A very old-fashioned movie projector, pre-threaded with a large roll of film, was sitting at my front door this morning, along with a rolled-up screen and the following note.
We’d meant to leave this in your living room, but it seems that you haven’t been joking about your security system for all this time. We considered suing you for the injuries, but then we would have had to explain why we were trying to get into your living room at the time. Dicey. As is, we’d love to know how you managed to get those spikes in the walls. The permits alone must have taken hours.
But since we’re FOX executives and we always finish what we start, we decided to just leave the projector where you would eventually find it. The film stock is the very old sort that tends to catch fire when it gets too hot and this camera gives off a lot of friction, but we’re almost certain you’ll be able to get to the end of the episode before the whole rig self-destructs.
By the way, we once again have some objections to your last summary. While we’re glad you mentioned the barbershop quartet in the park, how could you possibly leave out the name of the song we featured them singing? We actually thought their going with Sunday in the park with George was a little ironic ourselves. And if we go to the trouble of a hot tub sequence, we believe our viewers would like to know what the women were wearing, how much of it was actually providing coverage, and if any wardrobe malfunctions were imminent. Perhaps needless to say, given our expected audience, this goes for the men’s hot tub time as well.
But since you’re still the only DAW desperate enough to believe this reel actually contains the final curtain on our magnum opus and write the summary regardless of how few people believe you – those four are just humoring you – we’re going to have the pleasure of watching you try to keep an eye on the screen and smoke detector at the same time.
You see, as you may have guessed, we still really hate you.
(names of several FOX executives deleted one last time for security reasons.)’
Shows what they –
-- (sigh). Yeah. Right. Let me just find a place to plug this in and set up the screen…
For the final time, we find ourselves at Sizzling Saddles, the ranch where men are men, women are women, and the odds aren’t very good on the twain ever meeting. Once the opening theme scares off every coyote in a six-mile radius, the camera shows us several stagehands moving through the Nevada scrublands in the dark – or as close to ‘dark’ as a few dozen television light rigs will permit. They’re carrying two large, flat-with-lumps shaded objects between them. A time bar tells us it’s three in the morning, although there’s still no indication as to what day, month, year, or universe we’re operating in.
The tallest stagehand whispers ‘Why did we have to do this so early?’ He’s bent slightly under the burden of whatever he’s carrying, and sweat is clearly visible on his face.
A mid-sized one replies with ‘Have you been watching these guys? They’ve been getting up at four in the morning to make sure their makeup’s on straight. It takes the big one half an hour just to decide what he’s going to wear. And that’s with the limited wardrobe we have them. Plus the other one needs forty minutes to finish touching up the shave job on his legs.’
The camera moves slightly and reveals what the stagehands are carrying: two mattresses. Banks is fast asleep on one, with Luciano curled up around a teddy bear on the other. Despite the constant slight jostles and bumps they’re receiving from being ported across the uneven terrain, neither one shows any signs of waking up.
‘Hope this cheers her up,’ the shortest stagehand grumbles. ‘She’s been impossible since last night. Even more of a –‘
They all stop moving and look around for a few seconds. Nothing happens.
‘—well, you know. More than usual,’ the stagehand finishes, apparently worried that certain words might serve as triggers. The others nod, and continue down the trail, following the sound men. Finally, they reach what seems to be the designated spot as Banks makes small curling motions with both arms, and Luciano’s thumb starts to drift towards his mouth.
The stagehands nod to each other, then flip the mattresses over.
Banks and Luciano unceremoniously crash into the ground. There’s a soft squelching sound from Luciano’s end, almost lost over the sharp crack which indicates Banks’ introduction to a nearby rock. The stagehands clear the area in a flurry of panicked feet, leaving the groggy, pained men lying in a pool of light. It’s impossible to see anything in the shadows beyond.
Luciano slowly sits up. There’s something brown clinging to the left side of his face. ‘I said you could be the top this time,’ he dazedly mutters, then shakes his head hard, as if trying to clear it. Little bits of brown stuff fly off. ‘Banks?’
Banks sits up, rubbing his forehead. ‘I’m here, Luciano,’ he assures his fellow contestant. ‘Where are we?’
‘You are in – the meadow,’ Daphne says.
Neither Banks nor Luciano moves so much as an inch.
Daphne steps out from behind Luciano’s left foot and glares at the men. ‘Well?’ They both shrug. ‘So you think you’ve gotten used to this sort of thing, do you?’ Twinned nods. ‘Well, that’s part of the problem. You’ve gotten entirely too used to everything around here. This is a competition for a million dollars, and we’ve been entirely too easy on you during it.’
‘Don’t you mean ‘half a million dollars’?’ Banks asks, checking for permanent dirt stains on his lavender silk pajamas.
Daphne smirks. ‘Took a bit of a knock from that pebble, did you?’ She stalks around the edge of the light, surveying the men. ‘Even so, I wonder if you’re clear-headed enough to tell me what the theme of our season is?’
