I saw the signs around town, and I have to say they intrigued me. Our community is pretty small, and it’s not often that a big-name entrepreneur comes to town to share their secrets with us wage-slaves in Nowheresville, USA. It didn’t matter that I didn’t recognize the name of said big-name entrepreneur; his tagline was pretty compelling.
“Be Your Own Boss--Change Your Financial Destiny!” The signs exclaimed across the features of a smiling man in a high-dollar suit. In small print below: “Kensey Kendall has helped thousands to achieve success in marketing and business. Why make money for someone else when you could be taking it all home yourself? Followers of the Program are welcome to find out how you can be the best version of yourself at Kensey Kendall’s Entrepreneurial Extravaganza!”
I’ve always thrown around the idea of starting my own business. I’m a pretty clever guy, or at least I’d like to think so. Sure, maybe my idea for light-up dog sneakers wasn’t going to make me a billionaire, but I still think there’s a market for it somewhere.
I wasn’t making much money at my office job, and I figured it wouldn’t hurt much to see what business secrets Kensey Kendall could share. The price was a little steep; $500 for a single seminar was a little out of my comfort zone, but something about that smiling picture gave me confidence. What was $500 if not an investment in myself? I’d asked a few people I knew if they were planning on going, but they all acted like they’d never heard of the thing.
I shrugged it off and made plans to take off work the next Tuesday and drive out to the Marriott by the interstate. If nothing else, it’d be an entertaining day off, even if I didn’t become a millionaire overnight.
The hotel ballroom was arranged much like any conference I’d ever been to. At the front of the room was a stage, slightly elevated from the blue carpet tiles that covered the floor. A pair of white screens flanked it, and a single microphone stood in the middle. Across the top, a bright green banner declared “Kensey Kendall’s Entrepreneurial Extravaganza!”
The ballroom itself was filled with long tables covered in navy tablecloths. Kensey Kendall was evidently expecting a crowd; I counted over a hundred seats on one side of the room alone. I guessed that they had seating for 250 in the cramped ballroom. A few hotel staff bustled around the room, arranging centerpieces and placing cheap hotel pens and pads of paper on the tables.
I looked down at my watch and saw that I was earlier than I had expected to be. I figured I’d have plenty of time to grab a coffee. I set up at the hotel coffee shop and watched as the crowd began to roll in. There were a lot of people; more than I thought our small town could reasonably produce. Most were middle-aged women, dressed in long sleeved blouses despite the humid July weather. They came in groups, all bedazzled jeans and oversized purses. They all clutched books with Kensey Kendall’s face smiling from the cover, and every one of them had a look of excitement on their faces, as if they were teenagers attending their first rock concert.
There were a few oddballs like myself in the group: bored-looking husbands, stooped old men, and the occasional unaccompanied guy my age. I tried to make eye-contact when I saw the latter group, just to feel less out of place. As soon as they met my eye, though, they’d dip their heads down and disappear into the crowd. Must be feeling a bit embarrassed, I thought.
By the time I finished my coffee and slipped back into the ballroom, it was filled to capacity. I spied an empty seat toward the middle of the room, between a round-faced woman of about fifty and the beige wall divider. Next to her were half a dozen hardcover books spread out on the table. Just like the other books I’d seen, each one bore the smiling face of Kensey Kendall himself. I hesitated before approaching, unsure of sitting next to what looked to be a true superfan in a room of superfans. A glance around the room, however, confirmed that my seating choices were limited to the point of being nonexistent.
“Is this seat taken?”
She smiled up at me and I saw that she was older than I originally had guessed. Her eyes were wide and owl-like, and rimmed in red. She looked as if she hadn’t gotten a good night’s sleep in some time.
“Please, have a seat!” She cleared a couple of books away from the table and patted the chair.
“Aren’t you just beside yourself?” she asked once I had sat down. “I mean, the Kensey Kendall. In the flesh! Well, I just about died when I heard he was coming here of all places.”
I smiled at her. “I’m not too familiar with him, to be honest. I was just hoping to get some useful career advice.”
The woman looked momentarily taken aback before recomposing her face into a smile. “Well that’s just fine, dear. The amazing thing about Kensey Kendall is that he helps everyone! No matter if you’re coming to us late--the important thing is you’ve found us!”
I nodded and surreptitiously looked around the room once more to see if there was another empty seat. The woman had already started speaking again.
“He’s just changed my life, he has! I’ve read all eight of his books, and I’ve followed his Program to the letter.” She paused as if remembering something. “By the way, my name is Judy. Judy Cantwell.”
“Robert,” I replied.
“Well, Robert, it certainly is a pleasure to meet you. I just know Kensey Kendall is going to change your life, too!” Her voice changed to a whisper. “You wouldn’t have felt compelled to come if you weren’t ready.”
