Our sixth player, simply speaking, was a big guy.
I knew big, in one sense or another. I had experience with it. Both in terms of myself and those I interacted with, it was no exaggeration to say that I had more direct knowledge about big than most humans who’d ever lived. That was a bold claim, but I would’ve had no problem backing it up. (If anything, it was an understatement.)
But the man who came out of door five was big in a different way, in a way that I wasn’t nearly as familiar with.
He was wide.
Three-hundred and fifty pounds was a kind estimate, although weight was up there with age in terms of things that I had trouble guessing. His face was a perfect circle plastered on top of a mountain of rolls, an extremely short buzz cut not doing him any favors. He seemed to be older than all of us, although his weight might have aged him slightly. Factoring that in, I put him at around thirty. Like all of us so far save for Quote and Zeezrom, he was white, although he was tanner than the rest of us, having a surprisingly healthy complexion.
That didn’t mean he was healthy, though. It was an awful thing to think in many respects, but he looked like he was in pain, just by virtue of his size. He didn’t show it in his expression or the way he moved; I just didn’t see a way someone could exist like that without every joint and bone screaming for mercy.
I felt childish for having thought that. I’d always despised the idea that some people saw me and instantly classified me as “the tall chick”, boxing me away purely by a physical attribute before I had the chance to say or do anything. Even so, I’d done to the same to Six, a blatant act of hypocrisy. It wasn’t as if I hated him or felt disgust… I only had pity. That didn’t make it right either, obviously, but I wasn’t sure how else to categorize it.
I knew it wasn’t completely equivalent, as height didn’t carry nearly as many ramifications to a person’s health, as well as the fact that it wasn’t a quality that could be altered. It wasn’t like someone could just magically change either, but a large person could at least lose weight with enough diet and exercise. Inches were a lot different; you couldn’t just zap yourself taller and shorter on a whim. (They didn’t really do height reduction surgery, much to the disappointment of my twelve year old self.)
Not that I was really the type of person to pretend to be lecturing anyone about proper fitness guidelines. D knew a hell of a lot more in regards to that stuff. I did basic cardio a few times a week and had an odd obsession with probiotics, but past that I wasn’t one to focus on my body’s health all that much. I couldn’t judge.
(When it came to gut bacteria, though, I knew my stuff. People in general really needed to keep their gut flora in check; things had the potential to get real shitty when folks neglected to think about what they put in their stomachs. Shitty in that context having multiple definitions.)
Clothing-wise, Six’s outfit shared a lot in common with Dot’s, although for him I suspected that it had more to do with a lack of options as opposed to a genuine desire to impress. Again, sweatpants and a hoodie, both incredibly loose and oversized, even for him — the top flowed wide and long enough to be considered a robe. The design was noticeably less complex than hers, both pieces of clothing almost completely pitch black. Around both his shoulders were tight pink straps, which held up a fairly girly backpack of the same color. It looked almost as stuffed as he was.
On the front of his hoodie, a single capital letter was printed, bolded in bright yellow. It had actually been the first thing that my eyes drifted towards; I had a nasty habit of having to read words placed in front of me prior to doing anything else. Dad had always said that it made going to any museum with me a miserable experience.
Considering the door he came out of, it was an appropriate letter.
During the argument that preceded the arrival of our newest friend, Zeezrom hadn’t done too good a job of making the case for Mormon God. That being said, I think at least a part of me started to pray to him in the hopes that ZB wouldn’t start making fat jokes. Lord knew she had the chance.
Almost immediately after entering, Six sauntered over to us with a gait that suggested far more energy and joviality than his size and wardrobe might’ve otherwise. He greeted us all with soft handshakes, starting with Quote, who was closest to him. He had a big smile that pushed his bloated cheeks wide up on his face, and his hands shook a fair bit as he spoke, him clearly just as excited to be here as I was. The man was positively jolly.
I didn’t really trust him, but I started smiling anyway. It was infectious. He was like a giant Teddy bear, soft and pleasant and apparently not the most homophobic thing in the room.
“It’s great to meet you all! I’m Dr. Cornea Skinner, but please, call me Corn.”
Predictions for future ZB zingers included such hits as “more like Dr. Hernia”, and “lol, you’re fat”. As we went around and told him our names, I made bets in my head to what she’d go for, but Cornea got lucky, deciding to compliment her before she got the chance.
