“Welcome to HalfLife!” the announcer booms and the audience erupts.
One man claps so hard his glasses fall off. Another woman cries two perfect rivers down her cheeks.
“Who wants a second chance at life!” the announcer shouts as the host runs on stage.
Billy Rings spreads his arm wide and prances like a gazelle taunting caged lions. He looks glorious in a three-piece suit, maroon with black trim and metal buttons in the shape of flowers. The audience pitches from ecstatic to breathless and attendees collapse in their chairs, revived seconds later by ushers with smelling salts and spray bottles.
“Bring out our guest of honor!” Billy Rings cries and a young man with a messy haircut and torn jeans shuffles on stage.
Backstage, the contestants next to me groan with desire and I echo it without shame. It’s impossible not to. You can feel the life oozing off of him.
“Meet our guest, Andrew Adronovich!” Billy Rings pulls Andrew in with one arm, angling the microphone toward the two of them with the other. “Andrew is a 20-year-old cyber-security analyst living in San Pedro with two roommates and a cat named Pickles. Andrew has a moderate social life but is single with no close family. He’s looking for a HalfLife guest that can provide companionship and guidance to a young man who has his whole life ahead of him but isn’t sure what he wants to do with it yet. Is that about right, Andrew?”
“That’s right, Billy Rings,” Andrew croaks into the microphone. “And I’m also excited to win-”
“One-hundred-thousand dollars!” the crowd roars over him. He’s more than any of us could have dreamed for. Intelligent, directionless, alone, and oh so young. The scratchy polymer fibers of my hooded-suit stick to me with sweat.
“Now before we get started, I want to reassure everyone that Andrew has been professionally evaluated and is of sound mind. He hasn’t been coerced and through his own volition is agreeing to share his mind and body with the winner of HalfLife in exchange for their companionship and the prize winnings,” Billy Rings says.
The audience claps soberly.
“And you know what our contestants are playing for…”
“HalfLife!” The audience screams. The curtain in front of us lifts and our platform tilts. The six of us stumble out on stage, two of us falling to our knees.
The audience hoots with laughter and Billy Rings chuckles appreciatively.
“That’s right! Whoever Andrew chooses will become a passenger in his mind, sharing his senses, offering advice, and controlling minor motor functions. All of our HalfLife contestants are at the end of their natural-born lives, but these greedy-gusses aren’t happy with their one shot at life, they want to play for another,” Billy Rings says.
The audience boos and the ushers rush to pry water bottles and trash from overzealous attendees.
“Can we really blame ’em’ folks? We might do the same when we’re old and frail. And boy do we have some frail ones for you today. Take a look at the screen above to see who’s behind these masks.”
Murmurs and laughs trickle from the audience. I can imagine what they’re whispering about me: 68, terminal, no surviving family, menial career, six dogs, a decrepit home. Pathetic.
“Remember, Andrew won’t know who the contestants are until a winner is chosen. Now Andrew, in a minute you’re gonna roll the die and choose the first game, what are you hoping to get?”
“I was thinking maybe mindbusters or pygmalion?” Andrew says.
The audience laughs and Billy Rings leans into a hearty guffaw.
“Those are soft potatoes, Andrew. Remember these people already had their shot at life, don’t you want them to work for their chance to share yours?’
“Everyone deserves a second chance,” Andrew murmurs.
“An idealist!” Billy Rings shouts and the audience laughs with him. “Well maybe he’ll get his wish, but I for one want our contestants to work for it. Cause as we like to say around here, cheating death ain’t free.”
We’re escorted to the games stage as Andrew rolls the giant twelve-sided die.
Slop is first, I wade in muck and scarf down half-rotten food through the slit in my hood. It’s pathetic. We’re old and dying and we’re all sick within minutes. I’m the last one still moving.
Then comes Trolley-Gang. Impossible ethical puzzles one after the other. Life and death choices over and over until we’re all sobbing and shaking. I’m the last one still choosing.
Finally, First Life. Actors play out scenes of our greatest achievements. The audience cries with laughter. All we have to do is sit there, and yet reliving the dismal highlights of my life is nearly more torture than I can bear. I get the most laughs.
“Alright Andrew, you’ve seen how they fight, how they think and how they lived. It’s time to make your choice. Who has won the right to share your mind and body for the rest of your natural life?”
It has to be me. I’ve worked harder. I want it more. I’m more pathetic than the others.
Andrew bites his fingernails. “I never thought it would be so hard to choose. I wish I could host all six of them.”
The audience groans.
“You’re a real bleeding heart, Andrew. You can only host one and as per your contract you have to choose.”
“I’ll choose at random,” Andrew says.
The audience boos harder than ever.
“Andrew, have some respect for these people. They’ve all been good sports and they deserve a real choice. You’ve seen their minds and their bodies at work, now choose.”
“But they all want it so bad. Maybe I could roll the die again?”
The roar of the audience is intense. “Choose! Choose! Choose!”
Andrew shakes and bounces from foot to foot. “Oh gosh, okay.”
He raises his finger and turns toward the six of us kneeling before him.
He points at me. The audience erupts.
Connor Mellegers lives in Toronto, Canada where they work as a charity governance specialist. When not reading and writing you can find them cooking, running, or struggling to grow a garden.