Emilia leads me into the thick of the crowd, and of course she has curated the ideal ratio of beauty to power, and I already recognize many of the guests from movies I’ve worked on or publicity tours I’ve done. I keep my head down as I follow her, and a pressing sense of dread falls over me.
I stop walking and Emilia does too. Her fingernails dig into my flesh, and there is something different about her, too, an undercurrent of something I can’t identify. The ghost of Frank Sinatra croons from the speakers, barely audible over the heavy thrum of conversation. I turn around but there is a smiling stranger there, poised to greet me, blocking me from the exit. I turn back to Emilia and search her face. She looks dazed, untethered.
“Are you okay?” I ask quietly.
“Able wanted to celebrate, so he invited a few friends over. You’d think that these people would already have plans on Christmas Eve, but you know Able. He snaps his fingers and people come,” Emilia says shrilly, snapping her own fingers. I turn away from her so that she can’t see the stunned look on my face. Despite her efforts to appear normal, Emilia seems as unsettled as I am by Able’s unexpected return, even vulnerable, and instinctively I want to protect her as she has tried to protect me.
Emilia hands me a glass of champagne before catching herself and apologizing. She swaps it for a glass of water and then introduces me to a few of her friends, all publicists. When I reach for her arm, she slips away from me, and I’m left trying to catch my breath alone.
“I hear you’re not working with Nan anymore?” one of the women asks me, and even though I’m still reeling, trying desperately to scan the room and locate Emilia, I pull my attention to her. They are all indistinguishable to me, these women with their glowing skin and haircuts as blunt as their questions.
I excuse myself as soon as possible and lean against a wall on the other side of the room. You can see the whole living space from here, even through to the expansive deck that overlooks the ocean. And that’s when I see him. The man who both created and destroyed me. He stands with his back against the doors that lead onto the deck, telling a story to his crowd of fans. He speaks quietly so that those around him have to lean in toward him to catch each word. People are drawn to him like this. They hover around him and laugh too loudly, even when he’s not being funny, which is most of the time. I remember how important it felt to remain in his glowing orbit, to do whatever it took not to be cast back into the dark. He controls everyone around him, refusing to acknowledge my presence because he doesn’t have to, even though I know that he’s spotted me from the deliberate way he will look anywhere but at me.
The fury comes now, the force of it buoying me up instead of pulling me under for the first time since the day I met him. I watch him from afar, blood pumping through my veins, my fingers tightening around the glass in my hand. I watch him so intently that everything else around us starts to blur, the lights flaring and everyone else fading into the background. Able’s blond hair is thick and perfectly tousled. His skin is golden, his red lips plump and his incisor teeth sharp.
A hand snakes around my waist and I turn quickly, ready to knock someone out. When I see that it’s John Hamilton, I step deftly back, angling my face so that he can kiss my cheek with no risk of him getting anywhere near my mouth.
“Publicity already kicked in on the movie, right?” he says, and I stare at him blankly. “The photos? Outside my house?”
“Sorry, of course. Yes, exactly,” I say, trying to focus on him. Even in the dim lighting, I can see the film of sweat covering his skin, his lips slick with spittle. John is cumbersome, even repellent, seemingly a different species from Able. I think how different it might be if his was the face of my nightmares instead of Able, whether people would understand it more, maybe even want to believe me.
“I’m going to pay my respects to the man of the hour. I hear this new one is his best yet,” John says, before he claps me on the shoulder. “No offense.”
“None taken,” I say, stepping out of the way so that he can sail past me, settling in next to Able.
Silver comes up to me then, wearing a polka-dot dress and clutching a pack of Lucky Strikes like it’s an Oscar.
“What are you doing with those?”
“I heard someone say that smoking is so uncool, it’s actually cool again,” she says, and I should probably stop her, but I let her wander off instead, still holding the pack of cigarettes. I put my glass straight down on the vintage butler’s table Emilia traveled to an auction in New Haven to pick up. I don’t take my eyes off Able for a second.
When he and John slip outside with a couple of cigars, I move closer, into the living room area. An aged rock star sits in the emerald velvet armchair, his tobacco-stained fingers twitching on the armrest. A young actor, tipped to clean up this awards season, sits in the other chair, comparing vapes with his older cast mate. The porcelain caroler figurines that were once Emilia’s grandmother’s line every surface of the room, and I try not to look at them for too long, each of their shiny frozen faces pulled back into an eternal scream.
Someone else taps me on the shoulder, and I turn around. The woman standing there already feels familiar; her lips are fleshy and slick with glossy lipstick.
“Grace, it’s me. Lorna,” this woman says, her mouth stretching wide into a smile. Lorna. I shake my head, no, too disoriented to feel bad for not knowing who she is.
“From the first two movies?” she says, embarrassed now.
“I killed you in the second movie,” I say, because of course, she was the other female assassin. I try to concentrate while also making sure that I know exactly where Able is. He’s still outside. Where’s Emilia? I shake my head and try to form something resembling a normal question. “What are you up to now?”
“I’m working in script development,” Lorna says self-deprecatingly. “We can’t all be famous, I guess.”
“I would swap it with you,” I say honestly, and she shrugs, maybe because she’s one of the only people who would believe me and wouldn’t want it either. I’m about to turn away when I remember something. Another piece of the puzzle that was in the wrong place.
“You know the day we shot your last scene . . . the day that Able shut down the set,” I say, and Lorna nods. “What did the rest of you do? I never even thought to ask.”
“Oh.” Lorna puts her head to one side, remembering. “You know, we went to Disneyland. One of the makeup artists told me it had been planned for weeks. Able just has to make a big deal out of everything, doesn’t he?” she says, chewing a loose piece of skin off one of her nails. “It was good to see you anyway, Grace. Good luck with everything.”
I think of the girl in the launderette, and my memory warps, flickering slightly like an old movie reel. There is no such thing as luck. Everything about my life has been inevitable, predetermined from the moment I cried onstage during the audition at my school. Suddenly, it’s as if I’m looking down on the room from above, watching myself ricochet from person to person, each encounter taking something different from me, diminishing me slowly until eventually I am the size of one of Emilia’s carolers, my face frozen in a silent scream. For the first time in a long time I understand with a near-blinding urgency what I need to do in order to rebuild all that was lost.
I need to get out of this house.
* * *
? ? ?
I’m nearly at the front door when Emilia intercepts me. She grabs me, her nails digging into my arm again. I struggle slightly, but her grip only tightens.
“Gracie, I thought you’d want to speak to our surprise guest. Or maybe you’re the surprise guest, I can’t keep up anymore,” she says, and I can tell that she’s drunk from the way her pupils can’t focus. She takes a step back, leaving me and Able staring at each other. Each synapse in my body is firing, screaming at me to get away from him, but I force myself to step toward him instead because Emilia is watching and I don’t want her to see how scared I am. I kiss Able stiffly on the cheek, and his golden skin is still papery and rough up close, just like it is in my nightmares.
“Grace,” he says quietly, formally, as we step back from the embrace.
“You must have been relieved the storm cleared up,” I say, my voice tight, and Able frowns, seemingly both confused and irritated by me.
“The storm?” he asks, and we both look at Emilia. I understand now that she lied to get me here, in front of him, so that she could see for herself. I have to watch it happen on her face after that, the confirmation that nothing is what she thought it was, that everything she feared most in the world is here, in this room between us.
Emilia grips the back of the sofa, and there is a moment when I think she is going to sink to the floor, but of course she recovers beautifully, straightening up to smooth a piece of hair behind her ear before she focuses somewhere above my head and touches Able gently on the arm.