Bodies buckle in turbulence. Yellow masks fall and hiss. Overhead bins spill their contents. Next to me, a young girl pukes on her orange Converses. But I’m calm. I see Fate’s hand in my destiny. The stewardess didn’t offer me two Cokes to be nice. She knows I’m a star. Just like I know what’s happening.
Voices call out, choking and guttural. They don’t understand. This is it. “Listen,” I yell. Nobody hears me. But cameras roll somewhere, right? They’re probably built into the tray tables. I want viewers to know me. Crash a plane, see who survives: what a premise. I got all A’s on my report card in eighth grade. Believe me, I’m not a whiz kid, but I had extrinsic motivation: my own TV. Mom and Dad are lawyers at a big-name firm with offices in Center City and the Main Line suburbs near our house, but I earned that TV. It wasn’t sitting on my dresser one day like a pony waiting in the backyard.
During prime time, the reality Renaissance had begun. First I watched Survivor, episode two of its third season, African Outback. When the credits ran, I realized I was destined for reality show stardom. Lightning didn’t strike; I just knew. A bit idealistic, sure. A bit megalomaniac, maybe. But here I am.
This past fall, I arrived at Penn State with a single bag. After six seasons of Survivor, I could pack a duffle – Swiss Army knife, can-opener, and all. My roommate was impressed. KC Hewitt’s his name. Real swell guy.
We formed an alliance for the college rigmarole: classes, dining hall dinners, even the occasional frat party. “Think of it as The Bachelor practice, Jason.” He tossed me a folded Polo shirt. “Start with one hundred girls and whittle down to one. A whole season in one night.” I couldn’t say no to that. A pre-med major finds a corpse in his closet or under his bed, and he’s making a few cuts before calling the cops. No doubt.
The party was more like Survivor. KC and a blonde hit it off on a plaid couch while I staked out fifteen girls and nabbed alone time with three. What can I say? I have the curly dark hair, blue eyes, and lanky body thing happening. The girls were all pretty, but if I’ve learned anything from Chris Harrison and the boys on The Bachelor, it’s that most are. You gotta get to know them if you want to see their curves.
I had been narrowing the field to five when red and blue lights flashed through the windows. COPS wasn’t my destiny. Missing teeth, wife beaters, no, thank you! But I respected the show’s officers with their wooden rods and aviators. The Po-Po with the Mo-Mo.
After midterms, KC and his sofa sugar were going steady, and I handed my final rose to a Steeler fan from the ‘Burgh, Jane Smitherman. God, could she kiss. One morning over a plate of waffles, I passed Jane a napkin note: I want to see your wild side.
“Wild side?” She twirled her fork in the syrup puddle.
“We could head out to Jackson Trail to hike this weekend.”
She put down her fork. “That sort of wild. I’m a city girl.”
“But you’re adventurous. You said so yourself.”
“What about bears?”
“They’re hibernating,” I bluffed.
I packed gourmet cheese, expensive crackers, and chardonnay. I forgot glasses, though, so we had to shoot the wine straight from the bottle. And I swear on my grandmother’s ten-pound King James Bible: we saw a bear. Big and black and lumpy and scary as hell. On TV, bears could be stuffed animals or pets or Maitre d’s at vegetarian restaurants. If Jane wasn’t right next to me, I would have peed my pants. But Jane was next to me. She was pulling my arm. “Do something,” she whispered. “Please.” Her voice sounded small. I didn’t think. I charged. I ran right into an episode of Animal Planet’s I Shouldn’t Be Alive. I flailed my arms and bared my teeth. I roared. I hissed. I punched the air. In return I willed a claw swipe, a flash of teeth. I wanted this to be good. You know, impress Jane, the viewers.
“C’mon, bear,” I yelled. An arm’s length away, I stopped. The animal stood on its back legs. Showtime! Jab belly or kick out a knee?
Before I could make the first move, Jane called, “Bear!” I turned to look. She had the cheese in her hand. “Hey, bear!” she called again. Her voice shook. Then she chucked the gouda down the trail. I didn’t even have time to growl again. Off the bear went into the brush.
I jogged back to Jane. “Next time we need a video camera,” I said.
“Take me home,” she said. We hadn’t even reached our first scenic vista. Maybe she wanted to make-out in private, fantasy-suite style. I poured the rest of the wine into the leaf litter, and we practically ran to the car.
But back at the dorm, Jane said, “I just don’t feel a strong connection with you. . . . I don’t think we have enough in common. . . . You’ll meet a lucky girl someday.” I took the lines in. She was my first girlfriend. I think I could have loved her.
Right before finals, I started watching Top Chef. Crème brulee, baby! Mom seemed delighted when I offered to cook Christmas dinner. “You’re really growing up, Jason,” she said on the car ride home.
