the denial game

After finishing with hair and makeup, Mary was led into the green room. In her right hand she held a wad of tissues given to her by the show’s assistant producer Erika. Mary’s other hand reflexively tapped her leg like a woodpecker trying in vain to appease some instinctual drive for solace.

“Don’t worry. Everything’s going to be fine,” Erika said. “We’re here for you. Just make yourself comfortable and help yourself to some complimentary coffee and snacks. I’ll leave the tissues here with you so your makeup doesn’t run all over that nice dress, which, I’m assuming they mentioned to you in wardrobe, you will have to return if you lose the game. If you win – and I’m hoping that you do – it’s yours to keep along with the prize money.” Mary just nodded. She didn’t care about the dress. She was only there for the money. “If you need anything else, just hit the buzzer by the door and either I or one of the other Denial Game staff will be with you directly.”

In the green room were two others waiting for a chance to win the $50,000 grand prize. Peter was a middle-aged man with thick dark hair, convicting eyes and a large, overweight build. Mary noticed right away that there was a large gun resting on Peter’s hip. Mary always hated guns. When she was a child the only people allowed to carry firearms in public were police officers. But times were different – the world was different – and it seemed like people didn’t notice or didn’t care. Even so, does he really need to have it here at the show?

Peter’s face was clean shaven and Mary could see spots of razor burn all over his neck. He wore impeccably polished dress shoes, pleated black slacks, a deep crimson collared shirt and a black tie. His midsection hung inches over his waistline. Mary guessed that Peter did not normally dress in such attire; that Erika and her wardrobe minions had selected Peter’s outfit for him. His appearance had Mary trying to recall an old adage her grandfather like to use about putting lipstick on a pig, but before she could remember how the saying went, Peter began speaking to her as if they were at a company party.

“Welcome to the club! I’m Peter Larkin, and this is Celeste. She wouldn’t tell me her last name, which is kind of silly seeing that we’re about to be on national television. I think she might be a liberal or something.”

Peter pointed his thumb at a beautiful blonde-haired woman in a navy blue dress suit sitting on one of the couches. The woman scowled at him before glancing at Mary. She then returned to staring at the gold band on her left hand.

“Um, my name’s Mary. Mary Snowden.”

“Welcome, Mary! Get yourself a cup of coffee and some cookies. They’re all absolutely delicious. I would tell you to try one of the chocolate oatmeal but they were so good I just couldn’t stop myself.”

Mary could see chocolate in the corners of Peter’s mouth and crumbs on his heavily starched shirt. She had an inclination to lick her thumb and wipe his face for him. Her son Jonathan always hated when she did things like that. And though she never drank coffee and hadn’t had an appetite for much of anything since Jonathan’s arrest, Mary filled one of the stylish “The Denial Game” mugs from the non-caffeinated carafe and piled a few cookies on a small plate so as to not upset Peter. She took a seat on the couch across from the blonde woman and set the mug and plate on the coffee table.

“So, Mary, where are you from if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Tampa,” Mary replied.

“Ah, the Sunshine State. Birthplace of ‘stand your ground’ laws. Great people there. I’m from Evansville, Indiana myself. Born and raised. So what brings you to the show, Mary? You look pretty upset. I hope you’re not going to be a stick in the mud like Celeste,” Peter said.

Celeste looked up. “Will you please just shut the hell up and leave me alone, you stupid ass! I don’t know you and we’re not in some fucking club together, okay? Just eat your damned cookies and leave me the hell alone!”

“See what I mean? She must be a liberal. She even dislikes the cookies. Probably because they’re not gluten free or something. Give me a break.”

Peter had a smug look on his face, as if he had just spoken some irrefutable truth. Mary timidly reached for the coffee and took a sip. The bitter taste reminded her of her ex-husband Bob who never went a day without drinking an entire pot of coffee. Bob, the man she once loved and the father of her only child, had always told Mary that she was thin-skinned.

“Toughen up,” Bob would say. “You cry too much. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if you cried yourself to death some day!”

Then one late summer afternoon, Mary caught Bob in his man cave masturbating over Timmy Schiffner the five year old neighbor boy while Timmy obliviously fawned over Bob’s massive collection of Pixar toys.

“Oh, shit! Mary! It’s not what it looks like! I just had an itch.”

Mary waited almost a week before going over to the Schiffners’ home and explaining what had happened.

“I’m sure it was nothing,” she said, “but I thought you should know.”

The Schiffners called the police straight away and Bob was eventually convicted of committing lewd and lascivious acts on a child after breaking down and admitting to the deed. Less than a month after being sent to prison, Bob was murdered by a man named Cheeto Jones for refusing to hand over his chocolate pudding cup. Bob always loved chocolate pudding cups. And even though Mary was completely broken up about it and cried herself to sleep for three straight months, she still survived.

“Well since you-know-who doesn’t want to be civil,” Peter continued, “I guess it’s just you and me, Mary. So what brings you to the show? Did your husband cheat on you with an underage babysitter or something?”

Peter waited for Mary to respond as if he had just asked where she liked to vacation. What an ass! I can see why that Celeste woman is so livid. But Mary was never one to engage in conflict, even if she did have a partner. She would rather concede. She would rather feel embarrassed or sad than to stand up for herself and make a scene.

“I’m here because my son Jonathan was arrested for burglary and vandalism.” Mary felt a rush of shame wash over her just saying the words, ‘Jonathan was arrested’.

“Really? So what happened? What did he steal?”

“Oh. Um, the police say that he and some boys broke into a home and stole a bunch of electronics and jewelry.”

“Wow. Did they do anything else?”

Mary took a sip of the coffee. “They spray painted graffiti all over the house. But Jonathan swears he wasn’t there. He said these other boys called him out of the blue and needed a favor. When he met up with them, they wanted him to unlock two computers they had stolen but he refused. The problem is the police don’t believe him, and I don’t have the money to bail him out or pay for an attorney so I contacted the show.”

Mary’s heart was racing. She looked to each of her fellow contestants for support, but none was given.

“That’s too bad,” Peter said. “I just hope that your son learns his lesson.”

“What do you mean, ‘learns his lesson’? My son is innocent,” Mary exclaimed.

“Mary, I hate to break it to you, but you’re in denial. Teenage boys are always guilty. It’s in their nature to steal and vandalize.”

“My son’s not a teenager. He’s 20,” Mary replied.

“Even worse then. If he had been caught when he was younger he might have had a better chance to rehabilitate his criminal ways.”

