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Darla at the Edge of the World: A Group Writing Project

Group Writing 1

About the Authors

1 Sam Markum, California, March 1, 2015

Ruben Stemple, Washington, D.C., March 9, 2015

Hannah Froggatt, Warwick, UK, March 16, 2015

4 A.C. Garber, Olympia, WA, March 24, 2015

5 Rob Rosen, Murfreesboro, TN, April 6, 2015

Brett Melcher, Portland, OR, April 13, 2015

7 A.C. Garber, Olympia, WA, April 20, 2015

 

About Dually Noted

Dually Noted is TBL’s exciting group-writing project. New and established writers from around the world come together to create one ongoing story through weekly installments. If you would like to add the next section, shoot us your 500-word addition by Friday night. Our editor will publish the best submission at the beginning of each week.

Darla at the Edge of the World

by the Tethered by Letters Writing Community

My hands shake as my safety belt is checked and re-checked. I would have never classified myself as acrophobic before, but up this high, peeking down at the life bustling a great distance below me, I suddenly feel as though it might be a new development. This isn’t the first time I’ve stood this high, but it’s the first time it’s inspired the sweat blooming under my arms and my wildly accelerated heartbeat.

Although, it’s possible it’s the idea of falling to my death from a great height rather than the height itself that I find terrifying. My safety belt isn’t quite as comforting a presence as I’d hoped it would be when I agreed to this.

“Has anyone mentioned yet that this seems like a terrible idea?”

I glance over my shoulder at Aprilmay, who looks like she might upchuck the entirety of what she’s eaten today—which admittedly, thanks to her nerves, hasn’t been much at all.

“Once or twice or three thousand times since you woke up this morning,” Phaedre grunts as she adjusts her own safety belt.

“I didn’t wake up this morning,” Aprilmay huffs, a cloud of smoke escaping her mouth. She stubs her cigarette out on the ledge and tosses it over. “I didn’t even go to sleep last night.”

“Awesome. You haven’t slept, and you haven’t eaten. So basically all you’ve done today is chainsmoke and get on my nerves. Such a contribution you’re making to the team here.” Phaedre gives a slow clap.

Aprilmay looks like she might strangle her, if only she could get close enough to the edge of the roof to reach Phaedre at all. As it is, she remains a safe distance away from us, like she’s terrified she’ll get tangled in our lines and go down with us.

“You’re awfully quiet,” I call to Remy. She’s perched on a folding chair, computer in her lap.

“Just making sure I’m ready when you fall.” She gives a thumbs-up, but not once does she lift her eyes from the screen in front of her.

I don’t like the way she says “fall.” Like this is out of our control. Like we’re not even jumping at all.

It’s dark up on the roof, but the city below is bright. I consider all the things that brought us here, that brought us together to begin with. The man with the pipe, the Penelope, one night in Nantucket, that disgusting bathroom at the bar in Cape Cod, and now this—the rooftop in Boston, where it all ends and begins.

Phaedre climbs up onto the ledge and reaches down to take my hand as I crawl up beside her. I’m only slightly comforted by the fact that her palms are as sweaty as mine.

“Deep breath, Darla,” Phaedre whispers to me. Then she turns her back to the world, opens her arms, and lets herself fall.

I count to three and dive after her.1

* * *

BASE jumping. It doesn’t sound like it should be difficult. Base is supposed to be where you’re safe. We learn from an early age that being “on base” means you can’t get tagged. Later, we talk about first base, second base, and third base in pre-teen code for stuff we never did but wanted people to think we had. Even in sports, if you’re on base, you’re safe. But this, BASE jumping—this was fucking insane.

Some of the people I’ve met over the past two days class it as a sport. I’m not convinced. At best, it’s a one-second sport followed by five seconds of uncertain survival, then a night in jail. Normally, my response to something like this would be “Fuck off.” But I was under contract and there wasn’t anything I could do. Fear sells.

