Sunday, January 27, 2013

This is Hollywood by B N Burton

A film actor gets his big break, but finds himself plagued by odd dreams until he's no longer sure who is for real and who is acting; by B N Burton, originally published in The Dunesteef.

Mick marched down the white hall with fluorescent lights. At the end in an open doorway, a figure stood like a shadow. Against the brightness, the silhouette suggested a man whose hair stuck out everywhere. Mick moved forward, but got no closer to whoever it was.

Must be a dream, Mick thought. His hands felt sticky, and he focused on the blood splattered across them. Was it his blood? He didn't know, and worried that someone, somewhere was very hurt. Voices echoed, and the farther he walked, the louder the chatter. Windows in the hall appeared. People who didn't look like they belonged together talked behind the glass. He saw four in a circle: a young girl in a pretty pink dress who held hands with a boy wearing suspenders, an older woman in an apron wearing a chef's hat, and a black man in a military uniform.

Mick faced the silhouette, wanting to know why the man was there. But even as he walked on, he got no closer to him. His chest burned and he touched his heart, felt the beating organ in his hand. Fear and horror catapulted each pump until it sounded like someone dribbling a basketball. It's a dream, he told himself. Or was he dead? It bled onto his fingers, poured down his wrists and arms. He opened his mouth to scream.

A trumpet blaring on Mick's nightstand awoke him, sending fibrillations through his heart. He swung his arm toward the sound, hoping his hand would hit something and silence the noise, whatever it was.

"Honey," his wife, Rhoda, mumbled. "You gonna get that?"

The music emitted from his cell. When he tried to grab it, his hand pushed the phone onto the floor.

"Who's calling at this hour?" asked Rhoda. "It's the middle of the night."

Mick reached for the lamp, trying to find the knob he needed to twist. He felt the lamp tipping, and he grasped at air.

The lamp fell with a crash. Mick cursed under his breath, hoping his wife couldn't hear. The cell still trumpeted facedown somewhere on the floor.

"I should get you the broom." She flipped on her lamp and rose awkwardly, making him sink a little more into his side of the bed. "And soap for that mouth."

He cringed, blinking. "Sorry, baby."

"She forgives you." Rhoda turned, her belly swelling out in front of her as if a basketball rested under her short nightgown.

The phone stopped ringing. Mick watched Rhoda waddle out of the room, admiring her slender legs, just catching a glimpse of her silky underwear as she shut the door.

The trumpet blasted again, and Mick swore, louder now that Rhoda was gone. He reached over and picked the phone up off the floor. "What?" He didn't hear anything, and glanced at the screen. It read Peter Sinclair cell. His agent. "Peter, can you hear me? Are you butt dialing me again?"

His agent panted, sounding out of breath. "Daggers."

"Daggers? Daggers! Aha! Yes! Yes!" He pumped his arm in the air. "Woohoo!"

"Mick, what?" Rhoda skipped into the room, her version of running while pregnant. She held the broom and dustpan.

In the midst of his Rocky Balboa imitation, Mick dropped the phone. He jumped to his feet. "Baby." He opened his arms to his wife. "Baby!" He picked her up and spun her in a circle.

The cleaning supplies clattered to the floor. "Mick! Careful." But she giggled, holding his shoulders tight. "What's going on?"

He set her gently onto the carpet, and put a hand over her belly, rubbing small circles. "Baby, I got the part."

"You did? You got it!" She jumped into his arms again, laughter bubbling into his ear. She smelled so sweet, like irises. "I'm so proud. I just knew it had to be you."

"This is big." He chuckled, lowering Rhoda to the bed. "All this waiting, and it's finally my time." He looked into her round, brown eyes and saw tears forming. The joy in her face nearly brought him to tears, too.

"You were meant for this, Mick. I'm glad they finally saw that."

He kissed his wife, careful to leave room for her belly when he pressed against her. "I can't wait to get you out of this place. Our very own house. I promised, and I'm going to make it happen."

"It's not so bad." She lifted his shirt, brushing her fingers on bare skin, sending shivers over him. "I've always appreciated the thick walls."

He kissed her again, happiness overwhelming him. "When this baby comes, she'll get her own bedroom. We'll be able to give her everything she needs."

"All she needs is you and me. The rest will come together."

Mick kissed Rhoda's lips.

"Wait." She touched his shoulder. "The movie is called A Civil Weapon."

"Yeah," he breathed.

"What's with 'daggers?'" she asked.

"I'm excited about the dagger-throwing scenes. I told Peter to say that word if I got the part."

She sat up, flattening her palm against his chest. "So you're the leading role." She pushed, increasing the pressure.

Mick felt his own heartbeat and his mouth went dry, remembering the dream. He nodded.

"With Tressa Winters as the female lead?"

"That's right," Mick croaked. He swallowed, his mouth like cotton. Something about Rhoda's hand pushing against his heart gave him an uneasy feeling. He laid on his side facing her.

"I always like her movies." Rhoda's smile skewed, dropping completely. "Any sex scenes?"

Now he understood her expression. Mick reached for the glass on the nightstand and gulped down the water. He cleared his throat. "No sex scenes for me."

"Not yet." She retracted her hand, placing it on her belly.

"We talked about this, honey. It's no big thing. Just acting. I'm pretty sure Tressa and I only kiss at the very end."

"You're right. It just hit me again, that's all." She smiled and kissed his cheek. "I'm proud of you." She crawled under the covers, flipping her lamp off.

Mick wondered if she was upset. Like everything else, sex scenes in a movie weren't real. He didn't understand why it bothered her so much. He could handle himself. At the end of the day, he would come home to his wife desiring only her. Nothing would change that.

He climbed into his side of the bed, hoping he would fall into a dreamless sleep. Hoping he hadn't said something wrong that he would pay for later.



The following afternoon, Mick strolled into the Hollywood Hotel, feeling light as air and already like a star. He'd never eaten at Delphine before, and Peter insisted they meet there for lunch.

The agent wore his signature gray suit and a Joker-wide smile. "The next Brad Pitt!" He clapped as if Mick were accepting an Oscar. "Welcome to Hollywood, Mr. Wagner."

