The Day Before
Nate Devereaux sat in a VIP lounge at Los Angeles International Airport and wondered if he’d killed his acting career before it ever really got started. He was a graduate of Julliard, a gifted actor with a promising future. He’d played Hamlet to a sold-out theater for two full weeks. Standing ovations every night. Granted, it was in Milwaukee – not exactly Broadway – but at least it was theater. He was a real actor, not some wannabe-Kardashian willing to do anything to get his five minutes in the public eye.
So what was he doing here, about to board a jet to Madagascar to spend the next two months competing in a show called Reality Island? Was he really this desperate? But he knew the answer to that. Two years in Los Angeles without a single real acting job did terrible things to a person’s ego.
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He looked around the lounge and groaned inwardly. Judging by what he saw here, this was going to be the cheesiest reality show ever. The others waiting with him were the shallowest, most stereotypical reality show contestants ever, straight out of central casting. If the show was meant as a satire, they’d be perfect.
One of the guys – a tall, blonde man with rippling muscles highlighted by the tank top he was wearing – was flexing his bicep for two of the female contestants.
Even worse, the women were eating it up. The tall, bleached-blonde with the clearly-fake boobs and the too-tight miniskirt actually clapped her hands and laughed when he did it. The woman on the other side of the blonde guy – a beautiful African-American woman with a faint resemblance to Beyoncé – had one hand on his shoulder.
All three were standing at the lounge’s tiny bar, drinking complimentary shots of tequila, never mind that it was nine in the morning.
On the other side of the Beyoncé lookalike was a brooding Latino guy wearing sharp-toed cowboy boots worked with silver, tight black jeans and a long-sleeved, button-down shirt. He was drinking a beer and staring at her ass.
Nate sank back in his chair and rubbed his eyes. The best he could hope for now was that the show would quietly sink into the seething morass of American pop culture and disappear forever. Which he figured it had a pretty good chance of doing.
The irony of it all was that he hadn’t even wanted to go to the audition. It was his roommate, Trevor, who dragged him along. Trevor was also an aspiring actor and not a bad one either. He at least took the craft seriously, which was more than could be said of a lot of those who dreamed of acting. The day Trevor came home and announced he was trying out for a reality TV show Nate mocked him.
“Reality TV is a joke,” Nate said dismissively. “The lowest form of entertainment there is. Marx had it wrong. Reality TV is the true opiate of the masses.”
“You won’t get an argument from me on that,” Trevor said, taking an apple out of the fruit bowl on the counter and starting to cut it into quarters.
“Then why are you trying out for it?”
“The real question, Nate,” Trevor said, taking a bite, “is why you aren’t.”
“Maybe because I’m a real actor,” Nate replied.
Trevor shook his head in disbelief. “I’m sorry, but how much acting do you get to do at your day job?” Nate worked in retail at a clothing store.
“All in good time,” Nate said, feeling a little heat rise in his voice. “I’ve only been here two years.”
“Yeah. Two years. Then it’s three. Five. How many years pass while you wait for your break? Take a chance, Nate. You never know where it will lead.”
“But it’s reality TV, not acting.”
“It’s not?” Trevor started on another piece of apple.
“I’ve watched them. Trust me, it’s not acting.”
“Then make it acting. Look, I know you’re not one of those airheads like you see on the reality shows, but that doesn’t mean you can’t act like one. Look at it as an opportunity to play a role. You never know who might be watching. On top of that, there’s a million bucks waiting for the winner. Who knows? It could be you.”
And so Nate reluctantly agreed to go with Trevor the next day to the audition. Somehow, one thing led to another and here he was. Sometimes the universe had a perverse sense of humor.
The door to the lounge opened and an attractive brown-haired woman walked in. She was wearing an exercise top and a pair of those black, stretchy, exercise pants – Nate thought they were called solows – that were so popular these days. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail. Sunglasses covered most of her face, but what Nate could see he liked. He gave her a smile. Stone-faced, she looked right through him and went and sat down across the room. From her bag she took a book and started reading it.
Great, Nate thought. This was just getting better and better.
