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Where's Reba?

(3,109 words)

You haven’t heard from Reba in a few days, and you’re starting to worry. You were supposed to go out to lunch at Macho’s. It was a third-party restaurant, but you’re sure it didn’t violate either of your non-competes.

Reba normally tells you these things. She’s good about that, but you haven’t heard from her—by phone, by email. She hasn’t even posted anything on her channels for days. It’s not like her.

“I mean, she probably just got cast in something,” says your old friend Lulu, who belongs to Way-o. Her dad once worked the lighting rig on one of their productions, which makes her the self-declared Industry Expert. She has the ironed straight hair you see on every lead right now. “I’ve heard there’s been talent scouts around lately. You don’t have to worry about it. You’re just Clarmont, and, like . . . you’re more of a podcast kind of person? But oh, can you imagine? That lucky bitch!”

You remember why you don’t talk to Lulu that much.

But there are rumors. Your mom asks you not to go out to any of the big public places. She lost a sister to the big studios. You remind her it’s fine. Clarmont’s casting season’s in a few weeks anyway, and you’re ten pounds too heavy to look good on camera.

“But remember your aunt Aisha.”

No one remembers Aunt Aisha. They remember Misha May, though. She was a beautiful action star, with layered hair and screaming dark eyes. She paraded across your screens, committing daring jungle rescues in nothing more than slacks and a little bikini top, for five whole seasons. Everyone wonders why she never did more.

The talent scouts pick up Lulu a few days later. It wasn’t a particularly hard sting. After she heard about it, she made sure to order the prettiest-looking health shake to drink in the prettiest cafe every morning for a week straight. She hadn’t eaten anything else for days. Her mom called your mom, crying.

“They got her,” Lulu’s mother sobbed. “They said they like how she holds a cup of coffee. She’s going to be an extra. I’m never going to see her again!”

Then they hit her with a DMCA, and she couldn’t cry about it anymore. You don’t question how they knew she’d talked about it. Way-o owns most of the mobile carriers these days. Clarmont only owns two.

* * *

You know you ought to stop thinking about Reba, but you liked Reba. She always answered your texts about any old thing. Reba talked with you until 2 AM about books that had nothing to do with any of the current series. She looked like she rolled out of an ad for a hip clothing line, but she stuck with you while you wrote a 20,000-word novella and helped you post it on the dark web. Reba sent you pictures of her paintings. Crazy, colorful abstract art that always had a stag hidden somewhere in it.

Reba belonged to Lumina, an overseas studio. It’s one of the smaller studios. Her family moved here because the studio was trying to move their productions somewhere more efficient. Mostly they do art house films, one drug company, some middle-income residential complexes, and a few restaurant chains. You check on their website for any upcoming projects, but the casts for those have been announced. You check all their social media, but they’re all about boosting movies that have wrapped and encouraging people to get their flu shots. You even check if there’s been casting calls at the complexes, but you know people aren’t allowed to talk about those.

You run all your searches at the local library, with a pile of books around the computer to hide your face from the corner camera. You don’t want to get a call from your reps about why you’re going off-brand.

* * *

You put on makeup to go to the parties you never used to bother with. You’re still on a few invite lists. Reba’s friends are mostly Lulu’s friends. Cool, well-dressed, hungry people who love to talk about art and TV. You’ve never liked them, but they know what’s on.

“Hey, aren’t you related to Misha May?” Tommy is an up-and-coming indie musician who’s just been cleared to post mixes to his personal accounts. Reba used to do his album covers.

“Yeah,” you admit, even if it sends a prickle down your back to remember. “She was my aunt Aisha.”

“Aisha? Well, whatever. That’s so cool. You know, with a narrower face, I bet they’d cast you in, like, a reboot or something. Er, not that you don’t look great.”

You laugh, weakly. “Thanks,” you say, like you didn’t weigh yourself in the morning to make sure you were still well over their weight restrictions. “You seen Reba around?”