‘Cowboys,’ Banks says, frowning with deep concentration at a grass stain on his left ankle.
‘Correct!’ Daphne exclaims with false brightness just before getting a little too close to one of the light stands. Three bulbs simultaneously burn out. ‘You’ve been roped, you’ve eaten beans –‘ her expression turns dark ‘—and you actually managed to make short work of the rustlers.’
Luciano looks up from checking his teddy bear for battle wounds, his expression growing nervous. Banks also looks worried.
‘But all of that was easy for you – far too easy, all things considered,’ Daphne muses. ‘So since we’re getting down to the end of our contest, we thought we’d step things up a bit. Give you a little more than a mere taste of the cowboy life. Starting with this. Lights!’
On Daphne’s command, a second ring of lights goes up, and a larger portion of the field is revealed. It’s filled with about one hundred sleeping cows, all of whom have been branded with either a ‘B’ or an ‘L’. There’s also a large mesh fence encircling the area. The camera goes out for a long zoom to reveal the full extent of the area: the circle looks to be about three hundred yards across. Banks and Luciano are at the center.
Banks stands up, looking really worried. ‘Okay,’ he asks Daphne, ‘exactly what do we have to do here?’
‘Nothing much,’ Daphne assures him. ‘Just herd cattle until morning. The one of you who has more of their animals left by dawn will score one point in our competition.’ Luciano sits up straight, listening intently. ‘There will three contests total, for one point each. The one who scores the most will get to see Jackie’s parents. That should be a major factor in convincing her, yes?’ Both men nod. ‘And should one of you manage to win all three events, we’ll provide a special bonus. A one-of-a-kind experience!’ Her voice drops low, and she leans in towards Banks, who pulls back just before the grass starts dying at his feet. ‘You’ll get to watch the first five minutes of the first-ever episode of Playing It Straight at a real cowboy bar not too far from here!’
Finally, Luciano asks ‘Didn’t Survivor already do that in their first season?’
Daphne’s face freezes. ‘Damn it, you fool!’ she hisses between her teeth. ‘Keep your mouth shut! His spies are everywhere. If anyone should happen to hear…’
A young man dressed in casual business attire walks into camera range. ‘For you, miss,’ he says, holding out a folded piece of paper towards Daphne.
Daphne stares at him, then switches focus to stare at Luciano – then looks up at the star-lit sky, screams at the top of her lungs, and ceases to register on camera exactly one second before a dead bird drops into the space where she’d been standing. The young man yelps in shock and jumps four feet straight back, becoming hopelessly tangled in the wiring for the light stands.
Banks and Luciano glance at each and ruefully shake their heads. ‘Remember when we were like that?’ Banks asks nostalgically.
‘Yeah’, Luciano replies. ‘Hated it. Come on, let’s get him out of there…’ They both head over and extricate the young man from the wiring.
‘Thanks,’ the rescued party pants. ‘Uh – I don’t suppose either one of you could give this to her?’ He holds the paper out. The words ‘From the desk of Mark Burnett’ are clearly visible on the exterior. Both contestants shake their heads. The young man sighs and walks out of camera range.
Luciano watches him go, eyes apparently focused around waist level, then turns to survey the area. ‘There’s got to be a catch to this,’ he tells Banks.
Banks nods as he heads up to one of the sleeping cows and kneels down beside it. ‘This one’s got a touch of mastitis,’ he observes. ‘I think it was a little too close to Daphne. But maybe they made a mistake in our favor for once. The fence must have been put here to keep them from wandering off until we could get here, and no one’s around to take it down.’ In fact, there isn’t a single camera person or stagehand visible: the men seem to be alone in the circle. ‘And as long as they stay asleep…’
Several hundred explosive bolts go off around the perimeter.
The fence sections drop to the ground. The cattle massively start as one beast, almost as if Daphne was back again, and begin to cry out in bovine dismay. Banks and Luciano, both of whom have clamped their hands over their ears, watch as the panicked animals search for a way to get away from the sound – and the sound was all around them. The result is predictable.
‘STAMPEDE!’ Luciano yells just before an Ayrshire, the distinctive horns lowered in a defensive position, charges directly at him in its attempt to get away from the commotion.
FOX, in their infinite wisdom, chooses this moment to go to commercial.
When we return, we’re at the ranch’s front porch. From the position of the sun, it’s about two hours past dawn. Jackie, who has a few tear-tracks dried on her face, is standing several feet away from Daphne, mindful of the border at all times. Daphne is surveying the approach path, looking for something. ‘Well, let’s give it another hour before we send out a search party,’ she says brightly.
Jackie looks over to Daphne, her eyes slightly red. ‘I thought you knew where you put them.’
‘Yes, well – they may have wandered a bit,’ Daphne admits. ‘We went for a mix of size and speed. Some of them are deceptively quick. You wouldn’t believe how hard it was to borrow a Dutch Belted for this event.’
‘Borrow?’ Jackie asks.
