Nate was trying to take a nap when all the wall screens on the jet came on, showing Arnie sitting at a table. He gave them a big smile and wiped his glistening forehead with a tissue. “Hello again!” he cried heartily. “I hope you’re finding the jet to your liking. The production company wanted to send you on a commercial flight but I put my foot down.” He mimed stomping one foot, which only made him look foolish when he hit his knee on the underside of the table, nearly tipping over the glass of water at his elbow. His smile never faltered though. If anything it grew brighter.
“Now, I’m sure you all have lots of questions. No doubt you’re dying to know more about the nuts and bolts of Reality Island, but that’s not why I’ve called.” There was an audible groan from a couple of the contestants. Arnie shook his finger at them. “I can see and hear you, you know. You’re all already on camera.”
Nate looked around. Sure enough, there were at least four cameras that he could see.
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“Patience, as they say, is a virtue, though I can’t say it’s ever gotten me anywhere.” He chuckled at his little joke. His smile turned down a few watts. “I called to say I want you all to spend the next hour or so in a little meet-and-greet. I realize some of you have already started getting acquainted – ” he raised one eyebrow and gave a knowing leer “ – but I want to make sure you all get to know something about each other before we start filming in earnest tomorrow.”
“Is this one of those first-day-of-class things?” Tony said. “That everyone hates?”
“Exactly!” Arnie cried, clapping his pudgy hands together. “Here’s how it’s going to go: You’re going to partner up, boy-girl, boy-girl. You’re going to get a few minutes to talk to each other. During that time you’re going to learn your partner’s name and a few details about them, like where they’re from, something about their childhood, their favorite hobby. Also, you need to find out one secret. When the time is up, each of you is going to introduce your partner and share what you learned about him or her with everyone else. Don’t worry about whether you’ll be able to remember it all; Kelly and Adam will be coming around with paper and pens for each of you.”
“A secret?” someone groaned. “What kind of secret?”
“Whatever you choose,” Arnie replied, winking. “It’s up to you. I will tell you this though: your viewers will be watching and they will be voting. You don’t want to let them down, do you? Pair up now so we can get started.”
Nate was hoping to pair up with the Indian woman but Tony got to her before he did. Jenna paired up with the quiet guy. Caleb chose the blonde as his partner and they celebrated their partnership by clinking beers together. The Latino man paired up with the African American woman. That left Nate with the woman in the aviator sunglasses and the no-nonsense manner.
They were all settling into their places, conversations just starting, when Arnie suddenly interrupted. Someone off-camera had handed him a sheet of paper and his smile faded as he read it. “Something’s come up so I’m going to have to let you do this on your own. Don’t worry. Kelly will keep time and let you know when to share what you’ve learned.” The screens went dark.
“Strange guy,” Nate remarked to his partner.
“TV is full of strange people,” she replied. “Maybe it’s a way to keep them all in one place and occupied so we don’t have to pay to institutionalize them.”
“Personal experience?” Nate asked her.
She shook her head. “Not me. I’m just a simple soldier. Ex-soldier,” she amended. She leaned over and extended her hand. “Akila Mourad.”
“Nate Devereaux.” She had a strong grip. The muscles stood out on her arms when they shook and Nate had a feeling this woman could hurt him if she chose to. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling. Then they sat back in their chairs and Nate took up the clipboard Kelly had handed him. “So you were in the military? Which branch?”
“The army. Sergeant Mourad. Two tours in Afghanistan, one in Iraq.”
Now Nate was sure she could hurt him if she chose. He decided he wanted this woman on his side, whatever kind of competition this turned out to be. He had a feeling she could carry him to the finish line. She seemed supremely capable.
“So, Mourad. That’s an unusual last name. Where did it come from?”
“It’s Egyptian. So’s Akila. It means ‘intelligent.’ You can use that as my secret.”
“Not very juicy. I think Arnie was hoping for juicy.”
“Well, too bad for Arnie.”
