Illustration by Ryan V. Bitinis
In 2020, world governments decided fame was a right, not a privilege. But Hellen Hopper wanted none of it.
Hellen was a beautiful eighteen-year-old with raven-black hair and eyes the color of coffee. She could have been the next big star, the one everybody talked about around the water cooler, but she was what you’d call an introvert. She never sought attention, and she never understood why just being human wasn’t enough. Still, Hellen’s father made a point of telling her every morning that she was born to be famous.
Except by 2020, everyone was born to be famous.
In the early 2000s, fame had been controlled by the rich and well-connected, and only those who bought into the system were rewarded with fame. And then sometime around 2010, fame was democratized and politicized, and the backlash was intense. A rich and well-connected reality-TV star was made president of the United States and he lobbied for an end to democratized fame, calling its stars “lazy” and “losers” and suggesting that all of them “get real jobs” building walls or mining coal.
The newly famous didn’t like that idea, so they rebelled. The world economy came to a standstill. By 2019, all the rich and well-connected began to suffer. And by that, I mean they lost money.
So, in 2020 it was decided that every person in the world would be given 22 minutes of fame. A previous theory had put the ideal time at 15 minutes, and the World Fame Commission, WFC for short, tried it, but there were still too many rogue fame-seekers. Once the time was increased, the mass shootings stopped.
A Master List was created and all living persons were required to register by their eighteenth birthday. At registration, a person was allowed to choose whether they wanted to be on television or have a hit song whose air-time equaled exactly 22 minutes. Art and writing were deemed by the WFC to be “too high-brow” to qualify as legitimate paths to fame, and films were too expensive to produce, so all three were banned. On any given day in 2020, there were 480 songs playing across 44,000 radio stations worldwide and there were 65.455 shows on each of earth’s 28,017 television channels. At first, Texas and Indiana tried to reserve the .455 for fetuses, but the World Court struck that down, saying, obviously, that because they weren’t able to act outside the womb, the unborn could not be stars. So, instead, the World Fame Commission decided to round up or down by one, depending on how many shows were needed for that day’s programming.
Just like all the other kids in her class, Hellen registered with the WFC on her eighteenth birthday. She checked the “Television Show” box when asked what form she wanted her fame to take, but she didn’t think anything of it. There were so many people ahead of her on the Master List, she knew she wouldn’t be assigned to a show for years.
When she got home, her mother and father were watching television. They glanced up at her, then back to the big-eyed man on the screen struggling to hammer in a nail with an electric drill.
“Which did you choose?” her mother asked.
Her mother and father nodded, still watching the big-eyed man, who was now chasing the drill across the floor, where it flopped and rolled like a dying fish.
“You’ll do better than this guy.” Her father sounded confident. “Fool doesn’t know the first thing about home improvement.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” her mother said. “He built the Johnson’s porch last week, so he’s already making good on his fame.”
Hellen pictured the porch. She had thought the odd angle and dangling two-by-fours were an aesthetic choice, but now she wasn’t so sure.
“When will you hear?” her father asked.
“It’ll be sooner than that.”
Hellen didn’t believe it. She sat with her parents and watched the man choke the drill, which was threatening to pierce his eye. As someone off-screen finally unplugged the menace and the man, now crying, collapsed onto his knees, Hellen hoped she would never be called.
And then, three days later, the letter came.
Her father gave it to her with a wink and a nod. “I knew you’d be first in your class.” “Everyone’s getting these. It’s nothing. Probably just information.” Hellen said.
So, Hellen opened the letter and to her dismay, she was scheduled to start filming the following week. She groaned. “I don’t want to be famous. I want a job. I thought I might try college. There ought to be a law that says you don’t have to be a star if you don’t want to be.”
“Do you really want things to go back to the way they were, with people blowing themselves up and North Korea conducting missile tests every three minutes?”
“No. I guess not.”
“Do you really want to be responsible for that?”
“No. I already said no.”
“No, of course not. So you’ll go to the shoot. Where is it?”
Hellen looked at the letter. “At the old courthouse.”
“Bet it’s a period piece. Bet they’ll have you as head lawyer on a defense team and you’ll have to prove your client is innocent.”
Hellen shrugged. The letter didn’t provide any character references.
