's 2018 Horror Write-off:

Comeback Tour

Submitted by Miranda

   April Jaimes’ death is sudden, tragic, embarrassing, and totally out of line with her public image. Most importantly, there are five years left on her contract. At the homes of her loved ones, and at the recording studio, the world falls apart. Her managers hastily cancel her upcoming tour, citing emotional stress and a need for a break. The fans are overwhelmingly supportive, sending well-wishes to the representatives that run her accounts, and thus the silent stadiums buy some time for Team April.

   “Alright,” says Cho early on Tuesday, tapping the edge of a stack of papers straight on the table. “You morons better have some solutions.”

   The room fills with noise as everyone clamors to talk at once, hungry for a piece of the project. “One at a goddamn time.” Cho pinches the bridge of his nose, then points. “Willis.”

   Willis folds her hands, fidgeting with her gold watch. “I have fifteen girls’ applications in for the replacement. In my opinion, four are viable candidates. Height and measurements are accurate within a reasonable margin -“

   Cho squints. “How’d you play that off?”

   “I said it was community theater – a staging of a promising new musical, but low-budget. So she had to fit into an existing costume. And allegedly, all these girls can sing an A3 to F-sharp-5. Down-to-earth, vulnerable, yet with inner strength.” On her tablet are four brunette, smiling headshots. She flips the screen to let the others see. “An April Jaimes type.”

   Cho doesn’t make any motion to look at the headshots. “Pretty specific, Willis.” “We’re not going with this, are we?” says Scott. Scott is the oldest of Team April, with over two decades of experience in the industry. Supposedly, even Cho doesn’t know the full extent of his PR client list. “Being caught as a … a fake would be the worst thing that could possibly happen to April. It’s unfortunate that this happened, but we can’t waste time with this madcap replacement idea. We need to focus on transitioning to the next phase of her career. Tragic martyr.”

   “But what I’m suggesting,” says Willis, “is that she’s not ready for tragic martyr just yet,” “There’s only so much mileage we can get out of post-death fame, whereas for April’s contract to continue -“

   Scott laughs bitterly. “Only so much mileage? Sure, ‘cause no one remembers John Lennon. Frank Sinatra. Billie Holiday!” Willis starts to say something, but is cut off by Scott listing names, rapid-fire. “Tupac, Elvis, Marilyn … they like ‘em dead, okay? And if April’s last hurrah is dignified, or at least glamorously tragic, instead of … well, what happened, she can join that list. Our work here doesn’t have to be difficult, guys.” He looks defiantly at Cho, as if challenging him not to agree.

   “I think Willis has a point.” The final member of the team, Sullivan, leans forward. He has a posture that makes you listen when he speaks, like he takes up the whole room. “Our work doesn’t have to be difficult. But who are we to back away from a challenge? Is that what we’re about at this company?” A rhetorical pause. “I don’t think it is. It’s a risk, I know, but April had potential. And I don’t think we should let her talent go to waste just yet.” He rises smoothly from his chair, and his colleagues’ eyes follow him against their wishes. “Who is April?”

   “Was April,” corrects Scott, though his heart is barely in it. “Guys, April isn’t just a pop star or a brand,” Sullivan says, glowing. “She’s a person we all know and love. April has authenticity. She isn’t autotuned – I mean, as far as officially, she isn’t. She’s grassroots. Girl-next-door. She sits down with her guitar, and she sings a song about heartache.” His eyes are wistful, maybe a little misty. “And the whole world relates. Offstage, she’s witty and a little socially awkward. An animal lover. I could go on. My point is, April has a perfect blend of talent and personality that makes her a star. And those talents and personality traits are measurable, and could hypothetically be transferred onto a fresh April.” He’s crossed the room at this point, and stands by Willis, his posture open and trustworthy. “And if Willis is mad for wanting our girl back?” The word sounds antiquated and amusing coming from him. “Then with all due respect, Scott, get me a straitjacket too.”

   Willis can see the others’ expressions softening, and she’s grateful to have Sullivan take her side for once. The man is a goddamn rat piper. Inherently punchable. You know he’s all hairspray and confident smooth talk, and yet you can’t name a single reason he’s wrong.

   Cho sighs, taps his pen decisively. “Alright, Sullivan, Willis. We’ll try it your way.” Willis clutches her tablet close. “Bring in the girls for auditions. And bury them up to their damn necks in confidentiality agreements. If this goes wrong all our asses are on the line.”

