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CUT

Chapter 1: Action

“Don’t worry,” said Ken Smith’s deep voice through the speakerphone. “You’re the hottest director out there. The studio doesn’t wanna lose you. They got a team of lawyers ready with one big broom."

Don Gold raised his eyebrows as he lit a cigarette. “Broom?”

Ken laughed. “To sweep it under the rug.”

Don chuckled, a gritty sound like heavy tires rolling across gravel. He turned to his laptop screen and scanned his email inbox. “What about the girl’s family?”

Ken scoffed. “She had no family. Just a crazy old kook mom in Philly. The lawyers’ll keep ‘er quiet.”

“And the crew?” Don asked, idly scrolling through dozens of spam messages.

“Paid off,” said Ken. “Trust me, Donny. You’re untouchable.”

Don sighed, breathing out a puff of smoke that obscured an email from his ex-wife’s lawyer. “That’s a relief.”

“I’m tellin’ ya, man,” said Ken, “the studio expects to make a bundle on this picture. They’re not about to let anything stop production. Trust me, it's gonna get finished, and it's gonna make us all rich.”

“Richer,” Don corrected. “We’re already rich.”

“Fuckin’-A,” Ken agreed with a loud, rumbling laugh. “Nothing to worry about.”

“That’s such a relief, Ken, you have no idea.” Don clicked the delete icon and the lawyer’s email disappeared. “When that girl croaked, I thought for sure the film would be stuck in limbo forever.”

“A little mishap,” Ken said dismissively. “These things happen. People get hurt; people die. They know the risk goin’ in.”

“It was worth it to get that shot,” Don said, smiling around his cigarette. “The explosives were spectacular. I just knew I had to go big on this one, ya know? Some bullshit weak sauce pyrotechnics just wouldn't be good enough. So some rookie camera operator stood a little too close. That’s no reason to throw out all those hours of hard work, is it?”

“Right, right,” Ken said, clearing his throat. “Anyway, I gotta go. I got a meeting with the studio lawyers. Sweep, sweep.” Ken’s booming laugh was silenced as he hung up.

Don resumed scrolling through his emails. Seconds later, his phone rang. A number he didn’t recognize flashed on the screen. “Probably one of those studio brooms,” he said, grinning as he remembered Ken’s joke. “Sweep, sweep.” He answered the phone with a cheerful “yell-oh.”

“Murderer,” an unfamiliar voice said.

“Come again?” Don said into the receiver.

“Murderer!” The voice said louder. “You murdered my daughter!”

“Who is this?” Don asked, blinking at the screen.

“Barbara Evans,” said the voice. “The mother of the girl you murdered.”

Don sighed. “How did you get my num—”

“Murderer!” Barbara cut him off, her voice thick and hoarse with tears. “You knew you were using too much explosives! You knew they were too close to the crew!”

“I didn’t—”

“I talked to the special effects man. He said you kept shouting, ‘Get closer!’ You knew someone could get hurt!”

“Now that’s—”

“Well someone did get hurt, Mr. Gold. My daughter. She was only 23 years old, Mr. Gold. Her name was Ashley Evans. Ashley Evans. Remember her name because you’re going to pay for what you did to her.”

Don’s phone felt slippery with sweat in his hand. “Look, Barbara,” he said, struggling to keep his voice steady. “I shouldn't even be talking to you. You'll have to call the studio’s broo—I mean lawyers.”

“I'm done talking to lawyers,” Barbara snapped. “They'd like to just sweep this whole thing under the rug, as if Ashley’s life didn't matter. As if she never existed. Well, I won't let them! Someone has to pay, Mr. Gold! You have to pay!”

Don hung up his phone. It rang again almost immediately, displaying the same number. He turned it off.

His hand shook as he flicked the ash from his cigarette into a chipped coffee mug on his desk. “Crazy bitch,” he muttered to himself. “The lawyers’ll handle it. They'll sweep it up with their big broom just like Ken said. Sweep, sweep.” He tried to chuckle, but his voice sputtered out like a dying engine.

He abruptly froze with his cigarette midway to his lips. Something was off. Something was different. He sensed some slight, unexpected change in the atmosphere. He didn’t know what it was, but it was making the hairs on his arms stand up.

He looked at the cigarette in his hand. The ash seemed to glow brighter than usual. The light. It was the light in the room. It had gone dim. But he hadn’t turned on the lights. The only light was coming from his laptop screen.

