They could hear the hostage-takers’ black boots pounding on the staircase.
“And let’s confront these fakers, too,” Connor added.
“Are we willing to risk this?” Grace said, cringing with fear. “I mean, what if it’s real?”
“Let’s find out right now,” Connor said. He motioned for everyone to gather near the door as the men in black ran down the hallway.
Sure enough, there was a cameraman trailing them.
“Wait, which way do we go?” one of the men asked. “Left or right?”
“Cut!” the cameraman yelled. “Take two. That was a terrible shot.”
Suddenly, they heard girlish screams.
“Don’t kidnap me!” Kallista Kardeza was yelling. “Oh please, don’t— “
She burst out laughing.
“Sorry, guys,” Kallista said. “This is so cheesy.”
“Wow,” Elise said. “It is staged.”
“As staged as Kallista’s sex tape,” Connor said. “My mom directed the whole thing.”
“Ew!” Jackie and Grace said in unison.
“Alright, they’re not getting away with this,” Jimmy said. He swung the door wide open, hitting one of the hostage-takers.
“Hey,” he said. “So where do you keep the costumes?”
He stopped dead in his tracks.
“Come on, man, we all know this isn’t real,” Jimmy said. “I thought it would be the perfect revenge, to take scandalous photos of reality stars and sell them. But after this week, I realized that nobody cares. They don’t care if these are the sleaziest, most immoral people on the planet. In fact, it makes people idolize them more.”
“So now I have a different plan,” he said. “We’re going to show everyone that it’s fake.”
The hostage-taker’s shoulders sank, and he looked down sheepishly. “You caught me,” he said. “How much trouble am I in?”
“If you tell us where you got those costumes, none at all,” Jay replied.
“They’re upstairs in the penthouse,” he said.
Jimmy turned to the rest of the group. “Everyone grab a camera,” he said.
He tossed a camera to Elise. “You can have Paul’s,” he said.
“Alright, everyone to the penthouse suite,” Jimmy said. “Grab a ski mask and a black outfit. We’re taking these people down.”
“We’re taking Paul’s boat. Hurry!” Jimmy shouted. “The longer we take, the better chance they have of getting away with this stunt and convince everyone it’s real.”
He turned to Elise. “You said you’re a journalist, right?”
“I wanted to be one,” Elise said.
“Well, are you ready to be one today?” Jimmy asked. “I’ll drive the boat; I’m trusting you to document everything.”
Elise nodded as they ran down the beach, feeling a resolve she had never felt before. “You can trust me,” she replied.
They jumped into the boat, trying to distribute their weight so it wouldn’t tip. The wind was picking up, and raindrops started to hammer on the surface of the ocean. Big, gray waves started to churn in the ocean.
“Is this safe?” Grace asked, then fell quiet. They all agreed that they were going to do this even if their physical safety was at risk.
“We have lifejackets,” Jimmy said with a shrug. “Jackie, I want you to stay behind.” He tossed her his house keys as she opened her mouth to protest.
“For the baby,” he added, staring into her eyes. Then he gathered her into a tight hug, then kissed her on the lips as she stepped out of the boat.
“You know,” Jackie said. “Like Jay said, I thought the best revenge was taking humiliating pictures of these celebrity wannabes. But exposing the network is so much better.”
She touched Elise on the shoulder. “Don’t forget about me,” she said.
“I won’t,” Elise said . “Good luck with everything, Jackie.”
Jimmy put the keys into the boat’s ignition. “I’ll drive,” Jimmy said. “Everyone, hold on tight.”
The engine started with a loud whir, and the boat tore out across the ocean. They were tossed side to side by the waves.
Jimmy pointed ahead. The masked actors pretending to be terrorists were circling around on jetskis. Through the fog and waves, Elise could see a yacht tossing in the waves.
“That’s the yacht where they’re pretending to hold the Kardezas hostage,” Jimmy said. “I’m going to pull up close to it. Elise, you man the camera. Grace, you do backup for her. Zoom in on these fakers and get as many pictures as you can.”
