DYING FOR THE ROSE

Prologue

 

I don’t have much experience being chased by tigers, but I do know that when one chases you, you run. So I’m running. And my girlfriend’s running. And do you know how I can tell that my relationship might be over? Because I’m secretly hoping that she’s slower than I am.

You might ask me how I could hope for such a thing. Who knows? Relationships are complex.

I will mention, though, that she just moved into my apartment. Funny thing, when she did, she removed all of my stuff and then didn’t tell me where she put it. And sure, I really liked my stuff. But like I said, who knows why I feel the way I do? Relationships are complex.

Anyway. To celebrate our living together, she suggested that we take a safari. And like when she suggested that we move in together, I agreed. Now, I’m running, she’s running and an adult Bengal tiger is running after us.

They say that you learn things about the person you’re dating when you vacation together. It’s true. What I’ve learned about Laura is that she is fast. And I’m no slouch. I’ve stayed in shape. So how the hell did she sprint past me five seconds ago? Seriously, she’s like a gazelle.

But I guess I should be grateful for her speed. Her lead will give her the time to open the Land Rover’s door and climb in. Then, with barely a second to spare, I’ll slide in behind her.

You know what? I take back everything I thought about Laura. I’m lucky to have a girlfriend like her. I don’t appreciate her enough. From this moment forward, I’ll do better. Because that gazelle is fantastic.

And how impressed will people be when they hear how we fell in love? “It was when she helped me escape from a tiger,” I’ll say. Then I’ll turn and kiss her like couples do when they’re telling their story. It will be perfect.

Or more precisely, it would have been perfect. Because there was a minor hitch in our great love epic. And it had to do with what happened after Laura got into the jeep.

Do you know how they say that traveling together will reveal interesting things about your relationship? Well, the most interesting thing happened as I approached the open door. My girlfriend, Laura, revealed that she didn’t see us having a long life together. And she did it by closing the door behind her, leaving me outside to be eaten by the tiger. Laura has never been much for subtlety.

Luckily, this moment wasn’t the first time that my life has been in danger. It was an old, familiar feeling. The electricity that prickled my skin, the high-pitched whine in my ears, the dry mouth, the heightened senses, all of it came rushing back.

I looked behind me at my tiger. I say “my tiger” because I was sure that this tiger was going to kill me, that this was the moment I was going to die. Or… you know what? Maybe not.

Sure, 400 pounds of rippling muscle was tracking me at 30 miles per hour. But the jeep was right there. Maybe I had just enough time to reach up, open the door, and slide in.

The problem, though, was that the tiger was close. I could hear it breathing, sending chills down my neck.

A few more steps and a quarter ton of muscle would be on top of me, mauling me, making Laura the last girlfriend I would ever have. Man, out of everything, knowing that Laura would be my last attempt at love had to be the saddest part.

No. Screw that. I was gonna live. If a building-sized explosion didn’t kill me, a poorly chosen girlfriend wasn’t going to take me out.

The tiger was about to pounce when I saw my escape. The windows were up and the roof was on, but the jeep had a fourteen-inch clearance underneath it. I could slide into it feet first and roll.

I dove. The tiger’s rough paw brushed me. How hadn’t it hooked me? I didn’t know. But for the moment, I was free.

My tiger, thinking he had me, didn’t slow down. He ran into the door at full speed. The jeep jolted like it had been hit by a car. The collision was deafening.

The tiger was shaken, but it didn’t stop. It merely backed up and tried again. And unable to crawl under, it reached out its paw and swiped at me.

Its long arms grabbed me, pulling me towards it. I slid across the dirt until I heard a loud rip. He had clawed my shirt though he missed my flesh. I shimmied further back, racing to get away.

Surrounded by the smell of diesel and grease, my breath hitched. The smell burned my lungs. I recovered in time to see its paw swipe again. The wind rushed across my face. The toxic fumes were overwhelming. I’ve got to get out of here, I thought.

My muscles tensed as my eyes darted around the confined space. I could feel the chemicals slowing my thoughts. My reaction time would be next. After that, I would be as good as dead.

It was then that I had a stroke of luck: Laura started the jeep. My girlfriend’s complete disregard for my safety had offered me an escape.

Upon hearing the growl of the engine, the tiger jumped back. Watching it move from one side of the jeep to the other, I saw my opening. I could roll out the other side, jump up and get in.

Sounds like a good plan, right? I thought so. And it probably would have worked if the jeep hadn’t begun to pull away.

You know, I blame myself for this whole situation. I haven’t been making the best decisions lately. Dating a woman who was clearly trying to kill me was just one of them.

But seeing my life with a face full of dirt and a rattling engine at my back gave me a new perspective. I saw that my bad decisions had to end. Reconsidering whether the brown stuff on my face was actually dirt, I decided to turn over a new leaf. I would begin by focusing on what was important. Right now, that was my survival.

The jeep moved forward, but not very quickly. I looked around in search of the tiger. It stood crouched at the front left. I shimmied to the right.

The jeep picked up speed. I kept my eyes locked on the beast as the blazing sun hit my legs. My back was next, followed by my hands and my neck. It wouldn’t be long until nothing stood between myself and the man-eater. Before I knew it, there he was.

My chest hurt as he turned his massive face towards me. The world was slowing down, and I couldn’t breathe. It was now a race. Could he redirect his 400 pounds faster than I could climb up the back of the jeep?

As if out of the starting blocks, my body rocketed forward. It would have been impressive if I wasn’t racing a tiger. Because in half the time it took me to get to the jeep, he had contorted his striped body and was charging me.

I lunged for the ladder as he measured his speed. Just when he sprung towards me, my hand gripped the metal rung. I pulled my torso onto the roof while I felt coarse fur brush against my leg. Was it his paw? His whiskers? I didn’t know.

I couldn’t think about that now. I had to focus. The jeep was approaching critical speed, and I had to get down and hold on. In seconds, we would be moving too fast for my friend to leap again.

I couldn’t believe it. As long as no one hit the stop button, I was going to survive. Not even Laura was heartless enough to purposely stop the jeep… was she?

Miraculously, the jeep never stopped. Was it that Laura still cared about me? Possibly. Could her “not stopping” have more to do with making her spa appointment at the resort? I think that I would have to be pretty cynical to believe something like that.

I mean sure, she ran to the spa as soon as the jeep parked. And no, she never asked me if I was okay. But it wasn’t like Laura was some type of sociopath. I think I would know if I were dating a sociopath.

I mean, I might have made a few bad choices lately when it came to women. But it wasn’t like all of my girlfriends had tried to kill me… twice… in the same day. No. I was a much better judge of character than that.

But, considering what had just happened, I decided that it might be good to make a few changes. Nothing too dramatic, of course. I just needed to address the things that weren’t working in my life. And with a beautiful girlfriend, a high paying job, and a gorgeous apartment, I couldn’t need to change that many things. Right?

 

 

Chapter 1

 

Well, how the hell did I get here? I mean, I know how I got here. I just mean… how the hell did I get here? I was alone on a ferry waiting for the boat to approach the dock. I was wearing a very expensive suit. And I was nervous.

A lot had changed for me since the safari. First off, I broke up with Laura. No surprise there. But what did surprise me was what I saw in her relaxed, soulless eyes after she returned from her spa appointment that day. What I saw was me staring back at myself.

And I’m not referring to my reflection in their lifeless sheen. I’m talking metaphorically. In her, I saw a part of me that I couldn’t see in myself. We had more in common than I wanted to admit, which meant that I had hit rock bottom.   

So as soon as I got back home, that was it. I asked her where she put my stuff, and I moved out. After five years of living in that gorgeous apartment, it was time for a fresh start.

On top of that, I left my job. I hated being a corporate recruiter. If I had had to listen to another fourteen-year-old explain why she thought that she would make a great CEO in another 20 years, I would have hurt somebody.

