our country, don’t we?” She pauses, allowing the crowd to cheer.
“This is the only way to ensure our future. A grand movement to rebuild our nation and the American dream. The ultimate sacrifice made by fellow Americans. All classes, all races, men, and women. We strive for the best together. I love this country. I love these families standing here, and all of you viewers in the audience and at home. And to my fellow hosts and families participating around the world – I love you. Now, let’s play! Today’s first category iiisssss…The Human Body!”
I can’t hear a thing over the cheering. One of the canon cameras points at us and I stare at it, wondering if there’s a little girl sitting at home, watching, wondering what’s happening, or who I am, while her mom screams at the television. I forget how to breathe as Pepper click-clacks towards me in her heels with the trivia cards in hand. My legs shake, I am lightheaded and scared, but I can’t quit. I can’t give up. I lean on the counter, knowing that the only way out — the only way to live — is to win.

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