Deaths of the Actor
The actor has died thirty-four times. His first death, a grotesque slow-motion spearing in the midst of battle, was looped in a viral video and produced a glut of comments which were either laughing with or at him—he’d never conclusively determined, but he feared the worst.
It’s dramatic, that first: The actor stands triumphantly atop a pile of bodies, sword dripping a hot, liquid red. But in the end he is felled by his own hubris, an opposing soldier’s weapon smoothly piercing his heart at the moment of supposed victory. He’d finished with a guttural, rattling moan that he now regrets—too fake, too performative, and increasingly humorous the more it is replayed, but this had been a later take and he was tired of dying, wanted to go home and feed his cat. He had just moved to LA and wasn’t being paid much to die anyway. The armor was heavier than it looked.
Something about his death resonated with the masses, however; they wanted more of it. So when he got a minor TV role—the inevitable adaptation of a popular horror movie for the small screen—the creators decided to kill him off for ratings. He now suspects that they cast him expressly for this purpose. Halfway through the season, he opens the wrong door to unexpectedly meet a man with a chainsaw. The antagonist makes quick work of him—the actor only releases the first few seconds of a scream before a clean, swift cut across the jugular takes the rest. It unnerves him, watching later, to see his head cleaved so effortlessly from his body. That one stuck with him; every now and then he finds himself running his fingers compulsively along his jaw, just to confirm its attachment.
It is through his sacrifice, that incomplete scream, that the rest of the cast is alerted to the killer’s presence in the house. He makes a guest appearance in season two as another character’s memory, but even in this form is doomed to relive the moment of his death over and over until he cannot bear it, escaping to purgatory or the afterlife or whatever the hell comes next. None of his roles have explored this, of course; they simply close their eyes and cease to be.
The actor has only continued to die since then. He has been skinned alive, hit by a bus (this one was funny, he has to admit, especially played in reverse), chopped up and fed to his girlfriend, strangled by an anonymous lover, eaten by his cat, felled by smallpox, shot, shot, shot—the list goes on. It’s beginning to irk him, the idea that his very presence in a story might now alert the viewer to the possibility of his demise. Not to mention confronting mortality for a living is starting to take its toll. Just once he wants to be the hero, the survivor. Just once, he wants to live.
Recently he’s had several panic attacks on set, passed off as severe heartburn before he can escape to another room to let the fear pass. He schedules an appointment with a highly credentialed and very expensive therapist while crouched in the corner of a bathroom stall, asking the secretary to repeat the fee in a whisper that echoes off the tile. He’ll have to sign on for additional deaths just to afford her services.
During their initial consultation, the therapist claims that all this dying is actually a good thing. A constant exposure to his greatest fear might help him overcome it, she says. He responds that he fears the deaths are only serving to increase his pervasive existential dread.
In an effort to combat the fear, the therapist pulls up a collected reel of the actor’s deaths online and has him watch it on a loop, cheerily observing his face and bodily reactions as he does so. He is unnerved by the steady smile on her face but dutifully watches one after the other, wincing, feeling each death as a ghostly pang in his body, an absence he cannot concretely define.
In the end, however, she pauses very suddenly and says his name, which he does not immediately recognize. His fingers brush his cheeks and come away damp; he’d never been able to cry on command, he recalls, almost amused. Perhaps he has found the secret. Together they look at her computer, an agonized self he does not recognize frozen on the screen, mid-scream.
I saw this one, the therapist comments suddenly, a gleam of recognition in her eye. You know, for what it’s worth, you’re good at what you do.
Abigail Oswald is a writer whose work predominantly examines themes of celebrity, crime, and girlhood. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as Wigleaf, Matchbook, Cheap Pop, Hobart, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Rupture, and Split Lip, and her short fiction was selected for Best Microfiction 2021. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and currently resides in Connecticut. Find her online at abigailwashere.com.
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