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Weston

 

Weston

by

Gregory Attaway

To understand her, you must first understand him…

The Great Ones

Part I 

WESTON Copyright © 2012 by Gregory Attaway.

All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

Cover Photography: Copyright: Remy / 123RF Stock Photo and Copyright: quasargal / 123RF Stock Photo

For information or contact, go to www.gregoryattaway.com

First Edition: May 2012

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Years

Part I Benjamin

1965

1966

Part II Weston

1969

1970

1972

1973

1974

1975

1976

1977

1978

Part III Camden

1978 CONTINUED

1979

1981

1983

1984

1985

1986

1987

1988

1989

1990

REVIEWS!

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NOW AVAILABLE

The Glen Headwood Show

The Great Ones Prelude

It’s not a sitcom. It’s an experiment.

Benny Camden brings a new and innovative vision to the world of network television. The Glen Headwood Show promises to be unlike anything else yet seen. The heir of a Hollywood dynasty, Benny brings his talent and passion for film to his new project. But the world never sees what an artist sees.

He must wrestle with executives that want to commercialize his vision, untested actors and crew, and an unforgiving new boss who is also his father.

Before Weston, there was Benny Camden. The Glen Headwood Show is the prelude to Gregory Attaway’s The Great Ones, and it is available for free, now and always, at gregoryattaway.com. See the boy before you see the man.

Available For Free Forever

Part I

Benjamin

1965

FEBRUARY

“Open your eyes!”

The tinny, familiar voice puffed out of the tiny television speakers as smoke wafted from Private Frank Harper’s cracked lips like volcanic steam. The tip of his cigarette dripped hot ash. Dog tags dangled over his sweat-stained undershirt. He took a long drag, huddled around the glowing black-and-white image, in the emptied enlisted barracks. On the screen, Jackie Gleason made a spectacle of uncovering his face. The audience cheered and applauded, the comedian pacing around the stage while Glen Headwood, the host of the show, mimicked his movements.

Harper snickered. “Funny shit.” The two other men lounging around the table looked up to the screen. Something flashed across Harper’s eyes as he leaned into his chair. “I seen this before.”

“What do you mean?” Beside him, Private Joseph Kenneth Belanger leaned in, watching the act.

“Don’t know. Feels like I seen it.”

“Did he do this bit on American Scene Magazine?”

The third member of their late night trio kicked his boots up, half-watching The Glen Headwood Show and half-reading a letter from his kid sister. Private Charles Camden drew a hand over his nostrils, waving away the smoke as he put down the note and perused the playing cards in his other hand. “No, it’s new.”

Belanger turned away from the flickering footage, glancing at the pile on the table as he drew a card. “How do you know?”

Camden glanced up at those familiar black-and-white faces. “Trust me. It’s new.”

Harper’s attention shifted from the show to his companion. “You really know Gleason?” He dropped the three of hearts as he took a drag from his cigarette.

“Course he knows him. His whole family’s…didn’t your granddad pick up Charlie Chaplin’s sloppy seconds?”

Camden shifted the contents of his hand.

“Holy shit, I love Gleason.” Harper watched the little man making faces at Glen Headwood. “I remember when we got our first set, I couldn’t get enough of The Honeymooners. I thought Ralph Kramden was the funniest thing I ever seen.”

“Gin.” Camden spread his spades and clubs for the others to see.

“I’d love to get my hands on some gin,” Harper said.

A loud slamming, clanking noise came from the latrine. Camden froze in his seat, body going rigid and tense, the others matching him. “What the hell?” Harper asked. Camden hopped up, waving for them to be silent, and moved across the room. He stepped in and found the usual row of toilets. He checked the stalls – all empty.

“Nothing.” He resumed his spot in front of the television. “Seat fell on one of the commodes is all.”

“Shit. For a second I thought we were busted,” Harper said.

“Yeah…” Belanger collected the cards and shuffled. “We probably ought to call it quits on our little insomniac society.”

“I just can’t sleep, plain and simple.” Harper stabbed his butt in an ashtray. “It’s this Pleiku air. ‘Nam just smells funny, you know? Can’t go to sleep unless it smells like America.”

“What exactly does America smell like?” Camden asked.

“Oh, you know…popcorn and pussy.” He shook his head and scooped up the cards Belanger had dealt him. “I fucking hate it here.” He glanced back at the set. Gleason had left the stage.

“It could be worse,” Belanger said.

Camden took a look at his hand and wanted to fold. He watched Glen Headwood, remembering the last time he saw him in person. Out at Benny’s apartment. Fourth of July.

“I should have listened to my old man,” Harper said. “He tried everything shy of a court martial to keep me from joining up. He got me in at Harvard Law, full ride. Came in all beaming about it, like he’d done me some favor. I told him no. He got drunk and tried to beat the shit out of me. Tried.”

“Yikes,” was all Belanger said as he drew a card. Camden pictured his own father, Lloyd, with that same kind of gleam in his eye more often that he could recall. Never directed at him, though. Never at him or Lara. Always at Benny.

“Old man breaks down and starts bawlin’ like a baby, begging me not to go. All worried the same shit’s gonna fall on me as fell on him. He had, uh…shellshock. All my life he preached at me about it, all I ever wanted to be was a soldier. When I was a kid, I wanted to be like him. But the worse it got, it wasn’t about that anymore.”

“Sorry.”

“Eh, don’t sweat it. Just fuckin’ fathers and sons.”

“Fathers and sons,” Belanger repeated.

“He was right, though. Camp Holloway…Pleiku…” Camden could imagine a tear hiding behind Harper’s hard eyes. “I had no idea how right he was.”

“I enlisted as soon as I graduated,” Bellanger said. “I couldn’t wait to get out of there, see the world, serve my country. I had twelve brothers and sisters back home, so I was used to no privacy, used to everything always going on even when I need to be alone sometimes. I guess I picked a good place to come. Sure is easy to be alone out here. Feels that way, anyway.”

The set droned on, the only sound in the room other than the constant flicking of Harper’s lighter. “You set the place on fire, they’re going to know we’re up,” Camden said.

“You’re right, Ken,” Harper said. “So fucking quiet out here sometimes, a guy could go crazy.”

“I think that’d be an extreme reaction,” Belanger replied.

“Psycho.”

They both turned to Camden, and he could see them questioning his comment. “That’s a line from the movie.”

“Mr. Hollywood over here,” Harper laughed, flicking his lighter one last time to start a new cigarette before stuffing it in his pocket. Laughter from the set brought them back to the show for a moment. “You really know Gleason, huh?”

“Who do you think the Kramdens were named after?”

“It just figures, with your family, you’d end up in Tinseltown. Not Pleiku.”

“My dad was a soldier too.”

“Is that why you’re here?” Belanger asked.

“Who knows? It’s funny. I know my dad was at Normandy, but not much else. He never talked about it, and we never asked.” The three of them watched as Jackie Gleason joined Glen Headwood again, this time with Benny Camden. Cheers of female adoration went up from the crowd.

“You’re brother’s the shit,” Harper said.

“When I told him I wanted to enlist, Dad took me out for a steak dinner,” Camden continued. “Talked show business, didn’t mention a thing about what I was about to do. Didn’t tell me stories, didn’t talk me out of it. I still don’t know what unit he was in, where he was stationed. Then when the check came, he paid it and said, ‘You be careful out there.’ And that was that.”

“Why didn’t you end up in show business?” Belanger asked.

Camden smiled at his brother’s image. “We all wanted to. But Dad thought we’d end up making fools of ourselves, never get a moment’s peace. My sister and I, we listened. Benny just never quite got the hint.”

“Your pop didn’t want you making people laugh, but he’s cool with you putting your ass in the line of fire?” Harper asked.

“I guess so.”

Boom. They froze as, in the distance, a dreadful thud rippled through the camp, the ground shaking beneath their feet. “What was that?” Belanger asked, surveying the now still and peaceful room. “Earthquake?”

“Do they get earthquakes in Vietnam?” Camden asked. Across the room, his brother pranced around the screen in black and white as the audience roared.

“Beats the shit out of me,” Harper said as all three put their hands on the table, feeling nothing but wood. “Still I wouldn’t be surprised if–”

Boom. Boom. “That’s no earthquake.” Belanger stood as the ground vibrated from whatever remote source had shaken them.

Camden stood also. He played the three sounds over in his head, back to back, all together. The room went white and cold as the others turned to face him. His mouth went dry. “Mortars!”

Frank’s eyes flew wide. “Holy shi–”

The ceiling ripped apart, crashing down on them in splinters and debris as they dropped to the floor. Charles could see into the next room now, a pile of wall fragments covered in a fog of smoke. Voices hovered around, outside – shouts of concern and alert. The whole 52nd Aviation Battalion was up now.

“You guys OK?” Belanger coughed as the cloud of particles blew across them.

Camden’s ears rang loud, and he put a hand to his head as he pulled himself back up. “Yeah, fine, I think.”

“Frank?” Belanger knelt over their friend, and Camden winced as the man spat blood. “Oh my God, Frank!”

“Oh…fuck…” Harper wheezed, his breaths loud and squealing. He gasped like an asthmatic under attack.

“Charlie! Help me!” Belanger put Harper’s arm around his shoulder.

Camden fixed his eyes on the piece of drywall separating Harper’s large intestine from his small. “You can’t…move him like that.” Belanger grimaced, looking from one to the other, clutching at Harper’s chest. “You can’t!”

“He’s…right…” Harper said. Boom. “Oh…fuck!”

The door slammed open. “What’re you doing in here?”

“Captain, we need a medic!” Belanger said.

Captain Markos waved them forward. “The whole battalion’s going to need a medic if we don’t hurry!”

Camden grabbed Belanger’s arm and pulled him up, both of them still watching Harper. He just lay there, fading into the rubble as they fled the building.

“What’s going on, Captain?” Camden asked.

“Sappers! We have to man the perimeter!”

Now that they were outside, the sound of the mortars meeting their targets hummed in harmony with the high streaks singing out as they plummeted down. The descending whistles filled Camden’s ears and froze him to the ground. Above him, rockets lit up the sky like uncoordinated fireworks. Bombs bursting in air. One of them arced, growing louder and hotter by the second. It was too fast. The others were watching it too. He had no time to guess where it would land.

-

Something was wrong.

Benny Camden hovered at the edge of the stage, just far enough back so the audience couldn’t see him. The cast and crew of The Glen Headwood Show took their places. The usual crowd filled the studio, and he recognized a few of the girls that always trailed him to the bars once the cameras shut off. He had forgotten their names. His attention couldn’t move past those two empty seats in the front row, reserved for his mother and sister. They’d never missed an episode.

His father wasn’t there second-guessing Benny’s every move, either. His fellow producers kept sneaking occasional glances at him, whispering among themselves.

Glen and his costars brought in laugh after laugh as they always did, but Benny couldn’t focus. He couldn’t stop thinking about those two vacant chairs. When he took the stage for his weekly closing cameo, those girls near the front cheered for him like always. He heard the applause, but when he turned and found Henry Louden standing just behind the curtain, waiting for him, it all came in as a muffled blur.

Benny ducked away as Henry offered him a glass of water. “Thanks,” he said, flicking a bit of it on his face.

“Welcome.”

“You get a hold of Dad?”

Henry broke his gaze, hedging back a bit. “You were kind of rushed in the end, there.”

“Henry.”

The man’s mouth fell open, but he only spoke in indecipherable grunts, the embryos of words.

“What happened?”

Henry’s face locked up with the same gnawing cancer that filled Benny’s stomach. “You better…”

“You’re scaring me, Man! Is it Mom?”

“It’s not your mother…”

-

The front doors of the Camden mansion let out a creaking echo into the dim foyer as Benny slammed through them. The place was dark and lifeless, but he knew no one would be asleep. Not on a night like this. “Hello?” he shouted. No answer. He secured the locks.

As he passed the staircase, he noticed a faint glow under Charles’s door. Lara probably waited for him up there.

He turned on the lights and continued inside. Everywhere he turned he saw Charles: a child scurrying by in his swim trunks, a teenager lounging in the parlor with his friends, their mother adjusting his army uniform as his bags lay at his feet. Benny paused for a moment at the family portrait hanging outside the theater room. How he’d hated sitting still for that painting. Now he wished he had a hundred more.

Then, in the distance, he heard the television. He took one last glance at those happy faces and approached his father’s study.

Lloyd Camden sat trancelike before the flickering images on the screen. Benny hung in the doorway for a moment, watching the news of the escalating conflict in Vietnam. Lloyd didn’t acknowledge him, so engrossed he was in the broadcast. He fixed on that report with wide eyes, as if Operation Flaming Dart had been launched in retaliation for the death of Charles Camden.

“Dad?”

Lloyd’s fingers gripped the armrests. “Benjamin…I didn’t hear you come in.” He leaned back in that chair, eyes synchronized with the planes taking off in black and white. Years of honing the skill of reading faces had begun with an intense study of this man’s, and Benny knew from Lloyd’s dodgy avoidance that he was lying. Worse, he knew his father would know he knew.

“Dad! Where were you?”

“We’re finally doing some good out there,” Lloyd said. “Air strikes. About damn time.”

“How could you do that to me?”

Lloyd’s gaze plucked itself from the screen and directed its intensity toward him. “To you?” He coughed. “What did I do…to you?”

“Let me go on out there tonight like everything was fine! You kept me from knowing…” Benny shut off the set.

Lloyd half-smiled, his lips flickering with baffling inconsistency. “Benjamin…son…this isn’t about you.”

They locked attention, and Benny couldn’t look away. The emptiness and pain in his father’s face had vanished, leaving Vietnam behind and shrinking the entire world down into that dim little den. Challenge. Even now, even with his oldest son dead, that’s the best that Lloyd Camden could give him. “Dad…” The power that had sent him cowering as a child and molded his brother into a warrior now bore down on him once more. Benny’s eyes went warm, and he fought to keep them from going wet. “Everyone else knew. Everyone else was here.” He waited for a response, then gasped in a voice he knew could not stand up to the man, “How could you do that to me?”

He knew the typical response. I didn’t want it to affect the show. Surely his father could give him something better than that.

Lloyd licked away the smile from his lips. “Why don’t you take a look around and think about someone besides yourself for once? Your mother…” No grief. Just stone. “…just lost her firstborn son, and the country’s going to hell. What does this have to do with you?”

“I should have been here with you! Not at the studio!”

“You should have been there with him!”

Benny’s tongue moved, but he couldn’t think of a thing to say. He just stared at the man. Lloyd pushed out a weary breath and dropped his gaze. “I’m sorry, Son. I didn’t mean…of course…” It wasn’t the apology he’d wanted, but it was something. “It’s just…with your brother gone now…you’ve got to step up, you know.”

“I’m not stepping anywhere, Dad!”

“You’re the oldest now. You’ve got to act that way.”

“How am I supposed to act? Be the tough guy? Be the new Charles? Don’t give me that bullshit!”

“Don’t talk to me that way.”

“Enough!”

Lloyd shot to his feet so quickly, Benny had no moment to prepare for the man looming over him – maybe only by a few inches, but those few inches were all it took. “Don’t you raise your voice to me!” They glared at each other, and although he’d never been struck, Benny could feel his father’s fist against his face. Instead, Lloyd put a hand on his shoulder. “Your mother needs you now, Son. Go on up to her.”

“Dad…”

“Let’s both…let’s both say goodnight, all right?”

Benny saw the wisdom in that. “Fine. Goodnight, Dad.”

“Goodnight, Benjamin. Say a prayer for your brother.”

“A little late to be saying prayers, isn’t it?”

Benny wandered through the expanse of the house and slumped into a chair in the dining hall. He just stared into the dark windowless void for a good while before remembering that faint glow upstairs.

Benny cracked open the door to Charles’s room. Lara and his mother sat on the floor, backs against the bed, cradling Charles’s favorite childhood toy – a stuffed tiger the boy had named Johnny Destructo.

He knelt beside them, leaning in as they embraced him without words.

MARCH

After a long plane ride, Benny rode in the back of an open-topped taxi along the broken-paved road into Corsier-sur-Vevey. He’d already been to Switzerland in the last year, but in order to properly deal with the death of one Charles, he needed the comfort of another. His great uncle’s cottage appeared over the horizon, and he exhaled more of the California soot that clogged his lungs and his mind.

Charlie Chaplin, though not an actual blood relation, had marital ties to the family and always regarded Benny’s mother as a niece. As the cab rolled to a stop, Benny saw him there on the porch, beneath a thin blanket, setting down a book and offering him one of the most famous smiles in the world.

“Back so soon?” Charlie asked, rising and tossing aside the blanket. Benny hugged him in silence, and Charlie patted his back. “I’m sorry.”

He smelled the old man, that scent triggering more than just memories. “Thanks for having me. I really needed some air.”

“Air we have, lots of it.”

“Right.”

Charlie perused his face. “I think what you really need is a nap.”

“If I can fall asleep, the trip will already be worth it.”

After a restless nap, Charlie and Benny reclined on the curving veranda, cooled by an evening breeze and warmed with snifters of Cognac. It struck him how different Charlie looked after his years in Europe. In many ways he was no longer the man who shocked audiences with his bold politic in The Great Dictator. In many other ways, he would be that man forever.

“When I was ten, I spent a whole month watching your Mutual films over and over. I wanted to be a comedian more than anything in the world.”

“Those were good times,” Charlie breathed. “Good times indeed.”

“I miss kidding around and pulling stunts. The old days.”

“Me too.”

“You could do anything you wanted, and nobody cared as long as nobody got hurt.”

“I remember,” Charlie said.

“Not anymore, though. Someone always has to tell you what to do in your own backyard.”

“Seems that way.”

Benny pictured himself with Charles and Lara, playing there in that dry grass beyond the house. “I want to do something about it.”

“I thought you were a pacifist.”

“Not like that. I mean…something like you’d do.”

The Cognac traced the sides of the snifter as Charlie swirled it. “Do you know what I miss the most about America?”

“What?”

“The people’s undying belief that they are free.”

“Americans are free,” Benny said.

“If that were true…I would still be there.”

Silence on the veranda.

“Be careful,” Charlie said.

“You weren’t a citizen.”

“There are other things they can do.”

Benny remembered it well, the day he learned they wouldn’t let Chaplin back in the country. “They can’t shut me up just because I say something they don’t like. That’s what art is all about.”

“Yes. But remember, true art is always controversial, because true art is always ahead of its time. Art does not reflect what a society is. It reflects what a society is becoming. And sometimes, people don’t want to accept what they’re becoming.”

“Then it’s our job to wake them up!”

“Maybe it is. But you have to ask yourself…what are you willing to lose? I lost my home, where I lived for decades. I lost my power. Yes, I still make films, but I won’t fool myself.”

“It’s not the fifties anymore,” Benny said.

Chaplin’s smile tugged his brow down, filling his face with remorse. “So you’re saying…you have no idea what you might lose.”

-

As the cameras rolled, Benny watched his mother and Lara, sitting in their usual front row seats. Glen did his opening jokes, most of which Benny had already shared with them, but they laughed as if hearing it all for the first time. He tried to follow the show, but his thoughts kept drifting to the two of them, there in that sea of unaware faces. He kept a feeler out for his father as well. Lloyd mingled with some of his friends, further back and out of sight. Just where Benny wanted him.

Every ripple of laughter, every satiated grin, every sound and sight pricked him like pins. Every puff from the vent above him sucked breath from his lungs. Sweat clung to his face as he rubbed his arms against the chill. He heard echoes, not words. Saw blurs, not faces. The clock drew his constant attention, and his fingers itched to loosen his tie.

As Glen’s final bit finished, applause rocked Benny back to the moment. Time to mount the stage for his weekly benediction. He could barely summon the courage to move, but he found Lara in the crowd, lovely Lara looking so much like Charles. He pulled himself together and stepped out in front of the waiting audience.

“We hope you enjoyed the show tonight,” he said as a spotlight blinded him. He focused past it, glad he couldn’t see all those faces as clearly. “We’re so fortunate to be here, to breathe the fresh air and feel the sun on our skin. The sun’s gone down for the day, but somewhere on the other side of the world, it’s rising for our brothers out in the east, in Vietnam.”

His eyes adjusted to the sight of all those expectants out there, waiting for his jokes. He wished for a blindfold.

“Brothers…brothers have a special bond, don’t you think? The kind that matters more than anything.” He had to have drawn his father’s full attention by now. This was not in the script, and he guessed it would take Lloyd at least a few seconds to react.

“I had a brother. Private First Class Charles Camden of the 52nd Aviation Battalion, United States Army. Charles loved America as much as anyone I know. He set out for the other side of the world, and now he’s never coming back.

“We lost him at Camp Holloway, along with eight other brave Americans.” Silence blanketed the audience as a tear traced his cheek. “And now we’re going to lose so many more. Today…” He needed a glass of water, or maybe something stronger. “Today we sent thirty-five hundred more troops to South Vietnam. Thirty-five hundred more brothers. How many of them are never coming back?”

He watched Lara turn her head at the murmur behind her, the whispers and grumbles.

“I love America as much as any of them. And that’s why I would do anything to bring them all home alive. I would do anything to keep any more from going out to lay down their lives in a foreign land.” He flicked a match and held it there. “We can be the light of the world. But we can’t set it on fire.” He touched a mock draft card to the flame as gasps of shock and horror filled the crowd.

Lloyd leapt up and signaled to cut the feed as people jumped to their feet, booing and shouting at him. The card dissolved into cinders as he dropped it to the stage. The light blinked off on the camera and he just stood there, fighting the overwhelming urge to run.

Virginia and Lara remained in their seats as everyone bustled around them. Benny looked from his mother to his sister and nodded with a teary smile.

-

Lloyd’s breathing droned out the oscillating fan and the Dean Martin. He glared with unblinking eyes, and each step of his pacing was the ticking of a timer. Benny waited for the buzzer, reliving the moment when the tiny flame lit up the audience.

“What the hell were you thinking, huh?” Lloyd finally said, sinking into his plush chair. “You know they’re probably going to pull the show now, don’t you?”

“It wasn’t even a real draft card!”

“Louden’s still at NBC! Trying to clean up your mess! I mean, what the hell were you thinking?”

“Come on, Dad. I think it’s pretty obvious.”

“Be…obvious on your own time! When you’re off the clock and off the air, and you’re not putting other people’s jobs at risk! Do you know what a stunt like this does? Do you? It never goes away. It’s the kind of thing that stays with you for the rest of your life!”

Benny pressed himself further down into the chair.

“They’re not going to remember Benny Camden, that funny guy from that TV show. They’re going to remember Benny Camden, that son of a bitch who shot off his mouth on live television. Nobody’s going to trust you anymore!” Lloyd’s rare vulgarity had its intended effect. Benny needed a drink.

“I don’t think it’s as bad as you say.”

“Well, I’ll tell you this much. We’re having a press conference, and you’re going to march your ass out there and apologize. You should start by apologizing to Glen.”

“What about the show?”

“I don’t know. We may have to can it. If we don’t…I don’t know, Son. You may be off it.”

“You’d do it without me?” Benny asked.

“I’m not sure what’s happening. Right now we need damage control. Ratings–”

“Ratings are up,” Benny cut him off, and Lloyd hovered, glaring at him. “In fact, I bet next week they’ll be even higher.”

“That’s not the point.” Lloyd stuck a finger in his face but didn’t offer any words to go along with it.

“Dad…when you’re famous, people are going to love you and hate you at the same time. That’s just the way it is.”

“Benny…” he sighed. “Why’d you do what you did?”

He pointed at a newspaper lying on the desk. “Vietnam’s tearing itself apart! And we’re getting right in the middle of it! Charles died for nothing!” He recoiled, pressing his lips shut, and glanced up at his father with penitence.

Lloyd’s nostrils flared as he towered over Benny. “You shut your mouth!”

Benny stood behind a bank of microphones, looking out into the expectant eyes of the media. He could smell the flames of protest and reform smothering under a blanket of empty platitudes.

“I would like to take this opportunity to apologize for the things that I said on The Glen Headwood Show earlier this week. My actions were not approved by NBC, nor by anyone at Camden Productions. I sincerely apologize to any and all who were offended.”

“Mr. Camden,” one of the journalists replied. “What were you trying to say?”

Benny glanced at Lloyd, who gave him a Be Careful glare. “I just miss my brother, that’s all.”

JUNE

“So tell me about the new picture…what’s it called again?”

“Johnny Destructo.”

Wayne Armstrong, a popular disc jockey, coughed up a chuckle as a cigarette hung from his mouth. “Oh…right, right.”

Benny sat in the cramped confines of Wayne’s booth at KMOD. Three overflowing ashtrays decorated the table in front of him. He leaned into the microphone as smoke wafted from his lips. “Johnny’s this really evil, nasty megalomaniac…he’s so over the top evil. Anyway, he’s got this vendetta against humanity, and he starts scheming about how to, you know, destroy us.”

“And how does he plan on doing that?”

“With candy. Candy and propaganda.”

“So it’s a spoof?”

“Oh, totally. I mean, his arch-nemesis is this cocky spy named Brock Cobb who kind of stumbles his way through everything.”

Wayne grinned. “OK, so why’s this guy got a…what did you call it? Vendetta against humanity?”

“Because he’s the bad guy,” Benny said.

“So…that’s it?”

“That’s it. He’s the bad guy.”

“Can you…elaborate?” Wayne asked.

“His dad really knows how to set him off.” He found that surprisingly tasty. “Next question.”

“OK…now ever since you left Glen Headwood, you’ve been here a few times. I mean, you’ve been doing the radio circuit and everything. How’s that going?”

“I think it was a blessing getting canned, actually.” Benny stabbed his ashtray, watching the embers dissipate. “But radio…and television…don’t offer the same kind of artistic freedom as film.”

“People seem interested in what you have to say.”

“So they do.”

“Are you trying to say anything…with this new picture of yours?”

He took a deep breath. “You’ll have to wait and see.”

“So was the show holding you back, or what?” Wayne asked.

“I think comedy’s great. But I’m not just here to tell a few jokes, you know?”

“What’re you trying to do, then?”

“Make people question things.”

“So this isn’t just about shock,” Wayne said.

“Not at all. But shock sure seems to wake people up, doesn’t it?”

“So, bottom line, then. Why are you against the war in Vietnam?”

Benny watched those embers fading cold. “Because…we’re not defending our borders. We’re defending our ideology. Trying to tell other people what to think. And I’m not saying I agree with them. But nobody can give me the right to tell them what to think.”

-

Benny sat in the windowless dining hall of the mansion, sipping coffee and pushing away his empty plate as he scribbled notes on the Johnny Destructo shooting script. Lloyd came around the corner, newspaper in hand, and greeted him with straight lips. “Son.”

“Dad.”

“I caught your interview this morning.”

“And?”

Lloyd took a seat in one of the many empty chairs. “I wish you wouldn’t try to promote this thing as a Cold War commentary.”

“I only hinted.”

“But it’s going to be such a funny picture,” Lloyd said. “Why can’t you just let people enjoy it, and if they see more then they see more?”

“If you try to pander to the crowd like that, you water yourself down and nobody pays you any attention.”

“Benjamin, when you draw attention to yourself, it’s usually negative.”

“You think your hero Kennedy never attracted negative attention, huh? You think he wasn’t criticized? You think everyone loved him? He did what he thought was right…not what everyone wanted him to do.”

“And what happened to Kennedy?” Lloyd asked.

Benny grunted, shoving back his empty mug. “You’re hopeless. It’s like that whole damn fake NBC apology all over again. You know they don’t really care about what I said. All they care about is keeping the hyenas at bay. Just like you.”

“So you see yourself as some kind of patriot?”

“Yes.”

Lloyd’s straight lips rippled with frustration. “Let me tell you something. Your brother was a patriot! And now, all this talk…all this publicity…you’re dishonoring his sacrifice.”

“I’m just trying to keep more boys from dying like him.”

“And you really think you’re going to make a difference?”

Benny looked for some kind of understanding in the man’s eyes, but found none. “I’m not the only one. And we’re only going to get louder.”

AUGUST

Julia Powell hung on Benny’s arm up the walkway to his apartment, as she’d hung there all night. Never looking at him: looking at everyone else, glowing with excitement to be seen with him. It didn’t hurt him to be seen with her, either.

“This is your place?” she asked. “It’s so nice!”

Julia rubbed her bare arms in the chilled air while Benny locked the door behind her, undoing his bow tie. He slipped off his tuxedo jacket as she gave the place a good look. “Surprised?”

“You’re just so…all business on set. You don’t seem like the kind of guy who keeps his nose buried in a book.” She skimmed the shelves. “Looks like you’ve read quite a few.”

“Here and there.”

She ran her fingers along the titles. “Keats?” she asked. “You read poetry?”

“Sometimes.”

“I wouldn’t expect someone like you to be so well read.”

“Someone like me?”

She approached him and put her arms around his waist. “Well, you do have something of a reputation.”

“Do tell.”

“They all talk about you. Say you’re the life of the party.”

“I can’t be both?”

She leaned in for a kiss, and he held her warmth against him for a moment. Her lips were better for kissing than for talking. When they parted, he watched her face contort as her eyes locked on the artwork on the wall behind him. “Ugh!” she groaned, taking a step toward it. “That’s hideous!”

“You don’t like?”

“Are you kidding?” He turned to view the painting with her, the skeleton leaning its head just to the left, a burning cigarette dangling from where its lips should be. “It’s the only tacky thing in here!”

“It’s my favorite.”

“Where’d you get that awful thing, anyway?”

He sat down on the sofa, leaving ample room for her. “It’s a Van Gogh.”

“Really?” she asked, taking another look. “OK, maybe it’s not that tacky.”

“I love Van Gogh.”

She joined him on the couch, still checking out the rest of his décor. “I didn’t know you were so artsy.”

“One does one’s best.”

“But the movie…I mean, I wouldn’t expect someone who lives here to write such silly stuff.”

“You know there’s a message behind the jokes.”

“Something about communism, right?”

Her pale shoulders enticed him. “Something like that.”

“I don’t know…it all goes over my head. As long as I can read my lines!”

“I like to put layers on things, so they can be appreciated on different levels.” He suspected Julia didn’t have many surplus levels. Her face read like a pamphlet. “It’s part of my theory on art.”

“What’s your theory?”

He hesitated for a moment, remembering her comment about the painting. “Well, I think art can transcend itself when it transcends its medium.”

She giggled, leaning into him. “I have no idea what that means!”

“It means…you can appreciate a work of art, in and of itself. But when you translate it, through the eyes of another artist, it has meaning it didn’t have before.”

“You mean like when they turn a book into a movie?”

He guessed that would be about the limit of her grasp. “That’s one way to look at it. Take…Gone with the Wind, for example. You have this book, and it’s more than just a story. It’s about the collapse and evolution of the southern way of life. But then you turn it into a movie, and everything comes alive. But the movie can’t capture everything the book does.”

“I never saw it.”

Of course not. “OK…well, then, you take a painting like that, for example. What’s a skull doing smoking a cigarette, right?”

“Right!”

“Well, then someone comes along and writes a poem or a song about it. A different artist interpreting what Van Gogh was trying to say. When you listen to the song and look at the painting at the same time…you find something new that wasn’t in either one.”

“Someone wrote a song about it?”

He sighed. “No…it’s just an example.”

“Oh…”

The curve of her neck caught his erring eye, and he decided there were better ways to pass the time than discussing artistic theories.

-

Benny took a sip of his Johnnie Black on the rocks. “I have to tell you, Mom. This is more work than I think I’ve ever done.”

“I hope you’re not overwhelmed.”

“Actually, I’m kind of obsessed.”

“You hardly ever show your face anymore, that’s for sure.”

They sat at a small table near the golf course of the family country club, alone except for the bartender nearby. Benny squinted in the sun, realizing that he had indeed seen little of the daylight in the past month.

“So when do I get a peek at your…masterpiece?”

“It’s no masterpiece. It is pretty funny, though.”

“And how’s Julia?”

Julia…she had to come up eventually. “Oh, she’s fine.”

“Just fine?”

“Fine enough for what she is.”

“Do you…see a future there?” Benny noticed that provocative line in her brow.

“I don’t know.”

“You’re out of school now. You should think about…”

“I think about it.”

“Well?” She had that look that wouldn’t let him alone.

“It’s fine to think about.”

“She’s pretty. Don’t you think she’s pretty?”

“Sure.” Pretty dense.

“I know a girl you might like. Renee and Bobby’s daughter.”

“Not interested,” he said.

“OK, I’ll drop it. Just wondering about you, that’s all.”

He wanted to give her a better answer. She deserved one. He drained his glass instead.

1966

JANUARY

Benny needed a drink.

The Johnny Destructo premiere party was as successful as the movie. Cast and crew buzzed around him, reliving choice moments and quoting the rave reviews of the critics. Julia fluttered about the room, surrounded by jealous women vying for a glimpse of the Tiffany ring on her finger and shooting him envious glances.

She hung on his arm off and on, still never looking at him. Still glad to be seen with him.

He needed a drink.

“Since when are you a wallflower?”

He leaned into the bar, Glenlivet in hand, as Mary Tyler Moore sat down beside him. Benny looked her up and down without moving his eyes, but he knew she could tell. “I was just waiting for you, Happy.”

“Heard you’re already working on a sequel. And that you’ve got a part for me.”

Benny’s gaze shot to Julia, lifting her hand for one of her friends. “She runs her mouth off sometimes, doesn’t she?”

The bartender slipped a napkin under Mary’s drink, and she cupped it as they turned their backs to the bar. “She’s acting the way I did when Dick proposed. Just like me.”

“She was never like you.” He knew the look he gave her made her uncomfortable, but Mary just took a sip. “Yes, I’m writing a sequel. Seems like everyone got such a kick out of it.”

“On one level or another,” she said.

“Subtlety has a price, I guess.”

Mary watched Julia as he watched Mary. “Congratulations, by the way. She’s a lovely girl.”

“Sure.” Benny followed the rim of the glass on Mary’s red lip, the curve of her jaw, the delicate way her hair brushed her neck. She noticed.

“So tell me about it.”

“Identrix. She’s a mistress of disguise. And yes, I’m writing it for you.”

“Brock Cobb, Pretty Kitty…”

“They’re all back. Kitty less than last time.”

Across the room, the actress that played Pretty Kitty Lyle locked eyes with him, toying with that ring on her finger, brimming with life. He drained his glass.

“If it’s as good as Johnny Destructo, count me in!”

“Thanks.” He signaled for another Glenlivet.

“Can I tell you something?”

Her voice soothed him like a drink never could. “Of course.”

“Ever since your brother…I’ve been a little worried about you. You weren’t yourself. With what you did on your show…and just…when I found out about you and Julia…” She reached out with hesitant fingers and touched his hand. “I’m really glad for you.”

“Well…as long as you’re off the market.”

Mary laughed. “Still on that, are you?”

She looked so beautiful, but he knew to leave it there. “Well…Julia’s not so bad.”

“Glad you think so!”

Julia made her way toward them, and he pulled away from the bar, standing straight and inching away from Mary.

“Hey! What are you doing sulking over here?” She clasped his hand and dragged him out toward the middle of the room. “It’s your party!”

Benny kissed her as Mary nodded to him. “Just taking a breather.”

He wanted to look back at the bar, but he put his arm around Julia and carried on.

JUNE

Lara’s first year of college faded behind her as her nineteenth birthday arrived, and Virginia had the Camden mansion decked out for the occasion. As the sun’s last rays bid the city goodnight, the first guests arrived. Lara’s friends filled the place – the sons and daughters of celebrities and moguls mixed with middle class college kids who’d never done more than pass through Beverly Hills. One gawking girl said it best: “With a crib like this, I’m surprised you ever learned to walk.”

Live music called the festivities together, and Lara’s face reflected the glow of tiki torches and a roaring fire in the poolside fire pit. As the night wore on, one question circulated among the girls in the crowd.

“Is your brother coming?”

“You know he’s engaged, don’t you?” she would say.

“Lalala, didn’t hear you!”

She would occasionally catch her parents watching from a distance, never joining in, letting her have her fun. And as the clock struck twelve, even Lara wondered whether or not Benny would show.

And then…there he was, surrounded in a flutter of laughs and giggles.

-

“Glad you made it!”

“Of course!” He kissed her cheek and glanced out at the sea of salivating girls, laughing like infants at his flashy grin.

“Benny, I love you!”

“Oh, Benny, will you dance with me?”

“Benny, you’ve got to try the crab cakes!”

“Say the Brock Cobb line! Please?” Everyone chimed in at the request.

Benny nodded as a hush fell on the crowd. “Doctor Crime, I’m no scientist…but you’re going to jail.”

They all applauded as if it were his own catch phrase. Benny soaked it in, still sorry on some level that he’d managed to amuse these kids so much with his would-be war commentary. “Now listen up, everybody! I’ve got a surprise for you.”

Mulled murmuring as all looked on.

“I know you’ve got this whole beach party thing going here…and I thought, what’s a beach party without…Frankie Avalon!”

Even the guys got excited when Frankie Avalon stepped out of the house and into the crowd. The screams for Frankie doubled the screams for Benny, and as the girls swarmed him, Benny slowly backed out of the spotlight.

“Nice one,” Lara said, putting her arm around him.

“Yeah, well…it was the only way I’d get any peace tonight.”

“Where’s Julia?”

“She…couldn’t come.”

“Oh…”

“Happy Birthday, Sis.”

She stood there for a moment, brimming, then let go and moved through the crowd with excitement, in the general direction of Frankie Avalon. Benny went to find something to drink. He migrated back into the kitchen and poured himself a glass of Glenmorangie.

He eased against the counter and let the Scotch satiate his taste buds for a moment, then closed his eyes and let out a relaxed sigh. All those young, eager girls out there, all waiting for him. It shouldn’t matter. He shouldn’t let it matter. Still, though, as wedding details danced across his mind and the liquor danced across his tongue, he thought of Julia and let the alcohol warm him, glancing out the blinds at those kids.

“Crowd get to you?”

He turned at the sound of the voice and found one of Lara’s friends inching toward him. She had pale white skin, much of it bared. Her black hair and black eyes almost matched her bikini, and as she stepped closer he forgot about Julia.

“Crowds don’t get to me. Scotch does.”

She smiled, and he noticed she had perfect teeth. “I’m Chelsea,” she said, offering her hand. Her fingers were ice cold from the bottle of beer she held.

“Charmed,” he said in his best Sean Connery slur. “Benny.”

“I know who you are,” she said, a hint of playfulness in her voice as she gave him a once over. “Benjamin Weston Camden.”

He took another glance out the window at the crowd surrounding Frankie. “Nobody calls me Weston.”

“I didn’t think you were going to be here tonight.”

She moved up beside him, and Julia flashed through his thoughts as he took another sip of Scotch. “How do you know Lara?”

“From school.” She ran a finger around the mouth of her bottle. “She’s my lifeline. I’d probably be flunking if it wasn’t for her.”

Benny could care less about her academic prowess. “Tough classes?”

She giggled as if laughing at an inside joke. “Nah, not really. I just don’t always go…know what I mean?”

He leaned in to test the waters, and Chelsea didn’t flinch. “So where do you go?”

“Out,” she replied. “I didn’t go to college to change the world…I went because I like to party.”

“I don’t hear many people using ‘party’ as a verb.”

“Well, I’m all kinds of crazy.”

He took another sip, and his mind was already six steps ahead of his tongue. “Where’re you from?”

“Michigan. Little town.” She glanced around at the mansion. “You could fit our whole house in this kitchen.”

He gestured with his head without breaking her gaze. “Would you like a tour?”

“I thought you’d never ask.”

Her fingers played across his arm as he took her further inside. He glanced behind him and found his parents watching the festivities.

He showed her around, but she didn’t say much. He noticed her hand never left his arm, and when they got to the third floor, without hesitation she asked, “Which one is your room?”

Maybe it was the Scotch, but it took him a second. “I don’t live here anymore.”

Chelsea’s fingers found their way from his arm to the back of his neck. “Well…which one was your room?”

AUGUST

“Richard Speck?”

Benny dropped a spoonful of sugar in his coffee as Julia scowled at him. “Yeah, you know, killed all those nurses out in Chicago last month.”

She winced as she always did at stories like that. “Didn’t he hold them hostage or something?”

“For most of the night, I think.”

He masked amusement as her face contorted further. “That’s horrible! People aren’t going to want to see a movie like that.”

“They lined up for Psycho,” he said.

“Psycho wasn’t a true story.”

He took a sip of his coffee as he studied his fiancée, hair disheveled and face fresh. He didn’t fancy himself the shallow type, but something about Julia’s face… Makeup was her friend. It perturbed him a little that she was probably right about his idea. Maybe in the future.

They ate the rest of their breakfast in silence. He tended not to talk much during meals anymore. Whenever they ate together, he felt suffocated – not by her, but by the things about him she didn’t know. Chelsea Blythe was in his mouth. Everything tasted like her. She’d spoiled his appetite.

That…Julia had noticed. He told her he wanted to make their marriage respectable and wait until their wedding night to make love again, and whether or not she believed him, she agreed.

After breakfast, Benny drifted onto the balcony and slid a cigarette between his lips. He took a drag and squinted in the morning sun. Malibu stretched out below him, and the air was as chilly as summer can get. He blew out the smoke, watching it dissipate. Minutes later Julia left him for the day with a kiss and a quick, ponderous glance.

He didn’t know why he couldn’t forget that night with Chelsea Blythe. How many girls had come and gone? She didn’t stand out, but she had something on all the others, something that set her apart. No one else ever made him feel guilty – transcendent and guilty at the same time. Every beat of her heart, every breath against his skin…every moment with her he could forget. But she wouldn’t leave his thoughts.

If he hadn’t been engaged, he knew she would have slipped from his memory, and if not her, at least her name.

As a teenager he dreamed of a green-eyed goddess who would descend into his world and change all the colors, redefining every element of life. He would devote himself to this girl, and together they would change each other’s lives…and the world. But the only one who ever turned his head was Mary Tyler Moore. He measured every other female against his imagined ethereal emerald emissary from Heaven, and it wasn’t until he was sixteen that it occurred to him this girl might not exist.

He couldn’t recall most of the other names now, but he remembered Chelsea Blythe. As he tossed the smoldering butt below and released a lungful of smoke, he wondered what it would take to make him forget…without telling Julia.

Benny loosened the belt on his robe and plopped down on the sofa, scooping up Valley of the Dolls. As he read, his thoughts drifted back to those nurses in Chicago, and that Speck man that crept out of the night and killed them all. He shivered, wondering what must have been going through those nurses’ minds.

-

Benny exhaled, his breath laced with grey, and as he put out the cigarette, he watched the smoke disappear against the cumulus backdrop floating in from the distant Pacific coast. He removed his superfluous sunglasses as he spotted his mother being shown to the table by the maître-de. He pushed back his chair and rose with a soft grin as Virginia thanked the host and joined him.

“Mom,” he said, leaning in to kiss her cheek.

Virginia eyed him, sniffing. “I thought you said you quit.”

“It comes and goes.”

They sat and ordered. Virginia glanced up. “Wouldn’t it be better to sit indoors?”

“Storms aren’t coming for hours.”

“Still…better to be on the safe side.”

“I cheated on Julia.” He couldn’t dance around it or build up to it – he knew he’d lose his nerve. His eyes probed her, hoping that catching her off guard would help minimize the blow.

He saw the questions running through her mind, but that smile on her face fought back the sour reaction he had expected. “Well,” she said. “Just like that, you tell me.”

“Sorry, but if I didn’t get it out now, I don’t know if I ever would.”

“Does she know?”

He shook his head. “No. I think if I told her…it’d be over.” He saw her look of consideration and knew there were things that would hurt her more than seeing the end of this engagement. But he also knew she loved him too much to let her feelings influence her words.

“You’re probably right. Speaking for myself, if your father ever cheated on me…”

Her words stung him hard. He looked back and saw her through the veil of that comparison, as if she were Julia – as if she were the one he had betrayed.

“I’m sorry.”

“Benny…Baby…”

“It meant nothing. At least, she meant nothing. The other girl.”

“Do you still love her?” Virginia asked.

Benny expected a swell of emotion and devotion as he prepared to answer the question, but it didn’t come. “I…love her more than I’ve ever loved any other girl.”

“I don’t think you answered my question.”

He should have known she wouldn’t let him dodge. “What do you want me to say?”

“Then you need to tell her.”

“Are you sure?”

“If you don’t think you should tell her, Honey…then I have to say you don’t really love her.”

The words went over his head and hung in his ears at the same time. “I don’t know if I can.”

“I would hope…I raised a son with the conviction to do what’s right.”

-

The storm came sooner than predicted, and it swept across the street, heading in Virginia’s direction. She sat in the left turn lane, waiting for a green light and dwelling on her conversation with Benny.

He was the brightest person she’d ever known: brighter than Charles or Lara, or Lloyd, or any of the endless entertainers that had passed through her door. She knew if it hadn’t been for Lloyd’s domineering restraint, Benny could have been the biggest entertainer of them all. He could have been the Great One, as Jackie Gleason had called him in one of the most powerful moments of blessing her son ever received. He still could be the Great One…still would be if she had anything to say about it.

Somewhere beneath his potential and untapped brilliance, though, there lurked a dormant self-destruction. Benny had already betrayed his future wife before he ever had a chance to take a vow, and that broke Virginia’s heart. Then again, she never saw Julia as worthy of her son. Somewhere, there had to be a girl who would make a good match for Benny Camden.

Green.

She turned left amidst the thickening raindrops and switched on her lights. Her car passed onto a two-lane bridge, the only vehicle in the northbound lane. Southbound was full, and she noticed with distaste that the other drivers hadn’t turned on their lights.

In the distance, caught in a flash of illumination, the car at the rear of the southbound traffic swerved into the northbound lane. Strange. She expected the driver to correct himself, but it kept coming, swerving and sideswiping everything else on the bridge. Headed straight for her.

She couldn’t get out of the lane or even swerve to miss him. The phantom car accelerated, hitting everything in its path. She slammed on her brakes but didn’t quite know what good it would do her.

-

Julia would be there any minute, drenched from the storm, irritable as the foul weather. Benny knew he had poorly masked his apprehension when he called. She’d be expecting something. He wished he had contained himself better and gotten it out before she had a chance to build it up in her mind.

In that moment, he realized how much he cared about her. Part of him hoped this would be an out, but he also prayed that, by some miracle, he would get through the day without losing her.

The telephone rang.

It startled him, intent as he was on the silent door, and for a moment he stared at it – wondering, hoping that maybe Julia was calling to say she couldn’t make it. Something had happened, some minor tragedy, saving him for another day.

It took three rings for him to build up his courage.

“Benny Camden.”

“Benny.” It wasn’t the voice he expected.

“Lara?”

“Benny…you need to get over here now!”

“Wha…why? What’s wrong? Where are you?”

She sniffed. “Cedars-Sinai.”

-

Before the elevator doors completely opened, Benny was halfway down the hall. He wanted to run but held his pace. He wanted to cry but held his tears. He wanted to lash out…

He turned the corner and found Lloyd and Lara sitting with Uncle Doug and Aunt Katherine, huddled together. Lloyd surprised and startled his son, embracing him before Lara could even stand. Benny stood there for a moment as the tears broke, and he put his arms around his father.

“How is she?”

“The other driver…” Lloyd just stared at him, stared at him like he was a television set broadcasting an air strike on the Viet Cong. “The, uh…the other driver…had a seizure. He’s…”

“Dad!”

Lloyd pulled away from him, breaking eye contact. “There just…wasn’t enough time.”

Benny’s vision clouded. He glanced around the waiting room as Lara hugged him. “When?”

“About twenty minutes ago,” she said.

Lloyd’s hands gripped his hips, and he shook his head as his gaze dropped to the ground. “She…she didn’t have time to eat breakfast this morning.”

“Why didn’t someone call me sooner?”

“We tried, but we couldn’t get through. The storm must have knocked out a line.”

Lara kissed his face. For the briefest of moments, he felt the way he did when Charles died…as if the family grieved together without him. The memory passed as fast as it came.

“Oh my God…” he breathed. “Oh my God…”

He sank into a seat beside his aunt and uncle, and for the first time in a long time, he shared an embrace with his family. He wept, and they wept with him.

“Can I see her?”

-

He sat in his car, eyes blurred, hand on the ignition switch, and couldn’t find a reason to get out. Art…Julia…his future…none of it meant anything. He had no one to please anymore. A thousand memories flooded him that evening, flashing with the lightning, flaunting Virginia’s death with twisted satisfaction.

He made it to his door without any recollection of even leaving the hospital. His mouth was a little dry, and nothing could soothe that thirst like a glass of J&B. It was the only reason he could think of to bother going inside.

He fumbled with his keys, eyes still blurry, and entered in a daze. He didn’t remember leaving his lights on. After dropping his coat to the floor, he made his way to the kitchen, but stopped short. Julia lay dozing on the sofa. She’d probably been there for hours. The sight of her gave him the briefest sense of belonging…the briefest sense of not being alone. He decided she might be better comfort than a drink.

Benny knelt beside her, watching her for a moment. She was beautiful, sure. But it didn’t matter anymore.

Julia’s eyes fluttered open. Her pupils expanded and contracted as her lips curled into an unpleasant frown.

“Hi,” he whispered.

She pulled herself up to a sitting position. “Where the hell have you been?”

He couldn’t bring himself to say the words. “I’ve been…”

Her shoulders stiffened with her brow. “You call me out of work, acting like you had something important to tell me, like it was an emergency or something. Getting me all worked up and scared. And then…when I show up, you’re not even here! What the hell? I waited all night!”

Tears blurred his vision. “I’m sorry. It’s my mom…”

“What about her?”

He fell from his knees to a sitting position, his whole body quivering. “She’s dead.”

She threw a hand to her mouth as her hostility vanished. “Oh my God! Benny! Oh my God!” She slipped down, wrapping her arms around him. “I’m so sorry! What happened?”

“Car accident.”

“Oh Benny…”

As soon as their lips touched, he recalled why he’d summoned her there. She’d never given him more heartfelt kisses, but each one stung. He almost didn’t even care anymore that he’d betrayed her. They stung because he’d promised something to his mother, the last thing he ever said to her. And he knew what he had to do. Part of him thought he could justify waiting, at least a day or two; the other part of him couldn’t bear it any longer, couldn’t bear remembering the look of masked disappointment in Virginia’s eyes. He feared that would always be the last thing he’d remember about her.

“There’s something else.”

She wiped a tear from his eye, but he pulled her away. “What?”

“Jules…I slept with someone else.”

He expected nothing and everything. He watched her face contort, moving through emotions he could not translate. He couldn’t quite believe he’d said it, much less so succinctly.

“Benny…”

“I’m sorry, Jules. I should have told you before.”

She’d probably yell on any other day. “How could you?”

“I wish I could remember.”

“What’s that mean? Who was she?”

“One of Lara’s friends. I don’t even remember her name.” Chelsea Blythe. Chelsea Blythe. Dear God, why can’t I forget her name?

“You…bastard…” Her whimper struck him as if she’d yelled.

“Jules, it’s over.” It’s all over…all…

“You’re telling me it’s over?”

“Let’s stop kidding ourselves. It never would’ve worked in the end.”

She glared at him as he watched the tears flood her. They were his mother’s tears to him.

“How could you do this to me?”

Maybe it was divine mercy, or maybe because Virginia’s death, so fresh, haunted them, but the ensuing fight flew by much faster than he’d dreaded. It must have been only a few minutes later that Julia slammed the door in his face, and he wondered if he would ever see her again. As the sound of her crying in the hallway rung in his ears, it all came back. He wanted to scream until he’d lost his voice, rip out his hair, and…cut himself. He wanted to feel it. He wanted to drench himself in pain.

His head throbbed, and he didn’t know what to do but just sit there. And then, in a flash, he remembered why he’d even come home in the first place.

Staggering to the kitchen, he poured himself a glass of J&B, then thought better of it and put the bottle to his lips.

As the liquor burned him, a name rubbed itself into his senses: a name as forgettable as any other…yet one he would carry to the grave.

-

Benny showed up at Chelsea Blythe’s place three nights later, a cigarette hanging limp from his lips, his face covered in stylish sunglasses. A bottle of cheap whiskey dangled from his fingers. He leaned against the doorjamb and tossed the smoldering butt. “I don’t know what it is about you…” he breathed, “…but I can’t get you out of my head.”

She nodded. “Where’s your fiancée?”

“Gone,” he said with a hoarse, smoky voice.

“Why don’t you give that to me?” she asked, and he handed over the bottle.

She clicked the lock behind him, and he dropped his shades on a cluttered table. “Nice place,” he said, his eyes bloodshot and looking like hell.

“You drunk?” He laughed, but the hard line of his lips refused to bend. “Doesn’t matter to me, either way,” she said. She led him over to the sofa and helped him sit, then massaged his shoulders. “I heard about your mom.”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he growled, and Chelsea said nothing more.

“I was surprised you called.”

“Me too.” Benny blinked his cracking eyes. He coughed and then leaned forward, covering his face with his hands. He looked lost and helpless, and she caressed his head. She moved her fingers back and forth through his trim hair, and he kissed her. It took her by surprise, but only for a moment. She knew this was no pleasantry, no mere social call.

Chelsea kissed him back. His hands moved beneath her shirt. Her lips traced his jaw, nerves vibrating with arousal. And then they abandoned the couch and shut the bedroom door.

-

Bennie lay beside Chelsea in the dimming dark. “You OK?” she asked, her tongue tracing the curve of his shoulder.

He grunted, his pulse slowly simmering back to normal. “You ever feel like…you’ve just got to go?”

Chelsea rolled over and opened a drawer in her nightstand. She fumbled around for a moment, pulling out a little black box. “I’ve got what you need,” she breathed, and he turned as she removed the lid and pulled out a handmade cigarette.

He watched in silence as she struck a match. The room grew chilly. He took the joint and put it to his lips, drawing in the breath as if he’d done it dozens of times. He held the smoke inside of him, twisting the rolled paper in his fingers, watching the tiny glowing embers.

Benny exhaled as Chelsea’s warm hand touched him beneath the sheets. He inhaled again.

SEPTEMBER

Benny almost lived at the studio while Identrix was in post. Even though he considered Brock Cobb’s second outing far less significant than the first, he treated it with tender care and grace.

He agreed to a small roll in Glen Headwood’s first film project: Candlefrost, a spoofy send-up of poorly-financed B-movies, with a big budget and an all-star cast. The producers sought him out to play Kid Delirious, a psychotic, unstable drifter who, through a series of bizarre circumstances, ends up as the Secretary of Defense under Gregory Peck’s President Argyle, a stuttering politician put into power by alien puppet masters.

Candlefrost was Johnny Destructo without the agenda – just cinematic fluffery and good clean fun. He found the whole thing a little dull.

“I don’t see why you’re so down on it.”

Benny snuck a glance into Jane Fonda’s beautiful eyes, and down her beautiful body, as they left the set one afternoon. The smell of salt water stung his nostrils from the ocean miles away. Paramount always smelled like salt to him. “Kid stuff,” he said.

“So it’s not Johnny Destructo,” she breathed. “Don’t forget, I’ve seen some of your new one.”

He shrugged. “I just think if they’re going to go camp, they should go all the way. I mean, they’ve got you defending the Earth. You and me, of all people. They might as well use what you’ve got…if you know what I mean.”

“What, space smut?”

“What’s wrong with a little space smut?” he chuckled. “If it’s new to the universe, it’s new to us.”

Jane laughed. “Maybe I could be in zero gravity and have a Marilyn-Monroe-over-the-grate moment.”

“Or…you could change your clothes in zero gravity.”

Her eye twinkled. “That’s a thought.”

“So you and Roger want to come out for a drink?”

“I’m game if he is. Just the three of us?”

“Why not?”

She nodded, her wide grin slimming as she broke eye contact. “So…you want to tell me what happened with Julia?”

“No, actually.”

“Fair enough,” she replied, stepping back to accommodate Glen as he approached, slapping Benny on the back.

“Jane,” he said, then tugged on his friend’s arm. “Ready to go?”

Benny nodded, but his thoughts lingered on Julia now. “I’ll call you about that drink,” he said to Jane.

Glen fastened his seatbelt and started his car as Benny leaned his elbow out the open passenger window and let his gaze drift that direction. “You know, some of the others are a little worried about you,” Glen said.

“Tell them to mind their own business.”

“It’s just…you’re great on camera, don’t get me wrong. You should have been an actor. But…you could try socializing a little more, at least with people besides Jane.”

Benny turned up the radio. Glen gripped the wheel and drove for a while, and Benny lost himself in Buffalo Springfield.

“Look, I don’t know who this girl is you’ve been messing around with, but–”

“Chelsea,” he whispered.

“You say something?”

Benny shifted in his seat, facing Glen. “Chelsea. That’s her name. You could try minding your own business too.”

Glen said nothing more, and continued to drive.

-

Lloyd took a seat at the little round table in the corner of his office, examining the deli spread waiting for him. The smell of fresh bread and corned beef filled his mouth with saliva as Henry pulled up a chair.

“I’m sorry your daughter couldn’t make it.”

“Me too,” Henry said. “She’s been swamped all semester.”

“Lara too. Although don’t ask me to explain anything she’s studying.” He grinned with pride as he dabbed a knife in the mustard and spread it thick on his bun. “That girl is so smart.”

“Hillary’s all but sworn off her social life at this point. Not that I mind, given the sort of boys she gravitates to.”

They fell silent as Benny slipped through the doorway. Both men regarded him with nods of respect, but he paid almost no attention to either of them until he’d sat. Lloyd watched him unwrap his sandwich, skin pasty and hair stripped of its usual finesse.

“You’re late. Again.”

Benny smirked as he bit down on the edge of his Reuben. “Yeah, well, I got a little tied up.”

The elder men exchanged a glance of distaste, and Lloyd chose to ignore the comment. Henry cleared his throat and the air. “Did you see the dailies from Baby Lady?”

Benny didn’t look up as he knocked some of the overflowing sauerkraut from his sandwich. “Yeah. Gary told me Spencer Tracy’s taken a turn for the worse. But Tracy told me they’re just having…creative difficulties with the French guy…what’s his name?”

“Truffaut,” Lloyd replied.

“So what about my Richard Speck idea?” Benny asked through a mouthful of rye.

“No way,” Lloyd said. “Nobody’s going to want to see anything like that. It’s distasteful. If you want to pursue it, you’re going to have to change a lot of the facts.”

“How much?”

“Enough so that people won’t know it’s a true story.”

“It’s big, though, Dad! I think we should do it, and we should do it now while it’s still hot!”

“We’re not going to have this discussion again, Benjamin. It’s worse than your mercenary idea.”

“Which one is that?” Henry asked.

“It’s about a guy who comes back from Vietnam, and he’s so affected by the war that he turns into a serial killer. And Dad…” Benny jabbed a finger at Lloyd. “Dad won’t do it because he thinks it somehow insults Charles’s memory.”

“No,” Lloyd said. “I won’t do it because the last thing we need is to stir people up.”

Benny glared at him. “You know what your problem is?” Lloyd watched him in silence. “You don’t get what it is people want. All you care about is making everything all tasteful and cookie-cutter. It’s not the fifties anymore! Things have changed!”

“You’ve changed,” Lloyd retaliated, keeping his voice calm. “You keep showing up late, handing in shoddy work. You’re even worse than you used to be!”

-

Alone in his office, Benny locked the door and sank into his leather chair, quivering with anger, reliving lunch. He sat in silence for a moment, trying to control his temper with steady breathing. He opened his desk drawer and produced an empty glass and a bottle of Talisker. He stared at them for a moment, then abandoned the glass.

As the liquor drained to his stomach, his eye caught on the bag of pot lying in that open drawer.

-

Some college friends came to town and met Benny and Glen for an impromptu reunion. They played the night away, moving from place to place until they ended up at one of Benny’s favorite bars – Napoleon’s. Jazz and smoke thickened the air as they flirted with the wait staff and reminisced.

College was only a few years behind him, but the stories and smiles all reminded him of a different time. A different Benny. They’d all heard about his brother and mother, of course, and doled out their share of condolences, followed by drinks.

His temples throbbed with liquor by the time Chelsea made her way to the table, batting the odor of tobacco and gin out of her face. The nostalgia and safety wavered. He drained his glass and stood to meet her before she got within earshot of the others.

“What’re you doing here?” he slurred. He could smell his own breath.

She was a deflating balloon. “I need to tell you something.”

He wiped a bead of sweat from his brow. Her eyes gleamed and her lips quivered, and a queasy uncertainty filled the pit of his gut.

“I’m listening.”

“Benny…I’m pregnant.”

For a moment, every distinct sound in the room interlaced with the others, creating an indistinguishable patchwork of incoherent gibberish and muted instruments. It fell into the background, a sonic vacuum. His vision blurred as well. Everyone around him, all the sights and sounds, were parts of his past and not his present. He could only see Chelsea, and when he blinked he imagined she was already showing.

