There was a street fair last weekend. It doesn’t matter where. It could be your town. Couples and small children and couples with small children and adolescents and lonely souls wandered the booths looking at sunglasses and bonsai trees and slogan t-shirts. They snacked on corn-on-the-cob and turkey legs and strawberry smoothies. They picked up free swag from radio stations and sat in massage chairs and tried out new fingernail clippers. And some of them walked over to a booth proclaiming, “Take the Pepsi Challenge.”
Some of them were Coca-Cola drinkers. Some of them were Pepsi drinkers. Some of them had no preference, or didn’t drink soda at all. They all walked up to take the Pepsi Challenge because they thought they were smarter than Pepsi, that they could tell the difference, that they wouldn’t be fooled. Some of them were wrong.
Two college-age boys administered the Pepsi Challenge. They were twins. Both were blond and clean-cut and All-American, both wore t-shirts that said, “Take the Pepsi Challenge.” The only way they could be told apart was by their jewelry. No one really noticed or cared. The blond twins simply facilitated the Challenge, and the people couldn’t be bothered with them as individuals.
The two cans, sheathed in white plastic, were set down behind two clear plastic cups. One was full of Coca-Cola, one of Pepsi. The people drank, first one, then the other. The blond twins asked which they preferred. The Coca-Cola drinkers thought hard before answering. The Pepsi drinkers didn’t hesitate, sure of themselves and their answer. Some of the people with no preference just walked away after getting the free soda.
Upon the people’s answering, the cans were unsheathed and the truth revealed. Many, many people had chosen the Pepsi. The people smiled, some surprised, making little “humph”-ing noises as they raised their eyebrows at the blond twins, who smiled right back. Some people bought a full can of Pepsi right then and there. Some said thank you and moved on.
Many, many people had chosen the Pepsi. Some had not. These people did not smile in surprise, or raise their eyebrows, or move on to other booths at the street fair. These people were instead confronted, suddenly, by one of the blond twins. “Come with me, please,” the twin said. “Why?” the people asked. “Please just step this way,” said the twin, leading the confused people behind the “Take the Pepsi Challenge” booth.
Behind the booth was a large, unmarked, black van. Inside the van were two large, unmarked men, wearing black suits and black sunglasses. They opened the back doors and helped the people climb inside by pushing their heads down and clamping their arms behind their backs, before the people even knew what was happening. Some people cried out. Most were too startled to do anything. Then the van doors closed, and everything went black.
When the people awoke, they found themselves in a large room, walls painted in red, white, and blue. Televisions played in the four corners, jacked up like hospital TVs. On each television, in synchronicity, the small, curly-haired, gap-toothed child was singing. Her smile made some people nervous. After half an hour or so, her smile made all people angry. “Why are we here?” some people began asking. No one knew.
A door in the red, white, and blue wall swung open. In walked the two men from the van. Each pushed a red, white, and blue cart, carrying dozens of cans of Pepsi. They walked among the people, distributing the cans. Some people tried to refuse. Their hands were bound behind their backs, their knees pulled up to their chest and taped around their torso. A can of Pepsi was placed between their knees and their chest and a straw was placed in their mouth. “Drink,” said the large, unmarked men from behind their sunglasses.
Hours passed, maybe days. Every once in a while, the men appeared with the cans of Pepsi and the people drank. At one point, a thin man made a comment about Michael Jackson’s hair catching on fire in that commercial long ago, and did anyone remember that? Some people laughed. As their laughter subsided, the ceiling opened. Giant claws descended and plucked up the thin man and each of the people who had laughed. Their screams were muffled by the ceiling closing behind them as they vanished upwards. No one spoke much after that. The only sound in the room was the singing of the curly-haired girl and the slurping of straws.
Some people were asleep when the door opened again. In walked the blond twins. In front of each person was placed two cans, sheathed in white plastic, and two clear plastic cups full of soda. One was full of Coca-Cola, one Pepsi. Everyone was encouraged to drink. After drinking first one, then the other, the people sat back and waited. “Which did you prefer?” the twins asked. Everyone in the room answered, “That one,” and pointed to the can on the left.
At that moment, the televisions switched off. The bound were released. The door in the red, white, and blue wall swung open and, one by one, the people were led out of the room and into the black van. Then the van doors closed, and everything went black.
The people walked out from behind the “Take the Pepsi Challenge” booth, squinting into the bright sun. They rejoined their loved ones or children or simply wandered off by themselves into the spring afternoon. All of them knew something had happened, none of them could quite say what. At the next booth, they tried on a funny python-print cowboy hat, and went on with their lives. None of them ever drank Coca-Cola again.