Johnny Helms was one of the cool guys. He was going places. High school was his little kingdom. Cynthia rocked his life … she was drop-dead gorgeous and she carried a torch for him. Johnny was a star on the football team, just not a big enough star to get a scholarship to the state university. He settled for community college. He got a two-year degree in liberal arts. He did all right, but nothing was the same after high school. Cynthia left him – he heard she got a degree in psychology and was working on her PhD. At twenty-five Johnny’s world turned fuzzy and gray like the mold on rotten food. He lost his job at the video store. All the stores were closing. He hated unemployment. He started drinking more … when his frustrations became too much to handle he’d pay a prostitute to slap him around and call him names. He usually hated himself when he woke in the morning knowing that the night before he went a little crazy. He blamed the new administration – he wasn’t much for politics but he was convinced the so-called president was anti-American and probably a Muslim. He got hooked on right-wing talk radio. For a short time, he joined a “white power” website – learning the lingo – loving the music – and spewing the obligatory hate speech. He imagined himself committing acts of terror. In the end, it didn’t solve anything – words and dreams of revenge only made his life worse. He felt there was a hole inside that he couldn’t fill. He thought about joining the army, but was afraid he wouldn’t measure up. He started jerking off. He created bizarre sex scenes in his head while he beat himself raw, but it wasn’t enough – he still felt empty and helpless. One night while wallowing in the swamp of misery, Johnny hit a button on the remote control and turned on the TV. He was fascinated by the swirling high-definition colors. His brain was sucked from his skull and pulled into the phosphorescent screen. It was glorious – like breaching the gates of heaven. He no longer had to think. His troubles were meaningless compared to the high-drama he witnessed on the magic screen. His imaginary crimes were flimsy charades compared to the mindless violence, murders, and conspiracies he witnessed on TV. His frustrations dissolved as he became entranced by the games, sitcoms, and multiplicity of other shows that were telecast. At first the ads intruded and made him feel even more inadequate because he couldn’t afford to purchase anything advertised on television, but after awhile the ads became soothing reminders of how ineffectual he’d always been – so he no longer had to try – he could just lay back and absorb the images that were cabled into his brain. When he couldn’t sleep, TV was always available to put him into a trance. At first he thought it odd that TV never excited him before. He used to watch infrequently, mostly sports. He loved the NFL playoffs, but he used to be different — more of a participant and not just an observer. He had friends who enjoyed the games with him – it was a way to bond with one another. Everyone he used to know moved away and he refused to make friends with the losers he worked with at the video store. He was better off now that TV was more important than what his life used to be – now, he no longer had to participate – he could just lay back and absorb the images and stories. He didn’t have to do anything.
Johnny’s most strenuous activity was changing the channel by hitting a button on the remote. He lost weight because he forgot to eat, being too fully absorbed in a program. He realized he actually loved some shows more than others. He followed his favorite programs like a junky and when the season ended he went into a state of withdrawal until he could find some other show to absorb his mind (there was always something else to watch). It was an up and down mode of survival, but it was better than living without TV and having to face the constant frustration of daily life. Crime dramas always triggered a sense of excitement especially when blood was graphically spilled – he loved the lush swirl of red that erupted across the screen when someone was shot. Any show with a serial killer and an autopsy was TV worth watching. Johnny loved seeing open wounds and dismembered limbs, but oddly enough his favorite show had no violence and no blood. The show always looked the same like the view from a closed circuit camera. There was no action depicted and just minimal movement. The show was always on, day and night, on the same channel where no channel was supposed to exist – it opened with a view of a concrete sky hovering over a red desert with a wall of buildings on the horizon. A pile of junk stood in the middle distance, a hovel constructed from tin, broken windows and mud walls. A tiny girl sat in the foreground staring at the camera. The scene was always the same. The girl said things to Johnny as if she knew him. She told him he was a brave hero. “You’ve always been right,” she said, “no one could see the real you.” The story seemed to grow deeper and more meaningful every time he watched the show. Sometimes he didn’t even change the channel and the show simply appeared with the same forlorn girl praising Johnny. Her name was Amyranth and she was like a flower blooming in a wasteland. Johnny felt reassured whenever she appeared. The change came almost imperceptibly. She gradually transformed from a flower to a warped hobbit and her story also changed. She told Johnny she was being held captive, a slave to some very nasty people. She was used like a beast of burden. She was used in other ways the girl was too shy to talk about. Johnny was fascinated, drawn into the rising horror. When he was able to sleep he dreamed about the place where she lived, a place known as the Red City. He could hear voices rumbling in his head like static between the stars. At some point, Amyranth asked for help – at first it was just the hint of a suggestion; but her pleas became more insistent. Her pleas became wails fortified with lurid stories of the sadistic treatment forced upon her. Johnny couldn’t tear himself away from watching the girl. He began to feel guilty over his inability to help. “Just say you will,” she pleaded, “say you will help and it will happen.” He was filled with indecision and confusion. He couldn’t commit — he finally realized his inability to commit had always been his problem so, at last, he said, “yes.” The girl changed. She became a crumpled stump, a distorted dwarf. She looked out at Johnny and smiled a hideous grimace. He heard a high-pitched shriek and the screen went black.
When Johnny awoke, he was not himself. He could actually see himself on the other side of the screen. He looked around and saw a red desert beneath a concrete sky. The girl made the switch. Now, Johnny was stuck in the body of a monster named Amyranth.