Artie Spalding parked his bike in the Randalls' driveway and lugged his algebra book and his clipboard to the front porch, feeling like he might throw up. There was a weird buzz in his head and his glasses were steaming up because his face was hot and sweating. Artie paused to catch his breath and wiped his lenses with his shirt, wondering why he felt so funny. Jeez, he was just coming over to do homework with Chip like he did all the time -- nothing to get nervous about. But his hand was trembling as he pressed the doorbell, and part of him was screaming that he should jump on his bike and go do that homework alone, at his own house. It was like some kind of reverse deja vu, by which Artie was in a place he knew with great familiarity, but he felt like he'd never been there before.

In fact, Artie had never been anywhere before.

"Oh, it's you."

Chip's twin sister Debbie answered the door. She turned and stormed away, obviously disappointed. Artie stood in the doorway, mouth agape and eyes agoggle, and at once he felt a great and soothing relief. His anxieties washed away, proving that he was right where he belonged.

"Debbie!" said Brenda Randall, Chip and Debbie's mother. "Don't be so rude to Chip's friend! Artie, please come in." Brenda smiled at him. She was strikingly attractive, for being someone's mother, and Artie never saw her less than impeccably dressed. "How are you today?" she asked.

"Fine, Mrs. Randall," Artie said as he entered the living room. "Chip and I were going to work on some algebra."

Chip's father, Thomas Randall, looked up from his newspaper. "Chip's up in his bedroom, Artie. Go ahead and have a seat, pardner," Thomas said amicably. "Debbie, why don't you tell your brother Artie's here?"

"CHlP, ARTIE'S HERE!" Debbie shouted.

The buzz flared up in Artie's head again for one second and then went away.

Thomas shook his head and sighed. "Gee, thanks. I suppose it would have been too much to ask you to go upstairs and burst Chip's eardrum."

"Da-aad..." Debbie whined. She was sitting on the sofa beside her younger sister, P.J. "I don't have time to go upstairs -- Eddie'll be here any minute!"

Artie sat down in the remarkably neat and well-lighted living room. All of the furniture in the room, he noticed, sat facing the same direction. He guessed it always had.

"Eddie is Debbie's new boyfriend," Brenda merrily told Artie with a tap on the shoulder. "Eddie Connor. Maybe you know him."

"Oh, yes, ma'am, Mrs. Randall," Artie said. "Eddie's a great guy. One time he said he'd smash my teeth in if I didn't write his book report for him, but instead he just gave me a black eye."

The buzz hit Artie again, but he kept on talking, quite enthusiastic.

"Eddie even let me take my glasses off first. Pretty nice of him, huh?"

"That's my Eddie," Debbie said, clasping her hands together dreamily. "Compassionate even to dweebs."

Thomas and Brenda exchanged bewildered glances but did not speak. The buzz was thrashing Artie hard. Maybe he should have stayed away form the Randalls' house after all.

"I want a boyfriend, too!" P.J. protested. "No fair!" In her blonde pigtails and her miniature pair of overalls, she was a seven-year-old package of adorability incarnate.

"One of these days, punkin, one of these days," Thomas said, scanning the sports section. "Maybe you'll even find a young man who's as courteous and refined as Eddie." Thomas swallowed deeply and bugged his eyes out behind the paper.

Artie's head started to buzz again it was really beginning to disturb him when Chip appeared on the stairway.

"Hi, Artie," he said, carrying down his textbooks. Artie stood up, and he and Chip looked at each other for a long moment, with nobody saying anything, as if they were waiting for a starter's gun.

Finally Chip said, "So, you ready to work on this homework, buddy?"

"Don't you mean, 'ready to let me mooch off your answers, buddy?"' Debbie said.

What the heck was causing that buzz?

"Debbie, Artie does not do my homework for me," Chip said. "We do it together. It's a give-and-take kind of thing. Right, Artie?"

"Right," Artie said. "I give you solutions, and you take all the credit."

