Silently walking forward, Ms. Vedsi pulled out a roll of pink duct tape from a pocket in her robe and began to apply it to the floor. With ease, she formed a long, straight line, cutting the room into two perfect halves before walking back to stand beside her companion.
Mr. Dogsi lowered the gun completely, dropping it to his side, although he didn’t put it away. In one hand was the gun, and in the other, the pink bracelet. Mine, maybe.
“We have a more sophisticated method of voting to take advantage of later on, but for now, tape will suffice. All she needs is a simple majority. If more than half of you decide that you think By should get to stay…”
He tossed the bracelet — my bracelet — into the center of the semicircle to my right, where it landed with a loud crack. (They must have been durable.)
“Then she stays. On the other hand, if half of you think that it’s perfectly right and fair to eliminate someone so early on…”
He aimed to the center of the second half-circle, pulling the trigger. A muted gunshot left behind a small pink splatter at the spot that he’d fired towards, dribbles and dots of brightly-colored goop symbolizing another long nap and the instant revocation of a chance at my lifelong dream.
“Then it’s bye bye, By.”
Yeah, asshole, no one had ever made that joke before.
“And if it’s a tie?” I asked.
“You won’t be voting.”
Mr. Dogsi craned his head up, taking a look at the clock.
“Perfect, then. Just over fifteen minutes. We’ll have a buzzer sound at 8:00. Everyone save By must vote. If anyone other than her is standing on the tape when time runs out, regardless of the outcome, they will be shot.”
Claim took a step forward, standing on the line. Mr. Dogsi grimaced.
“Standing on the line will be interpreted as quitting.”
Claim took a step back.
There was a brief pause. Nobody else moved.
“You can, uh, go. Make your case, By!”
I stood in place, scratching the back of my head and trying to collect my thoughts. The whole situation had developed way too fast for me to adequately prepare myself.
I needed eight votes, which seemed difficult. How could I convince eight people to do something that was fundamentally against their best interests? If someone was serious about the competition, the opportunity to eliminate an opponent without having to do anything was incredibly tempting, and I couldn’t say that I would’ve definitely voted for myself to stay had I been in most of their shoes. How many people would seriously be willing to intentionally lower their chances of winning ten million dollars for a person they’d known less than half a day?
Strait was the first. He scampered over to the floor near my bracelet with a grin on his face, nodding at me.
“It’d be dumb to get out over something like that. Besides, you can’t leave this early. You still have something you need to say to someone, remember?”
I nodded back, smiling. Right. The apology.
ZB followed him, not saying anything (for her, a rarity). I couldn’t get a read on her, but I didn’t have time to probe into it. If she was with me, that was enough.
That was good, though. Two, right off the bat.
A third also came without any further prompting, taking me (and a few others, I could tell by facial expressions) by complete surprise. It was Hold.
“The hell are you doing, big man?” said Joyo, aghast. “We got a shot to knock somebody out for nothin’. You not interested in that?”
Before stepping over the line, the seven-foot hairless beast turned to Joyo with a smile.
Three. That was even better.
My pool of potential supporters was quickly shrinking, however, more than a few individuals having moved close to the splatter in order to clearly mark themselves as against me. Joyo lead the cause — surprise surprise — but he was surrounded by five others: Polycarp, Zeezrom, Martha, Dent and Lu, the princess. All the rest straddled the line, thinking.
Zeezrom looked at me, speaking loudly across the room.
“You seem like a super nice person, By. It’s a money thing, though. I hope you don’t think less of me.”
“Fucking incredible,” said Joyo. “Apologizing. Let’s think about this. Is there one fucking person here who didn’t come here wanting to win?”
“Then how is this a debate? If you all wanna win anyway, getting someone out now before they’ve wasted their time is doing them a favor. There’s no fuckin’ bonus prizes for anything but first. That’s what you said, wasn’t it?”
He pointed to Mr. Dogsi, who nodded.
