Hello, there! You’ve arrived exactly when I expected you, as usual. You’re nothing if not punctual. Hey, you wanna see something neat? Come on back here. Right through the beaded curtain. Mind your head. Right back here. Well, what do you think? I call it The Hall of Mirrors. It’s just a fun little place for my clientele to wait for their appointment to start. Anyway, that’s what I was originally thinking. Now that it’s actually completed, I was considering charging admission and maybe generating some flash money on the side. Kind of a little side business to augment the whole predicting-the-future gig. Yes, you’re right, it’s not your typical Hall of Mirrors setup, but that’s why I like it. All those other ones have the really big tall full-length mirrors. What many people don’t realize, though, is how expensive those big mirrors are. That’s why I got all these little handheld ones and screwed them into the walls. I think it’s kind of creepy seeing your face floating all over the place in those tiny little mirrors, don’t you? It’s like “Attack of the Faces” or something. Very dark and mysterious. So anyway, just something I’m toying with. Maybe I’ll have a big Grand Opening and try to get a read on how much money I could make with this little enterprise. At any rate, let’s get started, shall we? Why don’t you just sit down right here in the Hall? I’ll grab my cracked crystal ball, and we can take a look to see what’s going to happen in this week’s Survivor episode. Yes. I see a strangely familiar title taking shape in the deep recesses of the mystic orb. It’s

Creeping With the Ten of Me

Day 22 in the Amazon finds the Jacare camp in a whirlwind of activity. Thanks to Roger’s manic, wild-eyed drive, the shelter is essentially done, the gift of a madman to the people he despises. Even so, Deena is hacking vigorously away at a tree with her machete. “Whatcha doin’?” Rob asks from his perch atop the same tree. He’s playing with a yo-yo he found.

Deena doesn’t look up as she responds. “I want to make myself a throne so people have a constant visual reminder of who’s in charge around here. Have I told you who you shouldn’t underestimate?”

“Um, yeah, but you can tell me again. I like it when people forget that they’ve spoken to me and repeat things that I already know. Really, I do. And later, if you could physically step on me to drive the point home, I’d love it.”

Meanwhile, over in the shelter, Jenna and Heidi are lounging around, debating the meaning of life. “A single corn flake or a single pea?” Heidi asks.

“Eugh! Neither!” Jenna wrinkles her nose and sticks her tongue out. “The pea, I guess. A single cashew or a one-inch-by-one-inch square of lettuce?” she counters.

“Gross!” Heidi squeals, shuddering in revulsion. “Um, I guess I’ll go with lettuce.”

Alex wanders over and pokes his head into the shelter. “Hello, ladies,” he purrs. He raises an eyebrow in a practiced Mr.-Spock-turns-on-the-charm manner. “What are we discussing today?”

“Oh, hi, Alex!” Jenna giggles. “We’re playing ‘Which would you rather puke back up?’ Would you like to join us?”

“Hm, tempting,” says Alex. “Maybe next time.”

“I’ll join you,” Matthew murmurs. He’s suddenly sitting, legs crossed, beside Heidi. He may have actually floated through the open side of the shelter, but nobody can be certain. He may even have been sitting there the entire time. “A tiny fragment of fish meat or the corner of a cracker?”

Heidi and Jenna stare at each other in amazement. “Wow,” Heidi says. “He’s good!”

Nearby, Dave is hunched over a patch of dirt, scraping the ground feverishly with a stick. Butch approaches him and lightly taps him on the shoulder. “Hey, Dave, can I talk to you?”

“Not now, Butch!” he snaps.

“But Dave, man, I’m scared. I keep thinking our strategy is blown. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t Roger still be here?”

Dave looks at Butch in astonishment. “You’re just now figuring this out?”

Butch kicks the dirt awkwardly. “Well, I guess so. It just never occurred to me that this could fail.” He unfurls the “Believe” banner as far as his arms will allow and holds it under his chin.

Dave sighs. “OK, Butch, look at this.” He stands up and points at the dirt, where dozens of complicated equations are scrawled. “From the beginning, I’ve been using my Survivor equations to plot the course of the game. Each variable represents a different individual in the game. When they’re eliminated, their value in the overall equation is reduced to zero, except for members of the jury, who each retain a small percentage of their original value even after they’re booted. With me so far?”