Mick shook Peter's hand, matching his smile. "I've finally arrived."

"Like I told you, it pays to be patient." Peter gestured for him to sit. Cold beers waited on the table. Peter offered to get a bottle for the occasion, but Mick preferred Sam Adams any day.



"I never doubted your savvy in this business. You fought for me, I know it." Mick clinked his beer with Peter's and they drank.

"I couldn't wait to tell you the news." Peter laid out the scene of meeting the director for late night drinks. "He preferred you from the beginning. He just wanted to finish auditions before letting us know. Of course, the man is a night owl, so he wouldn't come out until one-thirty in the morning. Then he says he wants to arm wrestle me. See if I wanted you to get the role badly enough." Peter laughed, then took another swig. "You can't tell by looking at me, but I do work out. I beat him."

Mick raised his glass. "Well done."

"At the time, I wasn't sure if it was the best idea, but he was impressed. That's why I called you out of breath. It was pretty close."

A waitress brought oysters.

"I ordered appetizers," said Peter. "When you're ready, let Mina here know what you want. It's on me."

The tiny blond girl held out a manicured hand. "Nice to meet you, Mr. Wagner."

"Nice to meet you, Mina."

She touched his shoulder, and heavy perfume wafted his way. "I hear from Peter you'll be on the silver screen soon."

"Sorta." The dusty scent was overbearing, and he leaned back. "Year and a half."

"I look forward to it." She licked her pink lips. "Any scenes with your shirt off?"

Mick shifted, glancing at Peter. He thought of Rhoda, and how she could pummel this girl, pregnant and all, if she wanted to.

"He'll make that Twilight kid look anorexic," said Peter.

Mina took her hand away. "How about a steak then? You'd love our filet mignon."

Mick nodded. "Sure. Medium rare."

When she left, Peter pointed at Mick. "You'd better get used to this. Women will be throwing themselves at you as soon as they know you've got the starring role."

"One woman is enough for me, thanks." Mick digested what Peter added at the end. "When will they know?"

"Today." Peter failed to conceal his smile and leaned back, wrapping his arm around the booth. "I told ET first."

Mick thought about that, about how much he'd prepared for this role. His weight-lifting workouts, memorizing the monologue for his audition, the class to learn about fighting with knives and swords. He didn't prepare much for the fame that would accompany everything else. "You know, when you said, 'daggers,'" Mick smiled, "that was the best way I could have heard the news."

"You'll be the news soon. When the girls get a load of your pecs, you'll need the daggers just to scare them off. Get ready for lots of screaming."



Peter missed that target. The women who noticed Mick gave him a he seems familiar, but why? look. Peter backpedaled in typical agent fashion, saying he meant they would be screaming once the movie came out. Either way, Mick didn't care.

By the time he met with the director, his uphill struggle had ended. No more fighting for parts that paid squat. He put all the energy he felt into constant maintenance for the role, including his sword fighting class. The director wanted more tone, less bulk, so Mick switched from heavy weights to more reps with lighter weights. He decided to start running as well to help drop mass in time for filming.

He wasn't sure why the daggers excited him so much. In the story, the character developed skills with a sword, but he always had a dagger or two tucked away. Something about the hidden dagger in the boot made him feel like Clint Eastwood, his favorite actor.

His first day filming, Mick was ready to conquer the world. He spent his downtime jogging, which kept him feeling calm and strong. The director needed him sweaty in the first shot anyway, so he sprinted up and down a stretch of sidewalk along the main road. He stopped at the studio entrance to catch his breath. He planned to walk through the parking lot toward the set to cool down, not wanting to pant during his lines.

That's when he saw the bum. Wiry gray hair shot up in all directions. Tattered suit. Mad eyes, like a bull ready to charge. Something about him... Mick wasn't sure why, but he seemed familiar. He stood in the middle of the road.

"Hey!" Mick didn't like seeing the man's blue-eyed glare, but he also didn't want to see him get hit by a car. "Get out of the street!"

The man didn't move. He had a chiseled face, like he'd lived a hard life in a short amount of years. Red tinted his eyes, though Mick thought he might have imagined that.

"Hear me?" Mick waved. He looked up and down the road and saw cars coming from both directions. "Move to the sidewalk!"

"Mr. Wagner!" someone shouted behind him. Mick turned to see one of the grips jogging over. "Director's ready for you."

"I'm coming, but this guy -" Mick pointed, turning his head back toward the man.

"What guy?"

The street was empty. The cars sped past in both directions, and Mick searched for a body on the road. "He must've... I don't know." Mick looked up and down the sidewalks, but the man was gone.



The dream repeated each night. Never ending white hallway with fluorescent bulbs. The windows. The people inside. Voices. Mick walked, still getting no closer to the shadow in the open doorway. That hair. It reminded Mick of the man in the street.

Mick stared at his hands, soaked in blood. He hated the sight of it and used his shirt to wipe his hands clean. When he looked up, the bum stood in front of him. He glared at Mick, arms at his side. Face to face, eye to glaring eye. One red eye, one blue eye. The red eye looked like a laser beam.

"What could be means no tomorrow," he said, his voice mechanical like a robot.

Something about his look made Mick think the man had a knife on him. Mick looked down at his hands again. No more blood. Each one held a dagger.

The bum slowly raised an arm.

Mick reacted, stabbing the man repeatedly. The man jerked with each stab to the chest, the abdomen, the face. Mick heard himself screaming, but he couldn't stop it.

"Wake up."

He heard Rhoda's soft voice pulling him out of the dream. Mick stirred, seeing light. He opened his eyes.

"You were moaning." She brushed her fingers through his hair. "I thought maybe it was the dream again."

"Yeah." Mick took her hand and caressed it, inhaling her aroma. "Must be some kind of angst about the movie or fatherhood or something."

"But the same dream night after night? It's been three weeks."

"It's a little different each time." He sat up and placed his head on her belly, listening. He pictured the ocean.

"What happened?"

Mick debated, but decided to tell her. "This guy was in the middle of the street the other day. The next thing I know, he's just gone. In my dream, I... I stabbed him."

