Fidelity was the most important thing. It was a real locker, ripped from the local high school, modified as little as possible. The pads were dipped in pig’s blood. There were a hundred imported cockroaches swarming below, twenty rare moths on loan from a nearby breeder. The only air holes were the slots through which, in an earlier life, a lovesick adolescent might’ve slipped saccharine notes.
When I read the script I anticipated this being the most difficult scene, but still the physicality of it caught me off-guard, and my chest grew tight, my breathing labored. I pounded on the metal before me, hollering obscenities: “Let me out, let me the fuck out!” etc. (Not in the script.) “I’m fucking serious, Siri,” I said at the top of my lungs. “I can’t fucking breathe in here.” There was no response save for the chittering laughter of the Trio. I counted the cockroaches to calm myself.
When they did open the door I nearly leapt claws-first at Siri, who sat in her director’s chair cross-legged and stony-faced, but then something in her demeanor soothed me: true pride, maybe, or else only simple artistic satisfaction. She strutted in her cowboy boots toward me and said, “You were great! Genuine fear, it’s great.”
“Yeah,” I said, and tried to smile. “It was genuine fear. Why didn’t you listen to me?”
“You ever see Hitchcock’s The Birds ? Great flick, too often dismissed as being a mere genre excursion. So Tippi Hedren, who plays the female lead—Hitchcock threw a bunch of live birds at her. And I mean it really comes across in the final product. It seems real, Taylor. Anyway, he probably also sexually assaulted her, but hey, a great technique is a great technique. I think I want to leave in the part where you scream my name, too. Meta-cinema.”
I could never stay mad at her. She went to survey the set, prep the next scene, and I retreated to my trailer and showered and changed and sat at the little desk and switched my laptop on and searched “Ariel Polka,” who was supposed to be my co-star, to play Lisa, but who had yet to arrive on set—Siri said she was still in Milan, modeling, but the rumor among the crew members was that she was finishing up a stint in a secretive rehab facility. There was another rumor that the studio had pushed for a more recognizable star (the popular names among gossip-mongers were Anya Taylor-Joy, Chloë Grace Moretz, and Hunter Schafer), but Siri had ultimately insisted on Polka because of the chemistry they had cultivated working together on their last film, A Red Sun Rises Over Portland, a comedic Maoist polemic funded by a French studio, which had, for whatever reason, vastly exceeded its box office expectations in the States. (I hadn’t seen it.)
But it was perfect casting, as far as I was concerned, because Ariel was by far the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She fit perfectly the image of Lisa I’d developed when reading Worm, (which, it’s worth mentioning, I had done several years before there was even any pre-production chatter about a cinematic adaptation—I had even written some well-reviewed fanfiction, believe it or not—a fact that had helped me greatly, I felt, in the audition), except she was perhaps a touch more buxom, perhaps a little more conventionally movie-star-looking—not, obviously, that I was complaining.
I slipped myself a Valium (for which I had a legal prescription, to be clear!) to kill the lingering locker nerves and found the nude scene in her first film, So I Heard You Had Angina?, a saucy rom-com with a massive age difference between the leads (eighty to twenty, I believe). There was a frame in which Polka’s “full frontal” could be seen, and I stared at this while waiting for the pill to kick in, running my hands idly beneath my clothes.
I had just unzipped my jeans when there was a rapping (rapping!) at my trailer door, and I re-zipped and slammed the laptop closed and bid the knocker enter. I had suspected it might be Wildbow, who (I was told) was somewhere on set, and who was supposed to talk to me about my character at some point, although I harbored a secret suspicion that he never would. Instead it was Coraline Paglia (no relation), who was to play Amy Dallon. Coraline was quite famous already, having played a fan-favorite recurring character in an ABC sitcom, You Up?, and we had become, over an extravagant lunch at the nearby Korean-Mexican fusion place (the tteokbokki burrito bowl was to die for, if you’re ever in the area), we had become good friends.
She lay across the sofa opposite me and said, “Hey, you’ve read the book this thing is based on, right?”
“Well, it’s not a book, it’s a web-serial. And you’re telling me you haven’t?”
“I read the script, but I couldn’t make it past the first chapter of the ‘web-serial,’ if that’s a real thing. Anyway, the reason I’m asking is because people act like they’re afraid of me when I’m in costume. And they make lewd—and frankly, if I’m allowed to, as a cishet woman, say this, homophobic —jokes.”
“I think you should simply, you know, read Worm ,” I said.
“Whatever,” she said. She was fervently ginger. “Hey, hope you’re alright after shooting that thing earlier. That looked like torture. ”
“I respect it,” I said, trying to sound world-weary. “I respect Siri and her art.”
“So what do you think of Malik?”
Malik Corsica was playing Brian, and had entered with Coraline into the beginning stages of a tawdry star-crossed affair. I had seen them kiss coyly behind the craft services table that previous Monday. She told me about his hair, his biceps. I found the whole thing disgusting, if you want to know the truth. For starters, Amy was supposed to be a lesbian. But, then again, I couldn’t expect everyone to take their roles as seriously as I took mine—I took mine seriously as death, I really did.
She went on and on about Malik, and I drifted off and dreamed of Ariel, my sweet Ariel.
The next scene involved juice. There was apple and grape, and taunting to accompany them, and I felt, there on the toilet seat with a ham sandwich in my shaking hand, just as Taylor (as in Hebert) had felt, and more of her essence, her capital-T Truth, was revealed to me. I understood her betrayal and its attendant nihilism. I understood the sublimated violence—and, perhaps exceeding my precursor, I understood its structural origin.
The Trio exited stage left, and I left the stall to stare at myself in the mirror. Siri had an intense fascination with mirrors; it was present throughout all her work. Bugs came crawling toward me from either side, real bugs, for Siri was insisting on doing everything practical, despite the danger of infestation, which was in fact already beginning to happen—rebellious centipedes had started to squat in the walls, spiders to spin their delicate webs between expensive camera equipment. It was driving everyone insane, but Siri most of all.
Perhaps the only real difference between Taylor Hebert and I, at least on a spiritual level, was that where she had a corona pollentia, a shard, an Agent, to manage life’s relentless stimuli, I had nothing but a Valium prescription. I felt this very intensely, shivering in silent agony before the mirror, staring at my made-up face (I had insisted to Siri that Taylor would never wear makeup, but she ignored me, citing “artistic license”), as the black mass stretched inexorably toward my sticky hands. I wondered if, should the shoot go on too long, I really would be able to control them.
Siri called cut, and I shook my head to rid myself of the phantom insect-sense. She said she wanted to speak with me, and I followed her to a dark corner, and she said, “Taylor, listen, I think you’re perfect for this role. It seems unfair that I found you; you’re making things too easy, ha ha. However, uh, there are still some things I’d like to work on. For one thing, and don’t take this the wrong way, you’re way too pretty. Taylor Hebert is supposed to be gawky and stick-thin. You’re just a little too, er, curvaceous. Your face is too symmetrical.”
“What exactly would you like me to do about it?”
“I don’t quite know yet. Maybe we could have you wear a prosthetic mask. Or maybe we’ll just do some motion capture. I don’t know. Something to consider.”
I walked into the lazy sunlight smiling. I was from Wisconsin and had yet to acclimate to the moneyed languour of SoCal. I felt sure of myself and confident, even beautiful, even too beautiful: this was a rare state of affairs. If I walked through the smoggy circuitous streets of Hollywood I would attract the most attractive men and women—they would flock to me like moths to a flame—and this was one area where my powers exceeded Ms. Hebert’s, poor girl.