   “Absolutely. Definitely. Thank you. I won’t let you down.” The boardroom table gleams like a top-of-the-line coffin.

   Friday at 11:00 am, the four April Jaimes types show up at a dingy audition building to fill out questionnaires. The waiting room features cracked plastic chairs and absolutely no surfaces to write on, so the girls offer their backs in turn. The place might have been a dance studio at some point, and one wall is a giant mirror, creating eight variant Aprils – born like near-clones with mid-tan skin, straight noses, and curved hips, their individuality evident in their clothing and posture. “What kind of questions are these?” says one potential April, with ombre tips dyed into her hair. Her face scrunches up a little. “I would be willing to one day undergo cosmetic surgery for a role, yes or no.”

   “It’s an agency question,” says the April whose back she’s writing on. “You know –“ She names an actress who’s been on the same cop drama for almost fifteen years. “She has to get work done so she keeps looking good on camera. Obviously we won’t be in this show that long, but it’s just in case we become breakout stars and stay with the company longtime. We’d get to go to the nice agency buildings in L.A. then.” Ombre April purses her mouth, unsure if she buys it. After a second, she resumes writing. “Whatever. I haven’t worked in three months.”

   “I kinda hope the finished show doesn’t like, lean so much on the celebrity references?” says another April uncertainly, this one with an oversized sweatshirt. “Like, it’s nice to know all the characters are a this guy type or a that guy type, but I don’t want it to be just pastiches, you know? She’s an April Jaimes type, but who is she besides that?”

   Pencil-skirt April agrees. “It feels so derivative of the popular shows now.” “I mean, if you guys don’t want the part, you can go,” says April with dangling earrings. Behind the mirror wall, Willis watches the girls interact and fills out pages of her own. Earrings April loses points for rudeness, but wins a few back when she apologetically offers the others vocal lozenges from her purse a few minutes later. Bouncing back from a mistake is a vital quality in a celebrity, and if dying isn’t a serious faux pas then Willis doesn’t know what is.

   When Willis’ notes are complete, she regroups with the other managers in the official audition room, and Sullivan brings in the first April to sing. They can hear the other girls encouraging her to break a leg as the door closes.

   Auditions are short, but poring over headshots, voice tapes, and temperament observations is grueling. The girl who’s the closest physical match for April – by a few millimeters of facial feature placement – is also the most likely to reject the offer entirely once she finds out what happened. Another one almost perfectly mimics April’s lower notes, but she’s a small-town girl whose mom drove her to the audition – too many connections to be whisked away into a secret life of celebrity. Ultimately, the numbers point to pencil-skirt April as the safest choice. Real name Beatriz Buenaventura, a working actress and open-mic bar singer living near Los Angeles. Strong vocal range, open to the idea of minor surgeries, and most importantly, not successful enough to be anyone yet. When they tell her, she doesn’t take it as well as they’d hoped. “You expect me to … replace April Jaimes. Who’s dead, and you didn’t tell anyone.” She’s hyperventilating a little. “Who died-“

   “We don’t like to think of it as a replacement. More a passing of the torch,” Sullivan says, handing her a company-issue shock blanket. He leans in, looking her in the eyes. “And Beatriz, you have the power to stop that torch from going out. L.A. is the city where dreams come true. Where the party goes on as long as you want. We all know how much people love April Jaimes. It would be a shame to cut her life, and her work, short so soon. Even just five more years before a retirement, or a dignified death – fake, of course, you’d go back to your life if you wanted. Five more years, maybe two more albums would bring people so much joy. And God knows this country needs some uncomplicated joy right now.” He raises his eyebrow in a way that implies current events without alienating a listener of any political affiliation. Sullivan’s famous on-your-side eyebrow. Willis has seen it before, and built up something of a tolerance. Beatriz hasn’t.

   Beatriz stares at the floor for some time. “How would doing this affect my family?” she says carefully, guardedly. Willis exhales in relief. She’s hooked. Clients can’t help but like Sullivan, even while fully aware they’re being spin-doctored. It’s the way you can’t help but like sickly sweet grocery store cookies.

