TV Heads

Austin R. Pick
Watch Us Watch Us

Short fiction first published in Pleiades: a Journal of New Writing, Winter 2013

Rob and Jodi's favorite commercial is on again. Filling the screen, a desperate suburban wife beseeches a young dad in plaid, her face twisted in the unmistakable contortions of domestic distress, that classic infomercial grimace lamenting a tiresome, yucky but ultimately necessary chore that awaits the intervention of some inventive new gadget.

The chore is unspecified, but the wife has on cartoonish yellow rubber cleaning gloves, and she's practically limp with exasperation. Doesn't she actually stick out her tongue? She does. Rob and Jodi are already grinning at the TV. There's a whole series of these ads, but this one is definitely their favorite. It's obviously not a real infomercial—the production values are too high, the scene too stylized, the dramatic voiceover too dramatic.

No mess too distressing, no spill too depressing, it's Pookie, to the rescue! Music climaxing, the pet name bursts from behind the husband in a penumbra of pinwheeling light, letters ballooning in full superhero splendor. Chin thrust forward, the husband is never shown cleaning anything, and the special solution or whatever isn't actually seen. Instead he proudly parts his flannel to reveal a t-shirt's centered logo, camera advancing while a perfunctory voice intones the company name and brand trademarks in rapid legalese.

As if on cue Rob and Jodi both loll their heads to look at each other from their stations on opposite ends of the couch, brightening as their gazes collide. "Pookie," she mouths blissfully, pupils big and glassy beneath heavy lids, hair falling into her face. Rob grins serenely as he watches her head jellyfish around toward the TV again. She's got a tank top on over a pair of old green track shorts, a little tight and riding high, and he marvels at how good she always looks without even trying. Jodi is tickled that their favorite ad has come on while they're waiting. What's the word for that, she wonders briefly, when it's not just coincidence?

Sitting low on the couch with her feet up beside her, laptop open and wedged in a wide 'v' between her slim belly and thighs, Jodi updates her status, impulsively hitting the ‘Blurt' button and instantly broadcasting the message to hundreds of friends before she can correct her spelling: "Pookie and I will be on channel 64 in FIVE minhtes!" She makes a farting noise with the corner of her mouth and rapidly Bleats in response to her own Blurt: "Blergatroid! Why don't they have spell-check on here?"

Two friends "lol" almost immediately, then Rob Bleats "lhl." Jerk! Jodi nudges at him with her foot, misses, peripherally sees him reach to grab his beer, and briefly wonders where her own is. Rob's ball cap is pulled low, hair fringing out boyishly underneath, his TV-glazed stare masking the slightest "I didn't do it" smirk. Jodi contemplates nabbing his hat, which she likes to wear anyway, but is quickly sucked in again by her laptop. More friends are Bleating back about the upcoming debut in a tumbling cascade of responses, including a few ReBlurts and a bunch of comments about the ad itself, friends quoting other versions, substituting variant endearments, giving Jodi girlie winks with inventive punctuation.

Jodi updates again, typing "Watch us watch us!" and adding another link to her blog. She wishes she'd already started her webcam's live feed and caught the ‘Pookie' moment they just shared, but they only just finished taking a bunch of hits in quick succession, and the room is still pretty hazy, the couch draped in a languid gauze of smoke.

Rob is half-watching the next commercial, a multiethnic parade of dancing people celebrating discount furniture, and ruminating on the vaguely insidious quality of the ‘Pookie' ad, how people across the land have probably just shared that same moment, couples smiling sweetly while the screen beams, injecting brand affinity into an artificially intimate context.

But no, he thinks, it's more than that: the image itself, of the heroic husband, is what's actually being sold. He feels vaguely suckered, yet also begrudgingly flattered, even though he's only a boyfriend. What was it they were they advertising again? A special sponge or something? Rob can never remember. He shuffles a finger across the screen of his tablet, looking for the search window, but then sees he's got a flurry of incoming text messages, his smartphone abuzz and beckoning from the cluttered coffee table. Already juggling his tablet and a beer, he senses that crucial decisions must be made.

