Read an Excerpt
The Ultimate Choice
This is it, Cassie thought. No going back now.
Her guard opened the door and, when she didn’t move, shoved her through. Cassie stumbled into the studio and for a moment stood motionless, blinded by the bright lights. Her guard stepped forward, probably to give her a second shove. She glared at him. “Bog off,” she said under her breath and turned to face the audience, her question cards grasped firmly in one hand. She fixed her hair and straightened her shoulders before walking to the top of the center aisle. She’d heard someone calling it the walk of death. Seemed appropriate. Her heart gave a flutter as she took in all the people around her—and remembered the millions watching from their homes.
Bob Devine stood waiting for her on the stage, a theatrically large grin aimed her way.
A group to her left shouted, “Be Devine! Be Devine! Be Devine!” Bob Devine smiled at them and gave a curt bow. The group erupted into a roar of cheers, before taking up the chant again, even more people joining in: “Be Devine! Be Devine!”
The announcer’s voice boomed out of the speakers: “Come on down, Cassie O’Neil. It’s your time to make The Ultimate Choice!”
The theme music changed subtly. The audience shushed; they realized what this meant—as did Cassie. This was her cue. She flicked some hair off her shoulders and strode past the gaping faces.
Devine threw his arms out as she approached. As previously instructed, she climbed the steps onto the stage and fell into his embrace. He leaned close and placed a kiss on her cheek. Somehow, Cassie resisted grimacing.
He wrapped an arm around Cassie’s shoulders and led her to the stool. “Come sit down, love.” The audience was up in their seats, catcalling, clapping, and whistling. Bob Devine waited for the noise to abate and said, “What a wonderful day. What a wonderful gift!” The audience echoed his words.
Cassie hopped up, cards now grasped with both hands and held to her chest.
“Welcome to The Ultimate Choice, Cassie. This is, of course”—he waited for the audience to join him—“the show where the donor makes the ultimate sacrifice and the winner gets to live.” He smiled at the audience, giving them a chance to calm down before he turned back to her and said, “How are you feeling, my love?”
A camera zoomed in on her. Cassie knew from watching the show that behind Bob Devine, the big screen had dropped The Ultimate Choice logo and her close-up loomed for the audience. The theme music faded out, and the theater waited for her response.
“Fine, I guess . . . nervous,” she said and let out a tittering laugh. A blush rose on her cheeks.
“Well, it’s all happening for you tonight, isn’t it, love?” The host glanced out at the audience. “And aren’t we going to have a fantastic time!”
The crowd cheered, and a shower of rainbow-colored confetti rained down.
A man sitting near the front let out an ear-piercing whistle and shouted in a strong northern accent, “Go on, Cassie. Show us how to die with courage!”
Bob Devine turned to one of the cameras and said, “Well, as you are all aware, the object of the game is to save the most worthy”—the presenter paused dramatically—“and you, the audience, and everyone at home must decide.” The crowd applauded. “But before we start, let’s find out a little bit more about our Cassie.”
Cassie smiled nervously at the presenter.
“So where are you from, darling?” He gave her what she imagined to be one of his photo-perfect smiles, his best pose—presenting his straight, white teeth and close-shaven face at their most attractive angle.
She cleared her throat, surprised at how loud the sound came across through her microphone. “Um, I’m from Wembley.”
“And very nice it is out there,” he said and placed a hand on her shoulder. He leaned in close, so she could smell the licorice on his breath. The odor sparked visions of her youth—it had been so many years since she had tasted such a delicacy. He turned to the audience and said, “And what did you do for a living?”
Cassie squinted at the bright lights. “I, uh, am a seamstress.”
“And you were a shut-in . . . ?”
“Yes, Bob. I spent the last six months as a shut-in because . . .” She scanned where the audience should be. The stage lights reduced all but the first couple of rows to shadows. She cleared her throat again. “I was ill with depression.”
“Okay. As you all know . . .” Devine paused as the crowd gave a deafening applause. “The name of the game here is death.” He waited solemnly, his hand still resting on Cassie, the everlasting smile gone for a moment. When he started to speak again, it was with a contrite quality. The audience fell into a respectful silence, watching Devine, mesmerized. “Our contestant Cassie”—he patted her shoulder, either ignoring or not noticing as she shrank away from the host’s touch—“chose to die. We will give her a certificate to legalize her suicide, and in return, she has a chance to ask questions, to help the public with their choice as to who receives her precious organs. Waiting are three possible recipients for each major organ—preselected for compatibility and, of course, proximity to the top of the waiting list.”
He smiled for the camera and tightened his grip on Cassie. Did he think she was going to run away? A sweaty little man ran past on the walkway that separated the stage from the audience. He clapped, encouraging the people to join in, and with each lap the man ran, the audience grew louder. The volume of the music also increased, the whole effect creating a sensation of unreality. Cassie glanced up at Devine. He looked like a bullfrog who had spotted a fly. She followed his gaze to a girl in the front row.
“All our contestant needs to do is ask a question, which each potential candidate will answer. The result is up to you good folks at home. Pick up your phones, vote for the person you want to save. Cassie, of course, can veto one choice only.” Bob Devine gazed around the audience, smiling widely. He pointed into a camera. “Remember, ten percent of the profit from your phone calls goes to the person or persons of our Cassie’s choice.”
