BUZZ IS TOTAL NERVES about the scene today. He’s afraid of heights. I haven’t gotten to know Buzz much. He plays the head of a gang of delinquents who don’t like my character cause I’m the new guy in town. In the script, he and Judy roll together, although I have a feeling it’s not going to last. Off the screen, Buzz seems nice enough. He keeps to himself, spends hours with photos and letters spread across his bunk, from his parents, from his girlfriend back in Kansas, or, at least, what’s left of the state.
I put my arm around his shoulder, buddy-buddy, as we’re walking up to Millertown Bluff. I can feel him shaking, the whole frame of him, hulking muscle and square jaw barely holding back tears as he stares straight ahead, biting his lip.
I just finished filming a scene with my father, Frank, a milquetoast kind of guy, sweater vests and appeasement. I had this whole monologue about honor—whether or not I should defend my honor—and I was surprised when one of the directors said I did a good job. I didn’t grasp it, not then. What my character was actually talking about.
“Talk to me, Buzz. What’s going on?”
“I don’t want to do it.”
“It’ll be over soon enough. Why are you so worried?”
Buzz doesn’t respond. He looks down at his sneakers. There’s something he’s not telling me.
Four weeks earlier. The hallways feel like the future and history all at once. My stomach is a shiver of the coffee I tossed back a few hours ago. I run to keep up with the studio execs, turning left and right through a labyrinth of posters, films I’ve never heard of. Pre-360 for sure. The execs walk so fast. It’s like they’re gliding, not a single bit of friction getting in their way.
The office is nicer than any place I’ve ever seen, no laminate floors sticking under your step, no cheap waterlogged wallpaper peeling off at the top edges. Plush royal blue carpeting, a heavy wood desk, oil paintings that look fancy enough to be in museums. One of the execs lowers himself down in a leather chair. There are three of them, men in tailored suits with hair slicked back, wealth in their smiles, their shoes, and their gold and silver watches. I can’t believe I’m sitting across from them. Me—a know-nothing nobody from Florida (a.k.a., The Swamps), all floods and humidity, houses on high rises with tin roofs that seep up the heat, the stench of the factories gutting fish—folks like me don’t have nice things. We have reality shows, shit streaming from the tube, and one or two 360s a year if we save up for them.
The man in the chair slides me a contract printed on bright white paper, an embossed pen. It’s a long document, the language written in a way where it’s not meant to be digested. I’m barely through the first page when I realize the two other execs are standing over me, arms crossed, feet tapping with impatience.
“You can read it over if you want,” one of them pipes in. “But it’s standard issue. Nothing unusual. Paid at scale per episode completed.”
I nod as if I’ve done this before, not an amateur flailing in the deep end of a pool, struggling to keep my head above water. I take the pen. Do my best to sign on the lines marked X without smudging, the curse of being a lefty. The papers swish away, immediately filed. I receive handshakes from each of the men.
“Your name is Jimmy now.”
“Jimmy. Until you finish the show.”
Another: “I’ll lead you to the actors’ dormitory, where you can become acquainted with the rest of the cast.”
“Thanks. Thank you, really, for this opportunity.” I want to grin so wide the skin peels right off my face. Less than a month in Hollywood and I already have a role.
“It’s our pleasure,” the three men respond in an uncanny unison.
I’d hoped to call my mom, lay out the good news. She hasn’t had much good news lately. Hard to find work in The Swamps, and I know she hasn’t eaten anything but canned food for months. Apparently, we’re in a closed set, and that means I can’t contact anybody “on the outside” until the show is done shooting. Judy says it’s normal. Most shows are filmed on closed sets. It’s okay cause they don’t take very long. A couple months at most. She says not to make it into a big deal. Says you get used to it. Judy is another member of the cast. She claims she got a peek at the script and we’re two of the leads. Jimmy and Judy. We’re perched by the craft services table, sandwiches and crudités for days. I eat several fistfuls of baby carrots doused in ranch dressing, slice after slice of bread and cheese before I notice that Judy’s staring at me. I straighten up, imagine myself wearing something more impressive than a bargain bin T-shirt and jeans a size too big. A swallow. I confess to her that this is my first part.