Stretching out to practice the angle on her laptop's webcam, Jodi is careful not to tip the creamy blown-glass bubbler resting on the table. Perversely, though, she wants to nudge it with at least a toe, knowing that the delicate little tree of ash, still poised and bud-shaped in the bowl, will collapse in a creamy gray-black smear at the faintest touch. Stoned and already feeling giggly, but focused for the moment on getting everything set up, she angles the laptop to test if the webcam will capture both her and Rob together in the frame.

On TV the discount furniture spot is followed by one of those long car commercials composed entirely of a silken voice stalking a single vehicle as it glides silently down rain-slicked streets, alone in the empty bedroom of a city or a mountain canyon, reflections slipping from the tinted windows on all sides. Rob barely registers the ad, seen only around the edges of his tablet, until an odd sense of recognition blooms suddenly and he realizes that this must be the one he saw being filmed downtown, outside the office window where he's currently working. Another wide shot of the cityscape, and he's actually pretty sure.

"Car commercial on. Saw this one being filmed, from work five stories up, at the corner of Farnsworth and 23rd. Must be it!" he Blurts, typing squidily with a single hand on the upheld tablet's on-screen keyboard, a skill he's gotten rather good at, even or perhaps especially when stoned. "Took them like 8 hours to make a half-minute ad. The crew's lunch was catered right there on the sidewalk, I tried to sneak a sandwich." Friends are Liking and Bleating back, co-workers chiming in.

Rob and the rest of the small tech department had watched the filming from their office windows, hoping it was for the blog-worthy new robot movie being filmed in town at the time. Eventually accepting that it was just a car commercial—unless it was actually a robot car, as one guy insisted—they'd all been surprised by the large crew needed for such an apparently uncomplicated shoot, with a scorpion-like black camera car and artificial rain being simulated over the entire intersection by a tanker truck and a 12-story boom crane.

Rob finds it a little eerie to see the commercial now, thinking that in some very real though intangible sense he's actually in there, observationally participating in the instance of creation, high in an unseen window, just off camera. "My brainwaves make a cameo in this shot," he Blurts, imagining one of those cartoon villains pressing fingers to their temples and emanating beams of multi-colored mental energy. Wow, he thinks, watching the tablet burble with giddy Bleats and finally succumbing to a brief paroxysm of textbook stoner laughter, this is some good shit we're smoking. Thinking also, with an electric tremor of realization, that he is actually going to be on there, on television, any minute now.

Next to him on the couch, separated by a lingering fog of webby pot smoke, Jodi's got her feet up on the littered edge of the coffee table and is balancing the laptop on her outstretched legs, making faces at her webcam and giggling madly, cracking herself up with various combinations of crossed eyes, waggling tongue, fingers in nostrils, the whole routine. She's totally forgotten to test the angle or even check to see if the live feed is actually "on" yet, and when this suddenly occurs to her she doubles over, startled, her nose an inch from the screen. Seeing that the feed is in fact "off," she topples back in a fresh fit of relieved laughter, snorting loudly and almost dropping her machine.

The car on the commercial has been driving around for just about forever, Jodi is sure, and she clicks back over and is about to Blurt something about it when the ad abruptly ends. There's no leasing rigmarole, just a hallowed logo, sleek and solitary, in stark relief against a shot of dark streets. That's downtown somewhere, she thinks fleetingly. And then there on TV, in the next instant, is a momentary image of Meredith, sobbing into her hands. The screen goes black, text advancing in a retro computer font: They live their lives online, it reads.

Jodi freezes in mid-motion, fingers splayed limply over her keyboard, eyes inhaling every detail of this brief preview for the upcoming show, their show, the show they are about to appear on for the first time. There's a procession of quick clips: Meredith again, in the throes of a desperate tantrum; Blaise wandering among fallen leaves; Jillian blowing a big kiss and fluttering her lashes for the camera; Kohei grinning tentatively at a slant-eyed goat. Jodi is completely inert, her mind interlaced with fractured, successive memories of those moments and this newly unfolding two-dimensional present, waiting to see if they'll show a shot of her or Rob, amazed this is really happening.