“God, that’s great. I was hoping that somebody’d get dressed up for this. Makes the game so much more exciting.”
She smiled, Cornea taking large heaving breaths during the pause. The short distance from his door to the center of the room had done a number on him. Turning to Quote, he complimented her antennae in the same fashion, receiving a similarly pleased reaction.
Seemingly finished with her god-rage, ZB put her flippers on her hips.
“Just because you complimented me doesn’t mean I won’t murder you, Corn. Just be aware. Not to say that your appreciation of my coolness isn’t duly noted.”
Deciding there was something of definite interest for me to probe into, I tapped Cornea on the shoulder, but he didn’t seem to notice, making me call for him by name. After I did, he turned back around to face me. We were the same height, our eye levels matching up perfectly.
“Mind if I ask what type of doctor you are, Corn? While you’re at it, if you’re comfortable sharing, could you let us know if that’s your real name? So far everyone but Dot has gone with a nickname.”
“You don’t have to make me feel embarrassed about it, By. I didn’t realize that you’d all be such giant dorks.”
His smile receding into a more thoughtful expression, Cornea put his finger on his chin, looking off to the side as he answered.
“Well, I’m an anesthesiologist.”
ZB turned her head to the side slightly, squinting.
“An anesthesiologist. We do a lot, but primarily we’re focused on pain, and how to do away with it. If you ever need a serious operation, they’re probably going to either put you to sleep or induce regional anesthesia, and I’m the guy who deals with all that.”
“Oh, awesome! You’re a pill pusher.”
“Not really. That’s more a pharmacist, although I definitely end up administrating my fair share of drugs. It’s a lot more than doping folks up, as much fun as that can be. I’m much more mixed up in the action than the guy at your local drug store.”
After hearing his response, Dot grinned, waving a finger at us.
“I’m surprised, ZB.”
“You call the Mormon out on being suspicious, but not this guy?”
Cornea turned to her, looking more hurt by the accusation than Zeezrom had.
“I’m not lying, if that’s your implication.”
“Sure, sure. How old are you, then?”
“Twenty-nine. It was my birthday a few days ago.”
“So you’re still in residency?”
“No. Finished about three years.”
Dot wagged her finger.
“Should’ve done more research, big guy. I’m not a doctor, but med school takes about, what, eight years, factoring in undergrad? I don’t remember how long residency is, but anesthesiology sounds complicated, so at least a couple more on top of that. No way someone could finish all that by twenty-six.”
Cornea made another smile, although it gave off considerably stronger amounts of smugness than the one he’d walked into the room with.
“Not when you graduate high school at fifteen with a truckload of AP credits.”
Dot rolled her eyes.
Cornea grinned even wider, ear to ear.
“Hey, if you aren’t fond of counterarguments, this might not be the best place for you. You are going to have a really bad time.”
Dot grimaced, sticking out her tongue.
“Besides, if that were the case, I could’ve just lied about my age. Why make things more complicated for myself?”
“So you can give that defense.”
The two of them continued on, both of them somehow seeming less and less passionate with each reply, as was appropriate for those in sweatpants.
For whatever it was worth, I didn’t think he was lying; or, if he was, I struggled to see a way in which it would have benefited him. In traditional murder mystery stories, the doctor held a relative position of power, at least compared to everyone else. Being able to explain various drugs that had the potential to be used as murder weapons was incredibly useful from the perspective of both the writer and the characters within the story, as was anyone able to serve as even a rudimentary coroner. More often than not, knowing the precise cause of death tended to be a big deal in cracking a case, so doctors who could assist in that process tended to find themselves greatly elevated among the rest of the cast in importance.
That fact wasn’t generally to their favor. Doctors in murder mysteries had a habit of dying early or turning out to be killers, largely in part to the informational power they held. If a doctor was a killer, they had excellent ways of misusing their expertise to achieve their goal without being caught; likewise, a writer had excellent reason to off them as quickly as possible, knowing how much more confusion was generated from not having an easily accessible autopsy machine constantly present throughout the story. For our purposes, though, none of that really applied.
Why was that? From earlier, Zeezrom’s words echoed in my head.
“It’s not as if we’re actually going to kill each other.”
As out of place as his statement sounded, it was technically true. Of course there wasn’t going to be any real murders; that would’ve have been insane. It was just a game. We were using words like kill and murder and death in order to sound cool, but there’d be nothing of the sort.