Daphne simply says ‘FOX,’ and goes back to scanning the horizon. ‘You don’t see anyone in casual business attire out there, do you?’ Jackie shakes her head. ‘Good.’
The camera moves to scan the horizon. There seems to be some movement.
Both women notice it. ‘Could that be them?’ Jackie hopefully asks.
Daphne sniffs the air. ‘I’m not certain,’ she admits. ‘I’m usually very good about smelling blood, but…’ And then she stops moving, staring wordlessly at the approach path.
Luciano and Banks are chatting merrily as they walk towards the ranch. Each one has a straight line of cattle marching with near-military precision directly behind them, large eyes calm and somewhat curious about what’s coming next. The men are back in their faux western outfits, which are sparkling clean. Neither one shows any sign of trail dust anywhere about their persons, and both seem to have found a chance to wash up, shave, and check their makeup for the camera.
Jackie stares at them in open admiration. The wood around Daphne’s feet starts to smoke as the males walk up to the porch and stop just in front of the steps. With the clicking of hooves on pebbles, the cattle come to a precise halt behind them. Luciano’s teddy bear, sitting on the horns of the lead cow, doesn’t even sway. ‘I’m afraid we’ve got a problem,’ Banks says. ‘We’ve each got our original fifty. Do we just call it half a point to both sides?’
Daphne’s right arm comes up without bending at the elbow, and a trembling finger takes a hasty count of the bovine formations. ‘Fifty – and fifty,’ she very reluctantly confirms before her eyes go wide and wild. ‘How did you do it? How!’
Banks shrugs. ‘You left us all those fence sections scattered around the perimeter,’ he reminds her. ‘We just grabbed the lighting and camera wires, then used them to tie the pieces back together. Anything that got out, we tracked down and lassoed with the extra cords.’ He grins. ‘Thanks for giving us that lasso demonstration before, by the way.’
‘But – but…’ Daphne seems to be having some trouble with this, while Jackie’s eyes are rapidly clearing. ‘You’re – clean! How can you both be clean!’
Luciano’s heels slam together. ‘West Point, class of 1998, rank of second lieutenant, Special Army Core Of Launderers, Ma’am! Being in the battlefield is no excuse for being out of uniform, Ma’am!’
Daphne stares. ‘But you’re washed –‘
‘Stream and soapstone,’ Banks says. ‘Rare in the desert, but the well-prepared man knows where to look.’ He briefly joins Jackie in open admiration of Luciano.
Daphne presses the issue. ‘Shaved…’
‘Cactus needles,’ Luciano explains. ‘That’s first-year stuff.’
‘But – but – your clothes!’ Daphne yells as a few small flames shoot up around her feet.
‘You know,’ Banks muses, ‘it’s amazing how much you can get for nose rings when you sell them in a bulk lot. And the stores out here open so early…’
Jackie runs down the steps and up to the men, giving each of them a tight hug. The cattle moo with bovine jealousy. ‘Beautiful!’ she proclaims. ‘Sure, half a point each sounds fair, doesn’t it, Daphne? We’ll just call this one a tie.’ No answer. Jackie turns around to check for the host. ‘Daphne? – fire!’
Indeed, a small blaze has sprung up where Daphne had been standing a moment ago. The men are alert to the danger, though, and quickly dump out a few plant pots. After a few minutes spent in gentle milking of their charges, they easily collect enough fluid to start a bucket brigade and put the fire out before it has a chance to do more than blister the paint. The extra production is set aside to be served at breakfast, although Banks announces he’ll be a little late, since that one case of mastitis has to be reported to a vet immediately.
A few quick shots of breakfast, with Jackie drinking in milk and Luciano throughout, and then the camera heads out to the back of the ranch. Several large bulls have been gathered into a sturdy pen. They seem distinctly bothered. Several of them are trying to butt horns, and others are casting their noses about in the air before bawling in deep distress. These are clearly not happy bulls, and the men trying to corral them into the side enclosures aren’t improving their mood.
Jackie, Luciano, and Banks come up to the edge of the pen and watch the struggles for a while. A rodeo clown is trying to distract one particularly angry bull and get it to chase him into the corral, but doesn’t seem to be having much luck. A cacophony of snorts fills the air.
Jackie looks up at Luciano from her position draped across his chest, clearly worried. ‘Bull riding?’
‘Yeah…’ he says, equally concerned. ‘We got lucky with the cows, and those horns were bad enough…’ He glances at Banks. ‘Do they provide face shields for this?’
Banks shrugs and tries to look unconcerned, but fails dismally.
‘It’s not bull riding,’ Daphne tells them.
Several bulls rear onto their hind legs and a number of handlers go flying, but the men don’t even twitch. Jackie’s only reaction is to peer more closely at the rodeo clown. ‘Hey, isn’t that Ryan Seacrest?’ she asks.
‘Yes,’ Daphne snarls. ‘You may not have noticed, but he’s what we in the business call something of a desperate attention whore. But this contest still has absolutely nothing to do with bull riding whatsoever. At least, not for the backs of the bulls.’