Mary began to sob. Peter’s wrong. Jonathan isn’t a bad person. Sure, he might have gotten into some trouble when he was in high school, but that was normal kid stuff; skipping class, getting that speeding ticket, toilet papering his chemistry teacher’s house. But that doesn’t make him a criminal! Or does it? Maybe it’s my fault? Maybe I never should have told him the truth about Bob? Jonathan was only 2 when it happened. He would’ve never known. I could have told him something else – something equally outrageous – like that his dad was eaten by a giant squid while snorkeling off the coast of Fiji, or that he was beheaded by Yemeni jihadists who mistook him for a Jew because of the Yankees hat he always wore. But no, I had to go and tell him the truth. I’m such a bad mother!

And so it went, when Jonathan was 18 years old Mary sat him down and told of his father’s crime, and how he was shanked in the cafeteria of a Florida state prison. Ever since then, Jonathan seemed a little more distant.

“Mary, don’t cry,” Peter said. “You look like you’re going to die or something! It’s not that bad. All you have to do is admit that your son is a thief and you can take home $1000. It’s not $50 grand, but at least it’s something. Really, it’s a no brainer – just stop being in denial.”

Mary hated having Peter counsel her, but still she questioned herself. Maybe he’s right? Maybe I am in denial? Her unsolicited thoughts were interrupted by Celeste, who had turned to face Peter.

“Wait a minute, asshole. Who in the hell are you to tell her that she’s in denial? Maybe she’s right. Maybe her son is innocent. It’s doubtful, but how would you know? Oh, that’s right, you wouldn’t. But that doesn’t stop you from opening your big fat mouth now, does it?”

Celeste’s face was as red as a spring apple and a small vein was pulsating just over her right eyebrow. Peter looked like a grammar school teacher who’d just been hit in the head with a paper airplane.

“Oh, so the angry liberal says that I don’t know anything? Well, let me tell you something, Blondie – young men are troublemakers! It’s in their DNA. And I know. The only reason I’m here is because my daughter Judith got mixed up with some young punk just like Mary’s son. Him and this other no good friend of his got busted for drugs and credit card fraud, and had it not been for them my daughter wouldn’t be sitting in jail.”

“Yeah, right. So what was your daughter charged with?” Celeste asked.

“She was charged with prescription drug fraud, intent to sell and credit card fraud, but it’s all just a big misunderstanding.”

“Your daughter’s completely innocent then, is that what you’re saying? It’s all her boyfriend’s fault?” Celeste replied.

“He’s not her boyfriend! She’s only 13. She’s too young to have a boyfriend,” Peter said.

“Really? Now who’s in denial?”

“Judith doesn’t have boyfriend, I would know. She’s a good kid. The only thing she’s guilty of is hanging out with a couple of deadbeats, and that’s only because I’m sure they forced her to. She’s innocent. You’ll see. And pretty soon I’ll be $50,000 richer. Then maybe I’ll look into finding her a better school after I pay off my truck.”

“Sounds great, unless she is guilty – and possibly a drug addict. Then I’m assuming you’d want her locked up, right? Because that’s what big shot conservatives like you promote. No treatment, just incarcerate everyone. Just one big happy prison state.”

Celeste was firing on all cylinders and didn’t seem to care that Peter was twice her size and carrying a loaded firearm. Mary nervously picked up a white chocolate macadamia nut cookie and took a bite.

“See! I knew you were a stinking liberal. All you people ever do is bitch and complain,” Peter said.

“You don’t know me. You’re just some ignorant hick,” Celeste replied.

“Believe me, I know your kind. You want to put all the convicts in rehab like it’s some kind of country club, and eventually you’ll just let them back out on the street so they can collect welfare while they murder and rape more innocent people. At the same time you want to take away my God given right to protect myself from those sons of bitches. You know what I have to say to that? Not on my watch! I’ll defend myself using whatever means necessary. Preferably it’d be with my fully automatic Bushmaster ACR. That is unless I catch them outside. Then I’d use my flame thrower, which I’m sure you’re probably against too.”

“What?” Mary blurted.

Peter wasn’t done. “And let’s not forget how all you liberals want to give women free reign to murder their unborn babies, you want to let the homosexuals get married even though they got the same damned parts, and perhaps worst of all you want to force me to buy affordable health insurance. Over my dead body!”

Beads of sweat were covering Peter’s forehead when he finished his diatribe, and his arm was tired from all the pointing. Mary was terrified of him, but Celeste came right back as if Peter was a neutered dog with no bite to back up his bark.

“You’re an asshole on so many levels. It’s because of people like you that my husband is being held in jail. It’s because of people like you that we have to live in a world where victims – like Mary – are in demand for public show by a bunch of television-addicted hypocrites. So I cannot wait to watch you ignorantly strut out there on that stage with your big gun and your bullshit philosophy only to find out that your daughter is a drug addicted felon.”

“Screw you! Me and my daughter are going to be leaving this show $50,000 richer!”

Celeste stared at Peter as if she wanted to punch him in his fat face. Mary picked up a new tissue and dabbed the corners of her eyes, hoping that her makeup wasn’t completely smeared. Then she blew her nose and tried to pretend as if she wasn’t a witness to Peter and Celeste’s argument.

Five minutes later, Erika returned to the green room. Mary was glad to see her. Thank God no one was killed! Erika’s demeanor was informal yet commanding, like a parent about to delegate chores.

“I know we already discussed some of this information when you signed The Denial Game contestant agreements, but it can’t hurt to go over it again. The show will start taping in exactly…” (Erika checks her watch) “…17 minutes. Peter, you will be first, followed by Celeste and then Mary. Each of you will have your own segment and a chance to win a $50,000 prize. After a brief promotional intro to your story put together by our exceptional Denial Game staff, the host of the show, Mr. Macaulay Jabs, will introduce you. When you walk out, you might hear some of the audience members booing or yelling at you. Please don’t get frightened, it’s just part of the show. And if you want to yell back at them, by all means, you are free to do so. In fact we encourage it.”

The thought of having a bunch of strangers yelling at her was very unsettling to Mary. Why do the producers allow them to do that, and why would they want me to yell back? It all sounds so hostile. What if I start crying and can’t speak? What will the host do then?

“Next, Mr. Jabs will discuss your case with you. He will ask questions and present evidence, then he will ask if you still believe that your loved ones are innocent. If you say “yes” and they are innocent, you’ll win $50,000. Mr. Jabs will then present you with a large check, there will be balloons and confetti and everyone in the studio audience will be cheering. If you say “yes” and you are wrong, you were clearly in denial and win nothing. Now if, after being presented with the evidence, you change your mind and believe your loved one is guilty, you can simply admit that you were in denial. If you are correct, you’ll win $1000. If you’re wrong, you win nothing. After the big reveal, we will cut to a commercial break and I will come out and take you backstage. Any questions?”