They say your life flashes before your eyes in the moments before death. My life was flashing again. It always seemed boring up until three months ago. It started like many bad decisions: too much flavored vodka and a conversation with someone dangerous.

“So, you’re really a recruiter for ‘The Edge of the World’?” The memory was clear, but in reality I was drunk and probably slurring.

“Yes, and we pay extremely well.”

“OK, sure, but do your people really…you know…?”

“Die?”

“You say it like it’s no big deal.”

“It IS a big deal. It’s a big money deal. It’s what the public wants.” He puffed on that sweet-smelling pipe, oblivious to the non-smoking laws. Proof that with enough money you can do whatever you want.

That part of the conversation came back to me every time I watched Phaedre scream. She’s been the star of the show for almost a year. The light of my camera flashed on her face as the side of the building slipped by. I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d be the last person she saw.

“Nobody wants to see people die.”

“Really? You mean you don’t watch?”

“Well, yeah.” I admitted. “But your videos are everywhere. I mean, your revenue is as much as some countries. Forbes says you stream more content per month than YouTube.”

“Ah, you’re a smart girl. You’re just what we’re looking for.”

“Bullshit. You’re just trying to get me to go home with you.” I looked around for my coworkers. They were in their usual twenty-something clique over by the bar talking to some muscle-bound meatheads and slurping free booze. “Why don’t you try your line on one of the younger girls?”

“Girls like that don’t show enough emotion on camera. They’re all about screaming and flashing their tits.” He chuckled a little. “We sell adventure, not porn.”

“Yeah, I’m a thirty-something divorced accountant on a business trip. I’m not adventure, or porn. Besides, you already have Phaedre.”

Her name echoed through my head as I watched her descent, a silent prayer. Two seconds in. Our parachutes were set to open within my next heartbeat.2

The moment stretched. The cold burned. My eyes seared and all I could hear was the ragged roar of my own descent as I knifed through the thin white air.

I’m not sure what I truly saw at this point and what my poor frightened brain imagined at the time, but my memories from then on are as sharp as cut glass.

Phaedre’s parachute blossomed below. The logo of Edge of the World rushed up to meet me and disappeared almost immediately.

I saw Phaedre’s face for a moment as I fell. Her expression creased from relief to horror as I plummeted past her, and I realized that we both knew I would die.

I know I could not have really seen her face at that juncture, not at that distance and not at that speed, but it burned itself into my mind so clearly. I have never forgotten it.

Seeing her face was what brought me to my senses and sent me fumbling for my cord. My fingers were stiff and weak but somehow I managed to force the elastic down and I felt my pack explode behind me.

There was a loud crack and my belt bit my stomach. I buckled as the parachute burst open.

Relief surged through me as my speed dropped to a drift. My entire body went limp as I floated safely through the morning sky.

I was too buzzed on survival to take in much of the view, but I saw snatches of pink horizon and black sea, mile after mile of snow-crusted forest, and a flat red beach unfurling before me, spreading like a stain across the fast-approaching ground.

The wind buffeted me forward, and soft brown sand swam into focus as I sank another twenty feet.

At the last second I remembered to ready my landing fall.

I’d watched a hundred videos of the landing fall. I knew all about the landing fall. But in that delirious moment any thoughts of the goddamned landing fall had been driven from my mind. There was only one thing I wanted to do. I stretched my feet forward as far as they’d go.

At last. My toes had touched base.

I hit the ground and stumbled. Shockwaves pulsed through the soles of my feet up my jelly-boned body. The parachute was still full and wide behind me and momentarily buoyed by a blast of wind. I felt it take my weight as it nearly lifted me aloft again, but I was still running full pelt along the sandy shore. A wave rushed the beach and doused my feet in foam. Jesus, it felt good to be alive!

Finally, the parachute deflated and I was able to slow my pace. I began to jog, then walk. My feet felt like they’d been repeatedly slapped, but apart from that I felt okay. Better that okay, in fact, since I was drunk on adrenaline and all my muscles were orgasming at once.