Both men frown. ‘And what’s that supposed to mean?’ Luciano asks, sounding a little defensive.
Daphne looks at Banks. ‘You must have noticed the mix of cattle breeds you were watching over last night.’
‘Sure!’ Banks immediately answers. ‘There was an Ayrshire, and a Dutch Belted, and a Simbrah – I’ve been meaning to ask: where did you get the Mandalong?’
‘Shut up, Banks,’ Daphne suggests. ‘Now take a close look at the pen.’ They do, and the camera moves in for a series of quick close-ups. Some of the bulls are definite matches for the cows of the wee hours. ‘As you can see, these are all males, and they come from several of the breeds you dealt with last night. And, thanks to a significant dose of hormones, they are all ready to find their partners and make calves. Of course, the cows have been packed back into the trailers and are being returned to their owners, so there’s no chance of direct intimacy today.’
Banks frowns. ‘So what are we doing? Spiking their feed with saltpeter?’
‘I’m glad you asked,’ Daphne tells him. ‘Catch!’ She tosses twin objects to the men, who catch them. The camera zooms in on the one Banks is holding. It’s a clear plastic double-walled hollow tube, about two feet long and eight inches across. Water is sloshing around the space between the walls, and the interior is cushioned with translucent foam.
‘Hey, it’s warm!’ Luciano exclaims, turning it over in his hands.
‘It has to be,’ Daphne informs him. ‘It’s an artificial vagina.’
Luciano drops the tube. It bounces twice and doesn’t break. ‘A – a what?’ Jackie, still staring at the rodeo clown, doesn’t notice.
‘An artificial vagina,’ Daphne repeats. ‘This is used for sperm collection prior to artificial insemination. Of course, this sort of unit went out of production a few decades ago, but we found two and spruced them up a little.’ She smiles. The air around her seems to turns slightly smoky. ‘They were a holdover even then. Cowboys became far, far too intelligent to continue collection by hand.’
Banks drops his tube. It also doesn’t break. ‘By – hand?’
‘Why, yes,’ Daphne says, her eyes sparkling. ‘We have twenty bulls in that pen. Each of you will pick a number between one and twenty. Your matching bull will then be led out into the pen. Believe me, with the hormones we’ve been pumping into them, they’ll be ready for your attention. All you have to do is maneuver the artificial vagina into position and – collect the sperm.’ She smiles widely. For some reason, the camera makes it look as if the edges of her lips reach back to her ears. ‘The one who manages to collect the most fluid wins the second contest.’
Banks and Luciano look slightly pale. Jackie looks to be somewhere beyond concerned. ‘But what if Luciano gets hurt?’ she asks, clearly on the edge of panic.
‘No one will be very surprised,’ Daphne snarls. ‘Pity we don’t have any of our female contestants left: this takes a gentle touch. Of course, one or both of our men may have a hidden skill. Both of you! A number from one to twenty, inclusive! Now!’
Caught by surprise, Banks yelps out ‘Seven!’
Luciano blinks and says ‘Ten!’
‘That’s probably revealing in some way,’ Daphne briefly muses. ‘All right, Banks, you’re going first. We’ll wait until they clear the pen, and then they’ll bring out number seven.’
Number Seven turns out to be a black Angus of considerable bulk. The horns are fairly short, although someone seems to have ground the ends down to fine points for no apparent reason. It barely seems to notice the men leading it into the pen, preferring to sniff the air and toss its head. Its eyes are glazed, and it’s clear that this particular bull is on the verge of hallucinating cows wherever it looks.
‘Well, go ahead, Banks!’ Daphne encourages him. ‘Go ahead and assist in the act of reproduction. There’s a first time for everything, isn’t there?’
Banks gives Daphne a dirty look, then removes his tube from a nearby small table, picking it up by the water-free solid end, and enters the pen. The men guiding the bull leave, and the rodeo clown is nowhere in sight. Banks appears to be on his own.
The bull sniffs the air a few times as Banks approaches, and a large blur becomes evident on the Angus’ underside during certain camera angles. In an inset closet confessional, Luciano admits ‘It was one of those shock and awe moments.’
Banks seems to be favoring shock, with occasional glances towards awe. ‘Nice blur – bull…’ he mutters. ‘Nice bull…’ The bull tosses its head again, but doesn’t show much interest in Banks beyond that. He’s clearly not a cow, after all, and the bull has a distinct focus at the moment. If anything, it seems more interested in what’s directly behind Banks, perhaps hopeful that he’s leading a partner into the pen. It may also be hallucinating the same thing.
Slowly, carefully, Banks approaches the bull, which continues to show some lack of direct interest in the matter. Once he reaches its side, he gets down to his knees and very cautiously edges the tube towards the edge of the blur. The camera momentarily switches to Jackie and Luciano, both of whom are holding their breath. Daphne is nowhere in evidence.