“Ready for what?”
Judy laughed and touched my shoulder with a heavily-ringed finger. “You’ll see, dear.”
I was about to ask what she meant by that when the lights in the ballroom dimmed. From somewhere above me, I heard the loud thumping bass of upbeat pop music. A single spotlight illuminated the stage, which now swirled with white vapor from a hidden fog machine. From this whirl of noise and confusion, a man appeared. He stood silently and unmoving just behind the spotlight. Though his details were hard to make out, I could tell by the crisp tailoring of his pinstripe suit and his tall, thin figure, that this was Kensey Kendall.
With a single fluid stride, Kensey stepped into the spotlight. The crowd let loose what I can only describe as a howl at his appearance. He smiled, and his white teeth caught the spotlight, reflecting their bleached brilliance back at me. Disorientation momentarily took over me, and I shut my eyes against the chaos.
Finally, the lights in the room came back up and the music wound down. It was several long seconds before the crowd took the hint and settled back into themselves. Kensey Kendall approached the microphone, looking every bit like a well-polished huckster.
“We all know why we’re here, don’t we?” he asked, grinning out at the crowd. A scattered “yes” came in response.
“Oh, I know you have more energy than that. I said ‘we all know why we’re here, don’t we?’”
This time the crowd erupted in noise. “Yes!”
“That’s right--we all have a vision. We all have a desire!”
He pulled his microphone from the stand and walked to the edge of the stage.
“Now tell me, young lady,” he said, bending down to a middle-aged woman at the front table, “what is your desire?”
“I...I don’t want to work anymore,” she stammered out uncertainly.
“You don’t want to work anymore,” repeated Kensey Kendall. “You don’t want to work anymore!”
He turned to face the audience.
“Who here doesn’t want to work anymore?”
The audience cheered in unison.
“Who here is tired of the daily grind? Who here is tired of being told what you can and can’t do with your own time? Who here is tired of the lack of respect that the world gives you?”
More cheers from the audience caused my ears to ring. There was a fierceness to their enthusiasm that caught me off guard. Kensey Kendall stood for a moment, seeming to revel in the adoration being thrust upon him.
“Now, you all know the overwhelming power of my simple Program. You’ve seen the results in your own lives. I know you have or else you wouldn’t be here today.”
Once again, deafening cheers. I thought by now the crowd might be settling down some, but they only seemed to be ramping up.
“But,” continued Kensey, “I thought I’d bring out a living example of your collective success. I’d like to introduce you to Marla. Marla is a housewife and mother of three handsome boys. She discovered my Program three years ago, and followed it to the letter. At the time, Marla was stressed. She was tired. She was given no respect at all. Her husband had put her on an allowance.” Kensey spit the last word and the audience hissed audibly.
“But now Marla is a successful businesswoman. She owns three luxury cars, a ski cabin in Aspen, and has been able to pay ivy-league tuition for each of her boys. Please welcome, Marla!”
The crowd roared as a petite woman in a fitted pink suit walked onto the stage. Marla stood for a second, letting the audience calm back down. She fit right into my image of a polished corporate climber: a helmet of ice-blond hair framed her immaculately made-up face. She wrapped a manicured hand around the microphone and began to speak with an assertive self-confidence.
“My dear Kensey has already told you about my successes,” she said, smiling warmly across the stage to where Kensey Kendall stood. “But he only tells part of the story. He hasn’t touched on the many failures that got me to where I am today. Oh, before the Program, I’d tried just about everything. I sold make-up door-to-door, I hosted candle parties, and I bugged my friends and relatives to buy leggings and skin-care products and weight-loss drugs.”
Marla paused for the audience to boo, and they happily obliged.
“I was lost, frankly, like so many of you were. Then I discovered Kensey Kendall and his remarkable Program. At first, I was unsure. His methods seemed so unorthodox. But, hadn’t I lost so much money on go-nowhere schemes? Why not try his Program and just see? Well, I did, and the rest is history!”
Marla beamed out at the crowd as Kensey Kendall approached her, clapping. One by one the audience members rose to their feet to give a standing ovation. Marla did an odd sort of curtsy and waved as she retreated back behind a white screen.
What immediately followed wouldn’t have seemed out of place at any marketing convention. Videos were projected on the screen of normal people who had attained unheard of riches by following the Program. Happy, smiling faces of stay-at-home moms, unsatisfied 9-5ers, and the occasional retiree. Never in the videos did anyone mention what the Program was, or how they amassed their fortunes. I turned to Judy and whispered.
“What exactly is the Program?”
She shot me a sharp look, eyes wide and panicked, before softening slightly. “You really should have read Kensey Kendall’s first book before coming, dear. But, I guess you’ll find out before too long.”