It was in this headspace that I met Ariel face-to-face for the first time. At first I didn’t recognize her (she was wearing sunglasses and a broad black straw hat), I simply thought, “Why, who is that beautiful woman?” but then she tapped me on the shoulder and shook my hand and said, “Hey! You must be Taylor?” and her honey-velvet voice was unmistakable.
“Ariel?” I said. “Oh my God. When did you get here?”
“I’m just arriving from the airport. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you for so long!”
“Same here, Jesus, you have no idea.”
In my fantasies I had imagined that before Ariel I would crumple like cloth, melt into a simple lump of blushing flesh—I was too pale, too virginal, where she was worldly and divine—but this was not, in fact, what happened. What happened was I asked her to dinner. “I think it’s important that we get to know each other,” I said, “if only for chemistry’s sake.”
“That sounds like heaven, ” she said, and gave me a grin that was suitably vulpine, so vulpine I thought she might’ve practiced it in the mirror, with canon citations in one hand and fanart for reference in the other.
She said she knew the perfect spot, and led me to a diner down the block, and we sat at the counter and ordered waters (I had learned my first day here that ordering a Coke, as I would have preferred, would earn me disappointed glares). She asked me about how I was adjusting to the starlet’s lifestyle, this of course being my first major role, and I answered in such a way (I hoped) to make me seem like a “trooper,” which was a word my father often used to inspire me, a practice he had begun shortly after my mother’s death.
“You’ve read Worm, right?” I asked over my Caesar salad.
“Of course. I read it even before I knew about the role.”
“Hey, me too! Who’s your favorite character?”
“Hmm,” she said, and sucked salt from her forefinger. “I might have to say Lily, you know, Foil.” Which was an encouraging answer, to say the least. “What about you?” she said.
“Honestly,” I said, smirking, “for me it might be Lisa.”
“Aw, you’re too kind.”
“What do you think about the Taylor/Lisa ship?”
“You know, like what if they were in love with each other. I always thought it was fun to imagine.”
“No, I can’t say I . . . I mean, isn’t Taylor straight?”
“Ha ha,” I said, and took a long sip of water. “Forget I said anything, it was just a joke.”
We ate in silence a few minutes longer, after which she claimed she needed to speak with Siri. I said I would use the bathroom and then walk to my hotel, which was true: I sat in the dingy stall and sobbed, or maybe more like shuddered while my cheeks grew wet. An obsidian scorpion crawled under the door, and I stared at it with a fury of which I could never have previously believed myself capable, and it flipped over and squirmed till it finally perished.
One Jay Yao was playing Lung. He stood six feet and four inches tall; his chest was broad; he had tattoos real and fake. Makeup had applied lifelike emerald scales to his forearms and knees, great dazzling imbricated sheets. There was an elaborate system of tubes and canisters, all flush with the rest of his costume, that allowed him to shoot flames from the corner of his mouth with the press of a button hidden in the center of his left glove (black leather, fingerless). Everyone except Siri was concerned that one stray blast would destroy what work we had accomplished, as well as maybe kill somebody—but I trusted Jay. He was strong and at peace with himself.
Jay was mostly known for starring in a few action movies in Hong Kong, where he was from—most notably a thriller called, in English, The Thin Policeman, which was nominated for Best International Picture at the 2003 Academy Awards—but this belied his range. He had done very well, in my opinion, in his subtler, purely dramatic roles, especially in a great little art-horror joint called, in English, The Liger’s Scream . They even wanted him to play Tony Leung Chiu-Wai’s role in Chungking Express, but a freak illness prevented him from accepting.
We were shooting by the water, shipping containers in the background like artisan candies, the flames’ luminance bouncing brazenly off the waves, for dark reflections were paramount: this was what Siri continued to stress. Jay howled into the hot night, and I crouched on the corner of a nearby rooftop and watched little black specks overtake him, only to disintegrate in the subsequent localized explosion. My costume fit well; within it I felt truly transformed. Siri had managed to source real spidersilk. When she showed me the footage I thought it made me look mean, even evil, which I found empowering, as though humanity were an exoskeleton I could slough off in accordance with some seasonal command and be left, therefore, paradoxically, strong and invulnerable.
Siri called cut mid-scene. She was behind me, trying to get a close-up of my masked face. “What’s wrong?” I said.
“Taylor, listen,” she said, and put the bridge of her nose between her thumb and index finger. “I think you’re doing great, first of all, it’s just . . . for this scene, I think you’ve got to be a little more, how to put this, sociopathic. I think in that take you were a little too, I don’t know, exuberant.”
“But isn’t Taylor supposed to be happy in this scene?” I said. “She’s free; she’s doing what she’s wanted to do ever since getting her powers.”
“That’s interesting. I would say that, if she is happy, it has more to do with being able to do something with the violence that’s been sitting inside her this whole time. Don’t you think there’s an element of sadism at play here?”
“Hey!” called Jay from below. “Are we doing another take tonight?” (His accent was improbably excellent.)
“I guess we have to!” responded Siri.
So we set everything up once more—refilled the canisters in his costume, scooped up the remaining bugs, returned to our assigned starting positions—and Siri shouted: “Action!” I tried to internalize her words, to inject some sadism into my glee, which ultimately wasn’t very difficult. I took, at least in some shadowy corner of myself, a dark pleasure in seeing Lung—in seeing Jay—dance and yawp as the critters, the creepy-crawlies, covered his honey-smothered crotch. And it seemed to work: that was the last take we did that night. Siri ordered us all earnestly to get a good night’s sleep, which betrayed her naivete.
I changed and sat on the curb to wait for my Uber—something to which, although I disliked it, I felt I must resign myself; other people would have to perform these sorts of services for me, no matter how debased or degraded either party felt, that was just the way of the world—and scrolled through the relevant chapter of Worm on my phone, which felt like some kind of regression, like I was chasing the pleasure of my younger self, a kind of nostalgic masochism. (I was in desperate need of comfort.) The prose hadn’t changed in a decade, and it never would, I knew now, although it very well could, and maybe even should.
Someone tapped the back of my neck, and I could tell without turning that it was Ariel because of the spark in my heart the skin-contact caused. She sat on the curb beside me and said “Hey,” self-effacingly. “So, that was awkward last night, right?”
“No, no,” I said. “I mean, it was, but it’s my fault. I’m just, you know, socially maladjusted.”
“No! Not at all. It’s my fault. I was tired after my flight, and I realized after I got back to my hotel that I had forgotten to take my Wellbutrin for the day.”
I couldn’t think of a response. I was not very good at making conversation, which I had hoped, in Hollywood, would be read as charming aloofness or eccentricity—but there was no hiding from Ariel. She cleared her throat to break the silence and said, “Marianne and I are going to this party in NoHo, supposed to be very low-key. Wanna come?”
“Sure,” I said, and gulped. “If you don’t think I’ll be out of place.”
“Not at all! ” she said. I canceled my Uber, and she pulled me to my feet.
It ended up being within walking distance, a house—actually a more appropriate term might be McMansion—skunky with strong weed, hot with bodies. Marianne Mingle, who was playing Glory Girl (great casting, by the way, she really had the look, and biceps to split your skull), she ushered us inside, for the owner and host was someone she knew, and led us to a sofa and then went to find drinks. Ariel and I were once again alone together. I couldn’t meet her eyes; I stared past her into the haze-laden dimness, in which sat, I was sure, strange designer drugs, compromising pornographic photos of girls likely underage.