Pregnant? The word hung in his mind as a question, not a statement. He heard it over and over so many times that it lost its meaning and fell into incoherence alongside the omnisound. His knees buckled and the strength left his legs. Chelsea gasped, but he didn’t fall.

“Are you OK?” The concern in her voice begged something more now, not just courtesy or care. She had a vested interest in the question.

The omnisound exploded back into its components again, and his head ached.

“Yeah, I…” He tried to answer, but he’d already forgotten the question. “Are you kidding me?”

“No, it’s for real.”

“But you’re on the pill!”

She bit her lip, and the hope in her eyes twinged with a trace of fear. “I went off of it.”

He grabbed her arm. “You what?” His fingers dug into her skin and she pulled back.

“I went off it.”

He shook his head, eyes pressed together, the headache gathering strength. “Why the hell…?”

“I was hoping…”

Even in that moment of dulled senses, some corner of his mind functioned with lightning clarity. She was making a move to keep him.

“I can’t believe you!”

She pulled her arm from him. “I thought you’d be happy about this!”

“When did I ever give you…” He groaned as a bolt of pain shot between his ears.

“Well, OK, I mean, I guess I knew you wouldn’t be at first, but…Benny, you’re going to be a father!”

He gritted his teeth and leaned into her. “I don’t want to be a father!” he growled. He shook now, watching a flick of his spit hit her face as he spoke.

“I…I…”

“You gold-digging tramp!” He put his shaking hands on the table. Tears collected in her eyes, spilling down her cheeks. “I don’t want you, and I don’t want your baby!”

“I’m going home now,” she said. “When you’re sober, we’ll talk about it again. And you’ll see…this is a good thing!”

Benny staggered out to his car after paying the bill. He sat in the driver’s seat, with enough sense not to start the engine. As his consciousness faded, he couldn’t shake the memories of his youth and of his father’s disapproving gaze. He wrapped his arms around himself and passed out with his forehead against the wheel.

-

He drove home in a drunken haze, then dropped his clothes to the floor and climbed into bed without ever turning on the lights. He pulled the blankets around him, resisting the urge to vomit. A multiplicity of sensations flooded his throbbing head.

He drifted to sleep again. His father lurked in the shadows, glaring at him with all the disapproval of the last twenty-four years. Charles and Lara were there as well, basking in their father’s approval. It weighed down on him, robbing his lungs of breath. The insignificance, the middle-child syndrome he’d heard so much about now painted the walls, the ceilings, the air. Lloyd’s eyes watched him, wishing he was something else.

In the midst of it all, there she was: a beautiful, helpless, innocent little creature looking up at him as if he were the sun, as if he were her world. She was there but she wasn’t, as if she lived in that dream. She was more real than anyone he’d ever seen before, and he knew she would remain in the dream long after he left. There, at least, in that moment, he knew he would die for her.

She had green eyes.

The next morning, he discarded the newspaper as Chelsea arrived and sat beside him at the table. The infant Queen of Dreams faded from his thoughts as he leveled an icy glare at her.

“This is a good thing…I promise.”

“If I were anyone else, you never would have done this,” Benny said.

“What are you talking about?”

“You want my baby because I’m a Camden.”

“You arrogant jerk! You think…” She sighed. “But it doesn’t matter now, does it? We’re going to have a baby. It’s for real, and I—”

“I want you to take care of it.”

She flinched as if a hornet had embedded its stinger in her flesh. “Are you crazy?”

“You’re still in school. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you. What do you want with a baby? You’ll have to drop out if you go through with it, and I…” He took a deep breath. “Don’t expect me to support you.”

Her gaze shifted from one of his eyes to the other in rapid succession. “How dare you? You think I’m trying to get money out of you or something?”

He paused, letting the words hang in the air for a moment, his head still throbbing, and said, “How much do you want?”

“What?”

“How much do you want?”

Chelsea blinked. Her jaw dropped, and she had no response.

“Look, I’ll take care of it. And…I’ll take care of you. But I’m telling you right now, if you have this baby, you’re on your own.”

“It’s illegal! Illegal and dangerous.”

“Dangerous if you don’t have money.”

“I can’t believe you! I can’t believe I ever thought…”

He nodded. “Me neither.”

Hot tears streamed down her cheeks. “Benny, you’re scaring me! I can’t take care of a baby on my own!”

“You’re going to have to. Or…you can let me take care of it once and be done with it.”

They sat there for a minute, Chelsea crying, and Benny resisting the urge to let any emotion surface or seize control of him and undo what he’d almost done.

“I hate you,” she said. “I really hate you.”

-

Benny pulled up to the broad black iron fence emblazoned with his last name. He cruised through the open gate and into the shade of his grandmother’s garden. The lush trees rose above him, and the swaying limbs reminded him of boyhood days, climbing from branch to branch with Charles and Lara, letting his imagination thrive and run amok.

He slowed toward the garage. Lara stood in the driveway, arms crossed, waiting for him. He grinned at her and hopped out of the car. “Hey!” he greeted, but as he approached he saw a foreign sneer in her eyes. “What’s wrong?”

“What’s wrong?” Her arms dropped and she stepped toward him, her shoes crunching on the gravel. “Are you kidding me?”

“You talked to her.” It was the only reason he could think of for her to shoot him with that glare.

“How could you do that to her? How could you do that to anybody?”

Her voice sounded like their mother’s, and he froze in the moment, afraid to lose his composure – dreading looking her in the eye. It pierced him to wound his mother’s pride, confessing his affair, and this new wound enflamed just as easily.

“What did she tell you?”

“She said you got her pregnant, and then instead of agreeing to marry her you forced her to…you know! And you paid her for it!”

“She went off her birth control on purpose. She was trying to get pregnant, and didn’t want me to know! She was trying to force me to—”

“Why were you with her in the first place?” she asked, jamming a finger at him. “You just broke up with Julia, and you won’t even talk about that, and you’re already slumming it with someone else! And Chelsea, of all people! I mean, she’s my friend and all, but…she’s got a reputation.”

Gee, I wonder why, he thought. “I didn’t know, OK? I just thought she was a cute kid. She was in the right place at the right time…” Wrong place at the wrong time. “And…I don’t know, she made me feel good. She made me forget about Julia and…everything.”

“Benny, what’s happened to you? Huh? When we were kids you always dreamed you’d meet your soul mate and fall in love with her and everything. And now you’re going around breaking engagements and getting girls pregnant and…” Her voice cracked. “I just want to know what’s going on with you!”

He looked back at his sister, full of concern and care, and his defenses rose. Part of him wanted to embrace her and confess everything, and find a confidant in her. But the other part of him couldn’t handle her seeing him in that light any more than he could have handled it with his mother.

“Nothing’s happening to me, all right? I’m just… It’ll pass.”

Lara shook her head. “The Benny Camden I know would never do these things.”

“Well maybe the Benny Camden…” He took a deep breath. “I’m sorry.”

“I could have been an aunt,” she said. “You could have been a daddy!”

He knew the words on the tips of his lips would scar her, yet he couldn’t hold them back. “And now…thank God…I won’t be.”

OCTOBER

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Johnny Carson breathed from behind his desk, suppressing a chuckle. “Our next guest is making his first appearance here on The Tonight Show, although goodness knows we tried to get him before. I, uh…”

Carson laughed as the audience joined him. Jackie Gleason, sitting in an adjacent chair, shook his head and said, “I think you owe me an apology!”

“Anyway,” Johnny continued, composing himself. “His new movie Identrix comes out tomorrow night. He’s quite a character himself. Benny Camden!”

The band picked up, playing “Mellow Yellow” as Benny stepped onto the stage. The crowd offered him applause and cheers – and a few subdued boos. He flashed them a breezy smile before shaking Carson’s hand.

“Welcome.”

“Hey, Johnny! Jackie.”

“Hey, Kid!” Jackie said, giving him a gentle hug.

“Now, uh, Benny,” Johnny said with a smug grin. “If you’ve got anything candid to say, what do you say we wait for the commercial?”

Benny laughed along with Jackie and everyone else, shaking his head. “Oh, man. Sometimes I wish I could take it all back.”

“Well, if anybody can say anything about you, you speak your mind, and that’s good.”

“Thanks. I think you owe Jackie an apology.”

Johnny winced. “I think you owe me one for parking in my spot!”

“Sorry. Won’t happen again.”

“Anyway, so what’s new in your world?”

Benny crossed his legs. “Well, we’ve got the new movie coming out tomorrow night.”

“Right, and it’s another one of those…what’s his name, Brock Cobb?”

“Brock Cobb, right. It’s a little sappier than the first one. This time instead of a mad scientist, we’ve got this girl who impersonates people. And she tries to kidnap the President and take over the country.”

“Sounds plausible,” Johnny commented.

“And of course we have Mary Tyler Moore. My personal favorite.”

Johnny swung his finger between Jackie and Benny. “Now the two of you go way back, don’t you?”

“Who, Mary or Jackie?”

“Take your pick.”

“Well, I’ve known Jackie since I was a kid and he spilled coffee on our rug.”

Johnny moved his steaming mug away from them as the audience chuckled. “Good to know.”

“I used to come around a lot,” Jackie said. “Always saw something in the kid.”

“And he tagged around on your coattails, if I recall,” Johnny said.

“Still does, apparently!” Jackie said. “Can’t seem to get rid of him sometimes.”

“Now he did a spot on American Scene Magazine, right?” Johnny asked.

“He showed up on set one day and wouldn’t leave until we put him on,” Jackie said. “At least he didn’t park in my space.”

“One does one’s best,” Benny said.

“So you grew up with this guy,” Johnny said, pointing at Jackie. “Must have been like having Jack Benny in the house!”

“Do you get paid for jokes like that?” Benny asked.

“This is all I’ve got, Kid! Work with me a little!”

“Well, yeah, he’s one of my idols.”

“But you were never bitten by the acting bug?”

Benny chuckled. “Well, you know, Johnny…I think it swallowed me.”

The audience chuckled back.

“But…I don’t know, this is where I ended up, and it’s not too bad.”

Johnny glanced at Jackie. “Didn’t you once tell Benny here that he’d be your successor?”

“I said he could be the Great One,” Jackie replied. “When I’m rotting in the ground, of course.”

“He’s got some big shoes to fill, there, Jackie. No offense.”

“Eh, stop being such a wise guy.”

“You were engaged to Julia Powell, right?” Johnny asked.

“Yes,” Benny said, glancing into his lap. “Didn’t work out though.”

“That’s a shame. She’s such a cute kid.”

“Yeah…”

“So anybody new?”

Benny grinned. “Yeah, actually.” He turned to the audience with a knowing gleam in his eye. “Anybody ever hear of Jasmine Temple?”

“I believe you’re referring to the fashion model.”

“Yeah. We met a few weeks ago, and well…would you like to meet her?”

The audience cheered with consent, and Benny glanced at Johnny. “She’s backstage.”

“Well why don’t we bring her out? Ladies and gentlemen, Jasmine Temple!”

Jasmine emerged from the curtains to shouts and whistles from most of the men. Her trademark silky brown hair never looked so perfect in a magazine. She paraded herself across stage and kissed Johnny, then waved to the audience. She kissed Jackie, then Benny, landing between the two of them.

Johnny laughed for a moment as the audience died down. “Well, I, uh…it’s too bad Bob Hope took that shrinking ray with him, ‘cause I’d love to stick you in my pocket and take you home!”

Jasmine giggled and put her hand on Benny’s knee. He grinned with pride at her, then looked back out at the audience. As Jasmine and Johnny bantered, he found himself lost in the moment, lost in thought, in the darkened sea of anonymous faces floating behind the lights, watching him and his friends with glee. They saw glamour on that stage. They saw power and beauty. The saw a world of dreams.

But they didn’t see the nightmares.

-

Amidst the star-studded spectacle of the Identrix premiere, Benny emerged from the family stretch limousine with Jasmine on his arm. Flocked by his actors, including the standoffish Julia Powell, Benny led the group as they greeted their friends and fans. Julia gave a pleasant showing, but she kept her distance. She never looked him in the eyes.

Max Dewey, the fiercely handsome actor who embodied the dumb-founded charisma of Brock Cobb, flashed his grin at her and at the stunning, innocent beauty who portrayed the eponymous Identrix: Mary Tyler Moore. Benny had made it no secret that the role was written for her.

Beside them and the others, Jasmine posed herself around Benny, giving away somber, sultry glares for the hovering paparazzi to devour. Her dress hung shorter than anyone else’s, and she displayed herself without modesty.

“Clothing,” she declared once in an interview accompanying a Playboy spread, “is my mask. I want people to know the real me.”

Lloyd and Lara sat a good distance away from them as everyone settled in for the movie. Benny detached himself from the simple enjoyment of the event. He valued the premiere because of the chance to experience his work through the eyes of the audience. His attention moved beyond the film, to the reactions of the crowd, paying careful attention to each laugh, to how loud and how long they lasted. He developed his analytical viewing during his days at The Glen Headwood Show. These observations accounted for much of the comedic improvements in the sequel. And there was no doubt that Identrix, at least in its opening show, entertained them all that much more.

At some point, however, his attention drifted to Julia, who sat a few rows away. A dawning sense of emptiness soured his stomach. He turned from her, running his hand over Jasmine’s leg and smiling with affection at the new girl in his life.

He snuck a glance at his father for a moment, then settled back in his seat.

-

Henry scooted his chair further inward toward Benny’s script for Mercenary Man, lying on his desk. Despite Lloyd’s misgivings about the project, he couldn’t deny the story’s compelling narrative, nor its severe criticism of the war that he found difficult to debate. He could imagine even the most devoted general second guessing things after reading this.

Mercenary Man antithesized Identrix. He could hear Benny’s passions and concerns on every page, and yet it still fell short of the boy’s capabilities. The tale of the decorated soldier-turned-serial killer raised numerous questions about the morality of not just the Vietnam War but war itself. Despite all of the muckraking, the script offered no answers. In Henry’s estimation, protest had no value without solutions.

Nevertheless, the screenplay chilled him.

A rapping startled him, and before he could respond, the door swung open and Benny sauntered in, clutching a newspaper and beaming with smug pride.

“See the Times?” he asked.

“No.”

Benny opened up the rumpled article with a smirk. “If in his last showing he stood somewhat reserved, Brock Cobb has pulled all the comedic stops for his second, and far superior, cinematic outing.” He crowed, and Henry leaned back in his seat. “Like an awakening, Brock Cobb has embraced his full potential as America’s last hope, only hinted at in Johnny Destructo, and exposed the weaknesses of his fictitious enemies with near-perfect wit and comic timing.”

Henry nodded. “Rockling said it was the funniest thing he’d ever seen.”

Benny dropped the review over the Mercenary Man script. “I gotta tell you,” he sighed. “There’s something to be said for just going for laughs. I mean, sure, we’re not going to win any awards or anything, but…I could see doing this again.”

“I’m reading your new one.”

He glanced at the half-visible script buried beneath the newspaper. “Not exactly a gut-buster, huh?”

“No, but…I don’t know if you could get anyone to do it. I mean, it’s hard to put down…but it’s pretty incendiary. If this was World War I, they’d probably arrest you for treason.”

“Pssh,” he muttered, dismissing the idea with the back of his hand as he sat on the edge of Henry’s desk. “Like that would stop me.”

“I bet you’d be surprised.”

“Oh, Henry…” Benny sighed. “Sometimes you have to lighten up.”

“Maybe. But maybe sometimes you need to tone down.”

“Believe me, it’s toned down already.” They sat in silence for a moment. “Want to go out for a drink tonight? Celebrate?”

“Can’t,” Henry replied. “I’m taking my daughter out to see Identrix.”

“Ah.” Benny picked up a picture from the desk. “This her?”

“That’s my Hillary,” Henry said. “She loved Johnny. Would have brought her to the premiere, but she was down in San Diego, working on a class project.”

“What’s she studying?”

Benny had never shown any interest in his personal life, and a thin smile etched itself onto Henry’s lips. “She’s trying to get into USC Cinema-TV.”

“No kidding?”

“I guess she’s following in the Old Man’s footsteps.”

Benny put back the frame. “Well good for her! And good for you.”

He nodded. “Look, Benny…”

“Yeah?”

Henry took a deep breath, glancing out the window. “I guess there’s no easy way to say this.”

Benny’s good humor deflated. “What is it this time?”

“You know I always try to stay out of your way. I know you took your mother’s death pretty hard.” Benny swallowed, his gaze dropping into his lap as he hung on the edge of the desk. “It’s just…if you tell me you’re not using…anything, I’ll believe you.”

“And…if I don’t?”

“Then…I’d believe that too.”

Benny fidgeted, locking and unlocking his fingers. “I just…sometimes I need a little kick.”

“A little kick?”

“Come on, I’m not an addict or anything, you know?”

“If you say so.”

Benny nodded. “Look, please don’t tell Dad. That’d be the last thing I need.”

Henry regarded the young man before him, so full of passion and potential, surrounded in a cloud of smoke and uncertainty. “I won’t say anything.”

“Thanks. You’re the best.”

DECEMBER

“You’re under the mistletoe!” Lara giggled, clapping. “Kiss, kiss, kiss!”

Douglas and Katherine Ferring exchanged a peck as they entered the Camden mansion. Lara hugged her aunt and uncle while Lloyd took their coats.

“Everyone else is in the Green Room,” Lloyd said. “Go on and make yourself at home.”

“Biggest tree yet!” Katherine said, marveling at the evergreen tower of tinsel in the center of the foyer. “Trying to show up Dad?”

“Always!” Lloyd laughed as the Ferrings followed Lara into the recesses of the old family house. He found a place for their things and peeked into the parlor, where Benny and Jasmine cuddled, alone. Lloyd gave no voice to the shock he felt when he found Jasmine on his son’s lap, their lips locked and their hands digging underneath each other’s clothes.

“Ahem,” he grunted, and they separated with childish smirks. “Benny, you and your…you and Jasmine…” He didn’t look them in the eye. “We’re moving to the Green Room.”

Benny cocked his fingers like a pistol and winked. “Gotcha, Dad.”

-

Lloyd lingered for a moment as Jasmine climbed out of Benny’s lap, then he disappeared into the hallway. Benny rose, taking her hand as they left the parlor behind them.

“Why is it called the Green Room?” she asked.

Benny put his arm around her. “Burton Green…he’s the guy who founded Beverly Hills, back in the day. Grandpa did up the room in kind of a tribute. They were pals.”

“That’d be neat to see.”

He shrugged. “Mom kind of rethought it. Took it a bit more literally.”

They found the gathered clan, Camdens and Westons, chatting and festive around the sleek marble fireplace, in front of the backdrop of what Virginia had accomplished with so many similar shades. “How beautiful!” Jasmine said.

Benny didn’t reply. Everything about that room reminded him of his mother.

They found a place among aunts, uncles, and cousins. He looked up to find Lara’s face etched with a sad but peaceful smile. Brother and sister shared a silent sorrow. Both could feel Virginia’s absence more than any holiday cheer.

A slender, silver-haired woman came in with a tray of finger foods, garnering several curious glances from everyone. “Who’s that?” Jasmine asked.

“Gladys, the cook.”

“Why’s everybody looking at her funny?”

He smiled politely at Gladys as she passed. “Well, when my dad and his brothers and sisters were growing up, they had a cook, a maid, you know, the whole shebang. But ever since Mom and Dad moved in, it’s just been the family. Mom…did it all.”

Before the unwrapping of gifts, Lara stood up, grasping a Bible, and read aloud the Christmas story. Lloyd and Benny locked eyes at one point as she read. It had been Virginia’s role, and somehow it was sacrilegious to hear anyone else reading those words. Benny wiped a tear from his eye as Lara sat.

Lloyd disrupted the moment of somber silence, clapping his hands together with a wide grin. “All right…let’s open some presents!”

As wrapping paper flew, Benny sat in silence, watching his father rip open a box. The quick progression tightened a knot in his stomach. His father was able to put the family’s pain out of his mind like the flip of a switch. Benny rubbed his hand over an unopened package.

“Hey,” Jasmine whispered, leaning back, into his ear. “You all right?”

He turned to her, eyes shimmering. “I’m fine.”

She hugged him. “Merry Christmas.”

“Benny…” They looked up as Lara knelt, holding a slender box wrapped in silver paper. “This…is from Mom.”

He blinked at the shimmering square. “What?”

“She…did her Christmas shopping early this year.”

He held it delicately, afraid to damage it. Jasmine stroked his arm as Lara retook her seat. With shaking fingers, he lifted the tag.

For My Great One – Love, Mom.

He tore the paper and removed the lid. From within, he lifted two silk handkerchiefs and a silver cigarette case. All three were engraved or embossed with his initials. BWC.

Those three letters blurred as wet warmth spilled down his cheeks. He gasped, the sound escaping his throat before he had a chance to hold it back. The conversation in the room died out, all eyes on him as Jasmine stroked his back.

“Virginia got a gift for Julia, too,” Lloyd said, a trace of humor in his voice. “Guess it doesn’t matter much now.”

Everyone turned to Lloyd with silent stares. Benny glared, the disapproval itching like fleas. Lara’s eyes darted from father to brother and back again. Benny looked up at him, each breath drawn deeper than the last. He blinked through the heat and saw Lloyd sitting there, almost waiting for a reply. He felt Jasmine’s hand on his back, but every other sense blurred.

“What’d you say?”

“I’m just saying she went to all that trouble, and you didn’t even—”

“Fuck you, Dad!” he shouted amidst a collective gasp. He rose, quivering, leaving Jasmine seated alone. “Don’t you say another word about her! You barely even shed a tear!”

“At least I know how to respect her memory.”

“Dad…” Lara whimpered.

“You don’t even know…” Benny began, his cheeks growing hot. “You didn’t deserve her! She was worth a million of you!”

“I won’t allow you to speak to me that way, Benjamin.”

“I’ll speak to you any way I damn well please! You never approve of anything I do, but Mom did! You never…” He choked on his tears. “Why couldn’t it have been you, Dad?”

“Benny…” Lara cried, the only other person able to speak. Lloyd just glared at him, the two of them breathing in rhythm.

Benny covered his face for a moment, seething with rage, then took Jasmine by the hand and pulled her up beside him. “You look down your nose at my girl, you look down your nose at me. You wish I could have died instead of Charles, Dad? Well I wish you died instead of Mom!”

He glanced at his gathered relatives, then at Lara, then took one last look at Lloyd. “I don’t need you, Dad! You think I’m hurting the family? I don’t need you or your fucking name!”

Then, without giving himself a moment to regret anything he’d said, he clasped Virginia’s present in one hand, and Jasmine’s hand in the other, and stormed out without even taking a last glimpse at the rest of them.

-

That night, Benny and Jasmine showed up at a Christmas party thrown by friends. As they made their greetings, Benny noticed the strange looks everyone gave him as he offered clammy handshakes. It didn’t take him long to make it to the bar, where he ordered the most expensive Scotch they had. He glanced out at the festivities, a few concerned eyes looking back. Jasmine kept her distance, and as the band played popular holiday music, Benny felt the soothing warmth of his drink, the glass shaking in his grip.

He saw Mary Tyler Moore watching him from across the room as she chatted with Richard Donner, and as Benny popped a piece of ice back in with the others, she excused herself and made her way over to the bar.

“Well well well, if it isn’t Happy Hotpoint!” Benny raised his glass to her.

“I’d say you look like hell, but why state the obvious?” she asked, ignoring his remark and signaling the bartender for a round.

He rattled his fingers against the wood. “I don’t want to talk, I don’t want to think. I just…want a free fall.”

Mary surveyed him. “First Christmas without your Mom?”

He pressed his lips together with disgust and shook his head. “Nope. Last Christmas with my Dad.”

Worry flashed in her eyes. “What happened?” The bartender dropped off their drinks, and Benny drained his glass.

“I’m done with him! He doesn’t want a son like me…he doesn’t have to have one. I sure as hell don’t need a father like him.”

“I’m sure he didn’t mean…whatever it was he said,” she replied. “He just…he just doesn’t get you.”

“He didn’t deserve her,” he said, turning to her and losing himself for a moment in the chestnut hair tracing the sides of her face. “My mother was a queen. And that bastard…” He took a sip and wiped the stray drops from his mouth with his sleeve. “That bastard doesn’t deserve shit.”

“I know you love him. You told me so, remember? Remember that night?”

He looked into those brown eyes with his broken ones. “I remember every moment I’ve ever spent with you.”

She glanced across the room at her husband. “You know you can’t say things like that. It’s not that you’re not sweet…and I know you mean them. And you know I’d do anything for you, but…you can’t say those things.”

He nodded, swallowing a painful gulp. “Sorry…force of habit.”

“Do you…do you want me to talk to your Dad?”

He shook his head. “No…’cause he’s not my Dad. Not anymore.”

“Benny…”

“No. No. I don’t owe that man anything, you know? I don’t owe him a damn thing. All we share is blood…we don’t even have to share a name!”

“You’re drunk.”

He slammed his glass down and stood, the clouds in his mind beginning to part. “I’m not even tipsy. I’m serious about this, Mary! This is for real!” He took a deep breath, and for the first time all day, he smelled the fresh pine in the air. “I’m not his son. Not anymore. I’m her son, and her son only.”

Mary searched his face, and he knew he must sound crazy. “How can you say that? How can you disown your own father?”

“Easy,” he replied. “From now on…my name is Weston.”

“Benny…”

“Mary…I’m Weston now.”

He pulled her close and hugged her, as intimately as he dared, kissing her cheek before she could pull away. Then he stepped back from her, longing. If only. He still had Mary, if nothing else.

Then he rejoined Jasmine and enjoyed the rest of the evening.

-

When the party was over and Jasmine slept in his bed, he settled in front of the television, the room lit only by tree lights. They were playing his favorite movie, Modern Times. The more he watched, the more he was at peace. After Charlie and Paulette strolled off to the horizon, he sat alone, smoking a joint and listening to the soothing voices of Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney, remembering the joys of Christmases past and trying not to think about Christmases future.

Something had changed. He didn’t know what, or how, and he only partly understood why. But on that silent night, when children were nestled all snug in their beds, he just wanted to get baked.

All was calm. All was bright. He laughed, and visions of sugarplums danced in his head.

The clock struck twelve. Christmas was over.

Weston closed his eyes.

Part II

Weston

1969

MARCH

Dressed in her finest, Hillary Louden sat in the passenger seat as her father drove. Henry had on the same tuxedo he wore to everything. Normally this sort of attire meant riding in a limousine, not a Ford. She glanced at him, twisting her manicured hands in her lap.

“Do you think twenty-one is too young to get married?”

Henry’s eyebrow arched. “Are you trying to tell me something?”

“No…I’m talking about Lara.”

“Maybe. At least she’s got a good guy.”

“He’s all right, I guess,” she replied.

“You disapprove?”

She shrugged. “Andrew can be a little boring.” They sat in silence for a moment as a question gestated inside her. “So…I guess you-know-who’s going to be there?”

Henry glanced at her, and she saw a flicker of reservation. “I’d be surprised if he wasn’t.” She didn’t respond, just watched the scenery and greenery pass. “I’m sure he’ll be on his best behavior.”

“Hmm…”

“I just hope they cut him a break, at least today.”

A spire shot out against the afternoon blue as they pulled into a line of cars entering the church parking lot. Hillary checked her reflection in the side mirror. “Hmm…”

-

Lloyd finished pinning his boutonniere to his lapel as he arrived at Lara’s dressing room. He pulled down on the edges of his jacket, straightening himself before he knocked. He heard his daughter’s muffled voice. “Come in.”

He stepped inside as she turned from the mirrors to face him. She glowed with excitement, draped in white lace and chiffon. She looked stiffened from thick layers and nerves.

“I’ve never seen anything so beautiful in my whole life.”

She giggled. “Not even Mom?”

“You almost look like she did.”

“It is her dress.”

He ignored the moment of sadness. “I am so proud of you, Lara Camden. I guess in a few minutes…you’ll be Lara Elvin.”

She took a deep breath. “So they tell me.”

Lloyd seldom cried, but seeing his daughter standing there in his wife’s wedding gown, so adult and so lovely, he couldn’t contain himself. “I’m so glad…I’m so glad I get to be here to see this.”

“Dad…”

“Do I really have to give you away? Can’t I keep you for another year or two?”

“Dad, don’t make me cry! My makeup’ll run!”

“Sorry. Sorry. I just…wish I wasn’t the only one here to see you.”

She looked into his eyes, pleading with her own. “Dad…you know he’s coming.”

“I know.”

“Please…please be nice. At least today.”

“I will. I promise.”

She grinned. “I can’t believe I’m about to get married!”

He stepped back into the hallway moments later. And the Camden name goes with you, Lara.

-

Andrew Elvin shifted from foot to foot in a room full of groomsmen. He blew upward to cool his perspiring forehead as he stood in front of a mirror, fumbling with his bowtie.

The best man, Stuart York, stepped up behind him, admiring their reflections and patting him on the shoulders. “Relax, Man,” he laughed. “I already checked with Dr. Schultz. They’re not going to start until you get that thing tied.”

“If that’s supposed to lighten me up, try harder.”

Stuart finished the job himself. “What are you so uptight about? Isn’t this supposed to be the happiest day of your life, or some kind of nonsense?”

“I think the happiest day was when she said yes. This…this is hell.”

Stuart pulled the knot tight. “Well then, my friend, welcome to hell.” Andrew turned to inspect the bow, humorless. “Oh come on! This is a good day. You’re acting like you’re dressing for a funeral.”

“It’s not like that.”

“Cold feet?”

“Maybe a little. I’ll be all right.”

“Lara’s an amazing girl, OK? She’s beautiful, smart, cool as hell. You’re a lucky man.”

Andrew nodded. “I just hope…everything goes all right. I hope I don’t say the wrong thing, or screw anything up.”

“What could possibly go wrong?”

“Isn’t that what the captain of the Titanic said?” Andrew asked.

Stuart slapped him. “There he is! See? Nothing to worry about!”

“Nothing to worry about,” Andrew repeated to his reflection.

“Let’s get you married!”

-

Hillary and Henry sat together on the bride’s side. She perused the program for the tenth time and glanced for the eleventh at the two empty seats to the left of her father. The rest of Lara’s family sat in the first few rows, and those two vacant chairs drew more of her attention than anything else. Each minute that passed, her pulse quickened again and again. All the major rumors echoed in her head: the drugs, the open marriage, getting kicked out of Haight-Ashbury for indecent exposure… Not to mention the things he said about his father in Playboy.

She heard the commotion from the back at first, then it trickled through the whole place. Every head turned in voyeuristic curiosity, and as she joined them, she already knew what she would see.

Weston stood at the rear sanctuary entrance, dressed in some sort of tie-dyed tuxedo, his long hair pulled back behind his ears. On his arm was his wife, Yvette Coco Guesde Weston, the infamous French model turned actress. Hillary and her father watched them stride up the aisle, led by a nervous usher, every eye and whispering lip following their movements.

“I can’t believe he actually showed his face!”

“She was with Don Peters the whole weekend. Alone.”

“I heard he bought them a Rolls for a wedding gift.”

“It was acid, I think. He got off on some technicality. It figures.”

“Did you see Sinner’s Eclipse? I couldn’t believe they even showed that filth in theaters!”

“Did you see The Tonight Show last week? He was so funny!”

“No, that’s not it…they call him the Great One. Yeah, like Gleason. No, I don’t think it’s sacrilegious!”

-

“Head’s up, guys,” Andrew said, the groomsmen gathering for a glimpse. “He’s here.”

None of them had ever seen him in person before, and they gawked with all the fascination warranted by some exotic zoo exhibit.

“What the hell is he wearing?” one of them asked.

Stuart’s eye twinkled in amusement. “I don’t know…but somehow he pulls it off.”

Andrew turned to them. “Just…remember what you promised,” he said. “Whatever happens, I’m counting on you guys to make sure he doesn’t cause any more problems…than he’s already causing right now.”

-

Henry stood as the usher stopped beside the adjacent empty seats. Hillary sat rigid, facing forward. Everyone she could see watched as Weston smiled, his bride ignoring the onlookers with grace.

“Henry Louden,” he breathed, offering a hand. “My old friend.”

Hillary knew he risked pariah status in taking that hand, but he did it anyway. “Weston,” he said, cordial but uneven.

“You remember my wife, Yvette?” He was personable, as if a roomful of eyes and ears did not follow their every move and word.

Hillary turned her head just enough to see her father offering the woman his hand, which she escalated into a tender hug. “Henry,” she said with the most delicate voice Hillary had ever heard. She must have trained herself to speak with so much air.

The usher left Weston and Yvette beside Henry, beaming in modesty. Hillary’s heart fluttered as her father turned, gesturing in her direction. “I don’t think you’ve met my daughter.”

Time froze as Weston’s eyes met hers, and in a way she couldn’t quite describe, her world was undone.

“It’s so nice to finally meet you,” he said, offering her a hand which she accepted despite the stares. “I’m Weston, and this is my wife Yvette.”

She nodded, blushing. “I’m Hillary.”

“Hillary,” he repeated, letting go of her fingers. “It’s a pleasure.”

With that, her father and his guests took their seats, and she felt the fixed attentions of the rest of the room dissipating.

-

Standing in the wings, nervous and exhilarated, Lara received a message:

“Your brother’s here.”

That made this day perfect. For the first time in over two years, she would see her family together.

-

Andrew looked out over the guests as he headed to the front of the chapel. Weston’s attire was a rainbow shark fin in a sea of relative uniformity. All the familiar faces looking on filled him with hope and excitement, putting him at ease. Stuart’s confidence helped as well. The bridesmaids made their way up the aisle, pretty enough, and he prepared himself for Lara to appear in white, ready to declare to the world that she loved him and would spend her life at his side.

Then there she was, radiant and alive, walking toward him on Lloyd’s arm. Her eyes locked on him. Lara arrived, and the minister spoke. Stuart stood beside his friend, proud as he’d ever been, and resisted the urge to sneak another peek back at that colorful speck in the crowd.

-

Hillary risked it. She glanced past her father and saw tears in the eyes of the man one journalist had described as the “great American desensitizer.” She’d seen his work, she knew as much as any stranger could about him, and yet the tears in his eyes spoke volumes of contradiction.

-

Lara and Andrew walked down the aisle as man and wife. Stuart took the arm of the maid of honor and followed. As he passed that certain row, he turned in the direction of the Camden family outcast, and Weston looked back, smiling beside that unbelievably sexy wife of his.

-

Hillary searched the cards for her name in the blanket of black and white tablecloths spread across the reception hall. She froze in her steps when she found her seat, beside the wedding’s most infamous guest. It made sense that he wouldn’t be sitting with his family, but she wondered how he ended up next to her. Quietly, she slipped into her chair, eyeing the rest of the table’s occupants and wishing her father would hurry up and join them.

Weston whispered back and forth with his wife. Meals were served, and her dad still hadn’t come. She swiveled to see the rest of the room, wishing she were sitting anywhere else, and when she turned back she found Weston facing her.

“So, Hillary, I understand you’re at USC.”

She glanced at Yvette for a moment, then back at him, and swallowed her food. “Yes. Well, at least until May.”

“Graduating?”

She nodded. “Lara and I are the same year.”

“What then?”

“Well, I’m hoping to get into…well, your program.”

He grinned, so natural and normal compared to the image he held in the public eye. “Well, you know, I’m only a guest lecturer.”

“I know,” she said. They lingered, waiting for more. “I hear you’re good.”

“I hear you are too,” he replied. “Your dad raves about you.”

Those soft eyes probing her chipped away at her discomfort. “Well…he’s biased.”

“Have you always been interested in film?” Yvette asked, leaning in on her elbows. Hillary really believed they were interested.

“I think when I started, I just wanted to find a husband.” Why did it feel so natural to talk to these people? “Typical, right?”

“I did the same thing, Honey,” Yvette said with her airy French accent. “Worked for me!”

Yes, so I noticed. “Well, it feels silly to say. Especially since…” She blushed. “OK, I don’t want to sound like a gushing fan or anything…but I started getting into film, and you kind of…well, you kind of inspired me to make a go of it.”

“One does one’s best.”

“At first it was Hitchcock, but…yeah, when I saw Mercenary Man, I knew I wanted to do what you do.”

“What about your dad?”

“He’s definitely part of it.”

“I think it’s great,” Yvette said. “Study hard?”

She beamed. “Top of the class.”

“Has your dad mentioned Westonwood?” She shook her head. “I’m not surprised. It’s not exactly something my father likes to talk about. Yvette and I started a company. We’re trying to…break away from the studio system, go out on our own, make things fresh.”

Her eyes widened. “That’s really something,” she said. “Can you really do that?”

“We’re doing it now,” Weston replied. “There’s a guy…actually, he’s coming up out of USC. Do you know George Lucas?”

“Yep yep,” she replied.

“Lucas and Francis Coppola…they’re doing the same thing.” He leaned toward her and she froze. “We’re looking for people. So…if you want, we’d love to see some of your work.”

“I…I…yes!” She tried her best not to shout. “I mean, yes, I can send you some of my work. See what you think. When?”

He didn’t get a chance to answer the question.

“Benny?”

The voice knotted her stomach as Hillary joined the others in turning to the newcomer. Chelsea Blythe stood there, not dressed for a wedding. She didn’t give Hillary or Yvette a look as her accusing eyes bored into Weston. “Chelsea…” His voice rang with an odd passivity. “What are you doing here?”

“I wasn’t invited,” she replied. “Because of you.”

He shifted in his seat. “Sorry.”

“Well, I came anyway. After you cut me out, I figure what better place to track you down than in front of your friends and family!” She shouted the last word, garnering interested looks from the surrounding tables.

“Come on, it’s been three years.”

Chelsea crossed her arms and tapped her foot, then gestured at Yvette with her head. “That your wife?”

“Yes.”

“Does she know what you did to me?”

Hillary cringed, but Yvette looked quite comfortable. “She knows the gist of it,” he said, betraying neither regret nor apathy.

“So she knows how you seduced me, got me pregnant, forced me to have an abortion?”

By now half of the room sat watching, gasping in knowing surprise at this accusation. Hillary searched for the bride and groom, and she found them both looking on with the others, Lara clutching at Andrew’s sleeve.

The best man appeared behind Chelsea and touched her arm. “All right, let’s all calm down here.”

“Get your hands off me! This isn’t any of your business!”

The best man glanced at the table of people he had come to rescue. “It is today, Honey. See, my best buddy just got married, and you’re kind of killing the atmosphere.”

She seethed. “I’m not leaving until I say what I came to say!”

He glanced around at all the eyes. “I think you already have!”

She stood there in silence, and when she turned to look at Lara, so did everyone else.

“Look, you’re upset, I get it. But this isn’t the place to deal with it. And anyway,” he eyed Weston, “I think you’ve said enough.” He gestured to the door. “Why don’t we go outside, and you can say whatever you want. To me. I think our man here knows what you think already.”

She didn’t look at Weston again…or anyone else. As soon as the two of them disappeared out the door, the gathered crowd resumed its chatter.

“All right, all right!” a voice rang out from a microphone. “Let’s keep things moving! Can we get the bride and groom up here for the first dance?”

Lara and Andrew resumed center stage, but more than a few guests still fixated on what had just happened. Weston turned back to the table in silence, glancing down at his plate.

Yvette kissed his cheek. “Don’t let her get to you, Baby,” she said.

He tried to smile. “No, it’s OK. She has a right…to be upset.”

“You never told me you seduced her.” It was an observation, not a question or an accusation.

“I…guess I don’t remember it that way. She’s probably right.”

Hillary’s pulse thudded as she mustered her courage. “No…no, she’s not.”

“How would you know?” Yvette asked.

“Because…I was there that night, the night you brought Frankie Avalon over. I saw her come on to you. I saw her…leading you away…” It was awkward enough admitting she’d been watching him, and even more so mentioning it in front of his wife.

“There, you see?” Yvette replied with a carefree smile. “It wasn’t your fault.”

Weston glanced at Hillary again with a small shrug. “Who’s to say?” He swiveled to watch Andrew and Lara. “I think…I’m going to go dance with my sister.”

The girls watched him saunter through the crowd. “Is he all right?” Hillary asked.

Yvette grinned. “He’ll be fine. Trust me, Sweetie, it’s not the first time.”

-

Lloyd saw his son coming, and as the song ended they stood together in awkward silence. Lara embraced her brother with a gasp. “I’m so glad you’re both here!”

“Yeah…” Weston said.

“Benjamin…it’s good to see you.” Lloyd knew his son didn’t need any further embarrassment.

“Think I could get a dance with the bride?” His gaze shifted around the room, landing everywhere but on Lloyd.

“Absolutely,” Lloyd said, letting go of her.

Weston took Lara’s hand as the next song began, and Lloyd stepped back with the rest of the family. He watched his son and daughter on the dance floor, and something inside him ached.

-

Everyone cheered as Andrew and Lara Elvin climbed into their new Rolls Royce and sped away to their honeymoon. Yvette tugged on Weston’s sleeve, eager to leave and save him any more embarrassment. “One minute,” he said, scanning the crowd. “There’s something I need to do.”

He locked onto his target, and she followed him across the room to where the groomsmen collected their things. Someone nudged the best man, and he rose as they approached.

“Hey…” Weston breathed. “I just wanted to thank you. For saving my ass earlier.”

“Nothing personal, but I think you know our boy Andrew isn’t your biggest fan.”

“Yeah…I got the general idea.”

The best man grinned. “I like a little entertainment as much as the next guy, but…if I were you, I wouldn’t let this kind of thing happen again. Get my drift?”

“I get it. I just wanted you to know I appreciated it.”

“Don’t worry about it. I don’t believe half of what she says. The other half, I got a funny feeling about.”

“I didn’t get your name.”

The best man shook his hand. “Stuart York.”

“I’m Weston.”

“That you are,” he replied. “And you don’t disappoint.”

MAY

Yvette crept into the study, where Weston sat at his pristine desk, poised over Momaday’s House Made of Dawn. She leaned in and nipped the back of his ear with her tongue.

“You’ve got another stalker, Darling,” she said, dropping an opened envelope in his lap.

“Who’s this one?” he asked without touching the letter.

“Some teenage thing. Don’t know how she got the address.”

“Pictures again?”

“Three. No clothes. She’s your type, too.”

He wrapped his arm around her and slipped his hand beneath her blouse as the note slipped to the floor. “Do tell.”

“I’ve got something for you.”

He grinned. “I have to leave in twenty minutes.”

“Not like that. A present.”

He marked his page and tossed his book onto the desk with a simple stretch as he leaned back to share a kiss with her. “Well, all right.”

She led him onto the covered deck of their massive Malibu house. The faint smell of honey hit her nostrils. A large package, thin and flat, leaned against a chair. “What’s this?” he asked.

“I saw you eyeing it at the gallery. And I think it would look gorgeous over the buffet.”

He sat and pulled apart the wrapping to reveal a large print of a painting with a woman lying face-up on her bed, her black-stockinged legs dangling over the side. “It’s a Toulouse-Lautrec.”

“It’s called Alone,” she said, snuggling her chin onto his shoulder. “And it’s a reminder that you never will be again.”

“I like your taste.” Her nerves came alive as he slipped his tongue back into her mouth for a moment.

She purred. “Sure you have to go?”

He glanced at his watch and relinquished his gift. “Yeah…I need to be getting ready. Have you looked at the tape yet?”

“No.”

“Check it out if you have time. It’s pretty hip stuff.”

“I will, I promise,” she replied. “I’ve got a meeting with Janet later. Free for a late lunch?”

“Just come on out when you’re finished.”

Yvette brought the art back inside the house. As she passed his desk, and that discarded envelope on the floor, a photograph hung in the torn opening. A girl lay on a blanket, draped in a thin layer of black satin, her naked breasts perky and delicious.

She put the envelope on top of House of Dawn and went to hang the painting.

-

Hillary Louden walked across the stage and shook the chancellor’s hand as the crowd applauded her. She’d thought it would just be a formality, a routine, but as she stepped down again, an uncertain panic gripped her. The ritual lasted only seconds, and she took her seat again, overwhelmed with a horrifying thought:

Now what am I supposed to do?

“I’m free!” she exclaimed as she removed her mortarboard and hugged her father.

Henry embraced her and kissed her forehead as family gathered around her. “My little girl!”

“Your mother would have been so proud of you!” one of her uncles told her.

“Hill!” a girlfriend called. “We need you for the pictures!”

“In a sec!”

“I’m sure you have lots of plans,” Henry said. “But I hope you have time for dinner later.”

“Of course! You’ve been talking about it for weeks! I got the hint!” she said.

“There she is!”

Henry looked past her, his eyes lacing with confusion. Hillary gasped with surprise as Weston and Yvette joined the group. Yvette hugged her like an old friend. “Congratulations!”

“Thanks,” she stammered, eyeing Weston with caution and excitement. She first thought perhaps he had come to see Lara graduate…but she’d walked the stage hours ago in an earlier ceremony. “What are you doing here, though? Shouldn’t you be out celebrating with your family?” As soon as the words passed her lips, she realized. “Er, I mean…”

“Weston. Good to see you.” Henry shook his hand.

“Good to see you too.” He turned his eyes to Hillary. “And to answer your question, we came for you! To see you graduate.”

“Thanks!” she said, not caring one bit whether that made any sense to her.

“I know we barely know each other,” Yvette said. “But we both thought…well, the truth is we saw your tape, and—”

“You actually watched it?”

Weston smiled at her shock. “I remember when I graduated here. Both times. It was so exciting and terrifying. Knowing I had something to offer the world but wondering if anybody’d give a damn about it.”

“Right.” You just described the last twenty-two years of my life.

Weston glanced at her family. “Listen, I don’t want to hold up your festivities. Just one little thing and we’ll be out of your hair.”

“You don’t have to go,” she said, not looking at the others, knowing they would disapprove.

“We don’t mean to intrude. But after you’ve got the celebrating out of you…we’d very much like to see you again. Maybe for a drink…or coffee, or something.”

She knew her father would have certain reservations despite his strained friendship with the man, but she looked up into Weston’s beckoning smile and nodded. “I’d love it.”

“Great!” he said. “I wanted to talk to you about your tape…and maybe share a few memories with a fellow alum.”

She snuck a peek at her father and saw that look on his face. “Um…sure. You know, maybe.”

-

Weston lunched alone in the dark, mellow back rooms of Broussard’s, where Hillary worked as a hostess, and she joined him when her shift ended.

“Order something. It’s on me,” he said.

“Oh no!” she replied. “That’s all right.”

“At least a drink.”

“Well, OK. Thank you very much.”

She ordered a glass of house red, but Weston changed it to a bottle of Bordeaux. Hillary felt her blush ripen almost to the color of the wine. Her taste buds tingled as she sipped; she’d never had a better vintage.

“Yvette and I both watched your tape. Several times, in fact.”

“And?”

“Believe me, I know what kind of work comes out of USC. I won’t lie to you and say that I thought it was the scariest thing I’d ever seen. But you treated it with such care. You have a real eye for what to show. You never used the angles I would have used, but they worked anyway. They gave it a…surreal quality.”

“Originally it was all going to be a dream,” she said. “I was trying to make it feel that way.”

“And I studied that thing to try and figure out how you made the shape-shifting scene so realistic.”

She took a sip of wine, hoping he couldn’t see her pride. “And?”

He leaned back in his seat. “I’m stumped.”

“Stop motion.”

“Seriously?”

“Took two weeks to get those fifteen seconds.”

“You’ve got the spark.”

“Thanks.”

“How would you like a job?”

His face was unassuming, honest. A thousand thoughts flashed through her mind in that instant. She thought of the rumors and scandal surrounding him, and how she might get drawn into that if she stood by his side. She thought of how her friends would envy her. But most of all, she thought of how much she admired and respected him, as an artist if not as a man. Rumors aside, he was no monster, at least not on the few occasions they’d spent together.

“Seriously?”

“Come work with us at Westonwood,” he said. “We’re doing interesting things there, great things in a way. And…it’s always been a dream of mine to help other talented people succeed.”

“I…uh…” Her concern about his reputation fought for a voice. “I’m planning to…go to film school.”

“That’s great! Fantastic!”

“I…don’t know if I’d be able to do both.”

“I think you will. And I think you’ll do it, too. I mean, if you want to learn to cook, do you go to a classroom or do you go to a kitchen?”

-

“He wants me for the third Brock Cobb movie! This is like the craziest thing ever!”

Henry remained seated and silent as Hillary bubbled. “I know he’s not a saint, but he’s the most talented person I ever met!”

“Weston and Yvette…they’re not like other people. They live in their own world. With their own rules.”

“Are you talking about the open marriage?” Hillary asked.

“Among other things. You know Larry Forrester left his wife for that girl.”

“That’s a rumor! All they have on him is rumors!”

“And that’s all you have too! For all you know, those rumors are true.”

“I…I know. But Dad… he’s a genius!”

“It’s true, Weston’s not a white knight. But he’s not the devil either. I just worry he’s lost his vision.” He leaned back, his eye drifting to the far wall of his office. She glanced that direction, at the old black-and-white poster for The Glen Headwood Show. “You should have seen him when he was younger. He’s more successful now, sure, but he’s lost something. And if you go that way…if you choose Westonwood, it’s not going to be easy.”

“I know, Dad.” She remembered the gasps and whispers as Weston had arrived at the wedding.

“They’re flaunting everything with power. And there’s every possibility that your name could get dragged through the mud along the way. He has a tendency to do that.”

-

“To what do I owe this pleasure?”

“Hello, Mr. Weston.” Hillary tarried at the doorway, then stepped inside, glancing at the walls of the office, decorated with memorabilia from his work and from his favorite stars.

“It’s just Weston.”

“Right.”

“It’s good to see you again,” he said, rising and taking her hand. She found it awkward: not exactly like a handshake, but not exactly like he was going to kiss it either. “Make yourself comfortable.”

They sat down opposite each other in leather chairs separated by a small table bearing a book, The Birth of Los Angeles. Her eyes fixed on the cover for a moment, then found their way up to Weston’s amused face.

“Your family in there?”

“Are you kidding? If it wasn’t for the Camdens, you wouldn’t be able to pick Los Angeles out on a map.”

“Hmm…I love your office.”

“Do you? It’s a little pedestrian for my taste.”

“You a big Chaplin fan?”

“One of the biggest, I’d say. You like him?”

“Yep yep!” she beamed. “That speech at the end of The Great Dictator scared me when I was a kid!”

“It is a little…animated, isn’t it?”

“Definitely.”

“So…thought about our offer?”

“I have.”

“And?”

She bit her lip. “I can’t think of a good reason to say no.”

His smile put her at ease. “Your father?”

“Actually, Dad kind of cinched it for me. If I had any doubts…he convinced me. He’s only worried that working for you…”

“Could give you a reputation?”

She nodded.

“Ah, Hillary. I hear that all the time. I do! But I learned something that puts me at ease. Want to know what that is?”

“What?”

“People don’t care about ordinary. They only care about rare. Good or bad, they remember you. Neutral, they forget.”

“So…are you saying you encourage people to hate you?”

“If I did my work to satisfy people’s expectations, I’d be forgotten. Believe it or not, I’ve found that the less I care, the more successful I am. I do my work for me and me alone. And I do things people will never forget.”

Hillary had no response. She’d never thought about such matters.

“But bottom line?”

She glanced at that book again, on the table, and thought about how much this man’s blood had impacted the world of entertainment and whimsy. “I want to work for you, Sir.”

“Well then,” he replied. “Let me be the first to welcome you to Westonwood. How would you like a tour?”

JUNE

Dipping midway into the orange waters of the Pacific, the sun cascaded through a thin cloud layer, kaliedescoping over the Malibu sky. Hillary and her friend Regina pulled off the Pacific Coast Highway, brimming with excitement.

“I can’t believe I’m going to this party!” Regina shrieked as she checked her makeup for the fourth time. “If I meet my future husband tonight, I’m making you my maid of honor!”

“You’ve got to calm down!” Hillary said. “You’re going to scare everybody away!”

“Oh come on, they’re used to it! They probably fight off crazy fans all the time!”

“Yeah,” Hillary said. “And I bet they never date them either!”

“You’re right.” Regina took a deep breath. “We have to be mellow. Got to blend in!”

“You’ll never blend in if you’re that shade of red.”

Regina checked her reflection again. “I don’t know how you can be so cool about all of this.”

“I don’t know. I was pretty sparked when I met Weston, but I think I’m getting the hang of it now.”

“Of course you are, Miss Assistant Director!”

“Relax, please,” Hillary said. “I know how it’s going to be, but this is my future. I really need to make a good impression.”

“Got you. I’m on it,” Regina said. “What’s this guy do, anyway? In your thing?”

“He has this serum that makes people go bald,” Hillary said as she searched the street signs. “Trying to create a hairless utopia.”

“And Brock Cobb stops him.”

“Yeah, but first the good doctor gets him declared legally insane. With the help of a robot psychiatrist.”

“Sounds like an Oscar winner to me!” Regina said.

“Shut up! I’m pretty sparked about this!”

“I know, sorry!” Regina patted her friend’s shoulder. “Just sounds so stupid. No offense. A robot psychiatrist?”

“Sigmund Droid,” Hillary said.

“Please tell me you’re kidding.”

“At least it’s not as morbid as Speck,” Hillary replied as she spotted the sea of cars. Her heart thudded with excitement at the distant movement and noises.

“You are officially the coolest person I know,” Regina said, craning her neck to get a glimpse of whoever might be lounging outside the Weston house.

“I’d say the same about you,” Hillary said as she turned off the engine. “But the coolest person I know is in there.”

Like most things Weston touched, his home was infused with classy abundance. The front yard was speckled with colorful fauna she had no hope of identifying. Regina gurgled beside her, paying no mind to the beauty of the yard or the house. Peter and Jane Fonda lounged out front, drinks in hand, chatting with a small group of people.

“Oh my God!” Regina whispered, pinching Hillary’s elbow and standing close for support. “Oh my God oh my God!”

“Cut it out!” Hillary warned. “You better not flake out on me in there!”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry! But that’s…Peter Fonda!” Her voice shook.

“I can see that. But gawk about it later, all right?”

“OK, OK!” Regina said, pulling herself together. The siblings glanced at them for a moment as they passed, and Hillary nodded to Jane with a smile. Jane smiled back, and they continued in. She had no idea how she could be so calm and cavalier, but her composure didn’t crack as they came through into a huge living room, stretching all the way to the back of the house. It looked big enough to take up the whole first floor. They could see through the back glass doors, to the deck, complete with a pool and a hot tub.

As they basked in celebrity, they almost bumped into Yvette, standing near the front, talking to one of the guests.

“Hillary!” she declared, embracing her. “You made it!”

“Yep yep!”

“Who’s your friend?”

“This is Regina.”

“Regina,” Yvette repeated. “Nice to meet you.” She turned to her own friend. “Warren, I’d like you to meet Hillary Louden. Hillary’s come on with us at Westonwood.”

“Charmed,” Warren Beatty said, taking her hand.

“Pleased to meet you.” They made it past, and Hillary pulled down Regina’s hand and reminded her not to point.

“Look! There’s Terry Melcher and Candice Bergen! Oh, she’s so gorgeous!”

“Oh my God! It’s Dennis Hopper!”

The thrill wore off on Hillary as Regina left to mingle. She found herself on Yvette’s arm, introduced to Leslie Caron and Sharon Tate, two of the stars of the upcoming Speck.

“It’s honestly twisted,” Leslie said. “But on the other hand, so is Weston.” Both of them giggled at the comment.

Hillary found the moment ideal to voice a thought that had been brewing in her head. “I don’t know why everyone always says things like that about him.”

Sharon’s eye twinkled. “You obviously don’t know him very well.”

“I’ve been working with him for a month,” Hillary replied. “I’ve never seen him be anything but a gentleman.”

“A gentleman?” Sharon repeated. “I suppose so. But that’s not the word I’d use. Maybe…professional miscreant?” Leslie laughed in agreement, and Sharon paused for a moment, putting her hands on her pregnant belly. “You’ve seen him at work. Go find him now…you’ll see.”

They left her, and she was more interested in searching out her boss than in meeting more celebrities. Her curiosity grew as she looked, finding him nowhere. She checked outside and noticed Regina in a group of people gathered around Jim Morrison, but no Weston.

“You seem lost.”

Mia Farrow. Hillary swallowed her nervous uncertainty. “Actually, I’m looking for my boss. The man of the house?”

Mia took her arm and spun her around, pointing to a distant hallway she hadn’t yet noticed. “He’s down there, I’m pretty sure.”

“Why isn’t he out here?”

“He’s entertaining…private guests, I think.”

“Oh…”

Mia left her there, fixed on that secluded hallway. She was more nervous now than when she’d first arrived. Part of her wanted to see behind the rumors, but another part of her wanted to maintain her image of the virtuous but misunderstood artist.

She paused at the entrance to this private sanctum, admiring an oil painting that hung there. A man in a dark suit stood beside a cluttered table in a disorderly room. Hovering behind him, her hands on his head, floated an auburn-haired beauty clad in an ethereal green dress that faded into nothing near where her feet should be. She’d seen it before somewhere, though she couldn’t remember where. She found it odd that a painting in a private collection would bear a nameplate. Albert Maignan, it read. The Green Muse.

As she admired the other French paintings adorning the walls, she remembered him referring to his office decorations as “pedestrian.” She wondered what had drawn him to the Muse.

A small flight of stairs led into a sunken room, a kind of basement. Sitars and airy singing struck her ears, as well as quiet chatter. One of the voices was Weston’s, although it had a breathy quality she had never heard in him. She stepped down into the doorless room, lit with dim, relaxing lamps. The décor here was yet another first in her impression of her boss. Two words sprang to mind: trippy and hippie. Neon, non-complimentary colors bit at her eyes in a disorienting attack. The furniture was gaudy but chic. Any one piece of this room would be hideous, but somehow it all came together in unsettling elegance.

Eight people lounged around on a series of plush couches, surrounding two black, cluttered coffee tables, and for a moment she remembered the table in the painting. She only recognized two of those gathered: Donovan, whom she recognized as the voice in the bizarre music coming from the record player…and the host.

Weston’s face lit up as she came into view. “Hey…” he said flatly, as if he didn’t recognize her. “Come on in!” He blinked as if trying to determine whether or not she was really there.

“Goo goo, goo goo Barabajagal…” The music played.

Several of the others had that same dreamy stare, all young girls around her age. “Come on.” Donovan beckoned to her. “Have a seat.”

Some of the girls made room for her. Donovan saw her eyeing Weston as he leaned back with glassy eyes. “How’s the party upstairs?”

“Oh fine,” she replied, glaring at the man she had revered until this moment. “Looks like the real party’s down here.”

One of the girls giggled. “Don’t worry about him, Love,” Donovan assured her. “He’s just got a little Sunshine on a cloudy day. If you know what I mean.”

She glanced at the orange tablets strewn about amidst the mess on the table. “I think so.”

“When it’s cold outside…” one of the girls sang off-key, and Hillary took her seat as the group joined in the song, drowning out Donovan’s record. She’d never heard the Temptations sound like acid rock.

“Hillary,” Weston spoke up as if he’d just remembered her name. “You know these guys?”

“No…”

Weston introduced her to everyone, although she didn’t care to meet them. She wondered if Lara had ever seen him this way as she turned down one of the acid tablets he offered. “Play it again!” he demanded when the song ended, and Donovan reset the player.

“Never heard that before,” Hillary said.

“Haven’t released it here in the States yet,” Donovan replied.

“It’s catchy.”

“What’s my name now?” Weston misquoted. One of the girls crawled into his lap, and Hillary sat stunned as they locked lips and ran their hands over each other’s bodies. No one else showed surprise. Weston kissed and petted this girl like an uninhibited dog, and she was terrified that Yvette might come in any second.

Then the girl climbed out of his lap, her hand still buried under his shirt, and he locked eyes with Hillary, giving her a relaxed, natural grin. He blinked again as if he thought she might be a mirage.

-

Hillary arrived at Westonwood on Monday and sat with her car running, fingers on the keys. Gary Puckett sang to her as she waited, waited. She looked out at the building, so exciting and full of possibility only a month earlier. Her hand moved from the ignition to the gearshift, and she held it there again, inching toward reverse.

“Damn it,” she whispered, shutting off the engine.

She held her breath as she rounded the corner toward Weston’s office. When the door was in sight, she froze at the sound of raised voices.

“I’ll tell you again, Baby. I’m sorry! You know I’d never let it happen on purpose!”

Yvette stepped out, eyeliner and lipstick smudged and watery. “Oh, hello!” She wiped the running black lines from her cheek. “Sorry.”

“Are you all right?”

“Oh…yes. Yes. Everything’s fine.”

Yvette forced a smile, then passed her and continued on down the hall. Hillary watched her for a moment, then swallowed her reservations and stepped up to the door. Weston stared down at his desk with vacant eyes. She hesitated, wondering if she should come back later, but he lifted his head and saw her.