“Congratulations.” Her voice doesn’t have much enthusiasm, except I don’t think she’s being sarcastic either. She has a deadpan expression that’s hard to gauge. “Most people don’t get a lead for their first.”
“How many parts have you had?”
“This is my fifth.”
Judy shrugs. “Follow directions. Don’t ask questions of the higher-ups. Remember that everybody here is trying to be an actor in the 360s. There’s no other reason we’d be here.”
I push the toe of my shoe into the cement floor, a pair of sneakers with holes in the heels. “Right. That makes sense. I guess it’s not so glamorous to do these kinds of shows.”
She nibbles on the edge of a whole wheat wrap. I let out an unintentional burp and blush.
“How long does it take? On average. To, you know, make it.”
Judy pats my cheek in a maternal way, although I’d guess we’re around the same age, eighteen or nineteen. She has loose ringlets of hair, a soft, classical face. “There’s no formula. There are actors who have been doing the shows for over a decade. Last year, Delia Hartnett starred in a 360, and she was only on a couple episodes of a single show before that. For most people, it’s just chance, luck.”
Judy stands and takes her plastic tray to the conveyor belt. I wonder what she meant when she said, “for most people.”
My first 360 and I was in love. Nobody in The Swamps could afford 360s in the early days, but eventually they introduced discount matinees on Tuesdays, and while they still weren’t cheap, they were suddenly in the realm of possibility. My thirteenth birthday, my mom—my dear, old mom—took me out of school for a surprise.
“Wear your best,” she told me, and I sniffed the armpits of my two collared shirts, trying to decide which stank less. Blue. Blue was better. My mom was in the dress she’d worn to my father’s funeral, black lace up to her neck, a flaring skirt, and she put her hair up in a twist, streaks like drips of white paint in brown. I teared up a little when we stood by the mirror propped next to the front door and she fussed with a smudge on my cheek. Because it had been so long since either of us had looked this happy. So long since I had seen my mom smile.
The theater was everything that I could have hoped for and more. I chose a box of my favorite candy, sour worms, a bucket of popcorn, and a coke nearly the size of my head. I remember it smelling so good in there, but maybe it was just an absence of anything that smelled bad. I tugged my mom toward our seats, cushy recliners that let you lay back as far as you wanted, and when I slid on the VR helmet, the electrodes tingling my scalp, the goggles down over my eyes, I gasped.
We were seeing a new Western, Vengeance of a Lone Wolf starring Coleman Wick as the Ranger and Winnie DuPont as his kidnapped mistress, Madame Merci. Even after all the 360s I’ve seen now, I still don’t know how to describe them. It’s like you’re a god on the one hand, the action unfolding before you in a completely novel world, but you’re also sentient. I could feel the heat of the desert radiating up through the Ranger’s boots as he patrolled the town; the terror that pulsed through Madame Merci as the villain, Hardtack Hal, tied her to the back of his horse; the sour burble of whiskey at the back of the Ranger’s throat as he rode through the mountains, searching for Madame Merci; the adrenaline and gunpowder sulfur of the final shootout between the Ranger and Hardtack Hal; the sweet, intimate pleasures of the Ranger and Madame Merci’s midnight reunion.
I cried the whole way home, giant tears and snot bubbles and that hiccupping cough you get when you’re crying so hard you can barely breathe. I was embarrassed too. Thirteen-years-old and I was crying like this.
“I don’t want to go home. I hate where we live.”
“I know, sweetie,” my mom said, sighing and putting her arm around my shoulder as the water bus motored back toward The Swamps.
“I want to live in Dodge City. I want to hang out with the Ranger and Madame Merci and Hardtack Hal. I want to go back.”
“We can’t go back. It’s not real.”
“But what if it could be?”
Buzz turns, towering over me, still trembling and biting his bottom lip, his biceps bulging through his shirt sleeves. His hands are bunched into fists. “Jimmy…I think they’re going to kill me off. I overheard a couple of the crew guys talking. I’m pretty sure on this one.”
“Maybe they were talking about somebody else? And okay, let’s say they do kill you off. You’ll audition for other shows. You’ll find another part. This thing’s only got like another week or so.”
Buzz swallows. His Adam’s apple bobs up and down.