The tube makes contact with the blur. The bull twitches slightly, and the blur seems to extend in volume. Banks hesitates – then seems to make a decision, and slides the tube completely over the blur.
The bull roars, bawling at the top of its lungs as it rears onto its hind legs, tossing its body from side to side in what seems to be a desperate attempt to get the tube off. Banks recoils from the display of anger, falling backwards and catching himself on his hands. He crab-scuttles a few feet out of the way while the bull throws itself left and right to no avail: the tube is still firmly in place over the blur.
Banks chooses the better part of animal husbandry and gets to his feet, clearly about to make a run for the fence. Unfortunately, that’s when the pained bull momentarily regains all four feet and a moment of logic. The human brought the tube, therefore, the human is at fault, therefore, some sharing of pain seems to be called for. It roars again, lowers its horns, and charges.
According to the time bar at the bottom of the screen, Banks comes within .047 seconds of the current world record for the hundred-yard dash, and that includes the time consumed in a six-foot vertical leap over the fence. The bull, too angry to stop, crashes into the fence as Banks lands on the other side and keeps going – but the wood holds, and the bull crashes to the ground for a moment before getting up again and resuming its previous frantic attempts to get the tube off using nothing remotely resembling hands.
Banks slowly peels himself off the haystack he went into face-first and rejoins the others, who have identical looks of horror on their faces. ‘What happened?’ he asks Luciano. ‘I wasn’t rough or anything!’
Luciano looks equally confused. ‘I have no idea,’ he admits. ‘I was watching the whole time, and it looked like you were doing everything right…’
Jackie points towards the pen. ‘Look at the handlers!’ They’re busy with some expert roping. It only takes a few edited seconds to immobilize the bull and get the tube off, after which the animal lies on the ground and makes soft whimpering sounds.
The trio watches as the lead handler brings it over, carrying it open-end up. He doesn’t look all that happy. ‘What were you trying to do there?’
‘…get a sperm sample?’ Banks submits.
The ranch hand isn’t buying it. ‘With a scalding sampler?’ He thrusts the water-filled side of the tube against Banks hand.
Banks recoils. ‘That’s hot!’
‘Of course it’s hot!’ the ranch hand yells. ‘It’s been sitting out in the sun for whatever amount of time passed between you people arriving here and us getting the first bull ready for you. What did you think was going to happen to it! That poor bull… he’s going to have to find a new interest in life for a while.’ Luciano looks distinctly green. ‘You did get five CCs, if you can stand to claim them. Must have been the temperature-pressure drop.’ Banks, looking sincerely apologetic, takes custody of the tube.
As the ranch hands carry the bull out on a jumbo stretcher, the words ‘No animals were permanently harmed in the making of this reality series beyond our ability to correct by switching it with another animal of similar appearance’ scroll across the bottom of the screen, followed by ‘Animal rights: FOX cares. We’re named after an animal, you know.’
The ranch hands bring out Number Ten, who turns out to be a rich red Devon of outstanding size and uncertain temperament: he’s hardly happy with the presence of the handlers, and tries to take a few gouges out of them while they’re escorting him in. They’re quick enough to stay out of his way, and clear the pen with indecent haste once he’s completely inside.
Jackie turns to Luciano, desperation in her eyes. ‘Luciano, don’t go in there,’ she pleads. ‘I couldn’t stand it if something happened to you. Don’t go!’
Banks fervently nods. ‘Look,’ he tells his fellow contestant, ‘I’ll forfeit this round. You could get really hurt here. You’re bulkier than I am, you don’t have as much speed and you’ve got more mass to move in the first place. I don’t think you can clear that fence.’
Luciano looks grim. ‘Sorry,’ he tells both of them. ‘A man has to do what a man has to do.’ He breaks free of Jackie’s clutches and heads over to the water trough, then dunks the tube into it several times before moving into the pen. The camera doesn’t follow him. Instead, it stays with Banks and Jackie, whose open concern for Luciano leads them into a tight embrace, eyes fixed on the pen.
The camera oddly continues to stay right where it is, so our only indicators of how Luciano’s doing are aural – and those are hard to work with. There’s quiet, careful footsteps, ‘kuss-kush’ vocalizations, a few bovine snorts, some sliding sounds, and then some very deep, rhythmic moos followed by a deep exhalation and a major snort.
Finally, the camera swings to show Luciano returning, holding the tube with the open end up. There’s a significant amount of fluid at the bottom and a distinctly satisfied expression on his face. ‘Male empathy,’ Luciano says. ‘There’s nothing quite like that universal brotherhood. Now let’s get this wrapped up before the process server from the Herriot estate shows up.’
Jackie’s face flushes with admiration or something along those general lines, and the ranch hands measure Luciano’s collection. As it turns out, he’s gotten thirty-two CCs, completely trumping Banks and getting the second point all to himself. The trio moves out as the men clink the tubes together in a toast, and we go to commercial.