As a former recruiter for the Young CEO Recruitment Program at a major corporation, I can tell you that the program doesn’t work. Yeah, those kids are smart. That’s why I was there. That’s why I lived with them for six weeks, observing them, interacting with them, and evaluating them for a lifetime job that they could never understand at fourteen.

No matter what anyone says, people aren’t born leaders. Leadership is like a diamond. It forms under great stress and pressure. Fourteen is way too soon to evaluate leadership potential. I couldn’t say that as a highly paid recruiter for the world’s largest corporation, but it doesn’t make it any less true.

So, after that, I was without a job, a long-term lease or a girlfriend. I was free to start my life again. Then, one thing led to another, I answered a few questions online, and then, I was on my way to meet the bachelorette. Apparently, I was going to be on TV.

I didn’t watch TV then, and I don’t watch it now. In fact, I don’t know anyone who still owns a TV. Nonetheless, I was going to be on game show holdover from the time of broadcast television.

I didn’t know the details of the show, but I didn’t care. What I knew was that I was unemployed and being on a TV show would qualify as a life-change. Plus, it might be good for a laugh. So there I was, alone on a ferry, wearing an expensive suit and about to meet a woman whom I was supposed to compete for against other men.

Ha! The whole thing was ridiculous.

In a pose that made me feel like George Washington crossing the Delaware, I stared out into the darkness. I enjoyed the feeling as the salty sea air washed over me. And as the light in the distance grew, I saw her.

She stood motionless under a cascade of lights. Her incandescent blue dress sparkled. She was tall and fit. When I was close enough to see it, her bright smile lit up her face, making its narrow contours appear round.

Wow! I thought.

A producer back on the mainland had gotten me ready for the show. He hadn’t told me much, but one of the things he had said was that I would like her. So far, so good.

The ferry slowed as it reached the wooden dock. With barely a jolt, the magnetic locks brought the boat to a stop.

“Please step forward,” a soothing robotic voice requested.

I looked down at the door that opened to the dock. The thing I didn’t like about autonomous boats was that you never knew how much you were supposed to do yourself. When nothing lit up and nothing popped open, I opened the door and walked through.

Stepping onto the dock, I couldn’t help but look around for the cameras. Were they in the lamps that lined the dock? Were they on drones flying above? If they were, I didn’t see them. But they were supposed to be non-intrusive, right? Well, in this case, they succeeded.

I strolled forward turning my full attention to the woman. What I remembered about these types of game shows was that in the end, the winning guy was supposed to ask the bachelorette to marry him. I couldn’t even imagine falling in love with someone in such a short time. So, wanting to marry someone in a few short weeks? What a laugh.

I had asked the producer about it, and he had reluctantly confirmed. That was what I was here to do. To be honest, I didn’t expect to be here for very long.

I stepped off of the wooden planks and was greeted by a thigh-high floating robot. Giving it only a quick glance, I assumed it was my personal escort. Following it, I turned my attention to the grass that had been planted to resemble a red carpet.

The producer had said that we weren’t supposed to know where we were. Supposedly, we were on an island in the middle of nowhere, but the red grass did offer a clue.

In the last few years, red grass had become popular in South East Asia. Sure, you could now grow the grass anywhere. However, taking into consideration the warm night breezes, the flowers that formed the bachelorette’s backdrop, and how long I was on the ferry, Southeast Asia made sense.

Resolving one mystery, I focused on another, the woman in front of me. She really did have a welcoming smile. Plus, the closer I got, the more beautiful she became.

Her jade eyes popped against her deeply tanned skin. Her curves were a mixture of athleticism and femininity. She looked strong and vulnerable, all at the same time.

Wow. I had never expected to find someone so gorgeous. It was a real shame that we had to meet under such circumstances. Sure, some people thought that these types of game shows were romantic. That’s why the format had lasted for so long. But I never did.

One woman and a bunch of guys are put on a deserted island, and the woman eliminates men until she chooses who she wants to marry? Hey, to each their own, but I couldn’t think of anything less romantic.

Yet, with the chorus of chirping birds and crashing waves, the oversized flowers framing her, the blue glow surrounding her, and the smell of coconut and vanilla that became stronger the closer I got to her, I did feel my heart flutter. Remembering my snicker when the producer oversold the two minutes I would have with her, I started to wonder if two minutes would be enough.

Standing in front of her, I wished that I had planned something to say to her like the producer had suggested. It might have prevented me from staring at her like a prepubescent schoolboy.

“Hi, I’m Rose,” she said, flashing a fantastic smile.

“Hi, Rose. I’m Ford.”

I stuck out my hand as she spread her arms for a hug. We chuckled at that and then I stepped in, following her lead. With her body pressed against mine, I got a full whiff of coconut and vanilla. Damn, I loved that scent! It made me weak in the knees.

Pulling away, I got the sense that I was supposed to speak next. I imagined that she was giving me the opportunity to say whatever it was that I had prepared. Why the hell hadn’t I prepared something? Instead, my mind was adrift in her scent, and I couldn’t remember anything past my own name.

“Let me guess. I look familiar to you?” she asked, now smiling uncomfortably.

Uh oh, I thought. Nothing good ever followed that question.

I sped through my mental Rolodex of one-date wonders. She wasn’t in there. Did I forget to add someone? As uncomfortable as the thought was, at least it gave me something to say.

“I’m sorry, have we met before?”

“No,” she said, frozen in a look of confusion.

The awkward silence that followed was in no way my fault. The look on her face suggested that she was about to say something, but she never did. 

“I’m sorry,” she said eventually. “I thought you were someone else.”

“That’s okay,” I replied, even more relieved than she looked. “I was worried for a second. But I don’t think I would forget meeting someone as beautiful as you.”

The corner of her eyes crinkled with a genuine smile. It gave me a rush.

“Can we start over?” she asked enthusiastically.

“Absolutely.”

“Hi I’m Rose,” she said, sticking out her hand.

“I’m Ford.” 

We shook hands and chuckled.

“I like your suit.”

“Thank you. I like your dress,” I replied, feeling a flow develop between us. “I wonder what you would look like out of it.”

I heard it after it came out of my mouth.

Rose stared at me with her mouth hanging open. I began to wonder if I had ever spoken to a woman before. As I started to make space in my one-date Rolodex, she released a loud “Ha” and snorted.

“I’m really sorry,” I said emphatically. “That did not come out right.”

“It didn’t? That’s too bad. I suddenly really liked you.”

To my surprise, her eyes were twinkling. I had intrigued her.

“Oh. Then if you liked that, wait until I’m not watching what I’m saying,” I joked.

“I can’t wait,” she said flirtatiously. “Hey, you wanna play a game?”

“Sure,” I said, regaining my bearing.

“I’ll tell you a secret about myself, and then you can tell me one about you.”

I hesitated. “Okay.”

“My secret is that my hands were shaking so much when I was getting ready to come down here that I over-plucked my eyebrows.”

“Did you?” I asked peeking up at her forehead.

She hid her eyebrows with her hand. “Oh, don’t look.”

“Why not?” I asked, delighted by her vulnerability.

“I drew them back on, and they look weird.”

I reached up and held her wrist. She let me lower her hand.

“What are you talking about?” I asked after getting a good look.

“Are you kidding me? They’re so thick I’m afraid I’ll be recruited by wandering mimes.” 

I laughed. “Why were you so nervous before you came out here?”

“You know, meeting guys like you,” she said, showing more hints of her alluring vulnerability.

I looked at her curiously. “You do know that the guys here will be trying to impress you, right? You aren’t the one who should be nervous.”

“Even you?” she asked flirtatiously.

I didn’t know it until that exact second, but I said, “Yeah, of course.”

Her eyes twinkled in response. “So, what’s your secret?”

My chest tightened at the question. Her smile slowly disappeared with mine. Gathering my strength, I gently took her hand and looked into her eyes.

“Rose, I’m actually a mime. I’m here to talk to you about joining my wandering troupe.”

She burst out laughing.

It felt good knowing I was the one who made her laugh. Was it just me, or had I just stuck the landing? Sure, this whole situation was absurd, but damn if we hadn’t made a real connection.