I was terrified of parties like this, to tell the truth. I had been to one in high school, back in Milwaukee, and had accidentally ingested an overabundance of THC-laced Skittles and had a panic attack so bad I had to go to the emergency room, where they gave me Valium via IV, my very first taste. If anyone but Polka had asked I would have answered in the negative promptly and impolitely. We were close enough now that I could feel her warmth and confidence. She wielded her body as a tool, as a paintbrush: it was the mechanism of her art.
“How was Milan?” I said, and instantly regretted saying it.
“Milan?” she said.
“Siri said that’s where you were, modeling, why you were late to arrive?”
“Oh, no,” she said, and sort of snorted. “That’s nice of her to cover her for me, but I wasn’t in Milan, I was in rehab. I had—have—a bit of a coke habit, ha ha.”
“Oh my god, I’m so sorry. I had no idea. I won’t tell anyone.”
“It’s fine, it’s not like I’m embarrassed or anything. I have a very addictive personality, that’s one thing you should know about me. Even reading Worm, I mean, I was up till five in the morning every day trying to finish it. Honestly I think it was me who convinced Siri it was a good idea to do an adaptation. I kept pestering her to read it and eventually she did. I’m obsessive, I guess.”
Marianne returned with three bottles of beer, which I couldn’t bring myself to drink—I was too young to do it legally, for one thing, and I couldn’t shake the suspicion that someone had slipped something into it, for another, despite the fact the cap was still firmly in place—and I would’ve felt insecure about this, except Ariel said she couldn’t drink either. “Marianne,” she whispered, “I have kind of a problem with drinking.” Marianne was quite cool about it. She went to fetch us waters.
“God, I’m sorry, I’ve talked so much about myself,” said Ariel. “Tell me about Taylor. Taylor Schechter, that is, ha ha. How did you land the role?”
“I mean, it must’ve been some divine intervention, honestly, I was so lucky. I’d just come to LA to try and be an actor, right out of high school—my parents were pissed. But I heard about the audition, and having read the thing I knew I had to at least try, and the rest is history. Sorry, I don’t know why I used that phrase, I hate it: ‘the rest is history.’”
“You must be some kind of prodigy, ” she said, and shifted such that her face was mere inches from mine, and I could smell her perfume—something classy and expensive, I could tell, although the exact scent eluded me—and see the glint of the low light off her lip gloss—her lips, whose curves and symmetries were proud and unyielding, were my favorite part of her. Every word seemed golden that slipped through them. I felt compelled to tell her everything, tell her I had loved her for years, that her presence on the silver screen had helped me to come to terms with my “sexuality” (whatever that means) in the dead Wisconsin midsummer, that when I kissed Kim Huysinger in the back of her father’s Toyota it was you, Ariel, whose face graced my mind. More than anything I felt physical need, which I worried would manifest soon enough—but just my luck, Marianne returned before I could act.
So instead I told an anecdote about a deer tick that suctioned itself to my ass during summer camp, which I hoped would make me come across as “folksy” (or something), make my presence more surprising, and thereby make me more desirable. I looked into the silvery shimmer of the water in my glass and knew that if I were to take even one sip I would vomit, or else pass out from the rohypnol dissolved within. My mouth was arid; my breath smelled of bile.
I stayed another hour, listening to the name-dropping gossip of Marianne and her friends, who turned up like—this was the image I couldn’t shake—great schools of bright-scaled fish, the kind you could only catch in the pacific. (And, like fish, I couldn’t tell them apart but for the minute differences in the pucker of their lips.) Someone must have been spreading my reputation without my say-so, for everyone wanted to talk to me. I tried to remain aloof and eccentric.
Finally the whole thing proved intolerable, and I told everyone I had to get to the hotel because Siri needed me early in the morning. (Was that disappointment or relief in Ariel’s eyes?) I couldn’t tolerate, either, ordering another Uber, so I elected to walk: I needed the exercise to keep thin and to keep sane. Anxiety and desire dueled in my gut. Cockroaches scurried over my sneakers, and I couldn’t help but feel a kind of kinship with them. I wanted to belong to a hive. I wanted to eat garbage. It was one in the morning by the time I got to the hotel.
I took double my regular dose of Valium and peeled away my street clothes and ran the bath and called Siri. “Taylor?” she said. “It’s after midnight?”
I sank into the tub and said, “Oh, sorry, did I wake you?”
“No, no, I have this awful insomnia. I was just worried something was wrong.”
“Well, actually I just wanted to talk about the upcoming scene. The one where Taylor meets the Undersiders, and she like changes in front of them. I just think it would be good to sort of play up the sapphic tension between me and Lisa. That’s the kind of subtextual thing I love about Worm, and you’re the mastermind here, of course, but it’s something that’s been important to me, I guess.”
“Taylor, let me be honest with you: I love that idea. Let me actually do a little rewrite of that scene right now. I’m so glad I found you, Taylor, seriously.”
“Aw, I’m glad I found you too, Siri. Anyway, I’m about to pass out, so I should probably get off the phone. Good night.”
I slipped into the scalding water and pulled up on my phone the picture of Ariel in the nude, and the rest, as they say, is history.
I arrived on set during the “golden hour” and caressed my costume. The most important thing was to understand it as a second skin. To put it on was to become Skitter, to literally become her, and not in any cheap artistic way—to really switch my DNA for hers, my memories for hers. In our casual clothes we were two Taylors; in the spidersilk we were a single Skitter.
There was a small colony of maggots forming in this section of the studio, a writhing mass that seemed to move as one unified consciousness. An earlier version of myself might’ve found this disturbing, but now there was comfort in the little squirming thing. There were so many component parts on which I could focus that it soothed me.
Someone behind me made a scoffing sound, and I turned and saw one Giselle Pleurisy, who was playing Emma Barnes. This, if I can be totally frank, was perhaps the worst casting decision I had ever seen: where the Emma of the text was sadistic and beautiful, Ms. Pleurisy had an unavoidable plainness to her face, and was incapable of even beginning to play at sadism: her acting ability was simply inadequate. Still, I found her charming, in a pitiable kind of way.
“Should we, like, call an exterminator?” she said—her voice was fried within an inch of its life.
“You don’t think it adds to the ambiance?” I said.
She gave me a quizzical giggle. (I suspected she liked me—this was a phenomenon I was in the process of discovering—in the way a starlet can envy another so intensely that it becomes something like infatuation.) “You’re crazy,” she said, and sort of brushed my arm with her fingers. “Listen,” lowering her register, “I’m glad I caught you here alone because, well, I wanted to ask if you’d want to get dinner or something sometime.”
“You mean as like a date?”
“I don’t really like labels,” she said, “but yes, that’s mostly what I mean.”
I weighed the pros and cons. I considered, too, what Taylor’s (as in Hebert) response might be, and in doing so remembered the sleepless night I’d spent writing my very first piece of fanfiction, which was—this piece of info smacked me hard, woke me up—a little Emma/Taylor AU, a short one-kay snippet. This was some kind of divine intercession, I was sure, and so I said, “Sure, why not. That sounds lovely, Giselle.”
She smiled broadly and said, “Great! I’ll pick you up at eight tomorrow night?”