Don turned back to his laptop. His emails had disappeared, and the screen was flush with darkness. He blinked as his eyes adjusted. Slowly, a figure formed on the screen: Two wide, black eyes. Graying sandy brown hair. A cigarette in one hand. He was watching video of himself.

“Damn thing,” he said, tapping the Escape key. “The camera turned on all by itself.” He hit a few more keys, but the video remained.

He squinted at the screen and the image became clearer. The wide, black eyes stared at him over the back of his laptop. He could see the silver logo emblazoned across the sleek black plastic.

“What the—?” he whispered. He peered over the top of his laptop. A tiny red light pierced through the darkness.

“Who’s there?” he yelled, jumping up from his chair. “Get outta here!” He switched on the lamp on his desk and blinked in the bright light. His eyes searched the room. He was alone.

His chest grew tight as icy cold sweat dripped down his burning hot face. “Where are you?” he called out across the empty room. “I know someone’s here!” The only response was the low hum of his laptop.

Don sat back down and looked at the screen. The video was gone, and his emails had reappeared. At the top of his inbox, a new message was highlighted in bold, black text. The Sender field was blank. The subject read, “Take 1.” Don clicked the touchpad to open it. The body of the message was blank.


Chapter 2: Rolling

“I’m telling you, the camera turned on all by itself and started recording me,” Don said, gesturing angrily at his laptop.

“I understand,” the young technician said, straining to keep a tight smile plastered on his pock-marked face, “but we did two complete scans for viruses and malware and found nothing.”

“Well something’s up with the damn thing,” said Don. “It’s not supposed to randomly record me.”

“Can I interest you in one of these camera covers?” the technician asked, picking up a plastic package from a nearby display. “You just slide it to the right to cover your camera whenever you’re not using it. They’re very popular.”

“I wouldn’t need that if you fixed the damn thing!” Don barked.

“Tell ya what,” the technician said, dropping the camera cover into a paper bag. “It’s on the house.” He handed the bag to Don with a twitching smile. “And so are the scans.”

Don glared at the technician through narrowed eyes as he took the bag.

The technician walked away so quickly Don could barely hear him calling, “Have a nice day,” over his shoulder.

Don stood alone in the store, scowling down at his laptop, which sat closed on a desk spattered with papers and computer parts. Monitors glowed around him, playing demos of the various computers, tablets, and smartphones for sale.

As Don contemplated buying a new laptop, his phone vibrated in his pocket. He took it out and glanced at the screen. He had a new email with the subject “Take 2.” He quickly shoved his phone back in his pocket.

When he looked up, his eyes widened and his face grew pale. Every screen in the store—laptop, monitor, tablet, and phone—was playing a video of him. The screens directly in front of him showed his face, staring wide-eyed back at him. The screens to his left and right showed him from the side, and the screens behind him showed his back, adorned in his signature black jacket with “Director” printed across it in gold letters.

As Don whirled around, taking in every angle, the images moved in sync along with him. “What the—?” He frantically surveyed the store but saw no one. “Who’s doing this?!” he yelled. “Who’s there?!” He ran around the shelves, knocking over a display of USB cables with his hip. “Leave me alone!”

“Is everything alright, Sir?” asked a small voice from behind him.

Don spun around to find the technician looking curiously up at him from behind a cash register, his fixed smile wavering.

“Yeah, these damn things are...” Don trailed off as he glanced around. The video of him was gone, and the screens had resumed playing their demos.

“Sir?” said the technician, raising his eyebrows.

“Well, they were...” Don wiped the sweat from his brow and took a deep breath. “Uh...nothing,” he said, scooping up his laptop. “Must’ve been my imagination.”

The technician nodded unsteadily.

“I’ve been under a lot of strain lately,” Don explained, backing toward the door.

“Have a nice day,” the technician called after him as he rushed outside.

Don looked at his wrist and realized he wasn’t wearing his watch. He spotted a man in a gray suit and tapped him on the shoulder. “Excuse me,” he said, “do you have the time?”

The man lifted his wrist, displaying a glossy smartwatch. Don glanced at it and did a double-take. On the tiny screen, he saw his own face looking up at him.

“Ten forty-five,” the man said. He lowered his wrist and walked away.

Don blinked and shook his head. “This is nuts,” he said to himself. “I gotta get a grip.”

He raised his arm as a cab drove by; the cab stopped. The digital sign on its roof flashed the cab company’s phone number and a video of a bright yellow cab speeding though the city.

As Don approached the cab, the video on the sign dissolved, and he saw himself on the screen. He yelped and jumped back.

The cab driver rolled down the window. “You want a ride or not?”