Rob, she can sense distantly, is also captivated, staring mutely at the screen from down on the other end of the couch. He seems really far away somehow, the two of them afloat on this broad plush raft, drifting headily and triangulating around the fixed, ocular island of the television, a strange scrim of congealing smoke hanging low overhead. The room seems to be constricting inwardly, dialing down toward the impending revelation of how they'll actually appear on-screen—of what will be shown, and what will be edited out.

They aren't in the preview at all, though. The quickening montage of evocative clips ends with a slightly more pallid Meredith, this time looking cheerful but still a little walleyed behind her thick-rimmed glasses, finishing a webcam confessional. "So now, for the first time in like two years," she concludes, reaching toward the camera and the viewer, feeling for the button, "I'm going to turn me… off." The suddenly blank screen fills again with advancing text. Watch what happens,it reads, music pulsing, when they go… Offline. Underscored by a single brooding chord, the show's title briefly, hauntingly fills the screen, but is interrupted in the next moment by a jocular voice that announces, "New Series, coming up next!"

Jodi is flush with simultaneous relief and disappointment, disconcerted by a sense that she's somehow just missed out on something compelling but unpleasant, suddenly realizing that although the filming finished three months ago, this thing is really only just beginning. And now that Meredith is gone, seeing her again, hearing her again, feels very weird, like the shudder of gusting wind against the farmhouse at night. Updates are spilling across the screen of Jodi's laptop faster than she can keep up. Jillian has just Blurted, "Well at least I don't look fat!" in response to which snarky Jonah, who wasn't in the preview either, Bleats back, "Well at least I don't look visible!" and Jodi is grinning again, typing a long string of lol's and then actually, unintentionally, laughing out loud. "New Series, coming up next!!!" she Blurts.

Meanwhile Rob is reaching around for his beer with a blind hand while still half-watching the screen of his tablet and the start of the next commercial on TV, increasingly overwhelmed by the promise of his imminent manifestation there. His co-workers are already harassing him, Blurting, "Star of the show!" and "Break out role!," their good-natured chiding actually somewhat helping assuage his feeling of encroaching dread.

Reflexively, Rob is beginning to sense the magnitude of what's happening here, and suspects that getting blisteringly stoned before watching his own TV debut was maybe not such a solid idea after all. Because he's about to see himself for the first time in some sort of authoritative high definition, the implications of which, he is swiftly discovering, provide a profound platform for high-grade paranoia. Not to mention whatever Jodi's over there cooking up with her webcam, the laptop teetering again on the slim bridge of her legs.

For the past three months Rob and Jodi have enjoyed explaining to people that they met and began dating on reality TV. "For reals!" Jodi invariably says, tongue-in-cheek, while Rob nods coolly in confirmation. Learning this, people tend to do a double take, convinced they've seen the couple before, until Rob explains that the series hasn't aired yet. "So be sure to check my blog for updates!" Jodi habitually adds, tireless self-promoter, scribbling her URL out on the nearest available receipt, cigarette packet, free appendage, whatever. The same disheveled charm and sparkling, slightly goofy smile that enables her to pull this off, time and again, had also played a major role in compelling Rob to actually court her, on camera, during the seven weeks the series was being filmed.

This was probably what had most surprised Rob about himself during the whole ordeal. Typically pretty reserved and non-confrontational, he'd mainly decided to audition for the show as a way to raise his profile with potential employers, whom he was always juggling. He had little inherent affection for technology, but his natural fluency with database systems had granted him the freedom of an almost borderless lifestyle. Approaching employment as a travel ticket, he usually accepted work wherever there was an intersection between his twin interests in warm climates and abundant hash. He worked diligently, and efficiently, and as little as possible. Still, he logged a lot of hours online.

He'd written a popular web trends column for a while that had helped with name recognition, but was always looking for ways to raise his search engine ranking, and a TV credit seemed promising. The show, which was explained to Rob as a reality series in which a group of "internet dependents" would be sequestered without access for seven weeks on a rustic farm in the Midwest, had also immediately sounded like a sort of vacation to him. The last thing he'd expected was to end up in an actual relationship, to become someone's "Pookie" no less. But he and Jodi not only shared a raft of similar interests, as it turned out, but also nearly two months of serious getting-to-know-you time—probably more sustained socialization than either of them had had with anyone since college.