“Here’s to that,” Nate said, leaning forward and putting out his fist for a bump. At first she just stared at his fist, hanging there, and he found himself feeling very silly, like a twelve-year-old trying to impress the big kids and failing miserably, but then she leaned forward and gave him a gentle bump. Nate swallowed. “Were you born in Egypt?”
She shook her head. “I’ve never been there. The closest I made it was Iraq. I was born in Eugene, Oregon. My father was a visiting professor there when he met my mother.”
“Your mother was a student?”
“This feels like another secret. I only have to give one.”
Nate held up the clipboard. “Just following orders, ma’am.”
She responded with the faintest smile. He found he liked her smile. “She was Brazilian.” Nate caught the past tense and wondered what had happened to her mother. “She was attending the University of Oregon on a dance scholarship and met my father in a political science class.” She shook her head. “I can’t even imagine what those two ever saw in each other. Complete opposites. My father is rigid, dictatorial, real old-school. My mother was a free spirit, full of fire and life. The affair didn’t last long, but long enough to produce me. When my father found out my mother was pregnant with me he insisted that they marry. She insisted they not, though it went against her Catholic beliefs. Then he pulled some typical male macho bullshit on her and she pulled a little capoeira on him.”
“A Brazilian martial art. It’s a mix of dance, acrobatics and music. Very Brazilian. Very effective.”
“Yet you ended up with his last name?”
Akila shrugged. “As I said, she was very traditional Catholic.”
“I don’t have any hobbies.”
“Everyone has a hobby.”
Nate looked up from his clipboard, sure she must be joking. She was staring at him expressionlessly. “Okay. Killing people it is.”
She put her clipboard down. “I think we’re done here.”
“Aren’t you supposed to ask me questions?”
“I already know everything I need to. I heard you talking to Tony. You grew up in North Carolina. Your dad was a violinist. Your mom’s an artist. You went to Juliet.”
“Julliard. I went to Julliard.”
“What’s that? Some kind of acting school?”
“Yeah. You could say that. Or you could say that it is the premier school for dance, drama and music.”
“Which explains why you’re so down on reality shows.”
“At Julliard it’s not called acting. It’s called drama. Los Angeles is a profanity there. To quote: ‘Theater is a calling, an art, a craft, a political act.’ Only soulless sellouts go to LA. Oh, if I landed in a serious movie like A Beautiful Mind I think I could be forgiven. But TV? And, worst of all, reality TV? I’d be thought better of if I became an insurance salesman.”
“My cousin sells insurance. He’s done well.”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you. I’m doing that a lot today.”
“I didn’t say you offended me. You think I would have survived in the military as a woman if I was offended easily?”
“Probably not. How does a soldier end up in reality TV anyway?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. Not really.” She faded off, seemed to be looking at something in the distance only she could see. “I’ve been at loose ends since I left the Army. I don’t know what to do with myself. The Army’s all I know. When I saw the ad, I figured, what do I have to lose? How many movies have some tough Hispanic chick in a head band and cut-off sleeves? You saw Aliens? I can be that chick.”
“But you’re only half Hispanic.”
“Close enough. It’s not like anyone will know anyway. People have been calling me a Mexican my entire life. I don’t even bother to correct them anymore. One more thing: what’s your secret?” She gestured at the camera on the wall nearby. “What are you giving up for the camera?”
Nate was ready for this. He knew enough about reality shows to know they thrived on secrets. “I had sex with one of my mom’s friends – one of her much younger friends – when I was in high school.”
“That’s what you’re going with?”
“What? It’s the truth. Her name was Mrs. Heath. She was British.” Which was total rubbish. He’d never spoken more than five words at once to either of his mother’s friends and the thought of having sex with them wasn’t a pleasant one.
Akila fixed him with a level stare long enough that he began to shift in his seat. Finally she shrugged and said, “Okay. It doesn’t matter to me either way.”
A few minutes later Kelly announced that it was time to share what they had learned about each other. Nate volunteered to go first. The story about Akila’s mother thumping her father with capoeira earned a few laughs. Nate had to admit it was a great story, better than his. Maybe too good. When he was finished and it was Akila’s turn to talk he watched her closely, looking for signs that that her whole simple Army girl routine was just an act, but he couldn’t see any. She certainly seemed sincere. He found himself thinking that if she was acting she was darn good at it, because he couldn’t tell. She seemed to be just what she claimed.