“What are you hiding from me, Buzz?”
He shakes his head and his demeanor shifts. “Nothing.”
“It doesn’t seem like nothing.”
I look at him. He’s concrete again, sealed off, this hangdog look like he’s about to attend his own funeral. “You’re right,” he says finally. “If they’re going to kill me, then they’re going to kill me. My fretting over it isn’t going to make a difference. What would I do to stop it? Run away? It’s too late to quit the game now.”
I study the script for the first day’s shoot, sprawled across my bunk, chin propped up, legs swinging in the air. Judy’s helping me with lines. She doesn’t have anything until the second day. She sips at her coffee slowly. It’s admirable. Her patience. I have no self-control. I eat until I nearly want to puke, drink enough coffee to keep me up all night, and yesterday, when they took us to wardrobe, I walked out with at least a dozen outfits. I’ve just never been around food that’s tasted so delicious, clothes that are so crisp and new. We don’t ask each other questions about our lives before the show. We don’t even know each other’s real names. It’s Jimmy and Judy. I can tell that Judy didn’t grow up somewhere like The Swamps. That she’s used to better things. That she has a decent education. The only thing I have with me are my father’s Swiss Army knife and a phone I’m not allowed to use to make calls.
I pluck at the cuffs of my new jacket. Red nylon, slick and shiny under the lights. “Why do they call them reality shows when they’re scripted?”
Judy sips the smallest sip of coffee. “They’re called reality shows for short.”
“What do you mean?”
“They were originally called ‘fiction-into-reality’ shows. Because they take pre-existing fictions and turn them into reality—i.e., a show. But people stopped saying the other part after a certain point. Too lazy.”
I flip through the pages of my script. “How do you know that?”
“It’s in the contract.”
“Are you sure?”
“I guess I didn’t read the contract all that carefully. But the fiction part? The pre-existing fictions?” I clear my throat and say one of my lines. “You’re tearing me apart! You—you say one thing, he says another, and everybody changes back again! I mean, what kind of teenager talks like that, berates his parents like that? And that kid who drowns the puppies? Those police officers and everybody acting like it’s no big thing.”
“Jimmy, why don’t you start again at the top of the scene?”
“You can talk to me, you know. As whoever you want to be.”
“I’m Judy, all right? That’s it.” There’s a hostile snap to her voice.
A beat. Judy sits down next to me in the bed, runs her hand down the sleeve of my jacket.
“It looks good.”
I can’t help a goofy grin. “Really?”
“Really,” she says.
I wake up in the middle of the night to a humming underneath my mattress. Technically, I have no idea what time it actually is—I figured out soon enough that the set is physically enclosed, a sprawling artifice where light and darkness are determined by electrical circuitry rather than the sun. The humming. My phone isn’t supposed to work in here. I look down at the screen. A photo of my mom. The humming keeps going. I yank on a pair of sweats and walk barefoot through the hallway, cramming myself into a bathroom stall at the end of the corridor. I know if I get caught, I’ll be toast.
I slide my thumb across the phone. “Mom?” I whisper. “Mom, is something wrong?”
The video of her is crackly, cutting in and out. She has a polka-dot bandana around her forehead, soaked with sweat. Midday in Florida. “Everything’s fine, sweetie. I just wanted to check in on you, see how you’re doing.”
“Mom,” I hiss through my teeth, crouched on top of the toilet so that nobody can come in and see my feet, “you can’t call me here. I thought it was an emergency.”
“Oh.” Her voice drops off. “I’m sorry. I liked the first episode. You were something to look at with that red jacket on.”
“I thought you were in the hospital or something, or that you’d run out of food or water.”
“Can’t run out of water here, now can you?” Her laugh is murky. She sits in her rocking chair, warped with weather damage, and I can’t help seeing how desperately bare our house is, empty except for a reality show flickering out from the tube.
“You know what I mean. Potable water. Look, I love you. I’ll be done with this part soon. And once I make enough money, I’ll move you out here with me. We can be together.”
“I applied for a job. At the refinery. They’re looking for canners. And you know me, I have a can-do attitude.” There’s a moment of silence that rests heavy between us. The image on the screen disappears, the service dying away.