“You know that’s not what it’s about,” said Quote. “We’re all passionate about this. It’s…”
She sighed, looking to Cornea.
“It’s not fair, as dumb as it sounds to say. Look, just going off stats — I know it’s more complicated than that in reality, but if you do — it’s… 6.25% if she stays, and 6.66% if she doesn’t. I can’t watch someone get screwed over for less than half of a percent.”
The doctor agreed, and they moved across the line, both staring at Dent.
“You said you wanted to work together, right?”
Dent looked at his two companions for a short moment, his face pulling into an expression that twisted the black lines on his cheek. He opened his mouth as if about to start protesting, but closed it and started walking, deciding that it wasn’t worth it. Quote and Cornea smiled at me, and I sputtered out a thank you.
Six, for nothing.
But I wasn’t getting any other freebies. if I was going to secure the last two, I’d have to be proactive.
I pointed at one of the straddlers, who was standing still near the line. Regardless of whether or not he had been lying to us, I had some leverage on him.
“Claim! You said — um, well, not said, but — you told us that you were gonna try and quit. If you aren’t going to win anyway, and you already know that, you should vote for me to stay. Not doing that suggests that you do care about winning, wouldn’t it? If you want people to trust that they could come up and kill you without getting sprung up on, this is a great chance to prove it.”
Claim turned to me, pulling out the notebook.
WAS VOTING FOR YOU ANYWAY. JUST THINKING ABOUT SOMETHING.
He walked to my bracelet.
“Nobody’s doubtin’ you, really! There are plenty of other reasons why you might wanna see her go, right? If you’re leaving anyway, nothing’s wrong with not wantin’ to be the first out. C’mon, bud. Fuck, I’ll promise to sludge you tomorrow myself, if that’d seal the deal.”
YOU ARE VERY LOUD.
“Oh, fuck it. Half a percent, I don’t need half a percent.”
After walking over, she patted me on the back and pointed to Joyo.
“You should thank him, By. He’s your best advocate.”
I already pretty much knew what Mr. Dogsi was going to say if I tried to rush things, but I asked anyway. He gave me the answer I expected.
“The votes won’t count until 8:00. All players can move around freely until then.”
There were eight minutes left. If I could keep everyone who’d come to me on my side until then, I’d get to stay.
I wasn’t handling myself in the best way possible, and I knew that; I’d started shaking again, and it wasn’t just because the cameras were there. The thought of getting kicked out that early terrified me, especially over something so stupidly preventable. That was the type of thing I couldn’t handle. That regret.
Quote had encouraged the others on my side to sit against the wall, which I realized she’d done to try and make me feel more comfortable. It did help psychologically; having everyone seated as far away as possible from the line at least made it seem like none of them were considering sprinting back towards the other side at the last possible moment.
Claim wasn’t sitting, although he was leaning against the wall next to the others. (He’d written a note telling us it would’ve hurt his back. I couldn’t know if he was being honest, but I didn’t have anything I could really do about it either way. Badgering him to sit down only raised the risk of him moving back across to spite me.)
On the other side, with the exception of Caroline and the goth — Soso, I’d discovered — everyone was standing in a loose circle right around the splatter, no one but Zeezrom looking guilty about it. I was fairly sure that Soso had just wanted to distance herself from Joyo’s continued hollering, but as for Plite, I had no idea what she was planning. Was she still thinking about switching over?
Because of my position, I couldn’t really keep campaigning for myself in the way that I wanted to. Strategically, it made sense to get more votes than the eight I already had in case one or more of them was planning on betraying me, but the simple act alone of attempting to scrounge up more would’ve implied that I was openly expecting one of them to do so, which might actually have made them do it. I was desperate, yeah — there wasn’t a person in the room who wasn’t well aware of that — but demonstrating that fact any further than I had to ran the risk of putting me even deeper in the hole.