Whereas Rob, they were later surprised to learn, had primarily qualified for the show as a sort of wildcard—equally likely, in the psychologists' assessment, to mediate conflicts as to start them—Jodi had been a shoe in. A free-spirited tech blogger with a large following, she promised the show an instant audience along with her girl-next-door allure. Going in, Jodi was probably the most successful of the show's participants, at least by the internet measure of monetized eyeballs. Though she lived in a small one-bedroom walkup and worked mostly from coffee shops, Jodi had thousands of regular readers, and was able to make a decent sideline in the covert resale of promotional gadgets she was always being given to review.

She and Rob were perhaps the least self-absorbed of the farmhouse's attention-hungry inhabitants, and seemed drawn together, initially anyway, by their mutual ambivalence about being filmed. Meredith, already famous for running a continuous live webcam in her bedroom for more than two years, had been the worst. Throughout the shooting she suffered a protracted withdrawal from the stimulation of her online life, and probably also from what Blaise called the "emotional exhibitionism" of her 24/7 webcam. Meredith constantly craved the gaze of the show's roving cameras, but was simultaneously repulsed by their impartiality and fleeting interest, lost without the support and sympathy of constant fan feedback.

Though Jillian, by contrast, was never depressive or morose, she was almost equally needy, and had established herself as the farmhouse diva within a few hours of the group's arrival. A fashion hauler known for frequent online videos in which she gushed about the latest shopping tips and retail deals, Jillian spent much of her coveted camera time striving to convince an eventual audience that the whole show revolved more-or-less entirely around her. Disturbingly, she actually appeared to feel less real when the cameras were elsewhere, and from the start Rob had been curious about how much of Jillian would be edited out altogether. Though she was, as Jonah had pertly observed, one photogenic bitch.

Completing the cast was Kohei, a chat forum moderator whose quirky ad hoc dating advice had elevated him to the status of a quasi-spiritual guru among the nerdy world he inhabited; Blaise, a sullen hacker and digital artist notorious for inserting anarchist mashups into widely circulating copies of pirated mainstream movies; and Jonah, the show's "token homosexual," as he blithely reminded everyone at least once a day, who had amassed thousands of devotees simply by regularly Blurting hilarious, often scandalous celebrity gossip, and who was no less funny in person.

Among them Kohei had seemed the least negatively affected by the absence of technology, and in fact appeared to be discovering the world around him for the first time, rapturously geeking out over the farm's flowers and slanting sunlight, habitually raising his hands to snap photos with an imaginary digicam. The others passed through the now-formulaic dark moods and jealous rivalries that were inherently built into the dynamics of their carefully selected group. This was typified by the animosity between Rob and Blaise, which avoided the obvious topic of Jodi and instead periodically erupted in protracted philosophical arguments that seemed to cover just about everything but.

The presence of the cameras brought out the extremes of everyone's personality, and as Blaise never tired of pointing out, provided a form of intense mediation that negated the show's entire premise besides. "Why don't you just go home, then?" Rob would ask, surprised to discover, though not altogether unpleasantly, that he did have a competitive side after all. His and Jodi's budding relationship had survived the show; Meredith, as they learned a month or so after the filming, had not. And though they were only contractually obligated not to discuss that subject with the public, they rarely talked about it with one another either.

Immobile on the couch in Jodi's apartment, Rob notices how the commercial that's followed the Offline preview is somehow channeling this exact precarious mood he's feeling, seizing his attention with questions like, "Do you feel adrift from others around you, as if your life is on layaway?" while showing out-of-focus figures wandering along the edge of a treeless field or across a sandy wash of deserted beach. The sense that the voice might be speaking just to himactually seems reassuring for an odd instant, the television not merely primed to act as a malevolent mirror of his filmed deficiencies after all. That or someone is seriously messing with his head.

It then occurs to him that he can't be sure whether the picture is really blurry, or if the image is in fact obscured by the mysteriously animated cloud of pot smoke, which seems to have descended and dispersed before the TV in a sinuous, amorphous smudge. Glancing frantically, Rob discovers that the whole room is blurry, it's corners and edges indistinct, the space becoming spheroid and self-contained, fisheyeing out around the radiant screen.