Rhoda's hand stiffened. "You stabbed him? With what?"

"Daggers." He kept massaging, and her hand relaxed.

"That's just the movie then. You're doing all that training and those knife fight scenes. You're bound to dream about it."

"I guess." He kissed her belly and her hand before rolling back to his side.

She turned off the lamp.

Mick tried to sleep, but the dream haunted him more than he could admit to Rhoda. The urge to stab the man frightened him, but he'd done it. If he could feel such a strong urge in a dream, he feared some part of him might react the same way in reality. And what had the man said? Something about no tomorrow? Mick tried, but couldn't remember. It had sounded like a warning.



"Listen, Mick, this is the moment early on when the audience isn't sure they want to root for you. Now that Tressa is pregnant, you're upset. This isn't what you wanted. You're pretty sure she's still drinking on the sly. You're not even sure the kid is yours. You'd rather she get an abortion, but you won't say that because you know how angry she can get." The director spoke to Mick as actress Tressa Winter stood beside him with a fake belly under her dress.

"Got it," Mick said. "I need to forget that I'm excited about being a father."

"Congratulations," said Tressa, holding her fake belly the same way he'd seen Rhoda hold her real one. Tressa usually did romantic comedies. She was a cute girl with green eyes and sandy, short hair. "When's your baby due?"

"September."

"Boy or girl?"

"We want to be surprised, but my wife thinks it's a girl."

"Are we done?" The director clapped. "Let's get rolling then."

Tressa gave Mick a sideways grin. "I'm ready if Mick is."

"Ready." He raised his eyebrows when the director turned away, and she covered her mouth with her hand.

Mick stood outside the scene waiting to walk in, repeating the lines in his mind. Tressa sat on a couch in the living room.

When all was quiet on the set, the director yelled, "Action!"

Tressa stuffed an empty Vodka bottle into the sofa cushions. She picked up the phone, shaking. Her face contorted with each groan escaping through her lips. She dropped the cordless, and awkwardly lowered herself from the couch to retrieve it from the floor. As she reached, Mick strode into the room.

"What are you doing?" he snapped, harsher than the last take.

"Something's wrong. I need to go to the hospital." She grabbed the phone and stayed down on all fours while dialing.

"What do you mean?" He stood over her, not helping, hands on his hips. "Are you in pain?"

"Yes, Jim! I'm in pain, so shut up while I call an ambulance."

It was strange for Mick to see soft-spoken Tressa in this type of role. Watching her struggle on the floor in her messy, brunette wig, bitter in anger towards him, it was difficult to maintain a harsh demeanor. Yet he had to stay in character, just like she was in hers.

He bent down to her level. "Have you been drinking?"

She shook her head. "No."

"You sound drunk."

"I'm so sick of you accusing me -"

"Fine!" He rose, waving her off. "You do whatever you want. I don't care what happens to that baby."

She looked up at him with wide, hurt eyes that narrowed into a glare. "Don't you dare say that. This is your daughter."

He turned away and punched the wall. The foam crumbled just as it was meant to when he used full force.

"Jim!" Tressa burst into tears. "Just stop."

"Tell me that baby is mine, and I'll pretend to believe you." He grabbed the sword leaning against the wall and stormed out of the room, adding, "I'll be out late."

Tressa sobbed on the floor as the person on the phone said, "911, what is your emergency? Hello? Hello?"

"Cut!"

Mick strolled back around the manufactured living room.

"That was it." The director patted Mick's arm. "You feel the difference?"

"Sure." Mick imagined how someone could treat a pregnant woman that way, whether it was his child or not, and didn't like the man he pictured. Yet he liked the character, Jim Norris, probably because he had redeeming qualities, and things worked out with him and his wife in the end.

"You need me for anything else?" asked Tressa. She appeared behind Mick, placing her hand on his shoulder.

"No, baby girl, that's it for you," the director replied, still staring at the camera screen. "I'll need you around three tomorrow."

"Nice job, Mick." She squeezed his arm. "You really nailed it."

"Thanks. You too." He smiled, noticing her light, pleasant perfume. "See you tomorrow."

She bit her lip, turned, and walked toward her dressing room. Mick faced the director, an odd sensation overwhelming him. He gave in to it, and took one more look back over his shoulder.

The man from the street stood in the doorway leading to the dressing rooms. Mick's body went rigid. The man's wiry hair made him look electrocuted. That hint of red permeated his icy blue eyes. Tressa would have walked through that doorway; he had seen no one there a moment ago.

The man stared him down, like before, and Mick glanced around to see if anyone else reacted to the intruder.

Everyone went about their business as if nothing was wrong. The director's gaze couldn't be pulled away from the screen. A few of the crew walked right past the man, apparently not seeing him. The man wouldn't stop staring at Mick.

"Okay!" The director clapped.

Mick jumped, then looked between the director and the man.

"I want to work on the action sequence at the end of the film. It's going to take the rest of the day, so if you want a break now..." He checked his watch. "I can give you half an hour. You might want a nap."

When the director looked up, Mick glanced back over his shoulder. The director didn't appear to see the man either. "Nap." Mick nodded. "Sounds good."

"I'm sure Tressa would be happy to join you."

Mick started, then balled his fists.

The director stared at his screen, apparently uninterested in what reaction he got from Mick. He seemed like the type to rile people up for no reason, but Mick didn't appreciate it.

"I'll nap alone, thanks. Maybe give my wife a call."

"Uh huh. See you in twenty, then." The director popped a stick of gum into his mouth. He smacked it like a twelve-year-old girl.

Mick wanted to say something else, but decided it wasn't worth it. He faced the doorway. The man was gone.



That night, Mick scooped Rhoda up in his arms and spun her around the house, ignoring her pitiful protests.

"Hey!" she cried. "Aren't you tired?"

He stopped twirling and lowered her to the couch. "I couldn't wait to get home to you." He kissed her hard, hoping she understood what he meant by it. That he loved her and her alone. No one else.