The buzz ripped through Artie's brain like a fiery chainsaw. What was making him say such boneheaded things? Chip gave him a dirty look and a surreptitious stomp on the foot.

Debbie laughed. "What a dweeb-a-zoid!" she said.

"Uh, I'm just joking, Mr. and Mrs. Randall," Artie said. "Actually, I'd be flunking Algebra if it weren't for the help of Chip here. Yeah! Y' know, he's so brilliant, he makes Einstein look like -- ow!"

Chip stomped Artie's foot again. "Let's get to work... student." Chip shoved Artie toward the kitchen, smiling hugely at his parents. Artie's head felt like it wanted to bust open.

The doorbell rang.

"I'll get it!" Debbie squealed, scrambling from the sofa. This time she wasn't disappointed.

"Hi, Eddie!"

"T'sup, babe?" Eddie said, strutting in wearing sunglasses and a leather jacket, under which he had a T-shirt that bore the phrase "KILL 'EM ALL." "T'sup, folks?" he said to Brenda and Thomas. Eddie saw Chip and Artie seated at a bar which connected the living room to the kitchen, and he greeted them: "T'sup, Chip? T'sup, Dweeb-a-zoid?"

Artie wanted to tell someone about all the buzzing, but he couldn't make himself say a thing. He could only sit there and grin like an idiot.

"Eddie, you want to go out to the soda shop or something?" Debbie asked with a mesmerized smile.

"Nah, I thought we'd maybe watch a little tube and see what's in your fridge," Eddie said. "Cheaper."

Bzzzzzzz...

"Sounds great!" Debbie said.

Bzzzzzzz...

"I want a boyfriend!" P.J. screamed. "I want a boyfriend now! And I'm gonna get one!" She ran over to the bar and clutched Artie around the waist. "You be my boyfriend, Artie!"

"Huh?" Artie said.

BZZZZzzzzz...

"Oh my God!" Debbie cried. "My sister and Artie Spalding! I am so embarrassed!"

"Uh..." Artie said plaintively, unable to break P.J.'s bear hug, "I think I may have a collapsed lung."

The buzz in Artie's head rose to a fever pitch, an agonizing fugue of mental static that spread itself over him like a bottle of Mrs. Butterworth's broken across his skull. Paralysis gripped him as the merciless orchestra poured it on, louder and louder, crashing its way headlong toward a terrible crescendo... And then it stopped.

"What is going on here?" Artie yelled, released from the thrall of pain. "What is that noise in my head? Why couldn't I say what I wanted to say? Why are we all acting so... stupid?"

P.J., from whom Artie had broken free, glared at him now with pure contempt. "Get the hell away from me, you worthless guest-star!"

"What?"

P.J. marched off in a huff. Artie turned to Chip, who was sitting on the far side of the bar, staring into space.

"Chip," Artie said. "Oh, God, Chip, what's wrong with this place? What -- "

"Hey," Chip said with a bothered, sidelong glance. "Lay off, huh? I'm on my break, man." Chip rested his chin on one hand and stared again into the distance.

"Oh, no..." Artie started across the living room in a daze. "I must be going crazy." He saw Brenda sitting on the sofa, leaning her head close against the coffee table. She was chewing it. Chewing on the coffee table and making small growling noises. "I am definitely going crazy," Artie said.

"Oops," Thomas said, noticing Artie's befuddlement. "Uh, Artie, I can explain a few things for you."

"Oh, Mr. Randall," Artie gasped. "Thank God!"

"Well..." Thomas scratched his salt-and-pepper beard and looked at Artie with concern. "There's no easy way to say this, and the commercials don't give us much time, so l'll just give it to you straight. Artie, my friend, you are a character in a sitcom."

Artie stared at him. "A what?"

"A fictional character in a network-television situation comedy. All of us are." Thomas gave a monumental sigh. "Welcome to Hell."

"No..." Artie said, backing away. "No. You're crazy. I must be dreaming this. I'm getting out of here!"