“So the big check you give us, is it like the ones given out in the Publisher’s Clearinghouse because I don’t know if my bank will accept that,” Peter said.

“The check we give you onstage is just for show, Mr. Larkin. It’s a prop. If you’d like, you can take it home with you, but after your segment is done taping we will go backstage and meet with our head producer who will give you a cashier’s check for the amount you have won.”

Peter seemed relieved.

“Are there any more questions?” Erika said.

“How many people have won?” Celeste asked.

Erika looked surprised. “What do you mean?”

“How many people have won the $50,000?” Celeste said.

“Well, I am not at liberty to divulge that information Mrs. Kennedy,” Erika replied.

“Ha! Kennedy! What a liberal name,” Peter declared.

Celeste ignored Peter and continued. “I don’t understand. If this is all going to be on television, why can’t you just tell me how many people have actually won?”

Erika appeared thrown her off her game. “I don’t see why that has anything to do with you, Mrs. Kennedy. The fact is you all have a chance to win money.”

“Yes, that’s right. But you keep talking to us as if we all have a chance to win $50,000, when in reality you and your producers pick who you let on the show and most contestants can only win $1000. You obviously pick people whose loved ones are guilty so that you can parade them onstage and ridicule them for being in denial. I mean really, come on, the fucking show’s called The Denial Game. And anyone who’s ever watched it knows that no one ever wins $50,000 because everyone’s always guilty.”

Erika stiffened her posture, smiled and said, “Mrs. Kennedy, I can assure you that not everyone is guilty. Sure, many of our contestants’ loved ones have in fact committed crimes, but that is not our fault. We here at The Denial Game are offering you a chance to win money in either case. And if, like in your situation, you truly believe that your husband is innocent, then we are giving you a platform to tell that to the world. If you are right, you go home $50,000 richer. That is, if you still want to play. You can opt out, if you like, but you’ll be charged the appropriate fine per the contestant agreement.”

Fine? What fine? Mary worried about what other stipulations were hidden in the 50 page contract. Hopefully they couldn’t lay claim to her home – or one of her kidneys!

“You see! She’s nothing but trouble. She doesn’t even deserve a chance to be on this show,” Peter said with his nostrils flared.

“No, it’s okay,” Celeste said. “I’m sorry. I want to be on the show.”

“Well, good. You were picked to be on the show because you have a very unique story and we wanted to give you a chance to tell your side of things. Now if there aren’t anymore questions, Mr. Larkin you can come with me. Ladies, I’ll turn on the video projector so you can watch the taping live.”

Erika then led a very confident Peter out of the green room. Mary was glad to have him gone, but surprisingly no less anxious. Soon it would be her turn to sit in front of a bunch of cameras and an aggressive, unsympathetic crowd calling for a civic shaming. She begin to tremble.

“What bullshit!” Celeste said. “Think about it. Have you ever seen anyone win the $50,000?”

“Well, no, but I’ve never watched The Denial Game,” Mary said. “ I don’t really like those kinds of programs. A co-worker of mine loves it though. She suggested I contact the show after Jonathan was arrested. She said that the contestants are always in denial, but that if Jonathan really was innocent we could win the money and he’d be let out of jail.”

“And you think he’s innocent?” Celeste said.

Thanks to Peter, this was the first time Mary had to think about it before she answered. “Well, yes. He’s a good kid, and he wouldn’t lie to me…” Would he? “He has a good job and just bought his first car. He was doing so well. Why would he want to break into someone else’s home? It just doesn’t make sense. And he swears to me that he didn’t do it. Those other boys weren’t even friends of his.”

Celeste had a pitying look on her face, as if Mary had just claimed to believe in yetis.

“And you think he’s telling the truth?” Celeste asked. “Because I’ve watched this show. They just want to parade people into the arena like a bull to slaughter, and when they get there that scumbag Macaulay Jabs plays the part of matador. He’ll lull them into comfort, and then slowly he’ll stick them with knives for the crowd’s pleasure.”

Mary didn’t want to be stabbed with anything. Even worse, she hated the idea of the audience taking pleasure in such torture. Who would ever enjoy such a thing?

“I’m telling you, this whole thing is a sham,” Celeste proclaimed. “No one ever wins the $50,000 because it’s not even possible! Everyone who goes on this show is in denial.”

Celeste was beginning to sound like Peter with all his irrefutable truths. If she’s right, then why did she sign up to be a contestant on the show? Before Mary could even ponder a guess, the projector screen lit up and an attractive man with shiny dark hair and very distinguished features was looking directly into the camera. He wore a light gray suit, a white collared shirt and a skinny black tie. His mahogany eyes were deep set, their allure amplified by a sturdy brow and high cheek bones. In the background, another man’s voice began counting down. “We’re on in three, two, one…” Suddenly, a loud applause broke out. The man in the suit held up a microphone.

“Hello everyone, and welcome back to another episode of The Denial Game! My name is Macaulay Jabs. I’m your host, and today we will talk to three people who have all been accused of being what?”

On cue, the audience shouted out, “In denial!”

“That’s right. Now our first contestant’s name is Peter Larkin. Peter’s daughter Judith is 13 years old, and she was arrested when police officers raided a home where individuals suspected of selling drugs and using stolen credit cards were living.”

The audience booed and jeered.

“Peter swears that his daughter is innocent, and claims she is just a victim of hanging out with the wrong crowd. Let’s take a look.”

Macaulay Jabs’ image seamlessly flowed into a promo of Peter’s case, which was narrated by Mr. Jabs himself. The video showed Peter in different settings; sitting at a dinner table, standing in a yard with his arms folded, posing in front of his gun collection. In each shot, he bore the same stern look on his face. Then there were pictures of Judith from the time she was very young progressing to an image of her in a jail cell wearing an orange jumpsuit.

At the end of the promo, Macaulay Jabs said, “And even with all the evidence against his daughter, Peter believes that she is innocent. So let’s bring him out here and play…”

“The Denial Game!”

The camera cut from the ravenous spectators to the side of the stage where Peter walked out to a chorus of angry taunts and heckling. On his way he pointed at the crowd and yelled, “Shut up! You don’t know me! Shut the hell up!”
Peter was greeted by Macaulay Jabs, who directed him to have a seat on a couch next to what looked like a king’s throne. Peter was still waving his hand and yelling out when Mr. Jabs motioned to the audience to quiet down. They complied without hesitation. After taking his seat, Macaulay Jabs turned to Peter with a feigned look of concern.

“So, Peter, we just watched your video and what I think everyone in the audience wants to know is, why are you in denial?”