Butch nods in amazement. “There’s...an equation for Survivor?”

“Sh. Just listen. There are actually several. Twenty, maybe. But in order to make the equations work, you need to plug in approximate values for each variable, based on your knowledge of that individual and their current status in the game. It works great...if you truly have a handle on the game.” He stares silently at the equations for a while. “Anyway, I’ve reworked the equations to account for Roger’s departure.”

Butch’s eyes gleam excitedly. “And? What do they say?”

Dave looks up at Butch and purses his lips. “We’re screwed.”

Christy arrives with a bundle of paper in her hand. “It’s time for the Reward Challenge, guys. Let’s go!”

At precisely that moment, Deena’s tree topples, sending Rob to the ground, shrieking all the way. The others rush to turn their heads to see if he’s all right. “Hey, don’t worry about me, guys,” he says cheerily. “Chicks dig branch scratches. Wanna see mine, Heidi?”

The group arrives at Challenge Beach to find Jeff playing with a paddle ball. “Thirty-one, thirty-two, thirty-three. Have a seat, guys.” The Survivors look around for chairs or stumps, but there’s nothing. They settle into the sand. Jeff snickers. “Forty-five, forty-six. Go ahead and get up, please.” Everyone stands. Jeff laughs. “Fifty-three, fifty-four. Now jump around on one leg while flapping your arms like a chicken and reciting the Gettysburg Address.” The air is suddenly filled with “four score”s, as everyone leaps around and flaps. Jeff finally drops the paddleball and falls to his knees in laughter. “OK, you can quit. Please quit, in fact. My sides can’t take it. You guys are a treat. Thanks again for doing anything I say.” He stands and wipes his eyes. “OK, today’s Challenge is just some stupid thing we whipped together over beers last night. Unfortunately for you, the beers were supposed to be your Reward, but we got to talking about it, and you guys are getting so much food out here! Pizza, peanut butter, hot dogs, cheese, soda, spaghetti. It’s like a freakin’ Las Vegas buffet out here for you pigs. You’ve probably all gained five pounds each in just the past two days. Aren’t you ashamed of yourselves? I mean, really!”

Jenna and Heidi hang their heads in shame.

“Anyway, that’s just something I felt you needed to hear. Believe me, I don’t like delivering the bad news like that.” He grins evilly. “Now on to the Challenge. This is your first individual Reward Challenge. You’ll be operating completely on your own for this one. And if you win, you alone get the fabulous prize. I’m not sure why I just provided all that repetitive detail, by the way. It’s all pretty obvious stuff by now. If you’re confused, maybe I should just kick you out of the game right now.” He holds out his index finger and points at everyone in turn, squinting his eyes suspiciously. “All right. I see we have no questions. The Challenge itself is pretty simple. It’s a rock-skipping contest. Everyone will have one minute to find the perfect rock! After that, you’ll take turns seeing who can skip their rock the farthest. Remember, this is the frickin’ Amazon River we’re talking about! Now that’s a story you can tell your grandchildren! Fun!” He claps his hands excitedly. “Oh, wanna know what you’re playing for?”

The Survivors heave a collective sigh and simultaneously roll their eyes. “Yes, Jeff,” they chant. “What are we playing for?”

Jeff bends over and grabs the paddle ball. “This here toy,” he says, holding the paddle ball high over his head. “Imagine the fun you can have playing paddle ball for hours on end. We’re all battling apathy out here, and now you’ll have the ultimate weapon in the war on boredom. My personal record is 65 hits, but just think of the international fame that will come your way if you break the century mark on this little baby while on television! That’s way better than stupid old food, isn’t it, you bloated animals?” Total silence from the Survivors. “Whatever! It’s a great Reward. You’ll see. I anticipate ferocious battles over this thing once you have it back in camp. Anyway, Survivors ready? Go!”

Each Survivor reaches down and grabs the nearest rock.

“What?!” Jeff cries. “Put some effort into the selection phase, for Pete’s sake! The rock choice is at least as important as the delivery! Come on! MOVE! You still have forty-five seconds.”

The Survivors yawn. All of them.

“Well, geez. If you’re going to play that way. Fine. For your insolence, the selection phase is officially over. Ha! Let’s begin the throwing phase. We’ll see how your inferior rocks fare against the mighty Amazon! Butch, you’re up.”