When we return, the position of the sun indicates that it’s sometime after noon. The men are standing next to a fence, watching horses playfully chase each other around an exercise yard.
‘This is a game,’ Luciano says, looking off into the air. ‘And it’s time I started playing this game. There can only be one winner.’
Banks frowns. ‘What?’
Luciano blinks, then actually blushes. ‘I just felt like I should say that,’ he confesses. ‘I don’t know what came over me.’
Banks slowly nods. ‘I feel like I should be talking about alliances, and I don’t know why…’
‘It’s called ‘End Approach Syndrome’,’ Daphne calls out from her place on the fence post between them. ‘You’ll get over it.’ She hops down. Several toxic mushrooms have sprouted from her perch. ‘Final contest for the prize, boys: a chance to see Daphne’s parents, which I’m sure will make a real impression. And just to remind you, Luciano leads, one and a half to a half. Jackie won’t be joining us for this one, though. She’s convinced we’re out to hurt you and she doesn’t want to see it.’ A slow, slow smile spreads across her face, once again seeming to reach her oddly-pointed ears.
‘Gee, Daphne,’ Banks sarcastically replies, ‘I have no idea where she could have gotten that impression.’
‘Shut up, Banks,’ Daphne suggests. ‘You of all people should be thrilled with this one. It’s what you’ve been asking for all along.’ She gestures, pointing behind them. The men turn and find – guns. From the look of them, they’re antique Colt .45 six-shooters.
‘Of course, they’re not real guns,’ Daphne adds, perhaps a little too quickly, as Banks already has his hand on the left one. ‘We’re still not stupid enough to give you that. They may look extremely authentic, . but the only thing they fire is balls of paint. The final contest is a good old-fashioned Western showdown. The two of you stand back to back, march off twenty paces away from each other, turn, and fire a full round. If necessary, we’ll repeat this until one of you hits the other. Should you both score hits, the one whose shooting would have been more lethal will be the winner. Banks, you need this to tie. Luciano, it would give you a clean win. You both understand?’ They nod. ‘Take your positions.’
The men stand back to back. Daphne returns to the fence post and raises both arms. More mushrooms sprout on the decaying wood to both sides. ‘When I drop my right arm, count off twenty paces,’ she says. ‘When I drop the left, turn and fire. The mirrors at the end of the course will allow you to see the second signal.’ They both nod again, and Daphne drops her right arm. Banks and Luciano tip their hats slightly to shade their eyes, then march off twenty paces. Eerie, overused, copyright-expired showdown music plays on the soundtrack.
Daphne drops her left arm.
As one, Luciano and Banks spin, draw, target, and unload their revolvers directly at Daphne.
There’s no time for the host to do anything, and the men’s targeting is dead-on: twelve paintballs explode against Daphne’s torso, limbs, and face. She shrieks and falls backwards off the fencepost as bright pink and soft lavender splotches decorate her body, the paint seeming to bubble as it makes contact with her skin.
Before she can hit the grass, the camera moves back to show Banks blowing imaginary smoke out of his gun’s barrel. ‘I’ve been waiting to do that for six episodes,’ he tells Luciano, who just laughs. ‘So which of us got the more lethal hit?’
Luciano, still laughing, says ‘Well, going from memory – we can’t check her –‘ and in fact, Daphne is no longer lying on the grass, or anywhere in evidence at all ‘— you got her once in the forehead and twice in the heart. I mostly got her legs.’
Banks nods. ‘I’m not sure the heart shots count, though. It is Daphne.’
Luciano agrees. ‘Still, she has to think with something – I think your head shot did it. The point goes to you.’
Banks smiles, looking very satisfied. ‘So we tie – now what?’
Apparently someone’s listening, because a hidden loudspeaker crackles to life. ‘Banks and Luciano, please report to the living room to share the final reward.’
The men look at each other. Banks shrugs. ‘So it’s fair after all,’ he says – then lightly elbows Luciano in the arm. ‘No problem, right?’
‘I don’t mind,’ Luciano admits, and they start walking. ‘Let’s go see the folks.’
The camera moves to the ranch’s living room, apparently shooting from the back: the doorway is the current focus. Luciano enters first, verbally shooting from the hip. ‘It’s a pleasure to meet –‘ he opens – and stops.
Banks follows him in, having to squeeze past Luciano’s unmoving form. ‘Could you move a little – oh.’
The camera swings around. The far wall has a 4*6’ picture of Jackie’s parents on it. They look like very nice people.
Banks and Luciano stand in place looking at it for a while, then turn to each other, say ‘FOX,’ at the same time, and leave the room as Daphne’s laughter resounds throughout the ranch, broken up by occasional fits of coughing. (Replays showed two of Luciano’s hits taking her in the stomach.)
Commercials, and we return for the final time at night. Jackie’s approaching the barn, wearing a long-sleeved, very conservative Western-styled blue and white gingham dress. Her expression can best be described as a mixture between happiness and chill: it seems to be a fairly cold night, with occasional puffs of breath visible.