“No!” Don cried. He turned and ran away on wobbly legs.

He ran without giving a thought to where he was going. He shoved through the slow-moving herds of people on the sidewalk and jumped over sleeping bums.

He finally stopped when he almost ran straight into a woman with a stroller. The toddler in the stroller was staring blankly at a padded tablet blaring some loud, obnoxious kiddie show.

“Why don’t you watch where you’re going?” the woman said, hitching her purse up on her shoulder.

The toddler looked up and lowered his tablet. Don watched in horror as the tablet’s screen changed from the neon-colored cartoon to his own sallow face. He screamed. The toddler started to cry.

“What’s wrong with you?” the woman said as she turned her stroller around and stormed off.

Don ran until he found himself in the middle of Times Square. A group of tourists blocked his path as they pointed up at the Mega Screen. Don swallowed hard and followed their gaze. On the massive screen was an aerial shot of him standing in the street. As he watched, the shot zoomed in, getting closer and closer. He jerked his head up and glanced around but saw only the bright blue sky above him.

He turned back to the Mega Screen, which was now showing a full shot of him from straight ahead. The tourists stared up at the screen, smiling and talking to each other in a language Don didn’t recognize. He rubbed his eyes. The video quickly dissolved into an ad for shampoo.

Don’s phone buzzed in his pocket. He didn’t have to look at it to know he had another new email with the subject, “Take 3.” As he reached for his phone, it started to ring. “Ken Smith” flashed on the screen. Don let out the breath he’d been holding seemingly for hours and answered.

“Big news, Donny,” Ken’s voice said. “I just heard from the studio bigwigs. Production resumes on Monday. We got a shoot first thing in the morning. I just emailed you the call sheet.”

Don smiled. “Fantastic. Thanks, Ken.”

“And get this,” Ken added, “I scored us tickets to the Yankee game today.”

Don opened his email app and saw two new messages: one from Ken and one from a blank sender with the subject “Take 3.” He bit his lip to keep from screaming.

“Did you hear me, Donny?” Ken asked.

“Oh, uh...what?” Don mumbled.

“I said I scored us tickets to the Yankee game today,” Ken repeated. “In the studio’s suite.”

“Today?” Don racked his brain for an excuse. “I don’t know. I’m...not feeling well.”

“Aw, come on,” Ken urged. “The studio’s got a luxury suite! We’re talkin’ swanky!”

“Yeah, but—”

Ken cut him off. “Listen, Donny. You’ve been havin’ a tough time lately. You need to relax and unwind so you’re nice and fresh for the big shoot on Monday. What’s better for your nerves than watching a ballgame in a cushy suite?”

“Well...”

“We can hire a company car. I’ll pick you up.”

Don sighed. “OK. See ya later.”


Chapter 3: Long Shot

Don heard a knock on the door as he was stepping out of the shower. He wrapped a towel around his waist and opened the door.

A squat woman in a FedEx uniform looked him up and down and raised her eyebrows. “I need a signature,” she said around a mouthful of chewing gum. She thrust a signing machine at Don.

Don picked up the plastic stylus and started drawing his signature. Just as he started the “G” in Gold, the machine grew dim. He looked down and saw the delivery woman’s back materialize on the tiny screen. Just over her shoulder was his pixelated face, staring down at the machine. He drew in a sharp breath and dropped the stylus. The delivery woman handed him a small package and walked away.

Don peered out into the hallway. It was empty except for the delivery woman, who was pushing buttons on her signing machine as she waited for the elevator. He shut the door and locked it. As he made his way into his bedroom to get dressed, he became barely aware of the package under his arm. The label had no return address. He opened his bedroom window and threw the package out into the street. He put on a T-shirt and jeans and lay on his bed, rubbing his temples. He felt his phone buzz in his pocket and ignored it.

Moments later, he heard another knock on the door. He slowly pushed himself up from the bed and looked through the peephole. Ken Smith stood in the hallway wearing a tattered Yankees cap and small carrying cardboard box that looked somewhat smushed. Don sighed and opened the door.

“Hey, I found this package in the street,” Ken said, his strong voice shattering the silence of Don’s apartment. “It’s addressed to you. Must’ve fell off a truck.”

“Yeah,” Don squeaked in a strained voice. He cleared his throat and dropped the package on the coffee table.

“Don’t you wanna open it?” Ken asked, reaching for the package.

“No!” Don said, a little louder than he expected.

Ken froze with his hand hovering over the squashed box, a stunned expression on his face.