That being said, more people was also good, and would anyone on my side really change their mind because they saw me wanting to improve my position? Surely they’d understand; all of them would’ve wanted to do the same, being in my position. They’d have to understand, right?
I took another breath, forcing myself to stay still. I was overstraining myself by trying to pretend I could read minds, and it wasn’t helping me think any better.
I let out a small nervous laugh. It would have been funny — in an absurdist way, at least — if none of what I was doing actually mattered. That might’ve been the case, honestly. Most of the group had probably made up their minds the second Mr. Dogsi explained himself; any deliberation they pretended to have beyond that was likely just as false as the characters we were playing. I was pretending that my actions had consequences because I didn’t want to acknowledge that they almost certainly didn’t. That everything had already been predetermined from the second I gripped the paintball.
I heard a voice. Someone seemed to have noticed my dilemma, and they wanted to capitalize on it.
“Mr. Dogsi,” said Caroline. “I have a question regarding the rules.”
He turned to face her.
“If it was written in the contract, I’m not able to recall it. Are players allowed to split prize money between themselves?”
Oh, the dirtbag. She wanted me to buy her vote. (I guessed I couldn’t have said that she wasn’t being rational, but…)
“No,” said Mr. Dogsi. “That is explicitly not allowed. It is forbidden for one player to plan to give another player a divided portion of their prize.”
She looked me in the eye, saying nothing and then turning back to stand with the others. Joyo encouraged the goth to stand with the rest of them as well — probably for the same reason Quote had done it on my side — but she shook her head and stood still, looking down at the ground. She wanted to be alone.
Whatever. That was fine. I had eight. As long as I could keep that, I was fine.
I was fine.
I loved slasher films.
That made sense, right? It funneled back into that same obsession I had with mysteries and elimination games, that constant thrill of watching people get picked off one by one, never knowing who’d be next. Something was special about those kind of movies. Scream, Nightmare on Elm Street, Saw, Halloween…
They were great. (Well, not really, but I still liked them. Obviously people could acknowledge that a work of art was total shit while still enjoying it. People read my serials, didn’t they?)
My favorite slasher movie, as pretentious as it might have sounded, was what many probably would’ve considered the first ever created — Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. That movie messed with my thirteen year old self in ways that few movies ever had, before or since.
In terms of shock and suspense — which are basically the only reasons anyone wants to see slasher-type movies in the first place — Psycho couldn’t be beat. It wasn’t even a slasher-flick in the traditional sense, but it ended up destroying most of the movies it inspired by creating an incredibly fucky atmosphere of fear and confusion, not just through jump-scares and cheap tricks but by setting the tone. A person would’ve needed to see it for themselves if they wanted to know what I meant by that; I was the farthest thing from a film buff, and it’s not something I would’ve been able to describe well if asked about.
What freaked me out so much — and inspired me, I guessed — was the specific way in which Psycho messes with the audience. The first time I watched it, I’d already fallen in love with media that went out of its way to cleverly subvert and trick the audience — not in the way Amelia had described, but in the fair way, the better way. Earhart wanted to screw with the audience so she could demonstrate how above them she was; Hitchcock wanted to do it so he could share that wonderful feeling of what the fuck is even happening anymore, an experience as old and universal to humans as life itself.
There was a difference.
There were little things I loved about Psycho: the way it relies on the smaller details, the bone-chilling score, and the phenomenal acting from practically everyone involved.
But that wasn’t what fucked with me, though. That wasn’t what broke my dumb teenage brain the first time I saw it.
Right around halfway through Psycho — and this would’ve been a big spoiler, had I been telling it to someone — the protagonist dies.
That wasn’t allowed, I remembered having screamed at my laptop. It didn’t even matter that it wasn’t a mystery — you couldn’t do that! When an author made a certain character the focus on the story, when they specifically decided to choose that person’s perspective as the central guidepost for how things would be shown, they were making a promise.
“This character matters. This character has a purpose. This is the character that you can always feel safe with, because they represent your experience and your connection to the story. You have been allowed to follow them, so of course they can’t die — or if they can, at least not until the very end of the story.”