“I’m not in denial,” Peter replied. “My daughter is innocent. She’s a victim. It’s those kids she was hanging out with. They’re the criminals. Judith is just guilty by association.”

“And by ‘those kids’ you mean Marcus Tine and Sergio Gutierrez?”

“Yeah! Those two lowlifes forced Judith to hang out with them. They told her that if she didn’t they would beat her up.”

“And how do you know this,” Macaulay asked. “Did Judith tell you that?”

“Yes. She told me that when I went to see her in jail. She told me that she didn’t do anything.” The audience got a laugh out of this, to which Peter replied, “Shut the hell up! You don’t know anything!”

After waving off the crowd, Macaulay Jabs continued, suggesting that Judith was an active participant in the group’s drug sales and credit card schemes. He went on to imply that Judith was not only friends with the two boys, she was also having sex with them. As this all played out, Mary found herself wishing for it to be over. Her wad of tissues was now the size of a small mango. She was also chewing on the insides of her cheeks, something she hadn’t done since her days with Bob. Celeste, on the other hand, was enjoying the very bullfight she claimed to loathe. “Ha! His daughter’s not just a drug addicted felon, she’s also a little slut!”

“Peter, now is the part of the game when you are given a choice. Your daughter Judith has been charged with multiple crimes and as I’ve just told you the police say that there is an abundance of incriminating evidence that could send her away for a very long time. So do you want to continue believing your daughter, or do you want to take the $1000 and admit that you have been in denial? Which will it be?”
A hush came over the audience, but the silence was short lived as Peter did not hesitate to answer. “I’m not in denial, God damned it! Judith is innocent, so just bring out that $50,000 check.”

“Are you sure?” Macaulay Jabs said.

“Yes, I’m sure!”

“You’ve made your choice then. Now let’s see if it was the right one.”

A projector screen was lowered on the right side of the stage and a video similar to the promo began to play. Macaulay Jabs narrated over police surveillance footage of Judith going into more than a dozen different pain management clinics, filling multiple prescriptions at different pharmacies and selling the pills to opiate junkies in a grocery store parking lot hours later. Footage from the post office also showed Judith signing for packages containing jewelry, clothing and other items that had all been purchased with stolen credit cards.

“Well, Peter,” Macaulay said, “what do you have to say about that?”

“That doesn’t prove anything,” Peter said in defiance. “I’m telling you, those two thugs forced Judith into doing all those things. They made her go to those doctors and get those pills. They made her pick up those packages. They were using her!”

The show’s spectators let out a cacophony of laughter, jeers and taunts, which Macaulay Jabs allowed to proceed for an uncomfortable amount of time before he signaled for quiet. He then turned to the camera, flashed a furtive smile and said, “Did you know that Judith is pregnant, Peter?”

That audience’s collective gasps quickly evolved into more jeering and laughter.

Peter scoffed, “Pregnant? She’s not pregnant. How could she be pregnant?”

“She’s five months along, Peter. I’m assuming she didn’t tell you?”

For the first time all day Peter looked lost and perplexed. “No! Of course not!”

“And you didn’t notice that she was showing?”

“No. I mean, I thought she was just getting fat. All the women in our family are fat. Hell, her mother weighed almost 300 pounds when she died.”

“Judith is definitely fat, but she’s also pregnant. And that’s not all. Let’s have some more, shall we?”

The audience cheered and hollered. In crisp, clear, surround sound, Judith’s voice could be heard on taped phone calls making various drug deals and bragging about how much money she and the boys were making. She also talked about, “all the shit we’ve been getting in the mail.” Peter’s face quickly changed from confident to perplexed. His fists were clenched just as they had been when he was expounding on the ills of progressive liberal thought in the green room. Macaulay Jabs, on the other hand, was in his element. The matador’s many blades had been artfully placed in the beast, and now was time for the coup de grâce.

“And there’s more, Peter. When police raided the house where Marcus and Sergio lived, they found many hours of video recordings. Some of it’s pretty salacious. What do you think, audience? Should we have a look?”

“YYYEEESSS!!!”

On the projector screen, Judith walked around in her underwear claiming to be a “bad bitch”. She chopped up lines of white powder on a mirror. She claimed that Peter was an idiot and would always believe anything she told him. The last video, which Macaulay Jabs warned was very graphic, showed Judith initiate a gang-bang with Marcus, Sergio and three of their male friends. Judith’s body was mostly blurred due to child pornography regulations, but the sound was not. The crowd quickly became a chorus of gasps and goading commentary. When the camera cut to Peter, all of the strength and security he had displayed in the green room was gone. He was now broken, and like a bull in the arena he laid there dying. Seeing this, Macaulay Jabs promptly spoke up over all the commotion.

“I’m sorry you had to see that Peter, but you were in denial. Do you have anything to say?”

An acute silence riddled with random heckling came over the audience. Back in the greenroom, Mary stared at the screen, unable to blink. He might be an ass, but did he really deserve that?

All of the studio’s attention was now on Peter, anxious for how he would respond. With the camera focused on him and him alone, the suspense was overwhelming. Then, in one fluid motion, Peter reached down to his side and took the gun out of its holster. Mary screamed. Celeste blurted out, “Holy shit!” It was a moment of panic for all, except Macaulay Jabs. He didn’t move an inch. And as Peter fell to the ground with two large tranquilizer darts sticking out of his neck, The Denial Game’s host looked on with a grin.

“Don’t be alarmed, folks. For those of you who are fans of the show, you know that this sort of thing tends to happen from time to time. Seeing your pregnant daughter throw herself at a group of teenage hoodlums can be quite disconcerting to say the least. That’s why we always have our trusted team of snipers on the ready in case a situation like this presents itself. So please, everyone take a seat. Denial Game staff will take Mr. Larkin backstage where he will have a nice long rest. After that, we’ll meet our next contestant.”

Cheers erupted and the projector screen went blank. Celeste looked over at Mary and said, “Wow! That was crazy.”

Mary, still in shock, didn’t respond. Minutes later the door opened. It was Erika, followed by two burley men in black suits. One of the men was holding Peter’s wrists and the other his ankles. Without hesitation, they dumped Peter’s motionless body next to the table with the coffee carafes and cookies. Both Mary and Celeste stood up and looked over at their fellow contestant who appeared to be drooling.

“I’m sorry ladies,” Erika said, “but due to Mr. Larkin’s poor behavior he is going to have to spend the remainder of the show under heavy sedation. But don’t you worry, everything’s fine. He was given a considerable dose of horse tranquilizer and should be out cold for at least 10 hours.”

“Horse tranquilizer? More like a jackass tranquilizer if you ask me,” Celeste said, laughing.

