Saturday, September 15, 2012
THE DEAD GIVEAWAY!
Chapter One “Cameryn, open up. I’ve got a surprise for you!” Justin exclaimed as he knocked on Cameryn’s dorm room in a rapid-fire rhythm. “Oh, come on!” Lyric moaned to Cameryn as she raked blue fingernails through her freshly dyed, pumpkin-colored hair. The two of them were nestled into their battered, used loveseat that had been draped with a blanket to hide its preexisting stains. Curled up, with Cameryn’s boney hip pressed against Lyric’s plump one, they’d been preparing to once again watch Cameryn’s audition for a new television reality show called The Dead Giveaway, a forensic program where college students competed for a dazzling money prize. “This is girl’s night and you promised to watch,” Lyric protested. Deliberately aiming the remote, she pressed ‘play’. The television flashed. My name is Cameryn Mahoney and I live in Durango, Colorado, where I am a freshman at Fort Lewis College. It has been my lifelong dream to become a forensic pathologist! Cameryn’s image chirped from the screen. “Cammie!” Justin cried, his voice more insistent. “I know I’m interrupting but you really need to see this.” “I’ll be right there!” she called to her door, which was flimsy enough to allow sound to pass through. “Sorry,” she sighed to Lyric, “it must be important.” Planting her palms on either side of her of her hips, Cameryn lifted herself as she hopped off the loveseat. Lyric rolled her blue, kohl-rimmed eyes. “All right, I will hit ‘pause’ for five minutes, but that’s it.” She aimed the controller at the set so that Cameryn’s image froze in place. “Must I remind you that your best friends needs time, too? And now he’s here,” she swooped the controller through the air, “– again! I understand you guys can’t live without each other but I really wanted to watch the part where you pop off the skull with that screwdriver-thingy. It’s so disturbingly cool.” “I’ll be quick,” Cameryn told her. “I promise.” Although she tried to make her expression serious, for Lyric’s sake, Cameryn couldn’t help but smile, happy that Justin had provided an excuse to get out of yet another viewing. Winning a spot on The Dead Giveaway had filled her dreams during the months since she’d sent in the audition DVD. The problem was she’d never gotten used to seeing her image on film. I look too young, she thought whenever she’d viewed herself in those overlarge pale green, hand-me-down morgue scrubs, paper booties and the stiff, bouffant cap that puffed from her head like a gauzy cloud. With her long hair pulled up, her large, dark eyes appeared almost alien; her voice sounded too thin, too high. Cameryn knew her slight build and short stature made her look much, much younger than her eighteen years, and that would most likely kill her chances at being chosen out of the thousands who had applied. Bang bang bang. Justin’s knocking became more insistent. “Okay, okay, I’m coming!” Cameryn’s bare feet padded against the linoleum squares as she made her way to the one person who knew her almost as well as she knew herself. When she flung it open his dark hair had been dusted in a fine layer of Durango snow that reminded Cameryn of powdered sugar. “You’re out of breath!” she said, brushing the snow off his shoulders. “Sorry,” he huffed, “I ran across the parking lot - took the stairs at -top speed.” He sucked in another gulp of air. “Lyric is not happy you’re here,” she whispered. Rolling onto her toes, she kissed his cold cheek. “I was supposed to be on best friend duty tonight, remember?” “Yeah, I’m seriously thinking of burning my ‘Team Justin’ tee shirt,” Lyric’s singsong voice chimed. “My – apologies - Lyric.” Cameryn laughed as she shook her head. “So…what is it? What’s the 911 emergency?” “Something came today.” His eyes, like lasers, were attuned to her now. It was the way he looked at Cameryn that made every hair on her arms rise up with her gooseflesh. From the inside of his jacket he removed a FedEx envelope, gasping, “They sent it to your old house by mistake – the Hollywood geniuses missed the fact you’re in college now.” His fingers bent the cardboard as he gripped it too tight. “I told your mammaw I would drive it down.” Cameryn froze, staring. “Are you sure it’s from them?” she asked weakly. “It says The Dead Giveaway,” he answered, “So yeah, I’m sure. This is it, Cammie.” In an instant Lyric was at her side. “Oh, my God!” She reached out for the envelope. “What are you waiting for? Let’s open it right now!” “Uh…wow. Okay. Just, give me a second.” Cameryn ran her fingers through her curls and braided them into a long rope, buying mental time. Because inside that cardboard sheath lay the answer to her future, a knowledge both terrifying and exhilarating. It contained the ‘yes’ or the ‘no,’ the ‘go’ or the ‘stay,’ the fame or anonymity. It was everything. Or maybe nothing at all. Standing tall against the doorframe Justin was rigid. Cameryn understood his body language well enough to know he wanted to open that envelope with her alone, without Lyric’s prying eyes, but he was waiting for Cameryn herself to make the decision about what happened next. “Ohhhh,” Lyric breathed out the word. “I get it. I’m not wanted, which is incredibly awkward since this whole thing was my idea in the first place. But, no worries.” Her hand flew up as Cameryn began to protest. “I’ll just go knock on Sara’s