Excerpt from Wildwood Creek
Allie Kirkland, February, Present Day
I’d forgotten so much about those little-girl years out in LA, my mother playing a bit part in the weekly soap opera, and my father working his magic. When the past is an amalgam of the painful and the sweet, sometimes all the mind can do is let the details fuse and blur. Maybe remold history a little, over time.
But somewhere in the muddle, there was always the indelible feeling of sitting on my knees in my dad’s canvas chair, looking through camera lenses and realizing he was willing to keep the whole world waiting while he explained shooting angles, and boom microphones, and lighting to an eight-year-old. Every little girl should have that moment with her dad, and no little girl should be forced to tuck away the crisp details of it. No little girl should be told she’s better off ignoring the evidence in the mirror—her father’s brown eyes, his penchant for daydreaming at inopportune times, the overwhelming hole where he promised he would be. Always and forever.
But some things just are what they are, no matter who tells you to overlook them. Along with the brown eyes and double-jointed elbows came my father’s passion for all things related to film and live stage production . . . which made it hard to understand why the hairs on my neck stood up when I first walked into the old Berman Theater, just a few blocks off the University of Texas campus in downtown Austin. I couldn’t pin the disquieting feeling on any one thing.
The building was cavernous and shadowy, rife with gold leaf and elaborate cornices, draped in heavy velvet curtains and gilded balconies, the frescos fading like an old woman’s makeup slowly disappearing into aging skin. It seemed the sort of place where ghost hunters might come to do a show. The uneasiness it stirred in me was just a vague sense, like the one you get when you walk out the door in the morning, and the barometric pressure has dropped, and without ever having watched the weather you know a storm is coming.
I felt something . . . happening, but I didn’t know what.
The sensation had been with me all day. My redheaded grandmother, who’d hauled me off to church every time she could wrestle me away from my mother and my stepfather and bring me to Texas for a visit, would’ve called it the brush of angel wings. To Grandma Rita, everything unexplained was either the brush of angel wings, or the touch of divine appointment.
The Berman Theater didn’t feel like either one.
From the center aisle my roommate, Kim, sent a little finger wave my way, then nodded toward the balcony. The casting call line moved forward and Kim shuffled along with it, and I lost sight of her perky head. Goose bumps traveled over my arm and ran up my neck and into the little red curlicues that were probably sticking out of my ponytail by now. Luckily, I wasn’t here for the casting call, but for another reason, and movie star hair wasn’t necessarily required.
I slid into a theater seat near the wall, feeling conspicuously out of place. If I had to explain to one more person that I was allowed to be here, and that I was waiting exactly where the big, burly security guy had told me to wait, it was entirely possible that I’d cave in and abandon this crazy plan altogether. If there was anyone else here seeking the production assistant’s job Kim had told me about, I hadn’t crossed paths with him or her. While Kim’s line was progressing, mine didn’t seem to be forming anytime soon.
Tucking my backpack in beside me, I looked for Kim again, but she’d been permanently absorbed by the crowd. Sooner or later, she’d make it to the front table, where hopefuls were turning in one-sheets, modeling cards, and eight-by-ten glossies that ranged from professionally produced to snapped in the backyard and printed on an inkjet. Tonight, when all the files were compiled, Kim’s application and mine would mysteriously be moved to the top of the pile by a friend she had in the production company—at least, that was the plan.
My phone chimed in my pocket, and I scrambled to silence it before reading the text. People in the casting call line glanced my way.
The text was from Kim, wherever she was now. Whoa! You see him up there? IDK, but think he’s watching you . . . I looked for her again, then answered, Who? Where? R U close to the front yet?
Kim only responded to part of the question. Typical. Kim’s train of thought ran on several tracks at once, jumping back and forth with no operator at the switchboard. Look up in the first balcony! That’s him, I think.
I lowered the phone, peered upward, and made out a form. A man. Dark hair. Tall. Thin.
With the long coat cloaking his profile, he looked like Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre. His face was hidden, but he was leaning slightly forward, watching, seemingly with curiosity, the activity on the floor below. For a moment, I had the strangest feeling that his eyes were locked with mine, as if through the darkness I could somehow see them. The uneasiness walked across my skin again, and I turned away, slouching over my phone.
Who? I texted.___The answer came quickly. Singh. Rav Singh.___Kim’s friend, who was only a paper-shuffler from a temp agency, had heard that this casting call was related to Rav Singh—that he had signed on to produce the newest Mysterious History docudrama miniseries. It didn’t seem likely, considering that Singh was known for box-office films, not television. But the psychological elements of Mysterious His- tory did seem to fit his profile.
Singh’s projects were rife with dark psychological stuff that tended to explore the worst side of human nature. He’d come from Mumbai and quickly made a name for himself in the American film industry. Maybe this was his way of capturing the American television market as well . . . or maybe the macabre elements of Mysterious History appealed to him. Along with taking a cast of modern-day adventurers back to a historical time period, Mysterious History projects always included a twist. For last season’s show, forty people had been sent to live in, and staff, an English manor house. The twist was only revealed after they arrived—Hartshorne Abbey came with a gruesome history and a plethora of legendary ghost stories.
I glanced at the balcony again. The man was gone.
Kim didn’t send another message. Apparently, she’d reached the front of the line. At least one of us might be getting a summer job today. As far as I could tell, I’d been completely overlooked. It was almost a relief. If I told my mother and Lloyd I’d found yet another way to prolong my impractical dream and avoid moving back to Phoenix to clerk in Lloyd’s law office, they’d probably lock the front gates and hide the security code. They were still livid that I’d used my small inheritance from Grandma Rita to start a grad degree in film production at my father’s alma mater, UT. I wanted to do what he had done—work my way up in the movie business. Austin wasn’t LA, but it was a growing hub. There were opportunities here.
For Mom and Lloyd, the whole idea was ridiculous. Your grandmother never should’ve encouraged it. If it weren’t for thatyou’d be on track right now, like your brothers and sisters. Lloyd delighted in pointing out that my three older stepsiblings, his kids, were tremendously successful people. Doctor, lawyer, engineer. Even the three Lloyd and my mother had together were science fair winners, kiddie chess champions, expert junior gymnasts. And then, there was me. It’s time to surrender this fantasy life you’ve created, Allison, and take up residence in the real world. . . .
But that fantasy life, that universe within a story, was exactly what my father adored. Somehow, deep down inside, I couldn’t help clinging to the idea that he would have adored me, starry eyes and all.