Blanched and arid, the room seems leeched of color, the TV pulsing hotly on the white horizon, reminding Rob of the hotel room where he'd been isolated during the final selection of the show's participants, his mini-bar long empty of little bottles, phone calls forbidden. Now as then he stares anxiously, awaiting a verdict. Here on Jodi's couch, though, the panicked refrain "smoked too much… smoked too much…" is running like a news ticker through the substratum of his mind, and he's beginning to see the credence in this assessment when the ad changes tone and abruptly snaps him back to a somewhat tidier version of reality.

Still inexplicably blurry, the ad shifts from pensive gray to candied color, and the confiding voice escalates in an ominous enumeration that begins with the sinister obligatory disclaimer: "side effects may include…" No longer gripped by ambiguous paranoia, Rob is pitched hilariously into the sudden awareness that for a moment he'd actually, unbelievably, been identifying with a pharmaceutical commercial.

This brush with drug-induced suggestibility brings the farmhouse rushing back in an abrupt flash. Having somehow discovered a mutual appreciation for the absurdity of these self-defeating pharmaceutical ads, he and Blaise had made a game out of improvising increasingly far-fetched lists of side effects for all the irksome chores the group had been saddled with. It was their one convivial riff between disputes, and though still implicitly competitive, the lists became a reliable source of entertainment for the everyone at the farm.

Rob begins typing one out now in two long Blurts, free associating as the commercial continues: "Side effects may include: constipation, bad vibrations, blurred vision, skin lesions, brain swelling, diarrhea, delusions of grandeur… hot flashes, cold feet, cogitation, defenestration, munchies, atrophy, night terrors, home foreclosure, full disclosure, low sperm count…"

To Rob's amazement and delight, this last one actually appears in the ad's breathless disclaimer a moment after he types and Blurts it, and he is immediately seized by an inspired imperative to change his profile picture to an image of a cartoon mastermind radiating multi-colored brainwaves, as soon as he can find one.

Meanwhile Jodi is completely absorbed in a tangential, rapid-fire chat with several of their fellow cast members, a ceaselessly flowing feed of Blurts and Bleats punctuated by Jonah's non-sequiturs and occasional input from friends and would-be fans. "Start the commercial countdown," she types, the space between mind and text barely registered in her flying fingertips, "less than TWO minutes to go!" To which her mom immediately Bleats back, "So Excited!" and then marks her entry into the conversation with, Jodi estimates, something like eighteen exclamation points.

Jodi registers the fact that her mom and a whole cadre of web-savvy relatives have probably been reading along the entire time, and is glad she's made no more allusion to being totally stoned than an isolated non-sequitur of her own, a little while back. After glancing up and seeing the room briefly crackle with iridescent fireflies, she'd Blurted, "Watch out for the Silver Lining!," confident that only a few select friends would appreciate the reference to that heady cultivar, which they'd all been smoking a lot of recently.

Oddly Rob hadn't Bleated back about that, and seemed unusually entranced by the TV when she'd glanced over and caught a glimpse of him, distantly marooned on the far end of the couch, tablet held out before him like a signal flare. "We are so blazed," she'd marveled, making an appreciative mental status update, careful not to actually type it.

She can't help thinking now that her mom, who hasn't met Rob yet, is going to be forming her impressions of him, and of them together, based almost exclusively on watching the show. With unexpected trepidation, Jodi finds herself reflecting on some of the memorable scenes that are sure to be included. Like the time when Rob got shocked by the pig pen's electric fence and Jodi, rather than run to help him, had dropped a bucket of feed and doubled over laughing. It made her want to laugh even now, despite herself, thinking about Rob on his ass in the dirt, a look of dumb amazement on his face. And then there was Kohei, who intentionally tried it himself after hearing of Rob's experience, and returned to the farmhouse slack-jawed, giddy, and covered in dust, mumbling his own list of side effects that was half in Japanese.