“What’s on the menu?
“I thought I would hit up Whole Foods, check out their fresh veggies and proteins.” No chef went into a challenge saying, I’m doing a saffron leek scallop soufflé. What if the leeks were wilted or the scallops too small? A few episodes in and already I was learning.
Mom turned to look at me, “Alright, Emeril.” Bam!
But everything I touched in the kitchen went up in flames or ended up smelling like burnt garlic, even the chocolate-infused bread pudding with a caramel-infused whipped topping. The whole meal was a mess-infused disaster. We ordered take-out from Chan’s China Palace.
Back at school, I buckled down. By January 21st, I had four applications submitted. Sure, I was destined for stardom, but I knew not to procrastinate. Oedipus, blind yourself already!
Then along came the inevitable. Last night. A reality show casting exec called during The Amazing Race. “Jim Bundt here. I’ve just made your day, kid.”
I almost hung up. “I’m too old for Chuck E. Cheese’s, mister.”
“That’s funny, kid. Your application was funny, too. You made the cut. We need you in Miami tomorrow night.”
Everything pounded. “What’s the show?”
“Ah, curious? Curious is good, but for now, trust me.”
“But how do you know I’m a good fit?”
“Like I said, your application was funny. No, more than funny. It was intense.”
“What about the bear story? Did you like that part? My epic charge?”
“I don’t work for the Discovery Channel, kid. My turn to ask a question. Are you in?”
I saw final roses, endless immunity, interviews, agent hirings, and magazine covers. “Yes, I’m in,” I said. Maybe Jane would accompany me to the post-finale cast party.
I left KC a note and phoned my parents from the cab on the way to University Park Airport. Look, Mom! I did it. I flew to Dulles. Dad had called to book me a hotel room next to the airport. I came close to squealing twice when I checked in. This morning I woke up, checked out, and boarded a plane. Destiny waited. I was so ready.
But this? Now my vision is deteriorating rapidly, literally falling in a blur of sky and trees. Between the plane’s drone and the captain’s intercom warbling and the incessant screams, I can barely form a thought. And when I do, it’s this: the bear. That stupid bear Jane and I saw on our date. I never should have charged unless I knew Jane was filming. Danger without documentation is dumb. Really dumb. I just peed my pants.
When the plane touches down against the surf, the aircraft shivers: a wailing, heavy tremor that rips open the fuselage and lifts seats from their bolts. Mine among them.
I wake up with one and a half legs and blood pooling syrupy and dark under the remains of my knee. Closeness to death seems to sharpen my mental acuity. I mean, come on. This has to be part of the show. I’m on my back at the edge of a scrubby beach. I’m alive, but of course I’m alive. This is my destiny. The star of the show can’t die. HD immortality.
God, there’s a lot of blood. The reality of it seems so unreal, cartoonish and ketchupy. I use my seat belt as a tourniquet, but still red soaks the cushion, the sand.
I have to hand it to this show’s producers. They have real balls to do something so big, so real. They got carnage right. Around me lie bits of charred metal, a hand, and two smoldering tray tables. The air smells like our kitchen Christmas Day but without the garlic. A gray haze hovers to the left, fed by smoke chimneys swirling from plane parts. Where are the other contestants? Where are the camera crews? Filming with hidden cameras is common, but this level of innovation in shooting unnerves me. Hey, the whole scenario unnerves me. Who wants to see a disembodied hand on a scrubby dune? I knew to be ready for challenges and twists and drama whether the show was about fashion or losing weight, but tragedy is new for me – an aspect of reality I haven’t studied.
Something is happening. The tingling in my leg intensifies. Hello, Destiny, is that you? Under this charcoal-infused sky, I could be the only one left. Could winning be this easy?
Jane’s on her way to class. A pink toothbrush protrudes from the sand. KC’s having lunch with couch girl. They’re still dating, and he’s intact. I squirm into a sitting position. The open wound aches and bleeds. I pull the belt tighter. Roses grow and shed leaves in my knee. Glimpses of thoughts bounce in my head, then out. Plane. Smoke. Contestants. Hand. Show. Reality. Toothbrush. Blood. Stardom. Crash. Destiny. Are those sirens I hear? A chopper overhead? More tingling. A hole. And I’m falling. An elimination ceremony already? I can’t pack up my knives just yet. Cheer for me. Cheer for me.
Lindsey Harding is a creative writing Ph.D. student at the University of Georgia. She earned my M.F.A. from Sewanee University’s School of Letters. Her stories have been published in Xenith and Wilderness House Literary Review. She also has a story forthcoming in Stray Dog Almanac.