Summoning the courage, Julia frantically knocked on the door of Mark’s house, fidgeting nervously as she waited for the door to open.
Creaking, it opened, and Julia took a deep breath. Mark stood in front of her wearing sweat pants and a plain white t-shirt. Crossing his arms, he raised an expectant eyebrow eyebrow.
“Let’s do it.” She looked up at Mark’s tall figure.
He nodded, having expected this.
She sighed, exasperated with his silence. “Tell me when we need to start planning or whatever,” she said, rolling her eyes. She walked away, her high heels clicking and her dress swishing, leaving Mark to follow her with his eyes.
“Okay,” Mark mumbled to himself. “Okay.”
After weeks of waiting for a yes to his request, she had agreed.
Many things were going to happen.
After her last class at her university, Julia appeared at his house once again. Welcoming her in, they sat down at the table, taking a seat opposite each other.
“So how are we going to do this?” Julia asked impatiently, looking at her watch. Trying his best to ignore her snobby actions, he grabbed his laptop.
Flipping it open, he logged in and clicked on a website. Scooting over to peer at his laptop, Julia read the website name. Love’s Reality.
“So you want to work together and fake-date?” Mark glanced at Julia, waiting for her confirmation. She gave an empty smile as assurance and he cleared his throat, continuing.
“On this reality TV show, they’ll give us challenges to gain points from the audience's votes—they vote for their favorite couple. A couple is eliminated every round until the final three remain for the ultimate task in round five. After that, well, there’s your money if you win.”
Julia scooted closer to skim the website, her eyes glowing at the prize money.
“That’s… that’s a lot,” she stuttered. “And, for the both of us.”
Mark noted the desperation in her voice, glad that he wasn't the only desperate one. Confusion clouded his thoughts, remembering her career.
“You’re rich! You’re the CEO of a whole freakin’ company! I’m the one who needs money!” he blurted out. She didn’t flinch, just rolling her shoulders.
Sighing and rubbing her face roughly, she looked at him with tired eyes. “My company isn’t doing well and I thought I could win this—this thing.” She waved her hands around wildly. “And use the money to support the business.” She peered at him, genuinely curious. “And why do you need the money?”
He rolled his eyes, annoyed. “Well, unlike the CEO over here, my family is going bankrupt. My mother is being hospitalized and I need to help them out...” Julia’s eyes softened as she listened carefully.
“I’m sorry,” she murmured. He just shook his head, no longer wanting to speak about it. Moving on, he quickly switched topics.
“You realize we’re going to have to kiss, call each other pet names, act sweet, that kind of stuff?” Mark knew he couldn't hide that from her, consent was the most important thing in a relationship. Even if it was fake.
But, they did have a past. They were childhood friends, taking acting lessons with each other since elementary school. Despite that, they naturally drifted apart, eventually giving each other the cold-shoulder because of the tension between their acting groups.
“Yes,” she agreed. “Are you 100% okay with this?”
He was going to nod but stopped, stretching out his hand for a handshake instead. Julia gave a genuine smile, shaking his hand.
“MARK AND JULIA PASSED!”
Relief passed through the both of them, hope surging through their veins. They had surprisingly received the most amount of votes for the first round, viewers loving their relationship. Their acting had given them enough experience to shine.
Nobody would have guessed that it was fake, but after they left the bright stage, there were no interactions between them. Absolutely nothing.
“OUR WINNERS FOR THIS ROUND, MARK AND JULIA!”
The couple danced around the stage, the screen behind them flashing their names. Confetti rained down from the ceiling as they celebrated their second win. The audience smiled as they saw the couple spin each other, both genuinely having fun. Julia was laughing loudly, gasping for air after the wild dance. Mark squeezed her cheeks, giving a teasing smile when she blushed.
Winking at the audience, he walked forward and picked off all the confetti in her hair, leaning dangerously close before pecking her lips and running away. The audience was enjoying the show, laughing at their interactions with each other.