Mick awoke realizing he hadn't dreamt. "Finally." He dressed and got ready. "Honey?" He peeked out of the bathroom while shaving. Rhoda had the sheet pulled up over her head. "I wore her out last night." Mick smiled to himself. She usually woke him up in the morning, but he'd let her sleep. No reason to disturb her.

At the set, Mick spent the morning focusing on his night with Rhoda. He had to work at it, which disturbed him. Each time the director called, "Cut!" Mick would glance at the clock on the wall.

Still staring into the camera, the director said, "She's coming at three, no sooner." He said it like he knew exactly what Mick was thinking, which irritated him.

"I'm not -"

"Save it for your wife." The director's hand went up.

Mick still held the dagger from his last scene. He was tempted to cut the hand off.

"I want more clarity, less brightness." The director turned from his screen to consult with someone. "Can we can adjust this room?"

Mick stepped away before he started acting out his thoughts. He flipped the dagger, a trick he practiced daily. Now he could catch it at the handle or the blade, rarely dropping it.

In the scene he was likely about to repeat, his character stopped a mobster from attacking a little girl. He threw a dagger at the mobster's wrist, pinning the hand holding the gun against the wall. When the gun went off, he shot one of his cronies instead. Then Jim plunged a sword into the mobster's chest.

"Mr. Wagner?"

Mick felt a tug at his shirt. He looked down. "Hi, Sarah." He'd rescued this young girl in a pretty pink dress about twelve times now. For the first time, he noticed how she reminded him of the girl in his dream. The dress looked almost identical. Weird, he thought.

"Can you tell me what this means?" She handed him a card with a picture of a heart on the front.

He tucked the dagger into his boot. Opening the card, he read the scrawled writing. Will you go out with me? Check yes or no. The corresponding boxes were drawn beside the choices. "It looks like someone is trying to ask you on a date."

She scrunched up her brow, looking deep in thought. "But how can I answer if I don't know who the card is from?"

Mick examined it closely. "I think it might be that boy over there." He pointed to the boy who looked about Sarah's age, ten or eleven, staring at her from across the room. He sat in a chair next to their mutual chaperone with some of the extras from the scene, and he wore suspenders. Just like the boy in his dream. Ironic. He glanced between the two of them, feeling a chill up his spine. Too ironic.

Sarah grinned when she saw the boy, and took her card back. "Thanks, Mr. Wagner." She ran to the boy and handed him the card. He stood, bowing his head like he was too shy to look her in the eyes. She said something Mick couldn't hear. The boy looked up and pecked her cheek. They sat together, holding hands and swinging their legs, which were too short to reach the floor.

Mick watched, stunned. The rest of the extras chatted in small groups, and he noticed an older woman in a chef's hat wearing an apron. She must have been in the restaurant scene, but Mick hadn't seen her until now.

What were the odds? Mick felt his heartbeat speed up. He started dreaming about the girl, the boy and the chef lady before he even got this part. The idea that someone was watching him crept up his spine until his neck hairs stood on end. He glanced around, looking for the man with wiry hair.

Everything went dark. Petite, cold hands wrapped around his face, covering his eyes.

"Guess who?"

Mick knew immediately just from her aroma, and he couldn't help but smile. "How many guesses do I get?"

"Just one."

He touched her hands. They were so small. "You must be the wife I treat like dirt."

"If only," she whispered.

Her breath tickled his ear. Mick felt a jolt in his heart, the kind where he knew he should stop this before it got out of hand. Some men ignored such warnings, but not usually him. At this point, it seemed so harmless to joke with Tressa.

He pulled her hands apart and turned to face her. She stood behind him, gazing up at him with an adorable smile. She must have come from the salon, with her hair tousled too perfectly to be bed head. She wore a short skirt with tall heels, and a white shirt with a plunging neckline.

Mick might have been blushing, he wasn't sure, but she touched his cheek.

"I'm only kidding." Something in her smile made Mick think she wanted to keep him guessing.

"You're early," he blurted.

"Yes." She pulled her hand away. "I broke up with my boyfriend at lunch. I took a cab here. Should give him enough time to move his crap out by tonight."

"I'm sorry." Mick decided against touching her, though the urge was strong. "You okay?"

"Yeah, I'll be fine. He can go cheat on some other girl, but I'd rather it wasn't me."

"What a son of a -" Mick caught himself. "He's a jerk. You deserve better."

"Thanks." She folded her arms, grinning. "Why did you stop yourself like that?"

"My wife. She asked me to stop swearing with the baby coming, starting now to get out of the habit." Mick didn't usually tell on his wife. He told other people he wanted to broaden his vocabulary. Why did he feel the need to tell Tressa it was because of Rhoda?

"Wouldn't it be funny if your daughter's first word was the f-word?" she asked, smacking his arm. "How many people can say that about their kids? It'd be hilarious."

Mick snapped out of it, stepping back from Tressa. "Honestly, I don't want my kids learning to swear the way I used to. There are so many other ways to say things."

Tressa's smile faded. "Right, no. Sorry, I didn't mean to contradict what you and your wife are doing." Now she backed away from Mick. "Seemed kinda funny when I just thought of it." She fidgeted with her hands, then pointed toward the dressing rooms. "I'd better see if my make-up lady is here." She stepped away and left Mick standing with his mouth half-open.

He hadn't meant to embarrass her. He wanted to say he knew what she meant, he found the idea kinda funny, too. Rhoda wouldn't have, and maybe that's why he felt the need to take her side after throwing her under the bus. To make up for it, he wanted to defend Rhoda without blaming her for his choice to stop cursing, but it came out sounding accusatory to Tressa. The poor girl just had a break up. He had to apologize.

"Tressa, wait!"

She had already disappeared behind the doorway. Mick followed, but the director's voice stopped him.

"Hey, Mick!"

He halted and turned, wondering if the director would make some snide remark about what this looked like.

"I've got my lighting guy working here. It's gonna be at least another hour, maybe two. I'll have someone text you when we're ready to do the scene again."

"Thanks." Mick waited. No other comments. The director looked preoccupied. Mick marched toward the dressing room. He knocked on Tressa's door. "It's Mick. Can I come in?"

No sound.

