They said it was an accident. An allergic reaction. The groceries that they’d brought in for us weren’t properly screened. Sugar cookies that used almond extract as a sweetener. He didn’t stand a chance.
Now, we were all sitting around the dining table of our made-for-tv house with the producers, their faces pinched and solemn but focused. Eyes on the prize. They said the cameras were off, but I knew better. Tragedy always made the best television.
“Are they canceling the show?” Derrick Rammage, a skinny kid from Detroit, wrung his hands as his eyes darted between the two producers. He was here for the money. I guess all of us were, but he was really desperate. His family had lost everything when the auto industry collapsed. He was uneducated and out of work, his father lived on disability, and his sister had leukemia. A real hard luck case.
“The Project will continue,” said one of the producers, a woman with rail straight posture that belied her motherly face.
A tremor went around the room as everyone settled back into their chairs, careful not to look too relieved. The Project wasn’t a terribly original idea. Six people from all walks of life thrown together in a house under constant surveillance. A test of endurance. A prize of a million dollars waited at the end for the last one standing. The details were kept hidden, though the general assumption was that we would face varying forms of psychological pressure. Physical games. Hidden traitors. So far, it had been little more than a very boring vacation.
That is, until…
“That being said,” the producer continued, “we will be making some changes. Security will be ramped up. You may find yourselves without some of the comforts you’ve come to expect.”
“Like what?” Sherry Long, a school teacher from Kansas, worried her bottom lip. She was sweet and pretty in a wholesome way, sure to be America’s sweetheart.
“That has yet to be determined. Though from today onward, you will be provided a completely hypoallergenic diet. Gluten free, lactose free--”
Everyone at the table groaned.
“What about Bo?” Olivia Gutierrez’s dark eyes stared over the top of her knees, her arms wrapped tight around her legs. She rocked slightly in her chair and tugged at the cuffs of the sweater she wore despite the warm temperatures. No one said it, but we all knew what she was hiding. “I mean, will there be a service? Will we be allowed to…”
The producer’s lips pulled into a thin line. “The rules of the house remain the same. Anyone who leaves forfeits their prize. If you would like to pass along condolences to the family, we would be happy to do that for you.”
Silence descended upon the group as we all considered. Bo Dallas had been the archetypal villain, the bully cast for no other reason than to sow conflict. No one here had liked him, yet here we were, drowning in guilt over missing the funeral of a man who wouldn’t know the difference and I bristled at the hypocrisy.
“Well, if there aren’t any other questions…” The producer swept her eyes over the table before pushing away. “Okay, then. Good luck.”
The producers left and seconds later, a thousand little red lights tucked in every hidden corner of the house blinked on. Showtime.
Tommy Cho, an MMA fighter from California, shoved away from the table so hard he nearly upset the water glasses scattered over it. He was intense, focused, and a player in every sense of the word. He hadn’t spoken during the meeting but I could feel him analyzing every move made by the producers and his housemates. He fixed us all with a hard glare before stomping off toward the in-house gym.
“What are we going to do?” Sherry asked, her lip still tucked between her teeth.
Derrick shrugged. “I know what I’m gonna do. Keep playing.”
“This isn’t a game. Bo is dead.”
“What if that is the game?”
All eyes swung towards me.
“What are you getting at?” Derrick asked.
I shrugged. “Seems a little strange, doesn’t it? I mean, they watch us every second of every day.”
“So...why didn’t someone run in here with an epi pen the second Bo started choking?”
The room went silent as the scene played out again in their minds. Bo thrashing on the floor with his hands around his throat, gasping, lips turning blue. Olivia hugged her legs a little tighter.
“Shit, man, that’s dark.”
Sherry laughed, high-pitched and brittle. “Come on, guys. You can’t really believe that. They wouldn’t just let somebody die on national television.”
“Why not?” I leaned forward, my elbows braced on the table. “Cable dramas are basically softcore snuff films these days.”
“But, that’s...that’s not...real.” She hugged herself, her eyes glazing over.
“And yet, it’s some of the highest rated stuff on TV. How many people do you think would tune in for the real thing?”
There was a collective intake of breath that thinned the air. Olivia made some small sound behind her knees before sliding out of her chair and disappearing into the house. Sherry covered her mouth with her hands. Derrick’s jaw worked and his hands balled into fists.