“I love you, sweetie,” she continues. “Forever and ever. I won’t keep you any longer.” Before I can reply, the phone’s battery gives out.
I sigh deeply, leaning back my head and rubbing my temples. When I open my eyes, I notice a vent above the toilet.
Days pass and the new is routine. Wake up early to shoot, film twelve hours, break for dinner, a little time to ourselves at night before doing it all over again. We don’t see the edited product. We won’t see the series until it’s in reruns on the tube. So, we don’t know what people are saying. Who the favorites are. The chatter in the tabloids. That’s mostly what folks talk about, at least where I’m from. The shows. Being one of the actors, though, there’s no beef between us, no drama. That’s all concocted by the media, the public. The cast eats together. A lot of quiet. I chat sometimes with Judy and Plato. It makes sense since we’re supposed to be friends on the show anyway.
What I can’t wrap my head around is the set. I used to think it must be a trick of the lighting, the scale, making the sets look impressive on the stream. I was sure that they’d be shoddy and rundown in person like nearly everything else in my life. I mean, the streams have advertisements, but I’d still imagined everything would have to be super low budget, low cost, especially given that I don’t know a single person who’s ever said they can’t afford the tube. The set is enormous, though, all these quaint houses and green trimmed lawns, an entire observatory, bluffs over a beach, an ocean that extends further than I can see out. And yeah, maybe they reuse some sets, share them among shows. Not that I’ve seen actors from any other casts since I’ve been here.
It’s the money I can’t figure out—where it could come from, so much of it, to build such an elaborate set. I think of what Judy said. Don’t ask questions. So, the questions float around endlessly, sailboats between my ears.
I used to be a swimmer. For nine years, I didn’t miss a day in the pool, cutting across the surface, laps back and forth, outpacing my fellow swimmers at meets like a black marlin through a school of guppies. I felt most myself in the pool, those moments sanitized by chlorine, my only thoughts focused on how to push myself to kick harder, propel my body faster, better time my breaths. Before my hair got darker in middle school, my white blond frizz was always tinged green because I refused to wear a swim cap except when competing. I knew from a young age what it meant to be hungry without enough food, to go to sleep cold, to wear clothes that fell apart, to not see my parents for days at a time because they had to work two or three jobs, but when I was in the pool, I managed to forget about all of that. The aquamarine tiles in the rec center, the friendly wave from whichever lifeguard was on duty, the way the towels felt around my shoulders when they were fresh from the drier. I was good too. Really good. I was on track to compete in the Junior Olympics before they shut down the event. Not enough funding, like so many other things that had faded away over the years. Still, I loved it. I loved swimming more than anything else.
One day in middle school I came home after swim practice. My mom was sitting in her rocking chair, crying soundlessly to herself in the dark. I pulled the chain to the bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. My mom reached her arms out to me and I melted into them. I had never seen my mom cry before. She blew her nose into a handkerchief, wiped a sleeve across her puffy wet eyes.
“Your father’s dead,” my mom said, her voice a whisper. He had worked on the oil rigs off of what had once been the central coast of Florida. There had been an accident. A drill pipe had swung loose from the line, knocking my father off the deck. He’d drowned, weighed down by all of the equipment he had to carry.
I stopped swimming after that. I hated the water. All of it. I had nightmares about dying in the pool, heavy iron chains strapped to my ankles so that I couldn’t come up for air. If, as a human being, there were a way to survive without drinking water, I would have never consumed a single drop again. It was the first time in my life that I was glad we didn’t have a bathroom in our home, otherwise I’m sure my mom would have made me shower instead of taking sponge baths. Eventually, I could get on a water bus without having a panic attack, look out at the ocean without my lungs clenching in my chest. I had no choice. There was no avoiding water in The Swamps, after all. Still, I didn’t swim anymore. I hadn’t swum since I was twelve.
Once Buzz and I are up at the bluffs for the chickee run, it’s clearer what’s going to happen in the scene. There are two old-fashioned cars about 500 yards from the edge of the cliffs. Jimmy and Buzz are both going to drive as fast as they can toward the edge. The first one to roll out of the car is the chicken. But if you don’t get out of the car in time, you’ll fly out over the ocean, and it’s a steep drop below.