“And that’s why we voted for you two!” somebody from the audience called, cheers of approval coming after. Mark teased Julia from the other side of the stage, who had paused.
She scanned the crowd, making sure to make eye-contact with them. “Thank you! Thank you, everybody!” She blew kisses out towards the crowd, a pouting, jealous Mark beside her. Noticing, she blew a kiss towards him before looking back at the cameras and audience.
“We’ll make sure the next round is just as loving!”
After their hectic second day, Mark gathered the courage to ask Julia for a date, wanting to become closer to her. They had just left the stage after signing autographs and talking with interviewers, their energy drained. The show had blown up, people from all over the world watching them.
“Julia… would you like to have coffee with me tomorrow?” he blurted out nervously, adrenaline now keeping him energized.
Julia avoided eye-contact, looking everywhere but him. “Listen…” she began. “We shouldn’t bring actual feelings into this. This is business and business only, nothing else. So, I’m sorry, but no.”
Mark nodded frantically, rushing to leave in his car. “Well, okay then, thanks.”
He couldn't help but let his feelings bloom.
The third round came, nobody expecting any different results. Two couples had been eliminated already, their love appearing less genuine than Mark and Julia’s.
“YOUR FAVORITE COUPLE WINS AGAIN! CONGRATULATIONS TO MARK AND JULIA!”
Mark and Julia cheered, hugging each other tightly on stage as they took first place for the third time in a row, passing easily. The audience ‘aww’ed, cooing when Mark pecked Julia’s lips.
He leaned close to her ear, murmuring softly. “We’re going out tonight, whether you like it or not. I’ll pick you up at eight p.m., dress fancy.”
Surprised by his sudden burst of confidence, she whispered an ‘okay’ and continued playing up the love.
She was going to regret saying yes, she knew.
The lovely couple arrived at a luxurious restaurant, dressed up in fancy attire. Julia wore a simple black dress, perfectly fitting her body. Mark had dressed up nicely as well, his suit making Julia stare. Surprisingly, they talked about many things, not a single moment of silence.
By the end of the night, they were both perfectly comfortable with each other, their strained conversations gone.
Testing his luck, he asked for a second date. “Just so that we can get to know each other better and act better on stage.” He used the show as an excuse, not knowing how else to ask. He knew that she wanted this to be business-only matter but there had been a friendship between them.
Julia knew he was trying to make a real relationship grow, she wasn’t naive. But she said yes anyway, knowing that it would be a good way to get to know each other better.
“Yes,” she smiled warmly. “Yes, I will.”
It was the day of the fourth round, and they had gotten second-to-last place, a shocking loss. But, they weren’t eliminated—at least, not yet. Another couple, Lucas and Giselle, had won this round, infuriating Julia.
“You could’ve done so much better!” she yelled at Mark backstage. “Those stupid dates,” she spat, “all for goddamn nothing!” He flinched at her words, staring at his feet. “You know that the next round is the last one!”
“I’m sorry-” he began but she cut him off.
“‘Sorry’ does nothing! Absolutely! nothing!” she cried angrily, shoving him. He shook his head, not willing to be her punching bag—physically and mentally.
“I’m not going to argue with you. I’m leaving,” he stated coldly, brushing past her. He would forget about this argument so that they could both cool down, making sure their anger wouldn’t show on stage.
He needed to win.
“Gentlemen,” the host explained to the men in the private room, away from the ladies. “For this round, we will award whoever proposes in the best way and receives the best reaction.”
Mark sucked in his breath. Propose?! This was fake, he couldn’t freakin’ propose.
“And we’ll be filming secretly, streaming the live reaction.”
The three male contestants nodded, understanding the situation.
Mark would do anything to win, even if somebody was going to be hurt.
Why did he feel like it was going to be him?
Mark was given a ring with a princess cut diamond, it’s shine, almost glow-like, lighting up the room. He admired the ring, trying to forget the situation coming along with it.
He sighed. Who could ignore a proposal while looking at a ring?