I felt like a world-class chump for falling for what looked just like a pyramid scheme, and seriously considered leaving. A little voice in my head reminded me that I had spent $500 to be in that hotel ballroom. Why leave now when the good stuff could still be forthcoming?
When the videos were over, Kensey Kendall stepped back onto the stage to uproarious applause. It was as if he were just walking out for the very first time. He made a hand motion asking for calm and waited patiently until the cheering died down.
“Now, you’ve seen what you can accomplish! Now you’ve seen what you can become! You are all so close to finishing the Program, and Today. Is. Your. Day!”
A feral cry erupted from the room as Kensey Kendall continued.
“Join me,” he said, smiling his white white smile. “I’ll make you wealthier than you ever imagined.”
I shifted in my seat, feeling suddenly uncomfortable. Beside me Judy had balled her hands into tight fists and was red in the face. Ecstasy was written on her broad features and I looked away in embarrassment. All around me the same thing was happening to the other attendees. Some had their heads thrown back, others were locked onto Kensey with the kind of focused intensity I’d only witnessed at a strip club or in a nature documentary. For a moment I thought they were going to storm the stage.
“Join me! You’ve given so much of yourselves already--aren’t you ready for your reward?” There was a wildness in Kendal Kensey now, a feverishness that reflected back out onto the audience.
“Yes!” they cried in unison. “Yes!”
“Then it is time for the final stage of the Program!” Confusion spread through me as Kensey Kendall began to undress on stage. He folded his jacket and shirt neatly and laid them on the stage, followed by his pants and shoes. He stood before the crowd in his boxers staring unblinking into the audience.
I shifted in my seat. What was this Program? Did I inadvertently entangle myself with a group of middle-aged swingers? Before I could reflect on the bizarre scene in front of me, the audience rose as one to its feet. I hunkered down in my chair, hoping to go unnoticed.
From my vantage point, I looked on in horror as the people in the crowd began to remove their clothing, too. Piece by piece, jackets, shirts, skirts and pants fluttered to the blue hotel carpet until each attendee stood naked in the crowd. But it wasn’t the nudity that bothered me in that moment; it was what the clothing had so effectively hidden.
The skin of every body was crisscrossed with an elaborate webbing of scars. Some were old and white, raised lines on soft bodies. Others were new and ugly, jagged wounds that still seeped and festered.
On every attendee there was such a network of scars that only the hands, neck, and face appeared untouched. Beside me, I could see the flesh of Judy’s thigh. A wound was open there from her hip bone to her knee, freshly scabbed over and deep. My first thought was that she needed stitches, that I should call an ambulance for her. That thought was interrupted by a squeal of microphone feedback.
“Why do you not stand?” Kensey Kendall’s voice boomed out at me across the ballroom.
I tried to shrink further into the wall partition as his voice drilled into my head. Next to me, Judy pointed a finger at my retreating figure.
“He hasn’t read the books!” she shrieked. “He hasn’t done the Program!”
I could feel hundreds of eyes lock on to me. No. No no no no no. I couldn’t think or move.
Kensey Kendall looked at me curiously. “Bring him to the stage!”
I tried to fight back as a dozen nude bodies descended on me, but it was no use. Two stout men grabbed my arms and roughly dragged me to the stage. They shoved me before Kensey Kendall and stood back a foot behind me with their arms crossed, like mafia goons in an old movie.
“What’s your name, son?” Kensey Kendall asked. I hesitated.
“It’s Robert! His name is Robert!” I heard Judy scream from the audience. Kensey nodded.
“Well, Robert, you’re new to the Program, then?”
I nodded, uncertain.
“Good, good. That’s just fine. The seminars tend to be a little advanced,” Kensey Kendall turned to the audience and winked. Laughter filled the room.
“Tell me, Robert, what did you hope to gain by coming here.”
“Well, I guess I hoped to eventually start my own business.”
Kensey beamed at me and smacked me on the shoulder. “Then you’ve come to the right place, my friend! I’ll tell you what, Robert--and I don’t do this for everyone--I’ll let you join in today!”
The audience cheered as I shifted from foot to foot. I was aware of the two burly men standing just at my back.
“Uh, no thanks. Really, I’m fine with what I’ve already...uh, taken in.” I tried to smile back at Kensey, but he only shook his head.
“Nonsense! You’ve paid your money; you’ve earned your reward.”
I watched as Kensey approached a frail old woman in the audience. “What’s your name, sweetheart?”
“Sue,” the old lady replied.
“Sue. Beautiful name! Sue, would you like to help initiate Robert into the Program?”
Sue’s features lit up. “It would be my greatest honor.”