“Now that that’s all taken care of, Mrs. Kennedy you can come with me.”

Realizing that she would be left alone, Mary blurted out, “But…”

“Don’t worry, Mrs. Snowden. Like I said, Mr. Larkin will be incapacitated for at least ten hours. If it would make you feel better, I can have one of our Denial Game security personnel remain here with you until your segment.”

Mary looked over at the two burly men in black suits. They didn’t make her feel any more secure. “No, that’s okay.”

After everyone exited the green room, Mary tiptoed cautiously over to Peter. He looked dead. When the television came back on, Mary was startled and let out an abrupt scream. She took a second to compose herself, walked back over to the couch and sat down. Macaulay Jabs was staring at her with an intimidating smile as one of the makeup team staff dusted his perfectly bronzed face with a powder brush. Out of site of the camera, the countdown began. “We’re on in three, two, one…” Once again, a loud applause broke out.

“Hello everyone, and welcome back to The Denial Game. My name is Macaulay Jabs. If you’re just joining us, you’ve missed some exciting action, but I promise it’ll only get better. Our next lucky contestant’s name is Celeste Kennedy. Celeste lives in Scottsdale, Arizona with her husband Larry and their two children. Less than a month ago, Celeste thought she had the perfect life. Then her husband Larry was arrested on charges of soliciting illegal aliens.”

The audience emitted a not-so-subtle mingling of oohs and boos. Mary took another nervous bite of the white chocolate macadamia nut cookie.

“Celeste believes that her husband is innocent,” Macaulay Jabs continued, “and claims that they are victims of a government witch hunt. Let’s take a look.”

Much like Peter’s video, Macaulay Jabs narrated over images of Celeste in different settings; standing in a kitchen holding a casserole dish, standing in a yard with her kids playing in the background, posing in front of a mantelpiece with framed wedding photos displayed on top of the marble. The video also showed pictures of Celeste, her husband Larry and their two children while describing how Larry owned a small landscaping company that allegedly employed undocumented workers. Larry denied he knew the men were illegal immigrants, but according to Macaulay there were wiretaps, pictures and a confession. At the end of the promo, Macaulay Jabs said, “And even with all of the evidence the government has collected against her husband, Celeste still believes that Larry is innocent.”

The audience returned to their standard taunts and jeers.

“Well, let’s bring her out here and play…”

In perfect unanimity the audience bellowed, “The Denial Game!”

Mary watched as Celeste walked out from the side of the stage to a chorus of derisive heckling. Instead of yelling back at them like Peter, Celeste glared and shook her head disapprovingly. That is, until Macaulay Jabs motioned for her to sit down. At that point, whether her tolerance for abuse had exceeded its limits or she really didn’t like a particular comment, Celeste looked directly at one of the audience members and said, “Screw you, jerk! You’re in denial!”

As soon as she was seated, Macaulay Jabs said, “Wow, Celeste. You seem pretty angry. Do you think it’s because you’re in denial?” Mary imagined him waving a bright red matador’s cape.

“I’m not in denial, Mr. Jabs,” Celeste replied, much like a defense attorney about to state her case. “I know that what Larry did may be illegal, but it wasn’t wrong. Those men needed the work. They have families to feed. And besides, Larry couldn’t find anyone else who was good at the job.”

“So you’re saying that illegal immigrants are inherently good at landscaping? And American citizens aren’t good enough for the job? Sounds awfully prejudiced if you ask me.”

“That’s not what I meant. All I’m saying is that Larry hired those men because they were good workers, and just because they weren’t here legally doesn’t mean they don’t have families like the rest of us.”

Ever so calmly, Macaulay Jabs continued his line of questioning. “Families or not, Larry hired illegal aliens to work for him, correct?”

“Yes, he did. But why do you have to keep calling them ‘illegal aliens’? It sounds so racist and xenophobic. They’re human beings for crying out loud. Why does it matter what country they came from?”

An angry uproar spilled from the crowd, followed by a chant of “U-S-A”. In response, Celeste just shook her head, a scowl on her face. Mary watched all of this from the safety of the green room. She admired Celeste’s fortitude. I wish I was that strong.

Macaulay Jabs allowed the audience a minute to express their emotional distaste for Celeste before calmly waving them into silence like the conductor of an orchestra.

“I understand that you may object to the term ‘illegal alien’, but they are in fact non-citizens here illegally. Stating facts does not make me racist. Your husband, on the other hand, is a racist.”

Celeste laughed mockingly at the charge. “Larry? Racist? You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I thought you might say that,” Macaulay Jabs replied. “Let’s watch some video, shall we?”

An apprehensive expression came over Celeste as the projector screen lowered. Everyone watched as surveillance video from inside of a bar showed Larry drinking Bud Light and talking to another man about his business.

“So I ended up firing all those fucking beaners that were working for me, damned lazy sons of bitches. The only thing good about that crew was that they were illegals so I didn’t have to pay them as much or give them benefits or any shit like that…”
Macaulay Jabs paused the video and said, “Wow, Celeste. You’re husband kind of sounds like an asshole.”

The crowd laughed as Celeste stared at the frozen image of her husband with a look of confusion on her face.

“I…”

“Let’s watch some more.”

“…Luckily for me I hired a whole new crew of guys from Australia who overstayed their visas and aren’t planning on leaving because they’ve got girlfriends and babies and shit. I told them about a guy who knows a guy who could get them social security cards and drivers licenses, and now they work for me for the same money I paid the beaners. Honestly, they’re not any better at the job, which makes sense seeing that Australians are all just a bunch of criminals. But at least they aren’t Hispanic! The government isn’t looking to bust a bunch of white illegals who talk like Crocodile Dundee, which means I’m safe…”

The video cut and the projector screen raised back out of sight. The audience was once again calling for blood, and it was clear now to Mary that Celeste was defeated. Another victory for the Matador was imminent. But instead of gloating over his win with words, Macaulay Jabs raised his beautifully manicured eyebrows and flashed a contemptuous grin.

“Australians? That doesn’t make any sense,” Celeste said under her breath, a bemused look on her face.

“Why doesn’t that make sense, Celeste? Because they’re white? Because they’re illegal immigrants who aren’t from Mexico or Central America?”

Like a career politician, Celeste replied, “No. It doesn’t make sense because Larry told me he didn’t know they were here illegally.”

“Well, that’s also what your husband told the ICE agents who arrested him. But as you just saw, he was obviously lying. And even though it seems like there’s a clear choice here, I still have to ask… Celeste, are you in denial? If you answer ‘Yes’ and admit that you were wrong about Larry, you’ll win $1000. Or you can continue to believe him – in spite of everything you just saw – and take a chance at winning $50,000. If you’re wrong, you win nothing. So what will it be, Celeste? Are you in denial?”

