“Grace. I think you know what I’m about to ask you. Do you want to tell me about Able Yorke?”
I fold my hands in my lap and lean toward her, my chest constricting and exploding at the same time. My breath comes short and fast, out, out, out like a horse in labor. I know what she wants from me, but I can’t give it to her because the story isn’t going to be what she thinks it is. It never is.
“Get out of my house.”
* * *
? ? ?
After she’s gone, I lock the door and slump against it, pulling my robe tight around me like a blanket. My stomach is knotted, the blood still ringing in my ears when a strange sensation starts to thread its way through the panic. Somehow, this stranger has identified something in me that nobody else could, something that is as much a part of me as my childhood, my marriage, any work I’ve ever done, but that I’ve kept hidden in the loneliest depths of my mind since it happened. Even though I know that I will never be able to tell her my story, with all of the nuances, the gray areas I take up, for some reason just the recognition that something may have been wrong, even if it’s just a hunch, even if she forgets about it tomorrow, is making me aware that I exist. And not ten years ago, or even five, but right fucking now.
For the first time in a while, I sleep through the night. In the morning I call Laurel to tell her I’ve changed my mind. I want to take the house by the ocean after all.
On the set of the movie, there were three of us, three teen assassins with exactly the same job, but it was obvious to everyone that I was his favorite, his project. Able’s beloved grandmother had been British, and he would bring English delicacies to the set especially for me. Once we had a tea party in his trailer with a hamper filled with buttery shortbread and exotic teas he’d had delivered from Fortnum & Mason. The biscuit tin was shaped like a carousel and played tinny circus music while we ate. Able was the most engaging adult I’d ever met, and I idolized him from the moment we started working together. I knew I could do anything he asked because his belief in me made me feel untouchable.
I learned quickly that Able was also tough, resourceful and single-minded, and that nobody could match his extraordinary talent and influence in the industry. He had been an actor before he became a director, and his own history was stranger than fiction, closer to the mythical American dream than any of the films he has directed. As the legend goes, Able was born to a teenage heroin addict in Kansas and spent two weeks on the streets with her before he was adopted by her mother. He moved with his grandmother to Salt Lake City, where he was the sole focus of her love, encouragement and pious affection until his eighth birthday, when she died suddenly of pneumonia. Two months after her death, Able was discovered living alone in the derelict basement of the church she attended, and was placed into foster care until he was discovered again at the age of twelve, this time by a model scout who spotted his teardrop dimples and glittering eyes at a carwash in a town called Lark.
From his first modeling job, Able worked like someone who had promised himself he would never have to eat rats for lunch again. His story became legendary and his face more famous than many of the actors he cast in his films. He was adored by the media and moviegoers alike. When I started working with him, he was already rich in everything that was valued in a man, his beauty only serving to soften the blow of his temper on set. I watched intelligent, powerful women melt at his feet every day, and even though nobody really knew how much of his backstory was real, I realized early on that it didn’t seem to matter.
One morning, around halfway through the three-month shoot of that first movie, Able pulled me aside to tell me he wanted me to do one of the stunts myself. Up until that point we had all been using stunt doubles, but Able decided he needed a continuous shot of my face in this particular scene to make it work. Able had made his name shooting gritty, character-driven projects, so this adaptation was a big departure for him, and he often seemed visibly frustrated with the limitations the genre placed on him.
The scene in question showed my character fighting a bomb maker in a New York City apartment, culminating with me being pushed backward off a fire escape. The stunt wasn’t advanced—all I needed to do was fall out of a first-story fire escape onto a crash pad below; the problem was that I had been acutely phobic of heights for as long as I could remember. Still, when Able asked, I nodded and listened closely all morning as the stunt coordinator fitted me with pads underneath my costume and taught me how to land the “suicide” fall: on my back, with flat feet, bent knees, and my arms stretched out to the sides at a forty-five-degree angle, making sure to exhale heavily on impact. Once I had perfected the fall on the pit mat, I obediently climbed up the fire escape.
Once I was at the top, I gripped the railing with hands already slick with sweat as Able called action from below. I stood on the edge of the fire escape, swaying slightly as multiple cameras swooped menacingly around me. The man playing my adversary paused to ask if I was okay, but it sounded like he was speaking to me through a crashing waterfall. Panic waded through my veins as I sank down to sit on the platform, resting my head on my knees. My ears were ringing as somewhere below, in another world, I heard Able shout, “Cut!” The stunt coordinator made a move to help me down, but Able put his hand out to stop him.
The climb back down the fire escape to the back lot was the most excruciating moment of my life to date. Each step felt like it took five minutes. By the time I reached the bottom, I was trembling all over, and nobody on set would meet my eye. They knew I was Able’s problem because that’s how our relationship had worked up until then—I had made it clear that I didn’t need anyone else. Able called lunch, and the crew dispersed, muttering clichés about never working with animals or children. They knew they didn’t owe me anything.
Able beckoned me over to where he was talking quietly with his assistant director. When I reached the two men, the AD took one look at Able’s face and headed off to craft services, leaving me alone with him.
“What happened up there?” Able asked, so quietly that I had to lean in to hear him. For the first time, I noticed how his incisor teeth protruded slightly, sharp and shiny with spit.
I pulled away and shrugged as if it wasn’t a big deal. “I’m scared of heights. I thought you knew.”
Able narrowed his eyes at me and I realized instantly that I had played it wrong, that this wasn’t the time for the insouciance, the nihilism, whatever it was he normally encouraged in me. I shifted, trying to become who he needed me to be.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“I don’t need you to be sorry, Grace. I just need you to step up,” Able said, and even though his words were gentle, his voice was different, as if he was struggling to disguise something I couldn’t identify. “Can you do that for me?”
“I don’t know,” I said, still thinking it was a question.
Able pressed his lips together tightly. Later, I would become an expert in reading his body language and adapting, but since Able had never been anything but generous and kind toward me up to that point, I had no idea how to navigate what was to come. Behind him, I could see Lorna and Ted, the other two assassins, watching us, and I wondered if I was imagining the satisfaction on their faces. I had never once considered how it felt to be invisible next to me.
“Anyone can be scared,” Able said slowly, and when I turned my attention back to him, everyone else faded into the background. “I’m not interested in fear. I’m interested in how we get past the fear. And how do we do that?”
“By doing the thing we’re scared of,” I said, and Able smiled slightly. I had been listening.
“That’s right, Gracie. So do you want to try it again? I’ll spot you myself this time.”
I stood, frozen at the prospect of letting Able down but equally aware that I couldn’t do what he was asking of me. When I didn’t reply, Able’s face started to change, and I watched as his eyes became flat and his lip curled as he studied me with barely concealed disgust. It was only when it was gone that I realized the extent of his beauty, how safe I felt when he was looking at me.
“Did you forget how lucky you are to be here?” he asked. “It’s sort of interesting to me that with all these hardworking, talented people around us, somehow it’s you wasting everyone’s time.”