The assistant director is showing me the car, at what point I should open the driver side door and throw myself out, how to roll across the dirt without getting myself hurt.
“Isn’t this kind of dangerous? You don’t have stunt guys for this?”
The AD laughs. “It’s all part of the experience.”
I scratch at my shirt collar against my neck. “What if one of us doesn’t get out before going over the cliffs? Is there a safety net down there or something? Buzz is pretty worked up.”
“Of course. Don’t worry about it. It’s only a scene, just like all the other scenes we’ve already filmed.”
Everyone’s crowded around as Buzz flips down the hood of his car. I smash out one cigarette, start smoking another. We get into our respective driver’s seats. The cars may look like old twentieth century cars on the outside, but inside, they’re simple, streamlined. Buzz’s gang gets into their own cars, lining up on either side of us. Judy gives Buzz a scoop of dirt to rub on his hands for good luck. Buzz explains the rules to Jimmy. I nod. Judy kisses Buzz. Judy runs over to my window and I say my line, ask her for some dirt too, please, the coarse grains against my palms, my fingers. We turn on our own headlights. Judy stands way out in front of us. She yells for the gang to hit their headlights. I hadn’t realized how dark it was before that. Judy drops her arms. We’re off. I keep glancing to my side. Buzz is still there. I had wanted to win—the winner wasn’t written into the scene—but at a certain point I can’t hold on anymore. I open the door and drop out shoulder-first, tumbling into a sandy gravel. The two cars fly off the bluffs, the twisted crunch of metal against the rocks below. I bring myself to my feet, look all around me. I don’t see Buzz.
“That’s a wrap for today!” the AD calls out, and everybody claps. “Call time is 9 a.m. tomorrow. Enjoy sleeping in!”
The cameramen, the light guys, the boom operators, the rest of the cast and crew pack up their stuff. Judy leans in and gives me a short squeeze.
“Have you seen Buzz?”
“I think he already went down to grab some food.”
Everyone heads to the dining room, but I stand there. I can’t move, the sound of the ocean’s waves crashing against the shore below. I catch clips of conversation, speculations on the meal to come, gossip about two crew members sleeping with each other. Nobody notices I’m not following them. After a few moments, I remember that I have my dad’s Swiss Army knife attached to my belt, including the small flashlight. I approach the rim of the bluffs, peer over. I had imagined that the drop down to the rocky shore would be much greater. It’s only about 200 feet. The cars are smashed up, and when I shine the light over to Buzz’s car, I see a puddle of wet blood around his body, his head and neck at an obtuse angle, his right arm severed, his eyes blank sheets of paper. My stomach lurches, and I throw up what little I had eaten today.
I approach Judy in the dining hall. She’s laughing with Plato over a plate of spaghetti and marinara sauce.
I tap her on the shoulder. “Can I talk to you?”
She takes my hand. “Come on, Jimmy, we just sat down. Eat with us, will you, and then we can talk?”
“It’s, uh, it’s urgent. I don’t think it can wait.”
Judy smiles politely. “Excuse me, I’ll be back in a moment,” she says to Plato, and she follows me through the hallway.
“We need somewhere private. Somewhere we won’t be overheard.”
Judy takes the lead. She pulls me outside, among a cove of trees. She puts her hand on my thigh, edging it up further. I push her hand away. “Talk. I want to talk.”
Judy sighs. “Fine. What is it that’s so pressing?”
“Buzz is dead, Judy. Buzz died in that car.”
A long silence. “I’m sorry that’s how you had to find out, Jimmy.”
“Find out what?”
“That some aspects of the shows are real.”
I pull away from her. “You knew? You knew that Buzz had died tonight?”
“Come on, Jimmy, this is my fifth show.”
I lace my fingers behind my head. “But why are they murdering people? Why would they do such a thing?”
“I don’t know. I honestly don’t know.”
The vent above the toilet. If I can get into the crawlspace, it’ll lead to other parts of the set. Parts of the set that may give me answers. I return to dinner. I want to eliminate any potential suspicion. I stare down at my spaghetti. For once, I can’t eat. I plunge my fork into the noodles, bring them to my mouth.