She doesn’t even have a choice. Of course her husband is guilty. So she was right! No one wins the $50 thousand. Mary felt hopeless. She began to think about her son Jonathan having to spend time in prison like his father.

“Well, Mr. Jabs, I have to admit that I’m in denial. Larry told me he didn’t know, but he was clearly lying. When the police contacted me, I didn’t want to believe them. But I was wrong. Larry did do those things. I knew that coming on the show today, because no one ever wins this game. They’re always guilty. I just didn’t realize how guilty Larry was, and I’m ashamed of him. But we’ll get through this. He loves me, and we have a beautiful family together. So, to answer your question, yes, I was in denial. Now can I please get the $1000 and go?”

Macaulay Jabs was beaming, as if he knew everything Celeste was going to say before she opened her mouth. “It’s nice to hear you admit your denial, Celeste. And congratulations, you’ve just won $1000. Audience, let’s all give Celeste a round of applause for coming to terms with the fact that her husband is a duplicitous racist who intentionally hired illegal labor just to take advantage of both them and the system.”

Half of the crowd clapped their hands with indifference while the other half booed. Some man yelled out, “You suck!” Seconds later, a beautiful young woman in a tight-fitting ball gown came from the side of the stage to present Celeste with her check. But as Celeste stood to accept her prize, Macaulay Jabs motioned for her to sit back down.

“Just one moment, Celeste. Before you leave, we wanted to show you one more thing. It’s kind of important.” Macaulay motioned to the side of the stage and said, “Bring them out.”

All watched as Erika led a beautiful young Asian woman carrying a baby in her arms out onto the stage.

“What the hell is this?” Celeste asked.

“Celeste, this kind woman’s name is SuLyn, and the precious young child she is holding is her son Lawrence,” Macaulay Jabs said.

“So?”

“Well, Celeste, SuLyn has known your husband Larry now for over two years. They met when Larry was in Los Angeles for his friend Travis’ wedding that you couldn’t attend because your kids had the flu. They met, had some drinks, went back to Larry’s room at the Ramada and ten months later little Lawrence Jr. came into the world.”

Gasps and laughter escaped from the crowd. SuLyn stood there rocking the baby, her eyes fixed on the young child. Celeste’s mouth was wide open. She began shaking her head. “No, no, no, no, no! This is bullshit. That can’t be true.”

“I’m sorry, but it is Celeste. Can we see the screen again, please?”

The projector screen dropped and pictures of Larry and Celeste’s children were put side by side with a picture of baby Lawrence. The resemblance was conspicuous.

“We also have texts and emails. Can we put those up, please? You see, Celeste, Larry has been involved with SuLyn ever since they met; phone calls, video chat, rendezvous in Palm Springs when he told you he was at trade shows. And in many of these correspondences he talks about leaving you and the kids to be with her.”

Mary, along with Celeste and the studio audience, read salacious emails and texts between Larry and SuLyn that were ridiculously dubbed over by actors with over-accentuated voices. When the cameras cut back to Macaulay Jabs, he said, “We’ve never done this before on The Denial Game, but I really like you Celeste, so we’re going to offer you another chance at the $50 thousand. The rules are the same, of course. We’ve told you that your husband Larry is a philanderer, and we’ve shown you most of the evidence including this beautiful baby boy. We did have a paternity test done just to make sure, but you’re going to have to make your choice before we show everyone the results.”

Mary had started the construction of a new tissue ball and found herself gripping it tightly while she gnashed the insides of her cheeks. Peter had begun snoring, unaware of the spectacle that was playing out in front of the cameras.

“So, what’ll it be, Celeste? Do you believe that your husband Larry fathered a child with another woman, a woman he professes to love and whom he promises to be with one day? Or do you think we’re making this all up? It’s your call. Are you in denial?”

The camera cut to Celeste as she sat there looking wild-eyed and agitated. She turned to SuLyn and the baby and muttered something to herself.

“What was that, Celeste?” Macaulay Jabs asked.

“I’m going to kill her.”

“I’m sorry, Celeste. Could you please speak up?”

“You fucking bitch! He’s my husband!”

Without warning, Celeste lunged up from the couch toward SuLyn. She was still a few feet away when the tranquilizer darts pierced her neck. Seconds later, Celeste laid on the floor, still and silent like the corpse of slain bull in the arena. It was another victory for Macaulay Jabs. SuLyn looked on in suspense, as did Mary.

“Ladies and gentlemen, due to Mrs. Kennedy’s aggressive outburst she must forfeit her unprecedented second turn and is disqualified from the game…”
Some audience members booed and shook their fists while others laughed and high-fived their neighbors. It seemed to Mary that the crowd was getting ever more aggressive, and she worried that they might actually attack her if she said the wrong thing. They couldn’t possibly have enough darts to sedate them all, could they?
Macaulay Jabs continued, “…And even though she’s not consciously here with us, let’s read those test results, shall we?”

An affirmative cheer filled the studio and Erika returned to the stage with a large envelope. Macaulay Jabs opened the envelope, read the results and acted out a mock sense of surprise.

“Ladies and gentlemen, you’re never going to believe this. It says here that little Lawrence Jr. is not actually the biological son of Celeste’s husband, Larry Kennedy.”

As the audience mulled over Macaulay Jabs’ revelation, the host cracked a handsomely mischievous smirk. He waited for the mass confusion to peak. Mary didn’t know what to think either, her attention glued to the screen. I see why people watch this damned show. It’s like the most God awful roller coaster ride imaginable!

“Now, I know you’re all probably wondering how this is possible,” Macaulay Jabs continued, “so please let me explain. The woman on the stage who we called SuLyn is actually an actor, as is the baby she is holding. They have no relation to each other whatsoever. She has never met or corresponded with Larry Kennedy, and as far as we know Larry is a faithful husband. Our producers, who are obviously the best in the business, thought that it would be entertaining to fabricate this entire story about an affair just to give Celeste a second chance at winning the $50 thousand grand prize. Sadly for her, she couldn’t keep her emotions in check and forfeited the game. She does, however, still receive $1000 for admitting she was in denial over her husband’s shady business practices. So again, let’s give Celeste a round of applause for coming on The Denial Game.”

The audience broke out in bellowing approval as Celeste lay on the floor with her arms and legs splayed out, a trail of spittle coming from her mouth. Mary sat in the greenroom so absorbed by what had just taken place that she all but forgot that she would have to take the stage and face Macaulay Jabs as well. When the show cut to break and the screen went blank, she roused from the enchantment of drama and looked over at Peter. Why did I decide to come here? This was a horrible idea!