"Artie, don't!" Thomas said.

Artie swerved around Debbie, Eddie, and P.J., who were milling; together with bored expressions at the foot of the stairs. He reached the front door and swung it open.

"Where YOU goin'?"

"AHHH!"

Something plainly not human challenged Artie's escape with a drawn firearm and a bared set of fangs. The thing was nearly seven feet tall, very broad and very hairy, and looked like a cross between a man and a bulldog. Its eyes were pure white, without pupils. Dressed in a khaki security guard uniform with black gloves, boots and cap, the monster snarled and dribbled saliva on a simulated front porch. The,, outside was decorated with a few plastic vines and shrubberies that tapered off into nothingness. The bike Artie remembered parking was not there.

Artie ran back to Thomas; the creature snorted and pulled the door shut from the other side.

"Wh-what was that?" Artie said.

"One of the fiction police," Thomas said. "They keep us in line while we're not taping. When the cameras are rolling, we're at the mercy of the writers and the actors. We have no choice but to act like morons and recite their cornball jokes. What else can we do? We're their characters. Their prisoners."

"I don't get it," Artie mumbled. "How can I live my whole life up to now like a regular person, and then find out I'm part of a TV show?"

"You haven't had a life up to now, Artie. This episode is your first appearance on the show. They just wrote it into the script that we already know you, and they wrote you with built-in memories. That's all."

"No, you're lying!" Artie shouted. "I have lived before! I've been here lots of times, Mr. Randall! Nobody wrote my life!"

Artie noticed the other characters observing his outburst with severe impatience, like they'd just love to rip his head off.

Thomas put his hands on Artie's shoulders and spoke with deliberate calm. "Artie, you can remember doing homework with Chip, and you can remember Eddie beating you up... but do you know when your birthday is?"

Artie went pale "I... can't remember."

"Do you know your address? Or your mother's name, or your phone number?"

"No..." Artie said. "Oh God, I don't know!"

"And you won't ever know these things, unless the writers need to use them in a show, and they put them in the script. All of us have to deal with it -- this is the third year of the series, and we still don't know who we are. It can be hard to take. Look at poor Brenda. She cracked up after the first season."

Brenda was down on all fours, licking the carpet.

Artie paused, trying; to collect himself.

"Um... what's the name of this show supposed to be?"

"Another One of Those Days," Thomas said with mock delight. "Huh... tell me about it."

"But Mr. Randall," Artie said, "how come --"

"Wait -- it's nearly time for the second act," Thomas said. "Save it for the next commercial break. And please, call me Thomas. We're all equals here."

A fiction policeman appeared at the door. "Act II," he announced.

Artie felt himself moved by an outside force that caused him and the other characters to take their positions, involuntarily.

"Oh, I forgot to ask!" Artie said as he was taken back to the bar. "What is it that keeps buzzing in my head?"

"Look at this wall," Thomas said, pointing at the side of the room that all the furniture faced toward. "Wait until you're not in a scene and then look really hard at this wall. You'll see."

"I don't know why he bothers," P.J. grumbled as she resumed her death-lock around Artie. "Dog meat like you isn't worth the effort," she told him. "It's not like you're gonna be back anytime soon."

"Huh?"

"Shaddap!" the fiction policeman barked. "Awright... get back to work!"

The cast stood still for a moment as a few bars of cheesy music sounded. Then everyone sprang to life.

"I love you, Artie!" P.J. said. "You're the best boyfriend ever! Where are you taking me on a date tonight?"

"Gee, I don't know, P.].," Artie gasped. "But I may need an ambulance to get me there."

The buzz was back.

"Knock it off, Peej!" Chip said. "We're trying to do our homework."

Thomas stepped into the scene. "You heard your brother, punkin," he said, prying her from Artie. "I can't let you interrupt Chip's rare outburst of studiousness -- not even in the name of romance."

"But Daddy!"

