12:30pm, 14th October (1 day later). Everything
The walls of the studio green room stood plastered with posters of Sally Sainsbury, her sparkling green eyes glittering above a faultless, iridescent smile that blistered out of her artificially tanned face. Sally might just as well have had the word “fake” tattooed on her forehead, but there she was, the undeniable megastar and queen of day time television; the goddess adored by hundreds of millions of stimulus poor humans around the world.
Max decided to simply look at the ground. After all, he was just about to go out on stage and meet the woman in front of a live studio audience and countless viewers. He didn’t feel a need to overdose on her visage before experiencing her for real up close. Max was tempted to scratch his nose, but resisted. The make-up on his face had begun to dry and constrict making it feel like he had just emerged from one of Kris’ mud-saturated obstacle courses. It was fair to say, he was not enjoying himself. Not one little bit.
Elsa had convinced him that the best way to keep up his public relations profile and maintain the wild momentum of Team Max, was for him to do the occasional television interview. So, here he was dressed in apparently the most aptly styled blue jeans and fitted, white, short sleeve shirt and of course his trademark orange shoes, waiting to be summoned out into the limelight and exhibited like a prize trophy. At least it genuinely was for a good cause
The door opened.
‘Hi, Max!’ sounded a mousey little voice.
Max turned looked up. There in the door stood a tiny, doll-like figure, doing her best to be a miniature, Sally Sainsbury, right down to the glitter infused make-up and unnatural tan. A microphone headset and wired ear plugs graced her features, clearly indicating her to be some sort of stage assistant.
‘Sally’s waiting,’ she said, all chirpy like.
Max nodded and without a word, followed the miniature Sally out the door and down a corridor towards a pair of large, non-descript double doors. There the assistant stopped, holding a hand up like some sort of army platoon leader, instructing Max to come to a halt behind her. Cocking her head, she listened to instructions in her headset. Max took the pause as an opportunity to again go over the questions he had been briefed on earlier, that Sally would be asking. He had winced then and he winced again now. This was not going to be a pleasant experience and in all honesty, he was struggling deeply with how this affair was going to support his public relations. Getting interviewed on international television by an animated, beauty pageant doll with an IQ of single figures was in no way going to help him.
Then the assistant’s hand came down and she stepped to the side.
‘You’re on,’ she said with infinite glee and a dazzling smile worthy of any toothpaste advertisement.
Again Max nodded. The double doors swung automatically open and instantly he was assaulted by a cacophony of crowd delirium and the Team Max anthem blasting out. Holding his discomfort in place, Max walked out and the assault intensified. Lights flared overhead. Cameras rolled all around him. Looking at the crowd, they were all on their feet, clapping overhead and stamping their feet in time to the anthem. It was a madhouse and for a moment, he had to pause to take it all in.
Letting his senses settle, Max absorbed the chaos and resumed his walk to the stage. Turning, he stepped up and came face to face with the undisputed champion of day time television.
Sally Sainsbury stood in front of him like a wax figure sculpted from perfect inorganic materials. She was faultless, if you liked heavily bronzed, intricately manicured and fulsomely figured blondes that is. Barbie was a poor representation of the perfect woman against this creature. Love or hate Sally Sainsbury, up close she was a sight to see and now that Max had seen her, all he wanted to do was turn and leave, quickly.
Remembering his offstage coaching from the support staff, Max accepted Sally’s proffered hand, but deliberately held off on kissing it. Instead he shook it briefly and then turned away to make sure his seat was behind him. Sally stood for a split second watching Max turn away, displaying her slight irritation at not getting the greeting she so clearly desired, but then shrugged and settled into her ludicrously oversized, leather chair, shuffling her notes. Max followed suit and lowered himself down into his own jumping castle sized chair, looking as comfortable as a man sitting in an electric chair. The crowd slowly settled as the anthem trailed off, having a couple of false starts at silence before eventually the chants of Max and Sally trailed off. The quiet that followed was as loaded as a gun and so Max waited for whatever came next and then the Sally Sainsbury onslaught began.