“I…I, uh…” she said. “I’ll come back.”

“No. Please, please stay.”

“Are you sure?”

Weston’s empty expression tightened her intestines into bones. “I’ll be fine.”

“You…want to talk about it?”

“It’s…personal.”

She sank into a chair in front of him. “I understand.”

Then, as if he hadn’t said that, he continued. “I…walked in on Yvette with another guy this morning.”

“Oh…” That was about all the reply she could muster.

“Sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything.”

Maybe this wasn’t the best time to bring it up, but… “I, uh…I did see you with that girl on Friday night. In your little…trip room.”

He nodded. “I know. I know. But…don’t tell her I told you this. But her whole French…revolution thing, it’s a little over my head.”

She continued, implying opinions she never would have revealed before that weekend. “What about Chelsea? You were…with her when you were engaged to Julia Powell, weren’t you?”

Weston’s eyes flickered like she’d just exposed some terrible secret. “Yes…” He dragged out that s like his life was deflating from his lips.

“Sorry,” she said.

“It’s OK.”

She didn’t reply for a moment, and a faint guilt permeated her. “So…that whole thing…when you were…high…”

“You think I like making out with some girl I’ll never even see again?”

“Well…yes!”

“I guess I did. I do it all the time. It didn’t mean anything until Yvette. I really love her. I guess…I just never should have married her.”

It would be over in less than a minute if she resigned. She’d seen behind the curtain and knew the wizard was a fraud, but she also knew that he had the powers she’d always believed he had. She scooted her chair forward and touched his hand, and for the first time that morning, she looked him in the eyes. “If it’s killing you, you’ve got to let it go.”

“What, Yvette?”

“No,” she replied. “I mean, if you love her, and you think you’re strong enough…forget about the open marriage.”

“I don’t know if I could convince her.”

“Don’t worry about her, then. Worry about you. If you love her, and to you that means being with other girls is wrong…don’t do it. I know it’s uneven, and it doesn’t seem fair. But…I also know you’re not the guy I saw in that room. You’re better than that. Maybe…you just haven’t found your muse.”

“Think so?”

She swallowed, letting go of his hand, and saw the twinkle of greatness in him that inspired her to ignore the pitfalls and come to work there. “Let it go.”

-

“I know it’s no picnic, but lighten up, man!” Stuart York said. “He’s not going away.”

“I know…” Andrew replied.

“Besides…he’s not so bad.”

Andrew flashed him an Are you kidding me? glare as he rang the doorbell. They could hear the echoing inside, and he rolled his eyes when he realized it was playing “Mellow Yellow.”

“At least it’s catchy,” Stuart said, trying to mask his amusement.

They heard movement after a few moments, and Stuart watched Andrew braced himself, his posture going straight. Weston beamed at them with glazed eyes and a look of serenity as the thick oak door swung open. “Hey!” he shouted. “My brother-in-law!” He leaned in to give Andrew a hug, neither resisted nor reciprocated, and Stuart stifled a laugh. Marijuana smoke hung in the air and on his clothes.

“Hi,” Andrew replied, patting him on the back as he pulled away.

Weston turned his attention to Stuart. “You’re…the English guy!”

“Ah, not English. My parents must’ve wished I was, though!” He shook Weston’s hand. “Stuart York.”

“Come on in!” he offered, stepping aside.

“Must be a bake sale I didn’t know about!” Stuart said.

They followed him into a Spartan room with two sofas facing a television broadcasting images from the ongoing conflict in Vietnam. Weston’s eyes froze on it for a moment, then he looked back up to his visitors. “What’s up, guys?”

Andrew remained standing as Stuart plopped himself down on a couch. “We came by to talk about Lara’s surprise party.”

“Yeah,” Stuart said. “And I thought I heard something about a bake sale.”

Weston spewed laughter. “Man…so much baking to do.”

“I guess you do the cooking here,” Andrew said. “Maybe I should talk to your wife.”

Stuart flashed Andrew a tiny sliver of annoyance. “You remember your sister’s birthday’s coming up, right?”

“Of course! Of course!” he giggled. “I’m not an idiot!”

“That’s debatable,” Andrew said under his breath, but loud enough that they both heard it. Weston grasped his shoulder.

“That’s what I like about you, Drew. Always making jokes!”

“It’s Andrew.”

“That’s what I said.”

Yvette stepped into the room. “I thought I heard the doorbell,” she said. “Andrew.” Even at home, she was dressed like a piece of candy. Stuart kept himself from staring.

“Yvette,” Andrew said.

“To what do we owe the pleasure?”

“We came by to talk about Lara’s party…but looks like we picked a bad time.”

Yvette glanced at her husband, watching the television, then she took Andrew’s arm. “Why don’t we talk about it in the kitchen? Making some lemonade.”

“Fine,” he agreed, glancing at Stuart. “Coming?”

Stuart stretched. “I’m good.”

“Suit yourself,” he said, following Yvette to the kitchen.

Stuart noticed the program that had caught his host’s attention. “War is hell, huh?”

Weston nodded. “So they say.” He sat down on the other sofa.

They watched in silence for a moment, Stuart’s attention divided between the television and the man. “I remember when the war first started, you were like the voice of pacifism.”

“Was I?” His eyes traced the movements of an airplane on that screen.

“Haven’t heard you talk about it in a while.”

“Yeah, well…guess everyone else is talking about it now, I don’t have to!” He laughed, a faint echo of the mirth he’d emitted in his initial greeting.

“So are you really a pacifist?”

“Yes.”

“You don’t think any war is worth fighting?”

Weston considered it for a moment, and spoke with clarity despite the smell permeating the place. “I think human life is the most valuable thing we have, and nothing is worth killing for.”

“I can respect that,” Stuart said. “But do you think there’s anything worth dying for?”

Weston watched the war as if he’d missed the question.

“Heard you lost a brother.”

Weston nodded, the smile gone. “Charlie.”

“Charlie killed your brother?”

“Well, yeah. But his name was Charlie too.”

“I got you. I lost someone too.”

“Brother?”

“College roommate. Swell guy.”

“What happened?”

“Well, he graduated, enlisted in the army. They shipped him out to Vietnam. Six days later…”

Muffled gunfire erupted from the television. “Sorry,” Weston said.

“Ah, it’s OK. He’s not the only one.”

“Yeah…Man, this is killing my high!”

Stuart patted the man’s knee. “I think you were a little too out there to begin with.”

Weston’s laugh returned. “You’re all right, Yorky.”

“Yorky. That’s a new one.”

“So what do you do?”

Stuart cleared his throat. “I’m in marketing.”

“What do you…market?”

“I work for Disney. I’m kind of…well, I’m not in charge, but I pretty much don’t answer to anybody. They think I’m some kind of prodigy.”

“So are you?” Weston asked.

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe. I pretty much ran the Love Bug campaign, and Blackbeard’s Ghost.”

“Why does Andrew hate me so much?”

Stuart regarded him, eyes fixed on the black-and-white helicopters landing on a beach somewhere. “Oh, I don’t know if he really hates you.”

“Sure seems to.”

Stuart smiled. “Well, that’s his problem, isn’t it?”

“Mine too.”

“Well…you might try not getting high when he’s coming over.”

“Gotta do something to take the edge off.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’m sure he’ll come around. Sooner or later.”

“I hope so.”

“You’re not such a bad guy, for a lunatic.”

“Lunatic?” he laughed again. “You think I’m crazy?”

“Maybe a little.” Stuart glanced in the direction of the kitchen, then settled into his seat as the war raged on.

AUGUST

With principle photography commencing on Doctor Bald, Hillary’s days and nights were consumed with the final encounter between Brock Cobb and his archenemy Doctor Crime. On August first, she dressed up for the premiere of Westonwood’s golden child. All the stars of Speck were there, including Mary Tyler Moore, Max Dewey, Leslie Caron, and Sharon Tate. The lights and sounds dazzled her.

Weston smiled for the cameras with the cast and with Yvette, and even thrilled Hillary by insisting on posing with her in front of the theater, but she could see his thoughts fluttering elsewhere. In her most awkward moment of the night, she was seated between husband and wife. Neither noticed. Yvette was too involved in discussing Sharon’s imminent pregnancy, and Weston looked lost in his own world. Hillary might as well have not even been there.

-

Weston ignored the reviews of Speck for a week before taking a Saturday morning off to relax at home. Yvette hummed around the house, and whenever she walked by, he looked up from Slaughterhouse Five and regarded his wife with quiet, somber affection. Every time he saw her, he pictured her with one of her lovers and reassured himself that he didn’t need anyone but her.

The phone rang once as he reached for the reviews. Yvette must have answered the call. He fanned the newspaper and wasn’t surprised at what the critics had to say.

…morbidly voyeuristic, we the audience are meant to second guess and anticipate Mr. Speck’s every move…Dewey’s portrayal gave me nightmares…Weston goes too far…the real event was tragic enough from a distance without drawing us into the mind of a killer like this…tasteless in every way, but even so, I’ve got to see it again.

Yvette appeared in the doorway, face pale and eyes red. She pressed a quivering hand to her lips as if she wanted to scream but couldn’t find the voice.

“What is it?” he asked.

“That was…uh…that was Leslie.”

“What’s wrong?”

She looked away as tears broke across her face. “Sharon’s dead.”

“What?”

She nodded. “She’s dead.”

He stood up, a rush of emotion spilling out of her and into him, and he held her as she let go. “What happened?”

“They don’t know yet,” she whispered back. “That hairdresser friend of hers…he’s dead too…Sebring. And three more. They were…I don’t know, they were all murdered.”

“Murdered?”

“Yes,” she cried. “I mean, cut up and…like the movie.”

“Oh my God…”

“And Sharon,” she choked. “Sharon’s baby too…”

“Oh my God…”

“I can’t even imagine…”

Weston held his wife, and it was the closest he’d felt to her in two months.

-

Weston and Yvette attended Sharon Tate’s funeral, where she offered condolences to the family and he remained quiet. Whispered theories noted the eerie similarities between the killings and those depicted in Speck. Ticket sales skyrocketed after her death, but Weston didn’t care. He wished he’d never made the thing, wondering whether or not the movie had anything to do with the murders.

After the funeral, they returned home. For a while they found solace together, but then Weston shut himself off from her, collecting a bottle of Scotch and a glass and zoning out in front of a television screen depicting the latest turbulence half a world away.

Sometimes it seemed like the war was the only thing on television anymore.

Watching the violence in Vietnam didn’t help to erase the memory of the violence on Cielo Drive. Scotch didn’t either. He kept remembering Sharon the last time he’d seen her, so full of life in more ways than one. Yvette was devastated, not only by the loss of her friend but because of the pregnancy. She’d never shown any desire for a child, but Sharon wanted that baby, and now they both were gone.

As the liquor warmed and soothed him, he thought back to the child that might have been…his would-be heir that would never know life. It had been three years, so far away…like a dream. A nightmare, maybe. A girl, a beautiful, innocent baby girl with the greenest eyes he’d ever seen.

Now both children would never draw breath.

On the other side of America, people gathered from across the country to witness an historic moment in music and art. It would be an event celebrating freedom of all kinds and rebellion against the status quo. It would feature legendary performances by the greatest musical talents of the day. It was the kind of thing Weston never missed.

They remained in Los Angeles as many of their friends travelled to New York. Sharon’s death shocked a lot of people, and some found a chance to escape the pain in Woodstock. Weston and Yvette, however, chose to go on as if nothing had happened. Instead they went to work on Doctor Bald.

-

Yvette found her husband in the kitchen, blue in the light peeking in from the blinds. Silence. The lingering smell of coffee. His back was to her and she heard the tinkering of ice.

“Wes…”

“Yeah?” he asked as he poured a Scotch.

“I’ve got something to tell you,” Yvette said.

“What?”

She searched his face for some sign of his mood. “I want you to know that, no matter what you think, this is good news, all right?”

“What is it?”

“Wes…I’m pregnant.”

He stared at her. She hoped for a reaction or emotion, but he just looked back as if she were an unusual piece of art.

“Well? Say something!”

He sucked his drink and set the empty glass down on the counter. “Who’s the father?”

“What? What are you talking about?”

“It’s a simple question.”

She narrowed her eyes in bewildered pity, not just for him, but for herself as well. “You are! Of course you are!”

“How do you know?”

She could see something flickering in his eye…something she couldn’t identify. “When you told me on your side the marriage…was closed… Ever since then…I’ve been closed too.” Wet warmth blurred the sight of him, standing in the dim shadows.

“We were only together…that one night.”

“And that was the night. It’s yours, Wes. It’s ours!” Silence. “What do you think about that?”

“You know what I think.”

A sliver of pain shot through her throat. “Well…I think the same thing. Or at least I did.”

“And now you don’t?”

“It’s different when I’m really pregnant. Everything’s different.”

“We’d make horrible parents.” He stared at the empty glass, hands on the counter.

“Would it really be so bad?”

“Assuming it’s mine,” he said, his words sharp, “I think you should take care of it. If it’s somebody else’s…it’s not my call.”

A warm tear cooled on her cheek. “I’m your wife!”

“I know.”

“Don’t you love me?”

“Of course.”

“Then what is it?”

His face filled with that Camden distance she knew he hated. “I don’t trust you anymore.”

“I’ve never been anything but honest with you!”

He shrugged. “That’s the trick, isn’t it? We’re honest…but we’re not faithful.”

“I know the open marriage never did anything for you, Wes. I know that now. But we went into it together. I never hid anything from you!”

“I know you didn’t. And maybe…I don’t have the right to feel this way. But I have plenty of reason.”

Yvette rubbed her belly and squeezed her husband’s arm. “You’ve got to know that you’re the only one now! I love you…so much! And now we’re going to be a family!”

“If you say so.”

She wanted to hit him, more out of desperation than anger. So cold, so unyielding. It was like talking to his father. She embraced him and kissed him with lips and tears, and he kissed her back. She turned to leave, glancing back as he poured himself another glass.

-

Hillary arrived at Westonwood in a daze, consumed with the details of the day’s work on Doctor Bald. All the minutiae evaporated when she saw Yvette, leaning against her car and crying.

“Yvette?” As her friend turned, Hillary noticed the back seat piled full of things that had adorned the walls and bookshelves of Yvette’s office. She wore no makeup, her eyes red and hair disheveled. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing…nothing.”

She glanced at that pile of belongings. “What’s going on?”

“I’m…ah…just taking some things.”

“What happened?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Yvette…”

Yvette tried to smile through the tears. “Don’t let me spoil your day.” She turned and opened the door to the car, but instead she sank to a crouching position on the concrete. Hillary watched her go down, and then joined her. Yvette hugged her. “Goodbye, Hillary.”

“Goodbye?”

“I’m leaving him.”

Yvette heaved forward in Hillary’s arms, and her heart sank. “What?”

“He doesn’t love me.”

“That’s crazy!” Hillary said.

“Well, he doesn’t trust me; that’s the same thing, isn’t it?”

Hillary tried to think of something to say, but she didn’t understand their bizarre marriage enough to formulate a reply.

“I was pregnant.”

She froze, looking into Yvette’s broken eyes. “Was?”

“I was going to be a mother.”

“What happened?”

“I didn’t want the baby…without him.”

Chelsea Blythe flashed across her eyes. “Yvette…”

“It’s for the best.”

“But…it’s not that simple, is it?”

She sniffed, scuffing her shoes against the concrete. “It is now.”

“Yvette…”

“I’ll be OK. I’m going back to San Francisco. I’ll be OK there.”

“I’m going to miss you!” Hillary choked, hugging her again.

“Me too. Hillary…be careful.”

“I will.”

Yvette grabbed her sleeve and pulled her close with a desperate gasp. “No, I mean it. He’s…he’s a charmer. But don’t let him in…you know? He’s beautiful…but dangerous.”

“Yvette…”

“Goodbye.”

1970

MAY

Hillary glowed in her strapless black gown as she stood with her friends at the Doctor Bald premiere. The cameras may have followed the stars and famous faces, but she felt like the center of attention. Her first movie – here it was. Lara and Andrew gathered around her, with Stuart York, as Telly Savalas charmed the paparazzi.

“Mr. Savalas!” a reporter shouted. “What can you tell us about your new character?”

“He’s like Blofeld on acid!” Telly laughed for the cameras. “Seriously, Doctor Bald is pretty ridiculous. He’s like an evil genius who learned everything he knows from Sesame Street.”

“So where’s your brother?” Stuart asked.

“I’m sure he’ll be along soon,” Lara replied.

Gregory Peck arrived, reprising his role as the villainous Doctor Crime, followed by Max Dewey, the returning Brock Cobb. The chatter and fanfare quickly escalated as a familiar limousine’s tires crunched to the curb.

“Thar she blows,” Andrew said, and Hillary noticed a quick gleam of excitement in his eye.

The four of them were the only ones not screaming with ecstasy when Weston stepped onto the red carpet, arm draped around his latest piece of candy.

“He’s dating Twiggy now?” Stuart asked.

“You know how he is with his models,” Andrew said.

“Twiggy!” a reporter called. “Is it true you’re going to be gracing the big screen for us soon?”

“Maybe,” she replied. “You’ll just have to wait and see.” Cameras flashed.

“Weston! What about the rumors that you and Francis Coppola are working on a secret project together?”

“That was a conversation that got carried away, and…let’s just say that he’s got way too much going for him right now to get tangled up with the likes of me.”

“What about a Brock Cobb Four?”

“Too many other ideas. Calling it quits on this one after tonight.”

They continued on, Twiggy posing along the way. Hillary’s heart thudded as the man of the hour approached.

“Lesley,” he said, his hand on Twiggy’s arm. “This is my sister, Lara, and her husband Andrew. This is Yorky…you can call him Stuart.”

“Stuart, yes, please. Not Yorky.”

Twiggy laughed. “Nice to meet you all.” She nodded to Hillary. “Hillary.”

“Lesley,” Hillary’s skin crawled with energy as she stood now with Weston and Twiggy instead of the others.

Andrew cleared his throat and offered a hand to shake. “Well, hey, listen…I wanted to thank you for inviting us.”

Weston shook it, and Hillary saw that momentary flash of hope run across his face. “Of course! We’re family!”

“Right…”

“Good to see you again, Yorky.”

Stuart tapped him on the arm. “You’re welcome!”

Weston laughed, and they all made their way to their seats. Stuart moved for an empty chair when Weston stopped him. “Sorry. If you don’t mind, Hillary sits with me.” She froze, halfway down, glancing at that vacant spot, keenly aware that she had just been favored over his sister.

“Sure, no sweat.” He moved out of the way, and Hillary took the seat to which she had laid no claim. The others watched her with straight lips, and she offered them a shrug.

“Doctor Bald…” Shirley Bassey sang over the opening credits in a sequence that both spoofed James Bond and caught up the audience on the adventures of Brock Cobb. “His heart is filled with hate and despair. Doctor Bald…he cannot acquire both power and hair…he tried wearing a weave…but faking hair was too hard…to conceive.”

Her pulse raced as the ridiculous music continued…and her name appeared on that big screen up there. She glanced beside her to see Weston’s face. He had his back to her, hunched over, Twiggy’s hands dancing across his jacket. He made such a big deal about gauging audiences at premieres, but it looked like he’d rather gauge Twiggy’s tongue.

-

About two hours into the after party, Hillary was laughing at something Telly Savalas had said when gasps of surprise erupted across the room, and everyone’s attention swarmed toward the bar.

“What’s going on?” she chuckled.

Telly shrugged and took a sip of his drink, and a bolt of dread sizzled up her back at the sound of the shrill voice rising above the murmurs of interest. “Don’t ever touch me again, you jerk!” More gasps, and Twiggy pushed through the crowd and out the door as Hillary put down her glass.

“If you’ll excuse me…I think my break’s over.” She left Telly behind and found her boss at the bar, swaying in his seat as the bartender cleaned shards of broken glass from the wood.

“Hey!” he slurred, grinning at her, his tie hanging loose.

“What happened?” she asked.

Weston shrugged. “I think…I need to lie down.” He stuck his hand in his pocket, pulling out his key ring.

Hillary pried it away from him, which wasn’t difficult. “Why don’t you let me hold onto this for you?”

“Are you…” He braced himself on the stool. “Are you taking me home?”

The slamming of car doors. Hillary glanced in her rearview mirror. Weston leaned against the window, holding the armrest to keep himself upright. “You OK back there?” she asked.

“I don’t feel so good.”

A few seconds later, his eyes rolled back and he lurched forward, retching all over the seat. She gripped the steering wheel tighter and pushed down harder on the gas.

After getting him inside, and listening to his profuse apologies, she cleaned out the car. The rank odor still hung in her nostrils as she dropped the dirty towels on the counter in his kitchen. He looked up from the table with a pale, clammy face.

“Is it OK?”

“It’ll be fine.” She breathed deeply, trying to rid herself of that pungent smell. “Are you going to be all right?”

“Sure.”

“See you, then,” she said.

“You’re…leaving?”

“It’s late.”

He winced from some internal discomfort. “Couldn’t you stay…just for a bit?”

“Maybe for a minute.” She discarded her keys on the table and turned away.

“Where’re you going?”

“If I’m staying…I’m going to clean you up a little.” She took the hand towel from the bathroom and wet half of it, then returned to find him touching that face, covered in sweat and drying vomit. He flushed red as she wiped his mouth.

“You don’t have to do that.”

“Hold still.”

“You’re my best friend.”

It was so frank and sudden, horribly slurred. He looked up at her with the most vulnerable eyes she’d ever seen. “Well, you don’t try very hard to keep them around, do you?”

He sat still as she dabbed at his sweaty skin. “Most people…don’t see me…like this. Like a miserable fool who can’t…who can’t control himself.” She wiped his forehead, her movements slowing. “I know you thought about quitting.”

She froze and locked eyes with him. “How…how’d you know that?”

“It’s my business to read faces. I don’t listen to critics, you know? I read faces.”

“I’ll admit…sometimes you’re a bit much to handle. Sometimes…honestly sometimes you disgust me.” Without thinking about it, she reached out and touched his hand. “But I believe in you.”

“You…” His face riddled with pain as he touched his head. “You should have known better.”

JUNE

Johnny Carson shook his head at Bill Cosby. “Well, I tell you what, why don’t we bring on our next guest and liven things up a bit? Next up we have our old friend, and some of you might think of him as an enemy.” Laughter. “Either way, let’s bring out the man who always parks in my space…Weston!”

The band took the cue as Weston stepped onstage, waving at the crowd. They applauded and cheered back, and a group of girls on the front row started screaming his name as he made his way over to the desk. He shook hands with Carson and Cosby as the shouts continued.

“Good to see you again, Weston. It’s still Weston, isn’t it? No new names for us to learn?”

“No, it’s still Weston.”

“Ah, OK. Don’t have to change the cue cards, then.”

Weston glanced to his right at Bill Cosby. “I’ve always wanted to meet you, Bill. I think you’re one of the funniest guys in show business.”

“Well, thank you. I think you’re…well, I never know what to think about you. Every six months or so, you change your story.”

The audience chuckled, and Weston beamed. “No, but I have to say, I’m pretty sure To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With is the funniest thing I ever heard.”

“Well thank you. D’you ever sleep with your brother?” Bill asked.

“Can’t say that I did. But I know how it is.”

“Echem,” Johnny cleared his throat. “Bill, you want to talk to him, bring him on your show.”

“Sorry, sorry,” Weston said. “Johnny, d’you ever sleep with your brother?”

“Dick? No, we’re just good friends.”

“Fair enough.”

“So, are you enjoying your stay in New York?”

“Great place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live here.”

“Why not?”

“It’s all…I don’t know…pushed together. LA’s so spread out…you’ve got breathing room.”

“Yeah, but you don’t want to breathe too much of it.”

“You should move the show out west. We could be neighbors!”

“With neighbors like you, who needs friends?” Laughter. “So I hear you’re putting Brock Cobb on ice.”

“Yeah, yeah. I never meant to keep it going. But we’ve got new projects working. Five of them.”

“And is it true you bought an art museum?”

“The Angelis, yes. Great little place. We’ve got some renovating to do, but it’s going to be very eclectic. Very…plush.”

“How’d you get into that?”

“Oh, well, I’ve been a collector most of my life. I guess I was running out of space.”

“Museums or art?”

“Beg your pardon?”

“Which do you collect?”

Weston laughed. “Art.”

“So you been following this, uh, the Manson story?”

His glimmer faded as fragments of news photographs and memories wove themselves together. “Yeah, here and there.”

“We got the trial coming up next week. Any thoughts?”

“I try not to think too much about it, actually. That kind of thing…well, you know, at least I’m glad Speck had nothing to do with it. People were talking, you know.”

“Here and there, but I don’t think anybody really believed it.”

“I hope not.”

“So what’s next for you now that Brock Cobb’s got his pink slip?”

“We’ve got a show. Television show. It’s not going to be ready in time for this season. Maybe next.”

“Can you tell us about it?”

“It’s kind of a secret right now. But there is a new show coming out that I’m pretty excited about.”

“Which one?”

“Its star is…kind of near and dear to me.” He turned to the audience with a twinkle of mischief. “And you, I think. You…you want to meet her?”

Everyone clapped and Johnny pursed his lips. “Every time…”

“You know who we’ve got backstage?”

“I can only imagine…”

Weston turned to the curtains and shouted, “Why don’t you come on out for the nice people?”

The crowd roared as Mary Tyler Moore stepped into the light, and she repaid the applause with her shining smile. Weston nodded his approval as she made her way over.

Johnny shook his head with mock frustration. “Maybe we should just let you run things when you’re in town.”

“Sorry,” Weston said. “I just like to share.”

-

The front page story announced the commencement of proceedings against the group known as the Manson Family, charged with multiple murders on multiple occasions, the most infamous of which took place the previous year at the home of Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate. Weston skimmed the article, his thoughts harkening back to his initial reaction to the events…the last moments with Yvette and the second time he dodged fatherhood. Amidst the gentle ambiance of the Ventura Boulevard street-side café, his nerves tightened with remorse.

He glanced across the street for the fourth time, at the girl poorly hiding herself behind a car. She peeked out, slouching away whenever he looked up, but always watching.

“Crazy thing, huh?”

Stuart York appeared from behind him, examining the paper. “Crazy…doesn’t quite cut it.”

Stuart took a chair, glancing at a cool blonde walking by. “We live in crazy times, you know. You live your life and do what you do, and you never know when one day someone’s going to come along and splatter you everywhere. Maybe it’s just what we should expect, in the end.”

“I can’t help but think,” he said as he cleared space for Stuart at the table. “What would it be like to wake up in the middle of the night and find someone there? You know…caught off guard and never live to tell about it?”

“I guess you and me…you know, single and alone…at least we’ve only got ourselves. Can you imagine having a kid, or a wife? Coming home to find something like that waiting for you?”

Weston shuddered as a cool breeze hit him. “I’ve done my share of the serial killer stories. Time to move on to newer fare.”

Stuart rubbed his hands as he looked at the menu. “What’ve you got in the works, huh? Sci-fi? Aliens or something like that?”

He waited while Stuart placed his order. “Well…I don’t make it my business sharing ideas with the competition.”

“I’m hardly competition.”

“I wanted to talk to you about that.”

“Oh?” Stuart raised an eyebrow.

“Kenny Myan just got arrested, for possession.”

“Yikes. What’d he have?”

“Not sure. Nothing serious, I think.”

Stuart grinned. “You’ve managed to skate by without any kind of trouble.”

He shrugged. “Nothing that sticks, anyway. I’ve been close a few times.” Stuart gave him a thoughtful smile. “Anyway, the point is…I need a new marketing guru. And I have a short list.”

He leaned in. “You offering me a job?”

“I like what you do. Think you might be just the man I need.”

“And why would I leave my gig at Disney…a pretty cushy one…for, no offense, a small, risky little place like Westonwood?”

“I don’t know what they’re paying you, but I’ll pay you more. You’d be our top man. Disney may be a powerhouse, but you’re just another face there. Work for me…and it’s your show.”

He pressed his lips in consideration. “I don’t know…I mean, that sounds good and all, but…it’s a lot to consider.”

“Consider it, then. I want you on board, Yorky. You’re good at what you do and…a good friend.”

“So we’re friends now?” Stuart asked.

“Why the hell not?”

He shrugged. “Well, then…friend…I’ll think about it.”

“Great! Now I’ve got another problem to deal with.” He nodded at the girl across the street, still watching him.

Stuart followed his subtle gesture. “Her?”

“Don’t look!” Weston said, grabbing his hand. “Yes, her. She’s been following me for…maybe two weeks.”

“Look at you! You’ve got yourself a stalker!”

“The first time it was kind of cool. Even the second. But now it’s just a nuisance.”

“Shit!” Stuart snuck another glance at the girl. “She’s kind of hot! How many stalkers have you had?”

“Who knows?”

AUGUST

Weston dragged himself through the door and went straight for his Scotch. He threw his jacket and tie on the ground with no thought but sleep as he popped the top and slated his thirst. Just a sip, he told himself. Just a sip to take the edge off. He took three long swigs.

As he let the liquor warm him, he noticed one of his homemade joints smoldering in the counter ashtray. Matted with lipstick. A shiver danced up his spine, and he looked off into the emptiness of the house.

Weston creaked open his bedroom door and flipped on the light. There, buried in his sheets, the girl that had been following him for over a month smiled and giggled. “I thought you’d never get here,” she said.

The girl was in her early twenties. Her thick brown hair hung over the rim of the bedclothes, her own clothes draped across his dresser. If he met her at a party, he probably would have created this scenario himself… “How did you get in?”

She laughed. “You always leave your back door unlocked.” She pulled the sheet down, exposing her breasts. “What are you waiting for?” She ran a finger along her nipple.

He swallowed, ignoring his libido. “If you don’t leave right now…I’m calling the police.”

She laughed again. “If you call the cops, they’re just going to find the little surprise I left for them.”

“What…surprise?”

The girl curled up underneath the sheet, snug and comfortable. “Just a little Sunshine. Your favorite. Play your cards right and we can do it together.”

One foot turned in the direction of the telephone, but the other remained, fixed on this beautiful psycho in his bed…and wondering how long it would take him to find what she had hidden.

The Scotch hummed in his head. He shut the door and unbuttoned his top button. “What did you say your name was?”

She threw back the covers, showing him everything. “I didn’t.”

SEPTEMBER

The bartender removed the empty glass before placing a fresh drink beside Weston’s half-empty Scotch on the rocks. Weston nodded his thanks, half-acknowledging the young man as a photograph caught his eye from the television at the end of the bar. “Can you turn that up?” The picture cut to a video coming in from London. He drained the last of his liquor and pulled the refill close.

The chair beside him scratched the floor as the bartender returned from the set. “Hey! It’s you!”

“It’s me,” a familiar voice replied. “I’ll have what he’s having.”

Weston abandoned the news report as Mary scooted her stool up to the bar. “So what gives, huh? You miss the party?”

“Sorry. I meant to come. I just…”

She glanced at the television. “Jimi?”

“Yeah…Jimi.”

“Sorry,” Mary said. “I didn’t really know him.”

“He was a good guy.”

Her drink arrived, and she lifted her glass to him. “To Jimi.”

“To The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Sorry I disappeared.”

She nudged his shoulder with hers. “You going to the funeral?”

“Maybe.”

“You’ve never…handled it so well.”

“How did Shakespeare put it? ‘Nothing can we call our own but death.’”

“When I found out I had diabetes…it was scary,” Mary said. “I was scared. I mean, I wasn’t afraid of dying, but when you face something like that…well, sometimes it’s easy to fear the worst.”

“I’d go to the worst first.” He signaled the bartender as he finished his drink.

“Go easy, OK?”

“I’m fine.” He wasn’t. “Loved the show, by the way.”

She flashed him her beautiful smile. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“So…honest criticism. From somebody who knows television…”

“I love your cast. I like the two dynamics…work and home.”

“I like that too.”

“Something off about the theme song, though.”

“What?”

He ran through it, humming the tune. “It seems too…I don’t know. Impersonal? It should be more about you. Sounds like…it could be talking about anybody.”

“What should it say? I mean, it already kind of sets the mood for the show.”

He thought for a second, then resigned defeat. “I don’t know. It’s just…you say so much with just a smile. You could…probably turn the whole world on with it.”

She grinned back at him. “Yeah?”

“See, there it is.”

1972

APRIL

The noise of the crowded café bled into the background as the minty aroma of his tea blotted out most of his other senses. Weston slid his credit card onto the bill as Hillary finished the last bite of her salad. “A lot of people are looking forward to this…I don’t know if I’ll even get a chance to talk to him!”

“How long has it been now?”

“I want to say…seven years.” He remembered his last trip to Switzerland as the highlight of a dark time.

“No, I mean since they kicked him out,” Hillary said.

He searched back further. “More like twenty.”

“That’s crazy!”

He watched her take the last bite of her chicken with just a pang of envy. He breathed in the stale restaurant air, and it smelled fresh. “I don’t know…the whole world feels ripe with possibility today!”

“Planning to pull another stunt?”

“No, I don’t know. I was actually…I was thinking about…”

She wiped her mouth. “What?”

“Asking Annette to marry me.” He saw the humor drain from her face. “Just thinking, anyway.”

“Well…that’s something.”

They locked eyes in silence. Her flickering pupils and twitching cheek whispered secrets. “What is it about her?”

Her face flickered as if fighting orders to stay straight. “Do you really want to know?”

“Of course!” Even though that dodgy voice had already told him.

She shrugged. “Well, then, since you ask. I guess…it’s that whole new age, goddessy vegetarian thing she’s got going on. I can’t enjoy anything around her. She always finds a way to make me feel guilty.”

“She’s just…very conscious of things, you know?”

“Mmm hmm…” She pointed to the remains of his vegetarian plate. “I notice I haven’t seen you eating meat lately.”

“Meat is murder,” he replied without hesitation, then chuckled. “OK…so maybe she’s got me thinking about things too.”

“It’s just…I know you.”

“Hey…she’s not so bad. I…think I love her.”

“You better be sure if you’re going to propose!”

-

The Forty-Fourth Academy Awards drew a fantastic crowd. Hillary didn’t stray too far behind Weston and Annette Kieling. She noted with jealousy how naturally Annette took to settings like this, not to mention how beautiful she looked in her backless black gown. The public didn’t agree with most things Annette had to say, and Weston had convinced her to just smile.

Weston made his mark as he entered the auditorium, but his mind was on Charlie Chaplin, back where he belonged…if only for a moment. He searched the crowd, taking a seat with his friends, but saw no sign of the old man.

He blurred out most of the show, and then Daniel Taradash, president of the Academy, stood onstage with the same oversized bowtie that so many men wore that night. Weston leaned forward as Taradash began his introduction of the honorary award, showering Chaplin with the highest levels of praise.

And then there he was. The audience snapped to its feet, giving Charlie the greatest ovation Weston could recall, twelve minutes long. Chaplin waved back, overwhelmed by the reception. His years abroad had aged him. He looked tired, so much more weathered than before. The old man blew a kiss.

The applause subsided and Charlie leaned into the microphone, caught in a momentary reverberation. “Oh, thank you so much! An emotional moment for me…and words seem so…futile…so feeble. I can only say that…thank you for the honor of…of inviting me here, and…oh, you’re wonderful, sweet people. Thank you!”

Then Jack Lemmon brought out Chaplin’s trademark derby and cane.

-

“Dear boy,” Chaplin sighed. “How long it’s been.”

Weston wanted to burst, and yet he sat calm and relaxed beside him. The odd mismatched reds of the furniture and walls made the old man stand out in a way that black and white could never capture. “You look terrific.”

Chaplin smiled. “I look like an old man.”

“How are things in Switzerland?”

“Winding down… Peaceful. Very peaceful.”

Something in Chaplin’s voice concerned him, giving him a sense that this conversation carried more weight than any before. “It’s so great to have you back where you belong.”

“I haven’t belonged here in a long time.” He spoke with neither regret nor affection, merely as an observation. Weston had no idea how he could be so cool after so much time away.

“Maybe not, but you haven’t been forgotten either.”

“I’ve followed your exploits.” His big eyes glistened. “I’m sorry about Virginia.”

“Yeah…I guess I’ve been through a lot since I saw you last.”

“Weston…” It was strange, almost ridiculous to hear Chaplin call him that. That face told him things he wished he didn’t have to know. “You’re not the same boy who came to me after his brother died.”

“I guess I didn’t know who I was back then.”

“You knew…I think you’ve just forgotten.”

Every word this man said was more important than anyone else’s. “Maybe I have…or maybe I’ve changed.”

Chaplin nodded. “Had your eyes opened?”

“Opened…closed…whatever way, I see things differently now.”

“The world has lost its innocence.”

“The world was never innocent. But I was.”

“And now?”

Weston sighed. “I’m just trying to stay one step ahead of where I’m supposed to be.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t try to get ahead if you don’t know where you’re going.”

He regarded the man with the respect and affection he’d always wished he could have given his own father. “You always know how to show me up, don’t you?”

“You once told me…you wanted to make people think…you wanted to shock the world. Well…you’ve shocked them. But…have you made them think?” They sat in grave silence for a moment, and the quiet had never been so loud. “Is that what’s troubling you?”

“It’s more than that.”

“Annette is a lovely girl.”

“Thanks. I think so too. But…I always had this idea that I’d meet someone who would…be my muse. And I think every girl I meet…I try to make her into that.”

“Hmm…” Chaplin selected his words. “Benny…Weston…if you need a muse…then I believe you will find one. Whether it’s a girl, or something else…I can’t say. But don’t look for it. You’ll find muses everywhere that lead nowhere. If you plant in the winter…you lose everything. If you wait until spring…nature plants for you. And everything will be new. Fresh…green.”

1973

JUNE

Stuart glided through the lobby of Westonwood, winking at the cute receptionists. He danced in with a tune on his lips. “Hillary!” he sang, swaying toward her. “Isn’t it a beautiful day?”

She laughed as he sashayed. “What’re you on?”

“Golden tones! The sun is shining, the breeze is cool…” His eyes sparkled. “…and I got a date with that artist I was telling you about! The hot one!”

“Oh…right…the hot one…” She play-punched his chin. “Well, good for you, Champ!”

“I have to tell the boss!”

She glanced at the door. “Oh, I wouldn’t go in there, if I were you.”

“Why, what’s wrong? He got a girl in there?”

She blushed. “Come on, Stu.”

“Hey, Annette’s a girl! Kind of.”

“If you say so…” She grinned back. “He just had a talk with his dad.”

“Thanks for the head’s up,” he said, watching her go and admiring her from behind. He skip-knocked on the door and slid into the office.

Weston stood at the window, staring out into the blue void. Stuart waited a moment, hesitating. “Yo, Boss?” Weston didn’t acknowledge him, and he crept up to share the view. “You OK?”

Weston turned away from the afternoon light. “Acid flashback. Trippy one.”

“I thought you were talking to your dad.”

“Trippy,” Weston said.

Stuart sat on the edge of the desk and rapped on the wood. “You want something trippy, you’ve got to check out the Fresh Faces exhibit.”

“So I hear.”

“I don’t know why it took me so long to get into art,” Stuart said. “Ever since you got me promoting the museum, I can’t get enough.”

“So it’s good?”

“Totally!” Stuart said. “Top talent from colleges in, like, ten states, I think.”

“Right…right. They got that Napoleon on Mars?”

“Talk about trippy!” he said. “That’s a Sheila Green. The highlight.”

“She’s…the one from Tennessee, right?”

“Memphis. And bonus, she’s touring with the exhibit! So she’ll be here…is here, already.”

“I heard she’s kind of a pill.”

“She’s not so bad,” Stuart said. “Mother’s this Shakespeare scholar up at the University of Memphis…must have rubbed off on her. She quotes the Bard like other people quote the Beatles.”

Color began to bleed back into Weston’s features. “You got a little crush on this girl?”

“I got a date with her!”

“Well, good for you! From what I hear, she’s a little harsh, so I guess, good for her, too!”

“You’ll meet her, of course,” Stuart said. “A little get-together at the museum, maybe dinner afterward…hey!” He snapped his fingers. “Double date? You, me, Annette, and Sheila?”

“I don’t know…” Weston took another quick glance out the window. “I doubt they’d get along.”

JULY

The glass doors whooshed shut as Weston entered the Angelis Museum, cool air biting at him as he came in from the unusual morning heat. It’s going to be an Independence Day for the books, he thought with a shiver.

“Morning, Cliff,” he said, nodding to the manager as his voice echoed across the empty two-story lobby. “Fresh Faces all set up?”

“Yes, Mr. Weston,” Cliff replied. “Got a big crowd coming in. Looking like a busy day.”

“Thanks. Happy Fourth of July.”

He cruised the halls, headed for the second floor. A few patrons had already arrived. Soft Mozart played over the sound system. When he entered the Malibu Lounge, he found himself alone in a room full of works he’d never seen. He always got the first glimpse when something new came to town.

Fresh Faces featured fifteen new artists. He observed every piece, trying to grasp each sculpture and painting’s style and perspective. As he moved through the room, he kept an eye out for the works of Stuart’s new girl. When he came across her name on a plaque, he cleared his mental pallet.

This was what he had come to see. Later that night they would be touring, the four of them, and he wanted to have an idea of what to expect so that he might not embarrass himself in front of the painter. Annette, no doubt, would do the job for him.

Three works represented her in the exhibit. First, Napoleon on Mars, her most famous painting. The French ruler hovered amidst swirling red dust, barefoot. His face broke apart into separate eyes, nose, mouth, ears, brows, and lashes, yet they managed to keep themselves intact at the same time. Tinted red from the surrounding light, Napoleon’s face also withered in a sickly yellow. A flagpole thrust into the dirt bore the French flag, drained of color and burning along the edges.

The second contrasted the illusionary, imaginative style of the first. A collage of images blended together from the significant events in the life of Doctor Martin Luther King, Junior. In the center, people gathered around King’s fallen body. A headline, painted into the scenes, declared, “The King is dead.” The plaque gave the work’s title: King of Dreams. To the right of the somber yet hopeful images, a bullet hung suspended. A face hid itself in the smear of light on that bullet: a young girl’s, features difficult to distinguish.

He moved to the last piece: January 28. The figures of Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho stood over a desk, signing a document. On either side of them, soldiers fought amidst fire and explosion. Burning trees scattered the landscape. Shaded against the background of the whole canvas, Vietnam stood half-divided on a map. As the images descended to the bottom of the painting, the soldiers were replaced by mangled corpses, and finally a field, burned and charred with smoldering fumes hovering over it. As he looked at that empty shell of a world there, he could almost hear the chilling silence. A shiver went up his spine, and not from the air conditioning.

“Crap.”

He jumped, startled, and noticed a young woman standing beside him, arms crossed, shaking her head with unyielding disdain as she glared at the painting.

“I’m sorry?” he asked.

“Crap, crap, crap, crap, crap,” she replied with a heavy sigh. “Utter crap.”

“You don’t like it?”

“This thing should go in the garbage. I can’t believe they even put it up!”

Maybe it was because he’d spent so much time observing everything else in that room, but he noticed every detail of her in moments. Her hair was reddish brown, thick and shoulder length with an autumn hue. Her clear blue eyes were knowing and intelligent, despite her mocking of the art.

“Why don’t you like it?”

“Could it be less subtle? It’s like he’s trying to force a message down your throat.”

“She,” he replied. “And…I think what it lacks in subtlety it makes up for with a kind of…ominous dignity. It’s saying…war is reality, and now that it’s over…now that they’ve signed the cease-fire…all that’s left is silence.”

She examined it again as he gave her a better look. “All I see is two guys in suits, with pens, and the whole world lives and dies by what they do with those pens.”

He’d expected some simple reply. “Well…I think maybe…both are true?”

The young woman’s disinterested eyes lit up. “Hey…wait a minute! I know you!”

Great. “You do?”

“Yeah, you’re…you’re Weston!” He said nothing in return as she nodded to herself, confirming what she’d just said. Then she added, “Deny thy father and refuse thy name?”

He flushed with embarrassment. “Let me guess…Sheila Green.”

“You know me?”

“I’ve heard things.”

She rocked a bit on her heels. “I’d have to say…your name has preceded you, too.”

“So what was that? Trying to make me look stupid?”

“I just wanted to get your honest opinion before you knew who I was.”

He stood there for a moment, then pressed his eyes shut and let out an exhaling laugh. “And here I was defending you like an idiot.”

“Well, it was a gallant attempt. My honor is preserved.”

His lips broke forth with a childish grin. “Do you do this to everybody?”

“No. Only when I think I’ve got a live one.”

“Well…seriously, though. I love your work. All of it.”

“Thanks. I just finished this one five months ago. Didn’t think it’d make it into the exhibit.”

“Where, uh…where all have you been so far?”

“Well, we started in New York…then D.C., Philadelphia, Dallas, San Diego…”

“Must be exciting.”

“Well, sure.”

Weston gestured to the distorted face on the bullet. “Who’s the girl?”

She admired it as if she’d never seen it before. “Actually…that’s me.”

“Why’d you put yourself in the picture?”

“Because…I was there. When King was shot.”

“Really? Why?”

“Well, I wasn’t in the room. But I was there at the hotel. My daddy…they were friends.”

Weston recalled that she was from Memphis, where King had died. “Who’s your father?”

“Ever heard of Saul Green?”

“You’re Reverend Green’s daughter?”

She grinned. “I’m his baby.”

“Well…it’s nice to meet you, Miss Green.”

“Sheila,” she replied. “So what gives, huh? I heard you read faces.”

“Yes, well.” He wouldn’t have minded devoting some time to studying hers. “Some people are harder to read.”

-

“Excuse me!” Annette Weston called, voice nasal and disturbed. She waved to get the waiter’s attention while the others at the table sat in silence.

“Yes, Ma’am?” the waiter asked.

“This soup has small chunks of pig in it.”

The waiter stared at the bowl of split pea and ham soup, which had only been advertised as split pea on the menu. Stuart and Sheila exchanged a glance of confused amusement.

“I’m…er…I’m sorry, Ma’am. Would you like me to have them removed?”

She grunted with disgust. “No, just take it away. It’s nearly spoiled my appetite already.”

“Yes, of course. I’m very sorry about that!” He removed the bowl, glancing at the other three apologetic faces at the table.

“Oh, and you might want to have the menu changed to say that the soup has small chunks of pig in it. Some people…might not want to eat small chunks of pig.” She turned back to the table to find her husband covering his face, his head lowered. “What are you doing?”

“Nothing, nothing,” he replied. “Just…had something in my eye.”

“So where were we?” Annette asked, ignoring the scene she had just caused. “Oh, yes, Sheila. You were telling us about your family.”

“I…ah…” She glanced at Stuart for help. “Well, you know, there’s my daddy…I already told you about him. And my mom…she’s a professor up at the University of Memphis.”

“A Shakespeare scholar,” Stuart said.

“Oh!” Annette said with interest. “You must know a lot about Shakespeare!”

“A bit,” she said, exchanging a look of amusement with Weston.

“What’s your favorite play?”

“Oh, gosh, I don’t know. I’m partial to both Richards.”

“I’m not familiar,” Annette replied. “I only really know his comedies.”

“I don’t care for those so much. For comedy I like Lord Byron.”

“’Tis strange the Hebrew noun that means ‘I am,’’” Weston quoted, “‘The British often use to govern ‘damn.’’”

“Don Juan,” Sheila said. “I’m impressed. I wouldn’t expect someone like you to read Byron.”

“Yorky minored in British lit. I’m sure he knows more than I do.”

“But I’ve forgotten more than I ever remembered,” Stuart said. “I do miss it…guess I just don’t have the time to read like I used to.”

Sheila grinned at Weston. “Well you should give him more time off, then!”

“I’m into art more these days, anyway,” Stuart replied, taking the opportunity to slip her hand into his. She didn’t refuse. “I’m actually planning a trip to Europe.”

“Sounds like fun! Where in Europe?” Sheila asked.

“Well, I wanted to see some of the museums. The Louvre, for starters. Ever been?”

“Once or twice. I can give you the names of some good places to check out. I’m headed there myself in September…when are you going?”

“Don’t know yet,” he said. “I think this is the first my boss is hearing about it.”

“Go any time you want, Yorky. Just let me know. I…I’m just jealous I can’t go with you.”

“We went to Europe on our honeymoon!” Annette pointed out.

“But we didn’t do any sightseeing…” He took her hand, and she giggled softly. Sheila glanced at her date as Weston shared a nonverbal conversation with his wife.

“Well, you should definitely go back when you have the time,” Sheila said.

The waiter returned with their meal. “Sorry again about the soup,” he said, placing her eggplant dish before her. Weston received an identical plate. “And here is your steak, Sir,” he said to Stuart, then turned to Sheila. “…and…your veal.”

-

“Oh my God…” Sheila clawed at Stuart’s arm when they arrived at the museum. “I’m so embarrassed! I had no idea she was so…”

“She likes to call us carnivores.”

“Do you think she hates me now?”

“Hey, I had a steak!”

“Yeah, but she knows you already. We’re practically strangers!”

“I wouldn’t worry about it. I’m sure there’ll be plenty of vegetarians in Hell too.”

She pinched him. “Guess I’ll see you there!”

Weston and Annette returned from the office to join them. “Quite a crowd tonight,” Weston said.

“Fresh Faces has been pretty popular so far,” Sheila said. “We made it onto the news in Dallas.”

“Yeah, but that’s Dallas,” he replied. “When has anything even remotely artistic ever come out of Dallas?”

As they toured the museum, Sheila snuck frequent glances at Weston. On the surface he was normal enough, but based on some of the things he said, and the way he carried himself, she believed most of what she’d heard about him. He had a rare magnetism, and even though she knew he lived such a foreign life, one she’d never care to see beyond public display, she listened to everything he had to say.

The Malibu Lounge was packed, patrons quite taken with the exhibit, and she noticed the special attention being paid to her work. Stuart held her hand, and from the way he beamed, she wondered if his pride even surpassed her own.

-

As they moved into the final wing of the museum, Weston leaned against Annette’s back, putting his arms around her. She stroked his face. He kissed her cheek and whispered in her ear, but he couldn’t stop thinking about the girl holding Stuart’s hand. He longed for an opportunity to talk to her again…about anything. He shook off the notion that he wanted more than a simple dialogue with a fellow artist.

“This is why I got into art in the first place,” Sheila told them as they came upon the Van Gogh collection.

”Crazy earless nut,” Stuart said.

“You could call him crazy,” Sheila said, her eyes lost in the art. “I call him brilliant. He’s my favorite.”

“He committed suicide!”

“That doesn’t make him crazy. Either everyone’s crazy or no one is.”

“So what’s your favorite Van Gogh?” Weston asked.

“You don’t have it here. It’s called Skull with Cigarette, and…it’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like.”

“I have that one at the house,” Weston replied. “It’s my favorite too.”

Sheila’s lips curled into a smile, and it might have been the most natural, beautiful thing he’d ever seen. He shook himself for thinking that and turned his eyes to Annette, whose attention span waned. He kissed his wife again, and they continued on.

-

Weston sat at his usual street café on Ventura Boulevard, sipping coffee and reading from a weathered copy of Don Juan. He checked his watch out of the corner of his eye and reached for his bookmark when a shadow fell across the table. Sheila grinned down at him.

“Byron,” she said.

“What are you doing here?”

“Meeting Stu. I’m leaving this afternoon; he wanted to say goodbye.”

Those crystal blue eyes outshone the sky. “Easy come, easy go?”

“Yeah, I’m headed off to Seattle next. I’m getting pretty homesick, though.”

“You don’t like it here?”

She flashed him her teeth with a nervous giggle. “Actually, I sort of love it.”

“Won’t you sit?”

She slid her purse from her shoulder and took an empty chair. “Thank you.”

“So…you like him? Yorky?”

“Mmm…yeah, he’s…nice.”

“Nice?”

“Well…I mean, he knew this wasn’t going to be anything serious. Gosh…I haven’t had time for a serious boyfriend since…freshman year, probably.”

“Too caught up in your work?”

“Well, you know how it is, don’t you?”

“Yeah, I guess so. My first wife…Yvette…we saw a lot of each other. She helped me start Westonwood. But Annette…I see a lot less of her.”

“It can be lonely, can’t it? Getting so wrapped up in what you do. It’s like whether or not you realize it, you’re married to your work.”

“You make passion sound like a bad thing,” he said.

“I didn’t mean it that way. It’s just…to people on the outside you can seem…obsessed.”

He leaned toward her, inhaling the faintest whiff of her perfume. He wished he could smell more. “Well, how many great works of art were created by people who weren’t obsessed?”

She gave him a good look, the way he expected she would when considering turning something into a piece of art. He dropped his hands into his lap with the vague sensation that she would no doubt see something that would disappoint her. And the man who never cared about reputation – the man who said and did what he wanted and gave it no thought – wished he could take some of those things back. “You know…I’ve seen a lot of your work,” Sheila said, and he could imagine her sticking her thumb out at him, face dabbed in paint, grasping a dirty brush. “I’m not sure…I might have even seen it all. You have a real eye for beauty. But…sometimes it gets lost in other things.”

“Such as?”

“Shock value.”

“You know, when I first started, my dream was to give people a chance to make a name for themselves. Help new talent find a footing, you know?”

“Sure.”

“I have another idea…a big one, if I can ever scratch the surface.”

“What is it?”

He’d dipped his toe in this pool before, always finding it too cold. “I like to think of it as…symbiotic art.”

She stared for a moment, eyes rippling with curiosity. “You mean…you mean art that doesn’t exist for itself…but as part of a…collective experience?”

“You know…I don’t think I’ve ever heard it put so well!”

“Funny…I had the same idea.” Her left eye dropped, almost winking at him.

“Did you ever do anything with it?” Weston asked.

“Not yet…”

“Now I’m wishing you didn’t have to go!” He’d been wishing it for a week.

She paused, as if she held words on the tip of her tongue and wasn’t sure whether to let them go. “Well…if you ever get around to it…your ‘symbiotic art,’ I mean…look me up.”

“I will.”

Her beautiful blues looking over his shoulder. “He’s here.”

He turned to find Stuart approaching. “Sheila Green…I hope we meet again.

“I hope so too.”

1974

FEBRUARY

“It’s a boy!”

A roomful of restless relatives rose as the brief burst of excitement ricocheted across fatigued faces. The Elvins embraced Andrew, followed by Lloyd Camden. “Congratulations, Son.”

“Thanks!”

“How’s Lara?”

“Sleeping like a…” He laughed. “…baby.”

The two families mingled in mutual excitement as Andrew shook hands with Stuart York and his fiancée, Brina.

“Congrats, Papa!” Stuart beamed. “You must feel like a million bucks!”

“Probably more!”

Brina pinched Stuart. “Maybe before you know it, he’ll be congratulating you!”

Stuart smiled at his friend. “Bri likes kids.”

As the happy chatter continued, Lloyd stood at the rear of the group. It was a good day, yes. His first grandchild. But in that moment of revelry, he couldn’t help but think that there had been two other grandchildren that he would never get to see.

And then the glass door opened, and Weston stepped inside, out of breath. All eyes in the room froze on him as the frivolity fell to a murmur.

He gave a weak smile to the group, never looking all the way to Lloyd, and they parted as he moved in. “Congratulations to the proud papa!” Andrew regarded him with something less than revulsion. Something almost…cordial. Lloyd had never seen that before.

“Thanks, Wes. I’m…glad you came.” Lloyd actually believed him.

“I’m guessing from the looks of things…our new arrival is already here.”

Lloyd had two conflicting urges – to leave him alone with them, give him space…or to take a chance. He fought back the nagging warning and approached his son. It was a family day, after all.

“Hi, Dad.” As soon as Weston spoke the words, his long absence and sudden presence washed over Lloyd.

“Hello…Weston.”

It was the first time he’d ever called him that, and it spoke volumes about where the two of them stood. Lloyd reached out to shake his hand. “It’s good to see you.”

-

Weston saw the man standing there, sincere, and part of him wanted to hug his father. Simultaneous to the warmth, all the cruel words he’d ever heard from Lloyd sprang to mind in a convoluted shout. He wanted to believe things had changed, but he didn’t know the man so well anymore. Lloyd Camden was like an old acquaintance.

They shook hands. Weston didn’t congratulate him on being a grandfather. He knew it would remind Lloyd of things he’d just as soon have the old man forget.

“Where’s your wife?”

“She’s…not feeling well. In bed.”

“Ah. I see.” Weston detected the knowing disbelief in his father’s voice. Annette had even less use for the family than he did, and he was pleased that Lloyd didn’t say what he must be thinking. That was something, at least.

They all gathered around the nursery, and a nurse lifted baby Gabriel for everyone to see. They whispered about how beautiful and handsome he looked. Weston saw all those smiles, and whenever someone would glance at him, he would put one on as well. But seeing that little baby, that little helpless creature that would cling to his sister for life…he needed a drink.

-

Weston cruised the Angelis, stopping in the Malibu Lounge, which was now the permanent home of some recently acquired Japanese works. Alone in the room, he felt a lingering presence, as if at any moment a Japanese woman would appear to criticize the work and wait for him to defend it. No one came.

He got home after dark. Annette slept curled up in a chair, and the bedroom smelled of incense. He blew out a candle before kneeling and kissing her forehead.

“Hey!” she stirred. “D’you just get in?”

“Yeah…long day.”

“Mmm…” she groaned, stretching. “How’s your sister?”

“Fine. Wiped out, but fine. I…guess I’m an uncle now.”

“Guess that makes me an aunt.”

He didn’t reply. If she didn’t care to see the child, he didn’t think she deserved to call herself an aunt.

“I must have dozed off while I was meditating.” She laughed to herself.

“Come on,” he said, lifting her up into his arms and carrying her over to the bed. “I’m beat.”

“Thanks, Wes.” She kissed him as he tucked her in. He went to the bathroom to brush his teeth and wash his face, staring at himself for a minute in the mirror, just…processing. When he came back into the bedroom, Annette had fallen asleep again. He put out the light and joined her under the covers.

Little Gabriel Elvin’s infant face fixed itself in his mind, along with Lara’s disheveled joy. Despite her unkempt appearance, his sister had never looked so beautiful – no doubt the rosy glow of a new mother. It was all so natural, so expected. So healthy.

He knew Lara would be a good mother.

Annette groaned in her sleep, and the aroma of incense cooled itself in the room.

Weston was alone.

APRIL

Weston arrived home to find Annette perched in front of the television. “Babe!” she called. “Come look at this! It’s freaky!”

He kissed her cheek and settled in beside her, thumbing through the mail. “What is it?”

“There’s some creepy guy – oh, here it is!”

“You know, whoever this guy is, he’s not doing himself any favors,” Robert Redford said, hair whipping in the wind as a microphone hovered near his lips. “Nuts like this always get caught.”

“Mr. Redford is only one of dozens of celebrities the Dentist has paid a call on,” the anchor said as footage switched back to the news studio. He turned to his co-anchor. “I guess this brings a whole new meaning to the idea of being afraid to go to the dentist.”

“Who the hell is the Dentist?” Weston asked.

Legs crossed, she swiveled to face him. “Some crazy person is sending out teeth! In the mail! Jack got one, Jane too! It’s some kind of crazy celebrity stalker!”

Ben flipped to the last envelope in the pile and noticed the tiny bulge in the bottom left corner. “Hello…” No return address. He slit the letter and tilted it. A tiny white tooth landed in his palm.

Annette’s face went white. “Oh my God!” She threw a hand to her mouth, leaning over to get a good look at it. “Oh my God, Wes!”

He slipped out the note that accompanied the incisor. “’A tooth for a tooth?’ It’s a question? Does he want one of my teeth?”

“Everyone else got the same letter,” she said. “Oh my God! Throw that thing out!”

“It’s no big deal,” Weston said, dropping the tooth back in the envelope. “Creeps do this kind of thing all the time.”

“I don’t care! Throw that thing out! And make sure you locked the door!”

MAY

“And that’s a wrap, everybody,” Hillary shouted to the gathered cast and crew of Synthesis, her directorial debut. “Yeah, that’s a wrap! I, uh…I believe we’ve got it in the can!” She put the back of her hand to her head and exhaled, watching everyone disassemble as a thousand details raced through her mind.

Jessica Wilkes, Playboy bunny turned actress, fanned herself for a moment and stepped out from beneath the cooling lights. “Bet you’re worn out,” she breathed, batting her pale blue eyes at Hillary.

“A little sleep deprived…well, a lot sleep deprived. But at least now…I can get a good night’s rest.” She smiled. “Good job, Jessica. It’s been a pleasure working with you.” It was a lie; Jessica acted like a prima donna without any real credentials to warrant it. Her star appeal didn’t come from her acting ability.

“Thanks for the chance to show the world I’m not just a pretty face.”

