It was to be the show’s last season. There had been too many lawsuits by kin of the deceased. Still, ratings were astronomical. And Kris Calhoun was determined to make his mark.
Auditions were a pain. He had to tell producers how many followers he had on social media in all the right places—164,527 total—and shore up his portfolio with new head shots, which weren’t cheap. They asked him a litany of questions about his digital persona, gauging how he would appear on TV. It wasn’t hard to convince them of his dramatic potential. He was a man who immediately implicated everyone in any given conversation, ready to pounce at the slightest provocation. Everything was an incitement to his own assertion. It’s how he had built his fearsome reputation in Topeka, Kansas, becoming a king in the local club scene. He dated, he posted on Instagram, and his steely good looks assured him a following, a virtual gaze.
The producers were impressed with his regality, if such a word could be used about someone from the Midwest. They booked him for the season’s second showing. Live television was tricky, but they believed he had the right stuff, the mettle. The last question they asked him was how he wanted to die. He said in a pool of sharks. The producers laughed, and signed him.
Before he flew to L.A., Kris spruced up his social media feeds. He got rid of subpar posts, anything that looked lame after a few days. His image was paramount. Coolness had to be maintained with ruthless efficiency. He unfriended people who had become unpopular or just plain boring. His friends had to look the part. There was a girl from a few years back who’d gotten close to knocking down his ramparts. Tess wasn’t a girlfriend but a friend who was a girl. Who hurt you? she asked him one night. He slammed the door in her face and never spoke to her again. She wasn’t a mean bully kind of girl, but she was cool, and he abided her just long enough to discover her uncanny intelligence. Memories of her still disturbed him, and he had to force her out of his mind.
His new girlfriend was definitely the part. She was a white rapper named Tooshie. She was crude and rash and beautiful. He adored her. The night before he left for L.A., they fucked one last time, just in case he didn’t return. When she came, she called him a bizsnatch. Fuck yeah, he told her. I’m your bizsnatch.
L.A. was not like Topeka. Kris could feel a shimmy of doubt as he took selfies for his fans. He still looked good, but something was off inside him. The enormity of the city made him feel small and breezy. Like he could just blow away. The feeling followed him into the studio. After an hour doing makeup, never quite getting comfortable in his seat, he was ready for his TV debut.
Welcome, the famous host said as he made his way to the stage. Don Carouso was a household name. Perhaps the most handsome silver-haired man in the world. You’re familiar with our show? he asked. Of course, Kris said, instinctively reaching for his phone to capture the moment before remembering staff had kept it in the green room. Let’s start, then! the man proclaimed.
For twenty minutes, under intrusively bright lights, which were not like the soothing black lights of the clubs in Topeka, Kris answered questions about his life. The aim of the show was to crack someone’s personhood. To see how long they could last against the handsomely probing host. They had to last half an hour. The reward was a million dollars and instant worldwide fame. The host had done his homework. He asked Kris about the embarrassing time he had fainted at Disneyland. He asked him about losing his virginity. He asked him about his girlfriend Tooshie and why her YouTube videos were being called racist. He asked him if he felt like a hick in L.A. Despite the gnawing lights, Kris deflected every question with supreme cool. With a click of his tongue and a roll of his eyes. As the clock above them neared the thirty-minute mark, the host flashed a devious grin. Just one more thing, he said. Can we have our special guest come out? The crowd shouted in the affirmative. Kris was overtaken by the same doubt he had earlier in the day. A door opened. Tess appeared. His stomach dropped.
Hi, Kris, Tess said. I just want to know if you were ever my friend. Did you ever really like me?
Something about her question tore through him. Her sincerity. Her hurt. It was too much. He began stammering incomprehensibly.
There is one way to end it, the host said.
Kris felt sick, like he was going to vomit. The stage tilted in his head. The lights sagged.
There is a way, the host repeated.
Did you ever really like me?
There is a way.
No! Kris shouted. This feeling inside he couldn’t abide. This feeling of being vulnerable and exposed.
Fuck you, Tess! he shouted.
He looked at the host, who was giddy with anticipation. Kris then reached from his chair and pushed the big green button beside him. The audience roared. He didn’t even feel the fall. He was still trying to get the nasty feeling out of him when he hit the tank. The camera zoomed in on the water. There was hardly any thrashing. A single shark fin cut through a swirl of blood.
Image Credit: Salvador Dalí “Mountain Lake” (1938)
Scott Neuffer—author of RANGE OF LIGHT (forthcoming) and SCARS OF THE NEW ORDER—is a writer, journalist, poet, and musician who lives in Nevada with his family. His work has appeared in Nevada Magazine, Foreword Reviews, Underground Voices, Construction Literary Magazine, Shelf Awareness, Entropy Magazine, Wilderness House Literary Review, Gone Lawn, and elsewhere. He’s also the founder and editor of the literary journal Trampset. His indie rock music is available on Apple Music and Spotify. Follow him on Twitter @scottneuffer @sneuffermusic @trampset