I turned to watch for Phaedre’s touchdown, dopey grin plastered arose my big stupid face.

It immediately disappeared when I saw the crumpled heap of woman and canvas, tangled and unmoving in a spreading pool of blood.3

I spent an hour sitting on the back of an ambulance, desperately cradling a cup of coffee for warmth. The big-budget network sprang for an elaborate beach set in the middle of Boston, but they couldn’t manage to change the weather under budget. At the edges of the set, I could still see the snow in plowed heaps, informally quarantining the set from the real world.

Convenient, beautiful lies; spectacles for the entertainment of the masses.

The police had been on the scene for a while, and I could see a detective giving a makeshift press conference nearby. One reporter and her crew came back closer to the scene, probably angling for the most dramatic shot they could muster. She told the world in the camera that authorities were investigating the possibility of foul play. Apparently, stating the obvious passed for news these days.

“Let’s get you home,” a young man with a flat cap said, extending a hand to help me up. He had “Edge of the World” embroidered on his breast pocket. I looked at the swarming masses of reporters.

“Is there a back way?” I asked as we walked.

He nodded, and lifted up a corner of the snowy mountain backdrop surrounding the set, revealing a nondescript town car waiting on the side of an unremarkable Boston street.

*          *          *

The two empty boxes of cereal told me it had probably been a few days. The milk had been gone for a while. I hadn’t really slept since it happened; there were just periods of time that faded in and out.

I plugged in my cell phone, the battery long since drained. When I turned it on, I was greeted with chirping reminders of the time I had missed. I had a dozen missed calls from a restricted number. I scanned the news, my first information in a few days. The police had already concluded Phaedre’s death was an accident. Some cords had become crossed, one of many risks in such a dangerous activity. The article went on to say Edge of the World had released a statement, expressing my sympathy for Phaedre and her family. The rest was filler: how the show hadn’t seen a death in three seasons; how Season 2’s death had been an unfortunate side effect of falling, instead of running, with the bulls; how videos and pictures of the last episode had set records as the most-searched, outpacing celebrity nipple-slips and cat pictures.

I jumped when the phone rang, “Restricted” appearing again on my phone.

“Darla, thank goodness! We were all worried about you! I was going to send someone over, but I wanted to give you some time.”

I jumped as I recognized the voice. The memory was so strong, I could feel his pipe smoke filling my nostrils.

“We’re sorry about what happened. Phaedre had a good run—she lived a life of fame, excitement, and luxury the average person could only dream of living.”

“It’s what you sell,” I said without thinking, a bite in my voice. The words crawled out of my throat. I realized I hadn’t spoken in days.

“True, true,” the man replied without pause or guilt. “She was one of a kind. But the show must go on. Phaedre really took a liking to you. I know this is what she would have wanted.”

He paused. “What is what she would have wanted?”4

“For you to replace her, of course.”

I couldn’t speak. I didn’t feel broken anymore. I just felt disgust, anger. I’d never been great at making friends, and the older I’d gotten, the harder it had been. Phaedre was…had been…the first real friend I’d made in a decade, the only real friend I still had. To take her place, to just move on as if nothing happened…it was unthinkable.

I knew what happened. I saw Phaedre’s face. This wasn’t an accident, an “equipment malfunction.” This was planned. This was murder.

“Ratings are through the roof right now. I know it’s hard to move on, but we need to start thinking about the next season. This could really turn out for the show.”

I don’t know what surprised me more: the fact that he was already thinking about the new season, or that he wasn’t asking me to film the last episode of this one. Then again, he knew all along that Phaedre wouldn’t make it past the jump. The marketing surge, the previews, the in-show hype—it had all led up to that jump, and Phaedre’s fall. The sick bastard would probably just play the episode again, or hold a memorial for the highest ratings yet.