She nodded and turned back to her notes as Jessica strutted away.

-

Weston strolled back from the Synthesis set, down the halls where the crew talked amongst themselves. When he knew nobody noticed him, he slipped outside and then back in through the doorway into Jessica Wilkes’s trailer.

“In a hurry?” he asked, kissing her cheek as he ran his hands up her shoulders and looked at her in the mirror.

“I’ve got all the time in the world.” She turned from her reflection, putting her arms around his waist and pulling him close. “For you, I’ve got all the time in the world.”

Weston pressed his mouth against hers, pressed his tongue against hers, and in moments his shirt…and her robe…lay crumpled against the door.

-

Weston pulled into the driveway and froze with his hand on the gearshift. He stared at that light, burning in the window, and glanced at his watch. Maybe Annette had forgotten to turn it off, but if not, if she were up at this hour…

He composed himself, checking his reflection for any signs of his time with Jessica, and went inside. Annette stopped pacing when she saw him. Pacing. His stomach tightened. “Hey,” he said, hoping his voice betrayed nothing. “You still up?”

“Wide awake,” she said.

She frowned as he put his hands on her, and he caught a whiff of perfume…not Annette’s perfume. “What’s wrong?” he asked.

“Nothing…”

“No, I can tell. What is it?”

“Sit down.”

He turned on another light and they sat on a sofa, facing his favorite Van Gogh.

“Hillary finish…filming?”

“Yeah…sorry it took so long getting home.”

“That’s OK, Sweetheart. You…take all the time you need.”

His stomach loosened, but if she wasn’t suspicious, why was she waiting for him? “Annette, you’ve got me worried over here. You want to tell me what’s wrong?”

“Look at me, I’m freaked out like a kid afraid of a monster!” she said. “This isn’t as big of a deal as I’m making it out to be in my head, I’m sure.”

He couldn’t quite place it, but there was something familiar about the faint queasiness those words brought to him. “What?”

“Wes…I got pregnant.”

He looked away from her, searching the room for something out of place…something disjointed…some clue that this was a nightmare from which he could awaken. He found none.

“Oh…”

She took his hand. “Don’t worry. I know how you feel about children.”

He squirmed without moving. “I…like kids. I do! It’s just…”

“I know.”

“So…” He wanted to hold her, to kiss her. But all he could think about was how tight she was holding his hand, how difficult it would be to pull free. “So…I guess we should–”

“I took care of it.”

His mouth hung open, mid-sentence, and when she said it he laughed. “What?”

“I…took care of it. Discretely.”

“Annette…I can’t believe you did that!”

“I thought it’s what you would have wanted.”

“But…but you’re the most…I’ve never met anyone who cares as much about…life…as you”

“It’s not like it was really a baby,” she reasoned. “It was only a couple of months old.”

He’d never heard her speak of a living being as “it” before. Even animals she referred to as “he” and “she.”

“A couple of months…” he repeated. “Is this what you wanted?”

She shrugged. “I want you.”

He embraced her, and though he could hear soft tears in her breath, he knew they were tears of validation…of resolution and peace. He held this girl who had compromised her fierce principles out of love and devotion to him, and he couldn’t shake the sudden flashback to his clandestine sexual acid trip…and the smell of Jessica Wilkes’s hair.

JULY

Jessica lay face down on her bed, naked, as Weston rubbed her back. A smoldering joint dangled from her lips. She purred as he worked his fingers across her tan, his lips caressing her warm skin. “Weston…” Her voice pierced him like a spear in moments like this. When he had her there, so beautiful and perfect, he would say or do anything to please her.

“Yes?”

She rolled over as he stopped his massage. “Do you remember what we talked about last week?”

“What?”

“About you…leaving Annette? So we can be together?”

He swallowed as he looked down on her bleached hair, draped over the sculpted curvature of her breasts. “I remember.”

“Well?”

“It’s not that easy, Jess. She’s been so good to me. It wouldn’t be fair to her.”

Her hand ran up and down his leg. “What about what’s fair to me? I’m tired of sneaking around, keeping our relationship a secret. I love you so much…”

He doubted she loved him. Nothing in their relationship had ever come close to that. Even so, it was pretty damn good. She passed him the joint, and he took a drag as she put her jeweled hand on the back of his head. He pressed his lips against hers. Her tongue went wild, as if trying to catch the smoke as it floated into the air between them.

The kiss was disturbed by a sudden knocking at the door in the front room. She exhaled with frustration. “Who the hell is that at this time of night?”

“I’ll check it,” he said, throwing on a robe.

She curled up on top of the bed, her ass in the air. “Hurry back, Lover.”

He rushed, anxious to rid himself of the unwanted guest and get back to the goddess in the next room. But when he got to the door, the voice on the other side blew it all out of his mind.

“Police.”

He cracked it open to find three officers waiting. “Is Miss Wilkes here?” one of them asked.

A sinking irritation gripped his stomach. “In the bedroom. Can I help you?”

A piece of paper in his face. “We have a warrant to search the premises.”

“Why?”

“Suspicion of illegal substances.”

He wondered what would happen if he shut the door on them and made a run for it, but instead opened it wider and waved his hand into the expanse of the room. “Come in.” Then he shouted, “Jessica…you might want to come out here.”

She emerged from the bedroom in a silk nightgown. “What the hell is this?”

She grabbed his hand as the police searched the apartment, the first time she’d ever reached for him in fear. He looked back at her, trying not to let his own dread show, and he knew this was going to be one of those moments he would never forget.

-

Weston found little patience for rest, occupying himself with continual pacing in his cell. He’d seen Annette bite her nails on rare stressful occasions and almost took up the habit himself. Jessica faded from his thoughts. Jail broke her spell. The smell of this place was far more real than the smell of her hair had ever been.

He thanked God that this had never happened at his own home, back in the day. Whatever trouble he faced, Jessica was in more. He could see now that she was poison, and she’d been feeding him poison since the day they met.

Annette would come, today, tomorrow. Annette would come, and everything would change.

“Weston.” An officer unlocked his cell.

“Yes?”

“You have a visitor.”

Please be Hillary.

But it wasn’t Hillary. Annette waited there, eyes red, and he wanted to kill himself.

“Hello, Weston.” He’d imagined her much less composed.

“I’m so sorry.”

“Really?” There was no regret in her voice. “Is that why you cheated on me…for however long you did? Is that why you never came to me after the first time and confessed? Is that why you lied to me every day?”

His heart beat harder and faster than it ever had. “I…have no excuse. All I can say is…I’m sorry.”

“I don’t believe you.” Despite those red eyes, her response was strong and cold. “I don’t believe a word you say.”

“I never meant for you to find out this way.”

An eerie smile crept onto her face. “You think I found out about this in the paper?”

“It’s…in the paper?”

“Of course it is!” She slid a newspaper across the table, and he stared down at the headline and the copy. He imagined Lara seeing it…and worse, Andrew. The entire world. Oddly enough, he imagined Sheila Green reading about his infidelity. “I’m the one who leaked it! Who do you think called the police on you?”

His fear laced itself with bewilderment. “That was you?”

She actually looked pleased with herself. “You really think I’m stupid, don’t you? You think I can’t tell when you’re lying to me? I’ll admit I bought it at first, but your stories never added up. You’re not a good liar, Honey. You’re a liar, no question. Just not a good one.”

Tears filled his eyes. “I love you.”

She chuckled. He’d imagined tears, sobs, screams…but never this icy amusement. “No you don’t. The only person you love is yourself. And as for that…whore you’ve chosen over me, I hope you make each other very happy. And I hope you get what you deserve.”

”I…I’m done with her, Annette. It’s you I want!”

“I don’t give a damn what you want! I can’t believe I gave up a baby for you!”

“Please…I love you!”

A single tear appeared in her eye. “Well, that’s your problem.”

AUGUST

Hillary watched her boss emerge from the jail, all eyes following him…as they always did. Jessica had much more trouble to face, but everyone outside those walls was whispering, wondering how involved he’d been in her illegal activities.

Hillary hadn’t visited him during his time served, and even now, as he approached, she wasn’t sure she was glad to see him.

“Hey,” she said, the air as chilly as her voice.

“Thanks for the ride.”

He pulled her in for a hug, and she wrapped limp arms around him. “That was a pretty stupid thing to do!” she whispered. Once spoken, her arms tightened, and she realized how much she missed him.

“I know.”

“Stupid, stupid, Weston. How could you be so stupid?”

“I don’t know…”

She wiped his messy hair from his forehead. “I swear, one of these days…”

“I’m sorry.”

She nodded. “Go on and get in the car.”

They drove in silence for a while, the same silence that had hung between them since the arrest.

“How’re things at work?”

She didn’t look at him. “I held everything together while you were gone.”

“I figured. Thanks.”

No reply.

The car idled for a minute outside Weston’s house. She knew he was waiting for her to say something, but she gripped the gearshift, fighting the sympathy that pushed against her concern and frustration.

“Well…thanks again.”

“Welcome,” she said.

She watched him drag himself up that driveway, as if he had no reason to return to this place anymore. He fumbled in his pocket and pulled out his key. She shook her head as he slipped it in the lock, then let out a long sigh and shut off the engine. He turned as she emerged, wiping a tear from her eye. She approached, still riddled with irritation, and threw herself around him.

“Damn you,” she whispered.

They entered the house, the stench of stale air hitting her. No light, everything picked over, odd furniture missing. It felt and smelled dead inside.

“So…she’s really gone.”

“I thought I’d be happy to see her go, but she deserved better.”

“I know.”

“She told me everything,” Hillary said. “Everything. Jessica I would expect this from, Wes, but not you! You go and kill everything you have going for you!”

He did not reply, examining the wreckage of his life, the remains of his home. Most of his things were still there. All of the artwork remained hanging on the walls. He found his Van Gogh, his Skull with Cigarette, and couldn’t look away.

“That’s me,” he said.

“What?”

“That’s me…in the picture.”

“Come on,” she said, pulling on his arm. “You need something to eat.”

He let her lead him into the kitchen, where the putrid odors originated. The refrigerator hung open and unplugged, and she stopped at the sight of it.

“Hillary?” he ventured, his voice calm and stable.

”I can hardly breathe!”

“Hillary…I think I’d like some meat.”

She turned to him and looked up for a moment, and then they both burst out laughing. “Let’s get you a steak,” she said.

OCTOBER

Hillary sat alone as Stuart made his way to the altar, followed by Andrew, Weston, and his other groomsmen. Soft organ music set the mood, and the guests spoke so quietly that she couldn’t hear them. Andrew took his place as best man, and Weston stood beside him.

She glanced at her watch as an usher placed another woman beside her, a last-minute guest. She smiled at the newcomer as a pleasantry.

“Sorry,” the woman said, adjusting her dress to sit. “I almost didn’t make it.”

“It’s OK,” Hillary replied, her voice dropping to a near whisper. “Trouble finding the place?”

“Yeah. I’m sort of new in town.”

“Old friend?”

“Sort of.”

She raised an eyebrow. “You’re sort of a friend and got invited to the wedding?”

The girl brushed her fingers across her perky hair. “Guess he’s throwing me a bone since I don’t know anybody!”

“I’m Hillary,” she said.

“Hillary Louden. I know who you are.”

“And who are you?”

“Sorry, where are my manners?” Hillary shook her white-gloved hand. “I’m Sheila.”

The bridesmaids filed up the row, toward the front of the chapel. Hillary had met them all at the bachelorette party but couldn’t remember any of their names. Then Brina appeared in her beautiful gown, and as her father led her up the aisle, Hillary heard a sigh of awe emanate from the girl beside her.

-

The music of mirth filled the banquet hall as the Hambers/York reception hit its stride. Stuart and Brina, both social butterflies, spread their laughter and excitement from table to table as people mingled. Weston sat with Andrew and Lara and some of the other groomsmen. As he sipped a glass of wine, Hillary came up behind him. “How’s everyone at the loser table?” she asked.

Lara beamed. “Just…missing my baby.”

She nodded. “I remember when he was born, Brina was already talking about having kids. Bet she’ll be pregnant by New Years!”

“Hillary!” Lara swatted her. “You’re not supposed to talk about sex at a wedding!”

“Get real.” Hillary rubbed Weston’s shoulders. “How you holding up there, Champ?”

“What’s with you?”

“I love weddings!”

Andrew grinned at his brother-in-law. “Yeah, and no ex-girlfriends crashing this one, right?”

Jokes from Andrew were rare, and he savored it with another sip of Chardonnay. “One does one’s best.”

Hillary whispered in his ear. “Speaking of exes, Stuart’s is here…friend of yours.”

“Who?”

She pointed, and from across the room, he saw Sheila Green sitting alone, eating a chocolate-covered strawberry. He remembered every inch of that face.

“What’s she doing here?”

Hillary patted his shoulder. “Why don’t you ask?”

-

Sheila sat back as Brina danced with her father amidst the other couples. Seeing all these festive guests, she missed her family and friends in Memphis. There were a lot of attractive men there, but they all had women on their arms.

She sensed someone approaching, and looked up to find Weston smiling down at her. Seeing him again filled her with a mixture of pleasure and reservation. She let her face show neither as she smiled back up at him.

“Hello, Stranger,” she said, draining the last drops from a glass of water. “Fancy meeting you here!”

“Well, I must say, I’m a little surprised,” Weston replied as he claimed an empty chair. “You’ve been here this whole time and didn’t even come by to say hello?”

“I’m surprised you remember me!”

Weston gave her an electric look that primed her senses. “What are you doing here?”

Her lip twitched, and she hoped he wouldn’t notice. “Actually…I just moved here.”

“You’re kidding,” he said.

“Got a nice little place up in Sherman Oaks. On Sepulveda.”

“So…you’re here to stay?”

She shrugged. “Never say never.”

Weston just smiled at her, drinking in the moment, and he chuckled like a little boy. “Would you like to dance?”

She already knew her answer to that question. “I would.”

He rose and led her out, holding her hand and putting his other on her waist. They moved in harmony, slowly, and even though she had followed his exploits along with the rest of the world, she couldn’t shake the sense that this wasn’t the same man who had betrayed his wife. This wasn’t the same man who was arrested in a love nest with Jessica Wilkes. This wasn’t the same man…

And yet he was.

“So…is it weird to be at your ex-boyfriend’s wedding?”

“He was hardly my boyfriend. You know…it was just a casual thing for a few weeks.”

“He liked you a lot. Didn’t you like him back?”

“He’s nice enough.” She smiled at the memory. “I think I only went out with him because of his name.”

“Wow. Your mom really brainwashed you.”

“What?” She leaned into him and saw the look of pleasure run across his face as she did it. “Isn’t it every girl’s dream to marry royalty?”

“He ever tell you his middle name?

“Don’t think so.”

Weston’s mouth went wide, and she found it charming. “Tudor.”

“Oh…wow…” She wondered why any parent would do that to a child.

“So…what brings you out west?”

“I needed a change of scenery. Trying to get out on my own and really make a name for myself.”

“And so you came here?”

“Well, it’s a good place to start. When I was on the tour, I think maybe I fell in love with LA a little bit.”

He cleared his throat. “I’d love to see some more of your work sometime.”

She looked up at the powerful, charismatic, intimidating man, shaking with nervousness in her arms. “Well…never say never.”

NOVEMBER

Waiting for her guest, Sheila tidied up her studio apartment as best she could without disturbing the half she actually used as a studio. She double checked her makeup, unwilling to admit how much she wanted to make a good impression. She believed she had enough resolve not to let his charm, culture, or sex appeal matter, but she double checked her hair as well.

A knock, and she hurried out of the bathroom. She took a calming breath and opened the door.

“Good morning!” she greeted, beckoning him to come inside. “Nice to see you, as always.”

“Nice complex,” he said, glancing around. “Very classy.”

“Come on in.”

He stepped past her, and her heart fluttered as his back turned. It was hard to miss that look in his eye. “I love your place!” he said.

“Oh, yeah, well. It’s the ten-cent tour. Living room, Spartan really. Sorry it’s such a mess.”

“It’s as messy as I’d expect from a painter,” he replied. “And I’d call it productive, not messy.”

“So, how are things down at Westonwood?” she asked as he inspected her disheveled workspace.

“Fine, I guess. I’m between projects right now. Hillary’s working on Love Language Lost. Heard of it?”

“No.”

”It’s about a marriage that falls apart, and then years later kind of…rebuilds itself.”

She snuck frequent glances at his unassuming profile. “Can I get you something to drink?”

“Maybe some tea?”

“My favorite!” He followed her into the kitchen, clean and sparkling in contrast to her studio. “So you’re not working on anything right now?”

“No…it’s been a rough year.”

“I’ve heard. You’ve been pretty busy, haven’t you?”

As she used tongs to drop some ice in two glasses, he stepped up to a little window in her kitchen and looked out. “I’ve made some bad decisions, I guess you could say.”

She poured tea over the ice and put the pitcher back in the refrigerator, wondering how a cultured man like the one beside her could be the man of abandon whose exploits fueled scandal and sold newspapers. “Well…at least it’s all over now.”

He took one of the glasses. “I guess you’re right.”

She raised her tea for a toast. “To new beginnings?”

He touched her glass with his own. “To…symbiotic art.”

“I’ll drink to that.”

She led him out to a row of completed paintings. “I’ve been working on portraits lately,” she said. “I guess they’re a work in progress.”

“They’re quite good,” he replied. There were five large canvasses, each with a different somber face. “This one’s you?”

She shrugged. “Supposed to be.”

“It’s beautiful.”

He lingered on it for a moment as she looked away so he wouldn’t see her blushing. “This one here is my sister-in-law, Samantha. And this is my mother.” He looked at both of them for a moment in silence. “What do you think?”

“I think you’ve got a good eye for faces. Your perspective is just a tad askew…but it makes them look…I don’t know, beyond real. Ideals, maybe?”

“Thank you,” she said.

“Who are the other two?”

“Oh, just models.”

“You don’t paint men?”

“Not yet. Haven’t found one who’ll sit for me.”

“I bet there’s a hundred guys who’d kill for a chance to have you paint them.”

“Then I must be looking in all the wrong places.”

He turned to her. “I’ll do it.”

She fought back the blush. “Really?”

“I’d love to.”

She giggled. “That’d be great…wow! My first guy…and my first celebrity to boot!”

“When?”

She was sure he had filled countless other girls with this same intimidation. “Well…when’s good for you?”

“Got any plans for today?”

“No…”

“Neither do I.”

She glanced at her cluttered desk. “I might need to get a few supplies first.”

Weston finished off the last of his tea. “Mind if I come along?”

“Why not?” Yes, please!

“I’d be very interested in talking to you…about collaborating.”

“You mean…the symbiotic art?”

“Yes.”

She nodded, fearing her giddiness would betray her. “Let’s go, then, shall we?”

1975

JANUARY

Hillary looked up with tired eyes as Stuart came through the door into Weston’s office. “Morning,” he yawned, glancing around. “Where’s Wes?”

“Running late, I guess.”

“Too early to be running late.” He took a seat beside her. “You get the memo?”

She nodded. “Yeah. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so excited.”

“Are we the only ones here?”

“No, Bill and Mackey are over at Lady Macdeath, editing.”

“You guys ever figure out how to end the season?”

“No…I get the feeling we won’t be up next year. This could be it.”

Weston entered, brimming with energy and holding a crate with four cups of coffee. “Happy New Year!” he grinned, setting the drinks on the table in front of them and slipping out of his coat. “Sorry, I promise it’ll be a short meeting.”

“What’s this all about? Color Twenty? What’s that?” Stuart asked.

Hillary noticed the fourth coffee. “Somebody joining us?”

The door opened a third time and Sheila slipped through. Hillary and Stuart exchanged an intrigued glance. “Hello,” she said.

“Well well well,” Stuart said.

“Look who’s here,” Hillary added.

She gave a gracious nod. “Hillary.”

“Sheila,” Hillary replied, noticing her energy matched Weston’s. “So what’s the deal?”

Weston helped Sheila take off her coat. “Figure a little warmth would do us all some good on a morning like this. Help yourself!”

“Cheers,” Stuart said, taking a sip of coffee. “So, I’m assuming this is about the memo.”

“Color Twenty.”

“Right…I don’t understand, though.” Stuart picked up Hillary’s copy. “Color Twenty media: one movie, twenty paintings (ten old, ten new), twenty songs (one about each painting also tying into the central theme), three novels.”

“What’s the deal?” Hillary asked.

“Do you remember, back in the old days, when I used to talk about symbiotic art?”

She looked at the memo again as so many drunken conversations rang through her thoughts. “Oh my God!”

“Turns out Sheila had the same idea, and we got to talking, and…we came up with this.” He reached behind him to his desk and picked up two documents, handing one each to Hillary and Stuart. “It’s a treatment.”

“Gist it for us,” Stuart said.

Sheila buried her cold hands under her legs. “Well, you know how they say there’re no new ideas? Everything’s already been thought up?”

“Yep yep.”

“Well, the premise is that, about art. I mean, if you look through history and across the world, of course, you know, things can be really different, but I think the themes…the themes of humanity, like love, and hate, and death and birth…the themes never change. You know Shakespeare borrowed most of his plots; everybody thinks he was a genius, and he was, but his plots weren’t new.”

“OK…” Stuart said.

“Well, what if something happened, something way in the past, that was so significant that every story we have today…every plot, every premise…started there?”

“What, you mean like creation? Or the Big Bang?” Hillary asked.

“No,” Weston said. “Nothing religious, or scientific. This isn’t about that. We’re not making any…postulations here. It’s pure fantasy.”

“So that’s the movie? Something in the past that predates every work of art?”

“It’s more than just a movie,” Sheila said. We’re making it come true.”

“With these…paintings and music and books?”

“Well, yes. People are going to see this movie that suggests all art is connected. Then, they go out into the world and turn on the radio, and they hear…I don’t know, they hear Carly Simon singing a song, and it dawns on them that it feels just like the movie. Then they see a painting and think about the idea of this profound connection…and then they realize that the painting was in the movie, and that also that song they heard on the radio…seems like its talking about the painting. Or…was it…the painting was inspired by the song? Or…is it really true…that all art is connected?”

Hillary saw that look on Weston’s face as Sheila described the idea. The only other time she’d ever seen that gleam in his eye was the day Charlie Chaplin came back to town. “This is…something…”

Weston turned to Stuart. “And that’s where you come in, Yorky. For this to work, we have to really get it out there for the world to see. We’ve got to get the biggest names for the songs, and play them on every radio station. We’ve got to come up with every gimmick possible to get people into the theater, and to get our books in their hands…and get our paintings in their faces. It’s got to be…an explosion.”

“How much coffee have you already had?” Stuart asked.

“And you’re going to do all the paintings?” Hillary asked Sheila.

“Well, we’re going to try to get as much as we can to match our theme. But, yeah, I’ll be doing all the new works.”

Weston clapped his hands. “So what do you think?”

Stuart dropped the memo on the table beside the steaming cups. “And here I was hoping for an easy year!”

-

“To Color Twenty,” Weston said, raising his glass.

Sheila noticed the looks of interest and distaste from the other restaurant patrons as she toasted. “You always get so much attention.”

“Not like I used to.”

“Why’s that? You’re as popular as you’ve ever been.”

Tables away, a bleached blonde ran her hungry eyes across him. “Yeah, well, I guess there’s a difference between fame and infamy.”

“Shakespeare called a good reputation ‘the purest treasure mortal times afford,’” she said.

“Richard II,” he replied. “He didn’t exactly have a clean reputation.”

“Who, Shakespeare or Richard?”

“Both. I don’t know. I guess I just don’t care about that kind of thing.”

“Isn’t that what started the rift between you and your dad?”

He found her features soft and caring. “There’s a lot more to it than that.”

“My daddy says you’re like the Prodigal Son. He had a brother who sided with his father, like you did, while he left.”

Weston frowned. “You talk to your dad about me?”

“I talk to my daddy about everything.”

They locked eyes, and he wondered how different her life must have been from his. “Except in the story, the father never did anything to push the Prodigal Son away.”

“Yeah…” she said. “So maybe we should work out a plan of action for the project.”

Weston knew she changed the subject out of courtesy. “We’ve got you for the paintings, and we’ve got Westonwood for the film. We need to look for musicians and writers.”

Her eyes lit up. “We’ve got to get Carly Simon! She’s my absolute favorite.”

“Yeah?”

“You didn’t notice how I’m always playing her?”

“When you mentioned her name at the meeting, I started putting it together.”

“My absolute favorite song in the entire world is ‘That’s the Way I Always Heard It Should Be!’ I just melt all over the floor when that thing comes on.”

“It’s good,” he said. “And if you want her, we’ll get her.”

She laughed, so softly it was almost a gasp, and sucked down a good portion of her water. She kept sneaking quick glances at him with those beautiful blue eyes, as if she wanted to look at him but didn’t want him to notice.

“You OK?” he asked.

“Yeah, it’s just… Thank you for thinking of me.”

“Sheila…you were my muse! I’m the one who should be thanking you!” He knew he would remember this moment for a long time. “Who knows? Maybe we can make the world go crazy for you! Get a Sheila Green in every house in America!”

She laughed. “You’re mad as a hatter!”

“I’m the Great One!”

Her cheeks flushed, and he noticed how close her hand was to his. “Yeah, well, madness in great ones must not unwatched go.”

-

Sheila sat with Weston in the audience for a taping of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, her attention alternating between the actors and the man beside her. She’d spent most of her free time with him for several months, and she’d tried to understand the complexities of the simple soul that always lingered in her thoughts. His face told her things his words never did. She’d never met anyone like him before, someone who simultaneously excited and frightened her. She wanted to feel his warmth but knew enough to keep her distance from his fire.

Weston laughed with delight at Ted Knight’s botched news report, and Sheila put it out of her mind and enjoyed the show…and his presence.

The actors took their bows as the two of them joined in the applause, and then Weston whisked her backstage. When Mary opened the door to her dressing room, she gave Sheila an unexpected hug. “It’s so good to meet you,” she said. “He won’t shut up about you.”

He winced, but Sheila took it in stride. “He just can’t shut up in general, I think.”

“I caught your exhibit when it was here.”

“You did?”

“I’m not the art hound Weston here is, but I really liked it! Your perspective is…surreal. Haunting almost. The one about the war gave me chills.”

“Well, I love you too! I think my favorite is Thoroughly Modern Millie.”

“Oh really?”

“Your love scenes with John Gavin were so silly! I was a kid when I saw it, but it was just the funniest thing! You’re just…the best!”

Mary nudged Weston. “You need to bring this one around more often!”

Sheila noticed her subtle implication as Weston responded. “We have something we wanted to talk to you about.”

“OK…”

Sheila took a seat as another surreal moment hit her. “It’s the little project we’ve been working on. The one I told you about yesterday. Color Twenty.”

FEBRUARY

“OK, first reaction. You didn’t give me any trailer moments.”

Weston slipped onto his elbows, leaning over the script spread out on his desk. His brow hardened as he turned the page. “What’s a trailer moment?” Sheila asked.

“Script’s one of a kind, don’t get me wrong,” Stuart said. “If you can pull it off…if…it’ll be amazing. But to make money, we’ve got to sell it. Which means we’ve got to have…at least five, I’d say…trailer moments.”

“But what does that mean?” Sheila asked.

Weston waved away the question. “He means pieces he can pull out to put in a preview.” He turned another page, then shut the document and pushed it away.

“Sorry. It’s great in the moment, but anything pulled out of context doesn’t make any sense. And I mean, I really looked. Gillis agrees.”

“No, you’re right,” Weston said. “Back to the drawing board.”

MARCH

“So that’s it?”

“That’s it,” Weston replied. “What do you think?”

Carly Simon laughed, lounging beside him in his cluttered office. “You’re crazy! Don’t get me wrong, it’s pretty amazing, but it’s pretty crazy!”

Her voice rang from the hi-fi. “Look at it this way,” Weston said. “If the movie flops, if the art stinks, if nobody reads the books…your song is still yours.”

“But it’s all part of your…collective. Is that what you called it?”

“That’s it.”

Carly laughed again. “Sounds so scientific!”

“Hey…I’m no scientist!” he said.

“No, you’re not!”

“Look, I’ll be honest. You were the first name on the list.”

“Really?”

“Sheila? The artist? She loves you. I mean, I think you’re great too. But Sheila…”

Carly smirked, her thick curls rippling. “You got a little thing for this girl?”

He batted away the insinuation. “Please! I don’t have ‘little things.’”

“You had a ‘little thing’ with Jessica Wilkes.” Weston fell silent as that little pinprick punctured his enthusiasm. A faint memory of Jessica’s perfume wafted across his nostrils. “Sorry,” Carly said.

“That’s OK. It’s…nothing like that.”

“Who else do you have roped into this thing so far?”

“Ah…Fleetwood Mac, Boz Scaggs. I’ve got Bruce Johnston working on a song for the opening. It’s gonna be about how…I don’t know, all the music comes from one place?”

“It feels like a caper,” she said. “You really think you can pull it off?”

“One does one’s best.” Jessica Wilkes fluttered by, high on something, naked and tan. He blinked her away.

“Well, tell you what. Let me chew on it. Tinker. And…we’ll see what happens.”

He shook her hand. “Thanks for that. You’re going to like it. By the way, you…wouldn’t be interested in screen testing, would you?”

“One thing at a time!” she said.

“Fine. Well, I’ve taken up enough of your time already.”

They both rose, Weston loosening his tie. “Don’t mention it,” she said. “When are you coming back to New York?”

“Mmm…can’t say. But we’ll be in touch.”

Knocking.

“Come in!” he called.

The door opened and Sheila stepped inside with a canvas. “OK, now, bear in mind I’m not sold on—” She froze when she saw Weston’s guest. “Ah…ah ha…”

He grinned at her sudden onrush of intimidation. “Carly, I’d like you to meet Sheila Green.”

“Nice to meet you. I hear you’re quite the artist!”

Sheila nodded. “Uh huh…”

Carly hefted her purse onto her shoulder. “Well, I have to run, but…it was nice to meet you, Sheila.”

She blushed. “Miss Simon, I have to say, you are my absolute favorite in the world!”

“Thank you! You’re sweet.”

“Wow…”

Carly glanced at Weston. “Well…we’ll be in touch.”

“Bye, Carly.”

Sheila just stood there watching as Carly gave her one last smile and ducked out the door. She turned around as Weston came up beside her. “This Black Hole Memoir?” he asked, taking the painting.

“Why didn’t you tell me she was here?”

“I wanted it to be a surprise.” He examined her work. “Nostalgically creepy?”

“What do you think?” she asked, watching him without a thought of the painting.

“Norman Rockwall meets David Lynch?”

“You should have told me! I could have come sooner.”

“Sorry. I just had to see the look on your face!”

-

“Ladies and gentleman, the classiest woman in show business…Mary Tyler Moore!”

Applause erupted as Mary stepped onstage and hugged Johnny Carson while the band played the theme from her show. Sheila adjusted herself on Hillary’s sofa and Weston draped his arm behind her, not close enough to touch. She noticed it lying there, though. The three of them shared a bottle of wine.

“It’s good to see you, Johnny.”

“Mary, you look wonderful, you always do. What’s your secret?”

“I’m very blessed, you know? I’ve got…I don’t know, the best people in my life. Grant’s …the best husband a woman could have.”

“Well, sure, he’s married to you. You can turn him on with just a smile, right?”

The audience laughed as Mary swung her leg out and turned them on.

“So they tell me.”

Johnny chuckled. “Let’s try it out. Smile at me.”

She complied, and Johnny shook his head. “I don’t know, it’s hard to tell. Here, smile at Paul.”

She turned and smiled at Paul Simon, who blushed. “What do you think, Paul?”

“I think we have a winner!”

Sheila laughed, and when she glanced at Weston she found him watching her more than the show. She tightened in her seat, inching toward him without a word.

“So Mary, you just finished, what, the last episode of the season?”

“Yes, well, it just aired. Last week.”

“Five years. That’s a good length for a TV show.”

“Well, you’ve been on longer than that, Johnny.”

“Yeah, sure, but I claimed squatters rights.”

Sheila shook her head. “That man is too much.”

“Anyway,” Johnny continued. “So, you’re going into a sixth year?”

“Yes, we’re still going strong.”

“Any plans to finally tie the knot?”

“I really don’t see that happening. That’s not what the show is about, you know?”

“Right, right. You know, we haven’t seen you in any movies lately.”

“Our company, MTM, we’ve done a few films.” She lit up. “Oh, I’m doing a movie this summer!”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah! We’re helping produce it, and I’m playing, well, it’s kind of hard to describe it. It’s kind of a…new age artsy kind of thing. Weston’s pet project right now. We’re doing it with Westonwood.”

“Weston, huh?” Johnny asked. “So it’s some kind of artsy…porno spy spoof about Vietnam?”

The girls laughed at him as the audience laughed at Johnny, and Weston just shook his head. “Leave it to Johnny,” he sighed.

“It’s going be good,” Mary asserted. “It’s called Color Twenty and…it’s very unique.”

“You know, every time we have that clown on the show, he always brings somebody up on stage, like he owns the joint.”

“Yes, I’ve noticed.”

“And I’m thinking…didn’t he bring you up once?”

“Uh, yes! Years back.”

“How’d you ever get mixed up with that guy in the first place?” Johnny asked.

Mary shifted her lips in feigned contemplation. “Well, I don’t know, Johnny. Why don’t you ask him yourself?”

The cameras cut over as Weston emerged onto the stage, to the laughter and applause of the audience. Sheila and Hillary both turned to him in surprise.

“What the hell are you doing there?” Hillary asked.

He shrugged. “Crashing, what does it look like?”

On the screen, Weston shook hands with Johnny as the audience died down. Johnny turned to Mary. “What is this? Some kind of talk show suicide pact?”

“What can I say?” she asked. “It always looked like fun when he did it!”

“How’d you even get past security?”

“Oh come on, you knew I was here all along.”

Johnny broke into a beaming grin. “Yeah, you parked in my space again. As usual.”

“I just wanted to say that…I felt bad about not getting you a birthday card last time I was on, so…” He pulled a blue envelope from his coat pocket. “I know it’s a few months early, but…happy fiftieth!”

Johnny hugged him as the audience applauded. “Thanks. That’s very thoughtful. I hope there’s a check in here for all the time you’ve wasted on my show!”

As they talked onscreen, Sheila’s attention shifted to the man beside her. Here he was, her friend. And yet there he was on television, larger than life. There was something about him she just couldn’t describe…something that could make her tremble if he knew how to use it. He seemed no worldly playboy. She couldn’t imagine him tripping on acid, or sneaking off with a pin-up girl while his wife waited for him at home, or turning his back on his father.

Weston sat there, and she wished he was just Benjamin.

If certain things were different…just a few, major things…

APRIL

Weston turned up at Sheila’s place one night, and she welcomed him with a warning that she was busy at work and didn’t have time to talk. He said he had no intention of intruding…he just needed some company.

And so he sat in the dark on her sofa, bathed in the television’s glow, as she poised over a canvas in the other room, lit by a high-powered lamp. At first they chatted, having to shout back and forth, but the conversation dwindled as she carefully twirled her brush in her hand. A bead of sweat traced her cheek, and she wiped it on her sleeve without making any further movement. Her wrist grew sore, her back as well, after a full day perched there, shut off from the world. If Weston hadn’t arrived she wouldn’t have noticed the sun had set. Wracked with fatigue, she decided to put down her brush.

The soft sound of the television fell front and center on her senses. She came around the corner and froze at what she found. He sat on her couch, asleep. Breathing deeply. She watched him there in the flickering pale blue light. He looked helpless, and she wondered if she should disturb him. He was…beautiful.

She leaned over to nudge him and stopped herself again. Her pulse pounded as she hovered there above him, a single tear hanging from the corner of his eye. Pain gripped his face: a lonely despair he exuded even in sleep.

“Hey,” she whispered, pressing his shoulder with hers. “Hey there, Sleepyhead.”

He stirred, but his eyes stayed shut. She touched his face, her fingers brushing against his earlobe. “Hey,” she said again, and this time they fluttered open, adjusting to the dim, distant light. Several seconds passed before he looked back at her, inches away. They hovered there, eye from eye, face from face, neither sure of what to say or do…neither of them strong enough to move forward…nor pull away. The faint whiff of his aftershave drew her like a magnet.

Her heart thudded in her chest. She knew he had the power to make her tremble, but it had never happened until now. One way or another one of them had to move before things grew awkward.

And then it happened, so simply and naturally that, she couldn’t even remember him lifting his head. His warm, soft lips touched hers, gracefully and briefly, as if he decided to kiss her and then chickened out at the last second. She stared at him in confusion as he pulled away.

He blinked at her with wide, uncertain eyes. She let go of his face, pulling back. She tried to smile, but wasn’t sure if he believed it. “You fell asleep,” she said.

“Sorry.” He sat upright again as she stood.

Something inside her wanted to scream, but it looked like neither had the courage to say anything. “I’m beat. I’m going to bed.” She glanced at the television, then back at him. “You can stay if you like.”

“No, no. I’ll go.” He stood up beside her. “Thanks…”

“Anytime!”

He went to the door and stepped out, nodding to her as he left. She locked it behind him, pressed her back against it, stared at the ceiling, and let out a soft whimper.

MAY

Sheila glided back and forth outside the gate, watching the airplane inch closer and closer. She paid no attention to the travelers brushing past her as she tapped her foot, waiting for the door to open for the disembarking passengers. She searched the faces until she found something familiar.

“Mattie!” she said. “Over here!”

Her brother squeezed her. “Sheila For-Reala!”

She pulled away, soaking in the sight of him. “I love the new do!”

He touched his temple, glancing up. “Yeah, I was getting tired of the long hair. I don’t know why everyone thinks it’s so great!”

Her attention turned as Matt’s wife, Samantha Green, stepped up beside them, cradling a sleeping infant. She threw her hands to her mouth. “Oh…I don’t believe it! He’s so sweet!” She touched the baby’s curled fingers and gushed. “Oh, I think I’m in love!” She looked up again and hugged her sister-in-law, careful not to crush the baby.

“Forest slept through most of the flight, believe it or not,” Mary said.

Sheila laughed. “Just like Dad!”

Matt rolled his eyes. “Yeah, except Dad snores!”

“Well come on, let’s get your luggage and get this show on the road!”

-

“I cannot get over how precious he is!” Sheila sighed as she glanced in her rearview mirror. “I’m so jealous!”

“He’s precious now,” Samantha said. “Wait until you’re asleep and he decides the sun is overdue.”

“Well I don’t care! I want one!”

Matt sat in the back seat beside his wife, holding the child. “Sheila’s wanted a baby ever since they taught us the birds and the bees.”

She blushed. “You make me sound like a sex addict or something!”

“If anybody’s not a sex addict, it’s you,” Matt said.

Samantha nudged him. “So, you said you have some friends coming over tonight, to meet us? Anyone special?”

“Just Stuart and his wife.”

“And what about…you know who?”

Sheila glanced back in the mirror with an uneasy smirk. “He’s out in Death Valley right now, shooting our movie.”

“Are we not going to meet him?” Samantha asked.

“I haven’t seen him in almost a month.” As soon as she said it, she wished she hadn’t. Her voice betrayed how much she missed him.

“How are things?”

“I don’t know. I like him. But it’s not romantic, at least not…really. I can’t be with a guy like him, even if…”

She sighed. “I can’t.”

-

Sheila came around the corner to find Matt chatting with Brina and Stuart. She held little Forest in her arms and glowed as if she were the one who gave birth to him. Samantha followed close behind.

“I can’t get over how much you two look alike,” Brina said.

Matt grinned at Sheila. “We’re twins. Although some people say she got all the looks.” He took a step toward her as she cradled his son. “Ever since we got here, she hasn’t been able to let go.”

“I want to keep him!”

Brina came over to get a better look at the baby. “Oh my God, he’s so precious!”

The three women stood mesmerized by the tiny sleeping infant, and Stuart cleared his throat. “So, Sheila tells us you’re into…math.”

“Computer programming,” Matt said. “Kind of a new frontier, but it’s opening up. Wave of the future.”

“It’s all a foreign language to me. You must have gotten the brains if she got the looks.”

“You’re…marketing?”

“Yep. Weston’s right hand.”

Matt grinned. “So what’s going on with him and Sheila?”

“Matt, shut up!” Sheila said.

“The way they act, you’d think they’re a ticking time bomb.”

Sheila grimaced. “Trust me…nothing happening there.”

Brina glanced back at Stuart. “Well…something’s happening here,” she said, rubbing her hand across her stomach.

“What?”

“I’m pregnant!”

“Oh my God!” Sheila said, popping her hand down beside Brina’s. “I’m so jealous!”

“Your time’ll come,” Matt said. “Maybe if you play your cards right, one day you could have Weston Jr.”

Her face went blank. “That’s not funny.”

“It’s a little funny.”

She glanced at Stuart, who dropped his gaze, then back at her brother. “No, I mean that’s not the kind of thing you should joke about…not about him.”

Matt blushed. “Right…sorry.”

“It’s OK.” She smiled again. “At least I’m not naming my kid Forest Green!”

Stuart chuckled. “I just got that one.”

They all went out to dinner and made it back to Sheila’s place in time for the season finale of Lady Macdeath. Samantha kept going on and on about how she was addicted to the show, and how devastated she was that it had been cancelled. Sheila saw Stuart sneaking smug glances at his pregnant wife.

And when the screen cut to black with the words “To be continued…” everyone turned to each other in confusion. And then they heard Hillary’s voice: “Next season on Lady Macdeath…” And there they were, scenes from a new, unaired episode…possibly more than one.

“What?” Samantha said. “I don’t get it!”

“Pretty cool, huh?” Stuart laughed.

“That’s…what just happened?”

“It was all a ruse!” Stuart said in a hushed voice, leaning in as if keeping a secret from prying ears. “The show’s not over; it’s coming back next season!”

Samantha twitched with irritation. “Then why’d everybody make such a big deal about it being cancelled?”

“It’s a stunt! All the actors are going out on talk shows this week to tell everyone that it’s really over, and the whole ‘to be continued’ thing is a joke, but then we’re going to run commercials all summer for the season premiere! We’re going to confuse everyone and get them all to tune in just to see what the hell is going on!”

Samantha glanced at Matt, who raised his hands. “Don’t look at me!”

“Whose idea was this, anyway?” Samantha asked.

Stuart looked to Brina and Sheila for support. “Mine!”

-

“Cut!”

Lights shut off as Weston hopped up from his seat. Mary’s shoulders sagged as he joined her. “How’d you feel about that one?” he asked.

Mary glanced at Robert Duvall, still not looking at Weston. “Better.”

“Bob?”

“I think I’m pretty satisfied,” Robert said.

Weston put his hand on Mary’s shoulder. “Come over here for a second.” She followed him off to the side, where they were alone. Her eyes finally locked on him as he turned off her microphone. “How do you really feel?”

“I just…feel like we over-rehearsed or something. It’s coming out too dry.”

“Do you need another take?”

Mary’s face lit up for a moment. “I think Bob’s pretty much done with it.”

“I didn’t ask that. Do you need another take?”

“You read my face?”

Weston smiled. “All right, then.” He flipped her microphone on again and turned back to the crew. “All right, everyone. We’re going to do it one more time.”

JULY

“Sorry I missed’em,” Weston said. “It sounds like a lot of fun.”

“It was!” Stuart replied as they waited in the lobby of the Angelis. “She’s not the only one with character. I get the feeling her whole family’s a little nuts.”

“Yes…” He looked up as the door opened and Lloyd Camden stepped inside.

“Hello, Son.”

“Dad,” Weston replied, shaking his father’s hand. The old man had aged a bit, his eyes softer than he remembered. “You remember Stuart?”

“Of course, the best man! How’s the wife?”

“Oh, pregnant.”

“Congratulations!” He nodded. “So, I hear you’ve got a corker of a film coming.”

“Yeah, Dad. It’s…big.” His father’s cordiality rubbed his skin just enough to burn.

“Your sister told me all about it. The big art explosion.”

Weston gestured toward the innards of the museum. “We’re putting up the exhibit in a few months, but most of the paintings are already done, and…we’re getting a sneak peak.”

“I’m looking forward to meeting your friend.”

He nodded, and in another life maybe he would have smiled. “Yeah…”

“So when’d you get back to town?” Lloyd asked.

Weston was about to dread the small talk when Sheila came out from the back. He hadn’t seen her in months, and the sight of her made him forget why they were there. Her eyes glowed as well. “Are you Sheila?” Lloyd asked.

She smiled, and Weston’s heart fluttered at that face. “I am. And you must be Mr. Camden.”

“Lloyd,” he said. “They didn’t tell me you were so gorgeous!”

She blushed and looked at Weston. “Wes, I think your dad is coming on to me!”

He couldn’t think of anything to counter the comment. He’d been trying to get up the courage to say something like that for months, and his father just blurted it out. “Yeah. She’s…she’s something else.”

Lloyd took her hand and kissed it. “My, what chivalry!” she laughed. “Was ever woman in this humor wooed?”

“How’s that?”

“It’s Richard III, Dad,” he replied, itching with an odd jealousy.

“She quotes Shakespeare and looks like that?” Lloyd asked. “How’d a girl this classy ever get tangled up with the likes of you?”

“Let’s go see the paintings.” he said, fighting off the streak of ice forming in his eye.

-

Sheila pulled into the Westonwood lot. She parked next to Weston’s car and sighed at the sight of it. Part of her didn’t want to get out.

Stuart escorted her to the listening room amidst the hubbub of the office. “I think you’ll like what we’ve got so far,” he said. “We’re building a nice synergy.”

“Good,” she replied, soft and reserved.

“Something wrong?”

“No. I’m just… Nothing.”

He opened the doors for her, and she found Weston and Hillary sitting in two of four chairs gathered around a table which held a coffee pot and four empty mugs.

“Hey!” Weston said, jumping up. “I feel like we didn’t get a chance to say hello the other day.”

“Yeah!” she said. “I guess not.”

“Have a seat!” he beckoned, resonating an energy and enthusiasm strong even for him.

She complied, as did Stuart. “I can hear a little feedback.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Hillary said as she operated a recorder sitting on a small tray beside her chair. “These aren’t final by any means.”

“So what’s up first?” Weston asked.

“First we’ve got the title song. Now, we’ve got three different versions of it, like you wanted. We’ve got David Cassidy, then Barry Manilow, then Captain and Tennille. It’s called …‘I Write the Songs.’”

They listened to all three versions. Sheila kept her eyes on the table the whole time, sensing someone’s gaze repeatedly falling on her.

“It’s catchy,” Stuart said. “I don’t know which one’s best.”

Weston nodded as the recordings still rang in their ears. “I say…let’s go with all of them.”

“What?”

“Let’em all put it out. All three versions. And…we’ll use Manilow’s for the title.”

“Are you sure about that?” Stuart asked.

“Let the synergy start here, with the title song,” Weston said.

Hillary’s lips spread wide. “We’re really doing this right, aren’t we?”

“What’s next?” Sheila asked, her only reaction to the tracks.

Hillary made a few notes to herself. “OK, we have ‘Road to Carthage’ from Neil Sedaka.”

They went through every one: Carly Simon, Boz Scaggs, Michael Murphey, Fleetwood Mac, and a very-coveted Paul McCartney. By the end the coffee pot was empty, their mugs cold, and they had notes on all the songs in their potential repertoire.

Stuart glanced at his watch. “I gotta split. I have a pregnant wife at home who gets pissed when I’m late!” He hopped up. “Do you need me for anything else?”

“No, you can scat, Yorky.”

Sheila watched him go as Hillary fiddled with the recorder. “You’ve been awfully quiet,” Hillary said. “Something on your mind?”

She knew he was watching. “Just…thinking about the music.”

Hillary went for the dishes, but Weston stopped her. “I’ll clean up. You take care of the notes.”

“Sure. I’ll come by when they’re done.”

Sheila watched him gathering the mugs and the cream, keenly aware that they were alone. “Need a hand?” she asked.

“I think I can get everything except…can you grab the pot?”

“No problem.”

She followed him to the kitchen. “Have a good time on location?”

“It was a lot of work, and a lot of fun. But…I got a little homesick.”

“I can imagine.”

They distributed everything on the counter, and she managed to avoid eye contact. He chuckled. “From what I hear, I missed a pretty interesting visit from your family.”

“They were sorry they missed you.”

“Yeah, well…they weren’t the only ones I missed.”

Her eyebrow furled. “What’dya mean?”

“I…missed you.”

“Oh!” She looked at him, eyes wide and attention flared. “I…missed you too.”

“Would you like to have dinner with me?”

No, yes, no. “Sure. Be a good idea to talk more about the music after we clear our heads.”

“No.” He reached for her hand, and she wasn’t strong enough to pull away. “I don’t want to talk about business. I just want to have dinner with you. Together.”

“Oh.” The hope in his eyes fought her. “I’d like that. I really would. But…I have to say no.”

“You have other plans?”

She hated to do it, but she pulled her hand away from him. “No, it’s not that. It’s just…I like you. You know I do. But I saw you the other day, with your dad. I saw the way you looked at him…the way you talked to him.”

“It’s not easy, with him. There’s…a lot between us.”

“I know. And I don’t fault you for it, believe me. And as a friend, I have sympathy for you. I want to support you and help you…but only as a friend.”

An awkward, fake grin crept across his face. “I’m sorry. I guess I misjudged…”

“No, you didn’t. I do think about you. It’s hard not to. You’re not the kind of guy a girl can…” She trailed off and bit her lip. “I love my daddy. I love my whole family. And I can’t go with someone…who doesn’t feel the same way.”

Despite her recoil, he took her hand again. “I can’t stop thinking about you either. You get to me in a way no one’s ever gotten me before.”

She hugged him. “Wes…I care about you.” It would be so easy to close her eyes and let everything go. “But I can’t see you like that.”

-

Sheila bit her finger before slipping into Hillary’s office and shutting herself inside. Hillary looked up from her notes as Sheila leaned against the door, glancing around the room, trying to get her bearings.

“Something wrong?”

Sheila wasn’t sure how to answer the question. Yes, something was wrong. But what was it, exactly? She relived the encounter, fixating on that look in his eyes.

“He just asked me out.”

Hillary tossed her pen on the desk. “Well…this is news.”

Sheila’s eyes went damp as she tried to make sense of the moment she’d hoped would never come. “I said no.”

“What?” she asked. “Are you serious?”

“I said no.”

“I don’t understand! You two seem so…smitten!”

She couldn’t remember the last time she’d gone an hour without thinking of him. “It was so hard.”

“But…why?”

“Because!” Her voice cracked with escaping pain. “I know he’ll break my heart!” She said it without thinking, and once spoken, she knew this was what lay at the bottom of everything.

Hillary leaned against her desk, crossing her arms and dropping her head. “Huh.”

“Am I wrong?”

Hillary’s eyes were on her notes, but Sheila could see them processing. Her lips went straight and her shoulders fell. “No…you’re not. You’re just being smart.”

“Guarding my heart is what my daddy would call it.”

AUGUST

Carlos Lowell ran back a stretch of footage as Weston stood behind him, watching the monitor with heavy eyes. “See?” Carlos said. “We needed coverage here.”

“I don’t shoot coverage,” Weston said.

Carlos shrugged. “Yeah, well, I know. But we needed it. I don’t know how the cut here is supposed to make any sense.”

“No, we can work with it. We’ll just have to reorder…” He leaned over Carlos and ran the film back. “Switch the shots. Try that. We can fix it when Mary and Bob come in for ADR.”

“Whatever you say, Boss.”

OCTOBER

Stuart came by one evening when Brina was out with her girlfriends, and he found Weston watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show, alone, drunk on Scotch. Weston barely acknowledged his friend as Stuart took a seat. Dust and despair covered the usually immaculate house.

“I didn’t think you’d be home.”

“Took the night off.”

“What’d you do, fire your maid?”

“She’s on vacation,” Weston replied, eyes glued to the screen.

“Geez, Man, you’re depressing me!” he said, pouring himself a drink. “I mean, no offense, but you, boozing, watching her on TV…it’s creepy.”

“I had lunch with her today.”

“Mary?”

“No…”

Stuart sucked his Scotch. “At least you’re still friends.”

“Whatever.”

“So one girl rejected you. That’s one out of…what, the rest of womankind? You know what they say about rejection.”

“Why’s she have to be married?” Weston asked.

Stuart followed his stare to Mary Tyler Moore’s gorgeous smile. “Oh, Man. Turn this shit off, or I’m out of here.”

Weston stood up lackadaisically and complied. “Man, this place is a dump.”

“Tell you what,” Stuart said. “Let’s go out. Find you some action, what do you say?”

“I say Brina’d be pissed.”

“Hey, I’m just a wingman. Come on…how many girls would kill to have a drink with you right now?”

“I think I’m done.”

“OK, then…damn it, you’re no fun! Look, I don’t know…if it helps…maybe you should ask her out again.”

“Why?”

“Maybe she’ll change her mind. Girls are like that. And anyway, I don’t know what the hell’s wrong with you two, but when have you ever taken no for an answer?”

“She wants kids.”

Stuart poured himself another drink. “Sometimes you bug the hell out of me, you know that?”

-

When Sheila opened the door to find Weston on her step, she broke into a smile and hugged him. He hadn’t shown up since that awkward day at the office, and seeing him there filled her with relief. “I was just thinking about you!” she said, pulling him inside. “I have something for you!”

“Yeah?”

“Close your eyes!”

He obliged, and she slipped into another room, emerging moments later carrying a painting. “OK, open sesame!”

He blinked the light back and she watched his reaction with pleasure. In the frame, a discouraged and frustrated man leaned over a table with a glass of green liquid before him. Scattered papers lay around him, like abandoned work. On the table, looking down at him in his misery, sat an ethereal woman, not quite tangible, perfectly transparent, her skin and hair in vibrant shades of green.

“Victor Oliva,” he said. “The Absinthe Drinker.”

“I know how much you like your Maignan.”

“I love it. Thank you!”

“I thought you would!” she said, pleased, and set it by the door. When she rose again, she found him close, inching closer. His eyes watched her, eyebrows arched opposite his warm smile, and her breath caught in her lungs. She knew he was getting closer, but it was so slow and deliberate that she couldn’t do anything but wait. Her head rang with warnings, but there he was, coming, and those cries of concern sifted into the wind.

“Wes…”

He put his hand on her cheek. Those fingers brushed the strands of hair that hung down near her ear, and with that one touch he could have banished all her willpower. He could have erased her memory, made her forget all the things that made her hold him at a distance.

“Wes…you know…”

He leaned in, and something snapped. She backed into the door, sliding away as that breath finally released itself.

“Sheila…”

“Do we have to do this again? Why can’t we…”

“I love you.”

She locked onto him again, but like a child watching the closet for movement, knowing a monster lurked in there somewhere despite the peaceful silence of the room. He spoke those words like a child as well, full of innocent sincerity and without the emotional defenses that came with age and experience.

“Say something.”

She swallowed, and her throat stung. “What am I supposed to say?”

“What do you…”

“You know, Wes. If I could…” There they were, all the cries of concern. She had to give him one, give him something hard that he couldn’t talk his way through. “I’m a virgin.”

“Oh…”

She summoned her strength. “I don’t judge you for the life you live. But I’m saving myself…for my husband. And I think it’s only fair to expect…”

“Oh…”

-

Weston’s vision blurred as he drove, the sun setting on the horizon and leaving the world a mesh of darkness speckled with random, pointless light. He knew he should go home and clear his head. He knew the sensible thing to do.

He arrived at the bar, and an hour later he’d found his smile again.

The place was packed, the music live and loud. College girls flocked to his side, bright and beautiful and drunk. They passed their eyes and fingers across him. Each seductive glance, each provocative word, each hand that he touched reminded him that he was the Great One. He was not inadequate or unworthy. A hundred eyes told him just how worthy he was.

When he kissed one of those girls, the alcohol and cheap perfume intoxicating him, he thought of how silly it was to save himself for someone who wouldn’t touch him. And when he took her home in a cab, her hands exploring his body, he knew that he was desirable. He knew that he was a man.

And when he put her in his bed, he let go of all the pain and embraced the pleasure.

Oh, how good it felt.

NOVEMBER

Color Twenty was slotted for release the day after Christmas. Preliminary gossip listed the project as an Oscar contender. The museum exhibit packed in curious patrons and the music played on the radio.

Weston didn’t care.

He lay sprawled in his bathrobe, his home collecting garbage as quickly as dust. He nursed a coffee and a hangover, wishing the sun had forgotten where he lived. His thoughts drifted as he stared at The Absinthe Drinker, hung over his table as a constant reminder that the Green Muse was ethereal, not real.

The doorbell chimed, not once but constantly, and he growled as he cinched his robe, cursing under his breath. He flung the door open, which was a mistake. The light hit his face and his throbbing head ached.

A girl stood there, one he didn’t know. He thought maybe he’d met her at a club or someplace, because she did look familiar.

“Yes?” he asked, his throat sore.

She frowned at him. “It’s me!”

“Sorry? Do I know you?”

Her brow furrowed in a blend of confusion and panic. “It’s me! Rose! You don’t remember me?”

He held up his hand to shade his eyes. “Where do I know you from?”

The girl gasped and threw her hands to her mouth. “Please tell me you remember me!”

“Calm down,” he said. “Why’s it so important?”

“Because I’m pregnant!” she said.

“And?”

“And?” she asked. “And…you’re the father!”

“What are you talking…” Sheila’s. Painting. No. No. Driving. Drinking. Girls. Touches. Kissing. Cab. Flesh. Hair. Bed… “Oh my God…”

She gasped again, her fear laced with hope. “You remember?”

“Yes…”

“You’ve got to help me! If my parents find out about this, they’re going to kill me!”

“How old are you?”

“Eighteen,” she said. She hung her head, breaking his gaze. “Almost.”

His eyes snapped shut. He wanted to extinguish the sun and hide in the safety of the dark. He wanted to chastise her for hanging out in a bar when she was so young. He wanted…

“I need to get it…taken care of,” she said.

Two thoughts raced through his head. If she took the easy way out, that would be the fourth time. The fourth girl. He couldn’t be responsible for that, couldn’t face that man in the mirror. But he also imagined Sheila’s reaction to finding out what he’d done. Either way, baby or not, he knew she would never look at him the same way again.

The scared, pregnant, teenager stood on his porch, shaking. “Can you help me?”

He stared at her and saw Sheila. He saw Annette, Yvette, Chelsea. His mother. He stared at her and saw lingering, almost invisible green eyes.

“It’ll be our secret.”

-

Slivers of images plagued his sleep. He’d dreamed about her before, that tiny helpless infant completely dependent on him. She rested in his arms and cooed, and slept, and filled him with despairing joy. She blinked at him and gave his life a dreadful purpose. He’d escaped her four times in life, but in dreams she was omnipotent. He had no choice but to face her in the world she ruled.

He couldn’t escape his guilt and remorse, awake or asleep. It was there everywhere he went, in every young mother and child. In Sheila.

He clawed at himself, trying to tear it out, whatever it was that was killing him. Conscience? Soul? Emptiness? Lost hope?

He’d only ever known one sure way to escape. And so, despite recovery and lingering traces of psychological dependence, he brought LSD into his home and shut the door.

He popped a tablet, and another, inhaling the drug like air. He sat down at his desk with pencil and paper and sketched the face of the girl of his dreams…the infant who called him father. She came to life from curves and scratches. He stared at her. The air blew cool, and as he blinked he could see lines twisting and floating, suspended and directionless. He rubbed his eyes but the lines remained. He wrote a name: Helen.

He drew another with smaller, squinting eyes. Her ears were slanted and out of proportion. He could hear her mumbling in his head. He wrote her name: Daphne.

The incoherent drivel grew louder when he couldn’t remember how many pills he’d taken. All he’d left on the table was an empty bag. The room expanded and contracted as he searched for the rest of the tablets, trying to keep his balance. Were there any left? How many had he bought? Did he give some to the baby?

It was three o’clock in the morning and he was naked. How long had he been home? What happened to his clothes? He stumbled and fell over a coffee table, cutting a thin slice in his leg. A sheet of blood covered his shin as he clutched at it.

He could hear the baby crying. Little Sadie, right? Or was it Sophie? He was sure it was a girl. He wondered again if the baby had taken some of the acid. The sobbing cry eluded him as he searched her out. He flipped books off their shelves and sent paintings careening to the floor.

Now the baby talked, and the distant murmur sounded like his mother. She laughed, but he only heard her out of one ear. He flicked the other one and winced from the pain in his leg.

“I thought she was asleep!” he said, but now both ears were useless. He shouted again, and again, and couldn’t hear his own voice. Then he realized he could hear it after all…only it wasn’t his voice. It was the baby’s.

Little…Juyam?

He lay on the floor, face down, and as he turned over he discovered two wolves sniffing at him. One was a wolf, at least. The other was more like a giant rat. Scratch that. They were both rats. He kicked at them and gasped in fear, and they ran away, disappearing.