There was some hooting when she told them his story about losing his virginity to an older woman, but they all seemed to buy it, except maybe Jenna, who gave him a calculating look. Caleb actually got up and fist-bumped him. He didn’t seem all that drunk, considering how much Nate had seen him drink.
Next to go were Caleb and the blonde.
“I’m Tamara and I’m here to tell you about Caleb. Caleb is from Australia,” the blonde said, “except he keeps calling it Oz.” She squinted at her notes. “Some place called Cairns, near the rain forest, where he says they have salt water crocodiles that will swim miles up fresh water rivers and eat you when you’re sleeping by the river.” She put her hand to her heart and gave Caleb a look as if he’d said he could walk on water. “He was raised in the bush by his dad, who owned a pub – that’s what they call a bar there – and on the shelf behind the bar instead of the good liquor they had jars with poisonous spiders and snakes and stuff in them, all pickled in alcohol. His dad would give a free drink to anyone who could bring in something unusual that he didn’t already have. Caleb’s life’s goal is to get drunk on every continent.”
Caleb howled when she said it and held his beer up. “Nothing like getting pissed!” he said. “That’s getting drunk for you Yanks who’ve never been anywhere.”
“His big secret is…” She paused, letting the suspense build. She was wearing a lot of makeup. The top she was wearing was very tight and revealed a generous amount of cleavage. It looked to Nate like she’d sprinkled glitter between her breasts. There was a tattoo of a snake’s head just visible between her breasts. “He’s never had sex with an American girl.”
There was a fair amount of groaning at this and Tamara reddened slightly when Caleb put his hand on her knee. “My turn,” he said.
“This lovely sheila next to me is named Tamara. She’s from some place called Tucson in a state called Arizona, which I don’t think is a real place.” He cried out in mock dismay when she smacked him playfully. “She says there’s nothing in Tucson but a lot of cactus and heat and she doesn’t like talking about it.” When she hit him again, he said, “Hey! I’m just repeating what you said. It’s right here on paper.” He took another drink of his beer, peered at his clipboard, then tossed it on the table. “Her hobby is dancing around to Justin Bieber songs in her panties and nothing else.” Laughter greeted his words. “That’s about it, except for her secret.” He leaned forward, putting his thick forearms on his knees and lowering his voice. “She wants to do it with three guys on camera.” He held up one hand, palm out. “Fair dinkum.”
“What? You’re a monster! I never said that!” She slapped him several times, but it was mock outrage; that much was clear to everyone. “I hate you. Why would you say that?” She turned to the Latino man, who was sitting on her left. “Are you just going to let him get away with that? Aren’t you supposed to defend my honor or something?”
He set down his glass. There was a tattoo of barbed wire around his wrist, just visible when his shirt sleeve pulled back as he reached forward. He gave Caleb a cold, hard look. “Now you’ve made an enemy of the wrong man, pendejo. I will gut you.” The way he said it sounded utterly real and for just a moment Nate believed he was serious. Then he smiled and added in a thick Spanish accent, “I challenge you to a duel at dawn. For the lady’s honor. You will, of course, lose.”
Everyone laughed, but there was as much relief as anything in the laughter.
“The beautiful senorita beside me is Jordynn,” he said, his voice very silky and smooth, holding out his hand to the African American woman on his left. He stared at her, his hand held out to her, until she took his hand, then he looked back at the rest of them. “She is from Miami, where they have the most beautiful women in the world.” She brought her other hand to her face. “She grew up wanting to be a princess and that is what she became.” Her hand tightened on his and her mouth opened slightly. Her eyes were glowing. “She has no hobbies because princesses do not need them. Her secret is that one day all men will fall at her feet and worship her beauty.” Now she was blushing. Nate felt like gagging but he had to admit he was impressed with the man’s delivery. He was definitely slick.