It started with the most remarkable, unblemished and blinding smile Max could ever have imagined. Sally’s glittering make-up set her features flashing beneath the stage lights and then she opened her mouth to speak. Before a single syllable passed her full, glossy lips, the crowd erupted again. The Max and Sally chants immediately reached fever pitch and Max noticed a dozen burly men appear from nowhere to stand along the front edge of the stage. A protection detail. Max wondered if they carried Peter’s skill sets and immediately doubted it, but at least now he had a little bit of comedy to put himself at ease. The crowd again simmered down and this time Sally actually managed to speak.
‘Maximilian Augustus Dyson,’ Sally started off, her voice crisp, clear and every shred of every word so sharply enunciated it was impossible to not listen to her voice. ‘You are without a doubt the most famous person to ever grace my stage.’
The crowd made a solid attempt to reclaim the airspace, but Sally waved them down.
‘Please, everyone? Please? I know it’s exciting,’ she said, gaining control again. ‘Gee, even I’m excited and I’ve interviewed the President, but as they say here in TV Land, the show must go on. So, let’s show a little Sally Sainsbury hospitality and hold the applause for just a little bit.’
The crowd obliged. Max waited his turn, wondering what on Earth Sally Sainsbury hospitality was.
‘Now, Max,’ Sally said, ‘as I said, you are the most famous person to ever grace my stage and I have to say, I hope that we can have an encore performance in January to not only celebrate the New year, but the saving of the world?’
It took Max a few seconds to realise it was his cue to speak. ‘Ah, yeah. That would be nice.’
‘Yes, it would because at the moment my January calendar is wide open, for obvious reasons.’
Max just nodded, dumbly.
‘So, you are something of a recluse, Max and I can understand that. Saving the world is not a vocation that would weigh easily on anyone’s mind. In fact it has to be the biggest responsibility anyone in the world has ever had to bear. How does it sit with you, knowing the entire world is looking to you to save their lives and the lives of their children?’
Max paused. He had been briefed before the show about the questions Sally was going to ask, so he had time to prepare answers, but here, now on the stage and in front of millions, his doubts about the purpose of this so called public relations exercise returned.
‘Um, it’s...it’s not really...’ and he trailed off, not comfortable with the answer he had crafted earlier.
‘Max, you can tell us the truth. It’s all we want,’ Sally said, her famous “mothering” face and tone appearing in full bloom. Despite its obvious falsity, Max chose to take the advice literally and simply tell her the truth. Suddenly, he was at ease.
‘I don’t wear the weight of the world on my shoulders,’ he said. ‘I don’t know how to because it has no meaning to me.’
‘I don’t understand, Max,’ Sally replied. ’When you walk down the street, all eyes turn to you, not because you cut a striking figure, but because you are the world’s saviour. We all need you to win.’
Max paused before he replied. ‘Sally, the truth is I don’t know everyone in the world and I never will. I know everyone is putting their faith in me, I get that. How can I not, but that’s too much for me. It’s not tangible. It’s outside my reasoning.’
‘So then let me ask the question a different way,’ Sally said. ’If you’re not saving the world for all of us, then why are you doing it? To save yourself?’
‘No,’ Max said abruptly, leaving a loud pause afterwards to hammer home his feeling. ‘I’m not afraid of dying.’
‘Then why are you doing it?’
‘For those that I care about.’
‘And who are they? Your wife and children?’
‘Yes, first and foremost, but they’re not the only ones?’
‘That doesn’t matter, but they know who they are because I’ve told them. What I will say though is that I only know them because of this whole...affair,’ Max said, waving his arm. ‘It’s crazy, but before I got singled out to go into the arena, I had only my family and to be honest, they were all I needed to be happy, but now with the fate of the world in the balance, I’ve had some of the finest people anyone could ever know come into my life and for that I consider myself blessed, so when I say I’m doing this for those that I care about, they’re on that list too and like I said, they know who they are.’
‘Thank you for sharing, Max,’ Sally said, with a tone Max could almost believe was genuine, ‘but don’t forget about us too okay?’
Max nodded while the crowd let a few stray cheers and whistles out.