Mick knocked again. He held his ear to the door. Nothing.

A woman carrying a costume walked toward him.

"Excuse me, did Tressa Winter come by here?"

"Yes, Mr. Wagner." She smiled, pointing with the hand beneath the dress. "She went out the back door. I think she was heading for her trailer."

"Great, thanks." He bolted out the back, looked around and saw the trailer parked at the far end of the lot. He jogged over and stopped outside the door. "What are you doing?" He circled, then ended up at the door again. This was a stupid idea. He knew it from the minute the girl told him Tressa was in her trailer. He shouldn't be here.

Mick fought the urge to throw the dagger he still had in his boot. He should have left it on the prop table, but he'd forgotten it was there. He glanced around. No one was nearby. Mick decided she deserved an apology. He'd say he was sorry, then walk away. He'd put on his running clothes and burn off this pent up energy.

He walked up to the door again and lifted his hand. Before he could knock, he heard something inside. He stepped under the window where the sound was loudest. He heard Tressa sobbing.

Mick didn't know what to do. He really felt the need to apologize now, but to go in and comfort a crying woman he found attractive? Bad idea. He wanted to curse aloud, but he held it in. He held everything in as he stood there trying to decide if he should walk away.

His phone vibrated in his pocket. When he looked at the number, he saw the realtor's name pop up. Mick quietly trotted toward the building. He answered when he knew Tressa wouldn't hear him. "This is Mick."

"Mick, it's Anne. How are you?"

"Fine. How is the house hunt going?"

"That's why I'm calling. Your wife never came to my office today."

Mick's stomach flipped. "Rhoda didn't show?" She never missed appointments. He searched his thoughts, wondering what could have happened.

"I have her marked down for ten this morning, but it's possible we got our dates crossed. I left a voicemail to make sure everything was okay."

"No, no. She knew it was today. I'll run home and check on her. Make sure she's all right."

"Tell her to reschedule at her earliest convenience. I mean that. I know you've got a baby on the way."

"Thanks."

Mick hung up, a hollow pit forming in his gut. Rhoda had been so excited to go house hunting in Beverly Hills. The worst thoughts popped into Mick's mind. Something had happened to Rhoda, or something was wrong with the baby. He tried to block it, but the ideas came pouring in.

He ran to his car and drove straight home. "Rhoda!" He searched the apartment and found her in bed. "Honey." He came to her side and touched her face. "You're warm. Are you okay?"

Rhoda opened her eyes. They looked bloodshot. She turned to face Mick with a look like hatred. "Now you ask how I'm doing?" She rolled onto her side, away from him.

"Rhoda?" He touched her back. "What's wrong? You missed your appointment with the realtor. Do you need to see your doctor?"

"Don't act like the caring husband now," she said.

Her words pierced Mick's heart. "What? Rhoda, help me out here. Tell me what's going on."

"You accuse me of things. You say you don't believe me." She spoke on her side, facing away from him. "Why should I talk to you now?"

Mick stood, convinced she must be in some kind of fevered fit. "That's it. I'm calling your doctor. Where's your phone?" He searched the nightstand and finally found it sticking out from under the bed. "You've got seven missed calls here. I know one is from Anne."

She bolted upright.

Mick stumbled back, shocked at how quickly she moved.

"Have you been talking to her? You're chatting with some woman we barely know when I'm not around?"

The look on her face, the anger in her eyes... it was like it wasn't Rhoda. "Baby -"

"Don't speak to our baby. If it was up to you, we wouldn't be having her. Don't give me that look. I know you want me to get an abortion."

The wheels turning in Mick's brain, the ones trying to figure this out, halted. He set the phone on the nightstand slowly, as if he were handling a gun. "Hold on just a minute. Were you...?" Mick stared into her glaring eyes, looking for his wife. Why was she so angry? "That's what the director told me yesterday. My character, Jim Norris, wants his wife to get an abortion. How would you know that?"

"I'm not talking about Jim Norris. I'm talking about you. This is how you feel about our baby."

"That's not true! And you know that." Mick felt ridiculous arguing this way.

Rhoda's eyes narrowed. "Right. Why don't you ask me if I've had a drink today?"

Mick's head boiled. Rhoda never drank a drop of alcohol in her life. He wanted to unleash a hailstorm of swear words, but bit his tongue. He wanted the truth from her. "I'm serious, Rhoda. Were you there yesterday?"

"I wasn't, Mick. You're turning all red. Go away and let me take care of me like always."

"Stop! This isn't you. You're acting like -" It smacked Mick in the face. "You're acting like Jim's wife."

"Just go! And if you see Anne, tell her to keep her grubby hands off you."

Mick watched his wife pretend to go back to sleep. He couldn't believe this was happening. Rhoda was a sweet woman. Sure, he'd seen her temper flare up now and again. She could tend toward jealousy, but he never imagined she would act like a drunken character from a script.

Mick knelt at the side of the bed. He closed his eyes and hoped he had witnessed nothing more than a dream. He erased it, then started over. He brushed his hands through Rhoda's hair, waiting to see what she would do.

"Get out, Mick. After I spent the night in the hospital with no husband to take me home, I don't want you touching me."

He jumped back as if her hair had turned into hissing snakes. "That's it. If you were on set, please just tell me."

"Let it go! I was in the hospital and they discharged me this morning. Baby is fine after all. My pain was nothing."

"That's what happened to Jim Norris's wife, not you." At this point, Mick wouldn't be surprised if steam gushed out of his ears. Something struck him. A way to make her snap out of it. "Rhoda, this is for your own good." Mick took a deep breath, thinking of where to begin. Before he uttered a single word, he felt guilty for what he was about to do. Unfortunately, Rhoda asked for it.

Mick erupted. He spewed forth every swear word, every foul phrase he'd learned since middle school. The venom poured out like acid from his lips, and he found himself despising these words and phrases he didn't use anymore. They sounded toxic to him, and especially toxic for the baby. But he cursed until the air felt saturated with it.

When he stopped, he leaned over Rhoda to see her reaction.

"Is that it?"

"Yes." Mick hesitated. "Well?"