Darla the accountant would have cried, called the police, acted hysterical. But it wouldn’t help. I saw the news reports. They’d already gotten away with it. He’d already gotten away with it. But he wouldn’t get away from me.

“Dennis,” I said in my most sincere and thoughtful tone, “Phaedre’s loss is immeasurable, both to her friends and family, and to the show. Although I could never take her place, I feel it is my duty to carry on her legacy.”

Brilliant!…Mind if we use that for the promo?”

“Of course, whatever is good for the show.” I nearly choked on my own words. “But I think you and I should meet, just the two of us, privately. You know how word gets out, and I don’t want people to think we aren’t mourning our loss.”

“Of course,” Dennis’ oily voice replied, “good thinking. Tomorrow, my office on the top floor, come around 8pm by the service entrance.”

“I’ll see you then,” I said as I hung up the phone. “And never again.”

I sat on my bed and ran my hand across the cold metal barrel. Perhaps it was irony. The studio gave me a gun to protect myself, after my apartment had been broken into while I was away on a shoot. I didn’t want it, but the studio rep told me I needed to protect myself, now that I was famous. I slid the pistol in my coat pocket. It wasn’t me that needed protecting now.5

*        *          *

It was 7:50pm when I arrived. His secretary must have gone for the evening, with the door unlocked, probably for the cleaning crew I passed on my way up. I let myself in.

I knew what I had to do, knew that I was the only person who could stop him, stop this. I couldn’t refuse. They’d just find someone else. I thought of Michael, the bulls trampling his body. I thought of Phaedre’s face, as she plummeted ahead of me. How many more Michaels, more Phaedres, would it take to stop this?

“None,” I muttered. Dennis wasn’t in the office, so I decided to take a look around, see what other filthy secrets he had hidden in his desk. The old me wouldn’t have dreamed of doing that, afraid of getting caught. But I was long past fear. My mind was never clearer.

The desk looked polished and expensive. But like its owner, that was deceptive. The side drawers were sealed shut, as if the wood was welded to the desk. Clearly Dennis was not one to be bogged down in files and paperwork.

But the center drawer opened, the inside of the drawer unfinished wood. Alone in the middle of the drawer sat a revolver. Apparently Dennis was not a trusting man. The cylinder was fully loaded, and I slid the revolver into my purse. I couldn’t help but smile.

I returned to the other side of the desk and waited. I didn’t need to wait long.

“Darla,” Dennis gave me a hug, as if we were close friends. He rounded the desk, and sat in the chair. “I know this is a difficult time, and you probably feel a little guilty about taking over for Phaedre. But it was her choice.” He nodded thoughtfully, as if feeling the pain of her loss. “And I have something to show you that I think will put your mind at ease.” He started to stand up, looking toward a side door in the office.

He knew. He probably saw the gun missing. Had I left the drawer open? Or perhaps he could tell, or he felt the gun when he hugged me. It didn’t matter. He wasn’t going anywhere.

I pulled my hand from my pocket and felt the gun jerk in my hands before I realized I’d pulled the trigger. I didn’t even remember aiming. But it didn’t matter. The blood burst from his chest, down and to the left. The sound of the shot echoed in my ears.

The side door flew open. “What was…Darla?! What have you done?!” A woman ran into the room, straight at Dennis’ slumped body.

I’d meant to shoot him, for justice to be done, to save the next corpse he’d planned after me. He was a vile man; I felt no remorse. But my blood drained when I saw a dead woman enter the room.

“Quick, call for help! CALL SOMEONE!” The woman screamed at me.

“Phaedre, you’re dead.”6

I stated it aloud, matter of fact. I was beyond emotion, my body shutting down everything but cold, hard logic.

“…of course I’m not! It’s television, you idiot! But you shot him! If we don’t get help, he’s going to…” Phaedre noticed the pool of blood, travelling from under the desk across the hardwood floor. Her head fell in realization. “…he’s dead.”

I should have been in hysterics. All I could think was that the floor must not be level, the blood moving so quickly. It surprised me. You’d think they’d do a better job for the office of such an important man.