door and see if I can score me a Coke. But Cammie, you’ve got to promise to text me as soon as you open it!” “Thanks, Lyric,” Justin told her softly. “For understanding.” “Well, just so you know, my psychic powers are amped to overdrive – and Cammie - you’re going to Hollywood,” she squealed. Lyric stepped around Justin, her pink faux fur slippers whisking against the floor as her terrycloth robe wound between her legs until she vanished around a corner. Cameryn watched from the doorway, chewing her lip. “Aren’t you going to open it?” Justin asked, raising an eyebrow in a dark arch. His breathing had slowed, and he raked back his too-long hair, revealing eyes that were the color of deep water, the blue-green found in the center of a mountain lake. He must have just gotten off of work because he was dressed in his almost-uniform: faded jeans, his green aviator jacket with the collar flipped up, the cowboy boots that had become as worn as a true westerner’s, and a deputy badge hanging from a cord around his neck. A smile lifted the corners of his mouth. “Cameryn Mahoney, you actually look scared. Aren’t you the person who puts her hands inside dead people?” He extended the envelope toward her so that the purple FedEx logo was just inches away, and yet she could not bring herself to take it from him. Her fists remained clenched firmly at her sides. “Come on,” he said, and this time his voice had an edge. “This is my life, too.” Still, she could not move. “Okay, then I’ll do it.” He pinched his fingers and began to pull the thread-like tab. “No - stop!” she cried, so loud it startled a pair of girls ambling by. They glanced at her before moving on, their backpacks bumping together as they walked on. “Sorry, I’m just…freaking out. I mean, I know I had a huge advantage since I work for a medical examiner, but, bottom line, only ten people get chosen for this reality show. Ten. As long as I don’t look, I can believe there’s still a possibility I got picked. So please, let me hope for a minute longer.” “That does not sound like the scientific Cameryn I know,” he replied. “I’m complicated.” She shook her head. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter. Lyric’s wrong. It’s a ‘no’.” She pointed to the envelope. “I can feel it.” He didn’t even try to hide his pleasure as his face erupted into a crooked grin. “If The Dead Giveaway turns you down, then I win.” “And I lose.” Her words hung in the air, and she hated herself for the hurt that flickered behind his eyes. But it only remained a moment before it dipped beneath the waves and his face was impassive once again. “It depends on how you look at it.” As his fingertip brushed against her cheek, she could feel herself leaning in to his touch. And then came his voice, lower now, “Would it really be so bad to stay here with me?” When she hesitated the flicker returned to his eyes. “Look,” he said, “I’m not trying to be selfish, but I don’t want us to be apart, Cammie. Not after everything you and I have lived through. With something this big – like a move and Hollywood - people change. Even if they don’t mean to.” She nodded, because of course she wanted to be close to Justin, safely enrolled in her freshman year at Fort Lewis College, a mere hour from her father and her mammaw. Moving to the city of Durango had been a comfortable transition, a new beginning rooted in old earth. The essence of her small town life had been packed into her Jeep along with her clothes and her laptop and Tupperware filled to the brim with her grandmother’s Irish Lace cookies. Even Dr. Moore had offered her a part-time job as his assistant, a position she’d readily accepted, and she’d stepped into the role without missing a beat. But when Cameryn and Lyric had moved into the Cooper Dorm in July, she’d stood on their cement balcony, wondering at how Durango’s stars exactly mirrored Silverton’s night sky. And why wouldn’t they? The San Juan Mountains cradled Durango in the same way they’d cupped tiny Silverton, and she’d realized that Durango was just a grown up, polished twin of her home town. That sameness had been a comfort, a blanket of continuity in which she’d wrapped herself, cocoon-like and safe. She’d been content with that. Until Lyric had planted the idea of trading the mountains for an ocean. Doctor Moore had been outraged, blaming Lyric for putting such a crazy plan into her head, but Cameryn knew it wasn’t Lyric’s fault. Because the truth was, deep down, a seed had been germinating since she’d moved into the dorm. At night she could almost hear the whispers in her subconscious, fading echoes that hinted there might be more out there in the world, beyond the life she seemed preordained to live. It made her feel guilty. In the eight months since he’d been stabbed, she and Justin had grown together, the two of them becoming all but inseparable. The milestones of their lives had come in quick succession: his returning to his job as deputy of Silverton, her graduation with honors, her move to Fort Lewis, their weekends split between Durango and Silverton. And she’d been happy. So the notion of her walking away, even for three months, was painful because it ripped away at what they’d woven together. And yet…she was only eighteen and had barely been outside the borders of Colorado. That was when it hit her: she’d spent so much time speaking for the dead she wasn’t sure