A moment later another woman came in. She looked to be Indian, with long, lustrous black hair and friendly eyes. She was wearing a long, green dress and heels. She paused just inside the door as if unsure if she was in the right place.
“If you’re looking for the cast of Reality Island,” Nate said, “this is it.”
“Yes, I am. Thank you.” She had a very elegant, cultured British accent. Nate sat up a little in his seat. Maybe this thing wouldn’t be a total loss. She sat down two seats away, but she didn’t lounge in the seat. She sat very straight and proper, her legs crossed, her hands folded on her knees.
The woman who came in after her had shoulder length, dark hair and fairly dark skin, as if she was from the Middle East or the Mediterranean area somewhere. She was wearing black jeans, a black top and aviator sunglasses which she took off as she surveyed the room. Her eyes landed on Nate, paused, then moved on. He had the feeling he’d just been measured up and classified as “not a threat.” There were pronounced muscles in her arms and she moved like an athlete or a fighter. Nate decided he did not want to get on her bad side.
A waiter came by then and asked Nate if he wanted something to drink. He ordered a club soda. The waiter moved on and the door opened again.
The guy who came in next was slightly built and a little bit shorter than Nate, who was only five-ten on a good day. He had dark hair cut short and bristly and just a touch of a mustache on his lip. He, too, paused just inside the door to look around. But where the Indian woman with the British accent seemed nervous and unsure, he seemed calm and confident. He saw Nate looking at him and nodded, then went and sat down. He seemed very measured and deliberate in his actions.
Behind him came the last member of the cast, Asian, dark-haired, a big smile on his face. He came over and sat down by Nate, then stuck out his hand.
“Hi, I’m Tony Chang. Who are you?”
Nate shook his hand. “Nate Devereaux.”
Tony looked around the room and gave a low whistle. “Wow,” he said quietly, making sure his voice was soft enough that only Nate heard. “What is this, a gathering of the most beautiful people in the world? I think I just fell in love with every woman in here and half of the men.” He shook his head. “Someone made a terrible mistake when they picked me for this. You know, I thought the woman who interviewed me looked nearsighted. Now I know she was.”
“You’re overreacting,” Nate said. “This is just a random group of average, everyday Americans. And by average and everyday, I mean the perfect mix of cosmetic surgery and hitting the genetic lottery. The American public wants their TV real, but they don’t want it too real.”
“Seriously,” Tony said, sounding as if he hadn’t heard Nate at all. “These women are unbelievable. Do you think any of them will let me carry their luggage or lick their shoes or something?”
Nate chuckled. He liked Tony already. It was good to know at least one person on the show wasn’t a shallow narcissist. “So, what brings you here?”
“The money,” Tony deadpanned, breaking away from his ogling to look at Nate. “Don’t let my wide-eyed yokel act fool you. That million dollars is as good as mine.”
“You sound pretty sure of yourself.”
“I am,” Tony said seriously. Then he laughed. “I’m just messing with you. Look at them and then look at me. I’m skinny and I’m Chinese. Who’s going to vote for me? I’m just hoping to have some fun. I’m so broke my idea of a vacation is drinking a Corona and looking at pictures of beaches on my laptop. Once they said we’d be filming on a tropical island, I said sign me up.”
Nate couldn’t help but contrast Tony’s attitude with his own. Maybe he needed to lighten up a little bit and try to enjoy this thing.
“Still,” Tony mused. “I could win. There’s always the chance that no one will take me seriously, and while the rest of you are fighting to the death I’ll sneak across the finish line first.”
“Do you even know what a reality show is?”
“Some sort of cross between Death Race 2000 and Family Feud?”
Nate laughed. “Spot on. But you’ve made one fatal mistake. You told me your strategy. Now I’m going to make sure you go down first.”
“Are you sure of that?” Tony shrugged and in a bad Italian accent said, “Maybe you will suffer an unfortunate accident. Maybe a skinny ninja will climb through your window one night while you’re asleep.”
“Aren’t ninjas Japanese?”
“So now you’re an expert on my heritage?” Tony said with mock outrage. “Well, I’ve got news for you. There could be Chinese ninjas. Maybe they’re just so good no one ever caught one.”