“No. Come on. Tell me,” she insisted.

The burning in my chest returned as her grip on my hand tightened. I looked into her eyes. Despite her disarming smile, she was serious.

This time, the silence was interrupted by my beeping robot escort. That was it; my two minutes were up. It had to have been the shortest two minutes of my life.

I offered Rose a twisted smile as an apology and then stepped past her. I touched my fingertips to the image displayed on my escort’s scanner. Feeling a gentle pulse that adhered me to the bot, I followed it as it took me away from Rose. Once I was a few feet past my bachelorette, I took a quick look back. She hadn’t peeked back at me.

Watching her turn away, I did the same. Yep, we had definitely made a connection. No one could’ve been more surprised by it than I was.

However, the further I got from the scent of coconut and vanilla, the easier it was to remember that I was on a game show. I thought about my interaction with Rose and searched the scene for the cameras. I didn’t see any.

I then thought about Rose. As real as the moment felt, was she just a really good actress?

As I thought about it, I became aware of my breathing. My heavy breaths were accompanied by a quickened heartbeat, a strange reaction.

Feeling a light electrical tug on my fingertips, I realized I had slowed down. Speeding up, I turned my attention to my escort. I hadn’t before seen a levitating bot up close before. I think this model was called a “pawn.”

That was my guess, anyway. It did resemble the chess piece, except for its flat top. If I was right, it spoke volumes about the budget of the show. Butler bots like pawns were expensive. And so far, there was this one, the one that waited behind Rose, and probably a few others floating around. 

The limited functionality of pawns made them a luxury item. Only the top one percent of corporations had pawns as escorts. Everyone else had the non-levitating models. In my opinion, even those were a waste. You could buy a 50,000-dollar bot to offer your guest a bottle of water, or you could pay someone minimum wage to do it. Pawns were mostly prestige symbols.

I was more familiar with the pawn’s 1,000-pound robot cousins. Their weight ruled out levitation. Plus, they had the firepower to cut a tree in half.

But enough about the good ole days. They were memories of a life long gone, and on my good days, they were memories forgotten.

I was here now. I was on an island in Southeast Asia, and I had just met a very interesting woman, who, if I wasn’t mistaken, wouldn’t beat me in a footrace with a tiger. In other words, she was exactly my type.

My escort led me into the trees. The soft blue light that the pawn levitated upon illuminated the small pebbles covering the pathway. Further ahead, a series of small, white lights outlined a path. We followed its twists and turns through the woods for two minutes. At the end, we poured out onto the manicured lawn of a quaint island resort.

Made entirely of bamboo, the building had a third-world charm. I followed my pawn inside, finding myself in the main office. Although the room was empty, the check-in counter was to the left, and a few steps past the counter, a door opened onto the facilities.

Exiting the main office, we were again outside. A pool was immediately in front of us, and it was surrounded by manmade ponds and miniature waterfalls. Beyond that, it looked like there was a dining area. Further still, on the left and right, were cabins. It was a charming resort.

Scattered throughout the decorative pools were twenty-five elegantly dressed men. To my surprise, they weren’t just good-looking. They were all extremely good-looking. It was like walking onto a model shoot.

Staring at the modelesque men, I had to fight against my competitive juices. I reminded myself of my own successes. I had been with my fair share of women through the years. In fact, though I wasn’t one to brag, Laura hadn’t been the only woman to try to kill me.

“Please, introduce yourself, and mingle,” my pawn instructed before parking itself along the wall with twenty other pawns.

I scanned the space looking for a bar. Not surprisingly, when I found it, it was surrounded by guys. So, throwing my shoulders back, I meandered over with swagger.

“What’s on tap?” I asked the annoyingly handsome bartender.

“I’m not the bartender, but I can make you what’s good,” he replied, showing the contrast between his white teeth, tanned skin, and sun-bleached hair.

“What’s good?” I asked.

“Whatever I make,” he replied.

“Fire it up,” I said, unsure if I liked him.

“No, it’s good,” the guy next to me added.

I found the second guy a little less annoying. He was still way too good-looking, but it was more in an “aw-shucks” sort of way. He looked like a guy who worked for a living instead of skirting by on his looks.

“Ford,” I told him, holding out my hand.

“Kurt,” he replied, gripping mine. “And this is Brad,” he added pointing at the man behind the bar.

“And this here is an Alabama Slama,” Brad announced in a manufactured southern accent.

I took the rocks glass and sipped. It was a little sweet, but not too bad. “Alright,” I confirmed just glad to get a drink in me.

“Do you believe any of this?” Kurt leaned in to ask.

“It’s out there. Isn’t it?”

“But did you see our bachelorette?” Brad interjected. “Fine trimmings. Am I right?”

I had to admit, she was more than I had expected.

“And I don’t want to disappoint you, gentlemen,” Brad continued, “but we had a moment. I think this contest is all but over.”

“What did she say?” I asked, remembering my own moment with her.

“It was all about the eyes… and the look-back.”

“Look back?” I asked.

“You know. You turn around after you meet someone and then you look back to see if she is looking back at you.”

“She looked back at you?” I asked, remembering the look back she gave me.

“You know it.”

“And you?” I said turning to Kurt.

“I didn’t check. I guess I should have. But it was still pretty cool. I can’t really reveal what she said, but we ended up playing a little game,” he admitted with a smile.

I did not like where this was going. “What type of game?”

“I mean, it wasn’t anything major,” he blushed. “She just shared a secret about herself, and it was really sweet.”

“What secret was that?” I pushed, my stomach turning over.

“It was nothing. It was just something about her makeup.”

“And her eyebrows?” I prodded hesitantly.

“Yeah. How did you know?” Kurt asked confused. When I didn’t answer Kurt continued.

“Anyway, it wasn’t what she shared exactly, it was more the joke I made afterward. She had said that she was scared about being recruited by mimes. Then I joked that I was a mime. It’s hard to explain. You had to be there.”

My mouth dropped open. I was about to speak when Brad beat me to it.

“Well, goddamn! I made the same joke.” Brad thought for a second, laughed out loud and then went back to bartending.

Kurt leaned toward me with his eyes fixed on Brad. “Do you think he’s messing with me?”

“No. I don’t think he is,” I informed him trying to hide the ache that I felt. I wasn’t sure why I had felt anything at all. I knew that this was a game show and that nothing here was real.

I had to admit, though, the girl had skills. She must have repeated it twenty times before saying it to me. Yet, when I heard it, I would have sworn it had been the first. That bitter pill had told me everything I needed to know about Rose and the show. 

“Hey, check this out.” Brad lifted his chin, turning our attention to the beefy man headed to the bar.

“Braaad!” He slurred holding up his empty glass. “My man!”

Brad matched his volume and celebratory mood. “One more?”

The beefy guy got sentimental touching the glass to his heart. “Always, man. That’s what I like about you. You get me.”

The beefy man threw his arm around Kurt and pointed at Brad. “Have you met this guy? Greatest guy ever.”

Already too drunk to stand still, he left Kurt to hug Brad from across the bar. Brad handed him a drink instead. The beefy guy was disappointed by his unrequited hug, but forgot about it when Brad held his own drink in the air.

“Cheers.”

Kurt and I joined Brad and the beefy guy did what came naturally. Leveling the glass, the beefy guy stared at Brad for a second. He licked his lips as if evaluating the drink. Instead of commenting, he turned and reentered the crowd.

I turned to Brad, wondering if he should have given the drunk man another drink. Brad winked at me in return. “Let the games begin,” he announced with a grin.

Brad was right. This whole set up was all just a game. We chased after Rose in order to be the last man standing. Meanwhile, millions of people around the world watched us and laughed.

Yeah, I was so done. The four hours spent signing paperwork, the long flights with blacked out windows where you wake up in strange rooms, the two-hour ferry trip to the island… TV, you gotta love the glamour.