Siri and I ran into some conflict when shooting the stripping scene. I wanted to do it nude—actually fully nude—but she disliked the idea. “It makes me uncomfortable!” she claimed. “Taylor is like, canonically, fifteen in this scene.”
“I just feel like it’s right for my character,” I said. “And it would be more visually interesting.”
“Ariel, what do you think?” said Siri.
“Huh? What?” said Ariel, and looked up from her phone. Her Tattletale costume was perfect: skin-tight purple/black stripes and a domino mask, which accentuated the delicate curves of her surreally beautiful cheekbones. “Oh, uh. Honestly, Siri, I think we should defer to Taylor on this issue. You have a tendency to be a little domineering, don’t you think?”
“Fine, Jesus,” said Siri. “Show your tits to the world. See if I care.”
But there was no showing of tits to anyone—not Siri, not the camera, and certainly not Ariel (nor for that matter Malik, nor even twinkish Trent Cézanne, who was playing Regent)—I faced their backs and peeled away the costume. I “became myself.” I was open to the world, to Ariel. I wanted her to see me naked, not in any overtly sexual way, just for her to see me, to really know every part of me. But—to her credit, I guess—she never turned. I put on some secondhand workout clothes, and then all the eyes turned back to me, the star, the billboard-sized warlord of Hollywood. And that was it: I was one of the Undersiders.
Siri shut it down; we put it all to a stop. I wanted to start a conversation with Ariel, but she dashed quickly into the backrooms, and I was too shy to chase after her. Instead I ended up in Siri’s “office,” a closet-sized base of operations in the studio’s more corporate section. She sat at her desk, and I took the armchair opposite. She took a swig from a diminutive (but thick!) silvery steel flask and asked if I wanted any. “What is it?” I said.
“Gin,” she said, and put her face in her hands.
“No, thank you,” I said, and picked demurely at the skin of my thumb-knuckle.
“Taylor, Taylor, Taylor,” she said post-swig. “I have doubts, Taylor. You don’t think I have doubts? Of course I have doubts.”
“What kind of doubts?” I said.
“God, I don’t know. Is any of this really worth it? I mean to devote so much time and energy to . . . what? To Worm ? Like, Jesus Christ, it’s not the Bible, it’s not Shakespeare, it’s not even Lord of the Rings.”
“It means a lot to a lot of people,” I said.
“Sure, sure. I’m not trying to diminish that. I’ve just always wanted to be among the ‘Avant-Garde,’ which maybe sounds pompous, I know, but it’s true. I want to be in the Vanguard, Taylor. I want to fucking change something. I have three great idols, three household gods, if you will, and they are: Michelangelo Antonioni, Ezra Pound, and Mao Zedong. And the reason I respect these men so much is that, each in their own ways, they inaugurated sweeping cultural revolutions. That’s what I want to do. That is my calling, my purpose in life. And now here I am, in Hollywood fucking California. I’ve always believed that if the Avant-Garde is the most progressive—the most revolutionary—domain of art, then fanfiction is the most reactionary—and now look where the fuck I am.”
She took a longer swig and put her forehead on the desk before her. I felt a strong urge to offer her some kind of physical comfort—a hug, maybe, or even a pat on the back—for I noticed now like never before her tiny stature. I had always been teased for my height (five feet and eleven inches), and as such I had developed an almost maternal feeling toward vertically challenged people: I wanted to comfort them, to pat their heads, to spoil them. But I resisted because I felt it would cross some professional line. (One could never be too careful, in this climate.)
“Siri, listen, I think what you’re doing is noble, honestly. Even before I knew about this movie I was a big fan of your work, and I think this movie can only make your oeuvre more interesting.”
I watched an ant the size of a cockroach crawl purposefully over her little fingers, its slender antennae swinging wild and febrile in the stale air. “These fucking bugs,” said Siri. “They are the symbol of some fundamental failure of my heart—I know it for fact. I’ve been studying bug anatomy, just for fun. Bug culture, too. Did you know a certain kind of ant keeps aphids as cattle? Jesus fucking Christ. It’s exploitation all the way down. They’re evil, is what I think. I can see it in their sable exoskeletons, their mechanical mandibles, through which they can speak no truth, no beauty, and certainly—oh, God!—certainly no love. ”
I mumbled something about having a spa appointment and left her to drink alone.
Another similarity between me and Ms. Hebert was that we were both at one point on the butt-end of bullying, in a manner of speaking. I was never, like my superpowered counterpart, subjected to a prolonged “campaign” of torment, nor did I ever experience anything nearly on the same level as the Locker Incident, but still our stories were similar enough that I could see myself in her place, juice-soaked and betrayed; and if she were in my place I knew she would feel the same about me.
I had a single bully, and she was also my girlfriend, my first and only: sweet auburn-haired Kim Huysinger. This was, to be clear, nothing so cliché as an “abusive relationship”—I wouldn’t want to steal valor, so to speak, from real victims. The truth was that I wanted it. It was a kink I’d been developing, as you might a novel or a screenplay, a kind of adolescence-flavored masochism, not essentially sexual per sé, more like (how to describe it?) a ritual through which I could—with her help, of course—evoke that same low-in-the-gut sensation you feel when reading YA books, that ineffable candy-tasting elation.
I remember, in our Senior Year, we would spend our lunches in the bathroom smoking, and there we were one rainy Wednesday, talking over a toilet, when I said to her, aping a post-Jack Tattletale-style Glasgow grin, “Hey, c’mon, burn me. Brand me, baby.” (We were in the habit of calling each other “baby” at that point, mostly in a detached/ironic sort of way.)
She was initially reluctant, but I brought her around. She dug the red-hot end of her Newport into my abdominal muscles, and my blissful hiss bounced between the stall walls like a ballistic missile made of velvet and elastic. It felt the way, I imagined, newly pregnant people feel: like I would always carry a piece of her with me. Things didn’t work out between Kim and I, in the end, but I still have the scar, and whenever I bring my fingers across it I wince and remember her pink and swollen lips.
Giselle arrived in a battered-looking blue Jeep. She wore a teal skirt and heavy makeup, and I was disappointed because her presentation reeked of a “budget,” the kind of restraint about which the real Emma would never have to worry. (This was her first major role, as far as I could tell, but surely now she had the money to upgrade?) “You look great, ” she said, which wasn’t true in the slightest, for I had spent a maximum of five minutes getting ready.
“So where are we going?” I said. Her perfume was already beginning to give me a headache.
“Have you had dinner yet?” I shook my head. “Then let’s get, hmm, how about tacos, I know this great spot.”
It was indeed a great spot, it turned out. We both got pork. She told me about growing up locally, her love for the city, and what was an outsider’s perspective on this issue? I talked in little monosyllabic fragments about Wisconsin, about how I was so lucky to get the part so soon after arriving.
“So you’ve read Worm before?” she said.
“Many times,” I said. “I was always a big fan. Have you?”
“I’m in the middle of it right now, actually. I’m at the part with all the interludes where the Slaughterhouse Nine nominate people.”
“That’s a great part. One of my favorites. The one with Amy might be the best chapter in the whole thing, if you ask me.”
We threw away what remained of our food. I belched, and we laughed about it together. We got back in her Jeep, whereupon she said, “Wanna come back to my place? I’ve got, you know, alcohol et cetera.”
“Oh, er, I don’t think I should,” I said. “I have to be up early tomorrow. I had fun, though. I really did.” (This was all what you might call a “white lie.”)
“No problem, seriously. What about a selfie?”
