“What does Able think?” I ask after I’ve dislodged the thick biscuit coating the back of my throat. My armpits start to prickle with sweat.
“We want it to be a surprise,” Emilia says, looking lost for a second. “Do you think he’ll hate it? He hates surprises.”
“I don’t know,” I say uncomfortably.
“You must let me know if you’re not up to it,” Emilia says, watching me closely.
“Why wouldn’t I be up to it?” I ask quietly, and as the words come out of my mouth, I realize that I’m giving Emilia the chance to tell me that she knows something was wrong. With a force that nearly stuns me, I understand what this has all been about: I want to believe that Emilia already knows what Able did, because if she can forgive me, then I will have all the proof I ever needed that none of it was my fault. I blink back hot tears that sting my eyes as I wait for my friend to answer my question.
“You know, I tried to explain something the other day, but I think I wasn’t entirely honest with you,” Emilia says, and I can hear the sound of my blood rushing in my ears.
“You asked why I wanted to help you, and, the truth is, I do feel responsible for you. I was the one who promised I’d look after you at the beginning. I was the one who went to your parents’ house to get you to sign up for Lights. At the time, I thought it was the best thing for you, but now I’m not so sure. You would barely talk to me after that, and I just let you drift away. Then when Able didn’t sign you up for the next one . . . I don’t know, it must have felt like we abandoned you.”
“I don’t know if that’s entirely accurate,” I say, my voice tight.
“Gracie, I know that you ended up in the hospital. After you . . . overdosed,” Emilia says softly, embarrassed for me. “Able told me about your . . . issues with your mental health. I knew they were working you too hard and I felt so guilty for not having said so at the time.”
I don’t know why I’m so surprised by her words. I’ve never owned my own story.
“We actually sent a gift basket when we heard . . . Did you get it?” she asks now urgently.
“I never went back to the house in Venice,” I say, my voice strange sounding.
“Oh, darling, I’ve upset you,” Emilia says, looking stricken herself but recovering quickly because she doesn’t like to think about sad things for too long. “You’ve come so far since then, it really is so incredible to see.”
I stare at a framed photo on their wall that wasn’t up last time I was here. It’s a picture of Able standing in between two beautiful chestnut horses with Silver and Ophelia sitting proudly on top in full dressage outfits.
“You’re angry at Able,” she says then, and I feel instantly dizzy, unspooled by the unexpected accuracy of her words. “I realized it when Camila asked you about him the other day. He hurt you.”
I swallow hard because now that the moment is here, my throat feels as if it’s closing up.
“You know there was a time when I was jealous of you. You and Able always had that connection that nobody else could get near. Not that I’d have even wanted to be involved, it wouldn’t have been healthy. It just seemed unfathomable to me that there was this huge, important part of his life that I couldn’t be a part of,” Emilia says, thoughtfully. I study the chipped black nail polish on my hands, trying to shield myself from her words. The light behind Emilia warps slightly as she struggles for the right words.
“What I’m trying to say is that sometimes we forget that we can never really know someone else, you know, all of them. And that’s okay, we’re all allowed our secrets, but it does mean that occasionally we mistake our own perspective, our own narrative, for theirs. All it took was Able explaining that he saw you like a daughter and that you were the one who asked him to guide you, to nurture your talent where your parents couldn’t seem to, like his grandmother did for him all those years ago, and my jealousy just . . . shifted.”
I swallow, unable to meet Emilia’s eyes as her words float into me instead, settling in even the darkest places I’ve worked so hard to protect. I search for some secret subtext in them but all I hear is that Emilia has no idea about anything that happened to me. She has no clue who I really am at all, and how could she when Able had already started his campaign against me years ago?
“Anyway, I didn’t want to make this about me, but maybe you should talk to Able, see what he has to say. He will have his reasons for whatever happened between the two of you after Lights. You just might not have been able to understand them at the time.”
I nod, slowly.
“We were, close, you know,” I start, my heart hammering in my chest. “Able and I. We were always close.”
“Of course you were, anybody could see that. I don’t think you could have done the work you did if you weren’t,” Emilia says, then she stops abruptly and something in her face changes.
“What are you saying, Grace?” she asks, and I swallow hard, understanding that this is my final chance to tell her what happened while still protecting myself. To brush over it now would be to deliberately lie to her for the first time, and if the truth ever came out, we would both always remember the moment in her kitchen when she left me room to tell her my story.
Emilia’s pale eyes hold mine as I think of everything I could say, both now and onstage at the IFAs, how even if I somehow managed to say the right words out loud, each one would only ever bind me tighter to Able. When I think about him, it’s as if I’m being dragged back down to my knees, only this time I’m pulling everyone around me down with me. For the first time since we met, I am the one with the power to threaten his happiness, but the power is all wrapped up in that threat, and as soon as I actually say the words, that power will be released into the world for others to claim, fight over, apportion blame. After that, I would never be anything more than Able’s victim, to the rest of the world too.
I think about another type of revenge—the quieter, less explosive kind I could inflict just by living my life in spite of him. And what could be more galling for Able than watching me become happier, more successful without him? To know that I always held the power, I just never believed I could do anything without him. I could work again, maybe even on Anatopia, and this time it would be without any of Able’s conditions. Maybe I could learn to relax around Emilia, could learn to accept some of her small acts of kindness toward me, and maybe the way Dylan occasionally still looks at me, as if I am someone good and important, wouldn’t have to change beyond recognition.
“Nothing,” I say after a moment. “Just that maybe it’s too soon. I’m not sure I’m ready to be back in public just yet.”
Emilia nods without meeting my eyes, and I’m relieved when she changes the subject after that, telling me that Silver has been begging her for a retired greyhound for Christmas. She turns away from me as she talks, changing the water of a vase of exotic, fleshy flowers that have wilted in the heat. This is enough, I tell myself as I pick up a fallen petal from the table, scrunching it up in my hand until it’s unrecognizable. This has to be enough.
I’m sorry to interrupt, but could you move your hair out of your face?” the casting director asks, not unkindly. “It’s obstructing your words.”
“Sorry, yes, of course,” I say, tucking my hair behind my ears. I want to point out that it’s more likely the sound of hundreds of cars rushing down the freeway underneath the parking structure that is obstructing my words, but I wouldn’t be doing myself any favors if I did. I’m already on the back foot, clearly having held everyone here for longer than they expected.
“And can you direct your dialogue more to me?” the producer says, folding his arms across his chest. He is standing slightly to the left of the camera. I look at John for confirmation, and he nods encouragingly.
“Sure,” I say, wiping my damp hands on my jeans. Even though it’s my first screen test in nine years, I think it’s unusual for the director, casting director and producer to all be here in person instead of watching the tape at a later date. I’m not sure if that means they’re taking it more seriously or they just happened to be on set today for the reshoots, but for the first time in years, I feel sickeningly nervous. Even though I memorized the lines last night, I’m still gripping the script in my hand, my fingers leaving damp marks on the paper.
I start over again but the entire time I’m trying to concentrate on the lines, I can already hear his voice in my head telling me how badly I’m fucking it up, that I’m too much of a liability, too fat, too broken to be given the job, that I lost my light years ago and the whole thing is a waste of time.
“I never asked for any of this, don’t you understand that?” I read, but this time the producer puts his hand up for me to stop.