Kurt and I stepped away from the bar when Rose made her grand entrance. Looking at her again, I confirmed my original impression. She was indeed gorgeous. As she addressed the guys, I watched her closely for signs of deceit. Amazingly, I didn’t find any. She was either being sincere or she was the greatest actor ever.

“…I’m looking forward to getting to know every one of you. But, you know, this time with my clothes on.”

Everyone around me laughed. I didn’t get it.

“And when this all ends, I truly believe that I will have found the man I’m going to spend the rest of my life with. So cheers! Oh, wait. I need a drink.”

On cue, Brad stepped forward with a glass. “Cheers!” she said again, and everyone echoed her.

It didn’t take long after that before she was swarmed by guys. They talked as a group for about a minute and then Brad escorted her off.

“So what’s happening?” I asked Kurt who seemed familiar with the show’s format.

“They go off and talk. Everyone’s supposed to try and get time with her to convince her to give them a rose.”

“A rose?” I asked clueless.

“If you get a rose, you stay on the show. If you don’t, you go home. At least, that’s what the producer told me.”

“The producer didn’t tell me anything,” I added confused.

“Well, I had asked if it was like another show, and he said yes. This is a new show, so this could be a little different.”

“You’re telling me that we’re on a show where nobody knows the rules?”

“Pretty much,” Kurt said with a smile.

Staring at Kurt, it hit me who he looked like: Clark Kent, the secret identity of Superman. “So, what do you do Kurt?”

“I’m a kindergarten teacher.”

“Really? I would have guessed construction worker.” That wasn’t true. I had guessed superhero.

Kurt smiled. “Yeah. I have 20 kids in my class.”

“Do you love it?”

“I do. They’re so pure, you know. They’re all just love and energy.”

“Then what are you doing here?”

“Summer break. I’m single. Most of the teachers I work with are women and they kept telling me that I should try out for a show like this. And, I don’t know. I’m starting at a new school in a new state in the fall. So it was time for me to try something a little different.”

“I don’t know any teachers,” I admitted.

“What do you do?”

I explained to him the wonder that was corporate recruiting, and to my surprise, he found it interesting.

“It must be amazing to give a kid the opportunity of a lifetime.”

“Oh yeah. A real miracle.”

“No?” he asked surprised.

I debated whether I should share my jaded view of the kids and their parents. The parents were the worst of all because they were selling their kids into a lifetime of servitude. Sure, it was exceptionally well paid, but it’s still slavery if you could never change your mind.

I decided to stay positive. Kurt was as genuine of a person as I could imagine. I hadn’t met very many people like him. He was the type of guy that you cheered for. In the middle of a war, this guy was the type that you saved first.

“It is a miracle,” I said backtracking. “I just got a little burnt out on it.”

“I can see that happening.”

As the night went on, I found out how great of a guy Kurt really was. Not only did he have a sense of humor, but he was also sensitive and chivalrous. His co-workers were right. He was the perfect person for a show like this.

I could’ve seen him winning it all and marrying Rose out of obligation if nothing else. Hell, if I had a sister, I would want him to meet her. In my mind, Kurt was the guy who was going to win the show.

“Hey, there!” Rose bellowed, drawing my attention.

I turned and saw the beefy guy from the bar. He was buck naked and asking for some alone time with the bachelorette. I looked around for Brad and found him staring back at me with a big grin on his face.

The guy who was already talking to Rose stepped in between the two to protect her.

“You think I haven’t seen a naked man before? Then you really haven’t been watching.”

Again, everyone laughed but me. I didn’t get it. It had to be some sort of inside joke. 

“Okay, let’s see what you got,” she said, putting the beefy guy on the spot. He seemed to be caught off guard.

“Does it do anything? Does it dance? Does it do a little show? No? Because if you’re gonna whip it out in front of me and all of these guys, the least you can do is put on a little act. No? Unimpressed,” she proclaimed. “Next!”

Rose walked away leaving the beefy guy stunned.

I looked over at Brad. He could barely contain himself he was laughing so hard. Was the beefy dude just drunk, or was he high, too? Either way, Brad was obviously behind it.

Looking at her again, I had a new level of respect for Rose. She wasn’t a wilting flower. She had spunk. Admirable, I thought. She was a cool chick. I was considering asking for alone time with her when my pawn found me and led me to the other side of the big pool.

It was impressive watching the pawns wrangle us. They even got the naked drunk guy to where they wanted him. After we were standing in two straight lines in front of Rose, her pawn entered, balancing a tray of red roses on its flat top.

I did a quick count. There were fifteen roses and twenty-five guys. Ten guys would be gone. I was sure that Kurt would get a rose and the naked guy would not. But what would happen with me?

The ceremony dragged on forever. Each time Rose called a name, seconds would go by before she would then say, “Would you consider spending the rest of your life with me?” The guy then waited until their pawn blinked signaling them to step forward and collect the rose.

The first guy to get a rose was Brad. That didn’t surprise me. He struck me as someone who belonged on a game show like this one.

What did surprise me was that the naked guy got a rose. Billy, or Buck-Naked Billy, as I decided to call him, had remained naked throughout the entire ceremony. Though he appeared to sober as the ceremony stretched on, he collected his rose without a stitch of self-consciousness.

Along with those two, twelve other guys received roses. Kurt and I were two of the eleven guys left. I hoped Kurt would get the final one.

This show really wasn’t my scene. Sure, it had been interesting getting a peek behind the curtain of a TV show, but I didn’t want to be a part of this.

Kurt was the guy who deserved to be here. Hell, even if I got a rose, I was going to give it to him. He was the type of guy who deserved to find love. Me, on the other hand? Well, let’s just say that I deserved what I got.

“Ford. Would you consider spending the rest of your life with me?” Rose asked holding the final rose.

Well, damn if that wasn’t unexpected. I froze. I saw my pawn blink indicating for me to step forward. I didn’t. After a minute, the other guys turned to me. Confused, Rose spoke up.

“Your name is Ford, right?” she asked, looking straight at me.

“Yeah.”

“Are you doin’ this?” she asked, giving me a sly smile.

“Can I ask a question?” I said to everyone’s surprise.

Everyone looked at each other because there was no one there to ask. As my pawn continued to blink, the silence grew.

“I guess,” Rose eventually conceded with a chuckle.

“Why me? Because there are other really cool guys here.”

Rose smiled, but her shoulders drooped as if she had been hurt. “Don’t you like me?”

“Ahh… yeah. But we didn’t talk.”

“Sure we did. At the dock.”

I could have called her out for repeating the exact same thing to everyone else, but I didn’t. Although she was trying to appear strong, her vulnerability reflected in her eyes.

I had embarrassed her. I hadn’t considered that possibility. It was nothing I ever wanted to do. She seemed like a cool person. I had to put an end to this little scene.

I slipped out of the back row and approached Rose. “Yes, I would love to consider spending the rest of my life with you.”

Rose flashed a brilliant smile. “You sure now? I don’t wanna pressure you or anything.”

I laughed. She was funny. “Yes. I’m sure.”

Rose wiped her brow with mock relief. “Phewww.” She looked back at the guys, getting a collective chuckle from the group.

I stepped back, feeling a little embarrassed but ultimately glad that I had decided to stay. It had helped to know that she actually wanted me here and that I wasn’t just one of the masses.

The downside of me staying was that Kurt couldn’t. Kurt deserved to be here much more than I did. Kurt was a real catch. How he could still be single was beyond me.

But Rose was the bachelorette. For whatever reason, she had chosen me over him. I wouldn’t have, though of course, I knew myself and she didn’t. Now that I had taken his spot, maybe I owned it to Kurt to give the game a chance.

The pawns quickly led us away after that. My pawn took me to a cabin on the far end of the right wing. The cabin was very bare inside. It had three beds and three dressers, along with my two roommates. 

The uptight, dark-haired guy was an attorney named Adam, and the shaggy-haired scattered guy was an internet entrepreneur named Ian. Since I was horrible at names, I called them Adam the Attorney and Internet Ian.