“Fuck you, man.” He pounded his fist on the table as he stood. “You’re just trying to scare us. Get us to quit.”
I shrugged and sat back in my chair, arms crossed over my chest.
“So, what, you think we’re supposed to kill each other?” Sherry’s voice was shrill, her cheeks flushed. “But, the rules explicitly state ‘violence against members of the household is strictly prohibited.’”
“Was Bo’s death violent?”
“Yeah, man, it was fucking violent.” Derrick slapped his hand on the table again.
Our heads jerked up as a the house filled with a shrill whine. The walls vibrated with it, sending pictures shimmying off their hooks and vases skittering across their shelves. We all ran into the main living area, wide-eyed, hands clamped over our ears. Tommy appeared from the gym, sweat-damp hair sticking out in all directions.
The vibration stopped as suddenly as it had begun. Sherry clung to Derrick’s arm.
“What was that?” Tommy asked.
Sherry yelped as the house PA system squaked to life and a nasal voice filled the air.
Your opt-out period has come to an end.
“Opt-out period? What the f--”
You will no longer be allowed to leave the house until The Project has completed. Outside communication will not be permitted. Please consult your admittance waivers if you have any questions. You have twenty days. Good luck.
The PA squaked again, dropping us back into silence. Tommy and I exchanged a long look while Derrick tried to console Sherry.
“What is going on, here?”
Derrick left Sherry long enough to ransack his room, returning moments later with a stack of rumpled paperwork. His admittance packet. He dropped to his knees in front of the coffee table and spread it out in front of him, his fingers skimming down the hundreds of lines of text. We’d all been given the same thing when we arrived. The first page was a generic NDA and damage waiver. Most just skimmed it, then flipped to the back and signed.
“Opt-out...opt-out…” Derrick muttered to himself as he poured over the paperwork. Tommy and Sherry dropped to their knees beside him and peered over his shoulder. His fingers stopped somewhere on page five.
“‘Participants agree to reside in The Project residence for a period of no more than twenty days.’” he read aloud. “‘The participants will be given an opt-out period of 72 hours in which they may leave the residence without legal consequence or obligation. After this period, participants are committed to remain in the house for the duration of twenty days or until only one participant remains.’”
“I don’t understand.” Sherry’s eyes welled. “What does that mean.”
“Means we’re stuck with each other, babe,” Tommy said. Sherry curled her nose at him and he winked.
“‘Until only one participant remains.’” Derrick repeated the words softly, almost reverently. “That can’t mean--This can’t be real. It’s just part of the game, right?”
Tightness curled in my gut and pressed against my lungs. “Keep reading.”
Derrick blinked before turning his eyes back to the document. “‘Participants release The Project from liability for damages caused by illness, injury, loss of limb, or loss of…’”
The blood drained from his face and my lips curled as I finished for him.
“‘Or loss of life.’”
Sherry made a pained sound before jumping up and running to the bathroom, a hand clamped over her mouth. Derrick ran to the door and yanked on the knob. When it didn’t budge, he threw his body against it. The hinges cracked, but the door didn’t move.
An electric shiver ran up my spine. I moved toward one of the windows and yanked back the curtain. As I expected. No light poured in. No views of manicured gardens and blue skies. I slid the glass open and pressed my hand against a sheet of cold steel bolted to the frame.
A piercing scream rang through the house from the direction of the bathroom. Sherry.
Derrick ceased his pounding and ran toward it. Heart beating a bruising rhythm against my sternum, I followed. The bathroom door was open, a rectangle of light in an otherwise dim hallway, cut only by Sherry’s kneeling silhouette. Beyond her lie a pool of red. White tiles drowned in it. Crimson rivers cutting through the grout lines. Slouched against the tub was Olivia, her long sleeves pulled up to her elbows, ugly red lines illuminating the scars of past failed attempts.
Derrick made a choking sound before pushing past Sherry. He slid through the blood, scooping Olivia into his arms. She flopped lifelessly as he called her name, screaming in anguish to the faceless watchers who would never come.
I turned at the sound of a light step from behind me. Tommy Cho, his skin glistening from his workout, his expression showing only the faintest interest. His eyes met mine and it sent a rush of heat through my bones.
Oh, yes. He was a player.