"Please. The baby will hear worse by kindergarten. I still want you out."

Mick knew how Jim felt. He wanted to punch the wall. Unfortunately, their apartment walls weren't made by the prop people, and it would hurt. "The director will be asking for me soon." He calmed himself down, staring at her. There must be some explanation for this. "Can I take you to the doctor before I have to go back?"

"No."

"Please, Rhoda -"

"No! Leave me alone!" She pulled the covers over her head.

He swallowed, so confused. So angry he could stab something. He nicked her phone before he stepped out. In the dining room, he flipped through her contacts. He found Dr. Rolland's entry, then set her cell on the table.

In the car with the engine off, Mick retrieved the dagger from his boot. He jammed it into the passenger seat with a yell. Staring up at their bedroom window, he dialed and asked to speak to the doctor. "It's an emergency." He waited on hold for a few minutes.

"Dr. Rolland here."

"This is Rhoda Wagner's husband. I just had a concerning conversation with my wife." He detailed Rhoda's strange behavior, hoping the doctor had something reassuring to say. Rhoda must have come to the set. Nothing else made sense. He hated to leave her like this, but didn't want to force her to go to a doctor's visit either. Not unless he had to.

"To be honest, Mr. Wager, I'm not terribly concerned. Hormones can cause this kind of thing, especially during pregnancy. Your wife had a check-up two days ago, and everything was fine physically with her and the baby. I've heard a lot of strange outbursts from pregnant women here in my office. I've had calls like this from husbands. But if you'd like to bring her by, I'd be happy to see her. Although it might be best to wait a day and see if her behavior returns to normal by tomorrow."

Mick hesitated. If the doctor wasn't concerned, he could wait until he got home tonight to see if she snapped out of it. "Okay. Thanks. I'll call back if there's no change by tomorrow." When he hung up, Mick glanced at the empty bedroom window once more, and then started his engine. He didn't regret plunging the dagger halfway into the seat. He needed to reupholster anyway.

As he neared the lot, he saw someone standing in the road. "No." Mick strained his eyes to see the person. From afar, it looked like the man with wiry hair. "Not now!" He was tired of this hallucination. If no one else could see the man, what else could he be? These bizarre dreams were possibly shifting into daydreams without Mick realizing it. Sure, he felt awake, but who knew? Maybe this was all one big nightmare.

The man trudged across the road. Strange, as he usually stared directly at Mick, standing completely still. Finally, Mick got close enough to see that it wasn't him. It was just a bum who looked similar with dirtier, more tattered clothes and bushy gray hair. Mick drove around him and found his parking space. He jerked the dagger out of the passenger seat.

Tressa's trailer remained in the same spot. He thought about returning to apologize, but maybe the director was ready on set. He should check. He could say sorry later. Safer that way, especially now that he'd fought with Rhoda.

He sauntered toward the back door and paused with his hand on the handle, about to open it. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw something. At this point, he didn't even want to look, but he couldn't help himself. To his left, he spotted a group of four extras. The girl in the pretty pink dress held hands with the boy wearing suspenders. The older chef woman was on a smoke break, and she wasn't alone. A black man wearing a military uniform stood beside her, smoking as well.

Mick felt the blood rushing from his head, making him dizzy. Sweat drenched his palms. After what happened with Rhoda, he didn't know if he could handle this anymore. Something inside him screamed to get out of there. Run to the car, drive away, and never look back. Seeing that group felt like a bad omen that had come too late.

He opened the door, trying to forget it, trying to catch his breath. His chest felt heavy. He walked down the hallway, squinting at the bright fluorescents above. Mick paused, bracing himself against the white wall. The hall stretched before him. The dream. Had he entered his nightmare? Could he get out? He marched on, flipping off light switches he passed, forcing the scene to change. The windows to the dressing rooms started appearing. Mick felt sick to his stomach. He imagined the man with wiry hair would materialize any moment.

The windows all had blinds pulled. All except Tressa's. Mick stopped and peered inside. With her back to him, she sat at a vanity as someone teased her wig. She looked up and saw Mick in the mirror reflection.

Mick stared, unable to look away. The weight he felt on his chest moved to his feet, anchoring him to the spot. The lights from her vanity made her look beautiful.

Tressa said something to the hairdresser. The woman walked to the door, opened it, and approached Mick. "She wants you to come in." Then the woman walked away.

Mick grabbed the door as it began to close. He stepped inside.

Tressa stood up from the vanity and walked to the blinds, closing them. "Will you lock that?" she asked.

Mick obeyed, staring at the silky dressing gown draped over Tressa's slender body. His heart pounded as he gazed at her face, into her green eyes. "I'm sorry," he said.

She tilted her head, perhaps not understanding.

"When we talked earlier," Mick explained. "I'm sorry about the way I spoke to you."

"Oh." Tressa lowered her gaze to the floor.

In his mind, Mick strolled over and lifted her chin with his hand. Then he kissed her. But the weight returned, keeping him anchored. When he thought about it, there was likely no force strong enough to keep him from acting out his thoughts. Yet he thought of Rhoda, and how he never dreamed of doing anything like this with anyone other than her from the moment they said their I dos.

Tressa finally lifted her gaze to meet his. "I saw you outside my trailer."

Mick gulped. "Sorry about that, too." He wondered what to say. How to explain. "I went to apologize to you, but I heard crying." Mick lowered his chin to his chest. "I didn't mean to hurt you."

"It wasn't you." Tressa took a half-step forward, lifting her hand, but then retreated. "I felt a little hurt, so I appreciate your apology. But I was crying about something else."

"Oh. I didn't even think." He wanted to smack himself. "Your boyfriend, of course."

"Ex," she corrected.

"The jerk."

"The pig-headed, cheating, lying heap of cow dung."

Mick raised his eyebrow. "Cow dung?"

"You were right," said Tressa. "There are many ways to say things without swearing. I have more. Ego-bloated letch. Puddle-drinking, dirt-licking scum-sucker. Heart like a black hole, sharp talons like an eagle, dim as a dodo."

Mick laughed, relaxing and setting aside his own notions about why he came in. "Was that a haiku?"