‘What about your chances in the arena?’ Sally asked. ‘We’ve all seen you train and I have to tell you, Max, when you put on those orange sneakers, I get as giddy as any school girl watching you hurl yourself around. No one can deny your physical prowess. I particularly enjoyed watching you smash through that ice block challenge yesterday and you were so, so close to the one hundred metre world record. It has to be said that everything you do seems superhuman, but is it enough? Do you really think you can defeat all the alien opponents that will be placed in front of you in the arena? Do you really think you can win?’
Max glanced out at the audience hidden behind the lights and the cameras and then down at the stage. Then he answered.
‘I know you’d all like to hear me say something like, “hell yes, I’m going to kick those aliens right back into outer space” or “those aliens better have a God to pray to because they’re going to need all the help they can get against me”, but I’m not. I won’t say that because I can’t.’
‘Why can’t you? You don’t think you can win?’
’I don’t know, Sally. It’s as simple as that. I have no clue who or what is going to drop out of the sky to try and tear me apart on New Year’s Eve. I don’t even know if they’re going to play by the rules. Instead of one alien per bout, they might drop two or three or ten and they might all have six arms or maybe they’ll all be clones of me and that’s not a good thought. I know for sure I wouldn’t want to fight me, let alone two or more of me, so do I think I’ll win? I don’t know. I really don’t, but before anyone thinks I’m giving up, forget that. I’ve never backed away from anything in my life and when someone, some alien threatens the ones I love, they better believe they’ve got the fight of their lives in front of them. If I lose, it won’t be because I didn’t use every shred, every ounce, every fibre of my being to beat them. I will absolutely not let my life leave my body without giving up all that I have to win, but if I die, so be it. I’m not afraid of dying. If I have to die to save those that I love, it’s game on. I know my wife is at home right now struggling to hear me say this, but she knows it as much as I do. I will lay everything down. Everything, even if it means running headlong into Death. That’s what I’ll do. That’s what I’ll do.’
Silence engulfed the entire studio. Sally sat as still as a doll in a toy chair. The stage hands all stood motionless and the audience was paralysed. Even the air hung heavy with shock, but then a lone voice shouted out from behind the stage lights.
‘Team Max! Team Max!’
And then another shout followed and quickly the silence was smashed out of the studio by the audience regaining its composure. Max had stunned them for a moment, but now they were back. Sally however, was visibly moved. She gingerly placed her fingers over her mouth and looked about her, startled, like coming out of a deep daydream. A glisten in her eyes even betrayed brimming tears. The queen of daytime television had been brought undone.
Then quickly shuffling in her chair, Sally clenched her hands and wiggled her head to reclaim her self confidence. Looking down at her notes, she cleared her throat and looked back up as the audience again settled down.
‘So, Max,’ she said a little thickly, ‘you mentioned God. Do you follow a faith? Does Maximilian Augustus Dyson believe in The Almighty?’
‘No,’ Max replied simply.
‘No? Not ever?’
‘No, not ever. I’ve never followed a religion and I don’t feel any inkling to begin believing now.’
‘Why is that?’
‘Let’s get one thing straight. I have the utmost respect for anyone’s faith and will never question anyone’s beliefs of any sort. In fact, I admire the religious and theological beliefs that people hold dear and the strength of many people’s beliefs, but it’s just not for me. I don’t even really think about it. What I do believe in is myself and those that I care about. My faith in myself is unshakeable. I have never doubted myself and I’m in no mood to start now. As for the people I love, they’re real. I see them every day and they give me all the support I need and more and for that I will be forever grateful. They believe in me and I believe in them. Let me also say that while I’ll be the one in the arena beating off the bad guys, if I win, these people are just as responsible for saving the world as I am, if not more so. I can fight. You better believe that, but I can’t get this done on my own. This is a team effort and though you may never see everyone I’m talking about, if you do have faith in God, send your prayers to them as well because they’re in this just as deep as I am. You need them to be just as strong if not stronger than me and you know what, they’re proving that to be true. I’m not the hero in this. They’re the heroes. Win or lose.’
Sally nodded slowly and silently. The silence stretched for a few moments more and Max wondered if he had broken the will of this media leviathan, which would only be a good thing as he was starting to get restless. His answers so far had come from the heart and it felt good to get his thoughts and feelings out, but this last question had started to stray a little too far out of his comfort zone . Then she spoke.
