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Short Story of the Week: A Brief Look At Brian Wood’s Joytime Killbox

>>“Only a couple days left in this cycle. Tomorrow, perhaps today, someone has to die.” So says the Old Man to Gregory in Brian Wood’s short story, Joytime Killbox, (Joytime Killbox, Boa Editions Ltd.). This piece, for which Wood’s short story collection is named after, asks a terrifying and beautiful, “What if?”: what if there was an amusement ride that strapped you to a chair with a gun pointed at your face? Who are the kinds of people that would wait in long lines to ride it? What are their motivations?

The story begins with a scene depicting its hero, Gregory, discussing a pre-ride contract with one of the ride’s ambassadors. “In the unlikely event of death,” the ambassador explains, “Joytime Entertainment LLC is in no way responsible or liable. By initialing here, here, and here.” Gregory then takes his place in line for the Killbox, where he meets a thin, sharp-dressed older man with, “fingers arched like spider legs,” and a cocky young girl dressed in a Catholic School outfit, Wood describes as a “youthful revolt in a staid uniform.” By using a character who is older and one that is younger, Wood teases out Gregory’s anxieties regarding childhood and his future.

The Killbox is simple in structure. “A perfect cube, just tall enough for an average man to stand inside.” Equipped with a single chair, a gun, and a light the color of “deep black-red, like blood not yet spilled from a body.”

Wood’s deft prose, at times simultaneously brutal and comically ironic, puts us right in line with Gregory as he struggles to navigate his feelings dread and doubt concerning his life and role of the Killbox in it. “It’s just that I’m tired,” Gregory confesses. “Of being ignored, passed up and left alone. Because I’m too young to be with it, or I’m not quite old enough to be put to pasture yet. I don’t know. But I know I just want to be part of something…I want to be—”

The setting is intentionally minimal. The stakes are high, with the potential of impending death ever looming over his characters, Wood gives his readers the impression they, too, are in a box with a gun pointed at their faces. In this way, Wood asks us to confront the strangeness of feeling inadequate in a world that says, Hey, you grown-up kid, yeah you, you better start acting like an adult and contribute to this adult world, too!

The pivotal moment of this story is when the Old Man replies to Gregory’s confession. “Then watch,” he says. “Don’t turn away. Watch me ride this out.” This moment is striking because we see a shift in Gregory as accepts that to feel a part of something, or adequate, or grown-up, he must confront his biggest fears about himself; he must not turn away, but watch. At this point, the Killbox is no longer something menacing, but a beautiful catalyst. Wood describes Gregory’s change of heart: “The thought of him being culled from this world in a glorious bang might be beautiful too.”

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