She nodded. "I'm proud of that one. It's been challenging to think of words other than four-lettered ones."

Nothing about Tressa's attitude indicated that she meant to seduce him, and Mick felt guilty for even thinking about it. If he had turned thought to action, how could he have faced Rhoda? His pregnant wife didn't deserve to be treated that way, no matter what psychosis currently plagued her.

"Your wife is a wise woman." Tressa's smile dipped, and she lowered herself to the couch against the wall. "I'd like to meet her."

"She'd love to meet you. I'll have her come to the set sometime." Mick thought about sitting beside her, but waited to see what she wanted to tell him.

"Can I ask you a very personal question?"

Mick nodded, ready to listen and try to answer honestly.

"Do you have nightmares about being a parent?"

This question surprised him. He scanned the room for the man with wiry hair. "Why do you ask?"

"Never mind. Forget I mentioned it." She waved her hands in the air.

Mick balked, confused at her sudden lack of curiosity. Why else did she ask him to come in? She must want an answer. "Yes," he admitted. "I haven't figured out what the dreams mean, but I think there is something about the fear of fatherhood in there."

Tressa closed her eyes. "I wondered if I was the only one."

Mick blinked. "Are you pregnant?"

She nodded, eyes still closed. "I've been dreaming about it for weeks. I got a call from the doctor to confirm it when I was walking to my trailer."

That's why Mick heard her crying. She wasn't weeping over him, she was weeping over the fact that her two-timing boyfriend knocked her up and she found out the same day she dumped him. "I'm really sorry." He felt free to walk over and sit by her without worrying about how she might perceive it. "Does he know?"

"No. I don't think I'm going to tell him." She held her stomach. "I still haven't decided what to do. I might... stop it before it gets too far along." She looked up at him with watery eyes. "But I wish the decision was up to someone else." She brought her knees to her chest.

The discussion moved into territory Mick didn't believe he belonged in. "Is there anyone else you can talk to?"

She smiled at him, patting his leg. "You've been sweet to listen to me. My sister hasn't returned my calls yet. I'll probably fly to see her after shooting wraps."

That was six months away. "Do you have any family here?"

"No. I'll be fine." She wiped the tears streaming down her cheek.

Mick hesitated, then caught another one of her tears. "I'll be a listening ear anytime you need it, okay? I may not have much advice to give, though."

She looked up at him with a grateful smile. "I'd like that."



The rest of the day, shooting went smoothly. Mick nailed his moves, landing daggers on their targets. In his scenes with Tressa, he admired his lovely costar, pushing away other thoughts. They meshed so well, Mick believed he mistook earlier moments as chemistry. Experiencing the character arcs of Jim Norris and his wife kept him focused on his relationship with Rhoda. Between takes, he tried to call her, but got no answer. He called her mother, asking her to try as well, assuring her nothing was wrong. She just needed to hear from family.



Mick exited his dressing room stretching his arms overhead. His muscles felt sore after all of the sword fights. The remaining crew members moved things around on set, but the majority had left for the day. He was anxious to get home to see Rhoda. As he turned, the long hall leading out loomed before him, mirroring his dream once more. At the end of it stood the man with wiry hair.

Mick wasn't afraid, he was angry. He clenched his fists. "Why are you here?"

The man gave Mick the same icy, blue-eyed glare.

"What do you want from me?" Mick approached ready to raise a fist if needed. The closer Mick came, the more he thought the man would vanish.

The man remained stock-still.

Mick came to meet him face to face like in the dream, this time without a dagger. "Are you real or what?"

The man had no smell. Mick noticed because he expected a musky odor. The torn pinstriped suit looked like talons from Tressa's haiku had ripped into it. Somewhere deep, his eyes glowed red.

Mick glared back, trying to search for the source of the crimson tint. He almost missed the fact that the man raised his arm. Too late to block it, Mick felt the man's hand slam into his forehead.

The first sensation was pain. He went rigid, like he was being electrocuted. He couldn't move, couldn't push the hand away. The voices from his dream reverberated through his ear canals. Conversations he couldn't quite make out. The man's eyes turned completely red, and Mick's next sensation was falling. Or being pulled, he wasn't sure which. He went into a dark place where even the voices disappeared.

The pain eased into a dull kind of buzz, like the sounds emitted from an electrified fence. Mick felt trapped behind it. He could see nothing, do nothing but hold still as the man with wiry hair held his palm against Mick's forehead.

"Last warning." The man's mouth moved, but the hollow voice came from somewhere beneath.

What did that mean? Mick tried to respond, but couldn't speak.

Moving pictures, like a film, opened up as a screen in front of Mick. A time stamp flashed yesterday's date. Rhoda lingered in the same hall where Mick now stood. She had come to see him. She had a worried look on her face. The film, or whatever allowed Mick to see the images, followed her gaze.

Mick saw himself speaking to Tressa, but this was a silent film. Her hand gripped his bicep. It looked suggestive, especially the way Mick gazed down at her. She walked away, and Mick turned back to watch her. Rhoda jumped out of sight and ran down the hall, out the back door. Something flashed in her hand. She dropped it. The film stopped moving and Rhoda began shrinking as she approached her car. The film aimed the camera, for lack of a better word, to the ground. The thing Rhoda dropped was an autograph book.

Mick tried to yell. Why was this happening?

In the next image, the time stamp flashed today's date. Mick watched himself get ready in the bathroom while Rhoda slept. When Mick left, something flickered in the film. The camera panned to a corner of the bedroom. Mick's blood turned cold when he saw the man with wiry hair standing there, glaring down at Rhoda.

How dare he come near his wife? His body was frozen, but inside Mick's mind, he flailed and stabbed and tore this man apart.

Rhoda awoke and got ready as if no one else were in the room. She went to meet the realtor and they toured several houses. Mick caught his breath. Rhoda had missed that appointment. As she shook hands with Anne, Rhoda seemed excited, like she had found the house she wanted. Next, she drove to the set, and the film followed her through the back entrance. She stopped a girl in the hall and said something. The girl pointed toward Tressa's trailer.