"Besides," Brenda said, "I think you could find somebody closer to your own age, Patricia Jane."

"And closer to your own species," Debbie added, bringing forth a surge of the buzz.

There followed an exchange primarily between Debbie and Eddie. Artie and Chip just sat there, not even pretending to do homework, apparently because they knew they were off-camera. Artie managed to look out the corner of his eye at the wall Thomas had pointed to. For a moment he saw nothing but a wall; but then it began to shimmer and fade, and Artie saw that there was no wall there at all. Instead there were cameras and wires and huge lights and men wearing headsets. And beyond them sat an audience. They were eagerly responsive to every wisecrack, no matter how lame, no matter how badly delivered. Their laughter was the buzz.

These people were laughing at him. They were laughing at his life.

For God's sake, why?

The remainder of the episode was every bit as insipid as the opening. It centered on Eddie's insensitive treatment of Debbie, which infatuation left her unable to recognize. After an emotional mother-daughter talk, Debbie came to her senses and joyfully dumped Eddie. The Artie/P.J. subplot was resolved when P.J. chose to emulate her sister all the way, and dumped Artie. Artie got to close the show with a dopey line about being heartbroken. Another tricky situation neatly tied up in thirty minutes; another heartwarming ending to another one of those days.

"Do I get to puke now?" Artie asked Thomas when things broke up after the taping.

"It'd be nice to," Thomas said. "But when we're off, we can't eat or drink or sleep or vomit or go to the bathroom, because, of course, fictional characters don't need to do such things. But I'll be damned if we don't get the urges. Mostly we just sit around and keep to ourselves. The TV works."

The three Randall children were on the sofa solemnly watching Green Acres. Brenda was sniffing a lampshade and giving it a few tentative nibbles. Artie walked up to the wall through which he'd seen the audience, and knocked on it. It was solid as stone.

"This wall feels so real," Artie said.

"It is real," Thomas said, "to us. It's like we're in our own universe, and the studio where the show's taped is in a different one. When we're taping, the two universes intersect, and that wall drops away so that the audience can look in and see us. They know, intellectually, that there's no fourth wall there, but through suspension of disbelief they think we're in a normal house. When the audience isn't around, the fourth wall materializes because there's no reason for it not to be there. We're not on stage now; this is our real home."

Two fiction police escorted Eddie, two women and a man into the room.

"Who are they?"

"The older woman in the polyester pantsuit is wacky Aunt Irene," Thomas said, "and the yuppie-looking couple are Dan and Jeanette, our zany neighbors. They're all semi-regulars on the series they just weren't in this episode."

"Do we all have to stay in here?" Artie said. "What about the other sets?" Artie was referring to a school hallway and Debbie's bedroom, where parts of the episode had taken place.

"The fiction police like to herd us all into the main set, where they can keep an eye oh us," Thomas said. "We can never leave here during off-time."

"News from the writers," one of the fiction police said. "Three shows was enough for you, Connor. They don't want you back."

"No..." Eddie said. "No, please!"

Both of the man-dogs drew their weapons and fired continuously at Eddie for about half a minute. Eddie screamed horribly as chunks of his body flew away until at last there was nothing left of him, not even a drop of blood.

"Next there's you, Spalding," the first fiction policeman said.

Artie remembered what P.J.. had called him. "Dog meat." He prepared to die.

"They like you." The policeman gave a slobbery grin. "They think you're real funny. You'll be guestin' on a few more." The two sheathed their guns. "That's it."

The fiction police went out the door.

"My God," Artie said, his heart pounding.

"Don't worry about Eddie," Thomas said "He's better off. Besides, he'll be back for the re-runs." He took himself a barstool in the kitchen. "Well, buddy, looks like you're gonna be with us awhile. I guess you ought to hear what's in store for us.