I chatted with Internet Ian for a while and then remembered Kurt, the kindergarten teacher. I realized that I should have gotten his number. We lived within a short hyperloop of each other and could hang out when we got back home.

I left Pete, my pawn, and Internet Ian in the cabin as I rushed back to the pool. One of the great things about having no human supervision was that you could do whatever you wanted. So when I didn’t find Kurt there, I hurried down to the dock.

I found Kurt standing alone under the furthest dock lamp. I slowed when the squeak from the wet planks disturbed the silence. Kurt saw me and smiled.

“Where’s everyone else?” I asked catching my breath.

“Don’t know. The pawns took us away one at a time. I was the last one. What are you doing here?”

“I thought I should grab your number. Maybe we could hit up a bar when we get back home. I’m not going to be here very long.”

“Yeah, sure. That’ll be cool. But, you know what? You should try to win this thing. You deserve it, man. You’re an awesome dude.”

Kurt was a great guy. He was a horrible judge of character, but still, a great guy.

“Thanks, man.” I paused and stared at Kurt for a second. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah. Why do you ask?” Kurt replied.

“Your eyes,” I explained. “They’re really red.”

“Are they?”

I wondered if Kurt was crying because that would not have been cool. But the thought quickly left me when Kurt coughed. “You okay, man?” I asked again.

This time, he didn’t answer. He fought to catch his breath. Coughing into his hand, he bent over.

I wasn’t sure what I should do. Did he need water? Should I pat his back?

Things progressed quickly after that. Kurt fell to his knees practically coughing up a lung. A chill rushed through my body. He was choking. But on what? Could he spit it out? He hadn’t been eating anything.

“Kurt!” I yelled, my heart racing. I didn’t panic. I never panicked. But I wasn’t sure what I could do, and I was losing him fast.

Kurt fell onto his side unable to breathe. I got down next to him and stuck my finger into his mouth. He had nothing in his throat and no gag reflex.

Withdrawing my hand, I watched helplessly as his fair skin turned a putrid red. I had never seen anything like it before. He was dying, and I had no idea why.

My thoughts spiraled. ‘What do I do?’

I raced through every option from my field manual. None of his symptoms fit. Out of time, I chose one. Before I could touch him, though, everything stopped. I was too late. Kurt was lying motionless, offering only a dead stare.

I flipped him onto his back and compressed his chest, one, two, three times, and then I filled him with my breath. I repeated this again and again. Had a minute gone by? Was it two?

However long it was, it hadn’t done any good. I stopped compressing his chest, and Kurt’s muscular frame released the familiar death rattle. I knew a dead body when I saw one. My friend was gone.

I sank onto my knees staring at him. What the hell had just happened? Kurt had died and I couldn’t do anything to save him. I had tried, right? I had done everything I could, hadn’t I?

My mind spiraled. How could this happen? I didn’t know, but I knew I needed help. I ran up the dock and followed the path back to the resort. A minute later, I was standing between the two rows of cabins.

“Help! Someone, I need some help,” I yelled unsure of what else I could say.

Half-dressed and startled, the guys poured out of their rooms.

“Kurt. He’s collapsed at the dock. I need help. I think he’s dead.”

Everyone followed me into the woods. What could any of them do now? It had been up to me, and I had failed.

When the trees gave way to the dock, I was filled with dread by what I saw. Continuing to the pool of light where I had left him, Kurt was gone.

“Where is he?” one of the guys behind me asked.

I looked around, confused. I tried to answer him, but suddenly my muscles wrenched from a jolt of doubt.

I did watch Kurt die, didn’t I? I mean, it wasn’t just in my head or some type of hallucination or something, was it? It wasn’t just some projection from my past or…

No! I decided.

He had been here. I had watched as he choked. I had heard his last breath rattle his lungs. I saw him die. And now he was gone.

What the hell was going on?

 

 

Chapter 2

 

Kurt! His name was Kurt. I hung out with him all night. He was standing next to me during elimination.”

“You’re the guy that asked that question during the rose ceremony,” the guy with the mustache said.

“Yeah. And Kurt was standing right next to me.”

I looked at all of their faces. They stared blankly back at me. Did they think that I was making it up?

“We’re on a TV show. You really think they would let someone die on a TV show?” mustache man asked.

“And don’t you think they would stop the show and tell us what happened if someone did?” the palest guy on the island added.

I paused and thought about it. I had agreed to participate in a game show. It was TV. Nothing was real. So, could everything I saw have been an act?

Kurt, though. I could not have met a more genuine guy. Was he just an actor?

But the death rattle? That sound as the last bit of oxygen leaves your lungs. You can’t fake that. No, I watched someone die.

But the pale dude had made a good point. This whole setup was just TV. If someone had died, the producers would probably stop the show or something. The police would probably want to investigate.

As sure as I was about what I saw, I had to be open to the possibility that I didn’t see it. Or maybe, and it hurt me to even consider this thought, but maybe Kurt was just a memory from long ago.

“Ah, I can see it in his face now. This is just some mind fuck,” the mustache man decided. “He’s just fuckin’ with us.”

“He had me going for a while there,” said Buck-Naked Billy, who was still naked.

“I guess the games are starting early?” the mustached man concluded before he and the group turned around and walked away.

Well, damn. How do you like that? I didn’t know what to say. Had I spent the night talking to a kindergarten teacher named Kurt? I’m absolutely sure I did. You know who could back me up on that? Brad the bartender.

I scanned the men. Brad wasn’t in the group. That was a little worrisome. Could I have made up Brad as well? No. Clearly Buck-Naked Billy was real, and someone had gotten him drunk. So the question was, where was Brad? Everyone else was here.

I spent a few more minutes looking around the dock and found nothing. Everything about this situation was disturbing.

I took my time going back to my room. Adam the Attorney was in bed when I got there, but Ian was still up.

“So you saw Kurt die, huh?” he asked casually.

“Do you remember, Kurt?” I asked hopefully.

“Nah. There were a lot of people here. But why would you make that up, right?”

I remembered seeing Ian at the cocktail party before the elimination. He had hung back like Kurt and I had, but he had talked to a few more of the guys. I didn’t remember seeing him talk to Rose, though.

The next morning Ian woke me up, encouraging me to shower before the hordes got there. I was still tired, but I took his advice. My luggage had arrived in the three hours that I had slept, so I gathered my toiletries and walked to the communal bathroom.

Although I thought the place was resort-like when I arrived, I realized that we weren’t staying at an actual resort. One thing that gave it away was that the rooms didn’t have their own bathrooms. Another thing was the buffet-style meals. This place was more of a fancy campsite.

Though I thought I had gotten up early, half of the guys were already at breakfast when I got there. If they didn’t know who I was after my rose ceremony question, everyone knew after the thing with Kurt. So once Ian found us a table, we had the pleasure of enjoying the table by ourselves. Small talk ensued.

Ian made apps for a living. You know when you walk by a store and your contact lenses suddenly project an advertisement in front of you? Ian created that app. He’s the one you can thank for that.

As I watched him eat his scrambled eggs, I did what anyone would have done; I fantasized about his death. I mostly thought about him choking in a commercial for the eggs, but I ended my fantasy when I remembered that he was the only one talking to me.

Honestly, besides that one horrible life decision, he wasn’t that bad of a guy. He was a friendly salesman type. Fortunately, he had seen more of these types of game shows than I had, so he began giving me the lay of the land.

He hadn’t gotten far when our fleet of pawns entered the wall-less commissary. Each of them found their designated person and herded us into a circle. Seeing Pete coming for me, I scooped the last of my eggs into my mouth and joined the group.

We all stood there for a moment wondering what was going on. Looking around, I realized that Brad was missing. When he scurried in to join us, his pawn opened a side slot displaying a blue three-by-five card. Brad retrieved it and theatrically read it aloud.

“The one who bears the ring is the one who will win my heart. Brad, Ford, Freddy, Ian and Victor, you all will be the first to join me on a group date.”