Fuck that, screamed Hitchcock, presumably between rounds of stalking his actors and figuring out new ways he could compare them to live cattle. Fuck that. Promises were meant to be broken. Audiences were meant to be betrayed. Art was a reflection of real life, and in real life, no one was safe. Maybe we all imagined ourselves to be the main character of some insane, neverending story, and that we all would end up going on forever, but that wasn’t how it worked at all.
Everybody died at some point. Yeah, maybe some people died with friends and family in a comfortable deathbed at the end of a long, well-lived life, but that wasn’t everybody. Some people died suddenly, meaninglessly, before they had gotten the chance to do basically anything. That was life, and life wasn’t fair.
Psycho was the quintessential example of a piece of media containing a false protagonist. It was a difficult trick for an author to pull off — execution matters a lot — but when done right, it carried that perfect flavor of cruelty and emotional devastation that people just couldn’t get enough of. In almost any piece of fiction, mysteries included, there was no character that most of the audience would relate more to than the protagonist. Because of that, there were few ways to evoke more emotion in an audience than dropping a piano on the MC before the story had even reached its halfway point. Regardless of whether it was handled well or not, it was sure to make people feel something.
Maybe that feeling was what I was experiencing, in some ways, when ZB decided to dash back across the line.
With six minutes left to go, I was bound to feel that something, too.
It was probably more painful for tall people to get on their knees than it was for short people, but that really didn’t matter all that much.
I wasn’t too proud to beg. Whatever reservations I had before about not wanting to seem desperate were gone. ZB wasn’t having it, though. At least not without her price.
She’d told everyone shouting at her — from both sides, Joyo and Quote, mainly — to shut the fuck up, and she stood standing above me, looking down. Her bowtie and forehead-beak seemed so much more intimidating from the floor, somehow, even with that same stupid grin plastered on her smug freckle-covered face.
I opened my mouth to beg again, but she laughed and told me to shut up too, before starting something of a speech.
“I figured something out about you, By. The type of person you are. Not many of them were here when you really went into it, but with what you write…”
She paused, smiling.
“You’re the kind of dork who’d do this for free, aren’t you?”
She turned to Mr. Dogsi, pointing a maniacal flipper.
He nodded, not seeming to mind the insult. Apparently, it was totally cool to swear at the host.
“You said we can’t split our prizes into portions, didn’t you?”
“…But there’s no rule against promising to give away all your prize, right?”
His smile got a little wider, as if proud of her for having figured it out.
“Yes. That’s correct, ZB. There is no such rule.”
She turned to me, her extended flipper less than a few inches away from my face.
“…Well, By? You know what I’m gonna say. If you promise to give me every last dollar they give you if you win, I’ll vote for you. If not…”
She ran her other flipper vertically across her neck, pretending to slit her throat.
“You’ll be sleeping with the fishes.”
“I mean, y’know. Just sleeping, really. I wanted to slide an ice pun, and penguins eat fish, so that’s like, tangentially related, I guess. This gets hard.”
I stared at her. Dirtbag.
“Give me an answer, By. And don’t be dumb. You have two options. Play for nothing — which again, I know a loser like you would be happy with — or don’t play at all.”
Amidst the screams and jeers coming from both sides of the room, I thought about it.
I had done some research before coming out. It wasn’t any easy thing to do, honestly. No one had ever made a reality television murder mystery game show prior to the one I was on — shocker — but that didn’t mean there wasn’t anything outside of the realm of pure fiction for me to study in order to prepare myself.
Reality television was freaky. There were any number of people competing on any number of game shows and competitions at any given point, and even if most of them were probably far faker and less complex than the one I was on, there were still lessons to be learned. Watching season after season of elimination-style cooking shows and quiz shows and survival shows and everything else made me realize some stuff.