“I-I mean...we have to get going,” Don said, tapping his bare wrist where his watch used to be.

“We have time,” Ken said, looking at his own watch. “See?” He reached out his arm to show Don his watch.

Don instantly turned his head away, avoiding the digital screen on Ken’s watch. “Yeah, OK,” he relented. He sat on the couch and gestured for Ken to sit in the nearby armchair.

They both sat and looked at the misshapen package. Don realized he was breathing very loudly and fought to control it. He stared down at the thick brown tape in the center of the box and an idea struck him. “I don’t have a knife,” he said. Yeah, that’s it. I can’t open it because I don’t have a knife. Brilliant, Don.

“That’s OK,” Ken said, reaching into his pocket. “I do.” He produced a mini Swiss army knife from his keychain, unfolded it, and sliced open the package.

Don could feel his heart beating in his ears. He gripped the sofa cushion so hard his knuckles turned white.

Ken looked inside the box and frowned. “Hey,” he said, reaching in, “Isn’t this your watch?” He pulled out Don’s Rolex, a gift from the studio. The screen was cracked and the band was broken.

Don let out a shrill laugh. “It’s my watch,” he said. “I guess I lost it.” In more ways than one.

“Someone must’ve found it and shipped it to you,” said Ken. “I wonder how they got your address.”

“It has a sticker with a QR code on the back,” said Don. “You can scan it and see my contact information.” Before he could stop himself, he had taken his phone out of his pocket and scanned the code. Instead of his contact information, a video appeared on the screen. It showed him and Ken sitting in the living room, staring down at his phone. Don gasped and dropped his phone on the coffee table.

Ken picked up the phone and looked at the screen. “Hey, that’s cool,” he said with a grin. “I’ll have to get some of those. I’m always losing things.”

Don looked at the phone screen over Ken’s shoulder. The video of them was still playing. He grabbed the phone and turned it off.

Ken stood up. “We better get going.”

“You go ahead,” said Don. “I’ll be right out.”

As soon as Ken was out the door, Don buried his phone between two couch cushions. He brushed his hands against his jeans as if to wipe off the residue of the creepy video. He knew at that moment he was receiving an email with the subject, “Take 4.”


***

By the seventh inning, Don finally felt himself starting to relax. He sat nursing an eight-dollar beer and a six-dollar hot dog, watching the players hit the ball and run the bases, cheering when the Yankees scored and booing when the Phillies did.

“You were so right,” he said to Ken, who was shoveling nachos into his mouth. “This is just what I needed.”

“Fuckin’-A,” Ken said through a mouthful of chips and cheese.

Suddenly the crowd started to cheer. Everyone in the suite seemed to be turning and pointing at the jumbotron.

“What’s that mean?” Ken asked, wiping the cheese from his lips with his sleeve.

Don turned to the giant screen. “¿Quieres casarte conmigo, Martina?” sparkled in scrolled silver letters.

“’Will you marry me, Martina?’” Don translated, recalling his college Spanish courses.

“Aw, that’s nice,” Ken said with a smile.

The jumbotron switched to a video of a young man on one knee, holding a ring box up to a sobbing young woman. Ken and the suited studio executives in the suite cooed and awed. Don even allowed himself a slight smile as Martina nodded her head and the crowd roared.

Then the picture changed. It showed a row of people in chairs behind a pane of glass. In the center, Don saw himself, clutching his plastic cup of beer and half-eaten hot dog, staring straight ahead. “No,” he whispered.

“What’s that, Donny?” Ken asked, crunching on another nacho.

“Look!” Don shouted over the cheers, pointing at the jumbotron with a trembling hand. “Don’t you see it?”

Ken laughed. “Hey man, just because your marriage didn’t work out doesn’t mean no one should ever get married.”

“No,” said Don. “Look at the screen. Look!”

Ken looked at the screen and shrugged. “Those two kids look happy to me.”

“But it’s us!” Don shrieked. “You and me! Don’t you see it?”

Ken furrowed his brow. “Donny, no offense, but I don’t swing that way.” He slid to the edge of his seat, as far away from Don as he could get.

Don turned back to the jumbotron. Martina and her new fiancé were kissing while cameras flashed around them. He chugged the rest of his eight-dollar beer.


Chapter 4: Close-up

Don lay in bed, staring up at the popcorn ceiling. No matter how hard he tried to close his eyes, they remained glued open, getting dryer and more bloodshot by the minute. He turned on the TV and clicked through the channels: an infomercial for some kind of fancy blender...a 24-hour news station with commentators talking endlessly about the mess in Washington...a music video for a so-called song that sounded like a horde of robots being tortured...some crappy movie where CGI sharks were flying around attacking people...