‘Made it,’ she tells the camera as she heads towards her final cut-down ceremony. ‘Excepting the brief interruption of the twist –‘ her face momentarily clouds, and she whispers something that may have been ‘Jamie…’ ‘— I’ve been able to follow my game plan all the way from the beginning of the series to the end.’ She stops and faces the camera directly. ‘Honestly, my biggest worry was some sort of swap-out twist: bring a few new men in at the same time you took randomly took others out. Or a ‘Some of them are actually married’ twist. Anything that shook up the stakes beyond the original straight-or-gay bit.’ She smiles a little. ‘But – I won. I picked the one man I knew couldn’t be gay – the most masculine man of them all – and I kept him around until the end. And now we’re going to get half a million dollars each, and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it.’ The smile becomes larger, pretty, and very sincere before Jackie resumes her walk to the barn.
The camera, shooting in narrow focus, shows Banks waiting on the haystack before moving to cover Jackie’s entrance. Daphne doesn’t seem to be around, but that doesn’t mean much at this point. Jackie smiles at Banks, who briefly tips the brim of his hat in response – then looks around, her smile fading into confusion. ‘So where’s Luciano?’ she asks.
The next shot shows the entire Elimination Haystack. Luciano is nowhere in sight.
Banks shrugs, looking honestly lost for ideas. ‘No clue,’ he tells her. ‘I got here an hour ago. They wanted to get some expression shots to edit in later. I’ve been going through my facial exercises the whole time. Minimizes wrinkles, you know.’
Jackie distractedly nods. ‘Well, this is when we’re supposed to start, and the cameras are rolling…’ She glances behind her. No Luciano. ‘I can’t make the last cut without both of you here.’
Banks nods back, looking resigned. ‘Let’s just wait it out.’ Jackie leans against a support column.
According to the time bar at the bottom of the screen, forty minutes pass.
Finally, Banks is caught looking at the entrance. Still no Luciano. ‘This isn’t like him,’ he mutters.
‘Do you think something happened to him?’ Jackie asks, starting to sound a little frightened.
‘Luciano?’ Banks forces a laugh. ‘What could possibly happen to Luciano?’
Their eyes lock on each other just before they simultaneously scream ‘Daphne!’
Banks is off the haystack in a flash and out of the barn a second later, running for the ranch. Jackie is right beside him, easily keeping pace.
The ranch is dark as they approach it: all the lights have been turned off to save on FOX’s electric bill. The only illumination comes from the single light on the lone camera to follow them back, and it’s only picking up things in a small circle. Jackie and Banks edge closer together as they come up to the front door, both for safety and to make sure they stay in frame at all times. ‘Do you really think she would have done something?’ Jackie whispers.
‘Definitely,’ Banks murmurs. ‘She wasn’t too happy about the shootout to start with, and if she found out Luciano charmed the production coordinator long enough to swap schedules…’ He carefully opens the door, which produces the necessary dramatic creak.
The ranch’s interior is dark, and apparently full of the desert’s evening chill: Jackie is shivering. ‘I don’t like this…’
‘I’m sure he’s okay,’ Banks reassures her. ‘He could take her if she didn’t catch him by surprise.’
There’s another glance of mutual horror, and they head upstairs for Luciano’s room, the camera showing the way, moving slowly and carefully, watching all the shadowed areas, and completely lacking the common sense to turn on a light.
Halfway along the final corridor, they freeze. ‘Do you hear that?’ Jackie whispers, and there is something to hear. It almost sounds like someone’s in pain somewhere down the hall. Or it could be the wind, which has started to blow through an open window next to Banks.
Banks carefully closes the window. The sounds of possible-pain continue.
Banks turns to face Jackie. ‘It’s coming from his room,’ he whispers, and Jackie looks horrified. ‘We’ll rush in together. She can’t stop both of us as long as we don’t make direct physical contact.’ Jackie nods and follows Banks’ example, pulling her sleeves over her hands to provide a temporary shield. ‘Ready on three. One, two, three –‘
They both race down the corridor. Jackie, showing an amazing turn of speed, reaches Luciano’s door first and shoulders it out of the way. The camera is hard-pressed to keep up, and falls behind Banks as Jackie is heard crying out in relief. ‘Luciano!’ From the sound of her voice, he would seem to be perfectly fine.
Unfortunately, this is followed by a long moment of complete silence before Jackie softly says ‘Luciano, what are you doing?’
The camera catches up, looks over Banks’ right shoulder, and shows us what Luciano’s doing. Sort of. Luciano is more or less a giant blur from the middle of his chest down. The little of his lower body that isn’t covered by blur makes it appear as if he’s sprouted a Siamese twin – one which just happens to look like the stagehand he was1 kissing in the previous episode. Both of the unblurred heads look shocked.
Luciano recoils. The blur splits in two as the stagehand rolls off the bed, then goes singular when he scrambles under it for safety, leaving Luciano alone on top of the bed. ‘Jackie,’ he starts, warmth and sincerity flooding his voice, ‘I can explain this.’