Whenever someone loses one of those shows, regardless of the circumstances, they all had the same look in their eyes. It was a brutal look, them just learning what it’s like to fail with eyes of a nation on you, missing that final Jeopardy question or coming one too many votes high at the end of a Survivor episode. It’s the most horrendous type of regret imaginable — the type that the person will get to relive over and over and over — and I knew from personal experience that it wasn’t a feeling I could handle.
I’d always sucked when it came to dealing with regret, both regarding things that were in my control and things that weren’t: Mom, Space Attorney, that time I thanked an usher at the theater and said “you too” when they told me to enjoy the movie. The circumstances didn’t matter. Big or little, I’d always naturally internalized that type of stuff. Regret was my weak point.
So before I came to the game, I made myself a promise. I wasn’t going to play to maximize my chances of winning — I was going to play to minimize my regret. Because of that, neither of ZB’s options were acceptable.
If I straight up refused, she’d vote against me. I didn’t have any reason to think that she wouldn’t. ZB had attached herself to me, but she clearly loved the idea of being mean to a stranger more than that, and I was that stranger. She’d do it with a smile on her face, and she probably wouldn’t even feel bad about it. As soon as the sludge hit me, I’d feel the regret, and it’d probably continue long after I woke up and traveled back home. As much as I wanted the money, ZB was right; it didn’t mean nearly as much to me as the game did. There probably wouldn’t be a period of time longer than an hour for the next decade where I wouldn’t berate myself for having been so greedy and shortsighted, for having thrown away my only shot for the promise of money I wasn’t in any desperate need for.
If I agreed, I’d get to stay, but I’d spend the entire game regretting it, feeling even worse if I somehow ended up winning. It’d taint my victory, make it hollow. I’d spend every spare second calling myself an idiot and running alternate scenarios in my head where I’d done something else and didn’t have to sacrifice anything, probably to the point of near-insanity. I didn’t want to subject myself to that.
Worse, of course, was the excellent chance that ZB was screwing with me. Even if I did agree, there was a high probability that she’d stick out her tongue and tell me to get fucked anyway. In her beady little eyes, as far as I could tell, all of it might have been a prank or a test; regardless, I couldn’t risk it. Even if I lied to her — and I was an awful liar — she might have just been tossing me a hope spot so she could yank it away. That wouldn’t do.
I needed a third option. One that led to a road where regret was not a guarantee.
“What’s it going to be, By? Are you going to agree to hand over your cash if you win?”
She looked at me in the eye for a moment before chuckling.
“So you forfeit. I just want to be clear, By. I like you. You’re a dork, and I’m okay with that. Even people as cool as me need sidekicks, and I don’t have any problem having one that accidentally fell inside a taffy-stretching machine. But I’m not bluffing. Do you think I’m bluffing? You know me well enough by now, don’t you? I love this shit. I have all the power right now. I can do anything.”
She called out to the splatter side.
“Any of you thinking about changing your mind?”
“Again. I’m all you got.”
“…I can give you a reason. Not to eliminate me, I mean.”
“The only reason I wanna hear is ten million dollars.”
“It’s a good one.”
“You know what? Fuck it. Try me. Fuck the money too. That shit’s off the table.”
For the last time, she pointed her flipper at my face, her grin downright demonic.
“You want to stay here, By? You really want to fucking be here? Fine. Give me your reason. If you want to continue your existence here in this game, if you wanna have a shot in all this…”
She stomped her foot.
“Then you better have some damn good justification.”
For what might have been my final trick, I had a gambit. It wasn’t guaranteed to work, but in terms of minimizing regret, it was the best I could think up.
In truth, I don’t think ZB actually expected me to be able to provide her with a satisfactory answer. That’s because, in truth, there wasn’t one. If I wasn’t going to agree to give her my potential winnings, there was no honest, strategic reason for her to keep me around.
Like any of that mattered. Rationality was useless. She was ZB Popsicle.
Considering that, wasn’t the solution obvious?
