I woke up in the dark. The room was big, without a lot of furniture, and I could see the bone-white sheen of my legs. I could see my reflection on the ceiling, sprawled on the bed like a sad, busted skeleton. What kind of pretentious jackass has a mirror on the ceiling?
I’d come up the canyon for the party because I wanted to be somewhere that wasn’t my apartment, be my same self, but in a different place. I was tired of my own thoughts. The time ticked on like a leaky faucet and let me tell you one thing: L.A. can suck it. It’s where nice girls come to die. Not that I would know. I came from Spencer’s Branch, Idaho, home of nice girls, but I can’t make the case that I ever was one.
I just wasn’t built for a small town. I didn’t curl my hair, didn’t cook Hamburger Helper meals or wear sweaters with kittens. Had stopped closing my eyes when I prayed. Okay, once maybe, I was a good girl. I guess. As long as we’re being honest. I kept my smile decent, my eyes downcast, and I never used to say yes, but now yes was the only thing that seemed to come naturally.
When the director came up to me on the roof, I knew who he was, of course. It was his house. The night was hot and the Santa Anas didn’t quit. Fifteen miles inland, the fires had been raging for days. Even in the refrigerated chill of the house, the air smelled burned.
He said, “You have a certain look. Hard. I like that.”
He was young for a director, and the industry rags said that he was some kind of genius—all the best festivals, the jury prizes, the speeches, the very best parties.
He touched the side of my arm. “I think I could use you.”
All around, the girls laughed and rolled their eyes like jackals, giving me looks. Like they wouldn’t have jumped headfirst if he’d said the same thing to them.
He said I should stay and we’d get to know each other, talk about a project—he thought it would be perfect for me. His smile was honest and I knew there was no project, but I was ready to buy the other lie, the one he sold as often as that fictitious starring role. A warm fantasy that he’ll pet and hold and cherish you for twenty minutes or an hour. That he’ll want you for longer than a heartbeat.
Around us, the crowd was sweating, glossy like otters. My hair stuck to the back of my neck and my makeup was melting off my face.
He took me down the wide, curving staircase to his room and we drank red wine and listened to records on a 1940s turntable. He was pretentious, but charming, and kind of solemn.
He said, “Stay here with me. We can work out some of the fine points after everyone goes home. Just don’t go wandering around—it’s a big house and a person could get lost. Then I’d have to look for you.”
Later, I woke up in the dark and he was gone.
I got up and put on my crumpled dress, found my shoes and my purse. Everything was so quiet.
Out in the living room, there was no one. Not a single mumbling cokehead or blackout baby slumped on the couch, and no one on the roof. I crept through the kitchen and down the stairs into the basement. It was cream-colored. I mean, the whole thing was. It was white like a hospital and went on forever, cut right out of the hill, and I kept thinking I should leave, I should get out. The farther I went, the worse the emptiness got.
I wandered down hallways and turned corners, looking for someone, anyone. Even a cat or a houseplant would prove that I was still real.
The door was narrow, painted a cracked, peeling blue. It wasn’t locked.
The room was full of video equipment—handheld cameras and computer monitors and a whole stack of memory cards with paper labels. Every label had a name and date. I picked up Becca, June 6-7 and put her in the media slot on the one of the cameras. When I pressed play, the screen lit up, showing a blond, smiling girl, fresh-faced and juicy like a blue ribbon pie.
“Well, I’m from Clement,” she said to the camera. “That’s right near Houston. I moved out here because it just seemed so exciting! I mean, my whole life, I’ve wanted to be an actress.”
From offscreen, the director’s voice sounded raspy and playful. “What would you say your greatest strength is? Your greatest weakness?”
I forwarded through the slop to see if it got better. It didn’t. But it got interesting.
The director set the camera on a tripod and moved into the shot. His voice was sharp and excited, and then he was doing things to her. Not sex things, but bad, sick things and I yanked the card out, feeling breathless. But I have never believed in knowing when to stop, and I stuck in another one.
I watched Susan, who spent three miserable days in July down in the director’s cutting room, and Cara, who only lasted part of July 18 and Valerie on August 12, and it didn’t ever turn out okay. And there was a stack of other ones, this whole stack, too many to look at, and I put the camera down.
The girls all ended up with their heads slumped forward and their hands tied. All his beaming, corn-fed girls. By the end of the movie, he’d taped over their mouths, but their eyes all had the same hunted look.
As I backed away from the monitors, the door shut behind me, and then I heard the key whisper and the lock slam home, because of course it bolted from the inside.
“I told you not to wander off,” he said. “I told you not to go snooping around, but some girls just don’t listen. As long as we’re down here, though, why don’t we get started on the project? Have a seat.”
You already know the way this ends.
She finds Bluebeard’s secret room and sees his murdered wives, and then she tries to cover up and act like she didn’t. But I’m a pretty worthless liar. I’ve just never seen the point.
Out on the rooftop, the sky would be hazy and black. No cloud of dust on the horizon to signal rescue. The moon was long gone and the sun wouldn’t rise for another couple hours. Up in the hills, the fires were burning and the smoke was everywhere.
He stood in the middle of the cutting room, with the camera trained on my face. “Tell me about yourself—your hopes and dreams. Your fantasies, your fears.”
So I told him my story. It was short. I said, “I came to L.A. with nothing. I don’t know why I stay here. I came from a poor little cow town, and trust me, there was nothing there either. I don’t have much family. No brothers, no sisters. I pray like a dyed-in-wool hypocrite in church, and if I don’t bow my head for God, what makes you think I’ll bow for you?”
He said, “Everybody bows eventually.”
I said, “Really. Is that a fact. Well then, let’s skip the whole interview process and get down to business.”
“You don’t really mean that.”
The thing about pepper spray is, it’s effective from a distance of up to ten feet. If you discharge it from four inches, the burn is something else.
The key ring was dancing, jangling as he thrashed. I yanked it off his belt and shoved past him, coughing and raging like the autumn fires, eyes streaming. He knew she’d lied because the key was magic, an everlasting charm. It betrayed her. What a way for the lie to fall apart—undone by an inanimate object.
He caught me by the wrist, dragging me down to the floor, down to where he gasped and swore, face red, eyes puffy and squeezed shut. I raised my other hand and slashed. You can do a lot of damage with a two-inch strip of metal.
ories are baffling. They don’t make sense. She married a maniac—what, she didn’t notice?—but in the gruesome context of the tale, it sounds random, circumstantial, just another little victim.
Still, they were right about one thing.
The key had blood on it.
Photo by andyconniecox