Tommy’s smile gets a little shaky at one corner. “Nah,” he says, eyes darting sideways to the music player, which has a two-way open channel. “She’s probably off doing her thing. You know how she gets when there’s a project. Oh, man. Did you hear about Lulu?”

Everyone’s heard about Lulu, but they all want to talk about it again. How lucky, what an opportunity, when they think the project will be announced, do you think they need anyone else?

Tommy catches you on your way out, offering your coat.

“Hey,” he says. “Be careful out there, okay? Don’t worry too much about, uh, her. You might . . .”

His eyes travel to the automatic lock on his door.

“It’s kind of a downer, you know?”

You have a feeling Tommy’s not going to invite you to his next roof party.

* * *

You hear there’s a filming out by Riverway. Production name “Project Duckie.” You go check it out. It’s hard to tell from the cars what studio’s running it, but the equipment’s expensive, and the security is armed. There’s a gap under one of the bridges you can get to from a wrecked wall in a nearby playground. You squeeze your way through and wander through the half-finished drainage tunnel. You only see feet. You don’t see any faces.

“Stand here. Okay. Now to the left. Okay. Can we get makeup back in here? One eye looks a little bigger than the other.”

“The doctor already fixed it.”

“We need to fix it more. Get her back into surgery tomorrow.”

You think you hear footsteps from the other end of the tunnel. You run back the way you came, scraping your knee as you crawl back up the wall.

By the time you get home, you find out your carrier has remotely wiped your phone.

“Enjoy a free upgrade!” it tells you, happily. Your phone runs better than it ever has. You’ve been given more bandwidth and fifty-six new photo filters. All your stored photos are gone. You check your Cloud storage—they’re gone there, too. Including the last ones you had of Reba when you went to Tommy’s show. Including the hike you went on for her last birthday. You never remembered to print any of them out. People don’t really do stuff like that anymore.

Which is why, angry and not thinking, you log on to a device you bought from a vending machine, find the official Lumina social media account, and leave a simple message:


You expect to be blocked. You expect to be ignored. You don’t expect a different account to respond:

Wait and see :)

You check the account. @ProjectDuckie, no profile picture. The only account listed as a friend is a Way-o marketing consultant.

When your rideshare takes an unexpected detour after work, its AI cheerfully informing you it’s found a faster route, the first thing you think is, “Welp. Here we go.”

* * *

They take you to an office on the fortieth floor, with a view of the bay. Multiple LED screens overhead show ads for Way-o's upcoming fall season. An assistant brings in a sushi platter and some energy shakes.

A man in an ironic waistcoat with very carefully aligned teeth smiles as he puts his feet up across from you. His name is Brenton Woods. He’s a Way-o VP, and he’s been waiting for you.

“I heard you like sushi,” he says. He’s read your order history.

“My carrier’s Clarmont,” you say, like the studios don’t all sell data to each other.

The smile gets straighter and brighter. “Details,” he says. “You’re a regular Mini May, you know that? You should have one of our shakes. They’re great for your gut health.”

Weight, he means. You don’t touch anything. You just sit forward with your hands between your knees. You don’t say anything. You just wait. When he realizes he’s not going to have the prescribed small talk, the man’s eyes harden.

“First thing’s first,” he says. “You gave us one hell of a tagline. ‘Where’s Reba?’ That’s good. We’d love to get the permissions from you.”

“Who says I’ll give it?”

He checks his phone. “Clarmont, about ten minutes ago. Your mom’ll finally be able to get that home upgrade she’s needed.”

“Mom’s fine where she is.”

“She’ll come around.” The man sits forward. The lights from the screens dance in his flat, dark eyes. “What’s worrying you?”

You look him in the eyes and knot your hands together as you ask: “Where’s Reba?”

He leans back and whistles. “You look so much like your aunt when you’re direct. Did you ever see that one episode with the animal trainer and the—” Your hands tighten. “Well, never mind that. Look, if that’s all this is, Reba’s fine. Reba’s better than fine. You’ll see how fine she is soon.”