This was the least I could do, I decided, and so I nodded anxiously, and she put her cheek to mine and smiled like a mannequin (no pun intended) and held her old iPhone at arm’s length. When she tapped the button to take the picture she turned to kiss my cheek. I could feel her cheap lipstick lingering. She drove me back to the hotel wordlessly.
I was in the bath again that night when I got a text from Siri reading: “Taylor wtf?” I responded with a question mark, and she told me to search for myself online, and I obeyed. There were at least three articles with titles like “Romance Brewing on the Set of the Worm Movie?!” using as thumbnails the selfie Giselle had taken only an hour or so earlier, which she had uploaded to Instagram almost instantly after the figurative ink had dried with the caption: “I’m so glad we could make it official,” and then a winking emoji and a heart. It was an unflattering photo; I looked deranged. I groped for my bottle of Valium and found it empty.
I called Giselle in the morning. “Taylor,” she said, “Oh my God, I’m so sorry?”
“So you’re saying this was not on purpose, not malice?”
“Taylor, no, of course not—I was just being a moron, what can I say? I really hope this doesn’t change your opinion of me.”
“Honestly I don’t think there’s any danger of that.”
She giggled timorously as a schoolgirl, and I wanted to blot her out, cover her up, so I put the phone down without announcing it and trekked to the lobby with heavy limbs and wrath in my heart. Outside in the sickly sunlight a rodential woman with her hair back and a camera in her hands called my name, and when I turned she snapped my face, and I felt that something had been stolen from me, a shard of my extraordinary soul, now expropriated to be divvied up among the average masses. “Fuck off,” I told her. She showed me her middle finger: long, with an acrylic pink nail at its crown.
I walked toward the set—not because I was needed, but because that was where I would feel safe—and thought of Ariel. She was a kind of guiding light. She could become my mentor, I thought: a mother figure. My cheeks grew rosy as I walked, thinking of her—of her long legs and fair hair, of her red wet tongue and the kindnesses she could speak with it. Then, as if I had conjured her with my cathexis, her name appeared on my phone. She had texted me asking if I’d like to come to her place, to chat, because she thought, for whatever reason, that I might like company at the moment. So I ordered an Uber with shaking hands and showed the slovenly driver the address.
Her apartment was thin and modest, an artist’s home, sparsely decorated and smelling of smoke and paraffin wax. She offered me sparkling water and a strawberry scone, which I accepted, and we ate side by side on her expensive sofa, letting the crumbs fall wantonly between the cushions. It was the first time I’d seen her without makeup. The lines of her eyes left phantom slices in my scaly skin. “Let me just say,” she said around her pastry, “Giselle seems a little . . . troubled?”
“No, I mean, yeah. She just seems slightly antisocial or something.”
“I admit I do find her very attractive,” she said, and laughed.
“It’s possible I made a pass at her at that party?”
“I know, I know. I felt bad about it too because she was slightly tipsy, so it’s kind of weird between us. But now I know I never had a chance because she only has eyes for you.”
“I can’t believe what I’m hearing, honestly.”
I ate on untasting, wordless, deadened. My mind spun like she’d slipped me something, a dreadful tripartite spiral. I pictured Ariel playing the predator, pouncing wide-eyed and sober on poor Giselle—what reason could she possibly have? The idea that Ariel found her attractive was simply too implausible.
“Wow,” I went on. “So you’d say you’re attracted to women exclusively or . . . ?”
“Who knows?” she said. “It’s LA, Taylor. Do we really need to quantify these things?”
“No, right, of course. I just mean because, me too, you know what I mean?”
“Glad to hear it,” she said without mirth, and swallowed some more of her scone.
We talked a little longer, recounting without enthusiasm the gossip of Siri’s set. It was cruel, I thought, that she would sit so close to me, that she would tease me with her scent, with her undying kindness. . . .
Then eventually she went to use the bathroom, and I fell asleep on her sofa (for the truth was that I had slept very little the night prior due to my Valium running out a couple days before the refill was available). I dreamed of shapes and symbols, nasty asymptotes and recycling signs and mirrors—more than anything my dream was made of mirrors.
Ariel woke me an hour later and kicked me out kindly; she had a headache. Outside her apartment two men pointed their phones at me and snapped away. “What’s the point?” I asked them. “Look, you want to sell me to a tabloid or something?” They pocketed their phones and watched me dumbly as stones with eyes. “I don’t care; do I look like I care? It’s pointless. Of course it’s all pointless. You can see me in a magazine but you’ll never be able to touch me. You’ll never be able to touch me the same way you’ll never be able to kiss your own reflection. I’ll be in some other world. So go ahead, what do I care? Go jerk off to my picture in a magazine. Get your jizz in my eyes. But you’ll never be able to touch me. Fuck you. Really, fuck you. Go jerk off and then kill yourselves.”
My Uber had arrived by the time I was finished, and there was stale spit on my lower lip, and the photographers stood still, turned to stone by my snake tongue. I got in the car and went back to the hotel because that was the only place, I felt, where I wasn’t unwanted. Once there I wanted to try it for myself, so I kissed myself in the mirror, and I imagined that it was Taylor (as in Hebert) I was kissing, and this offered some anesthesia. Her lips were cold as ice but grew warmer over time.
Siri said she wanted to talk to me when we weren’t shooting, and so I arrived at her office around noon one Sunday and sat in her old armchair. She was once again drinking in the daytime, slipping her silver flask between her thin little lips as quickly as possible. I could smell that telltale rotten juniper on her breath. She said, “Taylor, listen, I think aspects of this thing have gotten out of hand. Today alone I’ve had five so-called fans accost me in the street, in a café, right outside my home. When I worked on the Captain Onan franchise I encountered rabid fans. But these fans aren’t rabid, Taylor—they’re demonic.”
I laughed a little, out of concern more than anything. “We can get a little crazy for sure.”
“It’s not that I don’t value audience input—in fact I think it’s a vital part of making art that glorifies the proletariat, which is what I want to do—but some of them definitely seem more useful than others. So, in that vein, I’ve set out some time where I will listen to them one by one. They will come before me like supplicants, and I will be their enlightened despot.”
“So what do you need me for?”
“Well, I just thought you’d like to sit in on this session. I take your opinion very seriously, Taylor, I really do.”
I didn’t see a way to get out of it, so I agreed. I sat in the armchair, and Siri sat behind her desk, and before I could brace myself the door opened and three strange figures traipsed inside, unified in their moments, odd-faced and nondescript. They stood at the far end of the room with their hands at their sides. There was a gravity to their presence that made my heart beat quicker, as though they represented that unknowable otherworld in which the real world-changing decisions were made.
“This,” said Siri, and gestured at them grandiosely, “is the Cauldron Delegation. I’m told they have a lot of fandom clout.” She turned to them: “Now, if you could please introduce yourselves and describe your concerns. And please, Jesus Christ, please do so succinctly.”
Of course I had heard of these three—they introduced themselves as Peri, Roon, and Gaia respectively—fleshy reminders of those dark years I had spent deep in the murky bowels of “fanspace.” They were shorter than I had anticipated (except for Gaia, who dwarfed her two comrades, although I was still maybe a head higher than her), and more put-together, for lack of a better word.
Roon began: “We are here, Ms. Yelasco, to ensure the Cauldron Characters—that is, those characters in Worm who work for the shadowy international agency known as Cauldron—we are here to ensure they are treated fairly and accurately. The importance of our task cannot be overstated. Although they make few to no appearances in the early chapters of the serial, their presence behind the scenes is of the utmost importance. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that Worm is more a story about Cauldron than a story about Taylor.”