Butch steps to the edge of the river and heaves his not-so-small, not-so-flat rock directly into the water. It doesn’t skip at all.

“Weak!” Jeff cries. “Christy, you’re up.”

She actually puts some good technique into the throw and manages a couple of average skips. Dave follows. He writes some figures in the air for a while before rearing back and unleashing a hearty heave that completely clears the river on forty-seven hops.

“Holy smokes!” Jeff exclaims. “I thought I saw sparks flying off the water on that throw! Beat that, the rest of you punks!” He claps Dave on the shoulder.

No subsequent throw can actually top Dave’s superb effort, although Matthew gives it a valiant effort. His rock clears the river, too, but fails to skip at all. It just skims along an inch above the water. “I’m glad you lost,” Jeff scoffs. “Cheater.” He hands the paddle ball to Dave. “Well earned, my friend. Enjoy it. Take care of it. Honor it.” His eyes linger for a while on the blue plastic toy before he finally looks up. His eyes are moist. “See you all tomorrow for the big Immunity Challenge.”

The tribe returns to camp, where everyone not named Butch or Dave huddles up. “All right,” Deena says from atop her fallen tree. “I think it’s obvious now. Dave has got to go. He’s a HUGE threat in the challenges. Did you see that rock?!”

“Hey!” Matthew barks. “Mine wasn’t too bad, either, you know.” His eyes smolder like twin cigarette butts. Insane cigarette butts.

“Um, yeah, good job on that, Matthew,” Deena says cautiously. “Down, boy.” The hair on the back of Matthew’s neck settles gently back into place. “OK, do we have any objection to the plan? Dave’s going out, right?” Everyone murmurs their agreement. “That means somebody has to defeat him in the Immunity Challenge. Alex, I’m looking to you to personally guarantee that Dave goes down and goes down hard. All right?”

Alex points his itty-bitty, nearly-healed scar at Deena and nods. “You can count on me, Boss. Scarface will take out Rocket Boy.”

Next day, at the Immunity Challenge, Jeff recovers the goofy Necklace from Deena. Without the huge Necklace, her head doesn’t look like a shriveled hairy apple on a dark plate anymore. “OK. Immunity. Back up for grabs. Who wants it?” Dave’s hand shoots into the air. Jeff throws his head back and laughs. “Yeah, that’s the Challenge. Give me a break. You’re going to have to earn it, my friend, but thanks for exposing your vulnerability to the entire group like that.” The other Survivors can’t help but chuckle as Dave blushes, reminded no doubt of all the merciless teasing he endured back in Rocket Science Junior High.

“OK, for today’s Challenge, I’m going to receive a little bit of help.” He puts his fingers to his lips and whistles, then beams in excitement as an army of Jeff robots emerges from the forest and lines up behind him. In total, nine robots appear. When they’re all in position, the ten Jeffs look like a set of life-size bowling pins. “The robots you see behind me are sophisticated tracking droids. Each one has been specifically programmed to track exactly one of you. Your robot knows everything about you. He knows exactly the way you think, thanks to our extensive pre-show psychiatric evaluation. He knows your strengths and, more importantly, your weaknesses. He is your worst enemy. On my go, you will be given three minutes to dart into the woods and try to hide from your trackerbot. After that, I’ll release the hounds, so to speak. They’ll comb the woods and try to find you. If your robot captures you, you are out. I think we’ve ironed out the rough handling bug, by the way, so I don’t think they’ll actually hurt you when they find you. But do steel yourself for some pain, in case I’m wrong. Meantime, I’ll be roaming through the forest myself with the control box and the Immunity Necklace. I’ll know immediately if you’ve been captured, no matter where you are in the forest. You can’t simply hide, though. The winner of this Challenge is the person who finds me first and retrieves the Immunity Necklace. Remember, though, that you’ll be creeping through the forest with ten of me. You’ll want to make sure it’s actually me before you charge out of hiding to grab the Necklace. Everyone got it? Good. Survivors ready? Go!”

Immediately, Matthew disappears. The others thunder into the forest. Jeff fastens the Immunity Necklace around his own neck, then produces a cell-phone-shaped device with a view panel. He turns and admires the nine perfect clones of himself. Each one has a little name badge that says, “Hello! My name is” with one of the Survivors’ names hand-written underneath. “Good luck, my precious children,” he says softly, wiping a single tear from the inner corner of his right eye. He glances at his watch. “Go now.”