“Then where is she?”

“Right about now?” He checks his phone. “On set. Probably in makeup. The pilot’s getting great reviews, by the way. You’ll really love it. It’s totally your thing.”

“Can I talk to her?”

“Of course you can. Of course you will. We just haven’t announced anything yet. You know how NDAs are. Everything’s all . . .” He gestures like he’s sewing his lips shut. “Hush, hush. But if it helps—and I really hope it does—we really like Reba. We’re taking good care of Reba. We like our talent happy.”

“Does she actually want to be there?”

“Who wouldn’t want to be a star?”

“I don’t know,” you say, shaking now. “Ask my aunt Aisha.”

You know he can’t.

He sighs. “Look, Mini May, the studio can’t claim any responsibility for that, but just between you and me? We’re real sad about what happened to Misha. But it won’t be like that. Reba’s got a good head on her shoulders—”

“My aunt was pre-med.”

“Well,” the man chuckles. “You know what they say about doctors.”

You don’t know what they say about doctors. You stare him down. Brenton Wood’s laugh trickles off. The teeth vanish. He taps a few things into his phone.

“Reba’s what the world needs right now,” he says. “She’s young. Spontaneous. Arty. Great representation. We’d hate to see her go.”

His eyes rake over you, top to bottom.

“But nostalgia’s always a big pull,” he says, thoughtfully. “The upcoming schedule isn't completely locked in. How do you feel about CrossFit?”

He gives you a long, tense moment, and then, as if he hadn’t requested the call a minute ago, his phone goes off. He pretends to be surprised. He pretends to be apologetic. Then, he turns to give you the news you were waiting for: it’s production. Reba’s out of makeup. She wants to talk to you while the crew sets up.

“I’ll give you some privacy,” he says, setting the phone in the dock in the center of the glass table. The click sounds a little like the cartridge of a gun.

* * *

They don’t give you visuals. You’re not cleared for anything like that.

“Hey,” says a painfully familiar voice through the pretty wallpaper. She sounds tired and stressed. “Hey, Aye-aye. That really you?”

Aye-aye is your name in her contacts. Anyone with access to her phone could find that. “Maybe,” you say. “They’re calling me Minnie right now. That really you?”

You know how well they can edit voices. You know how well they can edit faces. Your aunt did three more seasons after the funeral.

No one asked "Where’s Aisha?" No one knew Aisha existed. Everyone knew where Misha May was—on their screen, every Thursday at 9.

“Sure as silver,” answers Reba—and your heart falls straight down into your stomach with a terrible cold splash. You remember handing her the handwritten notebook under the table, so the cafe cameras couldn’t scan it. Sure Silver. It was the title of your first novella. It’s her. It’s really her—and you wish it wasn’t. “Sorry about worrying you. You know how it goes. How you been?”

“Oh, you know. Going stag,” you say, because it was always a treat to find them in her paintings. “You see the latest season of Lollygaggers?” Did they let her? Sometimes extras are given a little more leeway to the outside world.

“Oh, god, no. I’m so behind.” She hadn’t. Shit. She’s a lead. “Don’t spoil me. I’ll catch up soon.”

Don’t do this, she meant. Don’t try to do it.

“Like I’d watch it without you.”

“I wouldn’t mind. You could watch it with your mom.”

Mom hasn’t watched anything for years and you both know it.

“Mom and I don’t really have the same tastes,” you say. “Besides, it’s more fun when it’s you.”

“Aye-aye,” says Reba, a little desperate. “Wait for the next season.”

“Like I have the patience.”

“Aye-aye,” says Reba, sounding like she’s almost in tears. “Please don’t.”

You stare at the phone, helplessly. You force yourself to laugh.

“Gee, Reba,” you say. “What do you take me for? I don’t even ask the rideshares to go over 50.”

“Thank you,” she says. “I have to go now. Talk to you later.”