“Bet you’ll be smarter than the cops.”
“I might already be.”
“Not smart enough to get away with not going, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
That was exactly what Hellen was thinking. And she had one week to come up with a plan.
At the end of the week, though, Hellen didn’t know what she would do. Her mother was disappointed with her and told her so. It wasn’t enough that the government had provided this opportunity for her. Oh, no. Now she had to be Miss High-and-Mighty and refuse it.
“No one refuses this, Hellen. It’s just not done.”
“But I don’t want my life on display for everyone to judge. I don’t want people to know I wear a 34DD. That's my business.”
“I’m sure that won’t be part of the plot. I’m sure only Wardrobe will be acquainted with that information.”
But her mother’s assurances and her father’s pride did little to comfort her, and on the appointed day, she got into the baby-blue Cadillac her father had rented to make a good impression on the director (in case it ended up being a reality show), and she drove the four miles to the courthouse.
The camera crews were already set up and standing around. So she slammed the car door and walked up to one of the men behind the camera. He whistled at her as she approached.
“You a 34DD?”
“No, I’m Flemish.” She walked past him and over to a woman with a clipboard. In Hellen’s experience, only people with answers held clipboards.
“I’m Hellen Hopper. I’m here for my show.”
The woman looked Hellen up and down. “You’re not better than me,” the woman said.
“I never said I was.”
“You said it with your eyes.”
So, Hellen blinked in the most neutral, democratic way she could think, closing first one eye, then the other, scrunching up her face until it hurt. This seemed to placate the woman enough that Hellen was able to extract the director’s whereabouts. She found him sitting on the steps of his trailer smoking a smokeless, nicotine-free cigarette. He looked as used as a used car.
“You Hellen?” he asked. She barely responded before he said, “This is my third show today. I’m short-handed. Can you work the boom?”
Hellen knew about this. Once the fame laws had been enacted, the core curriculum was updated to include a class on fame, usually taught by the gym teacher, that was made up of many diagrams and conversations Hellen had found completely embarrassing. But she at least knew that a boom was just a microphone on a stick. She was not opposed to the director’s request, but the logistics began to bother her. “Operate the boom? On my own show?”
“No, no, no. Of course not. On the show after yours. We’re all in this together, Ms.
“Well, sure, anything I can do to help. I wouldn’t want to seem unpatriotic.”
So the director led Hellen to the set where she was to play a homeless woman with a heart of gold who saves an orphanage from a forest fire and ends up being given a job as a lawyer, even though she couldn’t pass the bar. So Father was right, she thought. I will be a lawyer.
In Wardrobe, Hellen was draped with dirty oil skins and potato sacks and given a shopping cart full of broken electronics (“To show your intelligence,” the prop man had said.). They teased her hair and dirtied her face so her makeover would be even more dramatic, and they gave her a rubber chicken, which she was supposed to hold like a baby in the scenes without her shopping cart. They didn’t give her a reason why.
When Hellen saw herself in Wardrobe’s huge full-length mirror, she was shocked. She looked just like every homeless woman she had ever seen in the movies. Then she was led back to the set and asked to stand still while the lighting was adjusted and angles and shots were planned.
Hellen stood for a long time, and maybe it was heat from the lights, maybe the smell of rubber, maybe the overworked and unhappy crew scuttling around like angry little beetles, or the director cursing and chain-(not)-smoking, but something in Hellen grew strong as titanium. She saw the cameraman finally point at her, saw the red light come on, heard the director whisper “You’re on,” and Hellen did what she knew she had to do.
Hellen Hopper bolted.
Clutching her rubber chicken, she ran and ran, past the courthouse set, past the blue Cadillac, past the orphanage set that had once been revered as the town’s first school house, and into the woods. And then deeper into the woods, past the forest fire set, until she knew she was alone, and she rested. She heard a whirring nearby and decided it was the blood in her ears that whirred and throbbed with exertion, so she ignored the sound and set about making camp.
Meanwhile, two thousand miles away, Hellen’s escape replayed on five large screens as the WFC board members, all rich and well-connected, banged their collective fists on their collective table.
“Another one!” The United States President said (he was the ranking board member).
“Not to worry,” said the gaunt Englishman to his left. “We’ve got this under control.”
“We can’t keep having escapees like this. It screws everything up. We lose money!”