One of the robots instantly disappears. The others stalk into the forest at a steady walking pace. Within seconds, a scream rings out from the forest. Jeff glances at his control device. “Matthew is captured!” he cries. Then to himself: “I hope the robot didn’t materialize inside Matthew or something. Not certain if we’re insured for that.” He heads off into the forest.

From deep in the forest, Alex’s voice rings out. “Over here! Dave is over here! Find him! Find him! Here he – mmmfff!” Loud thumping, then silence.

Jeff peers into the view panel. Nothing. “Must’ve been Dave,” he muses. A scream. “Christy is out!” he yells. More yelling, followed by a rumbling running noise. Dave breaks out of the deep tree cover in a dead sprint, straining to reach Jeff. Right behind him is HelloMyNameIsDave, running smoothly with an expressionless look on his face, gaining ground. Yards away from Jeff, the robot leaps and tackles him to the ground. “Dave is out!” yells Jeff. Dave slaps the ground angrily.

Now all sorts of sounds are coming out of the forest. Jeff’s control device beeps almost continuously. “Deena – out! Butch – captured! Heidi is caught!” Jeff heads deeper into the forest. “Jenna is out!” he yells. “It’s down to Rob and Alex.”

Dave curses loudly. “I can’t believe this!” he growls. “That loudmouth idiot is going to win the Challenge because I lost my temper.”

Jeff shouts in surprise. He has come across a tree with two legs sticking out of the tangled root structure at its base. “I think I’ve found Alex!” he cries. Immediately, several distant trees start crashing to the ground as HelloMyNameIsAlex powers his way to the sound of Jeff’s voice. Simultaneously, Rob pops up from behind a bush. Alex’s legs begin thrashing as he tries to extricate himself from the hole under the tree. Jeff unfastens the Immunity Necklace and holds it to one side like a bullfighter’s red cape. “Who’s going to get it?” he hisses in excitement.

Suddenly, HelloMyNameIsRob explodes out of the ground directly in front of Rob, who skids to a stop and screams hysterically. He windmills his arms in a wild attempt to confuse the robot, then turns and runs back into the forest in a serpentine manner, yelping at intervals. By now, HelloMyNameIsAlex is almost on top of Jeff. His feet are churning furiously, trees and underbrush crunching to the ground under his heavy steps. With a loud cry of pain, Alex manages to force himself out of the hole beneath the tree. He sees the advancing robot and dives sideways to place Jeff directly between himself and his tracker. Jeff has enough time to say, “Oh, no” before HelloMyNameIsAlex blasts into him. The impact launches Jeff several feet into the air. He lands in a crumpled ball at Alex’s feet. Quickly, Alex drops to his knees and pries the Immunity Necklace out of Jeff’s clenched hand. At once, HelloMyNameIsAlex ceases his running and yells, “Immunity to Alex!”

Jeff groans from the ground and mumbles, “Hey, that’s my line” before passing out.

The next evening at Tribal Council, a bruised and bandaged group of Survivors files in to speak with Jeff, whose left arm is in a sling. “OK, first of all, let me begin by apologizing for the savagery of the Jeff-bots. Rob, I wanted to commend you on being able to avoid your tracker most of the evening. Sorry it didn’t turn out better for you. Obviously, we didn’t have all the bugs ironed out in their violence subroutines. They have been destroyed.” He lowers his head solemnly and squeezes the bridge of his nose with his good hand. After a while, he looks up again. “Well, anyway. Let’s get on with it.”

As expected, Dave is voted out in a landslide 7-2 vote. When he stands up to have his torch snuffed, his shirt is visible. It’s a plain black T-shirt, and it says, “I blinded you with Rocket Science.” Dave looks hopefully at Jeff as the flame is extinguished. “Did I mention I was a rocket scientist?” he asks.

“Only about a hundred times,” Jeff says. “But you sure didn’t play like one. Get out of here.”

And that’s it. The visions are gone. I hope you weren’t frightened by the creepiness of sitting here in The Hall of Mirrors the whole time. We’ll sit in the main parlor next week. See you then.

Your comments are welcome. E-mail paulie@fansofrealitytv.com.

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