“I’m not afraid of you!” he shouted. He curled up on the ground and whispered, “I’m not afraid…I’m not…I’m not…”

Somewhere nearby, the baby’s crying lingered.

-

He awoke on the floor of the bathroom, soaked in water from the running sink and shower. His shin throbbed with pain. He touched his forehead and found a large bruise, but no blood. The taste of raw eggs clutched at his mouth, and he vomited.

He couldn’t go to work. Fortunately it was Thanksgiving week, so he would hardly be missed. Nothing besides exhibitor screenings, and Stuart ran those.

Weston lay awake in bed that night, stricken with flashbacks and guilt. He couldn’t sleep the next night, nor the next. He hadn’t rested in days. If he ever could again, he told himself, he would do whatever it took to swear off acid forever.

The solution was more drugs. Sleeping pills. He took twice the recommended dose and lay there, exhausted and awake. Flashbacks plagued him: the pregnant girl, Sheila, the child… He feared he might never sleep again.

Maybe it was the crushing guilt, maybe the insomnia. Maybe something else. He took a handful of sleeping pills and shoved them into his mouth. He looked at himself in the mirror, eyes sunken and low, skin flushed, hair covered in nervous sweat. He groaned through the pills. Then, with a moment’s hesitation, he brought a bottle of Scotch to his lips and washed them down.

Weston finally fell asleep.

-

Hillary rang the bell Thanksgiving morning, concerned and apprehensive about Weston’s recent erratic behavior. Lights burned through a window, but no one answered. He never left them on when he was gone. A growing knot in her stomach told her she needed to get inside as soon as possible.

She used her key, and a stale, dirty stench hit her in the face. The house normally smelled of fresh flowers. It hadn’t stunk like this since Annette left him. “Hello?” she shouted. “Wes?”

She didn’t wait for a response. The place looked as if he’d been burglarized, and the possibilities taunted her. “Weston? Are you there?” She resisted the urge to scream it as she passed from room to room, freezing in the bedroom doorway. Weston lay sprawled out on the floor, an empty Scotch bottle in his hand.

“Oh my God!” Liquor saturated the carpet and his mouth hung open, spittle on his lips. “Wes? Wes?” she screamed, shaking him. She felt for pulses and breathing. “Oh my God!” she screamed again, stumbling for the phone.

-

Weston awoke in a hospital bed, tubes running out of him. His mouth tasted like charcoal and he wanted to vomit. As his eyes adjusted to the light, he saw Lara and Stuart standing beside him, talking in hushed voices. Hillary sat in a chair in the corner, staring out the window.

“Hey…” he managed.

Lara bent down over him, cradling him. “Benny!” she cried, clutching at him as if she were afraid to let him go. “What’d you do?”

“Do?” He could barely hear himself.

She looked like she wanted to slap him. “What were you thinking?” she cried.

“Do…what?”

“Try to kill yourself!” She whispered it as if speaking it made it more real.

He thought back through the haze. “I did?”

“Well, the doctors won’t tell us anything. But…I mean, didn’t you?”

“I…don’t think so.”

Then he remembered the insomnia, the flashbacks, the Scotch…and the distant cry of a baby. He winced, clutching at his head as Hillary squeezed Stuart’s hand for support. “Oh…” he said. “Oh…”

Lara’s lip quivered. “How could you be so stupid?”

Weston looked past her to Stuart, who nodded with straight lips. “Yorky?”

“Wes,” he said. “Glad to hear your voice. Can’t imagine what you have to say right now, though.”

Lara cupped his hand, and his gaze fell on the last of his guests. “Hill?”

Hillary turned to him with dead eyes, her head shaking.

“Dad was here,” Lara said.

“He was?” That was unusual, he knew, but he couldn’t remember why.

“Andrew brought him by, but they had to leave. Gabe wouldn’t stop crying.”

“Sorry…”

“How do you feel?” Lara asked.

“I feel…good,” he said, eyes fluttering.

Stuart took Lara’s elbow and helped her up. “Well, good to know you’re still ticking. I’m sure you need some time to yourself.”

“Yorky?”

“Yes?”

“Are you…what’s wrong?”

Stuart put his arm around Lara and motioned for Hillary. “Why would anything be wrong?”

Weston frowned. “Something is.”

“We’ll give you some time to work it out,” Stuart replied, and Hillary rose, looking anywhere but at the man in the bed.

“Is there anything we can bring you?” Lara asked.

He looked from face to disturbed face at the people who loved him. One was missing.

“No…nothing.”

-

Sheila turned a corner, wind-blown hair dangling over her eyes and her stomach tightening with every step. She spotted Hillary and Stuart, and she broke into a jog.

“How is he?” she asked, and she knew her voice betrayed so many things she’d tried to keep silent, but she didn’t care.

“Awake,” Stuart said. “Sheila, this is his sister, Lara. Lara, this is Sheila Green.”

“Hi,” Lara said. “Nice to finally meet you.”

“Yeah…” Sheila’s lip quivered, and she could barely speak. “Where is he?”

Weston stretched his neck when the door opened. He looked at her, so calm and peaceful. She prayed silently, thanking God he was still there.

“Hello,” he said.

She came over to his bed, unable to hide her tears. She just stood over him, looking down and crying, and squeezed his hand as hard as she could. He lay there unmoving, a captive audience to her weeping. She lifted his hand to her face and pressed it against herself, her wet warmth bathing his fingers.

“I thought you were gone,” she said.

“I’m still here.”

“I came this morning…when they brought you in…do you remember?”

“I don’t remember…anything.”

“They made you drink charcoal. Your teeth were so black, and you just smiled up at me like…like a little baby. You didn’t even…” She cried for a moment. “You didn’t even know I was there!”

“Huh.”

“You missed Thanksgiving dinner.”

“That’s today?”

“Yes…” She let go of his hand. “If you want…maybe I can come by later with some turkey.”

“I’d like that,” he said, so tranquil and peaceful that he sounded artificial.

“If you ever need to talk about anything…”

“What if I need to talk…about you?”

She stared at him, horrified at the possibility that he might have done this because of her. She wouldn’t put it past him. “You can talk to me…about anything.”

“OK.”

She nodded, wiping the tears from her eyes. “Listen, this is…a lot to handle. I think we both need some rest. I’ll be back later.”

“Sure,” he said. She rose and made her way to the door. “Sheila?”

She gripped the knob, anxious to turn it. “Yes?”

“Thanks for coming.”

She sank into a chair in the waiting room, unable to control her weeping. People passed by, but nobody paid her any attention.

She imagined him swallowing all those pills, and even though they hadn’t been told what had happened, she knew enough to know what he had done. She thought of what it would have been like if he died. All the reasons she had for rejecting him were there, and yet something about Weston drew her, something that she could neither resist nor ignore. He made her want to paint the world.

She pressed her eyes shut.

Weston snapped awake when, minutes later, she stepped back into the room. “What are you doing here?” he asked.

She came up to the bed, looking down on him without words. His strained breathing filled her ears and broke her heart. She leaned down over him and pressed her lips against his, leaving no room for doubt this time. Sheila kissed him, breathing in and out, the taste of charcoal be damned. She kissed him, and she kissed him.

“What…what was that for?” he asked.

“I changed my mind,” she said, her heart pounding. “I’d love to go to dinner with you.”

DECEMBER

Color Twenty arrived in theaters the day after Christmas. Weston and Sheila Green were all Hollywood could talk about. Cameras flashed and typewriters cranked as they showed their faces around town. No one recognized her a month earlier, and now she was on the cover of People, Time, and countless other publications…along with her new boyfriend.

They stepped out to meet their public at the premiere. She never let go of his arm, a spectator to a world in which she did not belong. Hillary stayed close by with Stuart and Brina. Even though the success belonged to all of them, the night belonged to the two lovers who had managed to uncross the stars.

Their songs played in the lobby of the theater and beyond. Prints of her paintings hung on display. The audience reacted just as she’d dreamed they would. Twenty colors lit up the screen, and she knew her life would never be the same. When Carly Simon’s song played, she leaned in and whispered, “That’s my girl!”

He kissed her hand and whispered back, “Here’s mine.”

As the sensation of his lips lingered, she shivered in her seat. This movie…this thing she had conceived herself and spent a year creating…wasn’t the most important part of her year anymore.

-

Weston couldn’t find a moment to breathe at the party that followed the film. He let go of Sheila, but he never let her out of his sight. She sat with Mary and her husband, Grant, and he fluttered around the room, giving everyone a moment. All they could talk about was the movie, and even though it had consumed him for a year, he’d already forgotten it.

Sheila glanced at him and smiled, and that was all that mattered.

“Hey.”

He turned and found Hillary had snuck up beside him. “So you’re finally talking to me again?” he asked.

She never completely looked him in the eye. “I just wanted to say…Merry Christmas. And congratulations.”

“Congratulations to you too!” he said, giving her a half-accepted hug.

“No…I mean…the two of you.”

“Oh…” He heard Sheila and Mary laughing somewhere behind him. “Thanks.”

“I don’t want to talk about…that day. And I don’t want to know how you got there. But ever since then…I feel like I got my friend back.”

Weston breathed in hard. “I never said thank you.”

“You don’t–”

“You saved my life.”

Her eyes fluttered up to his, dry and wet at the same time. As she pressed her head against his chest and let out a painful sigh, he winced. The room had filled with jagged lines, rainbow squiggles dancing in the air. He heard whispering gibberish, and he knew there was no point in searching for the source.

He blinked away the hallucination, but the mumbling voice lingered.

1976

JANUARY

Weston sat poised over a typewriter, the constant clicking his only music. So focused was he that Hillary’s knocking blended perfectly with the ticking keys.

“Wes?” He looked up to find her lingering in the half-open doorway. “Got a minute?”

Seeing her there, in his office and talking to him again, with only a hint remaining of the awkward silence that hung over them for a month, brushed away every other thought. “I believe I do.”

She clutched papers as she tucked her red wool skirt under herself and sat. Her face, still somber, flickered with something else, as if that straight jaw and those tender eyes masked another person underneath. A giddy child, from the looks of it.

“The nominations?”

The line of her lips broke round and wide. “How’d you know?”

He leaned back and pushed the typewriter away. “I told you not to get excited.”

“You said the same thing about the Globes,” she said, her eyes as wide as the two golden spheres sitting on a shelf behind him.

“You know the Academy’ll never recognize me. Not after my stunt in ’68.” She waved the paper and her eye caught a beam of light from his desk lamp, sparkling like one of those new awards. “So it’s good?”

“Well, that all depends. If you were hoping for five nominations, you’re in for a letdown. But if your expectations were more conservative, let’s say four…”

“Spill it!” he laughed.

“OK, well, first nod is for best song.”

“For?”

“’From Damsel to Dame,’ Carly Simon.”

“Fantastic!”

“Yep yep! That’s already more than we’ve ever gotten…as in zilch, zero.”

“Would you read the next one please?” he asked.

“OK…our second nod, ladies and gentlemen…film editing, Carlos Lowell.”

“Catty Carlos,” he said. “Guess he’s finally getting that raise.”

“Yep yep,” Hillary said.

“So, the next?”

“Oh, the other two aren’t that important. Still, though, for nods!”

“You kind of got my hopes up now!” He saw mischief in her eyes. “Come on!”

“Sure you don’t want to grab a change of underwear?”

“I’ll take my chances!”

“Better start writing your speech, just in case. You’re up for best director.”

He sank further into his seat. “Oh my God…” he breathed. Suddenly his Golden Globes seemed like golden geese. She giggled with excitement, but he just spaced out.

“Wes? You there?”

He covered his mouth for a moment, head swimming. “Walter Mirisch must have finally forgiven me for that toast I gave at his wedding!”

“Statute must have expired,” she said.

“What’s the last one?”

“Oh…yeah, well…I guess we’re going to need to work on that speech together…” His eyes widened at the implication as she added, “Color Twenty, nominated for best picture of the year!”

“Are you kidding me?”

“We got Barry Lyndon, Jaws, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Dog Day Afternoon, and…Color Twenty.”

FEBRUARY

Weston stirred as the phone rang beside the bed. Half-awake, he considered just unplugging the thing, but by the time he mustered that much consciousness, he decided he might as well answer.

“Hello?”

No reply.

“Hello?”

Breathing. Slow and steady. Heavy.

“Who is this?”

More breathing. Slower. Heavier.

“Whoever this is, if you don’t stop calling, I’m going to trace the calls!”

“I love you.” It was a woman, or a man doing a good job of impersonating one.

“What?” He rubbed his eyes.

“I need to be with you.”

“Stop calling,” he said.

A moment’s silence. “It’s my birthday,” she breathed. “I want to eat you like a cake.”

He hung up, muttering under his breath, and got up to find the number for the police.

-

Lara and Sheila perused the dresses in a tiny Rodeo Drive boutique with high ceilings and higher prices. Sheila could imagine her mother’s horror at her even considering buying something at such a place.

“That’s a great look for you!” Sheila said, holding a slender black dress up to Lara’s neck. “Really brings out your eyes. You know what it needs, though?”

“What?”

Sheila skipped off, returning moments later with a conservative green scarf and hanging it over Lara’s neck. “What’dya think?”

“OK, from now on I’m never shopping without you!”

“You bet!” Sheila said. “I’ll take good care of you!” As she browsed, she noticed another woman eyeing her. The lady was pretending not to look, but she kept sneaking glances like a child who thought she’d spotted Santa Claus in street clothes.

“Can I help you?” Sheila said.

Short and petite, the woman looked up at her with aging anticipation. “Aren’t you Sheila Green?”

She jerked her head back, giving the lady her full attention. “That’s me.”

The woman’s weathered face broke into a smile. “I thought so! I must’ve seen you somewhere. I have to tell you, I love your work!”

Sheila blushed. “Really?”

“I saw your exhibit twice, and bought the book. And I loved the movie!”

“Thanks! You’re so sweet!”

“You know,” the woman continued, “When I was a little girl, I wanted to be an artist. I guess somewhere along the way, I lost that. But you brought back my interest in…all of it! I’m taking a course at the community college now. Anyway, I’m sure you don’t care about that. I just wanted you to know.”

“Ah!” she gasped, her hand going to her throat. “How sweet are you?”

“I don’t suppose…I could have your autograph?”

“Oh, you just give me a pen!”

The woman lit up and produced one along with a piece of paper. “What’s your name?”

“Lenore.”

She drew a little caricature beside the signature and handed it back with pride. To sweet Lenore, it read. Your life is a canvas; paint it well. Love, Sheila Green.

“Oh, thank you!” she said. “Thank you so much!”

“Anytime!” They watched her leave, cradling the paper, and Sheila sighed. “That was crazy!”

Lara patted her on the back. “Better get used to it! You’re with Weston now.”

-

Sheila curled up beside Weston on her sofa. The lights dim, the heater humming, they amused themselves with the antics of the Not Ready For Prime Time Players on NBC’s Saturday Night.

“Maybe I’m the only one,” Sheila said as Desi Arnaz crooned from onstage. “But you know, I never thought he had that great of a voice.”

“Trust me, you’re not.”

“I always thought Fred Mertz was kind of cute.”

“Seriously?”

She tickled him and he flinched. “Cuter than you, anyway!”

“I hate to break it to you, but I think your boyfriend’s dead.”

“You’re terrible!” She bit her lip as he leaned in to kiss her, but the phone interrupted them. “Who’s calling this late?” she groaned as she slid across the room. “Hello?”

Weston watched the affection in her face drain. “Mattie?” She turned down the volume. “What’s wrong?” He wished he could hear the other side of the conversation. “Is she all right?” Nervous shivering. “What’s wrong?” Her eyes filled with concern. “Are you…is it…?” As he watched her come undone, he wondered if he should go to her. “Is it…I mean, can they stop it?” She glanced at Weston, who stood to turn off the television. “I’m coming out,” she said. “I don’t care…I’m coming.” He saw her eyes glisten, and he lingered nearby. “Mattie?” she asked, voice cracking. “Kiss…kiss her for me? And Forest?” Her eyebrow twitched. “I love you too…”

Sheila replaced the receiver with a quivering hand, and she stood there in the soft silence.

“Your mother?”

She nodded. “Apparently…she’s got…some kind of bone cancer. I…I was just talking to her yesterday. She seemed fine…”

He hugged her, and she wrapped her arms around him. “I’ll get you there in the morning.”

She rubbed her cheek against his shoulder. “Thank you.”

MARCH

Sheila returned from Memphis quoting Shakespeare as never before. Pictures of Lorraine Green sprung up in various places throughout her apartment. She slept with a blanket her mother had made for her when she was a child. A damp pillow often cushioned her when she slept, and when she was with Weston, sometimes she needed a minute alone.

“Mom used to call me her sparkle,” she said one day. “She said I put the sparkle in my daddy’s eyes.”

They lay on the floor of her living room, photo albums and family records spread out across the clean carpet. Her shoulder touched his, and she leaned into him as she flipped a page.

“My mom used to rock me to sleep,” Weston said. “Even when I was getting too old.” He smiled at the memory. “Dad used to tell her not to. Said it’d make me soft. I sure did love her a lot.”

“I know.”

“I know what it feels like…”

“Maybe you could come and meet her.”

“I would love it. I…wish you could have met my mother too.”

Her finger traced his arm. “You…you still have a dad.”

“Let’s not get into that.”

“But he’s your daddy.” She found a picture of herself sitting beside young Matt on her father’s knees, smiling up at him as if he were her whole world. “You’re still that hurt little boy who wants to sit in his momma’s lap without his daddy calling him soft.”

“It’s…complicated.”

“It always is,” she replied, touching his hand. “It’s hard to be a son, and it’s hard to be a daddy. I think you’d be a great dad…if you’d try to be a good son.”

He imagined Lloyd’s disapproving glare as he stared into Reverend Green’s black-and-white smile.

“Wes…you know I wanna be a momma.”

In her most tender moments, her Tennessee accent emerged. He loved that about her. “I know you do.”

“That’s something you need to think about,” she said. He glanced at her, and she wasn’t looking at the photographs anymore.

“I know.” He kissed her and she kissed him back, tender and sobering. He pulled a hair out of her beautiful eyes. “You know what, though?”

“Huh?” she asked.

“If I ever did…you know, have a kid…I hope he wouldn’t pick up a Tennessee accent.”

“Shut up!”

“You know…we’ve got a big day tomorrow…and a big night.”

She took a deep breath, eyes glazing over. “Oh my gosh…” She blushed. “I can’t believe it’s tomorrow! I’m going to look so killer…you’ll melt!”

“In that case, it won’t even matter who wins.”

“We’re going to win. Which reminds me…” She hopped up and left him there with the scattered Green family photos, returning a moment later with the portrait of him she had once painted. “I want you to have this.”

“Thank you.”

She turned the panting over to its subject with a kiss. “So long as men have breath, and eyes can see, so long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”

“That’s…number eighteen, right?”

“It is,” she said. “And…do you remember what those sonnets are about?”

-

Nothing Sheila had ever seen came close to the spectacle of the Academy Awards. Lights, gowns, tuxedos, famous faces, energy in the air, cameras flashing. People craned to get a glimpse of them as the limousine pulled up to the carpet.

“Whoa…” Hillary breathed, peeking out from within the dark cab. “Anyone nervous?”

“No,” Weston said, taking Sheila’s shaking hand with a calm grip. “I was born for this.”

The doors opened and he emerged into the spotlight, to the excited noises of the crowd. He took Hillary on one arm and Sheila on the other. To the world he was Weston, the Bad Boy Rebel who showed up to the Academy Awards with two dates.

But it wasn’t like that anymore.

Sheila didn’t share her boyfriend’s composure. She tried to capture all that energy in her mind and soul, wondering what kind of painting she would craft if she stood to the side with an easel and brush.

Weston just strolled in like he owned the place.

There were posters up, advertising some of the contenders of the evening. Sheila thrilled when she saw the Color Twenty display. A three-dimensional eye, sculpted from ice, sat situated in front of the burning sun, the heat melting the eye away to all sides and corners, where the runoff collected into clouds.

-

Hollywood’s elite gathered within the halls of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. As the ceremony began, as winners claimed their awards, Weston snuck glances at Sheila’s thrilled face. She was so beautiful, inside and out. Second to his mother and sister, he’d never met a girl he respected as much, cared about as much, or wanted to please and impress. She flashed him a knee-buckling smile, and he tried to connect with the event. Mary winked at him, and he winked back.

He sat calmly as the award for Best Director came up. Sheila and Hillary both squeezed his hands for support as Diane Keaton and William Wyler announced the nominees over steady rounds of applause: “Milos Forman…One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Robert Altman…Nashville. Weston…Color Twenty. Stanley Kubrick…Barry Lyndon. And Sidney Lumet…Dog Day Afternoon.”

The moment of silence hung for an hour as Sheila’s hand threatened to separate his from his wrist.

“And the Oscar goes to…Weston!”

He kissed each of them on the cheek, then rose to the roars of applause from his Hollywood brethren. He approached and took the statuette in his hand with a cool smile. “Thank you,” he said as the ovation died. “Charlie Chaplin once said that art…doesn’t reflect what a society is. It reflects what a society is becoming. I think I understand him now. With Color Twenty, we tried to transcend art…and culture. Maybe we succeeded, maybe we failed. I leave that up to you. All I know is…” He paused for a moment, looking out at all those expectant faces, singling out Sheila. “All I know is…all I’ve ever wanted to be was a Teller of Tales…to give the world something to dream about, and I thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for that opportunity.”

Neither of the girls said a word when he resumed his seat, but they both returned the kiss he’d given them. It was the greatest moment of his life so far.

An equally great moment, however, came later when they grabbed his sleeve and hoisted him to his feet to help them accept the award for Best Picture of the Year.

-

They celebrated at an exclusive party with the best live music, the finest food and drink, and the electricity of success. They received accolades and congratulations, and gave them out in turn. As soon as they had a chance to breathe, Weston offered her his hand.

“Would you like to dance?”

“I’d love to.” She took it gracefully. “You were certainly on tonight.”

“One does one’s best.” He clasped her fingers, intertwined, and his other hand rested on her waist. “It was just an award.”

“A pretty big award! Two of them!”

“I don’t care about that. There’s only one thing I ever won that I gave a damn about.”

She didn’t swoon, nor did he expect it. Her fingers on his arm softened. “You never had to win me. You know that.”

He had already forgotten the awards that brought them there, the movie they’d made, and every other moment they’d been together. Only this one mattered. Only the dance. He leaned forward, she tilted her chin up, and they shared a tender kiss. As they pulled apart again, he gazed into her baby blues and smiled.

I’m going to marry you, Sheila Green.

When the best night of his life came to its end, he put pen to paper and wrote a sonnet.

My eyes can see the things that aren’t there

My ears can hear the sounds of mystery

My curse is pressing more than I can bear

And beckons all the world to follow me

I sketch a curve and curve grows into sphere

I shade a color, color bleeds to scene

I speak a word and everything is clear

I move and all the world is painted green

A fairy floats beyond my grasp and leads

My willing mind to follow her, my muse

My chance to find escape from earthly needs

My one true love I know I cannot lose

Come with me and the world will know our name

Come with me and we’ll never be the same

MAY

Weston paced back and forth in the hallway, chewing on his finger and oblivious to anything and everything going on around him. Crisp thoughts grounded themselves in his focused mind. Like Color Twenty before, all his machinations and creativity poured into his new plan.

“You’re early, Buddy,” Johnny Carson said, shaking his hand.

“Sorry. I had nothing else to do and a lot on my mind.”

“Well, step into my office then!”

Weston followed Johnny inside. “Something to drink?”

“No, thanks. I’m fine.”

“Congratulations, by the way. How come we haven’t gotten you on the show since the Oscars?”

He half-sat, too wound up to fall into the chair. “Sorry.”

“What’s the matter? Someone drop a whoopee cushion down there?”

“Johnny…I got a favor to ask.”

“I’m listening.”

He took a deep breath. “I want to propose to my girlfriend.”

“Congratulations! Again!”

“Thanks! Thing is…I’m going to need your help.”

Johnny leaned forward on his elbows. “Do tell.”

“Carly Simon’s…got a new album coming out next month. I want you…to get her on the show.”

“You know she’s not big on singing in public,” Johnny said.

“I know, I know. That’s fine. She recorded for Saturday Night. She’ll record for you.”

“How do you know she’ll do it?”

He flushed, the excitement bristling across his cheeks. And neck. And the rest of his body. “I already asked her.”

“And what’s this have to do with proposing?”

Weston’s eyes dripped with animation. “You…bring me on as the other guest.”

He explained the plan in detail, and Johnny’s mischievous grin grew longer and brighter with every bit. He took another deep, jittery breath. “So what do you think?”

Johnny shook his head. “You’re a ballsy son of a bitch, you know that?”

“You’ll do it?”

“What the hell? I’m in. As long as you do me a favor too.”

“Name it!”

Johnny chuckled. “Stop parking in my space.”

JUNE

Johnny beat on his desk like a conga. “Let’s see, who do we have tonight? We’ve got, ah, our first guest is an old friend who just won…won the Oscar, back in March. Two of them. I’m told this time he’s on his own for once, so let’s bring him out…Weston!”

The band played “I Write The Songs” as the spotlight hit him from the side of the stage. He gave the roaring audience a friendly wave and shook hands with Carson. The crowd kept cheering, and he blew them a kiss as he took his seat.

“Good to see you again.”

“Good to be back. You know, I miss this place when I’m gone too long.”

“We’d be happy to rent you a room in the back. Something in an efficiency?”

“Perhaps!”

“Well, let me just say that you are a talented, talented man, and it’s an honor to have you here tonight…bet you never thought you’d hear me say that!”

“I didn’t park in your space this time, so I feel like you kind of owe me.”

“But I mean it. We saw the movie, everyone saw it. And it just blew us away!” More applause as Weston pursed his lips. “And you won the awards, the Best Picture and Director and everything.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“So, I mean, how are you going to top this thing?”

“Trust me. When I go out, I’ll go out with a bang.”

“So what are you gonna do now?” Johnny asked.

“I’m going to Disneyland.” Cheering. “No, I’m taking it easy right now, just for a minute or two.”

“But you’re gonna be …what did you call yourself? The Teller of Tales?”

“One does one’s best.”

“So you’re doing…what, a little fishing, a little…backgammon?”

Weston laughed. “I’m not retired!”

“Well, OK, Mister Wiseacre, you tell me!”

“I’m getting a little R and R with my girlfriend.”

“Sheila Green. The artist behind the man behind the movie?”

“More like my creative partner.”

“So you two thought it up together?”

“All the way.”

“She’s a cute thing, too.”

“She is.”

“So what’s she have to say about all the hoopla and everything?”

“It’s a lot, you know. She’s just starting to get recognized, so there’s that. Actually…” He leaned forward, unable to hold back his boyish grin.

Johnny glanced at the audience. “Let me guess.”

“Would you like to meet her?”

The people cheered as Weston rose. “Well, that’s it for me, folks. I’m off to bed!” Johnny said. Sheila stepped out into the lights, smiling at the crowd and holding her face tight. Weston made room for her.

“Can we get another chair out here, please?” Johnny asked, laughing.

“That’s OK,” Weston said. “She’ll sit in my lap.”

“I will not!” Sheila declared, and Johnny leaned in to give her a kiss on the cheek. “What’s that for?”

“For standing up to him. I never could!” Johnny cleared his throat as they settled in. “So you put up with this guy?”

“He has his moments.”

“Well yeah, I imagine it would take some getting used to.”

“No, he’s sweet.”

“But didn’t Alan Alda once call him the slimiest man alive?” Johnny asked.

“That was in Candlefrost,” Weston said.

“Seems like he said it here on the show. Anyway, Sheila, I understand your Reverend Green’s little girl.”

“Yes!”

“What’s he think about all this stardom you’ve got these days?”

“He’s the one who pushed me out the door. If it wasn’t for him, I’d probably still be in Memphis.”

“It just seems a little…flashy for a guy like him.”

“It is. Daddy doesn’t like the flash anymore.”

“But you like it here?”

She smiled at Weston. “Some people…make it easy to stay.”

“Hey, I gotta sell something. When we come back, more with Weston and Sheila, plus Carly Simon! Don’t miss it!”

They cut, and Sheila let out a big sigh. “How’m I doing?”

Weston squeezed her hand. “Fine! You’re doing great!”

Sheila spoke for a minute with Johnny. Weston heard her laugh, but the words were a blur. His thoughts ballooned with anxiety, and he closed his eyes. Breathe…breathe…

“And we’re back!” Johnny said. “I was just asking Sheila here how she and Weston met.”

Weston rolled his eyes as Sheila spoke. “They were doing my exhibit at his gallery, and he was there checking it out. He didn’t even know who I was, and so I started making fun of my stuff, and he started defending it.”

“You’re a wily minx, aren’t you?” Johnny asked.

“As Shakespeare said, ‘When we our betters see bearing our woes, we scarcely think our miseries our foes.’”

“Or…yeah. What she said,” Johnny replied. “She do that a lot?”

“Consistently,” Weston said.

“You like it!” she laughed.

“So Sheila,” Johnny said, “I understand you’re a big Carly Simon fan.”

Her eyes bugged. “Oh my gosh, yes! She’s my favorite of all time!” She chuckled at a memory. “When I met her, I was all ‘duh, uh, doo…’ Total idiot. She probably thinks I’m a freak.”

“Well let’s find out. She’s here promoting her new album, let’s give a hand for Carly Simon!”

The band played “You’re So Vain” as Carly stepped out, her hair floating at her shoulders. She gave a kiss to each of them as the crowd welcomed her.

“Yeah!” she said as the clapping subsided.

“So do you think Sheila is a total idiot?” Johnny asked.

“Sheila, honey, you kill me!”

“I was just spazzing out that day, I guess.”

Weston sat between the women as they bantered with the host, and no one made notice of his silence. He couldn’t bear to look at anyone, not even the audience. He couldn’t afford cold feet or second thoughts, and he had a momentary panic every time he caught a glimpse of Sheila. He snapped back into the moment when Johnny asked, “Now, your new album is out?”

“Yeah! It’s called Another Passenger. Number seven.”

“I understand you’re going to be performing…by proxy?”

“By recording.”

“And why is that?”

She laughed. “I like the way Madeline Kahn put it: I like to watch myself perform.”

“Well, all right, I think…do we have the song queued up?”

Carly and her band appeared on a screen to the side of the stage. Everyone shifted to watch, but Weston looked out at the unsuspecting audience. He let out a slow, calm exhale.

-

“Beautiful,” Johnny said as the song ended.

“That was ‘It Keeps You Runnin’’” Carly replied. “Written by the talented Michael McDonald.” She glanced at Sheila. “What did you think?”

Sheila laughed. “I love it!”

“I think it’s time for another commercial,” Johnny said. “But…oh, what the hey, I think we’ve got time for an encore. What do you say?”

Sheila frowned in curiosity as the audience turned its attention to the screen again. Carly appeared a second time, alone at a baby grand. Her face took up most of the screen and she said, “Sheila Green, this one’s for you.”

Sheila gasped and glanced at Carly, but Carly kept her eyes on the screen as her recorded self began to sing “That’s The Way I Always Heard It Should Be.”

Sheila watched as her favorite song echoed out, hanging on those six word…Sheila Green, this one’s for you. A chill ran across her shoulders. She turned to Weston and found him looking back, eyes wide, breaths deep, and he nodded. She gasped again as the chorus began. Sitting there, on that stage, with Carly Simon herself…with Weston…

Her eyes widened as the whole thing went wet and blurry. “Oh my God…” she whispered as he continued to nod. She glanced out at the audience, watching the song, oblivious. “Is this for real?” she asked, but he said nothing. He looked on with an intensity she’d never seen in him before. At some point she realized Johnny and Carly were watching her too.

And then the song ended, the cameras cut back to the stage, and the whole world dragged into slow motion as Weston got down on one knee in front of her. Commotion filled the audience as everyone else in the room realized what was happening.

Sheila felt no fear or anxiety, or even joy. She was too overwhelmed to think. Weston pulled a box from his pocket and opened it, revealing a sparkling diamond ring the likes of which she would never have hoped to put on her finger.

“Sheila Green,” he said, voice wavering, eyes full of love. “Will you marry me?”

She threw her hands to her face and glanced at the thrilled Carly. Just as quickly her eyes darted to Weston. Somewhere in the back of her mind she heard the cheering and applause, but all she could process was Weston sitting there on his knee.

“Will you?” he asked.

The pressure petrified her, but the look in his eyes was all she needed to see. “Yes!” she cried. “Yes!” She fell beside him and embraced him.

He whispered in her ear, “It’s time we raised a family…moved in together…I’m ready.”

“I love you,” she whispered back.

As the crowd roared with excitement, they held each other close.

Cheers still rang in her ears and lights still flickered in her eyes as Sheila collected herself, alone in Carson’s office. Weston’s kiss still hung on her lips, and she dialed the phone with a shaking hand. Every ring made everything more real.

“Hello?” So far away, so distant.

“Momma?”

“Sheila? Are you all right?”

She sat on the edge of the desk and looked to the ceiling. “Momma…Weston asked me to marry him.”

Her mother’s voice grew muffled. “Saul! Get on the line!”

“What’s up?” Saul Green asked.

“Daddy!”

“Sheila.”

“Daddy…Weston asked me to marry him!”

She could hear her mother crying as her father spoke. “I don’t know what to say, I…what did you say?”

She shrugged to nobody, still not convinced it wasn’t a dream. “I said yes!”

She wished more than anything that she could be there with them right then. “Well, Honey, congratulations!” her father said. “We’re both so happy for you!”

“I know…you’re not crazy about us being together.”

“It’s not about us anymore. We support you no matter what, and…and we’re both very excited.”

“Me too!” she cried. “Daddy…I thought about him proposing…but I never thought I’d say yes.”

“Angel, I’m so happy for you!” Lorraine cried with her.

“Thanks, Momma!”

“But Baby…are you sure? You know who he is…are you sure?”

Bewildered peace fell on her. “Momma…for not so vile that on the earth doth live, but to the earth some special good doth give.”

“Look at you!” her mother laughed. “Using Shakespeare against me!”

“Then plainly know…my heart’s dear love is set.”

Saul spoke. “I think it’s time I met this man of yours.”

“You will! I promise! Very soon!” She sighed. “It was the most amazing moment of my life.”

“Oh!” Lorraine gasped. “I wish I could have seen it!”

“Just watch The Tonight Show.”

JULY

The plane touched down in Memphis in the middle of the pouring rain. Weston watched through the water as they taxied to the gate.

“Excited?” she asked.

“Remind me again why I proposed to a minister’s daughter.”

“Oh, Daddy’s the coolest guy I know, besides you. And Mom…when in doubt, quote Shakespeare.”

“I…hate the Moor?” he suggested.

“Yeah, don’t be racist.”

She spotted her family in the bustling terminal and took off with his sleeve in her hand. “Too late to chicken out?” he asked. He couldn’t decipher much of the chatter as she embraced them all. “Daddy…Momma…this is my Weston.”

“Sir,” Weston said, offering a hand.

Saul shook it. “Sir is so formal. Call me Reverend.”

“Saul!” Lorraine said. “Weston…I’m Sheila’s mom, Lorraine.” She hugged him. “I feel like I know you already!”

“Same here,” he replied. “Good to meet you both.”

Sheila stepped aside, gesturing to the younger couple with the child. “And this is my brother Matt and his wife Samantha, and their son Forest.” She pecked the boy’s cheek. “Sorry, have to give my other little man his due!”

“I’m Matt Green,” Matt said, shaking Weston’s hand.

“Weston…Weston.” He laughed, and the family responded with awkward humor. “Samantha,” he said.

“Why did you cancel Lady Macdeath?” she asked.

Matt leaned in to her ear. “I asked you not to bring that up right away.”

“No, it’s OK,” Weston said. “ABC cancelled, not us. But we were running out of steam.” He knelt and tousled Forest’s hair. “So this is my competition, huh?”

“It’s no contest,” Sheila sighed. “If he was old enough to drive, I’d dump you in a heartbeat.”

“Well, come on!” Lorraine said. “Let’s get your stuff and get back to the house. You’re probably starving.”

“Famished,” Sheila said.

“Do you like catfish, Weston?” Saul asked.

“Uh, yeah! Who doesn’t?” He pictured Annette.

-

“Heavenly Father,” the reverend prayed as they all bowed their heads. “We thank you for your blessings, for food and family. We thank you for bringing our little girl home. And most of all, we thank you for growing our family again. We pray your blessings on Weston, a good man who will make a good husband for our daughter. We pray your blessings on them both as they begin this new chapter of their lives…together. Amen.”

“Amen,” everyone repeated. Chatter followed the clanking of dishes as everyone filled their plates, but Weston sat in stunned silence. He had expected unsettled resentment, mentioning of his previous marriages, or questions of his quality. Instead Saul prayed blessings on him. He looked around at the table, at the warmth of the room, and thought to himself that this…was the family he’d always wanted.

All Sheila’s concerns about his relationship with his father made more sense now. The Green house was a Norman Rockwell painting come to life. The days and nights he spent at their table drove home to him how much he missed being part of a family. Despite the influence and the power of the Camdens, life smelled and tasted better with the Greens.

A magazine article hung mounted on the wall with a still from The Tonight Show and a headline that read The Great One’s Great Proposal.

The worry over Lorraine’s growing cancer got to him as if he were one of them. When it came time to leave, he was almost as reluctant as Sheila.

-

Saul and Weston shared a brandy on their last night together. Weston suspected that if the preacher had a sermon for him, he was about to hear it.

“Thanks for everything, Reverend Green.”

Saul leaned against the railing of the balcony, looking out at the stars. “You don’t really have to call me that.”

“So…what do I call you?”

He took a sip of the liquor. “Saul’s fine. And maybe when the time may come when you feel like it…Dad. I know that must be hard for you.”

“She told you?”

“She tells me everything.”

Nervous anxiety taunted him. “Look, Sir…Saul…I’m sure everything she told you is true, but…I’m trying.”

“I didn’t get along with my pop either.”

“Really?”

“He whored around on my mother, and she wasn’t strong enough to do anything about it. I hated him for that.”

Weston fell silent as images of Annette flashed across his mind. I hated him for that. This man beside him, this good man, deserved better. Sheila deserved better. And yet the reverend smiled at him.

“I’m sorry.”

“It took me a long time to forgive him.”

“I never would have known. I mean you’re all so…Christian!”

“Well, the Lord punishes the children for the sins of the fathers. I’m sure you understand that. And I knew that if I ever had kids, I couldn’t punish them for my dad’s sins.”

“Right.”

“Generational curses can be broken,” Saul said, watching his brandy swirl in his snifter. “The vicious cycle stops when you surrender. It takes patience, and a lot of faith. Perseverance. Submission, repentance. You can be a good father. I know because I know my daughter. I know you think I’ll judge you, but I don’t.”

“I thought you’d at least be concerned.”

“I’m terrified. And that’s why I want you to promise me something.”

“What?”

Saul put his hand on Weston’s shoulder. “I want you to promise me that if Sheila conceives…you let the baby live. I don’t care how scared you are, or how sick you feel. You let the baby live. I’ll help you if you need it. If you can’t go to your own dad, you can come to me. Promise me.”

Brandy was fine, but the thought of living up to such words made him crave a Scotch. He looked into the reverend’s unblinking eyes, and his head throbbed with whispers of past lovers and would-be children. “I promise.”

-

The massive double doors of the Camden mansion swung open, and little Gabriel Elvin peeked out from between Lara’s legs. “Hey!” she greeted, hugging her brother. “And hey to you, sister-in-law-to-be!”

Sheila knelt eye-to-eye with Gabriel. “And how is Gabe doing today?”

Gabe glanced up at his mother, then back at Sheila, and smiled, offering her a half-eaten cookie. “Wanna gookie?”

“Oh, you are so sweet!” she said, giving him a kiss, then snapped off a corner and popped it in her mouth. “Mmmm!” Gabe laughed at her.

“Sure you know what you’re getting into?” Lara asked.

Weston hefted Sheila back to her feet. “One thing at a time.”

“Come on back,” Lara beckoned. “Dad’s in the Green Room.”

“The Green Room? You already have a room for me?”

“It’s…literally a green room. My mom designed it.”

They followed Lara into the recesses of the house and found Lloyd hard at work making marks on a manuscript. Sheila looked around at the swimming shades that swept the walls and furniture, and she whistled. “Now this is some monochrome magic, I have to say!”

Lloyd looked up from his editing. “Well well! Never thought I’d see you here again!”

Weston stood silent as Sheila ignored the comment and gave Lloyd a warm hug. “How’s my future papa?” she asked.

“Better, now that you’re here!” he said. “Welcome to my humble home.”

“Humble home, huh? I think this is bigger than my daddy’s church!”

Weston watched Sheila, so warm with his father. Lloyd looked up from her beaming smile. “Son.”

“Dad.”

“How was Memphis?”

He sat down across from them as Lara came in with Gabe and a fresh cookie. “It was…I don’t know if quaint is the right word. The Greens are great…salt of the earth type.”

“I look forward to meeting them,” Lloyd replied, glancing back at Sheila with affection. “If they raised a girl like you, they must be pretty special.”

“So…what have you been up to?”

Lloyd gave him the most respectful look he’d ever seen. “Nothing quite as extraordinary as what you two pulled off. I have to say…I’m proud of you.”

Silence as all eyes were on Weston. “Thanks.”

“But to answer your question, we just acquired majority share of KCSL, the classical station? So, been busy with that. And, got a new project in the works.” He tapped the now-closed script sitting beside him. “It’s about a serial killer who terrorizes Hollywood, picking off celebrities.”

Sheila made a face. “Why a serial killer?”

“Eh, they sell tickets.”

“Well, I don’t know much about that.”

Lloyd eyed Weston with continual respect. “So…you really went all out with that proposal, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, well…I wanted it to be memorable.”

“Memorable?” Lara said. “That’s the understatement of the year.”

“Dad…” he trailed off for a moment, looking to Sheila for support. “We…we hope you’ll come to the wedding.”

Lloyd’s glimmering smile dimmed. “You don’t say?”

Weston swallowed. “I want you there this time.”

“And is this her talking…or you?”

He pressed his lips together and smiled with tenderness, not at the man who raised him, but at the woman he loved. “It’s both of us.”

OCTOBER

“I’m proud of you, kid,” Jackie Gleason said as he swatted Weston on the back. “Two strikes, but you’re still swinging. Bet you’ll hit a home run this time.”

“Hope so.” Weston leaned against the counter in his kitchen, pouring a Scotch for himself and one for his old friend.

“I know a little something about divorce. And a third marriage can be just as satisfying as a first.”

“You love Marilyn, don’t you?”

They clinked glasses. “To Marilyn and Sheila,” Jackie toasted. “The best third wives a couple of clowns can have.”

They took a sip and savored for a moment. “Do you ever feel like…I don’t know, like you sold Marilyn short? By making her number three?”

“I think with the first two I was just getting warmed up! Speaking of which, this is good Scotch.”

“Thanks. It was a present from Sheila’s dad.”

“But I’m also kind of winding down. Glad I’ve got a good girl to do it with, you know?”

“Ah, you’ll never wind down! You’re the Great One!”

Jackie nudged Weston’s chin with his fist. “Winding down is moving on, kid. We both know who the Great One is now.”

“You know what the world is missing?”

“Concrete evidence of UFOs?”

“Besides that…” Weston chuckled. “No, when I was a kid I came on your show, and then when I was an older kid you came on mine. But we’ve never…really…worked together.”

“I smell a rat!”

“No, seriously! We should do a little something together. A movie maybe?”

“Well, I don’t know. You tell me,” Jackie said.

“Something to think about.”

“I’m always up for a little escapade. And I know you are!”

“Will you be at the wedding?”

“I never missed a Weston wedding, and I’m not about to start.”

-

Weston stood at the kitchen counter, chopping vegetables as he hummed along to Frank Sinatra on the radio. Sheila came up behind and tickled him. “Mmm…smells delicious.”

“Don’t do that when I’m holding a knife!” he said. “Want to see my blood all over the kitchen?”

She pulled a bottle of wine from his wine rack. “I’d rather not!”

“How was your day?”

Sheila stretched with satisfaction. “Amazing! Had Gabe while his folks were down San Diego way.”

“Can’t believe they’re moving.”

“Yeah…and you know how fast kids grow! I’m already missing my Forest, now I’m going to be missing my Gabe, too.”

“Well, maybe someday… You’ll have one of your own.”

She knew it would never be that simple, but hearing him say it meant something. “A little boy?”

He grinned. “Nah…we’ll have a girl, for sure.”

“Why d’you think that?”

He set down the knife and put his arms around her. “I know everything about her,” he said as they swayed to Sinatra’s soft, mellow crooning.

“Tell me!”

“We’ll name her Virginia, after my mother, but we’ll call her Ginny. She’ll look just like you, only she’ll have green eyes instead of blue.”

“Why green eyes?”

“I don’t know…but they’ll be green. The most stunning green eyes… We’ll even make Green her middle name.”

“Yeah?”

“It was a tradition in the Weston family, making the maiden name a middle name.”

“Bet your mom didn’t know you’d call yourself Weston whether she named you that or not!” He let go and went back to his cutting board, and she twisted a corkscrew into the mouth of the wine bottle. “I guess before you know it, I’ll be Sheila Camden.”

Weston slowed. She couldn’t see his face, but she knew she’d struck a nerve. He turned to her with cold eyes. “No. You’ll either be Sheila Green…or Sheila Weston.”

“But…aren’t you trying to work things out with your dad? Wouldn’t that hurt him more?”

“When did I ever hurt him? He’s the one…”

Sheila’s eyes lingered on his for a moment, dropping away. She wanted to reply, wanted to plead, but she just held the bottle there, unopened.

1977

APRIL

“Come in.”

Sheila turned under the weight of her gown as her mother opened the door to the bridal room. She beamed with euphoria at Lorraine’s bittersweet smile.

“You look so beautiful!” Lorraine said, kissing her cheek. “I think I’m going to cry!”

She embraced her mother. “I’m…so glad you…get to be here. It’s my only wish come true, that you get to be with me today.”

“Angel…”

“How’re you feeling?”

Lorraine’s eyes betrayed more than her tongue. “I’m feeling…grateful to be alive.”

Sheila savored the moment, there with her mother still breathing, there about to face the most important moment of her life. “Mom…I need to tell you something.”

“What?”

She felt naked under the taffeta. “Remember what I told you…about what he said? About my name?”

“I do.”

Her pulse raced as she considered what she was about to say, even more terrifying than what she was about to do. “I went down to the courthouse. He doesn’t know about it. I already changed my name.”

“To Sheila Weston?” Lorraine asked.

“Sheila Camden.”

Lorraine’s lip twisted and she hugged her again. “Angel…”

A tear traced Sheila’s face. “Mom.”

“He’ll understand. One day, I know he will.”

She breathed a nervous laugh. “I’m Sheila Camden now…”

-

Despite the pomp and fanfare, a quiet peace filled the church, unlike Weston’s other weddings. People known the world over sat in those pews, people whose every move was followed by fans in homes, theaters, and concert halls. He saw Mary Tyler Moore here, Jackie Gleason there, Jane Fonda, Johnny Carson, Dennis Hopper, Carly Simon… A sea of faces that didn’t matter.

Nothing mattered except her.

He’d never remember the color of the flowers or the bridesmaid dresses. He’d never remember the soothing trumpet duet that welcomed his guests. He’d never remember the countless details that made the day flawless and perfect.

There was only one flawless, perfect thing in his world.

She appeared, and he imagined she’d always been waiting for him there in the back of the chapel. She’d always been looking at him from a distance, dressed in white. Reverend Green moved up the aisle beside his veiled angel. For Weston, it was at that moment his first and only wedding.

He made out none of her features at first, but he could sense her presence, like the muse that had filled his youthful dreams. Or at least, about as close as he could ever hope to get.

Sheila walked with confidence and grace, eyes fixed on the man she loved. Weston would never be perfect, but no man had ever moved her, inspired her, or touched her like he did. Ever since that day alone in the art gallery, somehow their path led to this moment.

To marriage.

“Greetings to you all, family and friends,” the minister said. “We have come together today to witness and celebrate the joining together in marriage of Benjamin Weston Camden…and Sheila Mae Green.”

Sheila blushed under her veil at the mentioning of the names they had both abandoned. She stood beside her groom, breathless beneath the lace.

The minister spoke words of affirmation and prayed over the couple, but she didn’t hear him. She could not escape the tremendous power of the moment, the weight of every memory with him, and every hope for a new tomorrow, a different tomorrow.

Stuart handed him the ring, and he placed it on the tip of Sheila’s finger, repeating after the minister.

“I, Weston, take you, Sheila Green, as my lawfully-wedded wife: to have and to cherish, for better or worse, in sickness and in health…forsaking all others…until death parts us.”

She took his band and slid it on his hand with a somber touch.

“I, Sheila Green, take you, Weston, as my lawfully-wedded husband: to have and to cherish, for better or worse, in sickness and in health…forsaking all others…until death parts us.”

His finger had held two other rings but would now never bear anything else but hers. They clasped their hands together.

“By the power vested in me by God, I now pronounce you man and wife. Go out into the world and bless it, but bless each other first. You may kiss the bride.”

Weston let go of her hand and pulled back her veil.

In the reception hall, Weston and Sheila stood beside her latest painting: a portrait of the newlyweds, each ten years old, holding hands and looking precociously out at the world. Carl Daniels, groomsman and old college friend, approached them with his wife and child. “Sheila, I don’t think you’ve met Carl’s wife, Kim.”

“Pleased to meet you!” she said. “And who do we have here?”

Kim hoisted the girl, who reached out a squirming hand to touch Sheila’s dress. “This is Kambree. She’s eighteen months.”

Sheila tugged on Kambree’s fingers. “She’s so pretty!”

“She’s having a ball.”

“Aaah?” Kambree asked, glancing at her mother as Sheila played with her fingers.

Sheila leaned over and kissed the child. “I love her! If you ever need a babysitter, you’ve got my number!”

Kim laughed. “You know, I might have to take you up on that!”

They danced as the world watched. Other couples joined them on the floor, and as they let go and took other partners, all they wanted was to take each other again…and for the first time.

“You’re looking good,” Hillary said as she shared a dance with her boss.

“Hill…I’m flying today.”

“I hope you never come down.”

Before they knew it, their golden day had passed, and husband and wife waved goodbye to their loved ones, speeding away in a limousine to their hotel before their honeymoon cruise in the Mediterranean.

That night, for the first time, Weston slept with Sheila.

MAY

Sheila’s eyes fluttered open when the sun hit her face. She sighed with fatigue and content as her toe touched her husband’s leg. Weston barely snored. She watched him breathing and thought of waking him, wishing they were still on the deck of a ship in the choppy Mediterranean waves.

She slipped out of bed and into the bathroom, and despite her restful sleep, she quivered with exhaustion. A glass of water would help as her reflection looked back, face a little red, probably sunburned from their long day of moving her things into his house. She took a deep breath, letting her stomach settle.

She sat down on the toilet and felt like she still needed to wake up. Her chest hurt a little…she must have strained it in the moving. She touched her breasts beneath her nightgown and found them a bit tender. Strange.

The water must have stirred her appetite. She didn’t have much of one most mornings. Another result of the previous day’s strain. Maybe she’d make breakfast for both of them after a hot shower.

But as she dropped her nightgown to the ground, her stomach twisted inside her. That wasn’t hunger grumbling down below. She fell to her knees over the bowl, bracing herself. Her skin was hot and cold at the same time, a thin layer of sweat on the sunburn. She wretched, heaving forward and gasping for air as she did.

As she flushed the toilet again, her eyes clicked with realization. How could she have not noticed? With all the post-honeymoon activity, and the moving, she had somehow overlooked it.

She was certain she’d missed her period.

Her head exploded: excitement, fear, anxiety, hope. The shower did not wash away the uncertainty. They hadn’t been trying to conceive…but she knew that hadn’t stopped him before. He’d gotten lucky more than once.

She feared what he would do if it were true, despite all of his assuring words. His reactions to things this significant could never be predicted. And maybe it was all in her head. She’d go to the doctor. Yes…she’d go to the doctor before she said anything.

Weston stumbled out of the bedroom, shirtless, and smiled at her as she flipped eggs in a pan.

“Morning beautiful,” he said, kissing her cheek.

“Morning handsome.”

He studied her for a moment. “There’s something different about you.”

”Oh?”

“You’ve got kind of a…I don’t know. A glow. Must be the sunburn.”

She nodded, looking away. “Must be.”

-

Weston remained seated as the conference room cleared. He lingered at the deserted table, scribbling and thinking out loud. The chatter faded to nothing and he read over his notes, whispering and scratching with his pencil.

“Hello.”

He looked up as Sheila crept through the doorway.

“Hey! What are you doing here?” He discarded his notes and rose. “Something wrong?”

“No…at least, I don’t think so.”

“What is it?”

She took a deep breath. “I’m pregnant.”

He’d heard that four times before, always filling him with dread. Her words ignited a lingering fear, an intense desire to get up and flee. He didn’t deny the power of that old voice. But a younger one cried out over it: her voice…not Sheila’s, but the little girl from his dreams.

Sheila searched his face. “Say something!”

Weston swallowed the dread…knowing she’d seen it flash, and pulled her close to him, embracing her. “I’m so glad!”

“Really?”

His throat went dry. The bottle of Scotch in his desk could fix that. “Yes, really! You’re going to be a mother.”

She flickered with hope. “And you’re going to be a daddy.”

He kissed her, holding her face in his hands. “I’m…truly happy.”

Alone in his office, Weston collapsed into his chair, dropping a glass onto the desk and ripping the cap off the bottle. He poured to the rim and looked at it there, the brown escape floating, filling his nostrils with its sweet freedom.

He took a sip.

“Aaaah?”

He froze in his chair. The infant’s lingering whimper faded as quickly as it had come. He took another, longer sip, and put down the glass.

“Jackie’s special guest tonight…Benny…Camden!”

He closed his eyes and gripped the armrests. He couldn’t picture the announcer’s face, only that old familiar voice. The room grew hot and cold at the same time, and that chair might tip over and spill him out on the floor…or send him plummeting to the Earth below. He wasn’t in a plane. He knew it. I’m in my office. I’m in my office.

“Benny…I’m pregnant.” Echoing. “Benny…I’m pregnant.”

It’s only a flashback. It’s only a flashback.

“You know exactly where it goes!” Lloyd yelled, convoluted and distorted. “Quit being such a goddamn baby!”

He pressed his eyelids tighter.

“Who can turn the world on with her smile?”

Weston let go of the armrests, falling forward to the desk, his arm flailing and spilling the Scotch over everything. He gasped as he snapped his eyes open again, the room tilting backward…backward…

“You let the baby live…”

-

“Daddy?”

“Sheila…” Saul’s voice cracked across the line. “How are you?”

“Fine!” she laughed. “I don’t think I’ve ever been better!”

“Something happen?”

She wished so much that she could be there in person. “Um…yeah, I’d say so!”

“I could use some good news.”

Weston sat beside her as she clutched the phone to her ear, and she thought back to the last emergency call she made, from Johnny Carson’s office. “I’m pregnant!”

“I’m speechless! Wow! Congratulations!”

“Thanks!” She beamed at her husband for lack of her father.

“That’s so wonderful! How’s Weston taking it?”

“I think he’s a little scared. I am too! But he’s just as excited!”

“Praise God,” Saul said.

“Is Momma home?”

“Actually…your mother’s had a fall. She’s in the hospital.”

Sheila gasped. “Is she OK?”

“I don’t know…I’ll let you know as soon as I can…but I think you need to be ready. They’re giving her a month now, maybe two.”

“Oh Daddy…”

“I know.”

“Do you need me to come?”

“Soon.”

“Let me know…as soon as you can.”

“I will. Now you go and take care of yourself…and your baby.”

She hung up the phone and laid her head on Weston’s shoulder. “What happened?”

“She fell…Daddy says…they’re only giving her another month or two. She’s not even going to get to meet her grandchild.”

Weston breathed a soft groan. “I’m sorry…”

JUNE

Sheila’s work took a maternal turn. She painted portraits of Lara Elvin holding Gabe, Brina York and her son Luke, and Kim Daniels with beautiful little Kambree. Weston’s work streaked with their personal lives as well. He and Jackie Gleason fleshed out the script for their joint project: Mint Condition, the story of a man dying from leukemia who gives away his collection of vintage, mint condition cars, the final one presented to his very young granddaughter, the child of a son with whom he no longer speaks.

Weston crept in on her as she worked on a portrait composited from photographs of Samantha Green and Forest. He brought her a cup of steaming decaffeinated tea, and she inhaled with fatigue. “I do miss green tea,” she said.

He sat beside her cluttered work station, careful not to nudge her oils. “Paint a picture of it,” he replied.

“That’s all I do anymore!” she said. “I need a break.”

“I got you something to do.”

“A present?”

He handed her a book of baby names. “Sort of.”

Sheila nudged him with her foot. “I thought we agreed on Mortimer for a boy and Agnes for a girl!”

“Just in case those don’t work out.”

She kissed him. “Sounds like fun.”

“I flipped around a little.”

“We could always choose family names,” she said. “Like you said, Virginia if it’s a girl.”

“It’s on the list.”

She scanned some of the pages as she sipped her tea. “What about Rebecca? That’s a pretty name.”

“Sure.”

“Or Candace…or Cara…”

He scooted his chair closer to her with interest. “You know what I thought would make a good boy’s name?”

“What?”

“Easton.”

“Why Easton?” she asked.

“Easton Weston!” he said.

She made a gag face. “Seriously?”

“How great would that be?”

“Kind of sick, actually.”

“I think it’s tough. Nobody messes with Easton Weston!”

He combed through the book as she grunted her participation in the conversation, unable to think past the pairing of baby names with Weston. Each possibility tore away at her conscience.

“Honey?”

“Yeah?”

She reached out and took his hand. “There’s something we need to talk about.”

Steam floated between them as his eyes flickered. “What?” he asked.

“Tell me you love me.”

“I love you.”

“Would you love me…if my name was Sheila Camden?”

He recoiled slowly, his eyes falling beneath dark brows. He stared back at her, a bead of sweat collecting on his face. She waited for him to yell, or respond at all, but he didn’t. He just looked at her with those hurt eyes.

“I know what you told me,” she said. “But I decided if I was going to marry you, I was marrying the whole package: the whole, dysfunctional thing. I was joining your family, and your family’s name is Camden. And…so is mine.”

“Sheila…” He left her there with the baby book.

-

Hours later he found her painting. He watched her gentle brush strokes as Forest Green came alive on the canvas, and she let out a soft whimper. The cup of tea sat cold and unconsumed beside her, the name book askew at her feet.

“Hey,” he said, and she turned to look up at him with salty eyes. “Sorry about earlier.”

“I’m just glad you didn’t yell at me.”

“I’d never…yell at you, Sheila.”

“Never say never.”

He put his arm around his wife, feeling her frailty. “But I don’t think you understand.”

Those red eyes smiled up at him. “Oh, Wes…I love you so much. But…you’re the one who doesn’t understand.”

JULY

Near the end of her first trimester, Sheila got the call she’d been dreading for over a year. She had to move quickly if she wanted to see her mother again. Lorraine checked back into the hospital, and no one expected her to leave.

Weston made the arrangements. Too emotional to drive, and too afraid to fly during pregnancy, she took a train, sleeping most of the way. Matt picked her up, and the two of them rode to the hospital together in near silence. When they arrived, Sheila embraced her brother. His Old Spice filled her lungs and made her feel young again, far too young to have a dying parent.

A group of people from the church hovered around their beloved pastor’s wife. Saul was there too, with Samantha and Forest. Samantha stood a distance back, holding her son up so that he could see his grandmother. Lorraine slept, as she did most of the time those days. Sheila overheard someone say that the doctors didn’t expect her to wake up.

She hugged her old friends from the church, receiving words of comfort, and finally made it into the room. She held her father, who kissed her forehead and whispered, “Thanks for coming.”

“How is she?”

Saul wiped fatigue from his eyes. “I think…we may have seen the last of her.”

Sheila knelt beside her mother’s bed, watching the woman sleep. Sheila took her limp hand and stroked it, giving it a soft kiss. Samantha left the room, sobbing. Saul put his hand on his daughter’s shoulder. “The last thing she said was, ‘I just want to sleep.’”

-

Weston flew out that night to be with the Greens. Saul delivered his wife’s eulogy three days later, only breaking down once. As he sat there beside his own wife, both of them grieving, he couldn’t help but admire the man’s strength and courage. He’d lost the person most precious to him, and yet he carried on. He was a shoulder to cry on when he had no shoulder of his own.

Weston respected Saul Green more than any man he’d ever known. Even more than Charlie Chaplin.