Minutes later, Erika returned to the green room with one of the large security guards. The man was carrying Celeste in his arms like the dutiful companion of a college co-ed who had gotten way too drunk for her own good.

“Just lay her down over there on one of the couches,” Erika said. “Mrs. Snowden, I’m sorry for you to have to see a second contestant forcefully sedated. As I’m sure you witnessed, Mrs. Kennedy was out of control and we had no choice. Be assured, we here at The Denial Game are here for you. Now if you’ll please come with me, your segment of the show will begin shortly.”

Mary followed Erika out of the room and into the hallway where members of The Denial Game staff were hustling around like a colony of wasps. When they arrived at the side of the stage, Mary was told to stand and wait on a big red dot until after her promo video. From the moment Mary positioned herself on the big red dot until taping resumed, all she could do was stare over at Mr. Jabs as his makeup, wardrobe and hairstyling subordinates primped and polished their master of ceremonies. She was in awe of his commanding presence and flawless image, and now understood why people like her co-worker fawned over him as if he were a rock star. Mary’s growing fixation was interrupted only when one of the producers began shouting at everyone to get ready for show time.

“Okay, we’re on in three, two, one…”

“Hello everyone, and welcome back to The Denial Game! My name is Macaulay Jabs and I am your humbled host. If you’re just joining us, we’ve had quite a game so far and we’re hoping that our next contestant can keep the excitement rolling. Her name is Mary Snowden and she lives in Tampa Bay, Florida. Her son Jonathan was an aspiring computer technician before he was arrested with four other young men for breaking and entering, burglary and vandalism. Mary believes that her son is innocent of these crimes, and that he is simply a victim of guilt by association. We’ve never heard that excuse before, now have we?”

The audience laughed and jeered. Some woman called out, “Lock him up!” Mary stood on the red dot clutching her wad of tissues. Why am I doing this? What if Jonathan is guilty? I’m just going to make a fool of myself!

“What do you say we all have a peek at Mary’s story, shall we?”

The video format was the same for Mary as it was for Peter and Celeste, with Macaulay Jabs narrating over a timeline of photographs and overtly fabricated scenes with Mary posing as if she were in a JC Penney catalog. Mary thought about the day Erika and a camera crew came to her home for a final interview. She had made sure to clean every room spotlessly as though Jonathan’s freedom depended on it, and appreciated when Erika told her she had a beautiful home even though it sounded less than genuine. Throughout the interview, Mary felt confused. Why did she have to pretend to be drinking tea at the kitchen table, and why did they want her to iron an unwrinkled blouse? She especially didn’t understand why Erika was asking so many questions about Bob.

“What does he have to do with this?” Mary said.

“Please don’t worry, Mrs. Snowden,” Erika replied. “These are just routine questions meant to help us get a better understanding of your situation. Remember, we’re here for you.”

When the promo finished, Macaulay Jabs said, “And even though the police say Mary’s son Jonathan is guilty, and his father was a notorious pedophile, Mary still wants to believe he’s innocent…”

‘His father was a notorious pedophile’? What in the hell did that video just say? Why wasn’t I paying attention?!

“…I don’t know folks, it sounds like she might be in denial. So please, let’s give a nice Denial Game welcome to Mary.”

Mary was given a little shove in the back by Erika when she didn’t move from the little red dot on cue. Like her fellow contestants, she walked out to a chorus of hostile catcalls and booing.

“You’re son’s a criminal!”

“You’re a horrible mother!”

“You suck!”

Mary did not gesture, glare or return unpleasantries. She merely trembled, too intimidated even to cry. Macaulay Jabs greeted Mary with a wolfish grin and directed her to have a seat on the couch. He then gestured for the audience to restrain their verbal onslaught so that he could commence his interview.

“Hello, Mary. That’s quite an interesting story you have.”

“If you say so, Mr. Jabs,” Mary timidly replied.

“Please, call me Macaulay. Now from what the police tell us, it sounds like your son Jonathan is not only a burglar and a thief, he’s also a horrible speller. Can we please see some pictures of the graffiti that Jonathan and his buddies left inside the house they broke into?”

Crime scene photos were put up on the screen. They showed spray-painted tags that read, ‘I Love Pussie!’ and ‘FUCK THE SYSTSEM’. The audience got a good laugh while Mary felt a sharp pain in her side. She glanced over at Macaulay Jabs and pictured him in an ornately embellished bolero jacket with gold trim and frills, high waist Capri pants with red tights, black ballet slippers and a black montera cap. In his lap he held a garish red cape. Please don’t slaughter me like you did Peter and Celeste! I don’t want to die here.

“Wow, a real genius! But spelling aside, you do believe Jonathan is innocent, which dares me to ask; Mary, why are you in denial?”

“I don’t know,” Mary replied. “I mean, I don’t think I am. Jonathan has always been a good kid, and he was doing so well before all this happened. It’s not like him to steal, and why would he ever want to break into someone’s home? It just doesn’t make sense.”

“Do you think that it might have anything to do with his father?” Macaulay Jabs said.
Mary was confused. “His father? Why would his father have anything to do with this?

He’s been dead for almost 20 years.”

“I don’t know,” Macaulay Jabs said. “Maybe the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as they say. We saw in your video introduction that your husband Bob – Jonathan’s father – was sentenced to prison for committing lewd and lascivious acts on a child. I believe one of the local newspapers in Tampa actually called your husband, ‘The Pixar Pederast’. I guess what I’m getting at is maybe you’re in denial about the fact your son is a criminal like his father.” Macaulay Jabs cocked his head, eyebrows raised, a questioning smile on his lips. “What we do know is that he was apprehended with stolen property that came from a home police say your son helped burglarize. And even though he denies being involved, Jonathan’s fingerprints are all over the computers that were recovered. This, if you ask me, is pretty damning evidence. So what do you think, Mary? Is it possible that you’ve turned a blind eye to Jonathan’s sociopathic nature, much like you did with his father?”

Mary was caught like a possum in headlights. Is it possible? Is Jonathan really like Bob?

“I don’t know,” she said. “He was such a good kid. He never even knew his father.”

“Well, genetics can be quite powerful Mary. And if you think about it, you’re actually pretty lucky Jonathan didn’t turn out any worse than he has.”

Mary felt as if her entire world had shifted into some new reality, one where she should feel blessed that her son was only a burglar and not some psychotic serial killer.