Presumably, the five people standing around me, as well as the ten I’d yet to meet, had all been scouted and presented with the same lovely offer that I had — the chance to play in a real life murder mystery game. For the chance to win the hearts of millions, and millions in cash. For the opportunity to finally experience the heart-pounding thrill that I’d been chasing and writing about my whole life. For that perfect moment, that glorious peak of intellectual clarity reached only at the end of a case when one person objected and pointed at another in accusatory perfection, declaring them and them only to be true killer.
It’s what I’d always wanted. It made me so happy to think about, that it was actually happening, that I might really get a chance to do it myself. My dream.
And all that, as impossible as it sounded, without anyone having to die. How could that be true? How was it possible to have a murder mystery without the murder? It seemed to be, at least on the surface side of things, a crucial ingredient.
In truth, I didn’t know. It was likely that none of us did. I’d gone through about a dozen phone calls with scary-sounding television executives, several terrifying in-person meetings, and a contract that seemed to go on longer than the comment section for the last chapter of Space Attorney, but I’d never gotten anything close to a real answer. That was intentional, part of the gimmick. We got some of the rules before we came in — mainly restrictions on what we could bring and vague details about the (somewhat unoriginal) trial-based elimination system that we’d be participating in, but nothing beyond that. It made enough sense. They wanted to make sure we didn’t have time to plan ahead.
It was the first time anyone had ever tried running a game show of such a nature, and it’d been shrouded in secrecy as a result, the NDAs that we signed ironclad enough to permanently destroy our lives if broken. An unhealthy amount of money had been invested into it all, and considering the scale of the facility we’d willing allowed ourselves to be trapped inside of, it wasn’t unlikely that hundreds if not thousands of people had worked to make my fantasy come to life.
Yeah, of course I’d had that thought. It was tough to imagine any of us not having had it. That there was no secret system they’d come up with that would let one kill without death, and that our little “game” was soon to become painfully, terribly real. That some sociopathic stuffed animal or man in a gas mask would pop out of the big door or on a hidden TV screen once we’d all arrived, laughing in our faces for having fallen for such an absurdly obvious scheme, and telling us to get killing. For real.
We weren’t stupid, though. Or I wasn’t, at least. I’d done my homework. I wouldn’t have accepted an offer to allow myself to be drugged and transported to an unknown location in the Nevada desert otherwise. As unlikely as it had been that it all was some dirtbag’s elaborate scheme to watch a truckload of stupid morons literally murder each other, I wasn’t one to risk it. I’d done research, asked to speak to executives, lawyers, anyone with authority who they could get to convince me that it wasn’t all just a sick joke.
Thankfully, they’d complied without trouble. While no one besides D and my closest loved ones could be allowed to know I was there — they really didn’t want anyone to know about the existence of the game prior to the first round of advertisements being completed — they had gone the extra mile to verify that the game was real, to the point of me briefly being granted an audience with the CEO of one of the largest multimedia corporations on the planet. It still could have been a trap, but it would’ve required a conspirator with power of an untold scale, and I wasn’t paranoid enough to seriously consider that a likely possibility. I felt safe.
Regardless, it was exactly because of all that that I didn’t really care about whether or not Cornea was lying about who he said he was; there simply wasn’t any reason to. Without the traditional mystery benefits given to a doctor, all admitting to being one did was out a person as intelligent, which was more of a hindrance than anything else, only really serving to put more of a target on one’s back. Besides, I didn’t have much difficulty believing that Cornea was smart. He had that type of vibe around him, as most of us did, that he was hiding at least one side of himself.
That didn’t mean that I didn’t hold any suspicion on him, just not any more than I’d be holding against everyone else. For the time being, at least.
Dot and him continued to argue. Seeing that the current conversation wasn’t heading anywhere productive, I asked Cornea for an answer to the second part of my question, his name. Was it real or fake?
I raised an eyebrow.
“Yeah. Cornea Skinner is my legal name, but not the one I was born with. I changed it a few times.”
Zeezrom seemed curious.
“…Any particular reason? I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who changed their name before. I understand adopting a nickname, but going all the way like that… it’s a bit much.”
“Well, I was never too close with my folks growing up, and once I knew I was going to med school, I decided to switch it up to make it fit more. Mostly for laughs.”
He looked around sheepishly.