Gaia continued (for they seemed to speak as one): “Take Number Man for example. Surely you, Siri, a Marxist, could agree that in order to understand the culture and politics of a society one must first understand the economic base. Well, in the world of Worm we have one man who represents the entirety of that base. And this is not a blank man, not a man without defining characteristics. On the contrary, he is a sexual being—and the whole of the story reflects this in its very texture. Remind me afterward, Siri, to send you some of my fics for research. . . .”
Now it was Peri’s turn: “Take Alexandria also. Few if any characters are more central to the thrust of Worm, at least up to and including the moment of her death. And yet there are so many misconceptions about her! So much fan-created art of her makes her too busty or not busty enough, her hips too wide or not wide enough. Not to mention all the art of her that does not contain Contessa too! Siri, I’d like to show you my detailed schematics and canon citations.”
“And if I could just step in again,” said Roon. “What people don’t understand about the relationship between Alexandria and Contessa is that it is canonically non-platonic. Because the vast majority of Worm’s readership flirts with illiteracy, this has largely flown under the radar. But look, Siri,”—and here she pulled out her phone and handed it to her—“I think you’ll find that these lines prove the validity of my claim. Take special note of the cape’s symbolism in this passage.”
They chattered for maybe thirty minutes longer—at one point Gaia went on a long tangent, using mathematical nonsense-talk, about Number Man and the dimensions of his crotch, aided by Peri’s illustration (a thick cock for Siri’s viewing pleasure)—but I admit I struggled to pay attention. I was beginning to discover what my fictional counterpart had discovered so many years ago: one should never meet their heroes. Their standpoint was purely external whereas mine was internal, and a kind of contempt accompanied this fact. Finally Siri said, “Well, I’m convinced. Taylor, what do you think?”
I shuddered awake and said, “Uh, well, I noticed you haven’t commented at all on the morality of Cauldron’s actions. Isn’t that central to our concerns?”
“Oh God,” said all three in unison. “Fuck off.”
Silence thick as smog suffused the little room. “I’m sorry,” said Siri. “I’m afraid you three will have to leave. I simply cannot tolerate that kind of language directed at Taylor, whom I love like my only daughter.”
They seemed to shrink—for Siri was nothing if not intimidating—and they shuffled out of the room with their proverbial tails between their legs, already taking out their phones to tell their Discord acolytes what bitches Siri Yelasco and Taylor Schechter were; to tell them that no one should get their hopes up about the movie, that art was dead. A few months ago I would’ve heeded their words without reservation, and I would’ve been right.
“Sorry about that, Taylor,” said Siri. “I guess emotions run high in this fandom. Still, I think they had some good ideas.”
“Like what?” I said sleepily.
“Well, for one thing, I think I’m going to cast a porn star to play Number Man. . . .”
The next day Ariel and I went shopping at this quaint little mall near the water. Sea fog floated slowly over us, dappled with the spray of waves, shot through with sunbeams like the legs of ancient insect gods. I wanted to be near her more than anything. So much depended on our simple physical nearness. I put my hand as close as I could to hers without touching it.
She wanted to help me change my style, for I was still trapped, at least when it came to my casual wardrobe, in the wasteland of the Midwest—or at least this was what she claimed. (I didn’t see anything wrong with my wardrobe.) She found a fancy store, The Whited Sepulcher, which smelled, inside, of aerosol odor-eliminators and the perfumes used by the wives of aging rapist producers. Flamboyantly outfitted cashiers watched us eagle-eyed, trying to guess what we had for lunch. Other employees walked between the racks waving their price guns back and forth like beeping censers. I had never felt closer to anorexia—no, bulimia: I was always interested more in emesis than starvation.
She took me to the underwear section, which got my heartrate up. She gestured ironically at some lacy lingerie and said it would look good on me. I laughed and put my face in my hands, worried she would read too much into my reddened cheeks—and they were indeed red, crimson in fact, like a lethal fever, but I couldn’t tell whether it was from flusterment or fury; this was all some elaborate ultra-tease, I was sure. Then she found some pinkish panties she said she wanted to try on, and I had to stand lamely outside the changing room door, asking if they fit her well, asking if they made her look desirable. In the end she decided they weren’t worth it.
Then she went to find clothes for me, and all her suggestions made me nauseous, namely because of the amount of skin they would show. Sometimes around Ariel I wanted her to see as much of my skin as possible, but other times I wanted to cover myself, drown myself in linen, die from the heat of concealment. Today was one of those cover-up days. My pores spewed noxious fumes.
Finally she forced me to at least try some well-fitting jeans and a cornflower-blue crop-top type of thing (this, she said, would make my breasts look bigger, free me from the family curse of small-chestedness). In the changing room I took off my t-shirt, which I had owned since Freshman Year, and slipped on the little thing, to which there was something wan and flimsy, as if it were a cowardly piece of clothing. I looked at myself in the mirror and felt no urge whatsoever to kiss myself; I didn’t know why anyone would kiss me ever again, least of all Ariel. Nonetheless, looking at my reflection and hearing her tap her foot outside, I couldn’t help but fall into a vivid sensuous fantasy of what our domestic life together might be like. After we were married we would embark on this kind of shopping expedition often, always her forcing me out the door, although I would come to love it, and only play at reluctance, because it was tradition, one of our old games. I imagined if we lived together all I would ever be able to talk about was the shape of her body, her soft plump lips, and she would only be able to shut me up by . . .
She snapped me out of it by knocking at the door. “Taylor?” she said. “You okay in there?” So I shuffled out, and she looked down at my midriff and said, “Wow! Looks fantastic. I love the—”
I cut her off by kissing her. It was angry and mindless, almost violent. And she, well-versed in reacting to her partner, responded with equal intensity. To touch her lips at last was an almost spiritual experience. I shivered spasmodically, and she put her hand on the back of head to steady me.
Then Siri called cut, and we broke apart. “Taylor, Jesus Christ,” said Siri, her face in her hands. “When you said you wanted to play up the sapphic tension between Taylor and Lisa I thought you meant, you know, subtextually. This is not subtext, Taylor.”
“No,” I said, and shook my head vigorously. “No, of course not. I don’t know what came over me. Sorry. Sorry, Siri. Sorry, Ariel.”
“Look,” continued Siri. “I don’t think you’re wrong to read this scene as being romantic. I mean, Taylor’s basically doing a fashion show for Lisa. It’s intimate, there’s no denying that. This is where they really get close, this sequence at the boardwalk. But Jesus, some subtlety, please.”
“Yeah,” said Ariel, and wiped at her lips. “I don’t think that worked very well.”
“No,” I said, “definitely not. I’m really sorry. But you shouldn’t have kissed me back!”
“Acting is reacting, Taylor,” said Ariel.
I apologized to everyone once more and told Siri I needed a minute to clear my head and sprinted to the shitty mildew-smelling bathroom on site and washed my hands—but I stopped short of washing my face, partially because I didn’t want to ruin the expertly applied makeup and partially because I could still feel the press of Ariel’s lips against mine, their elegant imprimatur. I was still swimming in her scent, which was as slick and toxic as mercury. I felt as if I could pass through walls if I only tried.
Coraline came into the bathroom and asked if I was alright. “I think I’m going insane,” I told her, and put my back to the wall and slid to the floor. She sat down beside me and put her head on my shoulder.