The tombstone was unveiled: “Lorraine Peyton Sanders Green, Born August 9, 1923, Died July 27, 1977.” Only fifty-four years old, he thought. As he held his weeping wife, he remembered vividly his own mother’s funeral.

DECEMBER

With less than two months until the baby was due, a high mood filled the holiday air. Staying in Los Angeles, away from her father and brother, made it easier for Sheila to face her first Christmas without her mother. They spent the whole day at the mansion with the extended Camden family. Everyone delighted to learn of her name change, and even Weston found it hard to be frustrated in the midst of the joy.

The baby kicked and squirmed, and Weston watched with affection as his aunts, uncles, cousins, and nephew all took turns feeling Sheila’s stomach, doting on her and catering to her every wish. She barely had to get up the whole day.

Late afternoon, Lloyd left the group to answer the ringing phone. He returned moments later, eyeing his son with regret and restraint. Weston kissed Sheila and hopped up, turning his back on the family. “What is it, Dad?”

“Uh…that was…Christopher Chaplin. Charlie died this morning.”

“Oh my God…” he whispered as a sudden sorrow pierced him. “What happened?”

“He died in his sleep. Peacefully.”

Weston said nothing, gaze blurring into the distance. Lloyd hugged him for the first time in eleven years.

Sheila sat by her husband’s side through his repeated calls about the funeral. Chaplin’s widow, Oona, insisted on a private affair, with close family only. She meant no offense, but he was not invited. He hung up the phone, weeping as if his own father had died. He buried his head in Sheila’s shoulder, and she cradled him.

1978

JANUARY

On New Year’s Day, Sheila bundled herself into the car, enormous and exhausted, and drove to Beverly Hills. As always, the sheer enormity of the Camden estate impressed upon her the true wealth of the family. Lloyd welcomed her into the relative warmth of the mansion, bringing some decaffeinated tea.

“Do you know,” he asked as he helped her prop her feet up on a leather ottoman, “My son married three girls, and you’re the only one who ever came to see me?”

“He probably poisoned them on you,” she said with a shiver. “He tends to do that.”

“I’m sure I deserved it. I couldn’t see it for years…but I wasn’t a good father to him. I…wanted him to be a certain way, and I never accepted anything else.”

“I’m sure it was all just as much his fault as it was yours.”

“Who knows?” Lloyd asked.

Sheila fidgeted with her fingers in her lap. “For whatever reason, he imagines Charlie Chapline as a greater father figure than his own dad.”

Lloyd sighed. “Nothing haunts me more than knowing that.”

“He’s starting to scare me. He sits off on his own all day, drinking and watching Chaplin movies. He sulks. I mean, he still takes care of me…but he’s more like he used to be.”

“I understand.”

The tea warmed her throat, but her skin still prickled from the lingering cold. “Dad…what do I do?”

“If I knew the answer to that question…I might never have lost my son.” Despite the warmth of the beverage, she shivered. “Let me get you a blanket.”

“Thank you!”

He moseyed toward the doorway in silence, and she watched him with sorrow and affection. Lloyd reached the edge of the room and stopped. He turned to look at her, smiling, but his eyes looked confused. His head shook gently.

“Dad?” she asked, adjusting her weight with difficulty in her chair. “Are you all right?”

Lloyd Camden dropped to the floor. His arms and legs moved as if trying to find a comfortable position for sleeping. His eyes squinted like he couldn’t quite see anything.

“Dad?” she asked, louder, as panic crawled up her nerves. She struggled to move. “Dad!” she screamed.

-

Weston breezed through the halls of the hospital, heart pounding and head aching. He found Sheila sitting in the waiting room, jittery and pale and talking with a nurse.

“Oh thank God!” she gasped, throwing her arms around his neck as he leaned over her.

“I’m here,” he said. “What’s the status?”

“I was just checking up on your wife,” the nurse said. “She had a little anxiety, but nothing too serious. Nothing to complicate the pregnancy.”

“And what about my father?”

The nurse’s hopeful eyes betrayed defeat. “Perhaps you prefer to sit?”

“I’d rather stand, thank you. How is he?”

Sheila squeezed his hand, looking up at him with despair. “Please…”

He sank into the cloth chair and gripped the thin steel armrest. “All right.”

“I’ll be right back.”

Weston watched the nurse disappear. “I don’t like this!”

Sheila laid her head against his shoulder and said nothing.

The nurse returned a few moments later with another woman. “Mr. Camden?” she asked.

His stomach knotted even tighter. “Uh…yes.”

“I’m Dr. Winters. I need to talk to you about your father.”

“I’m listening,” he said, eyes wide and dry.

“He suffered a subarachnoid hemorrhage.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means…he had a brain aneurysm, and…it burst…which caused a stroke.”

“Did anyone…I mean, does he…”

“He had regular checkups, but we hadn’t detected the aneurysm before. The effects hit him all within a matter of minutes. I’m afraid…they were too severe for him to recover.”

Horror poured into his face and set it on fire. “Are you…”

Sheila squeezed his hand even tighter as the doctor remained calm and steady. “Mr. Camden…I’m sorry.”

He turned to his wife, and a dam burst in her throat as she wept. He pulled her close, feeling her tears, and at some point the doctor and the nurse left them alone.

“I guess…I need to call Lara…”

Sheila pressed her damp face against his. “I already did.”

“Just like that…” he breathed, pinpoints of memory filling the sky of his mind like sad stars, like an electric firework spectacle commemorating the life of Lloyd Camden. Weston’s throat was dry, itchy for a drink. He couldn’t process the pyrotechnics. One reality hit him amidst the scattering pictures.

He would never get to speak to his father again. Just like with his mother, he’d never be able to say goodbye.

-

A crowd of friends and family gathered to pay their last respects to Lloyd Harold Camden at the plot beside his long-lost wife. Weston stood in solemn company between people he had shunned and those he had embraced. His sister and brother-in-law stood with him and shared his grief, even if they couldn’t understand his own unique relationship with the man now deceased. Sheila stood with him as well, with their unborn child, silent but one of them nevertheless.

He couldn’t look away from the identical slabs that bore the names of his parents. He had turned his back on one and lived in memory of the other. Virginia Weston changed her name once, changed it to Camden to celebrate her love for the man who stood by her until the end. Weston abandoned that name, but the three women he loved more than anything in the world had loved his father as well. Virginia his mother, Lara his sister, and Sheila his wife…they were all Camdens. Sheila had changed her name in a desperate hope for a reconciliation that would now never take place.

When only those closest to him remained gathered around the graves, he looked up at the living remnants of his father’s legacy. All eyes turned to him, as if they knew he was about to say speak. He put a hand on Sheila’s shoulder and one on her stomach. Holding back whatever tears he had, holding back that final gift for his father, he spoke. “You’re a Camden,” he said to her. “…and so am I.”

Sheila kissed him. The baby stirred.

Ben closed his eyes.

Part III

Camden

1978 CONTINUED

FEBRUARY

“Mr. Camden?”

He opened his eyes with a gasp. Whatever nightmare had just stopped in medias res lingered as he turned in that uncomfortable waiting room chair. A nurse knelt beside him, tapping his arm. The lights were dim and his back ached, and he had the vague half-awake sense that he had left one nightmare and entered another. “Wha…?”

“Mr. Camden? If you’d like to come with me…I have someone I’d like you to meet.”

That sick grin on the nurse’s face didn’t do much to quell the science project volcano in his stomach. He gripped those armrests and blinked a few times. “Oh…”

“Whenever you’re ready.” He peeled himself from his seat and rose beside the nurse. “You must be so excited!”

It occurred to him to ask whether it was a boy or a girl. He said nothing.

They crept into the room where Sheila lay fluttering on the edge of consciousness. Another nurse stood beside her, cradling something. A scream erupted, primal and direct, and he cringed.

The nurse turned, and Ben got his first glimpse of the child. “Mr. Camden, I’d like to introduce you to your daughter.”

”My daughter…”

“A healthy baby girl,” the nurse said. “Would you like to hold her?”

He was surprised to find he actually did want to hold the baby. She shifted the little being into his arms, wrapped in a white blanket. The momentary shriek still rang in his ears, but he only heard her breathing, her soft, gentle purr. She was so tiny and helpless, utterly dependent on him. She struggled and turned, clawing at the air as if fending off some phantom only she could see.

He wanted to love her. He did love her, he knew. Or at least, he would. There was no choice in the matter. Most men would be filled with joy and life, holding their newborns for the first time. He was close; he knew he was close. Something was missing. Something…

And then the baby girl looked at him.

She had green eyes.

Hello there, he could hear her say. I’ve been waiting for you.

“I’ve been waiting for you too,” he whispered, then lifted her forehead to plant a terrified kiss.

-

Sheila stirred and found Ben sitting beside the bed, holding the child. She smiled at the image and tried to lift herself. He looked up from the baby and smiled at her. “Hey.”

“Hey…back,” she said. “Is that…can I…?”

He scooted forward and gently handed the bundle to her. “This is our daughter.”

Sheila grinned as she held the girl against her, breathing on her cheek. “Oh wow.” They inhaled in synchronization, and she wished the baby would wake up long enough so that she could see…the whole face.

“They’re green,” he said.

“What?”

“Her eyes. They’re green.”

“Oh…” She touched the slumbering cheek. “Little Virginia, my angel.”

“I don’t think I want to name her after mom anymore.”

Sheila glanced up and found him watching the child, face lined with awe and fear. But it didn’t look like the fear of being a father…more so as if he were afraid of doing anything to hurt the baby.

“What do you want to call her?”

Ben leaned in, the three of them close and connected. “Cara Camden.”

-

Sheila barely slept anymore, caring for the baby at all hours of the day and night. Lara left Gabriel with his father and came to help. The two of them bonded even more in those first days of motherhood.

Neither of them expected so much help from Ben, though. He cut his work schedule and hung near Cara every spare second he had. When she took her naps, Ben would rest beside the crib. He never wanted to be apart from her. Cara helped all three of them find peace over Lloyd’s passing.

On Lara’s last day in town, Henry Louden came by to pay them a visit and see the newest Camden.

“Looky here!” Sheila said, cradling the baby. “This is your Uncle Henry!”

Cara paid him no attention as he stroked her face with the back of his fingers. “A true Camden,” he said. “She is striking, for a baby. Looks more like her mother.”

“Thank God!” Lara laughed.

Ben shook his hand. “Good to see you again. But why do I get the feeling you didn’t just come by to see the baby?”

Henry’s eyes were older and paler than he remembered. “Well…it’s more of a business call.”

“Business?”

“Years ago, Lloyd acquired controlling share in the company when his siblings…most of his siblings moved on to other things. Since the will split everything…the two of you now control Camden Enterprises, and all of its properties and subsidiaries.”

Lara looked a bit overwhelmed by that reality, but Ben nodded. “We know all that. We were thinking of selling.”

Henry pursed his lips as he caressed the baby’s hand. “You could both retire today if you did that, sure. But I’d reconsider. Camden’s been in your family’s hands since before Biograph first set foot in Hollywood. If you’re really re-embracing your roots, you should know your father would never have let anyone else take control.”

“I don’t care about the money,” Lara said. “I mean, it’d be nice. I just don’t want to be involved in running a company.”

Ben stroked his daughter’s hair. He wondered if he would ever be able to hold her without the fear of accidentally dropping her. “And I can’t run two,” he said.

“Well what if you sold Westonwood…to Camden? You could maintain control of both.”

Those old halls that had been endless to a child…and confining to a young man… Cara shifted in his arms. “You think Camden would really buy Westonwood?”

Henry clapped him on the shoulder. “You tell me!”

He turned to his sister. “If we did that, I could still buy your half of the mansion.”

“But what about the company?” Lara asked.

“Let me worry about that.” He handed Cara over to Sheila, and hated that feeling of freedom and relief in his empty arms.

MARCH

Ben pulled into the parking lot at Camden Productions, which also served as the headquarters of Camden Enterprises, with Hillary in the car beside him. He looked up at the daunting building, remembering a childhood of playing in its hallways. Now he owned it all.

“This is a step up,” she said as they approached the doors. “Just a bit.”

He waved a manila folder. “Bigger ocean, same fish. Maybe a shark or two here and there.”

“Good old Wes…Ben. Always putting me at ease.”

“Gentlemen,” Ben said as he entered the board room and everyone rose. “Good to see all of you again.”

“Ben,” Henry said, shaking his hand. “It’s going to be a good day, I think.”

Ben took Hillary’s arm. “I’m sure most of you already know my…partner, Hillary Louden.”

The board expressed its greetings as Ben sat at the head of the table, with Henry and Hillary on either side of him. “As you know, with the exception of my aunt, Katherine Ferring, the family stands in agreement that I succeed my father as president. We won’t be going public.”

Some of the board murmured, but Henry called them to attention. “You all know, Lloyd would have wanted it this way.”

“But Lloyd’s dead,” one of the board members, Tom Ware, said. “With all due respect, what he wanted…is no longer relevant.”

“Nevertheless,” Henry added, “Tom, you know where we all stand on this. No one in the Camden family wants to go public.”

“I’m aware,” Tom replied. “And I’m willing to go along with the board. I suppose my main concern is the acquisition of Westonwood.”

Ben nodded as a secretary passed out document copies to the board. “Look, I know a lot of you remember me from my youth.” His voice echoed on that sentence. At least, it seemed to echo. He looked out at those faces, all watching him, and as his words faded, the roar of a car engine blasting down a distant highway filled the room. None of them gave any indication that they heard. “You remember me as a hot-headed, brash kid who set out to set the world on fire without considering the consequences. I’m not that kid anymore, and…” He blinked hard. Colors danced across those thoughtful faces. What were those colors? That car engine revved again, and he leaned over to brace himself against the desk. Some of those eyes flickered with awareness or concern, he didn’t know which. Ben laughed, hoping to keep them from seeing what he saw. He blinked again. Oh God, not now. “I’m not that kid anymore, and Westonwood isn’t that company. A large part of that success goes to Hillary. I hope you’ll all accept my proposal that she join us here as president of Camden Productions.”

The board reacted, but he couldn’t tell if they were more interested in his words or his demeanor. He could imagine that they all knew exactly what he was seeing. “You’re replacing father with daughter?” another of them asked.

Someone was laughing. Someone. He scanned them but couldn’t detect the source. He lowered his head, hiding from them as best he could, and blinked until the laughter was gone. Ben nodded in Henry’s direction. “It is further my intention to promote Henry Louden to the position of executive secretary of Camden Enterprises. I believe you will all agree with me that he’s perfect for the job.”

“Are you all right?” someone finally asked.

“Just…excuse me for a minute. Read over the…” He gestured at them. “The, uh…read the sheets. Talk it over. I’ll…be outside.”

He stepped into the hallway, pressing his back against the door and wiping a thin layer of sweat from his brow. The board members conferred, their muffled voices hitting his ears. He needed a drink; the water fountain would have to suffice.

He went to his father’s old office…his new office, and sat down at the desk. Fingers traced the dark lines in the glossy cherry wood. As a boy he’d always looked up to the man, sitting in that chair. He turned around to look out at the view of the grounds, lost in the distant past.

Henry and Hillary came in, and he swiveled back, unaware of how long he’d been spaced out at that window. “Well?” he asked.

“Believe it or not,” Henry said, “everyone’s on board, no pun intended. Even Tom, for the most part.”

“Well then,” he said. “I guess I’m staying. And so are you.”

Henry hugged his daughter. “I think this calls for a celebration.”

Ben snapped. “How about dinner at my new place…say, at eight?”

Hillary laughed. “Your new place, right. It’s the oldest thing in the neighborhood.”

MAY

The Camden mansion felt like home to Sheila. Cara’s giggles and cries filled the halls as the dust came down, and she spent much of her time updating and redecorating the building that had housed so many of her husband’s relatives throughout the years.

The Green Room was her favorite. She added pictures and heirlooms from her own family, careful not to let it grow gaudy or tacky, and the final product had subtle elegance. She cleaned up the tennis court, near the swimming pool and the musty little stable. She hadn’t played since college, and she coaxed Ben out there whenever she could, as well as inviting over friends for a match or two. She relished the exercise after those months of pregnancy.

But above all else, she loved taking care of her baby girl.

She often babysat Kambree Daniels. She welcomed the company, especially on nights when Ben had to work late. Kambree would follow her around like a puppy, curious about every little thing. She thought the mansion must be heaven because of its size and splendor, and always asked, “Where God?”

“Whacha doo?” she asked, leaning in as Sheila held Cara’s sucking lips up to her breast. “She eat?”

“She’s eating, yes.”

“Why she eat you?”

Sheila laughed. “She’s not eating me, Honey. She’s just eating.”

Kambree touched her own chest, frowning with confusion. Then she leaned in close to see Cara sucking, and Sheila blushed. “She sleep!” She touched Cara’s arm, but the baby’s eyes did not open. Kambree grinned. “She sleep!”

Sheila laid Cara down for a nap and set Kambree with Lady and the Tramp. They curled up on the couch with popcorn, and whenever Kambree would giggle or laugh, or ask her precocious questions, Sheila looked forward to the day when Cara would start marveling at the world.

Sheila let the movie run as Kambree fell asleep. The baby whimpered when she loomed over the crib, green eyes wide open and leg kicking against the sheet. “Angel,” she said, “Momma loves you so much!”

Cara’s face wrinkled and she burst into a loud cry. “Oh, you break my heart!” Sheila sighed as she picked up her daughter and rocked her. A diaper change later, Cara looked up and her mother held her little hand between two fingers.

-

Ben arrived home to find Kambree and Sheila both out cold on the sofa. Cara lay whimpering in her cradle, and his throat was dry.

“Hey…” Sheila mumbled as his kiss stirred her. “Did I fall asleep?”

“Sorry to wake you.”

“It’s OK…have to take my chances when I get to see you!”

He slid beside her, holding her head against his shoulder. “Sorry.”

“It’s OK,” she yawned. “I know you’re a big important businessman now.”

“Yeah…”

“When are you leaving?” Sheila leaned over to check on the slumbering Kambree.

He stroked her hair. “Sydney-bound Monday night.”

“It’s a big ol’ house for just the two of us.”

“I got you a roommate.”

“Oh?”

“Hillary’s going to come and stay. Just while I’m gone. Help you with the baby, keep you company and what not.”

“That sounds nice.”

As Sheila woke Kambree to get ready to leave, Ben found Cara, spittle dripping down the side of her cheek. She waved her hands around as she was apt to do, so defenseless and yet fending for her life as if an invisible predator lurked nearby.

He listened to her breath, slow and soothing, and yet ringing like dissonant noise in his ear.

JUNE

Producing a movie on location could be a real headache. Harry Polk, the director, dangled on the edge of a nervous breakdown, and Ben didn’t blame him. Unpredictable summer weather shifted across the Australian Outback, and they had to be ready at a moment’s notice, when they had a few hours without rain.

The mood matched the weather. The sour attitudes and fatigue of the cast and crew made Ben consider taking up smoking again, and he found relief with an old friend and sometime enemy: Scotch. He had to watch himself; this little excursion Down Under wasn’t cheap.

Back in Hollywood, actors had a guaranteed twelve-hour turnaround between the days’ shooting. But the Screen Actors Guild had no jurisdiction here, and he didn’t listen to the complaints from the cast of Aborigine when he only gave them six or seven hours to rest before returning to work. He didn’t care. It was either that or run out of money and shelve the whole thing.

In those few hours when he wasn’t working, he kept to himself, unable to stop thinking about his father, and how despite abandoning the man he now ran Lloyd’s company and lived in his house. He thought back to that day when he cursed at him and stormed out of the place, unable to recall what was said between them. He only remembered being wounded, the way he supposed all fathers wounded their sons.

Ben could almost believe that Lloyd’s ghost followed him to Australia. He kept going over and over in his head the few times they’d seen each other since that Christmas afternoon. He could imagine that Lloyd had tried to make peace with him, and he never listened. It left him with nothing but guilt if it was true. He had only himself to blame for not making amends.

And as that thought permeated him there, in the miserable rain and humidity, the Scotch warmed him, and his mood grew darker.

-

Sheila turned her head from the quiet chuckling on television. A louder laughter echoed down the hallway. “Hey, kids!” she said as Hillary came past with her boyfriend, Malcolm. “How was the movie?”

“As campy as hell, but we loved it!” Hillary replied, slurring a bit. “Grease is the word, they say!”

“So it was silly?”

Malcolm shook his head. “What do you expect from a movie with Frankie Avalon as the teen angel?”

“You know, I met Frankie Avalon!” Hillary said, holding her head and wincing. “Right out there by that pool!”

“Are you all right?” Sheila asked.

Hillary groaned. “Something’s bugging me, that’s for sure.”

“We think she got food poisoning or something,” Malcolm said.

“Oh dear…we better get you to bed.”

Malcolm braced her with his arm. “I’ll see her up.”

“Oh…OK.”

“Sorry…” Hillary said. “I guess you can’t have your cake…and eat it too.” She laughed again.

Sheila went back to watching The Tonight Show as Cara cooed in her cradle. She took a sip of her green tea and shook her head. Johnny Carson would never be the same for her. She vowed never to set foot on that stage again.

After a few minutes, Malcolm Chilton stepped into the doorway. “How is she?” Sheila asked.

“Out for the night.”

“Too much to drink?”

“Not a drop.” Malcolm glanced up at the television. “Carson. I love this guy.”

“He’s a character.”

“Mind if I watch for a minute? I love this guy.”

She shrugged. “Please.”

He took the other half of the sofa. “Always does the funniest stuff. I love it when he throws me for a loop.”

“Trust me, I know.”

He did a double take. “Holy shit, that’s right! You were on the show! That was like…the most famous episode ever!”

“Yeah, I guess it kind of was.”

“Got proposed to, right out there!”

“I got put on the spot is what happened.”

Malcolm glanced in the general direction of the empty house. “Where’s Ben?”

“Australia. Doing a shoot.”

Malcolm didn’t flinch. “Guy’d have to be a fool to go so far…leave a pretty little wife like you home all alone.”

She heard herself swallow. “Well, I’m not alone. I mean, I have Hillary.”

“You must get awful lonely, having him so far away…nobody to talk to.”

“I talk to Hillary…”

“Yeah, but…she’s not a man.”

She inched toward the lacey basinet. “I should be getting Cara up to bed. Thanks again for looking after Hillary.”

“You know, I don’t have to go anywhere. The night’s still young.”

“I’m a little exhausted. You understand.”

He reached out and took her hand, too quickly for her to pull away. “Pretty little thing like you…shouldn’t be alone.”

“Please let go.”

He grinned and her stomach turned. “Now don’t be nervous, Sugar! I don’t bite!”

“Malcolm, let go of my hand,” she said, but he pulled her closer to him. “Let go!”

“Shh…shh…” he said, grabbing her other arm. “Calm down, Sugar.”

“Get off…of me!” she said, slapping his face and plunging her knee into his groin. Cara screamed. “Now look what you did! You woke up the baby!”

“Shit, woman! What’s wrong with you?”

She pointed at the door. “Get out of my house.”

Malcolm rose, bent over from her strike. “Look, don’t get all worked up about it. Just a misunderstanding, that’s all. No need to tell Hillary. You know what I mean.”

“Get…out…”

He raised his hands. “OK, OK, I’m leaving. I know when I’m not wanted. Just trying to help, that’s all.”

Malcolm left the room, and Sheila turned to the crying baby for a moment, then followed him out to make sure he was good and gone. She ran back to the basinet and picked up Cara. “Shh…shh…” She rocked her, trembling. “It’s all right, Angel. Momma’s here.”

-

Hillary bubbled into the mansion, and Sheila could hear her singing to herself down on the first floor. She finished fastening a fresh diaper on Cara and gazed into her baby’s interested eyes. “Mum’s the word,” she said, and Cara giggled.

Hillary slid past as they exited the nursery. “Home so soon?”

“Hmm?” She kissed Cara’s forehead. “Oh…I took the rest of the day off.”

“Can you do that?”

Hillary gestured for the baby. “Hold her?” Sheila relinquished her child, and Hillary cradled her with delight. “She smells so good!”

“She smells good about fifty times a day.”

Hillary breathed in the scent. “I could never get tired of that.”

“Never say never.” Sheila noticed her cheeks were flushed. “You took the day off?”

“Yep yep.”

“Plans?”

Hillary looked up, and Sheila noticed a glimmer in her eye. “No…well…no.”

“Well then, mind looking after her while I run some errands?”

“Sure.”

Sheila touched her daughter’s cheek, then turned toward the stairs, Hillary’s floating mood following her. “Sheila?”

She paused. “Yes?”

“Don’t you…”

Sheila found her staring at Cara, smile gone. “Don’t I?”

“Can you keep a secret?”

“I think so.”

Hillary’s eyes widened as Cara breathed against her face. “I’m pregnant.”

Sheila braced herself against the banister. “No kidding?”

“Positive. I just came from the doctor.” She kissed Cara’s face. “I’m going to have one of these!”

Sheila stepped up and Hillary returned the child. “Malcolm?”

Hillary nodded. “He doesn’t know, though. I want to wait for the perfect moment.”

“Well…” The baby laid her warm head against her mother’s shoulder.

“It’s a secret. For now.”

“I won’t tell a soul.”

JULY

Ben stepped into the LAX terminal with a sore back and a lingering hangover. He searched through the distant passersby until he found the one facing him, cradling something and trying to wave. He blinked himself into the moment and dropped his bag.

“Hey!” Sheila said as he gently embraced his wife and daughter.

“Hello.”

“How was your flight?”

He glanced at the child. “Over and done with.”

The baby gurgled as Sheila held her out to him. “Cara missed you.”

Ben looked down at the stirring infant, that tight pit in his stomach lancing him. He leaned in and kissed the baby. No help.

“How was the shoot?” Sheila asked, taking his bag and handing him the baby. That familiar weight felt heavier than before.

“Over and done with.”

The airport disappeared from the rearview mirror as Ben’s eyes fixed on the road. He knew her silence meant she wanted him to speak first. “How’s Cara?”

Sheila sat in the back, cradling the baby. “She had a teensy temperature yesterday. I freaked out.”

“What was wrong?”

“Nothing, really. Just my nerves. Hillary talked me down.”

“Good.”

“She’s been great.”

“Glad to hear it.”

“She’s pregnant.”

There was a lot of that going around, apparently. “Really?”

“Mmm hmm. It’s kind of a secret. You’re the first one I’ve told.”

“How far along is she?”

“Ten weeks. Hasn’t even told Malcolm yet.”

Ben’s mind stretched out, reaching across the horizon, pulled back by a ghost he’d hoped he had escaped in Australia. He shook it off and tried to think of Hillary.

“I need to tell you something,” Sheila said.

He turned to her and saw the distress he thought he’d heard. “What?”

“It’s about Malcolm…”

The Camdens sat finishing their supper in the dining hall when Hillary arrived. “Hey, stranger!” he said, wiping his mouth. Hillary hugged him without a word as Sheila edged her chair a hair in their direction.

“Hey…what’s wrong?” he asked.

“I need to talk to you guys.” Sheila said nothing as Hillary sat beside her. “I tried to call Stuart but…he wasn’t there.”

“What is it?”

“Did you tell him?” Hillary asked.

“She told me,” Ben said. “Congrats.”

Hillary nodded. “I told Malcolm.”

“What did he say?” Ben asked.

“You should have seen his face.”

The three of them sat in silence, the only sounds from the grandfather clock in the corner and Cara’s gentle stirrings in the nearby basinet. That distant taunting, teasing voice whispered in Ben’s ear. The indefinable ghost penetrated him as Hillary whimpered.

Ben touched her hand, limp on the table. “What did he say?”

Tears streamed down her cheeks. “I really thought he was the one, you know? He was so…”

Husband and wife moved closer to her, and she laid her head on Sheila’s shoulder. “You’re breaking my heart,” Sheila said.

Ben glanced at Cara’s cradle where his unseen daughter slept, then back to Hillary. “I don’t know what to do!” she cried. “I don’t know what to do…without him!”

Ben stood, watching his wife and his best friend there. The pain in Hillary’s face burned itself into his mind. That twitchiness he’d had for weeks swept across him. The ghost whispered, and something…something inside him he didn’t quite understand…awoke.

-

Ben paid no attention to the loud and distasteful music. His pulse raced as he scoured the bar, searching the faces. Malcolm sat in a corner, laughing and sharing a beer with a girl who looked barely old enough to vote. Everyone at Camden thought highly of the man, yet here he was, laughing with that bright, wide grin of his, and every pacifist bone in Ben’s body couldn’t hold back what had snapped. No alcohol impaired his judgment.

Malcolm looked up just as Ben’s fist connected with his jaw. People around them backed away, and the girl beside him shrieked. “What the hell, man?” Malcolm asked before Ben clocked him again.

“Motherfucker!”

“I didn’t do anything to her!”

Ben grabbed his collar and looked him right in his fearful eyes. “You got her pregnant, you little prick! Then you skipped out. She deserves a lot better than a little shit like you!”

Malcolm just glared back. “You hit me again, you’re in for a world of trouble!”

Ben sneered and popped him. “I just want to tear your face off! Guys like you drive me crazy!”

“Guys like me,” Malcolm repeated, wiping blood from his mouth. “You’re just like me! You’re ten times worse!”

Ben lifted his arm to strike again when two policemen grabbed him from behind. He didn’t resist, didn’t protest. He knew they were doing him a favor. As the crowd watched in shock, and the girl cowered in tears, Ben looked back at the man with calm eyes. “And don’t ever touch my wife again!”

-

You’re just like me.

Ben sat in his cell and couldn’t get the words out of his head. The sentence festered like a tumor in his mind, digging and rotting. He could put on a fresh coat of paint, marry a preacher’s daughter and have the baby he never wanted, but what did that prove?

You’re just like me.

“Camden, let’s go. You’ve got a visitor.”

He followed the guard out and found Hillary sitting, waiting for him. She looked up with sorrow and gratitude, and he noticed Sheila standing in the distance, holding little Cara. His heart sank.

“Hey,” Hillary said as he sat.

“Hey.”

“I’m so sorry you got dragged into this.”

“He had it coming.”

“Maybe…but now you’ve got serious problems because of me.”

“He’s not interested in watching me sit in jail. He just wants money.”

“I can’t believe it!”

He wanted to hug her but knew he couldn’t. “Everybody trusted him. Not just you.”

“He quit…I don’t know if you knew.”

“Smart move.”

“I’ve never had anyone…stick up for me like that.”

“You’ve never needed it,” he said.

“I want you to know…I’m keeping this baby. I’ll make it work somehow.”

He glanced at his wife and daughter. “Why doesn’t she come over?”

“She…wanted to speak to you alone.”

He sighed. “Right.”

“I’ll get her. But Ben…you’re the best.”

He watched her talk to Sheila, who approached as Hillary took the baby. She sat across from him, her eyes knowing and reserved.

“I’m so sorry,” he said.

“What you did…was very noble.”

“But?”

She took a deep breath. “I know you had the best intentions, but you can’t forget…you’re a father now. You have to put Cara over everything.”

“I know…I’m sorry.”

“I’ve never seen this side of you before, and it scares me. I’ve seen you drunk, I’ve seen you depressed. I’ve seen you…suicidal.” The previously unspoken word struck him like the back of a hand to the face. “But I’ve never seen you violent. And it scares me! This wasn’t just losing your temper! You wanted it!” He glanced across the way at his daughter, struggling and shifting in Hillary’s arms. “I know he deserved it.”

You’re just like me. “I just wasn’t thinking.”

“I know. But…that’s what scares me, Honey. You weren’t thinking about yourself, but more importantly, you weren’t thinking about Cara or me. And how do I know…somewhere down the line…that the time won’t come…”

OCTOBER

Ben had their cook prepare a lavish dinner when the Greens came to town. The dining hall glowed with artificial light as they sat down to their full place settings and fine china.

“I feel like I’m at a wedding,” Saul said. “Sorry, I didn’t bring a gift!”

“Just be glad you don’t have to wear a tux,” Ben replied.

“Thanks for that, by the way,” Saul said. “You do like to think ahead.”

The royal spread disappeared as everyone picked apart the dishes. Sheila and her father dominated the conversation, and Ben noticed that Matt and Samantha hardly spoke.

“We’re not boring you, are we?” he asked.

Matt smiled at his wife and her cheeks went rosy. “Not at all. It’s just…we’ve got kind of an announcement to make.”

Sheila’s lips curled into a curious smile as Samantha took a deep breath. “Well, the truth is, we just found out…we’re having another baby!”

“Fantastic!” Sheila said, leaping up to give them a hug.

Ben and Saul laughed with each other at her reaction. Sheila already crouched between them, gabbing it up. Ben extended a hand to Saul. “You’re going to be a grandfather…again.”

Saul shook it. “And you an uncle…again.”

After everyone offered their congratulations, Sheila decided to take Matt and Samantha out to celebrate. Ben and Saul agreed to watch the children.

“Quite a couple of kids you got there, Dad.”

“If you think raising one is tough, try raising twins!”

“My friend Hillary just found out she’s expecting twins,” Ben said. “A little surprising, to say the least. I’m satisfied with my one.”

“Cara has the most interesting little eyes I’ve ever seen.”

“They don’t look like Camden eyes,” Ben replied.

“They look a little bit like my mom’s,” Saul said. “So. How’re things going?”

Saul’s face was an easy read – Ben was being evaluated. “Fine. Just fine.”

“Really?”

Ben sighed. “You see right through that, like I do, don’t you?”

“It’s a gift.”

“I don’t know; it’s hard to explain. There’s nothing in particular. No real reason why I shouldn’t be the happiest man alive.”

“Every man has his own private pain, I think. Question is, how do you deal with it?”

“As best as I can, I guess.”

“She’s concerned about you.”

Ben lifted Cara up into his lap as Forest came close. “Sometimes I still think I’m not cut out to be a father. Maybe…I’m going to hurt her.” He kissed his daughter and she smiled up at him.

“All fathers fear they’re not good enough. I know I did.”

Cara reached out with her little fingers and spread her hand wide on his arm. Her tiny lips curled, and she giggled. Ben’s lips curled as well. She felt so good in his arms…and yet the smell of her, the feel of her… His stomach tightened, and his throat went dry.

And then she looked up at him with those green eyes.

DECEMBER

Sheila pulled into the driveway of the mansion, still beaming with pleasure from a night with her girlfriends. She thought about Hillary, lugging twins around in her belly, and wondered what it would be like to raise two babies at the same time.

She passed through the long hallways of the mansion, and as she set foot on the stairs, she heard Cara screaming in the distance. It grew louder when she reached the second floor, and she realized the baby was much more startled than normal. She kicked off her heels and jogged up the final flight.

She swung open the door to the nursery. Cara had managed to climb out of her crib and fall to the floor. Sheila dropped to her knees in fear and cradled her daughter. “Oh, Baby…Baby…” As Cara cried, she cried too. “It’s OK, now! Momma’s here…yes…Oh, Baby…” She inspected her, finding no sign of injury. She rocked Cara, kissing her and whispering to her. Where was Ben? Why wasn’t he in there with them?

Sheila calmed Cara and put her back in the crib, making a note that they needed to take more precautions. In the morning they’d go to the doctor just to be safe.

She swept out of the nursery, unwilling to shout for her husband and disturb the baby, and began a frantic search for him. If Cara had injured herself and he hadn’t responded, something even worse could be wrong. She checked everywhere she thought he might be, finally finding him in his old childhood bedroom.

He lay there, passed out on the floor, an empty bottle of Scotch overturned in his hand. She remembered the story of how Hillary found him that dark Thanksgiving morning. As she rolled him over, she smelled the Scotch seeped in the carpet. At least he hadn’t emptied the bottle himself.

“Ben?” She touched his forehead and chest. Everything felt normal, so she shook him. “Ben?” He stirred.

Sudden fury swelled in her. She knelt over him, watching him lie there, smelling like liquor. The anger gripped her like a seizure, and she stood up, shaking, then kicked him, hard.

“Ah!” he groaned, waking in an instant. He clutched not at his side, but at his head. “Oh my God…” he moaned.

“What do you think you’re doing?”

He winced. “Don’t shout. Headache.”

She grabbed him by the shirt and hefted him to his feet. “I don’t give a damn if you go deaf! How dare you get drunk and leave Cara alone?”

It took him a second to find his footing. “She’s fine! She’s sleeping! Which is what I was doing…”

She slapped him in the face. “Cara climbed out of her crib and fell! She fell! And she was crying and crying…” She slapped him again. “I can’t believe you!”

His glassy eyes filled with concern. “She fell?” He tried to pull himself away from her and move to the door. “Is she all right?”

“She’s fine, now that I’m home,” Sheila said. “I can’t leave her alone with you!”

“Babe…you don’t understand.”

She swiped the empty bottle of Scotch from his hand. “I understand! I can smell it even better than I understand!”

He touched his forehead and snapped his eyes shut with a flinch. “I’m…sorry. I’m sorry.”

“I can’t even look at you right now!”

She turned her back on him and slammed the door in his face. One hand grasped the railing, the other gripping the empty bottle. Tears clouded her vision, her pulse racing faster than she could process. With a gasp, she hurled the bottle through the open air, watching it plummet two stories then shatter into splinters as it hit the marble.

-

The next morning Ben stumbled downstairs from his old bedroom, nursing a headache and shielding his eyes from the sunlight. Sheila read the newspaper at the kitchen table. Cara sat in her high chair, playing with her food. When she saw her father come in, her eyes lit up and she reached for him with sticky fingers. He knelt beside her and kissed her little hand, her arm, her cheek. “I’m so sorry, Cara,” he whispered, softly enough that Sheila couldn’t hear. “My sweet angel…” She giggled at him and touched his face, leaving a trace of mashed carrots on the edge of his lips.

Sheila sat, attention fixed on the paper, ignoring him. She had made coffee and toast, so he sat down and poured himself a mug.

“I don’t know what to say…to apologize for last night.”

She put the paper down. “I don’t think there’s anything you can say.”

He nodded. “Yeah…”

”She landed on her head. The doctor said she suffered no injuries…” She wiped a tear from her eye, and he couldn’t tell if it was a tear of fear or rage. “But who knows what might have happened inside her little head?”

“I just had a bad night. Thinking about Dad.”

She stared at him as if she’d never seen him before. Her lips curled, and her voice cracked. “I refuse to feel sorry for you! Do you understand that? Whatever you thought or said or did, you are a father. You have a precious little daughter who needs you, and you have no choice. You have to be there for her. Do you understand?”

“I do.”

Her eyes welled up. “I swear, sometimes I wish…”

“What?”

“Nothing, forget it. Eat your toast.”

Cara giggled behind them, and Ben swiveled around so that he could see her. He ate, watching her play, and his heart sank and softened. She was the most beautiful, terrifying thing he had ever seen.

1979

MARCH

Ben brushed past a doctor as he and Sheila swept into the empty waiting room with Cara in tow. Henry Louden pulled himself out of his seat as they approached. “Ben!”

“How is she?” he asked, sensing Henry’s edginess through the hospital gown as he gave his old friend a hug.

“She’s at eight hours now. They just wheeled her into delivery.”

”Why aren’t you with her?” Sheila asked.

“I’m just catching my breath.” He inhaled, hands shaking. “OK, here we go. Wish me luck!”

“Good luck…Grandpa.” Ben winked.

They sank onto the sofa vacated by Henry. A television gawked in the far corner and Cara stretched with a gentle groan as someone paged a doctor on an overhead speaker. They sat in silence, each watching Cara doze in her mother’s arms. Ben reached out to take Sheila’s hand, and she didn’t refuse him.

Neither said a word.

-

After the longest ten hours of her life, Hillary lay panting in the bed, exhausted, every sense spent, yet still sharp and alert. Umbilical cords were cut, and two nurses came over, each carrying a baby.

“Oh my God…” she managed, still recovering her breath. “There’s really…” Panting. “Two!”

“Miss Louden,” the first nurse said. “This is your firstborn, by fifteen minutes. A healthy baby girl.”

Hillary laughed sadly, wanting to pass out, and touched her daughter’s head. “A girl…then her name is Holly.”

“Holly Louden,” the nurse said. “Would you like to hold her?”

Hillary nodded, reaching, and took the baby with thin strands of blonde stuck to her head. “Oh man…so amazing…”

The second nurse stepped up. “I hope you like girls, Miss Louden, because this little bundle here is your second daughter.”

“Two girls!” She offered her free arm as the nurse handed her the second child. They both cried, and their mother joined them. “Holly…and Hayley…I’m your mommy!”

-

Friends and family gathered around to welcome the Louden girls into the world. They had never seen Henry so animated. Ben hung behind the rest, holding Cara, who shifted as she strained to see everything. “Shh…it’s OK, Angel. It’s OK.” Everyone passed around the new arrivals, promising to help Hillary in any way they could. Ben kissed each of the girls on the forehead, but he didn’t relinquish Cara. He didn’t want to hold these babies. The atmosphere of the room suffocated him. The welcoming of new life, the promise of future generations, these were all good things. For anyone else, they were good.

“Aaah?” Cara touched his face with a laugh.

APRIL

After the December incident with Cara, Sheila emptied the mansion of alcohol and made Ben promise not to drink anymore. By now she knew it had been a lie, or at least, it had become one. She could smell it on him when he got home most nights. She often cried herself to sleep, and he would make an excuse to stay up past her and then shut himself in the nursery until morning.

Sheila made frequent calls to Samantha in Memphis, often contemplating a trip back home. Somewhere far away.

“He left me alone again.”

“I’m sorry, Sweetheart.”

“I feel like he thinks Cara loves him more than I do. Like he goes to her when he thinks I’ll turn him away.”

“She doesn’t think he’s a failure.”

Sheila sobbed. “I don’t either! But he’s breaking my heart!”

“The people we love are always the ones who can hurt us the most.”

“Things would be harder, but also so much easier…without him.”

Samantha’s tone was firm but loving. “You told him that his fears and insecurities didn’t matter anymore because he’s a father. He made that decision and he can’t go back on it, and Cara needs him. Well…you’re a wife. You made a commitment too.”

“If it was just me…maybe I wouldn’t be thinking this way. But I’m so worried he’ll hurt Cara again.” She wiped a tear from her eye. “Sometimes, I just think, if only—” She stopped midsentence, interrupted by a sudden, distant noise – a powerful crashing, smashing. “Oh no…”

“What is it?”

Panic tightened in her throat. “I don’t know! I have to call you back!” She slammed down the phone and raced toward the source of the sound, leaving Cara behind. She ran out into the night air and threw her hands to her mouth, gasping with fear.

Ben’s Mercedes, still running, sat crumpled against the side of the garage. Smoke wafted from the point of impact, the front of the car flat and sharp. She ran around to the driver’s side, stepping over small fragments of the vehicle, and found her husband buckled into the seat, unconscious. His head hung forward and a wide gash adorned his cheek. His bloody hands still hung on the wheel.

“Ben!” She nudged his shoulder. “Ben?”

-

Ben awoke in a hospital bed, confused and aching. He blinked, and the memory hit him. The bar after work. Getting cut off. Refusing to take a cab. He couldn’t remember driving home, and from the looks of things, he might not have made it back to the mansion. Pain laced his body, and he needed to stretch.

That was when he realized that both of his legs were in casts.

A machine beeped in his ear, and as he tried to sit up, he found Sheila sitting in a chair beside him, weeping softly as Cara bounced on her lap. “Aah Daa?” A stronger pain rushed through him, and he wished he could fall asleep again…fall back into the world of dreams.

“Sheila…” Her head snapped up as Cara’s hand touched her chin. “What happened?”

“What do you think happened?”

His legs felt stiff and shattered. “I’m sorry.”

She almost bared her teeth as Cara thrashed about with curious energy. “I don’t think you can say you’re sorry anymore.”

He reached out for her, and she took his hand. “Sheila, I’m messed up. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

“You should see a therapist.”

“You know how I feel about therapists.”

“I don’t really care! You’ve got to do something! I’m praying for you, Honey. Every day I’m praying for you.”

“Thanks…I appreciate it.”

“You could have killed yourself! Again!” His face twitched as her eyes flooded. “You know, I’ve been thinking a lot lately,” she said. “I remember the old days, when everything was so electric and alive. You are such an amazing man, Ben. And I will always love you.”

“Sheila…”

“No, let me finish. I love you…so much. But this isn’t working. I try and I try to reach you, to relate to you. I try to be your wife.” Cara squirmed, and she let go of his hand to get a better hold of her daughter. Tears blossomed in both of their eyes. “I don’t believe in divorce. I told you that in the beginning. But I cannot allow you…to be around Cara…when you’re like this.”

His gaze broke from his wife and trained on his daughter. “Sheila…”

“Can you honestly say…she’s safe around you?”

Through his clouded vision he saw Cara reaching out toward the distant television, watching the evening news. “Don’t do this!” That little girl…that little girl of his…

“Cara and I are leaving the mansion. No, let me finish. I’m not divorcing you. I don’t know if I believe in us, but I believe in you. I know you’re better than this. But as long as you’re…this…we can’t be a part of it.”

“Baby,” he cried, and he honestly didn’t know if he meant Sheila or Cara. “Please, no!”

“I’m sorry. My mind’s made up. This is what’s best for all of us. Don’t you see that?”

He watched his daughter’s enchanting smile as she reached out for some ethereal thing in front of her. “Yes.”

“I’ll always be there for you. We both will. But as long as you’re like this…we can’t be here for you.”

“I know.”

“I’m not sure where we’ll go, but I promise we won’t be far.”

He shook his head. “No, no. I’m the one who messed up. I should be the one to leave.”

“It’s your family’s house.”

“You stay because…because I’m going to be back.”

She nodded. “I hope so. I want to believe it.”

“Can I…still see you?”

“Of course! And you’ll still see Cara. But we just can’t live together, for now.”

His worst fear had already passed, but still… “Could I have a moment alone with her?”

“Of course.” She handed Cara over to him, and as they both had their hands on the girl, she leaned in and kissed him with her lips and her tears. Cara nestled against her father, and Sheila left the room.

Ben shifted Cara so she was looking at him. Her face lit up again and her mouth exploded into a bright smile. “Daa?” she asked.

“Dad.” He choked on the word. “Dad.”

“Daa?”

He kissed her forehead. “My sweet angel.”

“Aaadaa.”

“My little girl.”

She continued her gentle babbling, and he tickled her. She giggled and put her hand on his face, blinking her green eyes at him. As he held the only person who thought he was perfect, he knew one thing for certain.

He couldn’t change for his mother. He couldn’t change for his father. He couldn’t change for his sister or his friends. For Yvette, or Annette, or even Sheila.

But he could change for Cara Camden.

He kissed her again and whispered, “I will always be perfect to you. I promise. No matter what it takes. Everything I have, everything I can do…it’s all for you, Cara. It’s all for you.”

“Aaadaa?”

“You’re going to be proud of your father.”

She touched his face again, wonder and excitement in her eyes. “Daadaa?”

His lungs seized with delight and regret, and he smiled at her. “Daadaa.”

After they left, he asked for a pen and paper. He put the date at the top of the page. April 11, 1979.

And then, with Cara’s eyes fixed in his memory, he began.

In a world as cold as ours

I am lost among the stars

And I float in outer space

Wishing I could find my place

I descend unto the Earth

And experience the birth

Of a light that softly gleams

And illuminates my dreams

From this light I shield my eyes

As it spreads across the skies

And these skies once blue I’ve seen

Are becoming skies of green

In a fairy tale I heard

In a story most absurd

Was a girl who spoke of love

Like an angel from above

But this girl I could not find

Though she plagued upon my mind

Like a riddle she’d confuse

A mirage and not a muse

And the muse I did not save

Drags me down into my grave

But what I have not foreseen

Is my destiny of green…

-

Sheila returned to the mansion, unable to stop crying. Cara kept repeating over and over, “Daadaa?” before going down for a nap. She wanted a drink, but they kept no alcohol in the house anymore. She made herself a cup of green tea and stood before the portrait she had once painted of Ben.

She could still see that young man in her husband. He was still there. She prayed that he would find the strength to break free.

-

“Thanks for putting me up,” Ben said as Hillary spread fresh sheets on her guest bed.

“At least I can keep an eye on you now,” she said. “And with those casts on your legs, you won’t be doing any drinking and driving for a while!”

“I won’t be doing either one.”

“Yeah, well, we’ll see.”

“I won’t.”

“Well, you can help me take care of the girls in the meantime.”

He pulled himself out of the wheelchair and onto the bed. “I’ll earn my keep.”

She shut off the lights, and Ben lay there in the dark, staring at the ceiling. “Everything’s different now,” he whispered, lips curling into an unseen smile.

Beneath those lips, his throat felt parched…the kind of thirst only Scotch could quench. Perhaps the casts were a blessing.

JUNE

Sheila sat with her father and nephew at Baptist Memorial in Memphis. Elsewhere in the building, Samantha cried out in labor with her husband at her side. Forest kept Cara company and stopped her from toddling away as she sought to explore the hospital. They watched the children with fondness as Saul comforted his lonely girl.

Matt emerged, beaming with excitement, and hoisted Forest onto his shoulders. “Would you like to meet your new sister?”

“Sister!” Forest said.

“Everybody else?”

“Of course, Papa!” Sheila kissed him and scooped up Cara as well. They followed him in to where Samantha lay cradling her newborn.

“It’s a girl?” Sheila asked as they gathered around.

“It is!” Samantha said. “Healthy baby girl.”

“What’s her name?” Saul asked.

Matt touched the baby’s soft hand. “Peyton Lorraine Green.”

“I can’t think of a better one,” Saul said.

Matt let Forest down. “Do you want to say hello?”

Forest’s eyes widened as he touched the baby for the first time. “Hello, Peyton! I’m your brother Forest.” She whined when he touched her, and Forest looked up with fear. “She doesn’t like me!”

“She’s just cranky from being born. You were just as cranky!”

“Really?”

“If I were you, I’d get used to it. She’s going to cry an awful lot.”

Forest’s lip quivered. “I’ll make her happy.”

Sheila lowered Cara near the baby. “Look, Cara! This is your new cousin, Peyton! Can you say Peyton?”

Cara giggled. “Pain!”

“Yes! Peyton! Yes!”

Sheila looked at the two of them side by side. “Did you guys notice…”

“What?” Matt asked.

Saul leaned in, giving the baby a good look. “No, I see it. Amazing…”

“What?” Mary asked, turning Peyton so she could see. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Sheila said. “It’s just…she looks almost exactly like Cara!”

-

“How’re you doing, anyway?”

Ben adjusted himself in the wheelchair as Kim Daniels knelt beside him. Kambree scampered in the distance, watching the lighting technician work.

“You’d think this thing’d slow me down,” he said, patting the armrest. “But not as much as when I was in the casts!”

“Can you walk at all?”

“A little bit each day, with crutches. Eventually I’ll be on crutches full time. For a while.”

“I heard about you and Sheila.”

“Don’t believe everything you hear. We’re just working out some things.”

“Yeah…”

He nodded at Kambree. “She ready for this?”

“She’s fine! I don’t think she really gets it. I’m a wreck.”

“Most parents are. Just don’t let her see it in you.”

Kim glanced at her precocious child. “Right…”

He wheeled himself toward the camera as the lighting technician backed away. “I think we’re about ready.”

“Kambree, come here!”

Kambree snapped to attention at the sound of her name. Ben noticed how easily she took direction, at least from her mother.

“OK, Mr. Camden, we’re ready to roll.”

“Thanks, Tom.” He turned to the little girl. “Kambree? Come over here and sit with me!” He gestured to a chair positioned in front of the camera, a boom mic hanging overhead.

“OK!” She hopped in the seat as he stopped his wheelchair beside her. She looked up at the boom mic with curious eyes.

“Now, we’re just going to talk for a minute, all right?”

“K!”

He turned and nodded. Tom came around with a clapboard. “Mint Condition – Kambree Daniels screen test.” He clapped the board and stepped back.

Ben turned his attention to Kambree, who faced the camera and sat, eyes beaming at him, ready to talk.

“So how’s your day going so far?”

“I watched Sesame Street. Ernie had a rubbah ducky in the bath and sing a song!”

“What kind of a song?”

“It was about…taking a bath!”

“Do you like to sing?”

She nodded with exaggerated neck strokes. “I sing Mighty Mouse!”

“Can you sing it for me?”

She raised her hands into the air. “Here I come to save a day!”

Ben heard stifled laughter from behind the cameras as Kambree told him how much she hated “bussel spouts.”

“Do you have to eat them all the time?”

She shrugged. “Mommy says they’re good for me!”

Ben chuckled. “Listen, Kambree, I wonder, if I said something to you, would you say it back to me?”

“OK!”

“Car battery.”

Her face furrowed. “Car…battawy.”

“Very good! Now say jumping jack flash!”

She sounded it out. “Jumping jack flash!”

“Very good! Now say I’m all alone in the world.”

She took a deep breath. “I’m all aloned in da world!”

“Very good! You’re a smart girl!”

“I wanna see Cara!”

“Well Cara’s not here right now. Maybe some other time.”

“Okie doke!”

Ben turned to the camera. “Why don’t we cut it there?”

The lights shut off, and Kambree hopped down from her seat. “How’d I do?”

“You did very well! I’m impressed with you.”

“She really did?” Kim asked, picking up the girl.

“Yeah, I’d say so. I think she’d be a pleasure to work with.”

“Mommy, can I have pudding now?” Kambree asked.

Kim kissed her cheek. “As soon as we get home, honey.”

-

“Dada!” Cara exclaimed as she toddled into Ben’s arms.

“You big girl!” He lifted her up, and she giggled as he swept her through the air. Sheila came around the corner, a paint-smudged towel slung over her shoulder. He rested Cara in his lap as she patted him on the cheek.

“Hello!”

“Hello back.”

“I’ve missed you!”

She looked up into his deep brown eyes and almost melted. “Oh, yeah.” She kissed him with an electric passion that spoke volumes of how much she shared that sentiment. “Oh, yeah.” She blushed and took the handles on his wheelchair. “Come on. I’m cooking up something special!”

“But before we say anything else, you need to know I’m not ready to come home yet.”

“I understand.”

They had a delicious meal, and Sheila related to him all of Cara’s latest activities. She sat with them in a high chair, playing with her mashed potatoes. “She misses her daddy, though,” Sheila said. “I think she’d like to see more of him.”

“I think her daddy might like that too.” He broke from her gaze. “I’m…thinking about going to therapy.”

“You’d do that?”

“If it’ll help.” He wondered if any of his hidden booze remained in the place, then shook it off.

“I think it will!” She took his hand. “Would you like to see what I’ve been working on?”

“Of course!”

Ben lifted Cara in his arms, and Sheila wheeled him into her studio. She positioned him in front of two easels covered with white sheets. “I don’t know why, but I’m a little nervous!”

“I’m ready when you are,” he said as Cara squirmed in his arms.

“Here’s the first one.” She pulled back the sheet. “I call it Skies of Green, after that song you wrote in the hospital.” Cara stood, age-progressed by a few years, in a green meadow, wearing an emerald dress, her beautiful green eyes smiling out at the world. And in the background, above and behind her, the blue skies rippled with color and faded to a lighter green.

“I love it,” he said. “I think this belongs in the Green Room!”

“That’s where it’s going! Along with the other one…” She pulled back the second sheet, revealing a painting of two Caras: a baby held in the lap of a girl just slightly older than her current age.

“Why is she holding herself?”

Sheila kissed the back of her daughter’s head. “That’s her cousin she’s holding.”

“Peyton?” Ben asked. “It looks like Cara.”

“That’s because Peyton looks so much like Cara!”

“Wow…” he said, admiring those two sets of wide oil eyes. “You weren’t kidding!”

-

Ben slowly sank into the black leather couch, glancing around at the various knickknacks adorning the walls. “You into trains, Dr. Mentzer?”

Dr. Stephen Mentzer peered up at the stationary model railroad that ran around the office, near the ceiling, as he flipped to a blank page of paper. “You could say that.”

“My family made their fortune in the railroads,” Ben said. “Before Hollywood.” He picked up a wooden train whistle from the table. “May I?”

“Sure.”

Ben blew and grinned at the sound. “I always loved these things when I was a kid.”

Dr. Mentzer smiled. “Camden…when I think of railroads I think of the Camden and Amboy line.”

“Sure. We started out in Jersey just like everybody else,” Ben said. “Pooled our money, funded everything.”

“What brought you to California?”

“Eh, the war. Some of us stayed behind in Camden, but some of us came here. The war shook everything up back in those days. We had friends at the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, helped them find a terminus, pushed them to the area, then we brought Southern Pacific down after it was all over.”

“I’ve never met anyone else who knows railroad history,” Dr. Mentzer said.

“My grandpa drummed it all into our heads when we were kids,” Ben replied. “He used to say, ‘If it wasn’t for the Camdens, you wouldn’t be able to pick Los Angeles out on a map.’” Ben chuckled. “I think I’ve said that now and again myself.”

“And why is that?”

Ben replaced the whistle and turned again to the train memorabilia lining the walls. “The John Bull?”

Dr. Mentzer looked to the photograph. “Yes.”

“It was the railroads first. But we brought the movies too. After the Frisco Quake. Biograph and Mutoscope…do you know film history?”

“Not so much.”

“Well, the Jersey guys, from Edison and what not, they started coming out here, filming the aftermath. They were all close with the family up north, and Granddad convinced them to come down for a visit. Made a film about a trolley car robbery. First one ever made in Los Angeles.”

“I never knew the railroads and the film industry were connected.”

“They’re not, not really. My family started pulling their money out of the railroads and putting it into radio. Radio and film. Sound recordings too – we had a chunk of the old Victory Talking Machine Company. Hollywood was born, as they say. Everyone started coming out here for a piece of the action.”

“And this was all before you?”

“Yeah, I mean, I guess it doesn’t have a lot to do with me. But it’s good to know your roots, right, Doc?”

“It never hurts.”

“By the time I came along, movies were old news. I mean, still news, don’t get me wrong. But the family’d been here for, what, eighty years? Living up on Camden Drive since they built the house in 1908.”

“That’s an old house.”

“But a great one.”

“So we come to you. Let’s talk about your childhood.”

“My childhood, my childhood,” Ben repeated with a sigh. “Doc, I don’t know if I ever really had one.”

JUNE

“I really just…can’t see it coming. Sometimes it’s nothing. Sometimes it’s big. And every time…I feel like I’m going crazy. Like I’m crazy and nobody knows, because I’m the only one that can see it. Or hear it.”

Dr. Mentzer narrowed his eyes. “When was the last time you took acid?”

Weston’s pulse quickened and a thin layer of sweat sifted out across his entire body as he thought back on that night. “Four years ago.”

“The Thanksgiving incident?”

“Yes. I’m still not sure how much I took, but it was more than I’d ever taken before. I couldn’t sleep for days.”

“And what do you tell yourself when you’re having a flashback?” Dr. Mentzer asked.

Weston felt like a little boy, going in to tell his parents he’d had a bad dream. “That I’m crazy.”

“Do you really believe you’re crazy?”

“No! I mean…I guess I don’t really know what defines…crazy.”

“What do you tell yourself to get through it?”

He had flashbacks of the flashbacks, and the sweat continued to bead. “It’s only a dream.”

“So, when you’re having an episode, you focus on the knowledge that it is only in your mind, and that it will pass?”

“I never get that…cognizant. I never think about it passing. Just trying to tell myself it’s not real. I’m not crazy.”

“Can you describe for me the most intense flashback you’ve ever experienced?” Dr. Mentzer asked.

He didn’t have to comb through many memories. “I was…lying on the ground. Everything was white. It was like there was a white floor that went on forever, with no walls, and maybe there was a ceiling up there somewhere, really high, because it was white above me too. And I was lying there, all helpless…and the Devil was coming down for me. Swooping down, just dropping out of nowhere, to kill me. And then, just as he got close…God stepped in between us. He was there standing over me, and the Devil couldn’t touch me.”

“That’s unusually clear for a flashback.”

“Yeah,” Weston said. “And…it was the safest I ever felt in my life.”

JULY

“That was the year Jackie brought me out and had me do a spot on American Scene Magazine.”

Dr. Mentzer nodded. “You’ve mentioned that frequently.”

Ben drifted from the therapist’s office and hovered over that stage, watching the young man and the pro ham it up together. “Did you ever see the show?”

Dr. Mentzer remained focused on him through the recollection. “Seems like I saw it once or twice.”

Ben blinked himself back onto the sofa and noticed the doctor jotting in his notebook. “Jackie always encouraged me so much. I’ll never forget the day he first called me…the Great One. Of course I knew it wasn’t true, but coming from him…I almost believed it. I almost did. I so wanted to be like him. Him and Uncle Charlie. I wanted to be Charlie Chaplin more than anything in the world!”

“You saw yourself as him?”

“I must have…I tried to be like him any way I could.”

“Give me an example.”