what she had to say for herself. And now an answer was waiting only inches away, clenched in Justin’s hand. Bouncing the soft side of his fist against the doorframe he said, “So open it already.” The flush on his cheeks made Justin’s eyes look electric. “I will. It’s just…I don’t want to do this in the hallway. Come inside.” “But your pop said I couldn’t enter the premises unless –” Before he could finish speaking she grabbed his jacket and pulled him into her dorm room, a small square just large enough for the loveseat and two twin beds, one covered with peace signs and the other, Cameryn’s, made up with a simple denim comforter. “Justin,” she said, “I’m making the decisions now. And it’ll be okay.” Sinking onto her bed, she patted the end and said, “Sit.” He sat. For a moment the stayed that way, with Justin’s hand in hers, until he tossed the envelope to one side and thrust out his arms. Without a thought Cameryn folded herself into him, resting her head against his shoulder as she listened to his heartbeat thump, steady and strong. She felt she could stay there forever, in the twilight of possibilities, but it was Justin who pulled away. “Let’s get it over with,” he said. Reaching past her fingertips he picked up the envelope and placed it in her hands. The return address typed in black ink: The Dead Giveaway, Audition Department, Warner Hollywood Studios, 1041 N. Formosa, Hollywood, CA 90046. With her finger she traced the letters, swallowing hard. Then, grasping the cardboard tab, she pulled hard across the top. There was a ripping sound as she released the plastic thread. Justin was right – there was no point in dragging it out any longer. So it shocked her all the more when he reached out to stay her hand. “Wait,” he said. “Why?” “I want you to kiss me first. For luck.” “Your luck,” she whispered, “or mine?” “Mine.” Leaning close, he tipped his head so that his lips lightly brushed hers; she noticed the taste of peppermint and registered the roughness of his chin. When his lips pressed harder she had a crazy idea, because it seemed as though she could almost feel the pounding of his thoughts, as if the word ‘stay’ pulsed in time with his heartbeat. But she couldn’t let herself be swayed. This was her dream, her rainbow and her pot of gold. Breaking free, she popped opened the envelope and felt for the paper inside. The paper was thick, like linen, and at the top there was a blue and gold seal that made her think of gilded wedding invitations. Dear Ms. Mahoney, it began. As her eyes skimmed the rest of the words her hand flew to her throat as she gave out a cry. “I’m in, Justin!” she screamed, jumping to her feet. “I’m actually in!” Twirling in an arc, the paper flapping in her hand, she felt something inside rise up, a bubble bursting. “I can’t believe it! I made it! Me! They want me! They want me!” If Justin said something in reply she didn’t hear. The colors of the room whirled past her as she spun herself like a whirligig. A single thread of her cocoon was unwinding as she turned again and again until she felt Justin’s hand on her arm, stopping her cold. It took a moment for her eyes to refocus. She could tell that for her sake that he would do his best to pretend he was happy. “Congratulations,” he said woodenly. “I know, right?” she cried as she hugged her sides, unable to contain herself. “Lyric is going to go insane – I’ve got to text her! Doctor Moore hates reality television so he’ll pitch a fit when I tell him, but he’s not the one paying for my college, so -” “That’s not what worries me,” Justin’s voice cut across her. “No,” he put his finger to her lips, “let me say it. Just this one time. Cards on the table.” Cameryn closed her eyes. “Justin, please. Don’t spoil this. This is a good thing. It’s an amazing thing.” His finger slipped past her lips and tucked beneath her chin. With a gently motion, he raised her face to his. “Look at me, Cammie.” Reluctantly, she opened her lids. “What worries me is a number. Three. Three months. That’s a very long time. You and me -” “ – will be fine,” she brushed his objections away as she took a step back. “It’s only three months if they don’t boot me off. Every contestant leaves with money. All of it will go to my student loans. So just…don’t. Don’t make me feel like I’ve let you down. Because this isn’t about you or us. It’s about me and what I want!” It was as if her words had literally slapped him in his face. His expression took on a strange intensity she’d never seen before. Finally, with a quick nod, he leaned down to kiss her on her forehead. What was different from a thousand other kisses was the way he lingered, his lips pressing hard against her skin, cool and dry. “You’re right,” he finally said. “I am?” “Yes. I’ll be rooting for you, Cameryn Mahoney. And I promise, I’ll be waiting.” “Thank you!” Cameryn drew him close as he buried his face in her hair, hugging her so hard she found herself on the tips of bare toes like a ballerina on pointe. She could tell he wanted to say more, but she stopped his lips with another kiss until he gave up and gave in. It wasn’t hard to guess what he was thinking, but she hoped for once he couldn’t see into her mind. Because it wasn’t the thought of leaving Justin or Durango or the mountains that was making her heart beat like mad. It was the thought of her new reality. The reality of The Dead Giveaway.