“Me too,” she said. “Malik and I broke up this morning.”
“Sometimes I wish I had your power,” I said.
“I’m joking. What I really think is that I’m in love with Ariel, and I worry that I will never not be in love with her, you know what I mean?”
“I know exactly what you mean.”
I looked down and saw that two cockroaches had started to fuck on my ankle.
Special thanks to Peri, Roon, and Gaia for making their cameos, and for helping me understand their characters.
I am once again advertising my commission availability. DM me for any kind of writing at all at henghost#0950 on Discord.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
I stood on set watching Marianne and Coraline argue about the ethics of healing a skinhead (a skinhead played in this instance by one Michael Plink, known for his bit-parts, playing goons and thugs in prestige shows and World War II reenactments). They had little to no chemistry, Marianne and Coraline, not even the toxic kind you associate with Guts & Glory, those twin pillars of doomed heroism. They were static and lacking eccentricity, which is to say: dreadfully boring.
Siri I could tell was frustrated too, for she tapped her foot with the ferocity and passion you associate with bureaucrats and meth heads. They were on their third take, three hours into making what would be a three minute scene. Skittering at the periphery were earwigs and praying mantises and fire ants and bumblebees and cockroaches and ladybugs and moths. A general agitation pervaded the studio; all the helpers and hangers-on had suffered psychic nicks, so to speak, from treading deep into the bramble-thick forest of the primary document, of Worm. Only Siri, our stoic captain, remained steadfast in her determination. (Whether or not this courage owed to the flask she now kept on her person at all times I had no desire to find out.)
Coraline grew tired quickly, droopy in the eyes, soft in the tongue—and this ultimately led to Siri’s satisfaction with the scene. Coraline had been too perky for Amy in the beginning. I wondered meanwhile how Siri would handle the Wretchification, whether she would be modest or transgressive, although of course in the end I decided that she would want to show everything, every stolen kiss, every dog and rat.
When they were finished Coraline asked to speak with me in my trailer. (She had no trailer of her own; her part was too small, or so they claimed.) She took a cigarette from her pocket and lit it as she asked me, “Is it okay if I smoke in here?”
“Go ahead,” I said, and tried to cover my nose surreptitiously. “What did you want to talk about?”
“I think I’m losing it, Taylor. I feel like I’m dying from the inside out.”
“You mean because of the breakup?”
“The breakup. God. It’s not the breakup. I’ve been through a lot of breakups, believe me.”
“So what is it then?”
“It’s this set, is what it is. I’m never going to work with Siri again. Never again. No, you know what, it is the breakup. All I can think about is Malik, especially when I’m here in the studio, fucking drowning in insects, drowning in him, in his scent. Like, I’m itching. When have I ever itched before? But now I’m here and I’m scratching myself raw, I mean as in till I’m fucking bleeding, Taylor.”
“Okay but what does Siri have to do with it?”
“It’s this atmosphere. It’s something she does with the camera.”
“Oh come on, she’s a great artist, she knows what she’s doing. She has nothing but respect for us.”
“I haven’t showered in a week. I quit smoking a year ago but I’ve picked it back up to cover up the smell. And, Jesus, sorry, TMI, but I’m masturbating at least twice a day. I feel like my life force is oozing out of my cunt.”
She put out her cigarette violently and then lit a new one half a second later. She was being shrewd in her shakiness, measured, refined, a kind of total bodily control (one I supposed which was common to all actors of a certain type, i.e., the plastic and commercial).
“Are you sure you’re not just getting too into your character?” I said. “These are very Amycore concerns.”
“What? What does that even mean? I can barely remember my lines.”
“Listen, I think you just need some rest. Rest is good for the brain.”
I offered her the hard sofa of my trailer, and she accepted resentfully. All the kindness she’d once held was now obscured by the filth that clung to her, the red streaks from scratching, the drool at the corners of her mouth from oversleep, the filthy stench of desperation. I pitied her but thought too that it was only through the grace of God—or maybe Siri, or maybe Ms. Hebert, or maybe even Ariel—that I had avoided her fate—except of course perhaps I hadn’t avoided it, perhaps I was in fact in the midst of this strange cinematic affliction, and the only difference between Coraline and I was that I had managed to achieve some kind of symbiosis with the sickness, that I had accepted and internalized the reality of seeing nothing but myself.
I was watching unboxing videos on my iPad in my hotel room with the lonely dusk waiting outside my window when Kelp Kim, my agent, called me. She’d accepted me as a client soon after I had arrived in LA because—at least this is what she claimed—she loved the video of my high school production of the Legally Blonde musical (in which I played the bitchy foil to Elle Woods, I forget her name now). “Taylor, hey,” she said, “hope you’re doing well, uh, I thought I should let you know, we’re hearing worrying things about the production process.”
“What? Who told you that? What things?”
“People are filing complaints. Working conditions for the extras and technicians. Bugs. People mostly talk about the bugs, Taylor.”
“I haven’t had any problems. The bugs are manageable.”
“Look, I worry about you, is all. I feel some kind of responsibility over you that supersedes the normal agent-client relationship. I feel protective of you, let’s be real here. I have your best interest at heart. And increasingly, Taylor, I’m getting the sense that Worm: The Movie isn’t a great fit for you. Now, look, I understand the gravity of that statement. This is your first big gig, your first gig period, you don’t want to give it up. But, Taylor, I’m here to tell you that you’re a hot commodity at this point. Word has gotten around town about your casting. Your headshot sits in the offices of big producers. There is buzz echoing over the hills. Taylor, Taylor, Taylor, they’re saying. A lipstick company contacted me only an hour ago asking if you were available to shoot a commercial.”
“I hate lipstick. I don’t want to do it.”
“That’s fine. I didn’t think it was right for you either. I only bring it up to say if you’re worried about dropping Worm because such a move might wreck your budding career—I want to say that absolutely isn’t the case.”
“Thank you, Kelp, but really I don’t want to quit. I love Siri; I love the people I’ve met on set. It’s very important to me that this movie gets made.”
“Okay, look, I wasn’t going to bring this up but you’ve forced my hand. I’m worried about Siri, to be a hundred percent frank. Rumors get around. It is my job to read into rumors and determine the veracity thereof. I think these Siri rumors are veracious. They talk about pills, Taylor. They talk about her sleeping with her stars, young stars. I’m worried about you, if I can be candid. I don’t want your first Hollywood experience to be the usual kind, if you see what I’m saying.”
“Kelp, honestly, I’m loving it here. Siri, as long as I’ve known her, has been nothing but kind and respectful and competent. I appreciate your concern but honestly I think it’s misplaced.”
“Fine, if you’re sure. The other thing I was going to ask was about the articles I’ve been seeing? You and Giselle Pleurisy? What’s that all about?”
“Shit. Kelp, seriously, that is an un-veracious rumor. She tricked me. She did it on purpose to fuck with my head, that’s the conclusion I’m reaching. If I’m worried about anyone on set it’s her.”
We recycled these topics of conversation and grew less adamant in our insistences with each repetition. We were women accustomed to obstinacy and therefore obstinate ourselves in the deleterious extreme. I slept in the nude with Siri on my mind.
On my day off I walked between the spotless streets, watching through spotless windows the spotless advancements in high fashion. Smoke floated slowly over the horizon and homeless with forgotten carts scurried between alleys to avoid patrol cars. I could buy it all, I thought. My first check had come in.