“Won’t they try to stop us?” Grace asked.
“In these outfits? We blend in with the rest of the cast and crew of this five-star production,” Jimmy said. Even as they were being rollicked back and forth by the mighty, angry Atlantic, they all laughed. “This will be the first time America has ever watched a terrorist attack in HD.”
“Okay, we’re getting closer,” Jimmy said. “Get ready. And don’t worry, those cameras are water-resistant.”
Jimmy pulled the boat up alongside the yacht. Sure enough, a camera crew was on the deck, directing the Kardeza family’s every move.
“I’m so, so scared,” they heard Kandi wailing.
“Take two,” the cameraman said. “Can you say it a little louder? I can’t hear you over the wind.”
“She definitely won’t be getting an Academy Award for that performance,” Connor said.
“And people wonder why you want nothing to do with this sorry bunch,” Jimmy said. “I’d rather be part of the Manson family.”
Elise grasped the side of the boat, trying to see onto the deck of the yacht. She held the camera with one hand, alternating between snapping pictures and taking short videos.
She saw Carson sitting on the yacht with the Kardeza sisters. They were sipping bubbly drinks from champagne flutes.
“Cheers, bitches!” Carson toasted. “This is the start of my awesome new life with the most awesome family on the planet.”
“Yeah, and without LeRoy or the tub o’ lard,” Kallista said, and they all laughed. “Or that goody two-shoes friend of yours, Lisa or whoever. God, Car, how did you get stuck dragging her along?”
There was a loud whirring noise on the horizon.
“Army helicopters!” Jimmy exclaimed. “They’ve convinced the U.S. military that this whole thing is real. You know, and not another publicity stunt to get more air time, money, and attention.”
“Well, we’re about to show the world the truth,” Grace said.
One of the hostage-takers whipped around to face them. “Hey, who is that?” he asked, pointing to the boat. “That ugly-ass boat isn’t part of the plan!”
Kandi Kardeza jumped up. “Hey, that’s the pathetic girl who almost made it onto Kadence’s new show. Look at the blonde hair underneath the mask!” She leaned over to holler at some of the men on jetskis. “Get them out of here at once!”
The rain and wind was picking up, and Elise lost her footing. She held the camera high into the air as waves sloshed over the side of the boat.
“Elise!” Grace screamed, trying to grab her hand.
But it was too late. The camera clanged into the bottom of the boat as Elise hurtled overboard into the cold water. It knocked the wind out of her as she crashed.
A jetski circled around her, and a faux-terrorist in a black ski mask swept her up from the freezing cold water. “Grab my hand!” he told her.
“Excuse me, what the fuck are you doing?” Kandi shrieked. “She’s ruining everything for us.”
The terrorist tore off his ski mask.
“Sorry, Kandi, but this is what happens when you roll with unbelievably greedy people,” Paul said. “It’s easy to bribe them into giving you their costumes and jet skis. By the way, those helicopters in the sky are here because I turned you in. The Kardeza family is under arrest.”
Esmeralda Island was evacuated that night. The entire Right Now resort closed as a massive investigation got underway. They even tried to get the locals to leave, although most steadfastly refused to go.
“It’s our island,” a local told a cable news anchor. “Good riddance. That network can go, and take them Kardezas with them.”
The guests were ferried to hotels in Jacksonville. Panicked relatives had flown in after hearing about the terrorist attack.
“Or should we say ‘terrorist’ attack?” Elise’s brother, Eric, said as she ran up to hug him. Elise’s parents were standing there with him.
“I’m so proud of you, Elise,” Mom said as she gathered her in her arms. “I’m so glad you exposed those Kardezas and the horrific fraud they tried to pull on this country. It’s despicable.”
“I’m glad it’s over,” Elise said, feeling drained. Now that the mind-numbing horror of the day was over, all she wanted to do was sleep.