   And then Willis tells her the pay. And the benefits. And the luxury accommodations and the gorgeous private mansion and the fully electric car and the team of songwriters and how her close family, people she couldn’t feasibly lie to for five years, will know the situation and she’ll be able to send them money within reason, and distant relatives and industry acquaintances will believe with airtight proof that she’s making her way into a moderately successful stage acting career. Eventually, all the answers to Beatriz’s questions blur together into one: We’ll take care of it.

   The other thing is, Beatriz likes the idea of inheriting April Jaimes’ packed stadiums more than she’s willing to admit. She tries to convince herself she signs the papers out of consideration for her family, because they’ll be so happy when they hear their struggling actress daughter can suddenly take care of their insurance and medical bills. But if providing for her family is the brain of her decision, the idea of being someone to the public – even if that someone isn’t the person she imagined – is the tell-tale heart. She’s a lifelong performer, after all, and a singer and a pretty good guitarist, and she’s spent years being ignored and turned down for roles, told sorry, you’re not what we’re looking for. Now, finally, she’s wanted.

   Of course, she tones down certain parts of the deal when she calls her parents, Cho, Scott, Willis, and Sullivan listening on speakerphone with tense anticipation. She doesn’t tell them about the team’s plans for experimental microsurgeries to gradually shift her bone structure closer to April’s before she appears in public. She doesn’t tell them the actual, unglamorous cause of April’s death – Team April made it clear that doing that would result in expertly pulled strings and complete legal and financial ruin. She tells them that the agency is going to take care of her and that this is only a temporary PR measure that will make countless April fans happy. Give them concerts and albums to look forward to, extend the April Jaimes story for another five years. “This is what I wanted, Dad, Mom,” says Beatriz, voice shaking, with happiness, she thinks. “I finally hit it big in L.A.” And when her parents finally come around to the idea, they can’t keep the relief out of their voices.

   Beatriz - April - is missing from public life for almost six months. During that time, the surgeons and makeup artists and vocal trainers work together to rebuild her from the ground up. She studies tapes of April Jaimes and tries to mimic the way she used to move across a stage in her retro peasant skirts, the way she used to win over late-night interviewers with her funny stories and humble charm. Beatriz has played many roles in the past, but acting like she’s not acting is another matter entirely. She feels clumsy and inauthentic reproducing the way April strummed her guitar, even as the managers insist it’s all going to be worth it. Team April has by this time expanded to include several dozen people, but Sullivan, Cho, Scott, and Willis are still the primary agents by her side. “You’re gonna kill this,” Sullivan tells her, beaming.

   Then, on a cloudy June evening in Washington (they’d tried for April, the month, but couldn’t get everything ready in time), she makes her comeback. The crowd screeches in appreciation as she takes the big outdoor stage in a painstakingly committee-chosen blue dress, like a forest spirit stepping out of the fog, like an angel. Alone in front of the sea of cameras, Beatriz pictures April, the real April, standing next to her. She gives her an encouraging smile. The band strikes up, same as they ever did. Darling, I have never been/quite so sure of anything, she sings. You brought me back to life. Her voice echoes, strong and sure, and the crowd inexpertly shouts along with the chorus. It starts to rain.

   (The old April, the one now under tight security in a tasteful urn, was almost two inches taller than Beatriz. You don’t want to know what they did about that.) As the tour goes on, Beatriz gets more comfortable interacting with the crowd. She starts signing autographs after shows, mimicking the old April’s flourish within a reasonable margin of error, and the fans thank her profusely. An older woman comes up to see her once, in Tennessee, when the roadies are packing up and the majority of the crowd is gone. “I’m Marisol,” she says, apologetically. “Jaimes.” “Oh.”

   Beatriz lets Marisol come forward and hug her, not sure what to do. “I know you’re not really her. They told me,” the woman whispers, fighting tears, “But it’s so good to see you again.”

   In Dallas, Beatriz leans down and reaches out to someone in the front row as she sings the bridge of another song. The lyrics are angry, bitter, but the song has transformed into a song of joy for the fans, one they can have fun belting together at concerts. Oh, my soul hasn’t seen the sun/since you got up and left with her. You’re not fooling anyone/you’re not who you said you were. The fans reach back, trying to touch her outstretched hand, their faces illuminated, concerned with nothing else for the time being.