I tried to think of how Taylor would spend this time; I thought she would spend it practically, improving herself, gathering supplies, in deference to material reality, something to which I could never seem to attach myself; and this was the major disconnect between her and I, as I saw it, this materialism vs. idealism, a kind of artifacting between fantasies, lost info, lost tactility. I could never really be her, only pretend, and this induced in me a desire to self-mutilate.
I wandered a little longer with desultory steps till someone strange took hold of my shoulder such that I couldn’t advance and asked before I could turn: “You’re Taylor Schechter right? Please tell me you are?”
I whipped around to find a strange little woman with enthusiasm in her wide wet eyes. She had a fan’s zeal and a solar glow to her skin. “I am,” I said. “Who are you? You’re not a paparazzo, are you?”
“No, no, but I am a fan—of Worm and of you, Taylor.”
“Why are there so many of you around? You’re like vermin, seriously.”
“Wow, okay, thank you. It’s because of the contest, obviously?”
“You don’t know about it? Yeah, Yelasco’s holding a contest for Worm fans and the winner gets to be a special consultant. Listen, want to get coffee or something? I’d love to pick your brains, really, I mean it.”
She took me to a café around the corner, and we sat outside and watched black-fringed cumulonimbi dawdle onto the skyscape to face the smoke, as though they were two dueling factions. “Get the coffee,” she said, and fondled a steak knife. “It’s to die for.”
“Sorry,” I said, “I think I never learned your name?”
“It’s Keight, as in Hundred. I’m a big fan.”
“Yeah but you thought I meant your acting, or your looks, but I meant your fanfiction. I’ve read like all of it. Don’t you see me in your list of kudos-givers?”
“I haven’t checked on it in years. I’m retired, at least semi-retired.”
“I mean I like your acting too, or at least your reputation precedes you. I heard what Peri, Roon, and Gaia said, but I couldn't agree less. Besides, you’ve been a big influence on me. I came here partially to return the favor. I think I can help you. I think I know pretty well what you’re going through. This thing with Taylor, as in Hebert. I think I know how to help you meet her, feel her.”
(All I’d ever wanted was to feel her.)
A barista with a big beard and beige apron approached us and asked for our orders and Keight said coffee, and I said I’d have the same. “Good choice,” said Keight. “It’s to die for.”
“What I’m saying, Taylor, is that for my whole career—I mean my fanfiction career, obviously—this whole time I’ve thought about how to iterate on Taylor. How she might adapt to new circumstances. No powers, clonedom, that coffee shop AU I’m still working on, which should be out pretty soon actually, it’s gonna be to die for. And if you think about it you’re like a clone of Taylor. Which frankly sounds unpleasant, I’m sorry.”
“I wish! Most of the time I think I barely know her.”
Our coffee arrived—hot and black for both of us—and she took a sip and then put her hands around her own throat in a morbid pantomime then gagged then giggled. “I’m dying,” she said, “get it? Because it’s to die for?”
“No but I’m serious about you being a clone. It’s because of this whole ritual. Being on a movie set is a lot like being in a Bonesaw vat, I’m not joking. The key is in tapping into this side of you. I think you’ll find, like the kind of clones I write about, that you’ve got a shared pool of trauma from which to draw. This is the key. These bright points of shared pain lurking in your subconscious, expressing themselves in dreams. That’s the advice I want to give you.”
I took a sip of coffee—to die for indeed—and considered this. The night prior, it was true, I had dreamed of the locker, and it had been impossible to distinguish the locker of the text and the prop locker in which I had sat trapped and ratlike, screaming for Siri. A clone. There was truth to this word, spoken sincerely to me as one might end a prayer, a fan’s amen. There was a kind of fold in the ancient multiverse, the convergence of two temporalities. I was her and she was me, Keight had assured me, because our pains ached the same.
We paid for the coffee (killer prices) and, whether absurdly or only semi-absurdly, I brought her into an embrace in the stormy Los Angeles exterior, and she hugged me back. I wished her luck in the contest. I watched her approach the horizon line and imagined a cockroach swarm dissolving her like black blender blades.
I got my chance to confront Siri about the rumors on the day we shot the scene in which Rachel’s dogs lunged at me. They were real dogs, obviously, and it was a well-manicured Rottweiler named Spork who was to take my wrist in his mouth. He (Spork) was a star in his own right, having played the lead in a Homeward Bound remake, voiced by Steve Carrell. He had a sophistication to his canine movements—when not in character, I mean—that went beyond simple good breeding, and in fact as I understood it his breeding wasn’t very good at all; he had been plucked from a pound as a puppy and instructed in the art of acting by hotshot trainer Nicholas Ghilfitzel, an underdog story—sorry—quite like my own. During the take, to distract myself from the pain (which was mild) I thought of all the praise I would heap upon his ability when I wrote my tell-all memoir at the tail-end—sorry—of my career.
We did five takes in all because of my stubborn inadequacy. It was difficult to remember anything in that space, least of all lines, and it had more to do with the actor playing Rachel, whose name was Liza Kurdle, than with the animals. Liza was beautiful in the butch way you associate with Bitch—the butchness, I mean, not the beauty. (Another actor far too attractive for their role.) I couldn’t purge the images and sensory fantasies of her from my mind, even as Spork’s teeth dug in the pale flesh between my veins, fantasies of her hands in my shoulders, her nails along my back. These, coupled with Ariel’s presence, brought a redness to my face that had nothing to with the heat of the moment nor the heat of the dog bodies.
I was a stumbling wreck, stiff and inexpressive. When we completed the take, after what must’ve been six hours or so—for we had to pause after a third failure to feed and water the dogs—Siri was apoplectic, flushed, ugly from undersleep. She retired to her office looking crestfallen, and I followed shortly after, feeling ashamed, feeling grateful for her patience. I found her guzzling from her flask and pacing.
“Look, I’m really sorry,” I said.
“It’s not your fault,” she said, and burped.
“Things have been getting to my head recently. I’ve been feeling slightly ill, like as in mentally ill. I hear things that get to me, that ruin my day sometimes. My agent was talking about you, for instance.”
“About me? Like as if I’m the problem?”
“She mentioned—and, look, don’t take this the wrong way—she mentioned pills, Siri. She mentioned affairs with young stars.”
She took a long swallow. “That’s an uncharitable way of putting it.”
“Then what’s a charitable way of putting it?”
“Okay, the pills were for like six months, Seroquel. They thought I had bipolar disorder, or at least one doctor whom I no longer see did. They were terrible and I stopped. And the ‘affair,’ well, that was also a one time thing. I’ll tell you because I trust you, because I love you, but if this info ends up in the wrong hands I’ll do something drastic. Kick you out and never speak with you again just for starters.
“Deal,” I said.
“Look, when we were shooting for that last movie I did, the Maoism thing, Ariel and I, yes, had a bit of a tryst. It burned out within three months. It wasn’t meant to last, but it did happen. I’m sorry if that lowers your opinion of me.”
I felt a high, occluding panic. “No,” I said. “Why would it? It’s over now, anyway. I just need to think a second.” And I left the office and careered uneasily through the studio’s long halls and admonished my nauseous stomach. I found a supply closet in which I might be able to sit and sob, but when I opened the door there was Ariel, and there was Giselle, tangled and disheveled. They began to say my name but I closed the door before they could get it out and walked back to the hotel, a five mile slog, leaking all the while.
Special thank you once again to K800 for making her appearance and being a fascinating character.