The camera turns to show Jackie – who’s very, very slowly shaking her head. ‘No, Luciano,’ she whispers. ‘This one, you can’t.’
‘Jackie –‘ Luciano tries again.
Jackie slams her fist into the door frame, which cracks like the cheap plywood set it is. ‘NO!’ she screams, and Luciano recoils again, his back and blur against the headboard. At the top of her lungs, ‘So before you go, I have to know, are you straight or are you gay!?!’
Luciano slumps and withers in several senses, part of the blur moving inward. ‘Gay,’ he mutters. ‘Gay. Fine. Gay. If you’re not going to listen to me, gay.’ He lifts the comforter from the bed and wraps it around himself, dissipating the blur. ‘Just because I lost track of time, gay. If FOX hadn’t been too cheap to put a clock in here…’ He stands up, gathers the comforter like a cloak, and moves between Jackie and Banks, leaving the room.
‘Ummm…’ comes from under the bed. ‘Can I go?’
‘No,’ Jackie says, and turns to Banks, her face etched in misery. ‘I guess this means – Banks? Are you okay?’ For Banks is crying, fat tears of depression streaming down his cheeks, his shoulders heaving as he tries to suppress the sobs.
‘Luciano,’ he gets out between heaves of misery. ‘He promised! He promised me he’d wait for me…!’
Jackie’s face settles into the placidity of deep shock.
Very slowly, she says the words for the final time. ‘Banks – before you go, I have to know: are you straight or are you gay?’
‘I used to be straight,’ Banks sobs. ‘But he made it sound so appealing!’
Jackie softly sighs and leaves the room.
The camera follows her down to the porch, where someone’s finally had the sense to turn on a light. She sits down on the top step and gazes out at the approach path for a while.
Finally, Daphne says ‘Well, that’s it.’ The camera shows her leaning against the door frame, which is slowly starting to warp.
Jackie manages another small sigh. ‘I guess no one gets the money, right?’ She doesn’t look back at Daphne.
Daphne nods. ‘Technically, you sent them all home. That means you didn’t chose any of them, so – no one gets the money.’
Jackie gets off a light shrug. ‘That’ll make FOX happy, I guess.’ She continues to gaze at the path. A pair of dim lights are visible in the distance.
‘Probably,’ Daphne admits, her breath invisible in the chill. ‘But not as much as the sequel.’
‘Sequel?’ Jackie bitterly laughs. ‘You’re going to do this to some other poor woman?’
‘Of course,’ Daphne lightly says. ‘It starts filming tomorrow. But I won’t be hosting. They wanted a male for this one, ironically enough. I hear Ryan Seacrest was available again. It won’t be like this one, though.’
‘So what’s this one?’ Jackie asks, still bitter. ‘Twelve gay guys and no chance at all?’ The lights are definitely getting closer.
‘No,’ Daphne replies. ‘One gay girl looking for love among six lesbians and five straight girls. Or six lesbians, five straights, and one potentially bi-curious – if you wish.’
Jackie turns to look at Daphne, her eyes filled with an oddly appealing mixture of confusion and wonder. ‘…what are you saying?’
‘I’m saying our higher-ups thought Jamie had major camera time potential’, Daphne tells her. ‘We asked her if she wanted to be a star three minutes after she cleared the barn. She’s willing to try anything if it might get her a date, so – game on.’ She smiles. ‘I held a slot open for you, just in case this didn’t work out. Only if you’re interested, of course.’
A very familiar-looking bus pulls up to the porch.
Jackie slowly stands up, still facing Daphne – then softly says ‘I’ll be the first one out.’
Daphne shakes her head. ‘No, we told her what happened and showed her the film from that day. She knows you never found out about the new money split, and she’ll give you the same chance she gives the others – if you get on that bus.’
Jackie looks at Daphne, trying to read her expressionless face – then looks at the bus – and finally shrugs, just once. ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ she teasingly asks, smiles, and steps off the porch. The bus doors hiss open, and Jackie skips up the steps. Our last sight of her is her face in the bus window, looking both scared and somehow hopeful.
And the final shot is of Daphne, still leaning against what’s left of the door frame, smiling quietly to herself.
‘As master plans go,’ the host tells us, ‘it’s got a few kinks in it. Still…’ Her left hand executes a finger snap. ‘One down, three billion to go.’ The right hand follows suit – and Daphne is no longer there. There’s just an empty porch, a decayed door frame –
-- and the sound of Luciano’s voice ringing through the Nevada night. ‘Okay, who took my sample tube? I was going to keep that!’
(The preceding was a work of complete and utter lies, also known as ‘fiction’. Any resemblance to the actual people and events of Episode #6 is really somewhere beyond unlikely at this point, not to mention purely coincidental. ‘twas a spoof, and nothing more. Not, never was, and likely never will be a flying toy.)