“What’s a group date?” I asked Ian as the pawns lead us back to our room to get ready.

“Usually, they’re some type of challenge.”

“So, it’s an opportunity to win the heart of the princess, that sort of thing?”

“Something like that.”

“And the thing about bearing the ring?”

“It’s like a clue to what we’ll be doing.”

Okay, I was getting it. The show was like a modern version of a medieval contest to win the lady’s heart. If you won the challenge, you stayed. If you lost, you got eliminated. That seemed simple enough—all I had to do was bare the ring.

Bearing the ring turned out to be a little more difficult than I had imagined. The ring was a forty-by-forty-foot octagon. Inside was a live grizzly bear.

“Hello, my fair bear baiters,” Rose began from a wooden platform overlooking the octagon. She was dressed in a nineteenth-century English maiden costume and spoke with an accent that switched between English, Irish, and pirate. She was not good at accents.

“Your challenge, if you choose to accept it, is to retrieve my mother’s ring for me. It has been placed around this gentle bear’s neck to ensure that I could only be won by the bravest among you.”

As if on cue, the bear stood on its back paws and roared. That monster had to be eight feet tall. Its claws were three inches each, and the thousand pound beast was foaming at the mouth like a rabid raccoon.

Looking closer, I noticed a bit of twine around its neck with a gold wedding ring hanging from it. So, of course, my first thought was: Are these people crazy?

“But,” she continued. “Whatever you do, don’t hurt the bear. For it is my favorite pet. And to lose the teddy bear I grew up with would break my heart and turn me sour against the man who kills it. Who shall take up this challenge and retrieve my mother’s ring?”

Yeah, they were nuts. I was out. I did not want to take on this challenge. No way was I putting myself in a cage with a wild bear for some crazy woman’s amusement.

“I do,” Brad said without hesitation.

“I do,” both Freddy and Victor said in succession.

Rose looked at Ian and me. When we didn’t reply, she continued. “Then prepare,” she said gleefully.

Apparently, only Ian and I had sense enough to not get into a cage with a thousand-pound killing machine. Wondering who would be that crazy, I examined each of the guys who agreed to it.

Freddy was the youngest of us at about twenty-three years old. He was on the shorter side and was sculpted like a bodybuilder. His constant smile and hairless face made him look naïve but friendly. I would describe him as a classic lovable dumb guy.

Victor was leaner with more of a normal-guy look. He wasn’t bulked up or overly good-looking. He had dark, wavy hair and a three-day stubble, an unhappy waiter type.

And Brad was… I had no clue what Brad was. I guess I would describe him as the guy in a toothpaste commercial.

In preparation, the pawns gave their three men a seven-inch hunting knife each. Since they weren’t supposed to kill the bear, I assumed it was to dig their own grave. And while a pawn within the cage distracted the bear with electric shocks, the guys unlatched the cage and entered.

Once the electric shocks stopped, the bear turned to the men with a blood-thirsty look in its eyes. I think it was then that they realized that they could die. Perhaps until then, they had assumed it was a bear trained to foam at the mouth. They soon realized, though, that it was a predator looking for lunch, and they scattered.

A chill ripped through my body when I realized what would happen next. I was about to see three men get eaten alive by a bear. I didn’t want to feel sorry for these idiots. These Darwinian rejects had put themselves in this situation. Still, they were human beings.

Victor and Brad were wiry. Freddy was not. Within seconds, the bear had caught him with a swipe. The force tossed Freddy’s body. The beast then ran to the fallen man and batted him between his claws like a tennis ball.

It was horrible. How could anyone just stand around watching this?

“Hey! I’m over here,” Brad screamed to my surprise.

Was he being heroic? Was Brad trying to rescue Freddy?

If he was, it worked. The bear released the limp body, looked at Brad, and then charged Victor. Why Victor? Who knows?

Victor also had no chance. It was gruesome. The vicious animal mauled him. Victor, blinded by fur, slashed the air frantically. His swipes grew weaker.

I watched, not believing what I was seeing. Why wasn’t the bear’s shock pawn doing anything to stop it? Why weren’t the producers? Had the entire world gone mad?

I next thought of Rose perched above like a Roman emperor. I wondered if she was pleased with her horror show and turned to her. To my relief, she wasn’t. She looked more tortured by it than I was.

Resolved, I looked back at the spectacle in front of me. I didn’t know the rules of this challenge or this show. Frankly, I didn’t care. However, the last thing I was going to do was sit back and watch as someone was killed as entertainment. I would rather die than do that.

I left Ian’s side at a full sprint. Pete had placed us on the far side of the gate, but it didn’t matter. I launched myself onto the twelve-foot chain-link fence and scaled it in no time.

Balancing at the top, my heart raced. A voice in my head was screaming at me, telling me I was insane. It succumbed to the blood-curdling screams from the men below. This wasn’t a time for sanity.

Closing my eyes and spreading my arms, I entered the ring by hurling myself as far as I could go. When I landed a split second later, it was on taut muscle and matted fur.

Latching my arms around its tree trunk of a neck, my sanity quickly returned. What was I doing? I was unarmed and outmatched. I had no way to get it off of Victor. When it was done with him, it would start on me. This had to be the most stupid decision of my life.

But to my surprise, the bear did react. I had angered it. Removing its teeth from Victor’s throat, it roared.

With me clutching its neck like a lifesaver, the beast stood up. It was huge. With eight feet between me and the ground, any hope I had of escape was gone. What the hell had I done?

“Get them out!” I yelled at Brad.

With my face pressed against the scratchy fur, I caught Brad’s rescue in glimpses. Freddy was the closest to the gate, so he grabbed him first. That was the last thing I saw before the bear begun to spin.

It was furious. It wanted me off of it. Its thunderous steps shook my grip. Counting the seconds, I held on. Three, four, five… What was I doing? This whole situation was bull.

But flung from side to side, I refused to let go. The longer I held on, the more I began to believe that I could win. I had a death grip around its neck and it was staggering. I just needed a few more seconds, and then I could escape.

My fortunes changed quickly when the bear took a step forward and then missed its step back. My heart clinched before I knew what was happening. I was falling, caught between its massive weight and the ground. I was about to be crushed.

But I wasn’t. Though we were falling back uncontrollably, both the bear and I abruptly stopped.

“Ugggggggggh!” I screamed as the chain link fence sheared the skin off of my back.

When we finally hit the ground, it was with a thud. Dust plumed around us. Somehow, I was alive. Continuing to hold on as the bear returned to all fours, my chest thumped excitedly.

The stream of pain that followed, however, ended my excitement. I had padded the bear’s fall with my left arm. Something was broken. and I was slowly losing my grip.

Craaaap! I thought as the bear shook its loose skin, and I flew off of him like a tick.

I slid across the ground, losing my bearing. When I stopped, I heard something. I opened my eyes to a curtain of dust. Searching it frantically, I found the snout of the beast charging towards me.

“Hey!” I heard from behind it.

The bear didn’t stop. Just feet away, it rose, creating a wall of fur and claws. It blocked out the sun. When it fell, it was an avalanche. I rolled out of the way, escaping certain death.

“Hey!” Brad yelled again.

Was he talking to me or the bear? I wondered, hoping it was me.

Scouring the dust cloud, I found Brad. Nope, he had been talking to the bear.

With his knife in hand, Brad was crouched with arms outstretched, inviting the bear to fight. Brad looked pissed. He looked like a title contender chasing the champ. This wasn’t a rescue at all.

Since the man was clearly insane, I knew that I had to rescue myself. Looking around, I spotted Victor’s knife. It was too far away, but I had to try.

The beast lunged at me, and I rolled. It adjusted quickly, chasing me with its mouth open. Pulling my legs back, I reared and kicked, hard. My heel caught it square in the nose. It recoiled.

Here was my moment. I flipped over, crawling away as quickly as I could. I reached and grabbed at the knife. As the hilt slipped into my grip, I felt a claw rip through my calf. It tore my flesh like tissue paper. The pain sizzled through me like lightning. 