The door opened again and a short, round man in his fifties came in. He had glasses and a little circle of hair surrounding the bald dome of his head and his face was shiny with sweat, though the airport was cool. The suit he was wearing looked expensive, but somehow he managed to make it look shabby. He set his briefcase down, beamed at the room in general and clapped his pudgy hands twice.
“Hello, everybody! So good to see you all here today! For those of you who don’t remember, I’m Arnold Palmer—call me Arnie—executive producer of Reality Island. And, in case you’re wondering, I’m not that Arnold Palmer. I’m the talented one.” He winked and laughed at his own joke. The blonde muscular guy at the bar whispered something to the two women flanking him and all three laughed. A bit of a frown crossed Arnie’s face, but it disappeared quickly.
“Your private jet will be ready shortly.” He stressed the word private and there was an appreciative murmur in the room. “Very soon you will be whisked away to begin the adventure of a lifetime. Who will be the last man, or woman, standing? Who will claim the big prize money? Only time will tell.” He picked up the briefcase and opened it. “Before you go though, there’s just one little detail to attend to.” He took out a thick stack of folders and then proceeded to hand out one to each of the contestants. Inside was some kind of legal document, about sixty to seventy-five pages long.
“What is this?” the woman in the solows asked, frowning.
“It’s Jenna, isn’t it?” the man asked. She nodded and he fluttered his hands. “Just a little matter of a waiver and some details about the show, what happens if you get voted off early, et cetera. Nothing to worry about.”
“But I already signed one of these.”
“I know. That’s what I told them too. The lawyers, I mean. But they said this is essentially the same. You still get paid the same, which is the important part.”
“Then what changed?” She was looking at the contract suspiciously.
“You know, they told me but it was all a lot of legal mumbo jumbo and it didn’t make much sense to me. There’s a number on there if you want to call them and ask them.”
The ones at the bar were already signing theirs and so was the Middle Eastern-looking woman.
“I think I want my agent to look at this before I sign it,” Jenna said.
“And you have every right to do so. However, I have to inform you that we are on a tight schedule today. The investors want us to start filming tomorrow.” He had produced a tissue and was wiping his forehead with it. “They wanted me to make it very clear that there will be no renegotiation on the contracts. They are take it or leave it. They said if you don’t like the terms that I’m to call one of our alternate contestants.” He rummaged around in his briefcase and pulled out a single sheet of paper, pushing his glasses up and peering at it. “I have no doubt we will be able to fill your slot. There were quite a lot of very enthusiastic young actresses during the screening process.”
Jenna hesitated, staring at her contract. Tony started signing his. “Aren’t you worried about what it says?” Nate asked him.
“Not really. Like he said, it’s nonnegotiable. It’s either this or back to my data entry job and I’ve got to tell you, I really hate data entry.”
Last chance to back out, Nate thought. But he took the pen and signed his as well. The dice were cast now.
In a couple of minutes all of them had signed – even Jenna, though she didn’t look too happy about it – and Arnie was gathering the contracts up and tucking them away. He started babbling on about something else then, but Nate wasn’t listening. His attention had been caught by the flat screen mounted on the wall. The sound was off, but the caption said something about a terrorist attack in Chicago. TSA guards were surrounding a man with a thick, bushy, black beard and dark glasses. They took his briefcase away and opened it. Inside were some glass vials.
“What the hell?” Nate said, elbowing Tony and pointing.
“What is it? What’s happening?”
“Some kind of terrorist attack.” Nate stood up. “I’m going to turn the sound up. I want to hear this.”
But just then the door opened again and a young woman in a flight attendant’s uniform came in. “Your jet is ready, Mr. Palmer.”
“Did everyone hear that?” Arnie crowed. “Your jet’s ready and this lovely young woman just called me Mr. Palmer. Oh, I love her already.”
The crew at the bar tossed their drinks back as everyone got up, gathered their belongings – only small carry-on bags; they’d been told not to bring more, that everything would be provided on the island – and followed Arnie and the flight attendant through the airport.
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