“Talk to you later,” you say, tonelessly. The connection cuts out. You wonder if you’ll ever get to hear her again. Maybe through texts. Maybe she’ll even get to say something unedited.

Brenton Wood comes back in all smiles as he collects his phone. See? That wasn’t so bad. Everything’s just fine. Have a free pass to the next season. Don’t worry about signing anything right now. If we need you for anything, we’ll just call.

* * *

Tommy actually invites you to his next viewing party. You’re surprised. You thought you’d be on the outs.

“I’m glad you came. It’s good to see you,” he says. He looks a little guilty when he takes your coat. He leads you to his amazing new screen set up. It’s still got the branding taped to the remote. Suddenly, you’re not really wondering about how Way-o picked you up so fast.

It’s Banjo’s big season premiere. You all gather in front of the screen. Everyone talks excitedly.

“Think she’ll get any lines?”

“Depends. Think she got her guild card?”

“Oh man, oh man, oh man.”

Lulu’s in the third sponsorship scene, after the lead steps into a car. The camera pans to a group of people drinking studio approved sodas and there she is, with a bottle in hand. At least, you think it’s her. Her face is turned away. Her hair’s short and blonde, but everyone swears it’s her. They scream and grab each other. Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.

The scene cuts to black. Everyone goes quiet. It’s trailer time. Everyone loves trailers. They talk about them almost as much as season premieres.

White text appears on the screen: WHERE’S RIKA?

You almost crush your soda can.

“Ohhh,” says someone in front of you. “I think I heard about this one.”

The series is called Swan Lakes. It’s a murder mystery. Someone turned up dead in the bay, and it’s up to a brooding young woman to find out why. She walks down a lonely park path that partygoers happily identify as downtown Riverway. She wears jeans and a faux leather jacket, loads a gun, looks angry, and ducks behind a lot of flashing glass doors.

“Have I seen her in anything? I feel like I’ve seen her in something.”

“Dunno. She do anything before? Check the press release.”

“Says here her name is . . . Ashley King?”

“No, it’s not,” you say, slowly. You put your drink down to keep from throwing it at them. “That’s Reba.”

An awkward silence fills the room. Someone rewinds the trailer. You watch her glare at the camera all over again. Her hair’s different. Her face is thinner, her nose is straighter, and her eyes are smaller than they used to be, but when she says, “Where’s Rika? Where the hell is Rika?” there’s no mistaking the husky catch in her voice.

The next trailer starts. It’s a Lollygaggers teaser that was leaked a week ago. You sit in silence.

“Uh, woah. Yeah, it was.”

“Crap. That’s what they grabbed her for?”

And then, inevitably:

“Reba’s made it big!”

“That is so cool!”

“We know a real celebrity.”

You meet Tommy’s eyes across the room. You bite the inside of your cheek. You get up and grab your coat. He tails you, asking if you want a rideshare, asking if you want to take any leftovers.

“Are you sure? I got a lot. It’s great.”

“I’m good.”

“C’mon, let me call a car. We can watch another episode while we wait.”

“I’m good, Tommy.”

You leave. You’re fine, you say. You’ll walk.

Then you kick over a garbage can. You shove your knuckles in your mouth to keep from yelling. You sink down to the curb, under the glare of the apartment logos. You think about throwing your phone as far as it will go. But you take one look at all those shining, digital billboards, all the blinking ads and upcoming shows, and you know it won’t go far enough—not where you are right now.

You chuck your phone into the garbage can instead. You tear the branding off of your bags and shoes. You leave your jacket hooked over a fence five blocks down. They might figure out where you’re going. There are talent scouts everywhere. It never takes them very long.

But still, you walk into the night, alone and unbranded. Wherever you go from here, you decide then and there: You won’t make it easy for them to find you.

Alex T. Singer is the author of the webcomic Sfeer Theory and graphic novel Small Town Witch. Her recent short story, "Nothing But The Gods On Their Backs," ran in Metaphorosis Magazine.

Radon Journal Issue 6 cover art
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