I wanted to scream, but I didn’t have the time. I knew what would happen next. In a second, it would loosen the pressure on its claw to sink in its teeth. When it did, I had to be ready. 

Slash! I sliced the bear from nose to eye. It backed off. Apparently, it didn’t like that. Well, I didn’t like it trying to eat me, so we were even.

When the beast returned, angrier than before, I got the feeling that we weren’t even. I was disappointed by that because I was out of tricks. With one less calf, I was forced to lie on the ground helpless as it reared its thousand pounds into the air.

With the bear about to crash on top of me, something unexpected happened. Brad launched his attack. He threw his one-hundred-and-seventy-pound body at the bear blade first and caught the beast in the neck.

I had to hand it to Brad. It was a great move. It never saw it coming.

Since I finally had a partner in this fight, I knew I had to act fast. While it was stunned, I scrambled onto my one leg and launched my own attack. Blocked from the gate, I had one move left. It was an impressive one.

Ignoring the pain in my leg, I sprung forward. Using the bear’s arm as leverage, I scissor-kicked up and wrapped my legs around its neck. And latched on, I was ready to bring the beast down into a rolling ball of fur.

This move had taken me forever to learn, but after years of practice, I was now a master. So you can imagine my disappointment when I jerked my body ready to roll, and the bear… didn’t budge.

Huh. That’s weird, I thought.

Still latched around its neck, I tried again. Determined, I bounced my torso harder and harder, sure that with one more try, it would fall, breaking its spirit and granting me victory.

None of that happened. Instead, I just hung around its neck like an ugly human necklace. Even the bear looked embarrassed for me. Awkward!

My move did give me one advantage, though. As long as I could stay there, I was clear of its teeth and claws. Latched around its neck, I could squeeze on its newly minted wound, robbing the beast of air and blood.

Fighting through the pain, I held on until thick warmth oozed down my leg. The smell of blood hung in the air. Was it mine? I couldn’t tell. However, I couldn’t keep my grip on it for much longer.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to. The eight-foot beast fell onto all fours, fighting to get me off of it. I wouldn’t let go.

Slowly, it lowered its head. Was it choking? Was it bleeding out? The real question was, who the hell cared? I was about to survive an unarmed fight with an eight-foot grizzly bear.

As the bear finally collapsed onto its side and slowed to a stop, my only thought was, Wow, I friggin’ rock. Well, that wasn’t my only thought. I was also thinking, Damn, I’m trapped under a bear.

With the knowledge that what I’d done was nearly impossible, I was hesitant to look up. It was never my intention to bring attention to myself. I didn’t want it, and I didn’t deserve it.

Okay, yes. I had saved two people’s lives by scaling a twelve-foot fence and fighting a thousand-pound bear barehanded. I could see how people might be impressed by that. But believe me, I didn’t deserve cheers or applause or anything like that. 

In fact, just a knowing smile from Brad, if he reached down and helped me up, would be enough. Or perhaps a discrete “Thank you” from the producers for having prevented an absolute disaster. If I had to suffer embarrassing adoration for what I had just done, that’s the most I was willing to accept.

Luckily for me, everyone spared me such embarrassment.

When I finally mustered the courage and looked up, I found that Brad had long ago left the cage. He was certainly smiling, but it was because he was handing the gold ring to Rose.

Apparently, he had stabbed the bear to cut the twine from its neck. My epic life-and-death battle had given him the opportunity to find it in the dirt.

“We have a winner!” I heard Rose say. “For retrieving my ring, you will get a one-on-one date with me so that you can tell me of your other great deeds.”

Brad smiled enthusiastically. Why? Because he had just won the friggin’ challenge.

First of all, hey! I saved two people’s lives by scaling a twelve-foot fence and fighting a thousand-pound bear barehanded! How is Brad the winner? Second of all, was everyone here completely insane?

Thankfully, not everyone was. After Rose’s pawn led her and Brad away for their one-on-one date, Ian entered the octagon. As I hardly had any strength left in my shredded calf, he helped me get out from under the now-rousing beast. And quickly closing the gate behind us, I joined the other injured men.

To my surprise, the pawns had an upgrade that I hadn’t expected. They were also triage bots. Pete approached me and scanned my leg and arm with a blue light from a side port. I knew what was coming next, and when I felt it, I couldn’t have been happier.

“Oh yeah. That’s the stuff,” I purred, feeling it.

Pete sprayed both limbs with a familiar blend of anti-coagulant, stem cells, and pain killers. It was every trooper’s friend. In spite of it being a spray, we called it “magic dust.” It was the one thing that always reminded me that we were living in the future.

Magic dust was created by the military to get troops back onto the battlefield as quickly as possible, but when it entered the commercial market, it turned the entire population into idiots. Hey, you wanna go hang glide from the window of a high-rise with your parachute on fire? Why not? Just a few sprays afterward and you’ll be as good as new!

All a person had to do after an accident was not die, and they’d be fine. Just idiots! The entire human race had become a bunch of risk-taking idiots… said the man receiving treatment after scaling a twelve-foot fence to fight a grizzly bear.

Goddammit, I had to get off this island!

In less than an hour, my calf had healed enough for me to walk on it. Looking at it, it was still bruised. But in another few hours, my calf would be stronger than when I began. Best of all, if the bots were equipped with the expensive magic dust, I wouldn’t even have a scar, inside or out.

I had to assume that my arm would be fine as well. I could move it without pain, but that was mostly because of the best part of magic dust, the painkillers. The more dust you got, the better you felt. So walking back to camp, Freddy, Victor and I were feeling really good. 

Arriving back at the resort, a couple of the guys circled us, asking what the group date was like. Freddy answered. Amazingly, he barely acknowledged the challenge, focusing entirely on Rose, how she looked, what she said.

I appreciated that the guys were sparing me the embarrassment of mentioning it. But hadn’t I saved Freddy’s life? Wouldn’t a normal person bring that up at least once? Wasn’t that an important point? I mean, you know, from a storytelling perspective.

Also, what was up with his obsession with Rose? He had seen her three times and had spoken to her twice. Half of the time that he had spent with her was spent lying on the ground bleeding out.

So, how could he be talking about her now as if he was already in love? And why weren’t the others asking about anything else?

When Ian and I were back in our room, it was time to finish our conversation from breakfast. I had to know what the hell was going on here. Was this what all of these shows were like?

“No,” he said to my relief. “The challenges aren’t usually so death-defying. The bear could have killed you, and the bot wasn’t moving to help.”

“And Kurt. That was strange too, right?” I asked him, starting to put things together.

Ian’s eyes softened before continuing. “I’m gonna be honest with you, Ford. I don’t remember there being a Kurt.”

“I spoke to him all night at the cocktail party. Kind of a Clark Kent looking guy.”

“Yeah, you said that. But I thought I saw you standing alone.”

“Brad could tell you. He made both of us drinks.”

“Hey, I believe you. I’m just saying that no one remembers him.”

“No one?”

I was about to launch into a full defense of my sanity when Pete interrupted me. The fingerprint scanner, which doubled as a display, was flashing the word “Confession.”

“It wants you to do a confession,” Ian said from his bunk.

“What do you mean?”

“You know, it’s those interviews they show before and after a challenge.”

“I’ve never seen one of these shows before.”

“Well, your producer told you about it, right?”

“No. He didn’t tell me anything. They just had me fill out some paperwork, and then they brought me here.”

“That’s weird,” Ian paused. “I wonder if it’s because they didn’t expect you to make it past the first elimination.”

“I almost didn’t. In fact, I was gonna suggest that she take Kurt instead of me.”

Ian didn’t like it when I talked about Kurt. I wasn’t sure why. Maybe he didn’t like thinking that a crazy person had access to him while he slept.

“Anyway,” he continued. “You want to try a confessional?”

“I guess.”

“You look at the space above the scanner. Give it three blinks, and then talk.”