“With that in mind, it’s now time in the game when you have to make a choice. Your son has been charged with numerous felonies, and the police say that his fingerprints link him to the crimes. I know Jonathan told you he’s innocent and you came on this show believing his story, but you also have plenty of reasons to believe he’s lying. So what’ll it be, Mary? Do you want to take a chance at winning $50,000, risk the easy money and continue believing that Jonathan – your pedophile ex-husband’s biological son – was unjustly arrested by the police? Or do you want to admit you’re in denial – that your son is guilty – and take home $1000? Seems like a pretty straightforward decision to me. Audience, what do you think?”

The spectators erupted with an onslaught of vituperative language and distasteful gestures aimed directly at the stage. In response, Mary cowered into the couch. She began to cry for the first time since being taken from the safety of the green room, and longed to be back drinking bitter coffee and munching cookies with Peter and Celeste happily snoring away. Seeing tears, the audience spewed out an even harsher mix of laughter and mockery.

Macaulay Jabs’ grin morphed into a feigned expression of pity. “I know, Mary. I’m sure it’s hard coming to terms with the fact that your son is a criminal. But you don’t have to be in denial about it anymore. That is, unless you still want to believe him. The choice is yours. Mary, are you in denial?”

Mary held the palms of her fists against her wet, mascara laden eyes. What am I supposed to do? I love Jonathan and I want to believe he’s innocent, but what if Macaulay is right about him? What if he has Bob’s criminal genes and can’t help doing bad things? I don’t want to make a fool of myself by being in denial on public television. How embarrassing! What would everyone think? Damned you, Bob! You’ve messed up everything all over again! Why can’t you just be dead and leave us alone!

“Mary, I know this is difficult, but I need an answer,” Macaulay Jabs said.

Mary thought about Celeste, and how she had said everyone was guilty. Then she thought about Bob and how he had kept his perversions a secret from her in very her own home. “I love my son,” Mary said before blowing her nose, “but I think you’re probably right. I’ve been in denial.”

“So you now believe Jonathan is guilty of breaking into that home with his friends, vandalizing it with atrociously misspelled graffiti and stealing all those items?”

“Yes.”

Macaulay Jabs’ malevolent smirk returned. When Mary saw this, a pain shot through her neck as if a knife had just been lodged there.

“Well, let’s take a look at some video, shall we?”

The screen lowered and footage from home security cameras showed a group of three young men breaking into a house through door on the back porch. Once inside, the men split up and began ransacking the property.

“As you can clearly see, there are three people who broke into the home. One of the neighbors provided the police with video from their own security cameras, which shows that there was one person waiting in the getaway car.”

But that doesn’t make sense. When Jonathan was arrested there were four others with him. That should make five altogether.

The audience, along with Mary, watched as one of the intruders rifled though drawers and closets looking for jewelry while the others piled stereo equipment and a big screen television next to the back door. When they were finished, two of the young men began breaking things while the third took a can of spray paint out of a backpack and began tagging the walls of the home.

“And there’s our master wordsmith expressing himself so eloquently,” Macaulay Jabs said. “Do you know who that boy is Mary?”

“No. I’ve never seen him before in my life,” Mary said.

“I can’t imagine you ever would have.”

The remainder of the video footage showed the young men loading the stolen goods into their vehicle and driving off. The video cut, and new security camera footage from a Computer Land parking lot began playing. It showed the getaway car pull in and park. Moments later, a young man exits the store and approaches the vehicle.

“As you can see, Mary, that is your son Jonathan walking out to meet the persons we just saw burglarizing a home. Two of the young men greet Jonathan. The others, including our master wordsmith, stay in the car. It is our understanding that Jonathan did not know either of them. After exchanging pleasantries, the young men show Jonathan the computers they have just stolen. He looks at both laptops, asks some questions, and gives the computers back. As you can see, the two thieves are upset and begin threatening your son. He starts to walk away, and two police cars pull in and arrest them all.”

Mary was confused. It didn’t make sense. She wiped her nose and said, “But doesn’t that mean Jonathan didn’t break into that house, or steal those things?”

“How could he have? He was eating dinner in the break room,” Macaulay Jabs responded.

“But that means he’s innocent. I wasn’t in denial.”

“That’s right, Mary. And I have to say that I’m disappointed in the lack of trust you have in your son. It’s actually very sad. He’s a good, upstanding citizen who has never been in any serious trouble his entire life. And this is in spite of the fact that his father was a convicted child abuser who died in prison. So for you, as his mother, to not believe him is quite appalling. I wonder what the audience has to say about this.”

The admonishments flew from the crowd like a collection of pointed spears.

“What kind of mother are you?!”

“You don’t deserve to have a son!”

“Shame on you!”

“You’re a horrible parent!”

Mary tried to interject, but had trouble speaking over the acrimonious dissonance.
“I… I didn’t know. I thought… You made me think I was in denial.”

“Please, Mary, don’t attempt to deflect the blame for being a bad mother,” Macaulay Jabs said.

“But I’m not a bad mother! Really, I’m not! I love my son!”

“Well you have a strange way of showing it. Luckily for him, Jonathan was let out of jail this morning as you were getting to the studio. Sadly, he won’t be sharing in the $50,000 you just threw away. Such a shame.”

Mary sat on the comfortable sofa swimming in mixed emotions and disbelief. Jonathan is out of jail? Why didn’t they tell me? That’s great news! But what’ll happen when he finds out I came on the show and said I was in denial? What will he think of me then? What if he hates me? Oh, it’s true. I am a horrible mother!

Macaulay Jabs flashed another one of his sly smiles at Mary as she sobbed. He then stood up and turned to address the camera.

“That about wraps things up here. From all of us here at The Denial Game, I’d like to thank our contestants, Peter, Celeste and Mary. I’d also like to give a special thanks to our studio audience for making this another fantastic show and for all of you watching at home. My name is Macaulay Jabs, and I look forward to seeing you next time here on…”

“The Denial Game!!!”

Soon after, while Macaulay Jabs made his way to his posh dressing room to celebrate with a bottle of champagne and a pair of openly-infatuated housewives, Erika retrieved Mary from the couch and took her backstage.

“I’m sorry to have to do this, Mrs. Snowden, but since you lost the game, I need you to take off the dress. And seeing that you didn’t keep it in pristine condition, we will be sending you the cleaning bill once the makeup stains have been removed.”

“You’re sending me a cleaning bill?” Mary said.

“Of course,” Erika replied.

Mary took off the dress and returned it to the hanger wishing she had never put it on in the first place. Bittersweet tears fell from her face the entire way home. When Mary pulled into her driveway, she saw Jonathan’s car parked in front of the house. She sat there a while biting down on the insides of her cheeks, trying to think of how she might explain.

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