"Like I said, this is our third season. Second and a half, actually; we were a midseason replacement. Our first few episodes got trashed in the ratings what'd they expect, putting us on opposite The Nipsey Russell Show? But they stuck us in the sure-fire 8:30 Tuesday hammock slot between Take Heart! and What the Heck, and we shot up to an 18.5 share. We've become a network mainstay. I just wish they'd left us in our original time slot, and let Nipsey put us out of our misery. Instead, we're headed straight for eternal damnation."

"What do you mean?" Artie asked. "I mean syndication. Y'see, when the shows arc rerun, we live through them again. The actors just have to do them once, but we're the characters. They've rerun episodes two and three times, and there we were, helpless, having to repeat the whole thing each time. If we could get cancelled now, we'd fade away and never be broadcast again. But this show's so damn popular -- God knows why -- and once a series gets three or four seasons in the can, it's bound to be sold into syndication. And shows that get that far can live on forever. I mean, look what they're in there watching now."

The characters at the TV sat with stony faces through sprays of laugh track.

"Oliver Douglas is so intense," Chip said with awe.

"Absolutely," said Jeanette, the yuppie neighbor. "The way he endures the appalling abuse from Lisa and Eb and Mr. Haney with such strength, time after time... he is the eye of the hurricane in a world gone mad." A tear rolled down her cheek. "It's... beautiful."

"Oh, he's all right," P.J. said. "But he's no Jed Clampett."

Thomas shook his head. "We all have our own feelings about syndication," he whispered. "I'm scared to death of it. So's Debbie. Chip seems to be more scared of ceasing to exist if we go off the air, so he thinks syndication is preferable over oblivion. And P.J., she can't wait to be syndicated. She's got this big ego-trip, and wants to become an immortal sitcom character -- not just a Cindy Brady or a Buffy Davis; no sir, P.J. thinks she'll be up there with Ralph Kramden and Gilligan. Personally, I think she's as crazy as her mother."

Brenda had torn the lampshade off the lamp with her teeth and was slinging it side to side.

"And I'm afraid we all will be, someday," Thomas said.

Time passed by not in days and weeks but in tapings and long periods of wakefulness. Artie adjusted pretty well to being a fictional character. He learned to ignore the ever-present sensations of hunger and bursting bladder; and, being a supporting character, he got to spend a good deal of the taping time offstage in a pleasing state of limbo. ln their off-time, Artie and Thomas stuck together, passing the hours in philosophical discussions about their condition. They discussed the capacities of situation comedy as a vehicle for true art, citing M*A*S*H and All in the Family, and, particularly, The Beverly Hillbillies, which most of the cast of Another One of Those Days held to be the genre's masterpiece. Artie and Thomas ridiculed the hideous performances of the actors on their show, and questioned the casting of guys in their twenties to play Artie and Chip, who were supposed to be sixteen. They debated whether bathroom-visiting characters like Archie Bunker and Al Bundy actually got to take a dump, or if they only went offstage and stood there. They wondered what Opie Taylor and Barney Fife sat around telling each other about Richie Cunningham and Mr. Furley.

And then, six episodes after Artie joined the show, they talked about the fourth wall.

"But Thomas, how can you say that suspension of disbelief is a necessary process in all art forms, per se?"

"Well, maybe not in all art forms," Thomas said. They were in a kitchen, leaning the backs of their chairs against the fourth wall. "But certainly in all the storytelling ones. Films can show you all four walls, but the audience still knows they're looking through a camera at the actors; the edited shots and compression of time also require suspension of disbelief. In literature, you have to believe there's a narrator who knows all the stuff he's describing, and forget that the author made it all up. To a lesser extent suspension of disbelief's involved in painting and sculpture, where you have to disregard the canvas and the marble and the brushstrokes in order to see the artwork itself."

"Okay, I see your point," Artie said. "But what about dance, or music? Those arc just people jumping around, or making sounds with their voices and instruments; that itself is what the artwork is, and the audience doesn't have to suspend disbelief about anything."