Regular news was cast aside for wall-to-wall coverage of the situation in Florida. Instead of a terrorist attack perpetrated by foreign terrorists, it was looking more like an inside job staged by the Right Now Network. Kandi Kardeza, her family and staff, and executives at the network were in police custody, being questioned. Two members of the family were already under arrest for cocaine possession, along with an acquaintance, Carson Vana.
“And now, we’d like to show our viewers some footage captured at the scene,” the reporter on the TV said.
There were the shocking pictures of the Kardezas. Drinking, laughing, and filming multiple takes on their yacht.
As for who had caught them in the act? The reporter gave the credit to an aspiring journalist from Michigan University. Her name was Elise Apple.
It was the end of fall color season as Elise was driving north on I-75, into the pine forests of Northern Michigan.
A few months earlier, she got a letter in the mail, with a return address in Pine City. It was from Paul Kilcher, but not the one she knew--it was from the man known throughout Pine City as Coach Kilcher.
In the letter, he told Elise his story.
He was born on an Indian reservation, at least, as far as he knew. He was adopted by a Christian minister and his wife. At age eighteen, he joined the military. It was there that he learned to never take victory--or life itself--for granted.
And when he came home, God did just that. He also gave him two daughters and two sons--Allison, Beth, Paul, and Wade. He and his wife felt pressured to give Wade away. They almost did, until Paul reminded them they shouldn’t give a shit what anyone thought.
He spent two years trying to find Paul after he ran away. The police told them that since he was over eighteen, there was nothing they could do to bring him home. But he always knew he would find him one day. Sure as he was that the wind would keep blowing and the sun would rise in the morning.
But when he got cancer, he knew it was a race against time. He had to track down his son before his time on Earth ran out.
In the meantime, he found out what happened to Wade. After a newspaper ran an article on the anniversary of his death, the Kilchers got a phone call. It was a man living in Northeast Michigan, in the desolate forest around Alpena.
“I’m one of those no-good bums who did time in Jackson prison for robbery and drugs,” he said. “One night, a rainy fall night about ten years ago, I was on my motorcycle and came across a kid sitting on a park bench. I don’t remember exactly where. There was a bar nearby, a short distance from a bar on the Michigan University campus. I stopped and asked him what he was doing, and he told me he was waiting for his big brother. I figured he was lost, and I could do a good deed by taking him to the police station. You know, just to make up for all the bad things I done. He hopped on the back of my bike. At one point, I pulled over to the side of the road to check on him and adjust his helmet. A twenty-dollar bill blew out of my pocket. I looked away for a second, and suddenly I heard a huge crash, the sound of bones breaking. He’d been slammed by a huge SUV doing ninety in the slow lane. It didn’t even stop. There was no doubt he was dead. I chased the SUV up the highway, trying to get the license plate number, but it was going too fast. I figured no one would believe me, so I let it go. But I never forgot.”
But Coach Kilcher believed him, and so did Elise. She knew because over the summer, she got a call from Carson.
“So, I’m in this twelve step program, and part of it is apologizing…”
“Making amends?” Elise asked.
“Yeah. So I wanted to apologize for how I treated you on Spring Break,” she replied. “My problems started back when I was in seventh grade. My mom was driving us to our vacation home in Traverse City in her Escalade to see the fall colors. She hit something hard. At first we thought it was a piece of furniture in the road. But I knew it was—get this—a person. My mom wouldn’t even stop. She pulled over at a gas station and called her lawyer. She said ‘Don’t worry, Carson. We’ll take care of this little problem.’”
“Messed up, right?” Carson asked. “Maybe that’s why I’m messed up.”
“Carson, I understand,” Elise said. “Are you going to Grace and Connor’s wedding?”
After a whirlwind romance, Connor and Grace had gotten engaged in August.
“She’s having me as a bridesmaid!” Carson said, sounding happy in a way that was genuine. “You know, I’m glad to have her as a sister. I hope we can all be friends.”
Elise knew that she meant it.
Paul’s dad had made it to the Fourth of July. By that time, Paul had moved home to spend his last weeks with him.