“See, originally, I was planning on going into ophthalmology, which is eye medicine. I thought it’d be funny to have people calling me Dr. Cornea. Obviously I switched, but I ended up liking it so much that I couldn’t help but keep it. It’s versatile. Corn for friends, and Cornea for when I’m feeling more formal.”
Dot spoke up again.
“But if you had people calling you “Dr. Cornea”, wouldn’t it have to have been your last name?”
“It was. But then I changed it again, moving it to the front.”
He paused before putting his hand on his hip and turning his head towards the wall, staring directly at a single spot, presumably a camera lens.
“That’s a personal thing. It’s… a regional dialect.”
Without warning, Quote smacked her hands together, grinning like an idiot.
“Uh-huh. What region?”
He smiled back.
“Upstate New York.”
“Really? Well, I’m from Utica, and I’ve never heard-”
Seizing the opportunity, I extended my finger towards Quote. It was a tiny thing to catch her on, but it was something. A delicious contradiction, all for me… and I’d been dying to do it.
Both Quote and Corn frowned together at the same time, and all five gave me blank stares. Trying not to lose my cool after suddenly having drawn all the attention to myself, I tried justifying my outburst.
“…Um, you just said that you’re from Virginia, Quote. You can’t go changing your story around this quickly and expect us all not to notice.”
Dot pinched the space above her eyes, and the rest of them (save Zeezrom) looked at me with an expression carrying something between pity and contempt. Cornea broke the silence.
“She was kidding, By.”
My arm slithered back towards me, my finger filled with shame. What a start.
Noticing my dejection, ZB gave me a condescending head pat, having to reach up a bit as she did. It caught me off guard; nobody had done that to me since I was a little kid. Not even D (not that I would’ve particularly minded from him, honestly.)
“Oh, By. Sweet summer child. You tried.”
I took her flipper and firmly pulled it off my head, wishing I’d had as much confidence as Dot did when it came to the delicate art of nose-flicking.
“You can’t talk down to me. You’re a penguin.”
“You’re right. Nobody can talk down to you, By.”
Dot must have been reading my mind, because she used that moment to reward ZB once again with physical retribution. The sound of her finger smacking against the cartilage of ZB’s nose was easily loud enough to be heard by all of us.
ZB yelped, stumbling backwards. Once again. she wrapped both flippers around her nose, and I noticed a tear forming on the corner of her right eye. Zeezrom came close to her and asked if she was alright, but he spoke softly, and she either didn’t hear him or chose to ignore him in favor of yelling at Dorothy.
“Jesus fuck, Dot! Why the hell did you do that?”
Dot looked at her, the dark circles around her eyes granting her an aura I still couldn’t completely wrap my head around.
“Because it isn’t By’s fault that you’re all such goddamn losers. No offense, Corn.”
“None taken. I’m not going to pretend that spouting out six year old memes is the pinnacle of comedy. Still…”
In a gesture of empathy, Cornea rubbed his own nose.
“Maybe don’t do that. I’m not a big fan of seeing people in pain — professional hazard, you know. I know it’s not always that black and white, but you might not need to take it that far in this instance.”
ZB pointed at Dot, screeching.
“That’s not even the first time! That actually hurt. She hurt me for making jokes.”
“Those are some pretty mean fucking jokes, then. Talk shit, get hit.”
Looking back to Quote, Cornea smiled, trying to once again change the subject.
“Well, at least some people appreciate a good luncheon, even if it isn’t everyone’s thing.”
Quote smiled back.
Just then, another door opened.
Martha looked like a normal person, so she was quite out of place among the rest of us. For lack of a better term, she seemed plain, extraordinarily ordinary, like someone I’d see riding the bus. Not that she was one to be underestimated. I knew well that plainess didn’t equate to innocence.
There wasn’t much to say. She was white, rather short, and fairly overweight at probably around one-hundred and eighty pounds, although the noticeability of that was severely diminished with her coming in after Cornea, who was essentially a human circle.
(That wasn’t a mean thought! It was descriptive. I had lots of fat friends, really. And I was sure that wasn’t as unsatisfying of a defense as it would’ve been had I used it in the context of race.)
(God, I was an idiot.)
Her facial skin was clear, although she did have a small mole underneath the center of her left eye, along with a set of thick-rimmed circular glasses. She wore a light pink sweater and a pair of blue jeans, which rested above a red set of worn but nice-looking sneakers. Her light brown hair was pulled back into a messy ponytail, which was short and a bit messy. It wasn’t very long, and if she let it hang I’d have expected it to barely reach her shoulders.