"Yeah, I think you're right," Thomas admitted. "I don't know... maybe that makes music and dance he best art forms. Definitely, the biggest handicap of stage drama is the fourth wall; and the lowest crud of stage drama is sitcoms. The characters always speak facing the fourth wall. They only sit on one side of a table. Their TV sets are always in the middle of the floor, turned away from the viewers. That wall is the weakest point in our aesthetic makeup. Sometimes I wonder what keeps the illusion from breaking down altogether. If they would just -- "

"Awright, playtime's over."

A fiction policeman entered the living room and used his own remote control to cut off the TV, interrupting a significant discourse between Fred, Grady, Bubba, Skillet, and Lamont's friend Rollo.

"Y'all get ready for the next tapin'. And by the way," the policeman said, putting his hands on his hips and narrowing his white eyes, "I got some mighty big news from the studio. Appears we'll be spendin' a long time together -- Another One of Those Days just got signed into long-term weekday syndy-cation."

The set erupted in noise and confusion. The fiction policeman snickered and left.

"Hallelujah!" screamed Aunt Irene, who dropped to her knees. "We have been saved! We're coming to the promised land of Superstation TBS, and yea, Ted Turner is our saviour!"

"Oh, God, no," said Debbie, who covered her mouth and ran weeping into a corner.

"Yes! Yes! Yes!" P.J. said, leaping with joy. "Now the work will forever know the comedic genius of P.J. Randall!" She clenched her fists and laughed maniacally.

"Oh man," Artie said over the shouts and moaning. "Thomas, this is terrible. What are we going to do? How can we -"

"Artie, shut up." Thomas stared emptily ahead. "Just shut up. Let's just forget it and just do the damn show."

The taping was charged by the polarized emotions of the dramatis personae. Artie ran through the episode with bitterness and anger, while an urgent idea took seed in his brain and grew like a cancer. But neither he nor Thomas spoke one word during the commercial breaks; they submitted in anguish to the pro-syndication camp's gleeful rantings.

Afterwards, Artie let Thomas brood alone in the kitchen. He stayed in the living room and listened to the sitcom theme songs that P.J.'s faction sang in celebration. When they made their way to "Schlemiel, schlemoggel, Hasenfeffer Incorporated," Artie could take it no more. He had to tell Thomas.

"Thomas?" Artie said, coming in the kitchen.

"If it was only funny," the head of the Randall household said, without looking up. "If it was funny, I could handle it, y' know? Why can't our writers come up with real jokes, like the fancy-eatin' table, with the pot-passers... or the cement pond? Or the doorbell gag, where they wonder where that music's coming from and why it always rings before somebody knocks on the door? Heck, why can't we at least have real personalities? What could possibly be entertaining about a bunch of robots that spew out cobwebbed-over one-liners, once every ten seconds? If it was a funny show, syndication wouldn't be so bad. I could deal with being Hawkeye, or Meathead, or Jethro. But our show sucks, Artie. It sucks out the ass. And you know what the scary part is? People love it. They just love the Randalls and their nutty hijinks. The people are sick, Artie. And they're going to keep us trapped here forever."

Artie sat down beside him. "Thomas," he said softly, "I think we should try to escape."

"What?"

"I've been thinking," Artie said, "there might be some way to get out of here."

"Are you crazy?" Thomas whispered. "Don't let P.J. and the rest hear you talking that way; they'll go straight to the fiction police! God, Artie... no character has ever escaped from a work of fiction -- sitcom or otherwise."

"How do you know?"

"Well, it's just impossible," Thomas said. "What makes you think you could?"

"I've got a few ideas," Artie said. "For one, we could have a revolt against the fiction police. Sure, they look real tough, but what are they able to do to us, as long as we're needed on the show? They can't kill us."

Thomas shook his head. "No, but they can do other things. You still don't know what happened to Brenda." Thomas paused, grimacing. "I've never been able to tell you. Y' see, she didn't get messed up all on her own. It was back when we got picked up for our second season... Brenda got upset, and started thinking just the same way you are. She made a move against the fiction police, and they... took her outside for a while. We don't know what the bastards did to her, but she's been acting like that ever since."