Now Pine City High School had two memorials in the grassy yard beyond the football stadium. One was to Wade Kilcher, the Pine City football team’s most loyal fan. Next to it was a flower wreath and a dedication to a former head coach who knew there was more to life than winning.
In his final months, Coach Kilcher got a visit from a man limping on a set of crutches. It was Mike.
He told Coach Kilcher about how he had almost drank to death and gotten in an accident. After he had passed out in the bar again, he came home one night to find his wife and kids gone. A note on the table read, “I’m done.”
He ran off in his car with a suicide note taped to the dashboard. As he sped down a country road, he saw a baby deer and swerved. He hit a tree and and passed out in a pool of blood. He wept alone in his car, thinking that as big of a failure as he was, at least he hadn’t killed the baby deer. When he woke up, he saw a gentle figure standing over him.
“Are you ready to stop living like this, Mike?” he said.
In his delirious state, Mike thought he recognized him. “Wade?” he said. “You’re all grown up now.”
That was the last thing he remembered before waking up in a hospital. The doctor said, “Your wife is here, and she’s ready to forgive you. But only if you get help.”
No one had to wonder any more what Mike’s problem was. At the scene of the accident, they’d found the source of his suffering for all these years: a smashed bottle of Wild Turkey.
“After that, I promised to stop being like my father,” he said, looking at the ground.
“You can be whoever you want to be,” Coach Kilcher replied. “Don’t let anyone cast you in a role, Mike.”
He died a few days later as Paul held his hand.
“Tell Wade I miss him when you get to heaven,” Paul whispered to him.
Now it was late fall. After the expose on the Kardezas went public, Elise got a job as an investigative reporter at the Informed Citizens Network. It was a nonprofit network that covered politics and national news. Elise had even testified before Congress about the evils of reality TV. They talked about making it illegal to put reality stars in danger for their own purposes.
Jimmy quit his job at Right Now and was planning to pursue a career making documentaries. His first one would be an expose of reality TV—all the staged scenes, all the ruined lives. His and Jackie’s baby girl was born that fall. They named her after Jackie’s mother.
It was late fall now, and she was pulling off the state route and into the winding roads into Missaukee County. It was the end of football season in Pine City, and the downtown was decorated in the colors of Pine City High School. As she drove down the main drag, a young boy stepped into the crosswalk. She slammed on the breaks, just as an older boy grabbed him by the arm and pulled him backward.
“Wow, thank my guardian angel,” Elise said. Then she thought of Wade Kilcher and smiled.
She pulled into the Christmas tree farm. Paul had taken his money from Right Now and bought it back. It was a beautiful, sprawling forest. It would soon be filled with happy families coming to chop down Christmas trees.
Paul came outside as Elise pulled in. He was wearing a flannel shirt and jeans, looking like the kind-hearted country boy that he was.
“I’ve been waiting months for this,” he said, as they walked hand-in-hand up the winding path to his house. “Are you ready to meet the whole family?” It included his mom and sisters, as well as the aunts, uncles, and cousins he had left behind eight years ago. But who had welcomed him home as if he’d never been gone.
“Me too,” she said. “Did you interview for the coaching job at the high school?”
“Yeah, but I’ve decided teaching is more up my alley,” Paul said. “Either way, I need a day job. I’m not putting all my eggs in the celebrity basket.”
When he came home, he’d started a country band with some of his high school friends called the Pine City Boys. Ace Galentino had signed them to his record label. They were in the middle of recording their first album.
“I’m lucky I can work from anywhere,” Elise said. “I can’t wait for Christmastime. Only four more weeks til we can go to Bronner’s in Frankenmuth!”
“Just think, this is the week you were supposed to start filming Skinterns in L.A.,” Paul said with a laugh. “Do you ever wish you could live that way, the way you did for that week on Esmeralda Island?”
“No,” Elise said. “I’d rather be here with you.”
And she meant it, in the very depths of her soul. She wouldn’t trade the glittering lights of Los Angeles for being here, walking with Paul beneath the colorful leaves and soaring pines in the little town where he grew up.
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