   By awards season, she can occasionally forget she’s another person walking in April’s shoes. The speech, the posture, the guitar playing all come more naturally to her than they ever have. She’s invited to the big awards presentation after her song is used in some indie movie, although her team tells her ahead of time that a more mainstream star’s name is in the envelope. Months ago, she would have been relieved she didn’t have to give an acceptance speech in character as April. Now, she’s surprised to find herself a little annoyed she won’t get to. Team April have grown fond of their star as she’s settled into her old identity, even Scott, who’d once hated the whole idea of a replacement. It takes a village to raise the dead. “Tonight’s gonna be pretty interesting,” he reveals to her as the whole team climbs into the limo. “There’s a fight planned between-“ He names two actors, one a famously volatile bad boy, one a sweet, shy girl who’s going to win Best Supporting Actress. “They have the same manager, see? He’s gonna cut her speech short to promote his shoe brand. It’ll draw sympathy for her and attract interest as to what crazy thing he’ll do next.” “If he’s even him,” says Willis.

   Seeing April’s quizzical look, Cho explains, “There’s rumors other agencies are taking our idea. Looking into replacing their stars with doubles. Deaths, drug problems, unmanageable public behavior, some who just don’t want to do it anymore.” He shakes his head.

   “Have any of our other clients … I mean, are they like me?” Cho, gruffly: “Don’t worry about it.”

   The red carpet is beautiful. Opulent. April has met a few other musicians opening for her concerts, but she’s never been in a place with such a concentration of famous people before. She keeps spotting faces from movies, TV, music videos, people it’s surreal to see occupying physical space. A blonde reality show host cuts a massive cake decorated with fragile sugar bubbles, exposing the fluffy filling inside. April’s managers let her eat one small piece for the cameras – she’s a real woman, not some Hollywood fake above indulging in dessert – and no more, in the interest of preserving her designer dress and her figure.

   “April Jaimes!” Some TV interviewer has approached her, smiling a sunny, open smile. “You look great tonight – and of course you’re nominated for an award. How are you feeling?”

   April levels eye contact with the camera. “Uh, I hope I’ll win!” She laughs, endearingly awkward, and the interviewer does too. “But like, it’s okay if I don’t. Honestly? There are so many talented, and- and incredible people nominated tonight, and I’m happy for all of us. That’s what it’s about. And no matter what, I’m probably just gonna go home after and hang out with my cat.”

   She and the interviewer are keeping the energy high, bubbly and made-up. At some point, it’s become so easy. “And for the people at home – who are you wearing?” She rattles off the designer, a big name whose pieces cost amounts of money that don’t even sound real, and the interviewer thanks her and flits off to the next person. April goes over the list of who she knows and doesn’t know in her head, and drinks probably too much champagne, and watches the schools of fancy goldfish shimmy in the huge decorative tank they brought in.

   She’s debating whether it’s worth it to sneak over to the banquet table and grab some quail in cranberry sauce, or at least a pastry, when she bumps ungracefully into a scruffy cable drama actor. He says something that’s probably an apology, but she doesn’t process it, transfixed by his massive blue eyes, his instantly recognizable voice, soft and thick like someone talking through a mouthful of mashed potatoes. He’s shorter than he looks on TV. What are celebrities but a pile of parts, right? You hear about insured legs, famous curls, the iconic growl of an old country star. Get those right and no one notices the smaller things.

   She finds herself stumbling through the crowd, cataloging every face. Thick glasses and a teddy-bear-chubby build. Long legs and a deep tan, hiding age lines. Wild dark curls and black lipstick. She can see faces upon faces distorted through the glass of the tank, beyond the identical white and orange fish, the beautiful people, or at least likable enough that no one cares if they aren’t beautiful. Are they the same as they’ve always been? Is she sure? Would she notice if they weren’t? April Jaimes looks back at her from the glass. Would she care?

   “’Scuse me,” says a polite, sheepish voice from behind her. She’s blocking the casserole dish from a fellow celebrity. She apologizes and steps out of the way, and the man, a middle-aged rock star of days past, reaches over for the ladle. She vaguely recognizes him, though less from his music and more from his public meltdown a few years back. To his credit, though, tonight he’s cleaned-up, sober, and as charming as ever. Everyone said he really turned it around, came back from rehab a new man. “D’you think this casserole is any good?” he says, poking through the layers with the oversized spoon. His tone implies that they’re something like secret agents, trying to decide whether to trust the extremely suspicious pasta dish.

   Through the dead woman’s skin, she smiles. “It looks fine to me.”