The German delegate at the President’s right sighed. “It could be,” she started quietly.
“Couldn’t it be that some people just don’t want to be famous?”
The President banged his fist again. “Don’t tell me you’re buying into that story! That’s
Fake News! Listen. If I want to be famous, everyone does.”
“What about her parents?” the young Sudanese delegate asked. “Do they know she’s gone?”
“They say she can take care of herself,” the middle-aged Chinese delegate said. “Her father seems to have supreme confidence in his daughter’s intelligence.”
“With 34DDs?” the President scoffed. “She might be in good shape, but there’s no way she’s smart!”
And they all listened as the gaunt Englishman detailed the plans already in place to capture Hellen.
Back at her camp, Hellen had built a fire and used the rubber chicken as bait to catch her dinner, which ended up being a wayward coyote that tasted like roasted dog. Once she had eaten, she washed her face in the creek. And then she sat until sunset in the pine-scented quiet. The oilskins and sacks were plenty warm that night. She slept in the moonlight, in the cradle of tree roots, her cooked coyote tucked away in her waistband for breakfast.
Hellen made a life for herself out there in the woods. She built a lean-to out of evergreen boughs that kept her relatively dry. She fashioned squirrel traps out of saplings, wrote perfect poetry on birch bark using a burnt stick as a pencil. She kept busy gathering firewood or chatting with her chicken, whom she grew to love as a child.
One day, ten years into her rebellion, she saw a tall streak of red shoot through the forest. She was used to intruding hikers and rambunctious teenagers, but this was different. She ran after the red streak, her rubber chicken slapping up and down at her waist. When she reached the clearing, she hid behind a tree and saw a tall, blonde, beautiful girl, no more than eighteen, in a red and gold band-leader uniform. She was sitting on a boulder, crying.
Hellen approached cautiously and, touching her on the shoulder, asked, “Are you okay?” The girl waved her away, then went back to covering her face.
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
The girl shook her head and sobbed louder.
“Are you running away?”
The girl hissed through her hands, “Would you get out of here?”
“This is a cameo. You’re ruining the shot. Get out of the way.” The girl’s shoulders still shuddered with sobs, but Hellen realized the girl was acting. It turned out she was a gifted actor. “You’ve been given more than 22 minutes? Is that legal?”
“Not that it’s any of your business,” the girl whispered through her fingers, “but due to an administrative error, I was only given 21 minutes, so this is my one-minute cameo.”
“For what show?”
“Never mind. Just get out of here.”
Hellen, rejected and dejected, stepped back into the line of woods circling the clearing. To her chicken, she said, “The nerve of some people,” but she had trouble seeing her way back to her lean-to for all the tears.
So, slowly, Hellen grew older, forty, then fifty years-old. Her hips began to ache, her finger joints thickened, and every once in a while, when it was quiet, she would think of her parents, her mother’s pride and her father’s confidence, and wonder how long they had been dead. And then finally, one cold summer night when Hellen was somewhere around seventy, deep in the woods, surrounded by her industriousness and cuddling her chicken, she died, quietly, in her sleep.
Unbeknownst to her, mostly because she was dead, a whirring descended on her, the sound of a million tiny helicopters coming from all directions. Had she been alive, Hellen would have been appalled.
It turns out the World Fame Commission, not willing to let such a buxom beauty go, had set drone cameras on Hellen from the moment she received her letter, had miked her parents and bugged the Cadillac and, later, the woods. They had captured every sad, triumphant, boring moment of Hellen’s life. At her death, WFC producers condensed her life down to the required 22 minutes, spent only two minutes on her courthouse rebellion, spent twelve full minutes showing all of the many instances of Hellen’s ingenuity and bravery out in the wild (with one minute dedicated to her conversation with the crying blonde in the band-leader uniform), and then, in the remaining seven minutes, with many touching close-ups and sentimental tilts, viewers watched Hellen’s last hours. The final shot, a fade-out, lingered on her aged face, clean and still perfect, relaxed and peaceful in death.
And when The Hellen Hopper Story aired a week later, Neilsen ranked it #27 out of 1,849,122.
Michele LG Bitinis is a short story writer and novelist who works to represent the oftentimes sad, but mostly absurd, human experience.