He squeezed and caressed Cassie’s shoulder, rubbed at her jumper so her flesh underneath crawled. She hated his touch. Cassie wished his whole arm would fall off dead.
“So, Cassie, what lucky person will be receiving your share of the money earned tonight?” Devine asked. He still stared into the audience—at the girl in the front row. The host winked. The girl’s face lit up and she clapped even harder, her eyes wide and bright. He tore his attention away from the girl and said, “Family, friends? Perhaps a charity for a children’s cancer ward?”
As if on cue, people out in the audience sighed.
“Or possibly a shelter for abandoned cats?” There were a few scattered laughs at that comment. What planet does he live on? Cassie thought. Only the working cats were left, the rest had starved—or been eaten long ago. A cat shelter? Who would be so insane as to finance one of those?
Devine turned back to Cassie. He was waiting for an answer. The audience grew increasingly restless, jeering, whistling. Someone started thumping his or her feet—three thuds, rest, three thuds, rest. Others joined in until the beat shook the stage.
“Come on, love, don’t be scared,” Devine said and squeezed her shoulder.
Cassie glanced at him, then into the mass of seething black shadows behind the first two rows. “The money will go to my parents. They suffered enough because of me. At least they can get one good thing. Now, that is. At the end.”
“Wow, your mother and father must be proud of you.”
Cassie shook her head. “I wouldn’t know. We haven’t spoken for over two years,” she said quietly. “There were problems . . .” The crowd hushed, hanging on to her words. When someone signed up as a contestant on The Ultimate Choice and walked on that stage, it was because there was a story—a juicy, pain-filled story, and they couldn’t wait for her to tell all.
“Is that how the depression started?” Bob Devine asked Cassie. He finally released her shoulder. She breathed a sigh of relief, even as he grabbed her hand. For a moment, she stared, blinking hard and taking a deep breath as she tried to stop the tears that blurred her vision. Cassie leaned over, sobbing quietly, her question cards held up to block the camera.
Bob Devine stepped away from her side. She adjusted the cards until the host was captured in her peripheral vision as he turned to the audience and indicated they should help. The page dashed past the restricted view she had of the stage, his arms flapping as he tried to work the crowd.
“Come on, Cassie!” a lady shouted out. Was one of the cameras zooming in on this woman? Cassie kept the cards tight to her face.
Then seconds later: “We want to know!” The voice sounded younger, possibly a girl.
Suddenly voices tumbled over one another, all desperate to be the loudest, all calling for one thing, for Cassie to speak, for Cassie to tell all.
She slowly lowered the cards, wishing a camera wasn’t pointed right at her, knowing one would certainly be inches from her face. Cassie stared into the inevitable lens and put her hand up. The crowd silenced, many with mouths agape. Waiting.
“You want to know what happened?” People nodded, their attention fully on her. “I got pregnant.”
Gasps echoed around the theater.
Cassie took the handkerchief offered by Devine and patted her eyes. “I wasn’t given any approval.” Cassie gazed out into the audience, to the black shadows at the rear of the room. “I didn’t even have a husband.”
There were a few more gasps. Tuts of disapproval joined the general rumble of the crowd.
“At first I didn’t understand what was going on. Then I hid the pregnancy until the baby was term. The authorities only discovered him when he was a week old.”
“Him?” Bob asked.
“Jack. I named him.” Cassie stopped talking, eyes focused on the floor. Yellow gaffer tape marked the positions where she and Bob would need to stand as the show progressed.
“Then what happened?”
Bob was squeezing, rubbing her hand—like a giant slug, his palms sweating on her skin, leaving trails. She swallowed down a wave of nausea.
“I gave the baby up. No choice. They don’t give you a choice. Were you aware of that?” She glared under the lights and into the audience. “I had to stay indoors after I got too big to hide the bump. Had the baby alone in my flat. Giving birth was the scariest moment of my life. And then, then some horrible person informed on me.” She glanced up at Bob Devine. “The secret police took him from my breast. He squealed, cried for me. My parents disinherited me. Not that we’d talked for months.” Cassie turned to the camera. “Mum, Dad, I realize society doesn’t give you a choice. Giving him to you was the only way to keep Jack.” Her voice stronger now, she said, “I forgive you.”
Her breath hitched, and Bob plucked the handkerchief from the floor where she must have dropped it and handed it to her.
“You’ve only got yourself to blame!” an old woman in the front row shouted. The man in the next seat tugged her back down.
Cassie squinted out into the dark shadows of the audience. Dark, but moving—an undulating, unfriendly mass.
A small screen, visible only from the stage, showed a girl with a shock of bright red hair accentuating her too-thin face. She shook a finger toward the stage. “Shouldn’t have been a hussy. Got what you deserved if you ask me!” She sat back down. “Be a good citizen and you can’t go wrong. Am I right? Am I right?” the girl asked. Those around her nodded.
Back on stage, Cassie half stood. Why was she here? To be abused by self-righteous strangers? The exit to her left beckoned. Who knows, there was a small chance she’d make it past the security—this shame, in front of millions, was too much to bear. Bob Devine got to her before she made a bolt for it. He held her down and muttered, “Ignore her,” quietly in one ear.
“The show will be all over soon, love. You are making The Ultimate Choice, giving the Ultimate Gift. Do you remember what that means?” The crowd roared their appreciation.
Cassie burst into tears. “It means I die.”