He pulled out his laptop, placing it on his dining table. He searched for places to rent, ignoring the price since the show would pay for all expenses. He scrolled half-heartedly, pausing when he spotted something specific.
He clicked on the picture that caught his eye.
Julia huffed. “So when can I take off my blindfold?”
Mark smirked, leading her by holding her wrist. “I’ll tell you when.”
Arriving at the beach resort, he looked around, spotting the hidden camera with their flashing, red light.
“Okay, take it off,” he yelled, making sure the cameras heard and were prepared to film.
She rolled her eyes, untying the blindfold. She let it drop and gasped, her body trembling. Glancing back at Mark, her head frantically moved around, trying to wrap her mind around this place.
“This…” she faltered, “is absolutely stunning.”
Looking around at the luxurious beach, she admired the fairy lights and beach house just a few meters out from the shore, standing in the ocean. It was a resort, a really fancy one. Everything was perfect.
To the right of the beach house, she noticed the cliff with a waterfall crashing into the ocean, creating ripples.
“I… I don’t know what to say…”
Without a response from Mark, she turned around, searching for him. She looked down, eyes widening.
On his knee with a ring in hand, he looked up at her with what looked like love. His eyes stared intensely into hers, his hand shaking.
“Will you marry me?”
Her mind fogged, not realizing that it was for the show.
“What the heck! NO!” she yelled, slapping him. Viewers’ jaws dropped, not believing that this was the same couple from on-stage.
Mark stood up, holding his cheek. His face was emotionless and his movement was stiff, the surreal situation making him numb.
He walked towards the beach, cameras zooming in. He grunted, throwing the ring as far out as he could, trying to remove the evidence that this ever happened, that his heart wasn’t broken. A tear escaped his eye, and he wiped it away roughly. He turned back to her cold figure.
“I guess it was real for me,” he whispered mournfully. Behind him, Julia ‘tsk’ed, shaking her head.
“It was never real. It was FAKE,” she emphasized. “Fake, fake, fake! None of this was real, okay?! You’re delusional!”
He glared at her, speaking stonily. “I know.” He was already walking away, a deep anger radiating off of him.
He left with a shattered heart.
The pain was still fresh, his heart aching whenever he thought about her. But the world had seen what had taken place, and he could never escape the scene. Videos of it played everywhere, a constant reminder of his hurt.
This should’ve stayed FAKE.
The winner was decided. Lucas and Giselle had won, their genuine love winning everything. He watched from backstage, refusing to be within Julia’s gaze.
The host came backstage, searching for Mark. Walking over, he gave a sad smile.
“Mark, we can’t just let you leave like this,” the host tried convincing. “Here, have compensation money, okay?”
Despite Mark shaking his head no, the host eagerly handed him a check, worth the same as the winner’s amount.
“That’s too much!” He tried denying the money, not wanting to fall into the illusion of money as Julia had.
The host refused to back down, and Mark grudgingly accepted it. “Thank you,” he said gratefully. “I’ll spend it wisely.”
But he lied. He couldn't accept this money—he wanted nothing to remind him of his loss and Julia.
Yet he drove to her house anyway, knocking on her door as she had done several times with his.
The door opened almost immediately, as if she was waiting for somebody.
“What do you want?” She glared at him suspiciously.
He shoved the check in her hands, already walking away.
“Save your business,” he said as he walked to his car.
She peered at the check, seeing the amount of money. Her eyes widened, knowing that this could solve the majority of her problems. She noticed that her name was on it, no longer under Mark’s name.
She knew that she should return it to Mark, but her selfishness got the best of her. She accepted the money completely, not wanting to give it back.
This is wrong. Her subconscious fought with her ego, none backing down. Give it to his family. But her devil won, her money-hungry desperation eating up all her empathy. She couldn’t, she wouldn’t. Her business needed saving, and this was the perfect chance. Glancing up, she saw Mark entering his car.
Starting the engine, he drove away, never sparing her a glance.
They parted as strangers.