I heard more movement outside the door. “DROP THE WEAPON!” The officer boomed, as his companions fanned the room. “PUT THE GUN DOWN!”

I looked down and realized I was still holding the pistol. I let it drop to the floor. I put my hands on my head, trying to remember if that was the right thing to do, or if I had just seen it on TV. The line just seemed to blur.

AND…CUT!” The voice, Dennis’ voice, echoed across the room. He stood up from his chair, looking down at his shirt, distastefully. “Can someone get me a towel?! Where the hell is my assistant?”

A mousy young woman entered the room, towel and water bottle in hand. “Sorry, sir!”

Dennis talked past her, calmly extending his hand, waiting for the water to appear. “Darla, you can put your hands down now. The show’s over.”

“Wha…what?” It was all I could manage.

“The show is over! Come now, girl, don’t go simple on me now.”

“I don’t understand. I…” I turned to Phaedre, who now sipped on a Starbucks coffee and was checking texts on a cell phone, an equally non-descript young man standing nearby. She looked up.

Darla,” she began, as if addressing a child, “the show is over…Dennis, was she not in on it?!” Phaedra laughed, turning back to Darla. “I…wow. I thought you’d figured it out like halfway through the season. That’s why I liked you. I mean, I pretended to like you for the show. But I thought you were…well, you weren’t clueless.”

Dennis smiled. “We went all in this time, Phaedre. No faking. After Paul started getting loose-lipped in the media, we had to pay him off and stage the bull thing. We couldn’t risk a leak again, not for the series finale!” Dennis turned back to me.

“You, darling, were perfect! Time and money well spent! We had our best profilers searching for you for over a year. Thousands of you at first, of course—thirty- to forty-year-old women, with unremarkable jobs. We knew that was our weak demographic. The men…” Dennis chuckled, “we knew we had them with a bit of gore and a flash of cleavage. All ages.” He looked over at Phaedre, who plumped her breasts up from over her shirt in response, a smirk on her face.

“But…how? I never applied to be on your show? I just randomly met you in a bar.”

Oh my dear.” Dennis exchanged a parental smile with Phaedre. “We don’t need you to fill out an application! Facebook, twitter, event tags, on-line book clubs, your Amazon likes. I knew you before we met, knew you’d be perfect. You post when people should be going out, when your friends were spending family time. The books you read—desperate for excitement, a human connection, but always with a hint of danger and justice for all. Oh, you were ready. Desperate for a friend,” Dennis waved his hand to Phaedre, “and willing to take matters to their full conclusion,” and then pointed to his red-stained chest. “Money well spent—we couldn’t risk picking someone that couldn’t pull the trigger. Not for the series finale of the most popular show in history!”

“…so it was all fake?” I asked, my head swimming.

“Of course! The deaths, the hype, the police behind you, your gun, this set,” Dennis kicked at the wall, producing a hollow sound. “It’s all entertainment! That’s all that matters; that’s all life is. There’s no halfway with what we do! Always give the audience what they want.”

I looked around. A year ago, my life felt empty—lonely, pointless, monotonous. I suppose it always had been. Edge of the World had made me feel alive for the first time. I’d seen things, experienced things, done things that changed me. I didn’t want to go back to being Darla the divorced accountant anymore. The press had christened me “Dangerous Darla” after the African Safari. She was meaningful, relevant, beloved, a celebrity.

“So everything is fake? The room, the desk, the gun in your desk drawer?”

“Yes, all of it, everything…” Dennis suddenly looked up, his speech quickening, “wait…the gun in my desk drawer? That’s just in case things went…how did you know there was…” His arm reached over quickly and pulled open drawer.

But Dangerous Darla knew the drawer was empty, as she slid her hand into her purse. “There’s no halfway, Dennis. We have to give the audience what they want.” She turned back around, eyeing the crew. “Turn that camera back on.”7

The End!

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