Or the time when Rob, in an uncustomary burst of frustration, had yelled at Meredith to "Just. Shut. Up!" after she'd kept everyone up till dawn with one of her desperate, pitiful tirades. Jodi could still feel the vacuum of stunned silence that had followed, even though everyone had felt the same way. Moments like that seemed portentous now, when she thought about it. Or… shit. There was also the time when she'd collided with Blaise in the hallway during a midnight fridge raid, and actually had a moment with him. He'd almost kissed her then, she remembered, that creepy handsome bastard. Rob didn't know about that. Yet.

Had that even been filmed? The cameras had a way of disappearing from one's awareness after the first few days, the cameramen like roving ghosts, peering in on seemingly private moments and always gliding silently through the background, watching everyone unawares. Unless you were Jillian, she thought, in which case you tried to get them to follow you everywhere, even the shower.

Jodi knows she has to expect that everything had been filmed, and that the worst would probably survive the merciless editing process. Because of course they'd still decided to run the show despite what had happened with Meredith, afterwards. They were guaranteed great ratings that way, they'd said, and the show would have "social relevance." What was her mom going to think of that? It was a documentary style series, not Drunk With Babies or one of those overblown elimination shows, but still. How could she have known what she was getting into? And here she was the cheerful one, as the producers always called her, the one with the business acumen to anticipate the lucrative talk show appearances and speaking gigs that would inevitably follow. In hushed tones, they'd hinted there might even be a spin-off.

Rob's first Blurts in a while bubble up in the stream, another crazy list of side effects that has Jodi inwardly grinning while also scanning for spelling mistakes with a playfully vengeful eye. He's pretty sharp, though, for a total stoner, she thinks sweetly. Was there a drug commercial on or something? And what the heck is 'defenestration?' Probably something sexual, she guesses, highlighting and copying the word so she can search it.

Then Jodi sees "Watch us watch us!" drift to the surface again. A friend has just ReBlurted her earlier update, adding, "Can't wait! You rock!," and Jodi realizes that she still hasn't started the live feed. For weeks she's been promoting streaming video on her site that will allow viewers to watch her and Rob as they watch the show's premiere on TV, capturing their reactions and enabling them to offer instant commentary on whatever's happening.

Her latest blog entry is already set up with an embedded frame that will broadcast the webcam's live video, but she wants to ensure that both she and Rob are in the picture. Jodi discovers, however, that she's now somehow sitting cross-legged on the couch, hunched over the laptop under an awning of hair, and she's got to stretch out again so she can get a good angle. Which proves difficult, it turns out, because her foot, no her whole leg, is totally asleep, lying deadened over the other as if it's not even hers.

Checking the time, Rob sees they've got about a minute now before the show starts, and feels his pulse drum erratically in anticipation. He's watching the TV with an attentive eye, scrutinizing the picture, still a little spooked by the blurriness he'd seen before. It's a new flat-screen, arguably too big for the room, that he and Jodi bought together when he first moved in with her. He finds it strange to think that he owns exactly half the TV, divided either vertically or horizontally, but at the time, the two of them both flush with big checks from their appearance on the series, that level of commitment had just seemed like part of the flow.

Overwhelmed by the flood of sensory stimulation and intoxicated, often quite literally, with their post-farmhouse freedom, the two had spent the first few delirious weeks after their "release," as Rob called it, like tourists in their own lives. Old pleasures and comforts, once taken for granted, became imbued with a profound sense of necessity. They saturated themselves in the most menial things with a sort of devotional fervor, delighted to sit for hours smoking pot and sorting the spam from their overflowing inboxes, ordering stuff online, eating pizza by the pie and never missing a single episode of two favorite new shows, Cook Feud and Dance Trance, on their huge luminous flat-screen.

The picture on the new TV has been tripping him out a little, though, because unless it's his eyes, there's a little stutter in the image sometimes, as if its not configured quite right. He can't parse out whether smoking pot helps minimize the effect, or actually antagonizes it, and thinking about this while watching the TV stoned is like looking at something twice reflected and trying to figure out which of the mirrored surfaces is actually smudged. Trippy, for reals. A brief spot for an online dating site has followed the pharmaceutical ad, and the couples' heads seem jittery against their backgrounds. Or maybe just green screened?