Ben thought back to his old friend long gone, to the funeral he hadn’t been permitted to attend. “We both had a lot of wives,” he said. “Come to think of it, we both had a lot of women. I wonder if I got that from him.”

“What if you did?”

“I don’t know. I never thought about it. I never thought about how it looked…to Mom, or Lara. It was just Edna and Mildred…and Lita Grey.”

“Lita Grey was quite a bit younger, wasn’t she?”

“She was.” Ben fell silent for a moment. “You know, Doc…all those women of mine…I was just trying to be like him.” He took a deep breath. “I never thought one day I’d have a daughter, and have to explain it all to her. I never would’ve touched them if I knew.”

SEPTEMBER

“Look at you!” Ben laughed as Kambree gleamed up at him with her cute little red dress and her hair done up in a matching bow. “You’re so pretty!”

Kambree giggled. “You’re pretty too!”

He let Kim into the room and gestured to the chairs set up under soft lights. “Well, I guess you’re excited!”

“No more cane?”

He looked down at his shoes. “No, just me!” He shut the door behind them as Kambree helped herself to one of the seats.

“I was up half the night trying to decide what she should wear.”

“Don’t worry yourself. This is just a formality at this point.”

Her cheeks flushed. “So it’s OK to get my hopes up this time?”

“Go nuts! Do you mind if I…borrow your daughter?”

“Go right ahead.” She knelt beside Kambree, adjusting her bow. “Now Honey, you remember what I told you, OK?”

“OK!”

“Remember what I told you.”

The door opened again as Jackie sauntered inside. “Jackie, I’d like you to meet Kim Daniels.”

Jackie gave her a warm smile and a warmer handshake. “It’s a pleasure,” he said. “You’ve got a lovely girl, there, Kim.”

“Thank you!” Kim’s face flushed hard. “Thanks so much!”

Jackie turned his attention to the chairs where Kambree sat, kicking her feet back and forth. “Well who do we have here?” he asked. “What’s your name, Darling?”

“I’m Kambree!” she said. “How sweet it is!”

Jackie shot a glance at Ben. “Someone put her up to that?”

“Not me!” Ben stifled a laugh as Kim stood in the background, covering her mouth.

“Let me join you there, you little charmer!” Jackie sat in the adjacent chair, and she crossed her white-stockinged legs like a lady.

“Kambree, do you know who I am?”

“You’re Jackie Gleason! My daddy loves you!”

“You don’t say.”

“We watch you all the time on the TV,” she said, raising her arms in a gesture of length. “Every day!”

“That’s good, that’s very good!” Jackie chuckled. “Kambree, do you like movies?”

“I like Lady and the Tramp, and Cinderella! And Mickey and Donald and Goofy!”

”Do you like Bugs Bunny?”

“I liked it when the bunny goes…whatsupdoc!”

“Ha!” Jackie laughed. “Kid, you’re all right. Would you like to be in a movie?”

She put her hands in her lap and smiled. “I would like it very much.”

Jackie glanced up at Ben. “This kid’s got perfect manners!”

“Certainly seems to.”

“I understand you know how to read.”

“Oh yes, I read really good. I can read…a lot of things!”

He handed her a piece of paper. “Can you read this for me? If you have any trouble with any of the words, let me know and I’ll help you, OK?”

She took the piece of paper and fixed her eyes on it. “Here goes…”

Ben stepped back to Kim, watching from the sidelines. “So what do you think?” she asked, biting her nails.

“I think he’s in love with her.”

“So…she’s got the part?”

“I’d say so.”

He watched sweet little Kambree, reading her lines for a living legend, completely comfortable in his presence, and imagined his own daughter sitting there.

-

“That day… Do we really have to talk about this?”

“We can talk about anything you want.”

Ben glared at the doctor, who looked back with a trace of a smile. “You’re dying to know, aren’t you?”

“We can talk about anything you want,” Dr. Mentzer repeated, the grin vanishing.

“It was…everything. All of it. Maybe I overreacted. I probably did. But something just…snapped. Everything was so complicated, and just like that…it was simple again. I was Weston. Nothing more.”

“You never questioned it?”

“Mary did. Everyone else just shut up and took it, but not her. She tried to reason with me. For that whole first year, she still called me Benny. Lara never stopped. They were the only ones who…tried to save what was left.”

“When did you meet Mary?”

Ben smiled at the memory. “On the set of X-15.”

“I don’t know that one.”

“Not one of her more memorable roles. It was Donner…he was trying to get into features. I came up to see him, and there she was. Mary Tyler Moore. Of course she was married. Getting divorced, but still. She was only six years older, but she saw me as a child. I don’t blame her. I pretty much was.”

“And she tried to keep you from changing your name?”

“Not exactly. She knew something was wrong, though, and she knew enough to try to get me to see it too. I didn’t, of course.”

“Was it really that easy?”

“Like I said, something snapped. Weston took over. A man doesn’t just change his name on a whim. I know there were other things going on, not just the stuff with my dad.”

“But he pushed you over the edge?”

“No. He just opened the door. I’m the one that jumped off the plane.”

“So Weston is dead?”

“I’ll always have a little Weston inside me. Right between the Benjamin and the Camden.”

OCTOBER

“When I look back, it feels like things were always building up to a certain point, and when I got there, I found out I was only on the bottom rung of a new ladder. Each ladder was just a rung in itself. I was trapped.”

“But you’re not trapped anymore?”

“Not after I realized I was responsible. For everything. I blamed Dad…I blamed the world. But it wasn’t his fault. Not really.”

“Did you write the letter to your father?”

“Yes.”

“Did you bring it?”

Ben shook his head. “I can’t read it to anyone. Not even you.”

“Why can’t you read it?”

“It’s for him. I wrote it for him. Not for anyone else. I wrote it, and that was enough, I think.”

“How do you feel about what you said?”

“I think…if he were here…I think we would be able to make peace. I do.”

”Did you tell him about your regrets?”

“I told him my biggest regret is that Cara will never get to meet the man who made her father who he is. And I meant it. I wish with all my heart that Dad could have met Cara.”

“For both of their sakes?”

“For both.”

DECEMBER

“Everyone has trauma.” Ben itched for a drink. “For me…I lost my parents…my brother. I never got to say goodbye to any of them. I lost wives…lost lives, in a way. And I’ve taken lives too. Three of them.” He swallowed loudly. Even the good doctor didn’t know about the fourth abortion. “I remember when Sharon died. I almost felt like it was my fault. Scratch that: I did think it was my fault. Somehow. I took the blame for it in my mind, and for the child. I can’t imagine what must have been going through her mind that night…”

Ben fell silent, and Dr. Mentzer cleared his throat. “Take your time.”

“I think about it all the time. The randomness of it all. They died for nothing. Just like those nurses Richard Speck killed. Or the Zodiac. I almost can’t even think of it as murder. Murder is when you want to kill someone and you do it. What they did…it goes beyond murder. It’s a sickness.”

“And how does this relate to your trauma?” Dr. Mentzer asked.

“Sorry…train of thought.”

“Take your time.”

He wrestled those memories of the Manson slayings back down into the recesses of thought again. “I was just saying…you know, I wanted to be a comic actor, more than anything in the world. I wanted to be Jackie or Charlie. But my dad beat it out of me. I’m still not sure what it was about him… I can only guess that he had his own private trauma, and he was trying to spare me. I want to believe that. I want to believe he thought he was doing me good. Only…” He could feel his father’s disapproving gaze, even then, drilling him into his seat, pushing him down until he couldn’t be seen or heard. “I just hope I never do that to Cara.”

-

Ben admired the lavish Christmas trim that filled the foyer as he stepped through the big double doors of the mansion, wishing he could have helped decorate. Nobody was there to greet him, but it didn’t matter. Standing in that house, with so many memories, decorated with ornaments old and new, he couldn’t help but smile. The fanciest tree in town stood where it always stood, and he felt like a child in its presence.

“Ben?” Sheila’s voice echoed as she came around the corner. “You’re here!”

“I’m here.”

“Merry Christmas!” She pointed to the mistletoe that hung overhead.

“If you insist.” He pulled her in for a kiss.

“You’re just going to die when you see Cara!” Sheila laughed.

They came around into the Green Room, where a second tree stood with its more familial decorations. Dolled up in a Mrs. Claus costume, Cara paraded around with a bag of candy canes, laying them out on top of the presents instead of on the tree. “Daddy!” she shouted, grabbing onto his leg. “Mewwy Chismas!”

He fell to his knees and kissed his precious daughter. “Merry Christmas, Cara! You look so beautiful!”

“Canny cane?” she asked, offering him one of her treats.

“Yes, please!” He took it from her, broke off a small piece, and popped it in his mouth. “Mmm…good!” She laughed and clapped her hands. He broke off another tiny piece, and she ate it out of his fingers. He kissed her cheek. “I love you.”

“Lahyu!” she laughed.

He rose, Sheila watching him with wistful, joyful eyes. “So…”

“So,” she said.

“Everything looks so great! Like when I was a kid. You really put all this up by yourself?”

“Betty and some of the girls from the museum helped. And Cara.”

“I helped!” Cara said.

“Well then…I think each of my girls deserves an early Christmas present.”

“Pwesent!”

Sheila wrinkled her nose. “What would that be?”

Ben stretched out his arm and opened his hand. A brass key rested on his palm, and she took it. “What’s this?”

“Key to Hillary’s house. I won’t be needing it anymore.”

Sheila’s stiff arms softened as her brow furrowed. “Are…you saying what I think you’re saying? Because if you’re not…”

A tear dripped down the side of his cheek. “No, I am. I’m staying. I’m home.” He looked up at Cara. “Daddy’s never leaving you again, Angel!”

“Pwesent?”

Ben crouched down again and Sheila joined him, and the three of them shared a hug as Frank Sinatra crooned “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” in the background. “Oh my God…really?”

“I’m back.”

“No more nightmares?”

“One does one’s best. And there’s more.”

“What more could there be?” Sheila’s eyes welled up, and Cara kissed his cheek.

“I’m here to make up to you…both of you…every moment we lost. I stepped down as president of Camden Enterprises. Henry’s taking my job…Hillary’s taking his.”

“Really?”

“I can’t run that business and be a good father at the same time.”

“I felt like I lost you when you took that job!”

“You and Cara are all that matter to me in the world.”

“Daddy, can I have pwesent?” Cara asked, hugging him as hard as she could.

“Of course!” Sheila grasped his hand tightly as he handed a small box to his daughter. “Merry Christmas, Sweetheart.”

Cara opened the box with her small hands and found a golden heart-shaped locket on a chain. She held it up, dangling from her fingers. “It’s pwetty!”

“It’s real gold,” he said, opening the clasp. “See inside? There’s a picture of me and a picture of your mommy.” He took the necklace from her and she giggled as he put it around her neck. “See now? Whenever you wear this, you have your mommy’s heart…and you have mine.”

Sheila grasped his hand, looking at him like a little girl with a crush. “Dinner’s almost ready.”

“Great. I guess I’ll go unpack.” Another kiss. “And then I’ll join you.”

He produced his first round of bags and dragged them upstairs to his study. He shut the door behind him, taking in the smells of the place again. Home.

And there, in the back of the bottom drawer in the file cabinet, was the bottle of Scotch he’d wondered whether or not Sheila had found and removed. It was good and heavy and full. He lingered there, feeling the weight of it, knowing what he ought to do.

Ben put back the bottle and shut the drawer, running his hand over the metal of the cabinet. That old dryness clawed at his throat.

1981

FEBRUARY

Lights flashed and cameras snapped as Ben Camden opened the door of his limousine, dropping his feet down to the red carpet. Sheila grasped his hand and emerged beside him as the paparazzi swarmed them.

“Sheila! Sheila!” a reporter said, jamming his microphone in her direction. “Is it true you’re going on a world tour with your new exhibit? Is the family going with you?”

Ben stepped between the microphone and his wife. “Please, no questions tonight. We’re just here to enjoy ourselves.”

Cara hopped down from the car and grasped her mother’s hand. The cameras turned on her and kept rolling. “This is Cara Camden,” a distant voice said as she blinked through the lights. “Daughter of the infamous duo and heir of the dynasty.” Cara glanced at the milling crowd as she held her parents’ hands.

“Can we get a better shot?”

“Cara! Look over here!”

Ben glared down the nearest camera, and the lights kept flashing as they entered the theater. Cara squeezed Ben’s hand as she lingered, turning to observe the people anxious to get a glimpse of her.

“Cara!” Kambree broke from her parents and skipped over to the new arrivals.

“Kambwee!” Cara laughed as Kambree threw wide arms around her.

“Thanks for coming to my movie!” the five-year-old starlet declared.

Sheila knelt beside her. “Don’t you look lovely!”

Kambree giggled as Carl and Kim Daniels approached. “Good to see you, Carl,” Ben said, shaking his hand.

“I don’t know how you can be so calm!” Kim sighed. “I’m so nervous I could faint!”

“She did faint…when she was getting dressed. She’s been flipping out all week,” Carl said.

“Can you blame me? What if nobody likes her?”

Ben tousled Kambree’s hair. “That’s not going to happen.”

“So this is the chip off the old block?” Jackie Gleason asked as Ben brought Cara up to him. “What’s your name, Sweetheart?”

“Cawa,” she said.

“Cara…and how old are you?”

“I’m thwee!”

“She has a little trouble with her R’s,” Sheila said. “She learned them from There’s a Wocket in my Pocket!”

Jackie smiled down at her. “What’s it like to be three?”

She sighed. “Oh…it’s tiwing!”

“Why is it tiring?”

She raised her arms in a big gesture. “Because! You always has to be weading! All de time!”

“You can read?”

“I wead…de Bewenstain Beahs! And de cat and da hat!”

“She’s quite a charmer,” Jackie said.

Ben glanced at Sheila with pride, and she pinched him. “Don’t get any funny ideas.”

“But all my ideas are funny.”

-

The credits rolled on Mint Condition, and Ben listened to the gradual chatter that followed as he always did, soaking up the audience’s reaction and making mental notes.

“So what did you think?” he asked.

“I’m impressed!” Sheila said. “I’m used to Benny Camden the satirist and Weston the shock-taler. But I’ve never seen Benjamin Camden the sentimentalist.”

“So you liked it?”

She kissed him. “I didn’t know you could make a family film.”

“I never had a family before,” he said.

Sheila took Cara from him. “She actually sat still through the whole thing.”

“Yeah,” Ben said, pulling the hair out of Cara’s face. “And other than talking to Kambree onscreen, she was a perfect little lady.”

“Kambwee’s in a movie!” Cara said, eyes wide.

“She sure was!” Sheila said.

“And maybe you will be someday too!” Ben added as Sheila flashed him a warning glare.

“Really?” Cara asked. “I wanna!”

“What?” Ben asked as Sheila pinched him. “It’s in her blood!”

APRIL

Johnny Carson banged on his desk like a drum as the music faded. “And we’re back! I was just thinking…you know, I wonder how hard it would be to get into that wedding. I mean, they’ve got to have security out the Channel, but how great would it be to catch Diana’s garter?”

“You just want her garter?” Ed McMahon asked.

“I could add it to my celebrity garter collection…”

“You’re a hell of a guy,” Ed said. “So classy!”

“Well, our…I caught a garter or two thanks to our first guest. Anyway, here he is, the Great One…junior? Is that what I’m calling him? Benjamin Weston Camden!”

Ben waved to the ecstatic audience as the cameras found him, and he had a glimmer of the anxiety he’d had the night he proposed. Posttraumatic stress, he figured as he hugged Johnny.

“Welcome back! And thanks for using guest parking for once!”

“I was in a charitable mood.”

“You’ve been in a charitable mood for a year or so, haven’t you?”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning…now you were, what, president of your family’s company?”

“President of the company,” Ben said.

“And you stepped down? Just like that?”

“Stepped down. Still working with Camden, just not running it.”

“So why the change? Isn’t it weird working for another boss?”

“Well, it’s not like they say no to me a lot.”

“Sure, but, why the change?”

“Well, you know, we had a daughter…”

Applause from the audience.

“Right, right. How’s Sheila doing by the way? Is she here?”

Ben laughed. “You’ll never see her here again…she’s scared of what I might do for an encore.”

“Ask her for a divorce, maybe?” Johnny said.

“Who knows?”

“So your daughter…”

“Cara. She’s three now. And I guess I figured, I can’t run a company, and direct movies, and be a good father.”

“So you gave up the company?”

“I chose to be a father.”

The audience clapped its approval.

“That’s a noble gesture, I’m sure anyone would say,” Johnny replied. “But I don’t think most people see you as the father type.”

“Believe me, I didn’t either. For a long time. And I did…everything I could to avoid it.”

“Like deporting people?”

“Something like that…”

“Well that’s just terrific. And of course, Mint Condition…great, great film. No more porno spy flicks?”

“One does one’s best.”

“So what are you going to do now?”

“I’ll do…what I’ve always done. Be the Teller of Tales.”

“Well, I’ve got tremendous respect for you these days.” Johnny picked up a magazine. “And we’ve got some nice pictures of the family here. We got momma and poppa…and here’s little Cara. Can we see that?”

The pictures went up on the monitor, and Ben smiled with affection. “Well, those are candid shots. The real thing is something else.”

Johnny glanced offstage. “Well, I think I’ve got it narrowed down who you brought this time.”

The audience and Ben chuckled together. “You see right through me, don’t you?”

“Like a plate glass window.”

“Would you…like to meet Cara?” Ben fought through a laugh.

The audience whistled and cheered. Johnny rolled his eyes, and Ben trotted over to the side of the stage. Cara walked out, squinting at the crowd. She took her father’s hand and grinned bashfully as he led her past the desk and set her on his lap.

“So this is the girl herself.”

“This is Cara.” He turned out to the audience. “Can you say hi to everybody?”

Cara giggled. “Hi evybody!”

Ben shifted back toward Johnny. “This is Mr. Carson. Do you remember what I told you to tell him?”

Her green eyes went wide. “Heah’s Johnny!” Everyone cracked up as she giggled.

“So Cara, is this your first time on TV?” Johnny asked.

“Mmm…I think so.”

“Do you like my show?”

Ben chuckled. “It’s a little past her bedtime.”

“You should tape it for her. Never too early to get her hooked, you know?”

“We don’t show her that much television. We prefer to…well, she’s an excellent reader. She’s sharp when it comes to that.”

“And she prefers reading to television?” Johnny asked. “Is she even American?”

“She likes TV, don’t get me wrong. It’s just…we want her to be cultured, you know?”

Johnny recoiled. “Are you saying I’m not culture? We run some of the most cultured commercials this country’s ever seen!”

“Fair enough.”

“So, Cara, I understand you got to meet Dr. Seuss.”

Her face lit up. “I metted him!” she laughed. “He made a whyme foah me!”

“Really? How did it go?”

“Uh…” She covered her face, her teeth visible beneath the fingers. “I foget!”

“That’s like meeting Santa Claus and losing your present,” Johnny said.

“No, well, he wrote it down,” Ben said. “That’s not the kind of thing we’d forget. Cara loves Dr. Seuss.”

“Well she’s a charming little girl. You can definitely bring her back. What do you think, Cara? Want to come back on the show sometime? Maybe without Daddy, so we can talk, just you and me?”

She sighed. “Okie!”

“Well we’ve got to run some culture, so we’ll be back in a flash. Don’t go anywhere!”

JULY

Ben’s eyes snapped open at the sound of the doorbell. He rummaged around in the dark, trying to figure out where he was, when he was, and when he realized he’d been sleeping, he fumbled for the clock.

“Wha?” Sheila mumbled.

4:30. The bell rang again. His thoughts went clear and cognizant in a flash. Someone was at the door. In the middle of the night. Someone had gotten through the gate.

“What is it?” Sheila slurred, rolling over.

“Nothing. Be right back.”

He threw on a robe and hurried down the stairs, anxious to keep whomever it was from waking Cara or Sheila. Who might it be? What would be so urgent to invite an impromptu visit at this hour, rather than a phone call? More importantly, how had this person gotten past the gate?

Ben hit the first floor and jogged to the door. He peeked through the hole, but it was too dark to see anything. He flipped on the outside light: still nothing. He twisted the lock and dropped the chain, cracking it open. No one. Question marks floated through his mind as he stepped out there, hugging the robe around him, and found himself alone. His heart thudded in his chest as he searched the grounds, wishing he had worn something more substantial but also abandoning the idea that this was a friendly call.

“Who’s there?” he finally shouted, after wandering for minutes through the garden, past the gazebo, around the tennis court and the pool. No answer. He returned to the door, gasping as he realized he’d left it open. He shut himself back inside, locking it, and flipped on all the lights. There was no sign of anything at all. And yet… “Who’s there?” he yelled, his voice cascading through the massive expanse of the house.

He believed whoever had rung that bell was long gone, but he still checked every room, pulse racing at the thought that someone might be lurking somewhere inside. And yet every nook came up empty. A vague memory surfaced, of something similar happening when he was a child. Lloyd had gone around the place with a gun in hand, dogged by Charles, certain that someone had broken in while they slept, but no such burglar was found. He crept back to the front door, peering through the hole again. Nothing. With a hand that had been shaking minutes earlier, he shut off the light.

“What was it?” Sheila asked, flipping on her bedside lamp as he returned.

“Someone rang the bell.”

“Who?”

He looked at her there, hair disheveled, half-awake, completely defenseless. “I don’t know…”

SEPTEMBER

Ben motioned for Stuart to enter the office as he finished a phone call. Stuart wandered into the familiar setting and sat in the familiar chair, and out of the corner of his eye he spotted a picture of Sheila and Cara on the desk. He sighed.

“Sorry about that,” Ben said, hanging up.

Stuart fidgeted with his fingers in his lap. “S’OK.” He saw a look on Ben’s face that he knew Ben had seen on his more than once.

“Want to talk about it?”

“There’s not much to talk about. Nothing you don’t already know.”

“When did she…?”

The air conditioning breezed across Stuart’s face, and he shivered. “Yesterday.”

“What about Luke?”

“He’s staying with me. For now. We’ll see what happens.”

“I see.” Ben leaned in, and Stuart wished he would stop staring. “What can I do?”

“Just…don’t mention it too much. Especially around Luke. He doesn’t really get what’s going on.”

“Consider it dropped. But if you ever need to talk…I’ve been there. Twice.”

“Thanks.”

“I do actually have some other news for you. Some good news. Cheer you up, maybe.”

“Oh yeah? What’s that?”

“As you probably know, my uncle Doug is retiring. Finally, in my opinion. But anyway, I put your name in the hat to succeed him as CFO.”

He snapped into the moment. “You did?”

“We just had the vote. I called you in here to offer you the position.”

He blinked, the image of his friend blurring for a moment. “I don’t know what to say.”

“It was unanimous.”

His throat clenched as he gripped the armrests. “I…thank you!”

“Welcome.”

“Can I…think about it? I’ve got…a lot to think about.”

Ben smiled as Stuart let the idea ferment. “Take all the time you need. I’ll have some papers drawn up for you to look over. So you can make an informed choice.”

Stuart nodded. “Do that.”

“Well, hey, why don’t you take the rest of the day off, clear your head. Go take a walk on the beach or something.”

“Yeah…maybe I will.” He stood up and wandered back to the door. Grasping the handle, he glanced back at Ben, sitting there watching him with a smile on his face. He cleared his throat to speak, but instead shut the door behind him.

NOVEMBER

“It was…the peoples came in boats to America,” Cara said as she sat on the sofa with her mother and father on the floor before her. “And they was…there was already some peoples here! They was the Indians and they was living in tribes…but they didn’t have horses like they do on TV.”

“And who were the people in the boats?” Sheila asked, eyes wide.

“The Pilgrims, and they camed on the Mayflower. And…the Indians and the Pilgrims was…they was friends!”

“I…did not know that!” Ben did his best Carson impression. “That’s news to me!”

She took a deep breath. “Well, the Indians and the Pilgrims…they builded a big table and putted all the big foods on it, for eating. And they had a party and thanked…God for all the food!”

“And that was Thanksgiving?” Sheila asked.

“That’s how they did it!”

Ben hugged her. “That was a lovely story, Cara! That’s just how I remember it.”

“And then Charlie Brown…he hadded a Thanksgiving too!”

DECEMBER

The Elvins returned to Beverly Hills for the holidays. On Christmas morning, Lara and Ben shared a moment of silence to remember their parents and their brother. Most of the extended family that lived in the area came that afternoon, and Cara charmed them all with her rendition of “The Night Before Christmas,” which she had memorized. Ben stood in the background, watching her…thinking.

Cara’s favorite gift that year was a stuffed monkey that appeared to be wearing rouge. She named it Pam the Counselor, after the girl in her new favorite show, The Greatest American Hero.

“When I grow up,” she said, “I’m gonna be Pam the Counselor, and I’m gonna marry the Greatest American Hero, and I’m gonna save the world!”

Sheila grabbed her and tickled her belly. “I thought you said you were going to marry your daddy!”

Cara giggled. “I’ll marry him last. And after Kermit, and Fonzie.”

She drifted to sleep that night in her father’s arms, clutching Pam the Counselor. Ben and Sheila camped together in front of the massive fireplace in the parlor as Cara snoozed.

“So apparently she’s going to follow in her father’s footsteps,” Sheila said. “She’s already got a list of future ex-husbands.”

“She’s just got it all figured out.”

“I’m particularly looking forward to her Muppet wedding. I always had the hots for that Scooter.”

“Which one is Scooter?”

Sheila laughed and leaned into him. “The nerd!”

“Right. And she’ll probably have that chicken choir singing at the reception.”

“One of these days, she’s going to start bringing home real boys. Not TV characters.”

“Kill me before that happens!” Ben said.

“And you’ll have to ward off all the bad ones. You’ll have to buy a gun.”

“Not if I teach her right. I’ll just have to find the right guy for her,” Ben said.

“So you’re a matchmaker now? What century is this?”

“She can skip all the drama. I’ll bring her the man of her dreams.” Ben put his arm around her as they watched the flickering sparks dancing above the flame. “Want to hear something crazy?”

“Depends on your definition of crazy.”

“I think we should start her in Kindergarten next year.”

“Ben…”

He kissed the top of her head. “Don’t you think she’s ready?”

“Let’s not…I mean…do we have to rush it?”

“You’re the one talking about her wedding!” He chuckled. “I’m serious, though.”

“I know she’s smart. But if we do that…she’s always going to be the youngest kid in the class.”

“I…I started young too, and I’m glad I did. I never felt it. I never got bored. And the kids never treated me like I was younger. By the time any of that mattered, we’d already known each other for years.”

“Hmm…”

Ben looked down at his sleeping daughter. “I want her to have every opportunity. Every door open. Which means we’ve got a big job to do. I was thinking…of taking her on a long trip next year. Let her see the world, and then put her in school.”

“And then you want her to act.” She pulled away.

“She wants it.”

“I know she does.”

He stroked the sleeping child’s forehead. “When I was her age, I wanted to be Charlie Chaplin more than anything in the world. I would sing and dance and entertain all my parents’ friends. My dad thought children should be seen, not heard, as they say. And so, with a few minor exceptions, I ended up behind the camera instead.”

“I think it may be good for her,” Sheila said. “I’m just worried…you’re doing this more to satisfy some…unfulfilled fantasy than for her own good.”

“Then she can be a star, and marry a Muppet.”

“Every girl’s fantasy,” Sheila said.

1983

FEBRUARY

Cara turned five years old in style. Her kindergarten class filled the mansion, with Hayley and Holly Louden, Luke York, and her seven-year-old best friend, Kambree. A magician started out the festivities, and then the kids enjoyed an afternoon of games and sweets. Kambree drew attention from the children who’d seen Mint Condition and her second film, Cast of Characters. She and Cara performed a little skit Ben had written. Ben and Sheila supervised with Hillary’s help and tried to keep their possessions intact.

Cara and Kambree skipped into the kitchen. “Daddy?” Cara asked. “Can I have my present now?”

“Not until all your friends are gone, I told you!”

“Everybody’s gone but Kambree! Can’t I have it now?”

Kambree flashed him a gapped smile, having just lost a tooth. “Go get your mother.”

Cara scampered off as Hillary hugged him. “I’ve got to get those girls home before they pass out from exhaustion!”

“You all have a good night. Thanks for coming!”

“Of course!” she replied, heading off to find Holly and Hayley.

“Kambree, did you have a good time?”

“You betcha!”

“Even with the younger kids?”

“They’re not so bad. So what did you get her?”

He shrugged. “Guess we’ll have to wait and see.”

Cara came around the corner, tugging on Sheila’s hand. “Here she is! Here she is!”

“I think we’re ready to go,” Sheila said.

Ben produced a bandana. “All right. But first you have to put this on.”

“All right!”

She stood still as Ben blindfolded her. “Can you see?”

“Uh uh.”

“No peeking now!”

“I won’t peek!”

“Well all right, then. And Kambree, you don’t say a word.”

“Promise!”

“Then let’s go find your present!”

Kambree followed as they took her down the hall and out into the back of the estate. Ben knew Cara could tell they’d gone outside, and her breathing grew louder with every step. They passed the pool and the tennis court and the gazebo. The gate on the old stable lay open, and as they entered the shaded sanctuary, Cara smelled the air. “What is that?”

“All right, you can take it off.”

She pulled the blindfold and squealed at the sight of the pony that stood a distance away, sniffing in their direction as Cara had sniffed in his. “For real?” she asked, running over to him.

“Happy birthday, Cara!”

She laughed with warm delight as she ran her hand along the pony’s brown coat, and Kambree rushed up beside her. “He’s so pretty!”

“Thank you!” Cara said without looking away. “I love him! It’s a him, right?”

“It’s a him,” Sheila said, putting her arm around her husband.

“He’s so pretty!” Kambree said again.

Ben stepped up beside the girls as they stroked the pony. “I have another surprise for you.”

“What?” she asked, too enamored with the first present to give any other recognition that he’d spoken.

“How’d you like to be in a movie?”

Her head snapped up, eyes wide. “Like Kambree?”

“Like Kambree. Would you like that?”

“OK,” she replied, turning back to the pony. “Can I ride him?” she asked.

Ben laughed at her distracted interest. “Well, yes, but not today. We’ve hired a coach to come out and teach you. It can’t hurt an actress to know how to ride,” Ben said, and Sheila pinched him.

“I’m gonna name him Romeo! And I’ll be Juliet, and we’ll live happily ever after!”

Ben laughed. “That’s not how the story ends.”

MARCH

“It’s only two weeks.” Sheila leaned in toward the mirror, applying her eye shadow. “I’ll be back before you know it!”

Ben came up behind her and put his arms around her. “I’ll go with you, how about that? You can never see Paris too many times!”

She shook her head without missing a brush stroke. “Cara’s got school; you have to stay. Sorry…it would be fun, though.”

“You’ll be rubbing shoulders with all your artist friends, drinking champagne and having too many interesting conversations. And I’ll be stuck here taking care of Cara, all miserable and lonesome.”

“Somehow I doubt that.”

He kissed her neck. “I’m going through withdrawal already. Like an addict.”

“I’ll miss you too. But it’ll be good to be back with my kind of people.”

“They’re my kind of people too!”

She double checked her reflection. “I’d love to bring you both! Get her to see art beyond the Angelis.”

“She knows more about art than they teach in kindergarten. She can tell the difference between a Jackson Pollack and a Monet…while her little school chums are watching The Letter People and playing with construction paper.”

“They’re only six!”

“Cara’s five!”

She kissed his cheek. “Just promise me you won’t have her splitting the atom by the time I get back.”

“We’ll be too busy learning her lines. Got all her stuffed animals playing parts from the movie. I’m filling in for Mary.” His eye twinkled.

“I can’t believe after all these years you’ve still got her playing all your parts!”

“When you find a girl with class…you never look back.”

-

Ben went out back and found Cara riding Romeo with her instructor close by. She kept the pony at a slow trot. “Daddy! Look at me ride!”

“You’re a natural!” he shouted back. “You’ll be in the Kentucky Derby in no time!” He watched her for a while in the cool afternoon breeze, then went back inside. The echo of the closing door ricocheted through the place, reminding him he was alone. After all these years, that thought still always brought back the old coarse dryness in his mouth.

He licked his lips and banished it from his mind.

MAY

Cara walked around the room, inspecting each piece of furniture, every picture on the wall. She couldn’t believe it was only a set. On the mantle sat a picture of her with the other actors that would be portraying the Migglesly family.

“Cara, you remember Mary?” Ben asked as he escorted Mary Tyler Moore past the crew.

“You’re married to Dick Van Dyke!” Cara said, looking up at her.

“Well, aren’t you smart!” Mary said. “But honey, that’s on television…not real life.”

Ben tousled her hair. “Sometimes she gets things like that confused.”

“So Cara, are you excited about being in a movie?” Mary asked.

“You betcha!”

Ben gestured to the set sofa. “Let’s try a scene.”

Cara giggled. “OK, Daddy!”

She and Mary sat down on the sofa. “OK, let’s try London Bridge. Do you remember that one, Baby?”

“Of course!”

“You know all your lines?” Mary asked.

“Daddy makes me study,” she said. “But he helps.”

“Let’s give it a try,” Mary said.

“All right. London Bridge, looking down. Baby Lyle just got adopted. And…whenever you’re ready.”

Ben had seen Cara tug on tears with some of her stuffed animals before, but she let them flow for Mary. Putting her around real actors intensified her natural sensitivity. As they went through the scene, her crying made Mary choke up as well.

“My God, she’s depressing!” Mary wiped a tear from her eye. “Cara, honey, how do you play so sad?”

“I think about the hungry boys.”

“What hungry boys?”

“When we were in Africa,” Ben said, “Cara met some starving children.”

Mary looked to the little girl’s wide eyes. “I see.”

JULY

“Cut!”

Lights slammed off as Mary and Cara blinked their way back to normal. Ben stepped onto the set and knelt beside Cara, looking so cute in her makeup. “OK, Baby, that was good. But you were looking at me again. You can’t look at me. You have to pretend I’m not even there, right?”

“Right, Daddy.”

“Is that easy or hard?”

A frown of frustration puffed up in her brow. “Hard.”

“Right. OK. OK.” He kissed the top of her head and turned to Mary. “Can we talk for a second?”

“Sure. What’s up?”

He glanced back at Cara, smiling up at him, and rubbed his mouth. “She’s having trouble. She’s got the lines down, and the mood, but she’s focused too much on me.”

“I think…” Mary peeked over his shoulder at her. “She knows what she’s doing. The problem is she can’t wrap her mind around the idea that it’s just pretend. She started calling me Wanda.”

“Well, then, Wanda. Here’s what I’m thinking. I want you to direct her. I won’t talk to her on set until she gets the idea that I’m not really there.”

Mary smiled, looking back at the beaming girl. “Let’s try it and see.”

AUGUST

The camera rolled as the crew stood around the background of the stage. The lens fixed itself on the image of the living room of the Migglesly house where Mary Tyler Moore, Cara Camden, and Arthur Elmsly stood, backs facing the window.

“I’ve never had a taste for rainy days,” Mary sighed. “They tell you to save for one, but when it finally comes…there’s nothing left to buy.”

“Momma…” Cara said. “Maybe Mr. Spinner was right. Maybe…Angela’s still coming back.”

Arthur knelt beside her. “Maggie…if only it were so. It would be a nice dream.”

Cara hugged him. “If it’s a dream…I don’t ever want to wake up!”

“And…cut!”

The lights shut off and Cara blinked away the change as she let go of Arthur. The crew’s noise level rose as Arthur stood. “How was that?” he asked as Ben stepped onto the set.

“Perfect timing this time! We got just what we need.” He turned to address the crew as well. “All right, listen up everyone! This is a wrap! I just want to say to everyone that you’ve all done an amazing job…I can’t thank you enough for all the sweat and hours you’ve given us.”

Cara listened to her father’s speech and to the crew’s murmurs of content and excitement. She reached out for Mary’s hand. “Are we really done?” she asked.

“We’re finished, all right,” Mary replied. “Hard to believe, isn’t it?”

-

Sparse lights filled the back of the house with dim ambiance, reflecting off the rippling surface of the pool. Cara kicked at the water, her wet hair matted against her back as Ben and Sheila pulled themselves up beside her.

“No more?” Sheila asked as she draped a towel around Cara’s shoulders.

“I’m tired!”

“I’ll bet you are!”

Ben lifted three glasses of orange juice from a tray resting beside them. “Well, I’ve sure had a great evening with my two favorite girls.”

“Me too!” Cara said, sniffing the juice.

“To Cara Camden!” Sheila said, raising her glass in a toast. “The prettiest leading lady in Hollywood!”

“And the most ticklish,” Ben added as he clinked his glass against hers. Cara laughed and joined them in the toast.

“Silly Daddy!”

“I most definitely agree,” Sheila said. “Silly boy.”

He stretched as he set his glass back on the tray. “I tell you what I’m looking forward to the most…sleep! I forgot what that feels like!”

“Cara’s been a real trooper. I’m surprised she hasn’t passed out from the last few months.”

“Well, she needs to start resting up now. School starts soon!”

Cara stuck her tongue out in a gross-out face and sent ripples across the water from her wiggling toes. “I don’t wanna go back to school! I wanna stay and work with you!”

Ben stroked her hair. “You’ll love first grade, Honey. You’ll get to see all your friends again, every day, plus make new ones!”

“The kids at school can’t read so good,” she said. “They think I’m weird!”

“But they love you!”

She sighed, leaning against Ben’s wet skin. “I know…”

SEPTEMBER

The wind whistled that morning as Sheila pulled up to the curb of Madison Chase Academy, and Cara sat beside her, so small and tiny compared to some of the other students lingering nearby. She looked up at her mother with gloomy eyes that matched her black dress and shoes.

“Do I hafta?”

“Be a big girl and get out of the car,” Sheila said. “Give me a smooch.” Cara kissed her mother’s cheek and unbuckled her seatbelt. “Have a good day, Angel! I love you!”

“I love you too, Mommy.” She stepped out onto the curb and squinted as the sun hit her eyes. Her apprehension lifted as she saw a group of her friends.

“Hi Joy!” Cara said.

“Hi Cara! How was your summer?”

She spotted more of her friends in the distance. “It was OK, I guess.”

“We went to San Diego and got to go to the zoo!” Joy said. “I got pictures of all the animals!”

“Neat!”

“And we went to the beach every weekend!” Joy added. “What did you do?”

“Just…hung around with my daddy.”

-

Ben passed Sheila’s old apartment on his way to a meeting at NBC. He smiled at the sight of it, remembering how timid and wide-eyed she was when he first paid her a visit.

He pulled to a stop as the light at Burbank and Sepulveda changed from yellow to red. The engine hummed, enough music for him, and he stared through the passing traffic. His mind lingered on that apartment, on that other version of him that spent so much time there.

“Sharon’s dead.”

Ben jumped against his seatbelt, pulse revving. He turned and found Yvette sitting beside him. At least, it was probably Yvette. Whoever it was, he could see through her, transparent and… No, it wasn’t a person. It wasn’t anything. He tried to blink her away, but she lingered, looking at him with those cool eyes of hers. At least, it was probably her.

He blinked again, and Yvette swirled into a distorted discoloration of light.

“Sharon’s dead.”

He shut his eyes, taking deep breaths, an old Donovan song whispering somewhere in the back of his thoughts. He could still see her. A bead of sweat dripped down from his forehead, and his stomach prepared to relieve him of his lunch.

The mirage jumped at him, no longer discernible as anything but a wraith. “Sharon’s dead!”

Ben gasped, and without enough time to think, his foot went from the break to the gas.

The wraith faded to nothing as a Ford slammed him across the intersection.

Sheila pulled her parking brake and jumped out of the car, eyes fixed on the remains of Ben’s convertible. She choked on her breath as she made her way over, trying to run in her heels. All she could think about was the last time Ben had wrecked his car.

There he sat, in the back of the police vehicle, doubled over, feet on the ground. She stopped at the sight of him, her concern and fear moving past his safety.

“Can I help you, Ma’am?” an officer asked.

“I’m his…” She looked at him there. He couldn’t have…could he? Not after all this time… “I’m his wife.”

“He’s a lucky man,” the officer said. “If he’d been hit just a few inches closer…”

“What about the other driver?” she asked, eyes still on him, sitting there, holding his head.

“Neither one was hurt. Just the vehicles.”

“Was he…”

“Ma’am?” the officer asked.

She hated herself for even thinking it. “Had he been drinking?”

“No, Ma’am.”

He looked up as she approached, wiping his eyes. She knelt and held him gently. “Are you all right?”

“I wish I knew!”

The officer was right; he hadn’t been drinking. She brushed away that old distrust and suspicion, kissing his cheek. “What happened?”

He shook his head as a fresh tear traced his cheek. “It was a flashback.”

NOVEMBER

Cara took a sip from the fountain after recess, and as she came up, she noticed one of her classmates sitting alone on a bench, fiddling with his shoe and whimpering. She wiped the water from her mouth and approached.

“What’s wrong?”

Bradley Long, a skinny little boy with oversized, baggy clothes, looked up at her with embarrassment. “My shoe came untied.”

“So?”

He glanced over at the other kids in the distance. “I don’t know how to tie it back!”

“Oh!” She sat beside him. “Put your foot up,” she instructed, and he obliged. “You gotta twist them like this, see? And then…one goes under and up again.” She pulled it tight, and he flinched as if it hurt. “Then you make a loop…like this, and wrap the other one around. Stick your finger in there.”

“My mom always ties them for me,” he said, his face lightening.

She pulled the bow tight. “There ya go!” she smiled. “See? Think you can do it?”

“I don’t know,” Bradley said, blushing as he pulled his leg back down.

“It’s easy, you just gotta learn!”

“Don’t tell anybody, please!”

She patted him on the back. “Course not!” She hopped up and joined the other kids as they returned to class, leaving him with a bashful smile.

-

Bradley searched the halls for Cara after school, his heart racing. He’d thought of nothing since recess but asking her to be his girlfriend. He stepped into the afternoon light and saw her, surrounded by some of their classmates, laughing with them. She looked so pretty. He summoned his courage and stepped up, just as Joy turned to him and giggled.

“Little Bradley Long!” she sang. “Can’t tie his shoes!” All the other kids laughed. His eyes wandered across the mocking faces until he came to Cara’s. She wouldn’t look at him for a moment, and when she did, there was something lackadaisical about her that made him want to cry.

“Shut up!”

-

“What’s wrong, Angel?” Sheila asked as Cara sat silently in her seat, staring out the window at the passing cars. “You’re so quiet today.”

“Nothing…”

“Somebody give you a hard time at school?” She shook her head. “What is it, then?”

Cara turned to look at her mother, a tear glistening in her eye. “I don’t know!”

Sheila pulled up to a red light and regarded her somber girl. “Did something happen at school?”

Little Bradley Long! Can’t tie his shoes! “No.”

“Then what’s wrong?”

Shut up! “I don’t know…”

-

The class had forgotten Bradley’s embarrassment the next day, but he remembered. He felt like they laughed at him all day. He certainly didn’t expect Cara to sit by him at lunch.

“I don’t want to be your friend!” he said. “You’re a liar!”

“I’m sorry. I was really mean yesterday.”

“Yeah you are!”

“Would you like to come over to my house after school?”

“What for?”

“I got a pony,” she said. “I could let you ride him.”

His face lit up. “Really?”

“Yeah! You’ll like him. His name’s Romeo and he’s beautiful!”

DECEMBER

Ben sat in the Madison Chase driveway and watched Cara race to the car, grinning with glee. “Daddy!” She hopped in the passenger seat.

“How was school?”

She clicked her seatbelt. “Over! Time for Christmas!”

“Well, OK, then. Where to now?”

“Cookies?”

He shifted into gear. “Cookies.”

They toured the Galleria, munching on sweets and admiring the holiday decorations. Cara related the events of her day. “And then we played Memory, and I won of course, and Stephanie got in trouble for talking during reading time! And this one kid made Jose eat gravel, and they made him sit out on the ties for recess. Nobody likes that kid. And school just keeps getting harder and harder, and one day we’re gonna be learning stuff I don’t already know!”

He tousled her hair. “You’re just growing up so fast.”

She raised her hands, overwhelmed by her thoughts. “I know!”

They stood, watching the ice skaters on the bottom level of the mall. “One of these days,” he said, “You’ll be all grown up, and you won’t be my little girl anymore.”

“Silly Daddy!”

“Just promise me…you’ll wait as long as you can.”

She smiled up at him, her pigtails dangling. “I promise.”

1984

MARCH

Ben stepped out of the limousine and into the throng of young women screaming at him, their faces flickering from the camera flashes. Moments later Sheila stood at his side, and they both moved over as Cara emerged.

“The star of tonight’s picture,” the emcee said as the crowds got a glimpse of her in her little green evening gown. “Maggie Migglesly herself…let’s hear it for our little beauty, Cara Camden!”

Hillary and Stuart stood further inside with Carl and Kim Daniels. “She sure is one of them,” Hillary whispered as Cara looked out at the crowd in silence.

“I’ve got news for you,” Stuart replied as she broke into a bashful smile and waved. “She’s got more Camden in her than even her father.”

Cara scampered away and joined Kambree. Ben nodded again to the adoring crowds. “See? She takes it all in stride.”

“I hope you’re right.” Sheila watched her gabbing with her friend. “She is pretty cool about it all.”

“You got used to it…so can she!”

“Daddy, can I sit with Kambree?” Cara asked.

“Yes, but don’t get any chocolate or butter on that dress,” he said. “In fact, don’t eat anything.”

Ben got up to speak as the audience settled in its seats. “Thanks for coming. I know some people thought I’d been abducted by the Moral Majority when I made Mint Condition. They said, no way is this the same guy that did Discrete Consent. But it’s me, and I’ve got another for you. Maggie Migglesly isn’t an artistic revolution. It’s not a political satire or a raunchy envelope-pusher. It’s a love letter to the American family, the face of which is changing every day. But here, tonight, it is what it is. And I’m so happy that my family could be a part of this. My daughter, Cara, is pleased that you’re here tonight to share this moment with her. On behalf of Cara, and everyone else involved, thank you and enjoy the show.”

The movie began, and there she glowed, on the screen: Cara Camden, movie star. Sheila clenched Ben’s hand, and the two proud parents watched their daughter bring tears to every eye by the end of the night.

-

The Monday after Maggie Migglesly hit theaters, a throng of her fellow students swarmed Cara as her ride drove away.

“Cara! Cara!” they called.

“I saw your movie!”

“You made me cry!”

“Want to come to my house after school?”

“Can I be in your movie next time?”

Her mother prepared her for this, but she didn’t know how it would feel until right then and there, alienating and exhilarating at the same time. “Thanks!” She didn’t know what else to say.

As she entered the building, everyone she knew – everyone – hung on each movement and word, laughing whenever she did.

-

One night, Cara curled up under her covers as Ben dusted off a book he hadn’t read since his own childhood: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. He read to her about Lucy Pevensie, finding a winter forest inside a wardrobe and having tea with a faun, and she nodded off.

The next morning, Sheila went to awaken her and found her bed empty, covers thrown back. “Cara?” She searched the rest of the second story and found nothing. “Cara?” Nothing on the third floor…nor on the first.

“I can’t find her!” she said. “I looked everywhere!”

Ben looked around. “All the doors are still locked!” They split up and searched again, and Ben double checked her room and noticed her closet door hanging ajar. He found Cara lying asleep against the back wall.

He sighed with relief, nudging her.

“Cara? What are you doing in the closet?”

She yawned. “I was trying to get to Narnia.”

JULY

As the crew of Fat Chance set up for the day, Ben sat down with his three child stars.“I want to talk to you about our first scene. We should be getting you into makeup soon. Anybody nervous?”

Kambree Daniels bit her lip. “Maybe a little.”

Corey Feldman rolled his eyes at her. “Barely.”

Cara shook her head. “Not a bit!”

“Good, good. Nervous is fine. It’s natural. Cara and Kambree know how I work. I’m flexible…don’t want you to feel any more pressure than you already do. Now our first scene today is the hose scene, so everyone’s gonna get wet. It’ll be hot, though, so I’m sure nobody’ll mind.”

The kids giggled to themselves, and Ben gave Cara a gentle hug. “We’re all gonna have a good time. It won’t even seem like work!” At least, not to you, he thought with a twinge of fatigue. “We’ll rehearse it without any spraying a couple of times, but I don’t want you to get too set in the scene. Make it spontaneous. Remember your lines, but remember to have fun. That’s the most important thing. Got it?”

“Got it!” they replied in unison.

-

Kambree danced around singing “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” as Cara finished changing back into her clothes. “Ma ma se ma ma sa ma ma coo sa!” She kicked off her shoes. “Whoo hoo!”

“You’re so crazy!” Cara laughed.

Kambree reached out her arms. “Come on, Scaredy Cat! Dance with me! You’ll love it!”

Cara tried to mimic her. “You’re too good!”

“No, it’s easy! Come on, like this!”

Cara followed her, and they danced together as Michael Jackson wailed out the end of his song. They could barely hear the knock at the door over the music.

“Come in!” Kambree said through heavy breaths.

Ben opened it and watched the girls laughing and prancing. “Look at me, Daddy!”

Ben clapped along to the music. “You two have got it going on!”

The music faded away and Kambree landed, taking a deep breath. “I love that song.”

“Cara, you about ready?” he asked.

“Yeah, guess so!” She picked up her duffel bag. “See you tomorrow!”

Kambree kissed her cheek. “Bye, Beautiful!”

Ben took Cara out into the hall. “I don’t know about you,” he sighed, “But I’m pooped!”

“Me too!” she sighed, mimicking him. “I’m pooped!”

“I’m having fun working with you kids!”

“Me too!”

“Do you think for yourself, or do you just agree with everything your old man says?”

She made a face. “You’re not an old man! You’re going to live forever!”

“Who told you that?”

She shrugged. “I just know it, that’s all.”

They buckled up and headed home to Camden Drive. “Kambree wants Corey to be her boyfriend,” Cara said.

“Isn’t she a little young for that sort of thing?”

“She’s almost nine!”

“Oh, sorry. Guess I didn’t realize. You don’t have a boyfriend, do you?”

“Well…there was a boy in my class last year. His name’s Jack.”

“He’s your boyfriend?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe. He’s nice.”

“He’s not the one who makes kids eat gravel, is he?”

“No!”

“So why do you like Jack?”

“I don’t know…he’s different than everybody else.”

Ben smiled to himself. “Well…just don’t go steady with him until you bring him home to meet your dad!”

She gasped. “Daddy, stop it!”

“Sorry…”

SEPTEMBER

Cara could have been drinking coffee, she bubbled so with energy on the first day of second grade. She kissed her mom on the cheek and scampered off to find her friends. “It doesn’t get any easier,” Sheila said to herself as Cara disappeared in a sea of children.

“Did you really do another movie this summer?” one of them asked.

“Yep yep,” she replied, mimicking Hillary. “With Kambree, and Corey Feldman.”

“Oh, he’s so cute! You’re so lucky!”

“I want to marry him when I grow up!”

Cara shook her head. “He’s too old!” she said, but nobody else minded.

“Hey, here comes Bradley!” one of them giggled.

Cara frowned at their silent ridicule of the boy. “Hey, be nice!”

“Oh, I forgot he’s your boyfriend!” Joy laughed.

“He is not! That’s…” She searched for a word. “That’s…ralphy!” He reminded her a little of Ralphie from A Christmas Story, after all, and the thought of Bradley being her boyfriend did make her want to ralph.

“Ralphy!” they laughed, and she knew she’d just caused him more problems. In the distance, she saw Jack Christopher, sitting by himself. She slipped away from the group and made her way over to him.

“Hi!” she said, startling him out of his thoughts.

“Oh…hi! How…uh…how was your summer?”

She shrugged. “It was neat! What about you?”

“You remember my sister? Rebecca? The one with cancer?”

“Yeah…”

Jack gave a tainted smile. “She died.”

Cara fell to the bench beside him, watching him there, so composed. “No…”

“Yeah, she did. She’s all gone. Never coming back.”

The school seemed suddenly silent as the wind hit her face. “I’m sorry, Jack. I’m so sorry. Are you all right?”

“It’s…” He sniffed, trying not to cry. “It’s like every day I wake up and realize she’s gone, all over again.”

“I wish…I wish I…”

“Don’t tell anybody, OK? I don’t want the other kids to know.”

“Why not?”

“Because…I just don’t.”

“All right,” she said, and he stared down at his shoes. “Do you…think about her a lot?”

He nodded. “Sometimes, when I’m falling asleep, I think I hear her talking to me. And I dream about her all the time. Only, it’s not nice dreams like you’d think. They’re scary. Like…like she’s a ghost.”

-

Sheila awoke to distant screams. At first she thought they were disoriented remnants of some dream she had already forgotten. But they continued, and as she blinked herself awake, she realized they came from Cara’s room.

“Ben.” She nudged him, and he stirred. “Ben, it’s Cara!”

One floor down, they found her writhing under the covers, screaming and crying, “Go away! Go away!”

Ben flicked on the lights as Sheila fell to her daughter’s side. “Hey!” She shook her. “Wake up!”

She gasped for air as she rose from the bed, flinging her arms around her mother’s neck.

“It’s all right.”

Cara quivered in Sheila’s embrace. “She was trying to get me,” she said. “She wanted me to come with her!”

Sheila cradled her, rubbing her back. “It’s OK now. It was only a dream.”

Cara’s eyes searched up for her father as he leaned in over Sheila’s shoulder. “Cara…who was trying to get you?”

“Rebecca!”

OCTOBER

Holly and Hayley joined Cara in the parlor watching Kids, Incorporated, the Louden girls’ favorite show. As Holly gabbed about how much she wanted to be a singer when she grew up, Hillary dropped off a plate of snickerdoodles and met Sheila on the tennis court. After a spirited match, which Sheila won as usual, they retired poolside.

“Holly’s pestering me for voice lessons. She’s so anxious to grow up…makes me want to cry.”

“At least Hayley’s happy being a kid, right?”

“Yeah, but she takes after her sister. Always wants to do whatever Holly does.”

Sheila stretched her bare legs in the sun. “Ben has Cara hobnobbing with adults almost as much as kids her own age. I know she doesn’t show it…but I can tell the difference.”

“Wish we could slow it all down.”

An image of the girls all grown up crossed Sheila’s mind. “Seems like only yesterday I was begging my dad for an easel.”

“Geez…don’t say that!”

“Cara’s moving so much faster than I ever did.”

“She’s an old soul. She’ll never be the same as the other kids.”

“It’s not just that…” She leaned forward and looked into the deep blue water, rippling in the gentle breeze. “Sometimes I worry about her.”

“Of course you do.”

“More than I probably should. As smart as she is…there are some things she doesn’t get.”

“Fantasy and reality?” Hillary said.

“Something like that. It’s like, we read her this book, The Indian and the Cupboard. Know it?”

“Know it.”

“After she read it, she put all these Muppet figurines in a box and locked it up, and really thought they’d come to life.”

“Really.”

“She cried when she realized it was only a story. And then she saw Superman, you know, the first one. And she told everyone at school it was real. And they told her there was no such planet as Krypton, and she said, ’Of course not! It blew up!’”

“Wow…Do they make fun of her for it?”

“No…she’s too smart to let them realize. She just makes a joke out of these things. But…I know it hurts her.”

“She’s just…got a vivid imagination.”

“Maybe it’s that…” Sheila stared into the tranquil blue pool water. “But sometimes I think about that night, when she fell out of her crib. The doctor said she hit her head. Hard. He said he was amazed she wasn’t injured.”

“And you think she was?” Hillary asked.

“Maybe injured’s not the right word. But something.”

DECEMBER

The Camdens threw a big Christmas extravaganza to end the year. From the moment the Greens’ plane landed, Cara and Peyton never left each other’s side. Kambree, along with several other girls, hung around Corey Feldman and some of his friends as their parents mingled with the scattering of celebrities in attendance. Cara watched them from afar, content to spend time with her cousin.

“Some kids at school thought I was Maggie Migglesly,” Peyton said.

“You should have just told them you are! That’d be funny!”

Peyton grimaced. “But…wouldn’t they figure it out?”

She glanced over at the throng surrounding Corey Feldman. “I bet…if you went over there and pretended to be me…I bet you could fool them.”

Peyton gasped. “No…they’d know!”

Cara slipped off her yellow sweater. “Here! Put this on and try it!”

Peyton’s face lit up, and she slid into the wool. “You really think so?”

“Go try!” Cara nudged her.

Peyton wandered over to the crowd, pulling her loose hair back to match Cara’s. She stood on the edge of the group of kids and waited to be noticed.

“Hey, Cara,” Corey said, nodding to her without giving her a close look.

Kambree frowned as Peyton tried not to laugh. “Hi Corey! You’re…I like your hair.” Kambree noticed Cara chuckling in the background.

Corey ran a hand through his hair. “Thanks! I like your…sweater. It’s really…yellow.”

Peyton glanced above them. “You’re standing under the mistletoe.”

Corey grinned. “Of course! It’s the best spot in the house!”

“Guess that means you have to kiss me.”

His grin faded. “You’re just a kid!”

“Still…” She leaned in and gave him a kiss. The older girls gasped with jealousy, and Kambree held back a laugh. “Merry Christmas!” Peyton scampered off, around the corner to where Cara waited for her.

“You’re funny!” Cara laughed.

“I kissed him!”

“You should have seen the look on his face!”

“What’re you girls up to?” Ben asked from behind them.

Peyton’s face drained of color. “Nothing!”

Cara hugged her cousin. “Just…playing around.”

“Why is Peyton wearing your sweater?”

They looked down and froze. “She…was cold.”

“Ah ha.” Ben winked at them. “Well…we can’t have that, can we?”

They burst into giggles as he left. “I can’t believe I kissed Corey Feldman!”

“He’s ralphy,” Cara replied.

Peyton frowned. “What’s that mean?”

“It means…gross.”

1985

FEBRUARY

Cara’s legs gripped Romeo’s chestnut body, and she tugged on his reins. Her heart thudded with excitement as he raced through the yard, the crisp, cool winter air rushing past her cheeks and filling the depths of her lungs.

She spotted her father standing beside the stables, and she pulled the reins. Romeo turned and headed toward him as he crossed his arms against the chill.

“Daddy! I can race him! We go so fast, and I never fall off!”

Ben took the reins from her and stroked Romeo’s mane. “What are you doing without a coat out here, young lady? It’s cold!”

“It’s not that cold,” she said as he helped her down.

“And your mother told you not to ride alone.”

Her eyes fell. “I’m sorry. You were really busy, and I was really careful!”

“Rules are rules, Cara.”

She nodded, half pouting and half guilty. “I’m sorry.”

“Now Mrs. Creek is here for your piano lesson.”

She made a face. “Piano is ralphy!”

“Where’d you pick up a word like that?”

She grinned. “I made it up!”

“You can stop your lessons after we finish filming this summer, but I think you may grow to like it.”

She shook her head. “Betcha I don’t!”

“Well, go on in to Mrs. Creek, and later we’ll talk about you disobeying your mother.”

She nodded. “All right, Daddy.” She gave him a soft hug and ran off to the house.

“Ralphy,” he repeated with a chuckle, and led the pony back into the stable.

MARCH

“Ladies and gentlemen, our first guest tonight,” Johnny Carson said as the laughter died down, “is no stranger to the show…in fact if it wasn’t for us she might not even exist! Let’s welcome…Cara Camden!”

He gestured to the side curtain as the cameras honed in on the seven-year-old beauty waving to applause and cheers. “Hi!” she mouthed, and walked across the stage in a light blue dress with white stockings and shoes. Johnny leaned over and shook her hand, and then she hugged him and skipped over to her chair.

“Well, you look lovely tonight!” Johnny chuckled.

“Thanks! My mom picked it out.”

“Is she here?”

Cara took a deep breath. “No, she’s at home.”

“Why isn’t she here?”

“Because of what Daddy did!”

The audience laughed, and Johnny joined them. “Guess we’ve seen the last of her. At least we still have you. What grade are you in this year?”

“Second.”

“Shouldn’t you be in school right now?”

“They let me go early.”

“Do they let you go early when you’re filming?”

She sighed. “No…we do that when I’m not in school.”

“You mean like, summer vacation?”

“Yeah, summer.”

“Do you ever get a vacation?”

“Maybe a little.”

“You’re a hard-working girl. But I bet you’re pretty popular.”

“I guess.”

“But I bet you’ve got a bunch of boyfriends, huh? All the boys like you?”

“I’ve only got one boyfriend.”

“And what’s the lucky fella’s name?”

She grinned. “Superman.”

Johnny chuckled. “The real Superman?”

“Yeah! The real one! Everyone says he’s not real, but he is.”

“Is his name Clark Kent?”

“I don’t know…but he flies around and takes me flying, and…he can do anything!”

“Can he host a talk show? I don’t need any competition.”

“You’re silly!”