I looked down at Pete and then back at Ian. “Wait. I’m sorry. Did you say that I look at the space above the scanner?”

“Yeah. You look at the scanner, and it will give you the topic. Then you look at the space above the scanner, wait for three blinks, and then talk.”

I looked down at Pete’s scanner. Sure enough, words appeared saying, “picked for the group date; present.” I then looked at the space above the scanner, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw a red light blink three times.

“It was alright,” I offered casually.

“No,” Ian announced from his bed. “First off, you gotta say more. And does it say a tense?”

“What do you mean?”

Ian came over and sat next to me. “See,” he said pointing at the display. “It’s telling you to talk about being picked for the group date as if it were the present. So you have to talk about it as if we haven’t gone on it yet.”

“But we have gone on it.”

“Yes. But when the audience sees it, what you say now will appear before the date. So you have to talk like it hasn’t happened yet.”

I returned my attention to Pete. I thought for a second and spoke.

“I got chosen for a group date. Hey, imagine that,” I said with a healthy amount of sarcasm.

Pete must have liked that because his message changed. It said, “Why you are excited about the date.”

Ian jumped in. “It’s telling you that you should say that you are excited about going on the date and to add a reason why.”

I looked back at Pete. “I’m excited because I’ve never fought a bear before.”

Pete blinked the word ‘disapproved’ on its display.

“See, if you haven’t been on the date yet, then how would you know that you will be fighting a bear?” Ian asked.

“Really?” I said, finding the whole thing ridiculous.

“Just be glad they’re asking you. My pawn isn’t asking me. That probably means that they’ll focus on you for that group date. They’re gonna give you a storyline for the episode.”

I didn’t know how I felt about all of that. When I came here, my plan was to hang out in the back. I wasn’t looking for my own storyline, whatever that meant.

I took all of Ian’s suggestions, and eventually Pete stopped blinking messages at me. I wasn’t sure if it was because he gave up or because he had gotten everything he needed.

I found the whole situation weird. But the only question I found uncomfortable was the one asking why I had jumped into the ring. I don’t know why I jumped into the ring. I mean, I know why, but… Let’s just say that the reason is complex.

The answer I gave Pete was, “Because it was there.” Pete flashed the question again, and I gave the same answer. I think I broke his spirit because, after that, it didn’t ask me to re-answer questions.

I spent the next few hours in bed. Although magic dust gave you quite a buzz initially, once it wore off, it left a bit of a hangover.

Riding the magic dust dragon, I stared at the ceiling thinking about something Ian had said. He had suggested that I wasn’t expected to make it past the first night.

How had I made it past the first night? Who were they expecting Rose to choose instead? Kurt, maybe. Certainly, I would have chosen him if I were her.

After a late lunch, the pawns gathered us again. With Brad back from his one-on-one date with Rose, we were all there. A pawn handed a card to someone to read. I think the guy’s name was Carl. I’m horrible with names.

“To accompany me on my first solo date, I, Rose, choose a thorn. Thorin, will you join me tonight?”

Apparently, the very pale dude from the night before was named Thorin, which was going to be hard for me to remember. But considering the number of high fives he was giving, he was someone I should remember.

Ian explained that being chosen for a solo date instead of group date was a big deal. Since he wouldn’t have to compete for her time like we had to for a one-on-one date, he would get more time with her. So, by being chosen for the solo date, Thorin the Pale was now winning the game and he couldn’t be happier.

As I lounged off the last of my magic dust hangover, the night seemed to come quickly. Ian had invited me to come out and be social. I could hear everyone by the pool having fun. But between the night before and the challenge this morning, I had made enough of an impression on everyone.

The one thing that I did want to do was find Brad. I knew that I wasn’t going nuts. Kurt had been real. However, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to have someone confirm it.

By the time I dragged myself out of my room, it was dark. The first person I ran into was reclining on a pool chair with his eyes closed. I approached the guy after I recognized him from our challenge. He looked about like how I had felt. Although his face and throat looked fine, I knew that the mental scars didn’t heal as fast.

“Hey… Victor, right?”

Victor opened his eyes long enough to give me a snide look.

“If it isn’t ‘the Kurt-is-dying man,’”

I looked at him, unsure of what he was talking about. If he were to give me a nickname, I would have guessed that it would be, “Ford, the guy who saved his life.”

“What do you want?” he demanded. “Are you looking for me to get down on my knees and thank you for saving me? Because it ain’t gonna happen.”

What the hell?

“No. I just wanted to make sure you were alright.”

“Do I look alright?”

He opened his eyes again to give me the stink eye.

“I’m sorry,” I said confused. “Did I do something to you? … you know, other than save your life?”

“Yep. Here it comes.”

“Here what comes?”

“Look, you can perform for the cameras all you want. But I know what your deal is.”

“You do? Then please explain it to me because I’m shit lost.”

Victor paused and then sourly asked, “What do you want?”

“I was looking for Brad. Do you know which cabin he’s in?”

Victor opened his eyes giving me a once over. “Oh, you’re one of those, are you?”

“One of what?” I asked getting pissed.

Victor rolled over and mumbled, “You’re in my light.”

I looked up at the night sky. Finding nothing but stars, I assumed that that was his way of asking me to go away. That dude was yet another loose nut.

I wandered around the grounds after that. Apart from looking for Brad, I had hoped to run into Ian. I didn’t find either one.

I only saw a couple of people: the guy with the mustache from the night before (Gray?), a round-chested dark-skinned guy, and Buck-Naked Billy, who was still naked. I gave them their space.

I didn’t see Ian again until dinnertime.  We ate dinner together at the commissary and then took our desserts and hung out by the pool. Most of the guys had done the same thing. So, when Thorin the Pale returned from his solo date wanting to brag about it, he came to those of us sitting outside.

It didn’t take long before Thorin had a crowd. Mustache Gray was the first to ask for details. Thorin didn’t give many. He was more interested in letting everyone know that Rose was now his “girlfriend,” which made a few of the guys bristle.

Strangely, their reaction wasn’t because he had declared his relationship after only one date. It was because at least two other guys had already done the same thing. I considered declaring her my girlfriend as well to see how many of them I could make cry. But I didn’t.

Shortly after that, Ian and I followed our pawns back to our room. We were being instructed to dress for a cocktail party, to ready ourselves for another elimination. Getting dressed, I kept wondering if I would get a rose. I then wondered if I even cared. But for some reason, I did.

I certainly wasn’t in love with Rose like everyone else seemed to be. In spite of what Victor believed, I didn’t care about having a storyline.

I think it was about fairness. I had jumped onto the back of a thousand-pound bear and saved two people’s lives. I didn’t need a metal for it, and I definitely didn’t want anyone making a big deal about it. However, a simple “Atta boy!” wouldn’t have hurt.

So what would it say about Rose, and humans in general, if, in return for saving two people’s lives, I was eliminated? It would be proof that no justice is left in this world. So yes, I cared whether or not I was eliminated, but that still didn’t change the fact that I had to get out of this place.

As we lined up in front of Rose, I counted the flowers on the tray. Two people weren’t getting a rose. Faced with those odds, I began to second-guess myself. Should I have asked for time alone with her at the cocktail party? Should I have had to, though? Hadn’t I already proven myself worthy to stay, whatever that means?

Do you know that feeling when you are sweating profusely, and you can’t figure out why? Your back is drenched and your forehead’s wet, while everyone else is dry.

Seriously, I’ve had bombs explode around me, yet an 110-pound woman armed with a rose was making me flop sweat. Why?

To no one’s surprise, Brad was the first to get a rose. Mustache Gray, Thorin the Pale, and Victor Vodka followed. Soon, only six roses were left, then four.

I began to worry when there were two roses remaining and Buck-Naked Billy got the second to the last one. The man was wearing socks, black shoes and a necktie around his dangling manhood, yet he had gotten one before me. Talk about a bad sign.

In the end, it was my two roommates and me with only one rose left. I shook waiting for the last name to be called. My heart pounded so hard that my ears rung.