“Perfect!” said Kensey, leading the old woman to where I stood. I moved to turn away from her, filled with an overwhelming sense of unease. The two men behind me grabbed my shoulders and turned me back toward Kensey and Sue. Before I knew what was happening, Marla, the petite businesswoman from earlier, placed a straight razor and a porcelain bowl in my hands. I looked at her and saw scar tissue poking out under the sleeves of her pink suit jacket. She smiled at me and nodded. I stood numbly, looking around at the scene before me. The crowd was focused entirely on me, and I could see Kensey staring me down.
Sue cleared her throat. “Right here, deary,” she said, pointing to an unscarred patch of skin on her clavicle. I froze.
“You want me to cut you?”
“Well, yes. Just right here. Make sure to catch it in the bowl, now. We don’t want to make a mess.”
“I’m not going to cut you,” I said. I turned around to the crowd. “I’m not going to cut an old lady!”
The crowd booed and hissed, moving noticeably closer to me. I tried to shrink away, but the two men behind me held me in place.
“Robert, Robert,” Kensey said, clucking his tongue in disapproval. “Do you really want to deny Sue here the chance to complete the program? Look at how far she’s come already.”
I stared at the roadmap of scars on the wrinkled body. What had they done to her? Kensey leaned in close to me and whispered in my ear.
“Come on now, Robert. You really don’t have a choice. Participate or regret it.”
I swallowed hard and held out the razor in a shaking hand. I drew it unsteadily against Sue’s breastbone, and saw the faintest line of red appear.
“Deeper,” Sue hissed at me.
I increased the pressure of the razor until blood began to flow into the bowl. I could hear the crowd beginning to make noise again. It was a hungry, impatient sound and I told myself not to look at them. I focused entirely on Sue. Her eyes were closed and a beatific smile had spread across her face. It made me nearly sick. Finally, when my bowl was nearly half-full, Kensey Kendall spoke up.
“That’s enough!” He smiled at me and nodded to Sue. “That’s great, Robert. Now, please drink.”
“From your bowl. Please drink what Sue here has so kindly offered up. You don’t want to waste her sacrifice, do you?”
I felt the eyes of the entire ballroom on me. I looked out at the audience. Each person was holding their own straight razor and bowl. They must have been distributed while I was cutting Sue. Spots began to swim in front of my eyes, and I swayed unsteadily on my feet. I gulped and brought the bowl to my mouth, afraid of what the crowd of razor-equipped crazies would do to me if I didn’t. I hesitated as the porcelain brushed my lips. Then, with a deep breath, I tipped the bowl and I drank. God help me, I drank. The liquid was thick and warm and metallic. It was all I could do not to vomit it back up onto the carpet. It seemed to take forever, but finally the bowl was empty.
“Good!” said Kensey. The sound of his clapping was the only thing I heard as a rush of blood ran to my head. “Good! Wasn’t that good everybody?”
The audience nodded their agreement, now curiously silent. Their eyes were glazed over and their hands clutched their razors so hard their knuckles were white.
“Now, Robert,” Kensey said, turning his attention back to me, “you’ve got a lot of lost time to make up for. Luckily we’ve got a whole room of people willing to help. Isn’t that right, folks?”
On cue, the crowd of people began to walk toward me. I moved to run, but the two men and Marla blocked my path. They held me in place as the first of the audience members swiped at me with her razor. The others soon followed, crushing me in an onslaught of scarred bodies and flashing blades. They made quick work of my clothing, tearing at it with razors and fingernails until I crouched naked, bloody and helpless amid the throng. The men held me up once again, pulling my arms out beside me, offering my up to the mob.
The razors began descending in earnest then. I screamed out and thrashed against them, but they held me down. I barely felt the first of the cuts, as adrenaline numbed my nerve endings. The pain began with the second wave of audience members. I cried as I watched my body being mutilated before me. Lines of red appeared on my arms, legs and torso. They zigzagged and circled, making an ancient language in my skin. I saw Judy taking a swipe at an unbloodied spot along my ribcage. I looked into her mad, gleeful eyes and promptly lost consciousness.
When I awoke, I was in my own bed, wrapped in bandages from head to toe. A copy of “Kensey Kendall’s Foolproof Program for Success and Happiness” sat on my bedside table, along with a bottle of disinfectant. I don’t know how long I’d been lying there before I regained consciousness. It might have been hours or it could have even been days. I suspect I was drugged after the initial bloodletting, but I can’t confirm that suspicion.
I might have known how long I was out if I’d bothered to call into work. I didn’t even try. They’d figure out soon enough that I was quitting. It might sound strange, but I just can’t imagine myself ever going back to work for someone else. There’s too many opportunities out there in the world that are mine for the taking. I’ve got a great idea for a new start-up, and I’ve been working on the business plan practically since the minute I woke up in my bedroom. I can taste the success of it already; I can feel it in what’s left of my blood.