“This silver-tongued fool is Santiago,” Jordynn said, pulling her hand away from his with reluctance. She was wearing a red tube top and she twitched it up slightly. One hand went to her hair. There were streaks of red in it and it fell down past her shoulders. She really was a very striking woman, Nate thought.
“He was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, to a virgin on Christmas Eve.” There were several groans at this. “When he was born the doctor held him up and said, ‘This man will strike fear in the hearts of men and lust in the hearts of women everywhere.’” She looked at Santiago. “God’s gift, aren’t you?”
He winked and inclined his head. “It is my curse,” he said softly.
“Chihuahua was too small for him so when he was twelve he left his family and immigrated to the United States. The whole city went into mourning when he left.” She looked up from the clipboard. “Sickening, isn’t it?” There was a chorus of agreement and she continued, “His hobby is helping little old ladies across the street. He says he has no secrets, that his life is an open book, but that when he was a boy an old bruja, a witch, told him a giant snake would devour him when the world ended.”
These people were better than he thought, Nate realized. They’d anticipated questions like this and they’d put some time into it. They knew this was all bullshit and they embraced it. Maybe this wasn’t so different from real acting after all. Both of them were based on the audience willingly suspending disbelief and temporarily accepting whatever premise the actor put forth. He looked around him, wondering what, if anything, he heard today would be the truth.
Then it was Jenna’s turn. “This is Maha. His name means wild cow in Thai. His mother is Thai and his father is an American. They met in Bangkok. He was born in Santa Barbara, California, but his parents split up when he was ten and he spent the rest of his childhood in Bangkok. He came to the US to go to college at Ohio State and when he was done he moved to LA. He’s a Buddhist, an actual Zen Buddhist. His hobby is meditating.” Caleb faked an exaggerated yawn and Jenna gave him a cold look. “His secret is that he has a lot of bad karma from his last life, when he was a gangster in Thailand.”
No way, Nate thought. That stuff had to be made up. But then he looked closer at Maha and wondered. It sure looked as though Maha believed it.
Maha spoke next. His voice was very even, very calm. He did not rush his words, but seemed to take his time choosing each one. “Jenna’s grandmother emigrated from Russia. No, that is not the right word. She escaped from Russia in the 1960s. Her husband refused to come with her, so she took her baby daughter and did it alone. Somehow she made it into Finland and then to the US. She is still alive. Jenna says she is too tough to die. Jenna grew up in Chicago and her mother and grandmother still live there. Her hobby is exercise and taking care of herself. Her secret is that she is going to win this contest.”
There was a lot of hooting at his last words, but Nate didn’t join in. Jenna struck him as very capable, the kind of person who, once she put her mind to something, didn’t give up until she’d done it.
Tony looked at his partner. “I guess that just leaves us. My beautiful partner here is Omisha Malik.” Omisha gave him a timid smile then cast her eyes back down, unable to look at the rest of them. “Omisha is the goddess of birth and death. She is from India, from the city of Kolkata, which we usually call Calcutta. She came to the US to study at UCLA and just received her BA in history this spring. After this show she will be returning to India to marry the man her parents have arranged for her, a dentist who lives in Calcutta.”
There were some groans at this and Caleb said, “No way, an arranged marriage? Does that still happen?”
“It is not like you think,” Omisha said. “He is a good man from a good family. It is a suitable match for both of us.”
“Girl, you should make your own choices,” Jordynn said.
Tony continued. “Her hobby is painting. She likes to do landscapes. Her secret is that when she was a little girl she dreamed of being a famous actress, dancing in the famous Bollywood movies.”
“I love the dancing in those,” Jenna said. “So graceful. So beautiful.”
Then it was Omisha’s turn. In her measured, cultured accent she told them about Tony growing up in Kansas, working at his father’s store on the evenings and weekends, how he spent a semester at Kansas State before moving to LA. “His hobby is standup comedy,” she said. “He goes in for open mic night every week at a bar near his apartment. His secret is that he says he is no good at it, that he is maybe the worst comedian ever.”
“Technically it’s not really a secret. The four people who are always there getting drunk know I suck. The bartender does too,” Tony said.
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