She wasn’t too emotive in any particular direction, at least within the first few minutes of meeting her. With the softness of her voice and the way her eyes continually examined the room, she came across as thoughtful.
Like Cornea, she was also one of the few who’d chosen to take at least some of her personal items with her before leaving her room for the first time, holding a book in her right hand. After we’d all exchanged names and ZB had loudly warned her not to try to have any fun in front of Dot, I tried breaking the ice (har har) by asking her what is was that she’d been reading. Wordlessly, she held it up, the bookmark near the front flapping through the air as she did.
“Indignation, by Philip Roth. I’ve barely started it, so don’t ask for a plot summary.”
I’d heard of that author before, interestingly enough. I hadn’t read anything of his myself, but I’d seen D flipping through a book or two he’d written, although not that one. The Toast Writer, maybe? I wasn’t the best at title recollection.
In thought, Quote cupped her chin.
“Hey, I’m a little slow today. Remind me what that means?”
“Rage, although specifically in the context of unfairness. If two people do the same work and only the first gets a cookie for it, the second person would probably feel indignant.”
I saw ZB’s mouth curl ever-so-slightly at both ends after hearing Martha use food as an example, but she kept quiet. She had already established her lack of tact, but thankfully she wasn’t that much of a bitch. Even I would’ve flicked her for that.
We pressed her for more information about herself (although not her name, which all of us seemed to intuitively take to be real), but she wasn’t very forthcoming.
“I like to read.”
We shared a collective sigh. ZB probed further.
“…Right. Anything else you got for us?”
A few awkward minutes passed, and little else was accomplished with or gleamed from Martha, even with a few friendly jokes from Corn meant to encourage her to come out of her shell. She didn’t seem shy or hateful, instead just not in a very talkative mood. Discouraged, we soon gave up having discovered little more than her age and home state. (Twenty-three and Maine, respectively.)
She did have one question for us, however.
“…Did you all have to guess the number combo, too?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
I looked around the small circle we’d formed, and everyone gave an affirming nod, save for ZB.
“…Number combo? What are you talking about, Marthy? Do you mean that weird slide puzzle thing?”
Martha stared down our bird without once changing her expression, the lie less impactful than a fly landing on an elephant.
“…She’s, uh, kidding. ZB does that.”
Without further warning, Martha cranked her neck to both sides before dropping to her knees and then her stomach, propping her elbows against the floor before opening up her book and starting to read.
We all stared at her wordlessly for a few seconds before ZB decided to act, looking a bit offended at how easily Martha had brushed her off. Waddling over to the spot in front of where her face was, she crouched down, blocking the light over the book with her body.
“What are you doing there, bud?”
“Trying to read. Emphasis on trying.”
“Sorry to hear. We’re trying to chat, over here, if that sort of thing interests you.”
“There are nine people still working their way through several thousand code combinations. It’ll be awhile before they all show up. We’ll have plenty of time to talk then.”
“…I liked the Mormon bit better.”
“It’s cute, at least a little, but really lazy. I get it though. Pretend to be an awkward bibliophile and you can expect everyone to ignore you as a suspect. I’ll give you points for commitment, I guess.”
“…I can be a bibliophile and purposefully act in a way that makes people discount me, ZB. They aren’t mutually exclusive.”
Standing up, she waddled back over to her previous spot in the circle, all of us staring at her. I watched her eyes dart towards Dot’s right hand a few times, a Pavlovian expectation already instilled within her.
A moment later, Martha herself stood back up and began walking, although away from us. Dot yelled out.
“Where are you going? Just ignore Flippers. She’s not worth freaking out about.”
“Not freaked out. Just want to check.”
Arriving back at the door she’d entered through, Martha tried twisting the metal doorknob, only to find it locked. I figured that made sense; they probably didn’t want us running back to our rooms until everyone had arrived and they’d given us a full rundown of the rules. Accepting the fact that she couldn’t yet escape ZB, she rested again to read, her back leaning against the door.
Quote leaned over to Corn and whispered something in his ear, and he laughed. I might’ve stopped to ask about what she’d said, but as if by divine prophecy, three new doors opened in the span of five seconds, more players spilling out.
Martha ceased to be a concern.