“…The reason is that I need the money. Badly.”
She laughed, taking a step back.
“Sorry, wrong answer. That’s lame as fuck, By. Literal begging, holy shit. Pathetic.”
I looked at her with the most serious expression I could muster.
“…You don’t understand, ZB. When I say need, I’m serious. Without this cash, I’m ruined.”
“What, spent too much money on raised shower heads?”
“A little before the game started, my identity was stolen. Someone online stole all my information, opened credit cards and took loans in my name, and it ruined me. The bank, well… long story short, I’m done, ZB. Without this money, without this game, I’m finished. Do you want to know why, ZB?”
ZB raised an eyebrow and took a tiny step forward. She didn’t understand what was happening.
“I don’t get what this is supposed to be. Again, I’m not giving it to you out of pi-”
“Do you know what the bank did, ZB? When I told them what had happened? When I told them that someone had stolen my identity — my very being — and used it to mercilessly rip my financial life to shreds? Do you want to hear it? Because I already know, and speaking truthfully, you’re the only one here who could possibly understand.”
She looked at me, squinting. She did not believe my story.
That was fine.
“…What did they do?”
“They froze my credit.”
She stared into space for a moment, processing. A second later, a sound halfway between a fart and a laugh escaped her lips, and she tilted her head towards the ceiling, looking exasperated.
“…Goddamnit, By. You’re such a fucking loser.”
She walked forward.
I heard a buzzer.
I tugged at the pink bracelet, my heart still not quite ready to settle back down.
I hadn’t been there to see it along with everyone else, but the others said that the bracelets squeezed tightly around their wrists as soon as they’d put them on, and I’d experienced the same, the mechanical pink wristlet adjusting itself to my proportions as soon as Mr. Dogsi had given me the okay to put it on. There was a touchscreen on the front, which I’d failed to notice on the other ones earlier, probably because it had yet to turn on. If there were any tiny buttons on or around the sides that activated it, I couldn’t find them.
Joyo had bitched for a long time, but in the end, he couldn’t argue with the fact that I’d gotten the vote. That didn’t stop him from cursing at ZB, though.
Funnily enough, I wasn’t angry at her myself, despite her almost having gotten me eliminated. Maybe it was just D finally rubbing off on me, or maybe I just stopped viewing her as a person.
After all, ZB was a bird, wasn’t she? If a pigeon decided to swoop in to ruin someone’s picnic, the person couldn’t solve the problem by arguing with it; they had to empathize. You had to throw a snack off the table, give it what it wanted.
Getting mad at a dumb bird for being a dumb bird was dumb.
“Well, I’m glad that’s settled, then. By Menachem will be our twelfth player.”
Mr. Dogsi looked around one final time, walking slowly to the center of the circle, Ms. Vedsi following him. She pulled out a small remote from her pocket, and as he spoke she pressed it, our bracelets lighting up with different pink numbers.
I took one last glance at the room as Mr. Dogsi prepared to formally announce it, everything finally beginning in earnest. Everyone was examining their bracelets.
One, ZB Popsicle. A dumb bird.
Two, Hold. A hairless beast.
Three, Martha. A misanthropic reader.
Four, Dot. A tired nose-flicker.
Five, Cornea Skinner. A wide doctor.
Six, Caroline Plite. A natural enemy.
Seven, Quote. A caring speedrunner.
Eight, Zeezrom. A devout Mormon.
Nine, Claim. A supposed quitter.
Ten, Polycarp. A sad person.
Eleven, Dent Machado. A total nutcase.
Twelve, By Menachem. An unmatched dumbass.
Thirteen, Strait. A happy dude.
Fourteen, Soso. A mysterious goth.
Fifteen, Lu. A little princess.
Sixteen, Joyo Karna. A loud prick.
Standing in the perfect center of the room, he draped his arms out to his sides, hoisting them high up in the air for dramatic effect. It was too schmaltzy for me not to smile at.
“To the Game By Goop!”