Don yawned and looked at his phone, lying lifeless on the nightstand beside a half-empty bottle of scotch and a half-full ashtray. Before he realized what he was doing, he had picked it up and turned it on. As the screen lit up, he saw notifications for several missed calls from the number he now recognized as Barbara Evans. The voicemail icon indicated he had 83 new messages. He played the first message.

“Murderer!” shouted Barbara’s voice.

Don deleted the message and played the next one.

“Murderer!” Barbara shouted again.

Delete. Next.

“Murderer!”

Delete. Next.

“Murder—”

Delete.

“Murd—”

Delete.

“Mu—”

Don deleted all his remaining voicemails and opened his text messages. There were 132 from Barbara, each containing only the word “Murderer.” He deleted them and opened his email. At the top of his inbox was a new message from a blank sender with the subject, “Cut.”

Don went numb. His cold fingers dropped the phone on his chest. He watched it rise and fall rapidly with each panicked breath. On the screen was his face. His eyes gaped at him from above dark circles. His mouth hung open over his unshaven chin.

He looked up. The same video was playing on his TV in black and white, as if it was shot with a night vision lens. His black eyes gleamed eerily in his ghostly white face.

Don craned his neck to see over the TV screen. He could just make out a faint red light shining in the darkness. “W-who’s there?” he whispered. “Who’s doing this?”

The red light grew bigger and brighter.

“Tell me who you are.” Don tried to swallow, but his throat felt like it was stuffed with crepe paper. “What do you want?”

The light grew even brighter.

Don looked at the TV. His pale face now filled the screen, as if there was a camera right in front of him. He stared wildly around the room and saw nothing but that red light growing slowly bigger and brighter.

He jumped out of bed and switched on the overhead light. The room was empty. “Why are you doing this to me?!” he cried.

The only sound in the room was his own gasping breath.


Chapter 5: That’s a Wrap

“He was supposed to be at the studio for a shoot this morning,” Ken said as he walked briskly down the hallway, struggling to keep up with the two police officers.

“Uh-huh,” said one of the officers, a large man with a ruddy face and darting eyes that constantly skimmed the hallway as they walked.

“I’ve been calling him all day,” Ken continued, “but his phone just goes straight to voicemail. He didn’t answer my texts or emails either. I knocked on his door for like an hour, but he won’t answer.”

“Uh-huh,” the officer said again.

“I really think something happened to him. It’s not like Don to miss a day of shooting. He wants to get this picture done more than anybody.”

The large police officer held up one beefy hand and Ken fell silent.

The officer knocked lightly on the apartment door. “Mr. Gold?” he called. “It’s the police.”

Ken and the two officers stood in silence, straining their ears for a response.

The officer knocked again, louder this time. “Mr. Gold, this is the police. We’re doing a wellness check. Is everything OK? Do you need help?”

They listened again. The two officers exchanged glances and removed their guns from their holsters.

“Stand back, Mr. Smith,” said the other officer, a petite young woman with dark hair pulled back in a neat bun.

She nodded at her partner, and he lifted one heavy boot and rammed it into the door. The door flew open with a loud crack. The officers slowly entered the apartment with guns raised; Ken crept in behind them.

As they walked through the living room, they passed a TV that hung askew on one wall. Its screen was a spider web of cracks, and thin shards of glass littered the carpet beneath it.

They crossed to the study, where Don’s laptop lay crushed in a heap of plastic and glass on the floor. In the bedroom, they found Don’s phone on his nightstand, its screen shattered to bits. A hammer sat beside it. Another TV lay on the floor at the foot of the bed, its smashed screen caved in.

Finally, they entered the bathroom, where they found Don in similar condition to his screens. He was splayed in the bathtub wearing his black “Director” jacket over blood-drenched pajamas. His wrists were two gaping wounds.

“Good God,” Ken whispered, his face turning a greenish shade. As he stepped back, his foot nudged a crumpled ball of paper, sending it rolling across the tile floor.

“What’s that?” asked the petite officer. She picked up the ball and carefully flattened it out. “It looks like a note,” she said.

They stood in silence for a moment as the officer frowned at the wrinkled sheet of paper in her hands.

“What does it say?” Ken finally asked with an audible gulp.

The officer turned the paper around and held it up so the other two could read it. One word was scrawled across the center of the creased white square in thick, red marker: “CUT.”

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