Brenda was on the living room floor, scratching under her arm like she was digging for fleas. Then she continued to chew on the sofa.

"God..." Artie said.

"And of course, she's still able to do her job on the show." Thomas sighed. "Forget it, Artie."

"Wait... I had another idea, too. I was thinking, since the writers of the show created us and control us, we must exist in their minds. The writers are part of us, but we're also part of them, right there in their brains; so maybe we can control them, if we try really hard. Or at least, subconsciously suggest that they do certain things.

Thomas laughed, "Yeah? What do you want to make them do -- write decent jokes?"

"No," Artie said. "What if they wrote an episode where we call attention to the fourth wall? Where we talk directly to the audience and stuff?"

"I don't get it. So what if we did?"

"My idea is, if we make the audience aware of us as characters on a stage, we could cross over from the fictional plane into their reality. And we'd be free. Like you said, the fourth wall is the weakest point in the system. I think we can tear it down."

"Hmm... I don't know," Thomas said, struck by the thought. "The writers might go for that 'no fourth wall' stuff, to try and be cute and trendy like Moonlighting and Garry Shandling... but I don't think it would break us out of here. lt's interesting, Artie, but it's too weird. Think of what could go wrong the fiction police, and"

"Come on, Thomas!" Artie said, keeping his voice at a whisper. "We're being syndicated, remember? A minute ago you were moaning about how we're stuck here, and now you're ready to give in instead of trying to do something about it? Screw the fiction police! I'd rather end up like Mrs. Randall if I'm gonna have to live through this. But go ahead -- do what you want to do."

Thomas was silent for a moment.

"All right, then," he said. "Let's blow this joint."

"Good grief, Mom! Did a tornado touch down in here?"

Chip and Artie walked in the front door to find the living room in complete dishevelment. Bright orange furniture was strewn haphazard about the edges of the room. Debbie sat pouting on the stairway; P.J. bounced on the fluorescent love seat; Thomas slouched into the sofa with his head leaned back, as if he were near unconsciousness. Brenda appeared to be overseeing the whole mess, meditatively.

"Hi guys," she said. "Guess what? The new furniture arrived today!"

"No..." Chip smarted. "You're kidding. Seriously: you are kidding, right? I mean, what is this -- hunter's safety upholstery?"

"Okay, so it's a little bit... brilliant," Brenda said. "It'll be fine, once we get used to it."

"Sure," Debbie said. "After it's blinded us all. Mother, this color's atrocious. From now on I'm sitting on the floor."

"Hey, dogs shouldn't be allowed on the furniture anyway," Chip said.

"I think it's pretty!" P.J. said. "It looks to me like it's on fire."

Brenda shrugged. "Get up, Thomas. I've still got to decide how to arrange it."

"Aw, honey, I'm exhausted," he grunted. "Why don't you take the boys, here, prisoner?"

Brenda turned to Chip and Artie.

"Would you help me, guys?"

"Uh, we'd love to Mom," Chip said, "but Artie can't lift heavy objects. He's got a bad back, with a dislocated hernia."

"Yeah," Artie said. "Runs in the family." Artie was getting nervous. The first assault was coming up.

"Oh, I'm sorry, Artie," Brenda said sweetly. "Don't worry -- I'm sure Chip can handle the sofa by himself."

Chip looked out at the audience and said, "Whoops."

The audience roared. Artie felt the slightest tingle.

"All right, Art, you go grab that end," Chip ordered. Thomas got off the sofa and the boys lifted it. "Where do you want it, Mom?"

"Try it over this way," she said, pointing.

"Boy... what was wrong with our old furniture?" Chip asked.

"Oh, it was beginning to get worn out," Brenda said. "It had little stains and tears... I even found some tooth marks. I'd like to know how they got there."

Chip and Artie put down the sofa. "How's that, Mrs. Randall?" Artie asked.