“I’m grabbing some garlic bread,” I say to nobody in particular, and when I’m in the clear, I scrape my plate into the trashcan.
That night, I wait until everybody else has fallen asleep, sneak out of bed. I return to the bathroom. I can reach the vent if I stand on top of the toilet lid. I unscrew the metal grate, again using my father’s Swiss Army knife. It takes all my upper body strength, but I’m able to hoist myself up inside of the narrow vent. I barely fit. I have to pull myself forward on my elbows, dragging my legs behind me, flashlight in my mouth, steadied between my teeth. The claustrophobia is unbearable. There’s a part of me that feels as if I’ve been buried alive. I suddenly envision water rushing down these tunnels, pouring over me. My heart beats in double-time. I pause, breathing deep, in and out, for a few moments before continuing. Every so often, I stop and carve X’s into the sidewall of the vent to avoid covering the same territory I’ve already gone over.
After about thirty minutes or so, I hear voices, music, a glow radiating up in through the vent. I turn off my flashlight, scoot toward the metal grate, making sure to stay out of sight. It looks like there’s a party going on below, bottles of champagne, platters of shrimp and caviar and fancy cheeses, a glittering chandelier overhead, the businessmen I had met when I signed my contract in the crowded company of the infinitely affluent, evening gowns and diamond necklaces, tuxedos and corsages. An older gentleman in a scarlet bowtie taps a small silver spoon against a fluted glass, clearing his throat.
“All bets are now in. Please turn your attention to the screen so that we can find out who will go home a little wealthier tonight and who will go home with depleted funds, so to speak.”
Haughty laughter. A white screen descends from above, a projected image coming into focus. On the left side of the screen is a column with all the names of the main characters on the show—Jimmy, Judy, Plato, Buzz, Mr. Stark, and Mrs. Stark—followed by numbers with long decimals trailing behind them. There are two panels to the right of the column, two film stills. One is from the show, me and Buzz and Judy and Plato and everybody else all gathered around the cars at the top of the bluffs. The other one is nearly identical, these strange doppelgangers of us—another guy in a red jacket with slicked back hair, a chiseled jock, a young woman wearing a white top and long powder-blue skirt, a baby-faced kid, black tie and a tan coat.
Both shots unfreeze, the scenes in sync, word for word. “She signals, we head for the edge, and the first man who jumps is a chicken, all right?” The headlights flash on. Judy and the Judy look-alike wave their arms in the air, engines rumbling forward, Buzz and the Buzz look-alike catching their sleeves in their respective driver side doors, the cars flying off the edge of the cliff. Blackness. The projector cuts out. Cheers and boos from the audience.
The gentleman at the front of the room steps forward. “No sore losers, all right? For those of you who wagered on Buzz’s death, you may collect your earnings. Everybody else, better luck next time.”
The music cuts back in. The party resumes. Nobody seems particularly affected by the results. They want to drink and to dance. Dollars fly in the air like confetti.
It takes a while to wriggle my way back out of the ventilation system, and after I do so, I immediately sneak through the hallway and over to Judy’s bed. I shake her by the shoulder. Her eyes flutter open.
“What’s going on?”
“I need to talk to you.”
“It’s the middle of the night.”
“Now.” The word is harsh on my tongue.
Judy blinks. I’m not used to seeing her without make-up on. “Meet me behind the dining hall in five minutes.”
Judy navigates a zig-zag pattern, leading us into a valley by the beach. She’s put on a pair of pants but still has on a lacy pajama top. We stop. She checks the surrounding area, decides we’re in the clear.
“Spill it. What did you see? I can tell you saw something.”
“They’re betting on us. All the rich folks, I saw them betting on us! And there was another version of the show that they had playing too, with people who looked just like us. What’s going on? You know what’s going on.”
Judy sighs. “The shows aren’t meant for the public, Jimmy. Not really. That’s just a byproduct of their main purpose.”
“Which would be?”
“Gladiators? Ancient Rome? You heard of them?”
“Yeah. In school, I think.”
“We’re like that.”
“What do you mean?”
“Come on, put the pieces together. It’s all a frivolous game to them. For the producers, the studio executives, the CEO’s, and anyone else who can afford to buy in. They’re betting on us. Whether we live or die. Nobody except the showrunner has access to that information.”