Rhoda walked back outside, her face skewed into concern. She headed for the trailer, approached the door, and raised her fist. She stopped mid-knock. Something gave Rhoda pain. Mick could see it in her eyes. She started to walk away, but stopped. Turned. She stepped toward the window. Rhoda stood on her tiptoes. She covered her mouth with both hands. As she peered through the slit in the blinds, the camera followed her gaze inside.

Mick broke into a sweat; he felt like he'd entered into hell. He tried to close his eyes, but they were already closed. The film played no matter what he tried to do. And he knew what he would see even before the camera revealed the image of him holding Tressa close. Very close. Through the slit, he saw his naked upper back and Tressa's hands wrapped around him. That's what Rhoda could see, too.

Mick screamed, "No!" Like the film, he was muted. The man infuriated him. He showed Mick things he'd thought about doing, but he hadn't done them. What kind of warning was that?

Rhoda fled, but instead of returning to her car, she returned to the hallway. She spoke to the girl with the costume again who pointed another direction. Rhoda walked on set and approached the prop table. She picked up a dagger with a frightening stealth. "What is she doing?" he asked. No sound.

She entered Mick's dressing room, closed the blinds. The camera remained outside. Soon, the back door opened and Mick walked inside, tucking in his shirt. He felt disgusted watching himself. The look on cheating Mick's face reflected that same disgust, like he was sick over however far he'd gone with Tressa. He approached the dressing room.

Mick fought inside his own rigid body. He wanted to stop him, but there was nothing he could do. Mick opened the door and shut it behind him. Silence. Nothing happened for a long time. Mick felt his pulse racing. Sweat poured down his face. He could still feel the hand of the man with wiry hair pressed against his forehead. With all his strength, he couldn't push it away.

The door opened. Rhoda walked out. Blood on her clothes. Her gait suggested she was about to stumble. The door to the dressing room remained opened. The camera came just close enough for Mick to see his own dead body on the ground. Next to him, a bloodied dagger. Mick's chest and hands were soaked in blood. He felt cold, horrified. He could almost feel the wound in his heart, staring at it now.

So many questions, and Mick had no way to voice any except in his mind. "Why are you showing this to me? I didn't go into that trailer!"

The screen flickered, reverting to the image from that morning at the apartment. The man with wiry hair knelt beside a sleeping Rhoda. He reached into his ripped pocket and held up a photograph of Tressa dressed up as Jim Norris's wife. The man pressed the photo against Rhoda's forehead. Her body went into a spasm. Her smile dipped and her face skewed like she was in agony. Mick wanted to rip the man's throat out for causing her pain. She stilled, never opening her eyes. The time stamp sped up the hours. Rhoda remained in the bed. Eventually, Mick saw himself walk in. He and Rhoda fought. The rest of the film repeated reality as it happened. Seeing all the extras from his dream, speaking to Tressa in her dressing room, and meeting the man with wiry hair.

The sensation of falling returned. The images faded away to blackness, and Mick felt the hand removed from his forehead. He opened his eyes. The man with wiry hair was gone.

Mick faced the exit door. Then his knees met the floor. He vomited. His arms shook as he held himself up from the puke, a sulfur smell. What had he eaten? He coughed, panted. His heart raced.

Mick wiped his mouth. He didn't understand it. Who... no... what was that man? In the dream, he had said something about no tomorrow. No tomorrow... what else? Mick couldn't remember. On some kind of video, Mick watched himself get killed by his own wife. That Mick had no tomorrow because of what he did with Tressa. But he hadn't actually done anything with Tressa.

In the midst of the confusion and unanswered questions, one thing became clear. The man somehow gave Rhoda the personality of a woman who wouldn't keep appointments. She never made it to the realtor. The realtor never would have called Mick if Rhoda came to her office like she had in the film. The realtor's phone call was the only reason Mick didn't go into that trailer. Mick had known it was a bad idea. In an alternate reality, he had gone in anyway. Something deep inside acknowledged he would eventually do it in this reality the way things were going.

Then he remembered. "What could be means no tomorrow." That's what the man said in the dream. Meaning the man knew the future. Was the future. Some kind of future-seeing being. He... Mick is almost afraid to think it. He saved Mick's life.

His phone vibrated in his pocket. Rhoda. He answered, "Honey? Is it you?"

"Of course, my love. Who else?"

She sounded like herself again. Mick sighed, relieved. "Are you okay?" He looked at his hands half expecting to see blood. No blood, but they trembled.

"Don't be alarmed, but I'm on my way to the doctor. I slept all day which is not like me. Even after that, I feel fatigued so I want to make sure everything is okay with the baby."

"That's a great idea. I'm sure it's fine, but it's smart of you. You're really thinking things through." Mick grimaced at his overt insecurities. He hadn't done anything, would make sure he didn't, so he had no reason to fear his wife now. The man had given him a chance that maybe no one ever got. A chance to see what could be. A chance to be faithful to his wife. Mick hadn't even known Rhoda was capable of doing what she did. Now he knew.

"Mick, you sound a little funny. I'll see you later, after the clinic."

"I love you so much, honey. You and the baby." No matter what moment of weakness might have overpowered Mick, nothing could drag him down that path now. He would make a point to tell her every day, as often as possible, how much he loved her. "You know that, right? I will never do anything to hurt you." He waited, holding his breath.

"I know. We get a happily ever after," she cooed. "This is Hollywood."

5 comments:

  1. this isn´t usually the sort of story i like. but the style of writing drew me in and i really wanted to know how this developed. i think it´s very clever and would actually make an interesting film!!!!

    michael mccarthy

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    Replies
    1. Wow, thanks Michael! I appreciate the feedback. And what a compliment since this isn't a story you would normally read.
      ~Bria Burton

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    2. Great short Brister. Would love to see what this can develop into. I agree with the above comment, it would make a great movie. So "Twilight Zone". Keep up the great writing!
      Love, Swani

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  2. Loved it! Really kept me guessing.

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  3. Good psychological thrillers always return to my thoughts later and thwart my sleep. This did just that. The ending was exactly what I wanted: This is Hollywood. --Sue

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