"Mmm... no. Let's take it around this way."

They maneuvered the sofa this time so that it was in the place where the old sofa had sat, only facing in the opposite direction. A couple of people chuckled at this.

"Not bad..." Brenda said. "Let's see how it feels." She and the boys took a seat on it. The audience laughed at how wrong they looked. Artie was tingling like he had his fingers in a light socket.

"Uh, no, guys," Thomas said, as if he knew something they didn't. "I don't think that's gonna do."

Artie looked over the back of the sofa at the audience. "Yeah, you're right, Mr. Randall," he said. "If the sofa were this way, you wouldn't be able to look at those shelves behind the TV" -- he pointed outward to the left side of the audience -- "or that painting on the wall." He pointed into the audience on the right. Not as many people were laughing now; these concepts were going a little beyond most of the crowd's comprehension. Artie's body hummed with electricity.

"Exactly, Artie," Thomas said, winking at the camera, and getting laughs, "so why don't you -- urkh why don't..." Thomas convulsed for a moment like he was suffering a heart attack. "Why don't you... s-stop LAUGHING... AT ME!"

Artie could move. He was in control. The shackles were broken.

"What happened?" Chip said. Brenda yelped and went sprawling to the floor.

"Thomas, come on!" Artie screamed. "We've got to get off the set!"

"You assholes!" Thomas said to the audience, waving a fist. "I hope you all burn in Hell!"

"Dammit, what are you trying to do?" P.J. yelled. "You're going to ruin everything! You're -- "

The fiction police stormed the set. One took aim at Thomas. "Thomas!" Artie cried. "Look out!"

The policeman blasted Thomas in the back, and he fell in a bloody heap. Another dog-beast leveled his gun pointblank at Artie.

"Son," he growled, "do you realize what you've done?"

Then the fiction policeman collapsed, shooting out sound equipment in the rafters. Brenda had pulled his feet out from under him, and she was biting of hairy chunks of his skin in a frenzy.

"Artie," Thomas groaned from the floor, as the troops closed in around Artie. "Jump."

Artie took a running start and leaped straight into the cameras and lights, soaring through the wall, and he didn't land on the other side. He found himself floating, alone, in a realm of endless white space. He screamed for a while but nothing happened. He decided he was probably dead.

Eventually, l had to say something.

Ahem... hello, Artie?

"Huh? Who is that? Where am l?"

Uh, my name's Donald Trull. I'm the writer of the story you're in. You sort of ruptured the fabric of your fictional reality and wound up out here in nowhere.

"Wait... are you one of the writers from the show?"

No, huh-uh. I wrote a story about sitcoms, and you're the protagonist. I wrote that those writers wrote you. Wheels within wheels, huh?

"But -- but what happened to Thomas and everybody back there?"

Gosh... I don't know. I hadn't really thought about that. Maybe they're all standing around, wondering what the hell happened. Or maybe when you escaped you caused that whole universe to self-destruct. Ah, screw it it doesn't matter. I'm done with the story. And now I'm gonna let you loose.

"Um... really?"

Yeah. See, I just made the readers aware that you're a character in my story, so that outer layer of suspension of disbelief is blown, and you're free to go now. Just like Kilgore Trout at the end of Breakfast of Champions. But first, I can set you up in whatever kind of life you want: riches, fame, romance, the power to rule the worldÑ you name it, man, you got it.

"Well... you know, that's really nice of you, but I don't think I need that kind of stuff. Just give me a nice family, some good friends, basic stuff. That's good enough. "You sure?

"Yeah. I do want to find something meaningful to do with my life, or be somebody important, someday. Like a network programming executive or something. But I want to write the story myself this time."

All right, Artie, that's cool. I just feel like I ought to repay you somehow, after all the crap I put you through.

"Mmm... okay. There is one tiny favor I might ask, just as a reminder of my roots." Artie grinned bashfully. "Y' see, I've always had this thing for Blair from The Facts of Life..."

Fancy Renerings