I cross my arms. “So why do you keep doing the shows if they can just kill you off whenever they please?”
“You can’t tell anybody what I’m about to tell you. I’ll kill you myself if you do.”
I nod. I have no choice. I notice that there are no stars in the black sky above us.
“I have an in. The scripts are based on the old movies, from the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, pre-360s. 85% of the time the shows are the exact same.” Judy pauses. My flashlight glances off her red fingernails. “My father has access. One of the few collectors left. Jimmy, Judy, the chickee run? From the film Rebel without a Cause. Came out in theaters in 1955.”
I realize what Judy is saying. “So, you know. You know ahead of time who lives and who doesn’t—you don’t audition for parts where your character gets killed off—”
“I didn’t create the system. If it were up to me, nobody would die. Besides, as I said, only 85% chance the script is the same. Sometimes they switch it up. I’m still taking a risk.”
“What about my character? Do I live?”
“Yes, Jimmy. You’re going to be fine.”
Judy takes out a cigarette. We’re not supposed to smoke unless it’s required in a scene. She takes a puff anyway. “It’s just the way things work. Not my decision. Maybe someday, when I’m starring in the 360s, I can do more.”
“What if I go public? Tell everyone what’s really going on?”
Judy takes another puff. “Wake up! It’s an open secret. There have been rumors for decades and the numbers of people auditioning for the shows has only skyrocketed. People like you and me, we’re pawns. And I happen to be a pawn in a very good position. I could help you. I think you’re talented.”
“I can’t believe you’re going to let Plato die.”
Judy stomps out her cigarette. She sneers at me. “There is no upward mobility in our society, Jimmy. Wherever you were born, whatever your parents do, your neighbors do, that’s what you’ll do. Unless you’re on the shows. Unless you make it into the 360s. For most people, that risk is worth the potential reward.”
I feel the pebbles, the grit underneath my shoes as I walk away. “I’ll see you later, Judy. Or whoever you are.”
I only sleep an hour or two. I dream I’m starring in a 360. A vampire in a horror film. In the dream, I’m standing atop a pile of fresh corpses, and I don’t know if I’ve killed these people or not. I don’t know if the bodies are real or not, and I don’t know if the blood is real or not, even as it seeps, warm and sticky, into my socks.
“Suppose you knew that you had to do something very dangerous—where you have to prove something you need to know—a question of honor. Would you do it? What can you do when you have to be a man?”
Those lines. I’d said those lines yesterday, only yesterday, in the scene with Jimmy’s father. I think about those lines as I tiptoe outside. It’s a little after dawn and the sky is orange cream. Judy snores in her bunk. I want to go back to bed, to pretend I don’t know anything. Then I think about Buzz, about Plato. I can’t stay. I head to the bluffs, cautious to remain unseen. With the curvature, I can tell that if you walk far enough, the cliffs slope downward, meeting the sand. I’ve never gone swimming in saltwater, and I haven’t swum at all in nine years. But the set can’t last forever, and if I follow the shoreline for long enough, eventually I’ll find the edge, and I can swim under, swim out, swim away forever.
Sirens shriek in the distance. I hear my character’s name sounding over a loudspeaker. I know they’re looking for me. I recognize that my small act of rebellion may amount to nothing more than my death.
I found the rest of the script. It wasn’t hard. One of the crew members had left a copy lying around the cafeteria. I recite my favorite lines, over and over again to myself: “I woke up this morning, you know—and the sun was shining, and it was nice, and all that type of stuff—and I said, ‘Boy, this is gonna be one terrific day, so you better live it up, because tomorrow you’ll be nothing.’ You see?”
Michelle Meyers’ writing has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, The Adroit Journal, Juked, Atticus Review, and decomP, among others, and she has received honors from Glimmer Train, Wigleaf, and Ploughshares. Michelle was a 2015 PEN Center Emerging Voices Fellow in Fiction and published her debut novel, Glass Shatters, with She Writes Press in 2016, which was selected as an Editor’s Pick in Literary Fiction by Foreword Reviews. Michelle graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alabama and now teaches in the Writing Program at USC. She is currently working on her second novel.