With mild surprise, Rob remembers he has a profile on at least one dating site from before the filming, which he should probably take down now. Who knows what will happen with that, after he's been seen on TV. Things had already changed since their return from the farmhouse, had shifted toward some newly felt distinction between self and others, a distance or difference in scale. Rob still sensed the burden of significance that attended every action when you knew were being filmed, a peculiar self-consciousness that warped your own perceived proportions. He tried to see it as a zen thing, a species of amplified self-awareness, but couldn't shake the disquieting sense of constant evaluation, the starkly lit glare of the inner producer. Smoking helped, bending the distance into some absorbing, loopy metaphor, but even that was starting to seem offset now, merely another medium of refraction.

He and Jodi had only recently started speaking of the farm with a kind of nostalgia, their days a little flat and empty now by comparison, lacking a readymade context. Often they didn't have much else to talk about besides what two of them were getting for dinner, the dynamics of the Cook Feud cast, or the ever-baffling case of the misplaced lighter. Rob wonders if he'll envy himself on TV, still caught up in the novelty of those early weeks "offline."

Watching her laptop's clock, Jodi is sure this has got to be the last commercial before their show starts. By shuffling several layers of debris around she's managed to make room on the coffee table for her laptop, though Rob will still have to slide closer to be in the frame. Right now the current ad has her full attention, however, showing a procession of people texting on their cell phones while biking, in the shower, performing surgery. The results are comically catastrophic—people colliding, disappointing loved ones, falling into empty swimming pools.

It turns out that the commercial itself is, in fact, an ad for a new cell phone. One that Jodi happened to review for her site recently and knows won't exactly "reboot your life" after all. Sometimes she really wonders how dumb they think we are. Though she has seen this ad before, yet still can't quite pull herself away from the sequence of amusing mishaps until it becomes impossible to ignore what sounds like an actual cell phone, ringing somewhere in the room. She and Rob are both glancing around now, bird-like in their movements, Rob flipping open pizza boxes and digging with his free hand into the cracks between couch cushions, pulling out a tangled tumbleweed of hair ties and an old empty pill bottle, but still no phone.

The ringing stops after a single cycle, but is followed almost immediately by the soft ping of a private chat popping up on Jodi's laptop. It's from Rand, the show's publicity manager, and both she and Rob, at attention now, lean in to read. "Saw your Blurts," Rand types, the words appearing in short telegraphic bursts, "Tried to call, no answer. Think what yr doing with live cam is great, all set to watch. Just remember disclosure agreement you both signed, no spoilers! Fingers crossed for reunion show. Hugs to Rob. XOXO. Ciao!"

Jodi looks up then to see a long opening shot of the farm panning across the television, her palms sweaty again, mouth dry. Didn't she have a beer somewhere? She notices then that the room is hung with haze, the screen smog-sunset bright through thinly wavering veils of diffuse smoke, as if seen through curtains of rain receding across an ocean or an open plain, silent with distance. Blinking repeatedly, the impression all but evaporates, the farm not a mirage or mere preview but a lucid vista in full glow. She clicks over and hits 'stream' with a soft tap, tugs on Rob's shirt sleeve and adjusts the laptop a final time. There they are, heads compressed by the frame, the picture grainy and a little underlit.

Rob and Jodi are both grinning, glad to see that the red of their eyes isn't obvious, that they merely look pleased and a little sleepy. They turn and smile at each other while still watching themselves in the frame, the image lagging a little as the running tally of viewers climbs higher. "O… M… G…!" Jodi mouths, her eyes drifting upward to the television.

Just then a spasm of digital interference scatters their streaming image in a brief pixelated abstraction, a buffering pause that leaves Rob's left eye leering weirdly like a squashed frog. The video feed returns to reveal their shared apprehensive grimace, as if the two of them had actually frozen instead of the image, and they both burst into a double fit of laughter, watching themselves laugh. Music rolling, the opening credits swell. They're going to be on TV.

Pleiades 33.1

First published in Pleiades: a Journal of New Writing, Volume 33, No. 1 (Winter 2013), the University of Central Missouri's literary biannual.