‘So, Max,’ she began, leaning forwards to rest her elbows on her knees, her glittering face coming even closer, ’can you tell us about your childhood? What was your upbringing like and your mother in particular, what was she like because I understand you never knew your father as he left when you were very young?’
Now he was right out of his comfort zone. His childhood was off limits. His mother was off limits and as for his father, well, Sally was right about him not ever being in the picture, but that wasn’t his fault. The man didn’t know he had been used to spawn a human/alien hybrid child then left none the wiser when his mother ran off the next day. That didn’t make him a bad Dad.
‘Max?’ Sally asked, pulling Max out of his thoughts. ‘Your childhood?’
Max tightened his lips and looked down at his hands. How do you refuse Sally Sainsbury an answer on live television and maintain your integrity? Then he was saved.
‘Do you sleep in the nude?’ shouted a female voice from out of the audience?
This reignited the masses. Max turned away from Sally who immediately began trying to waive the crowd back down again. The question was repeated by another random voice from the crowd. Then another. Max smiled. Sally was going into over drive.
Then Max said, ‘Sorry, Sally, but I think the question deserves an answer.’
Sally was aghast. Her eyes flamed as she realised she was having her show hijacked and worse than that, her biggest star guest of all time was heavily compliant in the crime. Max stood up, looked down at Sally and shrugged. Then he turned away and walked off the front of the stage and past the line of cameras and stage hands. The cameras rolled out of the way and spun to keep focus on him.
The audience was baying like a zoo full of animals at feeding time. Max held up his hands and waved them about. Slowly the noise died down and Max was left standing alone in front of the massive bank of mostly female patrons.
‘Okay,’ he started. ‘Who asked the question?’
A hand tentatively rose at one end of the audience. Max faced the young lady, probably roughly in her mid-twenties and asked, ‘So, you want to know if I sleep in the nude?’
Virtually the entire crowd nodded. Max smiled.
‘No,’ he said. Disappointment rippled through the masses. ‘I wear briefs…and nothing else.’
Instantly the crowd ratcheted up again. Max waved them down and as they were quieting, another question shot out, this time from a forty-something lady, jumping in her seat like a fifteen-something teenager.
‘What’s your star sign?’ she shouted.
‘Ahh, good question. Gemini.’
The forty-something squealed. ‘Same as me!’ and she started shaking the lady sitting next to her.
‘Does that mean you’ve got a twin brother and what’s his phone number?’ shouted another voice from across the crowd.
‘No, sorry. No twin brother,’ Max answered.
‘A cousin?’ came another shout.
Max grinned and shook his head. ‘Uh, uh. No cousin either.’
‘Twin sister?’ called out a voice from the front row. Max looked and found the source to be a tall, leggy blonde who clearly knew her way around a gym. Max’s grin widened and he shook his head again. The lady shrugged.
And now the questions came thick and fast. Max took a couple of steps back and let the crowd connection overwhelm him. Team Max wanted public relations? Well, it couldn’t get any better than this. Holding his arms out wide Max bowed once and everyone got to their feet, jumping and cheering. Then Max bowed again and the chant rose even higher.
‘Team Max! Team Max! Team Max!’
This was so much better than talking about his childhood. Finally turning away from the crowd, Max walked back past the row of cameras and stage hands and back up onto the stage where Sally was still sitting in her chair, the fury now blooming across her whole face, her body as tense as a snake poised to strike. Max knew there was no point in trying to placate her, so he simply grabbed up Sally’s hand and kissed the back of it.
Sally tried to soften her features but failed, lancing Max with her glare. Noticing the downward spiralling influence the situation was having on the show, the studio director rallied the crew to rescue. Suddenly, the Team Max anthem fired up and the crowd immediately took over, clapping and stomping their feet so hard the entire studio shuddered with the rhythm.
Max took the cue and gave Sally one final smile before releasing her hand and turning away. Walking off the stage, he couldn’t help himself as he threw one final bow to the audience who by now were absolutely unrestrained. Smiling like a lottery winner, Max walked towards the studio doors and through them. The Team Max juggernaut was still rolling. Mission accomplished.