“So do you like acting, or do you just do it because your parents make you?”

She giggled. “I like it! I like to pretend.”

“What else do you like to do?”

“I like to…” She began counting them off on her fingers. “Ride my pony, paint pictures with Mommy, read stories, play at the beach, go ice skating, play tennis…I don’t like piano lessons, though!”

“Why do you have to take them if you don’t like them?”

“Because…I’m gonna be in another movie, with Kambree. And we have to play the piano a lot.”

“What kind of movie is it?”

“It’s called The Piano Girls, and we’re in a contest or something to play the piano, and we hate each other.”

“Is this your dad’s movie too?”

“Yeah…it’s got a bunch of…musical stuff in it, I don’t know. It’s kind of hard for me to understand.”

“Does your dad let you watch his older movies?”

“Some of’em. Not all.”

“Sensible, sensible. You wouldn’t like them much anyway. But he is talented, though. Him and your mom both. And…well, the new movie’s doing very well. You and Kambree Daniels are great together.”

“She’s my best friend!”

“Well, we’ve got to take a break now, but we’ll be back with more from the delightful Cara Camden, and Tom Selleck right after this!”

MAY

The students of Madison Chase had an hour for recess on the last day of school, but Cara didn’t join with the others. A cool spring breeze swept the playground clean as she swung beside Jack Christopher. The swings creaked beneath them as their legs hovered over the fresh dirt.

“Why aren’t you playing with your friends?” Jack asked.

“Swings are better,” she said.

“Doin’ another movie this summer?”

She nodded. “Yeah, and another one next year even when we’re in school!”

“You’re gonna be real busy.”

“Yeah…but, maybe we could play some when I’m not.”

Jack shook his head. “We’re going to Montreal for the whole summer.”

“The whole summer?”

“We’re going to see my grandma. She’s sick.”

“Oh…sorry.”

“I wish I could stay here and be in your movie!”

“Me too…” They dangled there in those swings while the other children laughed in the distance.

-

That night Cara drifted into slumber and found herself playing with her friends at school. Running. Jumping. Skipping rope. Slamming volleyballs. Smiling faces. Cool sunlight. Childhood.

At some point in the dream, she noticed Jack wandering away from them all, heading back into the school. She left the others behind and chased after him, but every time she rounded a corner she found him further and further away.

“Jack!” she called, but he didn’t respond to her. She ran faster and faster, but he only grew more distant. When she rounded another corner, she found it was not Jack to whom she ran, but her father.

“Daddy!” she called, but he too didn’t stop. “Daddy!”

She came out into the big, empty cafeteria, and Ben was nowhere to be found. “Daddy!” she called. “Daddy?” It was more of a cry than a shout.

A crushing sense of fear overtook her, and as she continued to scream for him, her voice shrunk and her throat seized, until it was a whisper.

“Daddy…”

She awoke, pulse racing and muscles tensed. Home. Her own bed. The whirring fan. Nightlight. She shut her eyes and fought the fear that still clung to her.

The master bedroom door cracked open as Cara crept inside and nudged Ben.

“Cara?” he mumbled.

“I had a bad dream. Can I sleep in your bed?”

A moment’s delay. “All right.”

She climbed over him and sank under the covers as Sheila stirred. She lay there between her parents in safety, and curled up against Ben, soaking in the warmth of his body.

There would be no nightmares when her father was near.

JUNE

Hillary arrived on set before the sun’s fingers traced the horizon, two cups of coffee circulating in her. The crew set up for the day’s shooting of The Piano Girls. A tuner tinkered with one of the pianos as she sat down at a table and winced at the painful white light.

“Mornin’, Hill.” Ben yawned as he downed the last drops of a Coke.

“Is it? I think the sun forgot,” she said.

“Nevertheless.”

“Time Magazine’s out,” she said, sliding her copy of the periodical to him. “Looks pretty good.”

Ben picked it up with a smug grin. America’s Father Figures, the cover headline read, with a photograph of Bill Cosby and himself smiling over the banner Cosby and Camden.

“Kids’ stuff,” he chuckled, flipping it open and skimming the article.

“Speaking of which, Cara’s set at nine o’clock?”

Ben nodded. “Nine on the nose. Kambree too.” He slid on the set as the tuner left, lifting the lid to the piano. “This one sure brings me back,” he said as he plunked at the keys in a cranky rendition of the “Maple Leaf Rag.” “I haven’t played this since I quit lessons when I was fifteen.”

“Why’d you quit?”

He played around some more. “Didn’t see much use for it. Same as Cara. I told her she could quit after production, but I wish she would keep at it.”

“So make her!”

“You sound like Sheila. She says I’m coddling her, telling her she can quit. She thinks we should keep her on the piano, or at least some musical instrument, as long as we can.”

“You guys ride her so hard…she’s just a kid.” Ben continued to play. “Did it ever occur to you that maybe one of the reasons Cara slips into fantasy sometimes…is because maybe she’s missing out on the ordinary things most kids take for granted?”

“Like what?”

“Like…I don’t know. Her only friends are other actors and the children of our friends, and…that one kid from her school.”

“Jack.”

“Holly and Hayley love her to death, but they talk about it sometimes. They feel like she’s out there somewhere they can’t get to.”

Ben shut the piano lid and leaned against it. “Really?”

“Think about it. How does she react when you let her do regular kid things?”

“She…loves it sometimes. Sometimes it’s like she doesn’t know what to do.”

“She’s a special girl, no doubt. But she’s still a girl. Don’t forget it.”

“I just…I don’t want to sell her short. My dad pushed me, you know. And I came out OK.”

“No offense,” Hillary said. “But you didn’t come out OK.”

DECEMBER

Ben sat at his desk in his home office. Behind him, laced with Christmas decorations, hung several framed magazine covers. One bore a picture of him and Sheila, about ten years earlier, holding out Sheila’s jeweled hand, and the headline read Instant Legends. Beside that was People, with little Cara sitting in his lap, both of them gazing into the camera with the headline Daddy’s Girl, next to the Time cover he’d done with Bill Cosby.

“Daddy?”

He snapped at the sound of Cara’s voice, realizing he’d spaced out somewhere, but he already couldn’t remember where he’d wandered. His mouth was dry…dry and familiar. He swiveled in his chair as she lingered in the doorway. “What is it?”

“I decided what I want for Christmas.”

“And what would that be?”

“I want Jack to come and live with us!”

Ben laughed. “Is that so?”

Cara hefted herself into his lap. “I know he’d love it here!”

He swallowed, not sure why he thought that would help. Dry and familiar. “And what makes you think I can adopt Jack?”

She put her arms around him. “‘Cause you can do anything!”

“I see…and what about his parents?”

Her hopeful gaze flickered. “Well…they can live here too.”

“I think you need to think about something else.”

“Daddy…what about the kids who don’t have money? Don’t they get Christmas presents too?”

“Some of them do.”

“Where do they get them?”

“From nice people who care about them. You know, your mommy and I help give presents to some of those kids…and give some families some nice food to eat for Christmas.”

“Can I do it too?” she asked.

Ben caressed her head. “If you want, we can take some of your money, just a little, and you can go and buy some presents.”

“All right!”

“What makes you want to do this?”

“I was just thinkin’ about the kids that don’t go to my school…all the kids at my school are rich. But some of the kids we work with are poor.”

“They’re not poor, really. But there are plenty of people who need help.”

“Mrs. Mathis told us that Christmas is a time for giving. So…I think I should do it.”

“Well all right, then. It’s settled. And I’ve got a feeling that whatever you ask for, other than your own personal Jack, you’ll probably be getting. Santa Claus loves this kind of stuff.”

1986

MARCH

The Camdens’ table bled into the anonymity of the evening under lights just bright enough that they could see each other. Sheila clasped her hands together, watching the flame from the candle flicker as the waiter left with their order.

“You were saying?” Ben asked.

“I don’t know…I have a funny feeling about this class. Like maybe I shouldn’t go.”

He reached out for her and she slid him a hand. “You love your classes.”

“I know I do, it’s just…I hate being gone for so long.”

“It’s only a month,” he said. “I leave for longer than that.”

She squeezed his hand. “I know…and I hate it.”

“Maybe…I don’t know. Maybe you could just do your classes here in town.”

“Maybe.”

“Don’t you get more out-of-towners than locals anyway?”

“Yeah…”

A nearby couple raised their wine glasses in a toast. She smiled at him there, drinking his iced tea. “I love you.”

“I know,” Ben teased.

“No…I mean it. I love you more now than I ever have before. I don’t know…if I ever thought it through enough to imagine we’d be able to make this work.”

He put his other hand out and clasped hers in both of his, gazing into the candlelit face of his wife. All the years had not stolen a drop of her beauty. The progress of age had only cemented her loveliness to him.

“Neither did I,” he replied. “I never thought ahead.”

“I was so blinded by you in the beginning…I just couldn’t say no.”

“I’m still blinded by you,” Ben said. “I hope I never see again.”

She smiled back at the man who had charmed her, warmed her, frightened and caressed her. The man who had broken her heart and kissed her lips. The man who had chosen her above all others to be the mother of his child…in a way most other men never had to choose. The man who electrified the imaginations of America and inspired her as an artist. She smiled back at the only man she’d ever really loved.

“Silly boy.”

SEPTEMBER

“Here it is! Here it is!” Forest shouted as the Greens slid into their living room. John Tesh smiled to America from the set of Entertainment Tonight.

“With the theatrical release of The Piano Girls, audiences across the country have had their latest glimpse of two rising stars: America’s sweetheart Kambree Daniels, and the daughter of a dynasty…Cara Camden.”

Peyton giggled as the show cut to a snippet from The Piano Girls. Kambree ran her hands across the ivory keys with focus and precision as Cara stood nearby, whispering to another girl and shooting Kambree fiery glances.

“Though Kambree has done work with several A and B-list directors, Cara has thus far worked almost exclusively under the watchful eye of her father, Academy-Award winning director Benjamin Weston Camden.”

Ben appeared on screen, sitting in front of a poster for the new movie. “Cara’s my favorite actress,” he said. “Sure, I’m biased, but I see something in her that is going to make the world stand still and listen one day.”

The footage cut to Cara and Kambree, laughing together off of the set. “Cara’s first non-Weston-directed feature, Without Wings, is due this winter. Meanwhile Kambree Daniels is busy stealing the hearts of boys everywhere.”

Kambree waved to a crowd of children in a quick shot. A young boy with bright brown eyes looked up at the camera and said, “I want Kambree to be my girlfriend. I already told everybody she is…”

Forest laughed. “What a dork!”

Peyton made a face. “He’s totally ralphy.”

Samantha turned to Matt with a whimsical grin. “Ralphy. Our daughter is saying ralphy now. Peyton, can’t you use a different word?”

“All the kids at school are saying it.”

“If all the kids at school jumped off a bridge…”

“How tall of a bridge?” Peyton asked.

“Without a doubt,” John Tesh said as his image returned to the screen, “Kambree Daniels and Cara Camden are the faces of the future.”

DECEMBER

As the plane touched down in Memphis, the first flakes of a snowfall floated into view. Cara’s face lit up as the fasten seatbelt sign disappeared. She looked out the small round window, at the airport, soon to be blanketed in white.

“A white Christmas,” Ben said, putting his hand on her shoulder. “Just what you were dreaming of.”

They snuggled up in the warmth of a fire at Reverend Green’s home as the temperature continued to drop. The rest of the family, extended and not so extended, came for Christmas day, and as Cara played with Forest and Peyton and their second cousins, a hominess pervaded the place.

“I think you’re smart to let others take a crack at Cara,” Saul said after everyone else had left and Sheila and Cara had gone to sleep. They sat in front of the crackling fire as carols played in the background.

“I don’t know why I waited so long. She’s so eager to be out there, doing what she does best.”

“And how is she doing…socially?”

“She’s opening up more to the kids at school. The ones that’ve known her all along…don’t idolize her like they used to. She’s got more real friends these days.”

“And…the fantasies?”

“She’s got a great imagination, I won’t lie. She still talks like she’s really part of the stories she reads, or as if they’ve happened, but I’d like to think she knows the difference by now.”

Saul smiled. “That’s good and bad at the same time, I think.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning children need to understand the difference between real and pretend to function in society. But…that dawning understanding…precedes a gradual loss of creativity. Children dream of being astronauts and firemen and soldiers. No little boy ever dreams of being an accountant. And the world needs accountants. But how much creative talent…is abandoned for reality, I wonder.”

Ben nodded. “I was one of the lucky ones.”

“So was Sheila. And Lorraine tried to give Matt the same wide horizons she had.”

“But he chose something he likes. Isn’t that all that matters?”

“I’ll be honest with you. He chose computers for financial reasons…he doesn’t love them by any means. He finds the work…tedious. Sure there’s some creativity involved. But not a day goes by that he doesn’t wish he’d been more like Sheila.”

“Really…” He thought of his brother-in-law spending away hours in a job that didn’t fulfill him. “But I guess that’s true for most people.”

“That’s my point. To Cara, the world is full of infinite possibility. But most children eventually see the limits, and when they do, they lower their sights.”

Ben pressed his lips together as he stared into the fire. “I wanted to be an actor. Everyone thought I’d be the next Jackie Gleason. But my dad…he killed it. He pushed me out of the spotlight. I want to keep Cara in it. I never want her to see the limits.”

“Then push them back as long as you can. Push the limits and push her. Make her strong and she won’t accept them. Then…like you…she’ll be a great one.”

1987

MARCH

Stuart and Ben sat down in their seats in the theater as other patrons trickled in from the hallway. Stuart rubbed his eyes as Ben took a sip of his soda and glanced up at the advertisement on the screen.

“You know, whoever thought to sell ad space in theaters is a genius,” Ben said.

Stuart watched the ads changing without reading a word. “So did I tell you I had a date last night?”

“No…who is she?”

“Her name’s Barbara. She’s a manager over at the Beverly Hilton.”

“Barbara…Kayin?”

“You know her?”

“I’ve met her.”

“Nice girl. I wasn’t thinking anything would come of it, but when she met Luke, she seemed like she fell in love.”

“Really.”

“Yeah. She just loves him. And funny, that got me to telling her about Brina. Ended up going out for coffee…and stayed up the whole night. I can’t think of the last time I had such a great conversation with a girl.”

“After all those years, it’s good to see you finding somebody.”

“Tell me about it!” Stuart replied.

Soon blue light bathed their faces as “Jingle Bell Rock” played through the speakers and a camera swept across the cityscape of Los Angeles at night. Then a drugged-up, half-naked girl flung herself out the window.

Roughly two hours later, as the credits rolled over “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” Stuart let out a sigh of contentment. “Great flick!”

“Mel Gibson…he just lights up the screen, don’t you think?” Ben asked.

“You should do a movie with him. Mel and Cara. What do you think?”

He rose as the song faded and Lethal Weapon drew to a close. “Who knows?”

“Well, I need to take off,” Stuart said. “Got another date tonight!”

Ben shook his hand. “Good for you, Yorky.”

As he drove home, he thought about Mel Gibson’s character, Martin Riggs, who snapped after his wife’s murder. Ben had not always had the most sensible reaction to death. He wondered how he would deal with it if, some dark day in the future, he came home to find his wife or daughter dead.

Maybe he’d lose it. Maybe he’d have a death wish too.

Why do I think about things like this? he wondered with a shiver.

JUNE

It was a sunny afternoon when Ben received the news that Jackie Gleason had died. His face went white as he let it sink in. He sat in his office, staring at a picture of Jackie and himself from almost twenty-five years earlier, eyes wide but dry as he thought about his friend…another father figure lost forever.

Jackie had been such a heavy smoker, colon and lungs rotting with cancer. Ben knew this was the inevitable end to a life of excess, but a great life nevertheless. And Jackie Gleason had indeed been a great one.

Finally cool tears dripped down his cheeks. He gripped the handle of the file cabinet, desperate for a taste of what he used to hide in the back of the drawer. He took deep breaths.

“Daddy?”

He almost jumped. “Cara.” He blinked back to the moment. “I thought you were with your friends.”

“Why are you crying?” she asked, taking a step inside.

“Do you remember Mr. Gleason?”

“Sure, your friend.”

He beckoned her closer. “That’s right.”

She put her hands on his leg. “What about him?”

“He’s…he’s dead, Honey.”

He watched Cara’s face flicker, as if she registered the situation but didn’t quite know how to feel about it. She put her arms around him, and he embraced her.

“I’m sorry, Daddy.”

He kissed her as some of the ache eased. “It’s all right. He was sick for a long time. At least now…he’s not anymore.”

“But you’ll never forget him, will you?”

“No, I’ll never forget him. When someone dies…he still lives on inside of you. Whenever you think about him…whenever you remember what he would say…you can bring him back. You can make him live again.”

“Then don’t forget him, Daddy.”

“I won’t. I promise.”

-

“I’ll have Johnnie Black. Neat. Three drops of water.”

Ben leaned forward in his barstool, shoulders slumped, head down, waiting for his drink. The bar wasn’t packed, but there were enough people in here that he just kept his eyes forward.

A napkin, then a glass. He crossed his arms, looking at the thing, mouth as dry as it had ever been. He hadn’t touched a drop in forever, and really, that proved he didn’t have a problem, didn’t it? If he could go that long without a taste, one drink couldn’t hurt him, could it? He’d only brought enough to pay for the one, knowing that once he and Johnnie got to catching up, sometimes they could talk the whole night away. At least it would get his mind off Jackie.

This is just between you and me, Johnnie. It’s our little secret.

Ben picked up the glass and breathed in the old familiar aroma, sweeter than any perfume. He held it there, swirling the liquor, trying to convince himself that this wasn’t going to hurt anyone. Just one. One and done, fine for everyone.

The last thing he would have wanted to remember at that moment swam up out of the muck of his memory. Lying there in a hospital bed, legs useless, little Cara crawling all around him. Knowing how close he’d come to losing her and everything else. Promising to never drink again.

Cara’s laugh echoed in his mind, her sweet little face. Cara on her pony, racing by, giggling with delight. Cara snuggled up against him as he read to her, breathing in and out, eyes wide with interest as she followed along, trying to process everything. Cara swinging through the air as he held her, begging him to let her fly. Cara putting candy canes on the presents, used to a life with a loser father who was too dangerous to even live in the same house with her.

Beautiful, darling Cara.

He set down the glass, tossed his money on the bar, and left without taking a sip.

-

Ben crept around the corner, peeking his head inside his father’s old den. Cara sat perched in Lloyd’s seat, knees curled up, watching television.

“Hi, Daddy!” she said, turning her attention from the set.

“Hey, Baby. What’re you watching?”

“Punky Brewster.”

She looked so cute there in her grandfather’s chair. “Can I watch too?”

“Sure!” She hopped up, and he slid into her spot. Cara climbed into his lap and laid her head against his chest, breathing in and out as she watched Kambree’s friend Soleil Moon Frye on the screen. He wrapped his arm around her and kissed her hair. Johnnie Walker’s got nothing on you.

As the commercial break hit, Cara strained her neck to look up at him, eyes flickering around as if reading his face. “Are you OK, Daddy?”

“I am now.”

-

Ben lay awake beside his slumbering wife, remembering that brief smell of Scotch and so grateful it had only passed through his nostrils. He couldn’t figure out why he hadn’t taken a sip. If ever there had been a moment when he needed it…

He licked his lips and fought it away, remembering Jackie’s moments with Cara, wishing they could have done a movie together. It would have been so rewarding to unite his mentor with his successor.

He drifted to sleep, thoughts of Cara and Jackie dancing on the edge of the dream world. His eyes snapped open again in an instant, and he could still trace the entirety of his slumberthought. Ideas often struck him in his dreams, leaving his waking mind racing. The traces collected and converged, and he sat up in bed.

It played out in his mind: the greatest children’s fantasy…the most exhilarating youthful adventure ever captured on film. A movie that would ignite the imaginations of the new generation, defy the limits. A movie that would cement in young minds the idea that anything is possible, that the world goes on and on forever. An inspiration and invitation for Cara’s generation to become great ones – all of them. His crowning achievement.

It came out of the mist of midnight.

-

Cara’s dreams did not ignite or inspire. She clung to her bed in penetrating fear as the ghost of Jackie Gleason tormented her from the beyond. No matter how fast she ran, he was never far behind.

She awoke with a scream on her lips that escaped as a gasp. She searched the darkness, convinced she would find Gleason in there with her.

But she was alone.

It was only a dream.

AUGUST

Thoughts and coffee swam through Ben’s mind as he fidgeted at Hillary’s desk, flipping through her marked-up draft of his new pet project, Adventure Lane. His pen flew across the page, his own notes adding to hers as the air conditioning buzzed on for the morning.

Hillary opened the door and saw him there, eyes glued to his scribbling pen. “Do you ever sleep anymore?” she asked, slipping her purse to the desk and startling him.

“Here and there.”

She opened the blinds, letting in the outside world, and leaned in to inspect his progress. “Good grief! You’re almost through it already?”

“Second pass.”

“Don’t you still have a family?”

“Sheila made a pass too.”

“May I have the desk?”

Ben scooped up the script and relinquished the chair. “I’m thinking big again, Hill! As big as we can go!”

“Maybe a little too big,” she said, scooting the chair into the desk. “I’m not sure we can do this without looking…cheesy.”

Ben grinned. “We can. And it’s going to be huge!”

“Where do you come up with ideas like transcending reality?”

“It’s not transcending – it’s puncturing. But not completely, hence the consequences.”

“No offense, but it seems like something you would have come up with…”

“When I was on acid?” She nodded. “I did, actually. I just never thought I could use it. I don’t know if anyone’s going to pick up on it, but it’s supposed to be an analogy for drug use.”

“Nancy Reagan’ll love you.”

“But it’s really about the adventure, not the message.”

“I like it either way. Give the kids something more wholesome than Dirty Dancing to obsess about.”

He breathed a laugh, not realizing until he heard it just how nervous he felt. “This is going to blow everyone away!” His eyes twinkled with excitement. “And it’s going to make Cara a star.”

“Well, go finish and let me get to work,” she said.

Ben shut the door behind him, clutching the script that he hoped would awaken the imagination of every child of Cara’s generation.

Adventure Lane was born.

1988

FEBRUARY

Friends and family broke into a chorus of “Happy Birthday” as Cara stared at the flickering candlelight. She caught a glimpse of Jack standing on the opposite side, laughing with some of the other boys from her class.

My birthday wish… she thought. I want my first kiss. She knew she would have to kiss a strange boy…an actor…once filming began on Adventure Lane. But her first one had to be special.

She blew out the candles.

Once they’d stuffed themselves, everyone moved outside. It was too cold to swim, but they ran around in the yard and played with Romeo, burning off the sugar and energy.

Cara found a moment alone with Jack, behind the stable. He panted from running, and when he looked up he found her beaming at him.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Close your eyes,” she said. “I’ve got a present for you too.”

“Really?” he asked, looking around. “What?”

“Close your eyes and you’ll see.”

Jack did as she asked. Cara watched him for a moment and bit her lip, then she moved up beside him and kissed his little mouth.

Jack took a reflexive step back. She moved in to counter it, and they both opened their eyes again.

“What was that for?” he asked.

She felt euphoric, as if unseen horizons had just flattened into infinity. “It was my birthday wish.”

“To kiss me?”

“To…have my first kiss.”

Jack blushed. “Really?”

“Yep!”

“Why me?”

“Well, you’re the only one I know who won’t go telling everyone about it. And…because I like you.”

-

That night, Cara and Ben cuddled to watch her favorite movie, Back to the Future. The memory of her first kiss consumed her thoughts and made it difficult to think about anything else. It lingered on the tip of her tongue, but they had promised to keep it a secret.

Ben noticed her restlessness. “Are you OK?”

She sighed with contentment and laid her head against him. “Yes, Daddy.”

He kissed her hair and they continued to watch. Marty McFly’s hand faded out of existence, and it always bothered her that his parents were in the same room with him and never even knew they were about to lose their son. She gasped as he fell over.

Ben chuckled. “You’ve seen it before, Honey.”

“I know…it always freaks me out!”

“Why?”

“Because he can’t tell anybody! He can’t even tell his mommy and daddy.”

“But it all works out.”

“Yeah…”

MAY

Fans created a torrential wind that whipped the hair of Lukas Haas and Cara Camden. Lights fluttered and the children gasped. Cara clung to Lukas, her face pale.

“I don’t think they liked your riddle,” Cara shouted, her voice wavering.

“Amanda, you have to go!” Lukas replied. “You have to get back to Wistly and shut the gate. It’s our only chance now!”

“I can’t go by myself!” she said.

“One of us has to stay.”

“Peter…”

He put his hand on her cheek and leaned in to kiss her.

Ben watched from behind the camera, ignoring his fatherly urgings as Cara pressed her lips against the boy. At least it was Lukas Haas, not Corey Feldman.

“Now get out of here!” Lukas said.

She wiped a tear from her eye and let go of him, running off toward the edge of the set.

“And cut!” Ben called as the fans clicked off and the lights dimmed. He nodded to himself and glanced at the rest of the crew with a sense of purpose. “Lukas, come here.”

Lukas complied, followed by Cara. “Yes sir?”

“That was great, Kids. No more takes on this scene, all right?”

Cara groaned. “Great! That fan is making it hard to breathe.”

“We’re finished for the day, Honey. Why don’t you kids run by craft services? I left you a treat.”

Cara stood on her tiptoes, and he bent so that she could kiss his cheek. “Love ya, Daddy!”

Cara and Lukas scampered off, and Ben sighed.

“Hey!”

He turned to find Stuart gliding up behind him. “Yorky! What’re you doing here?”

“I couldn’t wait to tell you!” he exclaimed. “Barbara and I are engaged!”

“Congratulations! That’s fantastic!”

“We’ve got to go celebrate!”

“So how did you propose?”

“I took her out to Griffith Park. We were stargazing…I had the ring in my pocket, just waiting for the right time. And it just…came. I proposed to her there in the starlight.”

“You’re the man, Yorky.”

“I can tell you right now…this time I want you for best man.”

Ben nodded. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

JULY

The clock read 3:15 AM, but the sun was up.

At least, it felt like the sun.

Sheila lay snuggled beside Ben, arm draped across his chest as he lay awake, staring at the ceiling, past the ceiling, at the bright warm orb that wouldn’t let him sleep. He’d never seen the thing so close before, so large and personal, like his own private star.

The light shrunk and expanded, and from somewhere just out of sight, someone muttered something. It echoed at first, then it was right in his ear. He could feel the breath of the speaker, but the words were gibberish.

He closed his eyes, telling himself it wasn’t real. But it wouldn’t go away.

Ben slipped out from under Sheila’s arm, staggering to the door, bracing himself as the sun followed him. He crept down that shaking hallway, the floor bending and curving between his feet. He reached his study and closed the door, sinking into his chair. His throat was cracked and brittle, begging for some liquid refreshment.

“Help me, God.”

SEPTEMBER

Ben fielded curious looks and whispers as he strolled through reception at Madison Chase Academy. A secretary flashed him flirtatious eyes. Still got it, he thought as he found the principal’s office.

“Come in,” Dr. Ryan’s voice called after he knocked.

Ben stepped into the little room, much smaller than he remembered. At least they don’t blow through tuition on fanciness. “Dr. Ryan, I’m Ben Camden.”

Ryan’s eyes lit up. “Ah yes, of course!” He stood behind the desk and shook Ben’s hand. “It’s been…years.”

“Yeah, my wife usually handles teacher meetings.”

“Please, have a seat.”

Both of them took chairs, and Ryan smiled. “I suppose you’re wondering why I asked you here.”

“From the message, it doesn’t sound like Cara’s in trouble.”

“No, no. We love her. Actually, it’s about you.”

“Me?”

“I have a big favor to ask, and please tell me if it’s an imposition.”

“Shoot.”

“Well…every year, the sixth grade puts on a play. It’s their farewell to grade school life, in a way.”

Wheels clicked in Ben’s head. “And…you want me to write it.”

Ryan looked back at him in silence for a moment, as if he’d crossed some line. “Well…Cara said you might be willing. We usually use the same three plays, but we wanted to try something new. Something original.”

“I’ll be honest with you, I’m pretty involved in my current project. And…I’ve been toying with the idea of taking a break from writing for a while.”

“I understand.”

The image of Cara on a stage with her classmates gave him pause. She had finally come around to embracing them as her friends. It would be rewarding to see…and how much more meaningful would it be to Cara if he wrote it?

“Although I’ve often considered writing a play. What are we talking about here?”

“Nothing too fancy. Something the children can produce and act in themselves, with teacher supervision, of course.”

Ben nodded. “OK, I’ll do it, on two conditions.”

“Name them.”

“If I write this, I want it to be something…anyone can do. It won’t belong to the school. It’ll be…out there, for other kids in other schools.”

“Fair enough. And second?”

Ben grinned. “Cara stars?”

“I imagine she probably would either way,” Ryan said.

Ben chuckled. “This might actually be fun.”

“Thank you, Mr. Camden.”

“When do you need a draft?”

“The sooner the better, but whenever is good for you.”

Ben nodded. “I’ll see what I can do.”

-

Brandon the Great, he wrote.

The town of Green Crossing is known for its fantastic and rich mythology. Legends of its history have drawn many a curious visitor in to see the truth amidst the fantasy. Mayor Manning holds an annual festival of tales, when the town is decorated with the colorful Toy Soldiers of Green Crossing’s legends.

The mayor’s daughter, Gretchen, is the star of the festival, the Green Queen. She is the wisest in town, beloved by everyone. One day, grave news reaches Green Crossing. A cannibal giant from another realm has heard the legends and is coming to inspect the town for himself. They realize that when the giant finds out the legends aren’t true, he will eat them all.

Mayor Manning calms the town and leaves to confront the giant and try to save his people. He is never seen again.

The play opens with the townspeople in an uproar. Their doom approaches, and they fear the mayor is dead. But Gretchen declares that her father is alive: he has come to her in a dream and promised that the Toy Soldiers will come to life and protect the town. They believe her because of her wisdom, and they do everything they can to awaken the Toy Soldiers. Nothing works.

The mayor’s clerk, Brandon, comes forward and offers to help, but they dismiss him because he is a simple poet. He tells them that as long as they can give the giant new stories, the town will be spared while they can think of a way to bring the Toy Soldiers to life. Brandon will create the stories.

Gretchen goes with Brandon to meet the threat. The giant is entertained by Brandon’s tales and goes to sleep without eating. They go back to the town and consult with the elders, who look to Gretchen as their new leader. Gretchen, in turn, looks to Brandon as her only hope. Brandon says that the pen is mightier than the sword, and that maybe the Toy Soldiers her father mentioned are not the statues with swords…but instead the words of the stories.

Gretchen and Brandon return each day to tell stories, and each day the giant sleeps longer and longer, contented by the tales. And while he sleeps, the townspeople help Gretchen and Brandon push him closer and closer to the river.

Finally, one day, the giant awakens on the banks of the river and demands a new story. Brandon tells the giant the greatest tale he’s ever heard, and when he falls asleep again, Gretchen and Brandon push him into the water. He sinks to the bottom, never to be seen again.

When they return to the town, the Toy Soldiers have come alive, and swear their allegiance to Brandon. Brandon then swears his allegiance to Gretchen, and together they bring the town of Green Crossing into an era of everlasting peace.

On his way up to bed, he stopped and looked into Cara’s room, where she slept in tranquility.

“My little Green Queen,” he whispered.

DECEMBER

“Ah, Mr. Camden, come in!” Dr. Ryan greeted. “Back so soon?”

Ben eased himself into a chair opposite the principal and laid a document on the desk. “Second draft,” he said. “Done and done. I think it will fit your budget this time.”

“I appreciate this,” Dr. Ryan said. “And I want to say again that the first draft was excellent.”

“No problem,” Ben said. “I’m happy to do it. And now that I’ve done you this favor, I wonder if you might do one for me.”

“Name it!”

Ben grinned. “Let me take Cara out for lunch?”

Dr. Ryan laughed. “I think we can arrange something like that.”

1989

MAY

“I’d like to thank everyone for coming to our annual sixth grade play,” Dr. Ryan said to the gathered crowd as he stood alone onstage. “This year we have something brand new for you, generously written for us by our friend, Benjamin Weston Camden.”

Murmurs of interest circulated in the audience as a few eyes snuck glances at Ben and Sheila.

“Our play is Brandon the Great,” Dr. Ryan continued. “And our story begins in Green Crossing, where unusual events are about to take place…” He raised his hands toward the sweeping red curtains behind him and backed away as the lights dimmed.

Sheila grasped Ben’s hand as the curtains parted, revealing a tiny makeshift village stretching out to each side of the stage. Children appeared from all directions, dressed as members of a medieval township.

One of them stepped out of the blacksmith shop, wearing a rather convincing fake beard. “Many nights,” his shrill voice echoed, “We have waited for the mayor to return. But alas, there is yet no leader in Green Crossing!”

“You know, Sir Blacksmith,” another boy declared with a steadier tone. “They say that when the mayor went west…he was killed by the giant!”

The other children reacted with horror and dread, murmuring to each other as Cara stepped out where everyone could see her. Her eyes were clear and strong, and her voice betrayed no nervousness.

“My father is not dead!” she said as all attention turned to her. “He came to me in a dream!”

And they were off.

-

Cara and Jack – as Gretchen and Brandon – led the town in its defeat of the giant, which could never quite be seen, only heard. Ben’s tinny voice boomed from the speakers, and the giant was as real as any other character. He’d made that recording available to anyone and everyone that might want to produce the play in the future, guaranteeing his participation in every performance of Brandon the Great.

And then they returned, and the Toy Soldiers of Green Crossing came to life, and all was well.

The audience roared with applause as the cast came out for their curtain calls. They whistled and cheered for Jack, but when Cara strode out on stage, cool and confident, they exploded. She bowed and extended her arm out to the rest of the cast. Then, as a seeming afterthought, she blew a kiss to the crowd.

She even caught Ben by surprise.

JUNE

Ben and Sheila escorted Cara through the mob of onlookers who had come to get a glimpse of the stars of Adventure Lane. A row of college girls screamed for Ben, waving “We Love Weston!” signs and shouting his name.

He waved back and yelled, “I love you, too!” as Sheila chuckled to herself at the spectacle.

“They love you tonight!” Kambree laughed with wide eyes as she joined her friend. “You and your dad both! I’ve never seen them throw such a fit!”

“You should have been there when Ben proposed,” Sheila said. “I don’t think he’ll ever top that, between you and me.”

Kambree pulled back her arm and lifted her wrist for Cara to see. “Check it out! Your face is on my watch!”

Cara blushed. “I know! They’ve got our faces on everything now! Frisbees, T-shirts, lunchboxes…they even have little Amanda Lane action figures! It’s…kind of sick!”

“I think it’s flippin’ cool!” Kambree said. “I’d love to put my face on crap. Everybody walking around with a little Kambree here and there! Ha!”

“Still weird.”

“Just think of kids all over the country walking around eating lunch out of your face!”

“Creepy.”

They took their seats and gabbed some more, and Ben did his best not to eavesdrop. Sheila emerged from the restroom and sat beside him with a peck on the cheek. “I understand fun has a new address.”

“1138 Adventure Lane,” he replied. “The place where dreams begin.”

He glanced at his daughter, chatting away with her best friend. Then he turned to his wife and saw her loving smile. “Sheila, you never looked so beautiful.”

“Silly Boy.”

The lights went down. Martika’s voice rang throughout the theater, singing “Toy Soldiers.” Adventure Lane was revealed to the world.

Ben watched the movie, but his mind was elsewhere. He thought of Charlie and Lara, his mother and father. He thought of Gabriel and Roxie Elvin, and Forest and Peyton Green. And as he watched Cara up on that screen, doing what she did best, he’d never felt more complete. More fulfilled. More satisfied.

Ben Camden was a happy man.

OCTOBER

Ben arrived home from Camden Productions with a sore ankle from the previous day’s tennis game. He made his way to the Green Room, exhausted, and dropped into the Jackie Gleason chair.

“You’re late,” Sheila said as she kissed his cheek.

“Holly had some vocal audition in San Diego,” he replied. “I filled in for Hillary.”

“How’d she do?”

“Don’t know yet. Big talent search kind of thing. They’re putting together something like a female New Kids on the Block or something, with teenagers. Called Flirt.”

Sheila made a face. “New Kids…so ralphy.”

Ben chuckled at her use of the word Cara coined. “I’m not disagreeing with you. But for Holly’s sake, I hope this works out.”

She handed him the mail. “Cara’s over at Jack’s house, working on the science fair.”

He sifted through the letters. “I talked to Mary this morning.”

“Oh?”

“She got a piece of fan mail…from some little girl in Texas. Some little girl wrote to her saying Cara is her favorite actress, asking what it was like to star with her.”

Sheila laughed. “You’re kidding!”

“She read me the whole thing. And do you know what she did?”

“What?”

“She wrote the girl back. Answered all her questions. Sent her an autographed picture.”

“She really is classy.”

“The classiest.” Ben frowned. “Did you look through this?”

“No. Why?”

He pulled from the stack an envelope with the address written in red crayon. “Weird.” He ripped it open and found a single sheet of typing paper. He unfolded it and found one sentence written in the middle of the page, also in red crayon.

I’M YOUR BIGGEST FAN.

“What does that mean?” Sheila asked.

“Maybe another stalker…” A fatherly warmth crept through his body as he stared at the words. “…or…it could be from Cara.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Look at this thing. Who else could it be from?”

Sheila stood. “Well, give me five more minutes, and we’ll get ready for dinner.”

“Sure thing, Hon.” He watched her go, his gaze coming to rest on the strange note.

NOVEMBER

Sheila had just left to teach a class when Ben got home from work. He called for Cara and thought he heard her distant reply as he thumbed through the day’s mail. He stopped on another letter written in red crayon, also lacking a return address. He grinned as he slit the envelope and found another single page of typing paper with big red letters.

YOU ARE MY WORLD. Signed, -YOUR BIGGEST FAN.

Ben climbed the stairs to Cara’s second story bedroom and heard Frank Sinatra crooning from her room. Most kids would be listening to Paula Abdul or Fine Young Cannibals, and to be fair, he knew she listened to both. But he loved hearing Sinatra just the same.

“Hey there, Beautiful!” He slipped through her open doorway.

Cara looked up from her desk. “Daddy! Did you know Anne Frank’s father was the only one who survived from the Secret Annex?”

He hugged her. “Seventh grade reads Anne Frank?”

“Freshman do…but I just had to read it.”

His lips played with a smile. “Always ahead of the game?”

“One does one’s best.”

He’d never heard her quote him before. “You know, Cara…I’m your biggest fan.”

She blinked her eyes up at him. “Thanks, Daddy.”

He searched her for some recognition, but she just smiled.

-

Cara sat between her parents in a darkened theater, watching The Little Mermaid. The prince reminded her of Jack as she let herself go in the longings and aspirations of a girl from a mysterious and beautiful place, longing for the land. As Ariel sang of being “Part of Your World,” Cara thought she’d much rather leave behind the ordinary life of the prince for the unexplored and unpredictable realm under the sea.

“So what’d you think?” Ben asked as they drove home.

“I think the prince…reminded me of Jack.”

“Shocker.”

“And I love that the girl was the hero,” Cara added. “She had to save the world all by herself.”

“Just like you will one day?” Ben asked.

“Whatever!”

Amidst the day’s mail that awaited them at home, Ben found a blank envelope. He could hear himself swallow as he held it, thinking that even with no markings it looked familiar.

“What’s wrong?” Sheila asked.

“No address this time. No stamp. And look…” He held it so they both could read.

SOMEDAY I’LL BE PART OF YOUR WORLD. Signed, –YOUR BIGGEST FAN.

A chill of uncertainty ran up Ben’s spine as he stared at the words. “Cara…didn’t write this,” Sheila said. They lingered in silence for a moment. “Did she?”

“Doesn’t look like it.” Ben folded the page again, remembering the mermaid’s song. “There’s only one way to know for sure.”

Sheila followed him in silence as he retrieved the other two notes. For some reason, the nighttime shadows were more sinister. Ben knocked on Cara’s door, and in a moment she opened. “What’s wrong?”

He handed her the notes. “Did you write these?” He watched her eyes, but he saw no flicker to indicate she recognized them.

“No. What are they?”

He forced a relaxed smile. “Nothing, never mind. Just curious.”

Her frown told him she didn’t buy it. “All right…”

Ben and Sheila went into their bedroom and shut the door. “Maybe they’re from someone we know,” she said.

“Maybe.” He dropped the letters into his sock drawer.

A tear broke across her eye. “What if they’re not?”

“I’ve had my share of stalkers and crank letters over the years,” he said. “But the blank envelope really throws me.”

“What’re we going to do?”

He put his arm around her as she trembled. “I don’t know that there’s anything we can do.”

“But this…person knows where we live!”

“I know…” He kissed her. “I’ll call the police. See if they can help, or at least give us some advice.”

He let go of her and went to the phone.

-

Sheila spent more time studying her sketches than actually painting. She bit the end of the brush, frustrated and lacking inspiration. Something had crept into her work in the last month that she hadn’t seen at first…something unsavory, something undesirable.

A shade of darkness that hadn’t been there before.

She poured herself a cup of green tea and blew over the surface of it as Cara popped into the kitchen. “Kambree’s mom is here! I’m going!” she said, slipping on her coat.

“Give me a kiss,” Sheila said, and Cara complied.

“Bye!” She scampered off, and Sheila took a sip of her tea. She heard the double doors slamming shut in the distance as the telephone rang. “Hello?”

No response. Maybe the caller hung up. She was about to do so herself when she heard someone breathing on the other end.

“Hello?” she repeated.

Breathing. Constant breathing. No other sound. The solitary pulse of breath drowned out all the background noise in the mansion.

“Who is this?” she asked.

More breathing, deeper, louder. Her eyes snapped wide open as she slammed the phone down with a gasp and backed away from it. She stared at the silent receiver, expecting it to ring again. It did not. Her hand shook.

-

Sheila curled up under a blanket, protected as a child would be from a monster. Ben sat across from her, talking on the phone. She honed in on his side of the conversation, comforted by his subdued voice and calm brow.

“What did they say?”

“Well…first of all, they didn’t get any fingerprints off the third letter. Just ours. They made copies of the handwriting.”

Her thoughts flew to her daughter’s room, where she lay insulated in sheets and naïveté. “Ben, I’m scared.”

“Nothing’s going to happen. To any of us. I promise.”

“What else did they say?”

“That we should keep our alarms on at all times. Get a community security guard.”

Her eyes fell on the unlocked bedroom doorknob. “For the whole street?”

“I’ll pay for it myself.”

“Do you think that’s enough?”

“Well…we can keep an eye on the mailbox.”

She thought of strange hands sifting through their letters, strange eyes invading their privacy. Binoculars. “And Cara…”

DECEMBER

On Christmas Eve they received the fourth unmarked letter, after seven wordless phone calls. A fire crackled and presents surrounded the tree, but as Ben stared at that red crayon, the silence lingering in the air drowned out the carols and holiday cheer.

“I can’t even look at it,” Sheila cried. “What does it say?”

A shiver raced up Ben’s spine. “‘Ignore my love and I will lose control.’ Signed, ‘Your biggest fan.’”

“Oh my God!”

He looked from her flickering eyes to the dancing flames, a dozen dangerous scenarios playing in his mind. “Maybe we should go away for a while. Leave the house good and dark. Maybe whoever it is will lose interest. Or, we could hire a private detective to live here and keep a look out.”

“Where would we go?”

He searched for an answer. Every word that popped into his head appeared in jagged red. “Memphis,” he replied. “We’ll go to Memphis.”

“When?”

“Day after Christmas.”

She nodded, and he thought he saw a glimmer of hope. “All right. We can tell Cara…it’s for New Year’s.”

“And it’ll be fun! A little vacation.”

“Thank you…I just don’t feel safe here.”

“You will,” he replied. “We’ll go to Memphis. And everything will be all right.”

-

Cara and Peyton sat shoulder to shoulder against Peyton’s bed, a black cable connecting their new Game Boys together as they tried out their fourth round of two-player Tetris. Peyton’s head shifted back and forth with her pieces as Cara’s mind drifted past her monochrome screen.

“Why can’t I get any lines?” Peyton said. “Agh!”

Cara said nothing as she slid a line in place and four rows disappeared from her screen.

“Punk!”

“Sorry.”

“Ugh!” Peyton dropped her Christmas present in her lap. “How do you keep beating me every time?”

“Maybe yours is broken,” Cara said.

Peyton leaned into her. “Whatever!”

Cara shut off her set and pressed her head against the back of the bed. “Got that Adventure Lane poster up, huh?”

“I have the lunchboxes and action figures too! Wanna see?”

“S’all right.” Her eyes lingered on her own bold face, staring out at the unseen threats surrounding Amanda Lane. “I’ve seen them.”

“Are you all right?”

She looked from Adventure Lane to Somewhere in Time, hanging beside it. “I’m fine.”

“You sure?” Peyton asked. “If I flew out to Hollywood to surprise you, I think I’d be freaking out with excitement.”

“I’m excited.”

“Not like you usually are.”

She looked through the movie posters, through the walls, and wondered what her parents were talking about in the other room. She feared she knew. “Just…stuff at home.”

“You getting in trouble or something?”

“No.”

“Grades?”

Cara sighed. “Grades are fine.”

“Lucky you!” Peyton replied.

Cara shifted to look at her. “Can you keep a secret?”

“Sure.”

Peyton lit up at the question, and even though she’d imagined telling her lookalike since the moment her parents announced their impromptu trip, Cara hesitated. “I don’t think…we’re really here for vacation.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know. I think they’re hiding something from me.”

“Like what?”

“Like…I think my dad has a stalker.”

“Again?”

“Someone calls us and doesn’t say anything. Just listens. And there were some letters. I never really got to read them…but I think they think they’re coming from the same person.”

“Freaky!”

“I can tell they don’t want me to know.” Cara’s lip trembled and she wished, for a moment, for Peyton’s normal life, Peyton’s normal room.

“I’m sure it’s no big deal,” Peyton said. “Your dad can handle it!”

“I sure hope so.”

1990

JANUARY

The private investigators staying in the mansion reported two weeks of silent phones and mundane mail. No sight or sound from any fan whatsoever, biggest or smallest. Sheila took some convincing, but they finally boarded a plane and bid farewell to the Greens.

The ride back to the house was like a ride to a funeral. Nobody said anything, and as Cara sat between her parents, sneaking peeks at their faces, a knot twisted in her stomach. She clasped Ben’s hand, and when he clasped it back and flashed her an uneasy smile, the knot tightened.

Ben held the door open for them, and as they stepped back into the echoing halls of their home, the realization that danger had passed fell on them with the stale air. They left their luggage by the front stairs and congregated in the kitchen around three bowls of Rocky Road. Trickles of laughter and affection surfaced in the conversation, an easiness that had disappeared around the time they decided to leave Memphis. Cara sucked on her cold spoon. The funeral was apparently over.

“Still a little cramped from the plane,” Ben said. “Even first class, I get cramped.”

Sheila kissed the spot on his neck where his fingers played. “You’re an old man!”

“But I’m an artist, so I can stay young forever.”

“OK, there, Dorian Gray.”

“That’s why I had you paint my portrait!”

“Oh, is that why?” Cara laughed at her mother’s playful tone. “I always thought you were just trying to impress me.”

“Well, I was. And it worked.”

Cara ate her ice cream as the knot in her stomach slowly faded. Not a mention of the business that drove them out of the house…just her mother and father, and Romeo somewhere outside.

The way it always had been. The way it always should be.

-

Cara ran up the stairs and dropped her backpack on her desk before going to seek her parents. She found them in their bedroom, chatting as Sheila packed for a trip to Chicago, where she would be teaching a class.

“Hi, Honey,” Sheila greeted her with a kiss. “How was your first day back?”

“They’re having a Valentine’s dance, and the seventh graders get to go!” she said. “Three boys already asked me!”

Ben and Sheila exchanged a glance, and Cara couldn’t tell what it meant. Somewhere between pride and regret. All that mattered was that it didn’t look forbidding.

“Well…” Sheila replied, amusement shifting across her lips. “Who are you going with?”

“I want to go with Jack, but he didn’t ask me.”

“So…”

“So I told them all no!”

Ben tousled her hair. “The girl knows what she wants, what can I say?”

Sheila pulled the zipper on her last bag. “Well…I hope he does, Sweetie. In the meantime, though, I’ve got to get myself to the airport. Again.”

“Want to come?” Ben asked. “We can have dinner after.”

Cara lit up at the idea of eating out with just her daddy. “OK!”

They drove to LAX, checked Sheila’s bags, and waited by the terminal, making small talk and listening to Cara chatter about the dealings of her day. The sun lingered on the horizon. Soon enough, they were calling for the flight to board.

Ben’s hand lingered on her shoulder. “Do you really have to go?”

“I’ll be back bright and early on Cara’s birthday, and we’re really going to live it up this year, aren’t we?”

“Mommy…I’m getting too old for all these parties.”

“Well…at least one more, OK?”

Ben pulled her close as Cara took a step back and watched their faces grow somber. “I don’t want you to go,” he said. “Just stay.” Something about his voice made Cara feel the same way.

“I’ll be back before you know it.”

“And must we be divided? Must we part?”

She kissed him and touched his lips with her finger. “Ah, hand from hand, my love, and heart from heart.”

She hugged them both, and Cara held Ben’s hand as they watched her board her plane. The moment passed, and he turned to her with wide eyes. “Now it’s just you and me. We’re going to have so much fun while she’s gone!”

She giggled. “Silly Daddy.”

Ben lived up to his word. Whenever Cara wasn’t coasting through her homework, they coasted the streets. He took her to all her favorite restaurants. They went shopping at all the trendiest boutiques in town and overhauled her already fashionable wardrobe. He took her to Disneyland with Luke York and the Louden girls, then Universal Studios with Kambree. They conducted their own private film festival in the mansion’s theater room. He let her sleep in his bed a couple of nights.

By the time Sheila’s trip neared its end, they’d all but run out of things to do.

FEBRUARY

On the day before Cara’s twelfth birthday, she got lost in the after-school commotion of students fleeing to the world beyond.

“Hey Cara!” Jack called to her as he pressed himself through the throng.

Her face lit up at the sight of him. “Where were you today?”

“Dentist appointment.”

An older boy brushed by him and looked Cara up and down with a raised eyebrow. She ignored him. “So are you excited about Saturday?” he asked.

“My parents overdo these things, you know.”

“I don’t know…I think it’s cool.”

“Yeah, but…” She sighed. “It’s cool.”

“So…who are you going to the dance with?”

“No one yet…” She traced the floor with her toe.

“Oh.” She noticed his hand twitching. “I had a funny thought. What if I took you to the dance?”

She kept her eyes constant and tried not to let the smile burst across her face. “I might say yes.”

“Really? You want to go with me?”

She pretended to consider it for a moment. “Sure!”

“Wow…”

She watched him grow inches taller as she shut her locker and tugged on his sleeve. “Gotta go!”

“Sure. Happy birthday!”

She stepped out into the afternoon sun, and her eyes froze on the silver Lexus parked against the sidewalk. “Daddy?” she said, and she saw him grinning back at her from within the tinted interior.

“Hey there!” he said as she opened the door.

“I thought you had to work today!”

Ben kissed her cheek as she slipped in and buckled up. “So I took the afternoon off. It’s your birthday tomorrow, and…I need a little more father-daughter time before the old ball and chain comes rolling back.”

“Where are we going?”

He put down the windows. “For a drive. It’s such a nice day out. Maybe we’ll end up at the beach…go for a walk. Who knows?”

“I’ve got homework…but OK!”

-

They leaned back from the table at Broussard’s, their bellies full and spirits high. Dean Martin rung through the dim lighting, and Ben looked across at Cara, wishing she could stay his little girl forever.

“Daddy?”

“Yes?”

“Thanks for everything.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah…it’s been the best week ever.”

The candlelight danced in her eyes, and he’d never seen her look lovelier. “For me too, Sweetheart.”

“Mom’d kill you if she knew how much we’ve been eating out!” she said.

“It’ll be our secret.”

“I like having secrets with you.”

“Well then…let’s have one more. Tell me something nobody knows. Anything. Whatever it is, I won’t get mad.”

He watched her think over the suggestion. “Well…OK. Remember when I kissed Lukas? In the movie?”

“Yes.”

“That wasn’t my first kiss.”

“No kidding! Who did you kiss first?”

“Jack…on my tenth birthday.”

“Why doesn’t that surprise me?”

Her face lit up with more than the candle flicker. “He asked me to the dance!”

“That’s great!”

“So can I go?”

He watched her little green eyes stare back with unblinking energy. “Of course!”

She leaned into her seat as if she’d feared he might say no. “Now you tell me a secret too.”

“OK.” He fiddled with his fork, rummaging through the various things he might tell. Something hit him, and he thought better of it, just for a second. “All right. You know how, before you were born, I…there were three other…children…”

“Yes.” She was calm and cold, but her affectionate gaze didn’t falter.

“Well…there weren’t three. There were four.”

“Four?”

“Four.”

Her gaze dropped to her plate as she sat in silence for a moment. He hoped he hadn’t said too much. “So…I was number five?”

“You were number one.” He took her soft little hand. “And you always will be.”

-

After homework, they curled up together to watch Ben’s favorite film, Modern Times. Cara enjoyed his stories about Charlie Chaplin almost as much as the movie. He told her tales of his childhood, tales she’d heard before but always loved to hear. Ones she would never forget.

And then Charlie and Paulette walked off into the sunset as the orchestral recording of “Smile” soared to its conclusion and the screen faded to black. “Look! It’s almost midnight! You’re almost twelve!”

She actually felt older, watching that hand reach the top of the clock.

“What do you say to a birthday dance?”

“All right!”

Ben went to the stereo and put in Nat King Cole’s rendition of “Smile,” then offered his hand. “May I have this dance?”

“You may.” She moved in close, and Ben and Cara Camden slow danced to their song.

His tender energy soothed her, and she sighed with content. Everything in her life was clear, was definite. Maybe the realm of dreams that had frightened and beckoned to her had finally lost its power, and here in this room, Ben was the reality that kept her grounded and alive. He was her rock. Her champion. Her hero.

He was her world.

And then the chimes heralded the passing of a day and the dawning of another. Ben knelt beside her, face to face.

“Happy Birthday, Cara Camden.”

She touched his face with her fingertips. “I love you, Daddy.”

“I love you too, Cara. I’ll love you forever.”

She knew, but played along. “Promise?”

“One does one’s best.”

February 2, 1990

Deep into the night, the Camden mansion stood still and silent.

Ben slept on the left side of the bed. The right side lay empty, awaiting the return of his wife, at dawn, from her trip to Chicago. Cara slept as well, a floor beneath him. Her slumber was clean and dreamless, fingers curling and uncurling beneath her pillow.

-

On the street, hands went to work with skill and care. In a matter of minutes, the gates to the estate swung open and limp in the night breeze. A pair of shoes padded across the driveway toward the hibernating house.

Two gloves worked the metal. The lock jostled, twitched, and clicked, and the double doors swung open as the gate had minutes before. The alarm system’s warning beeps filled the room, but a few quick keystrokes silenced it. Two eyes probed the darkness of the mansion. Two feet found the stairway and two legs climbed the stairs.

-

“Get up.”

Ben blinked awake amidst the remnants of a dream, sensing someone standing there. “Cara?” he asked, voice stiff.

“Get up.”

In an instant he was wide awake, leaping to his feet as the light clicked on. A man, face hidden behind a red ski-mask, stood at the foot of the bed, brandishing a pistol. Ben just stared for a moment, letting the reality of the situation keep him from doing anything rash.

“Hands up.”

He complied, thoughts flying to Cara. Whatever happened, he couldn’t say or do anything to reveal he was not alone in the house.

“What do you want?” he asked.

The man threw a pair of handcuffs on the bed. “Put them on.” His voice was gravel. “Behind your back.”

“Who are you?” Ben asked, complying with the man’s instructions. His hands hung at the bottom of his spine, locked. Cara, wake up, he thought. Wake up and run. Or, at least, hide.

“Go downstairs,” the man instructed. “To the kitchen.”

Ben didn’t even look in the direction of Cara’s room when they hit the second story. He moved slowly and deliberately.

When they reached the kitchen, he found a piece of rope laid out on the floor. “Sit down,” the man ordered. Ben sat, legs outstretched and eyes on the barrel of the gun. The man looped the rope, binding his ankles. He put down the weapon and used both hands to bind his victim. As soon as the gun was clear, Ben lunged, trying to kick it away and strike a blow to the man’s face. The intruder reacted too quickly, crushing Ben’s nose with his foot.

Ben fell to the floor, shuddering from the blow, nostrils filling with blood. He made no further attempt to fight back as his legs were bound.

The man produced another, longer piece of rope, looping it around the refrigerator and through Ben’s useless arms. Every moment he fought to remain calm, reasoning that after going to all this trouble, maybe the intruder didn’t intend to kill him.

His fears exploded when the man laid a third piece of rope on the floor…then retrieved the gun and retreated into the vastness of the mansion.

Ben wanted to scream, but he knew Cara wouldn’t hear him from the kitchen. And there was still a chance that she was safe.

Dear God, he prayed. Do whatever you want with me. Take my life if you have to. But please…don’t take my girl.

-

“Get up.”

Cara awoke to the strange voice and saw the reflection in the shadows. She sensed the room had been invaded. She’d dreamed something like this a thousand times, each phantom with a different shape. A different face. He turned on the lights, and the red of the ski-mask burned her retinas.

“Who are you?” she gasped, and it was the voice she had in nightmares. The whole room took on the same crimson shade as his mask.

“Get up.”

He leveled the gun, and every sense in her body came alive and alert. Her mind collected every piece of information about the moment: the temperature of the air, the thin black lines tracing the outline of his mask, the rocky pitch of his voice. The shadows dancing on the wall. ”Don’t hurt me!” she said, covering her face, hoping she could erase him.

“Get up.”

She stood, her white lace nightgown covering her from neck to ankle. He threw a pair of handcuffs on the bed. “Put them on. Behind your back.”

She cried with bewilderment, hoping any moment she would awaken, as she had from countless other nightmares. But the cold steel bit into her wrists, and she couldn’t wake up.

“Downstairs. To the kitchen.” His fierce eyes watched her every movement. She would never forget those eyes. Not ever.

-

Ben heard Cara’s tears draw near. Every muscle tensed, but all his struggle couldn’t budge him an inch. She entered the kitchen, hands cuffed like his, and the man came in right after her.

“Daddy?” she cried.

“It’s going to be all right,” he said, not believing it for a moment. “I promise.”

Minutes later Cara was bound to the oven, facing her father across the room. The intruder had their constant attention as he turned one of the burners on the stove to its highest setting and lifted the tea kettle. He took it to the sink and ran the faucet.

“What are you going to do?” Ben asked, feigning calm to keep Cara hopeful.

The man returned the kettle to the stove, saying nothing. He disappeared into the house.

“Are you all right?”

“Daddy! Make him go away! Please!”

“I won’t let anything happen to you. I promise.”

They sat in silence until the pot whistled, boring into their ears. The sound became synonymous with the intruder’s presence. He returned with a can of Lysol and a pack of matches. Ben fixed on these elements, everything else fading into the background.

“What are you going to do?”

The man pressed the nozzle and saturated his pajama with Lysol below the knees. Then he lit three matches. He held them all in his gloved fingers…letting Ben watch them burn. He touched them to the fabric.

Ben writhed as his pants caught fire, flinging himself desperately against the kitchen floor.

“Daddy!” she gasped, twitching and convulsing as he groaned in pain. “Daddy!”

The intruder took the boiling water from the stove and poured it over the licking flames. Ben cried in agony as the heat seared his skin and extinguished the fire. He screamed and he screamed, breaking the illusion he’d kept up for Cara.

Had he been naked, the scalding water would have run off to the ground. Instead it soaked the cloth, clinging to him and almost melting the skin from his shins. He kicked, ropes ripping into his arms as he struggled. A trace of blood appeared under his shoulder.

As screams faded to gasps of helpless anguish, Cara’s eyes darted from Ben to the intruder. The masked man watched them for a moment in silence, then left the room again.

-

The invader made sporadic appearances for several hours, each time inflicting pain on Ben with different instruments. Pliers broke his fingers. A flashlight blinded him. A plastic bag nearly suffocated him, pulled away at the last second. Cara lay there, unable to do anything but watch. Every moment burned itself into her brain, as hot as the water that seared Ben’s skin. Every new torture brought screams and whimpers as she begged this man not to hurt her daddy. His response was always to turn and leave. He could be in any room of the mansion, and he could return at any moment.

The bar on the oven door dug into the back of her head as she pressed herself against it, watching Ben writhing. She thought she could still see steam wafting up from around his knees. “Daddy…” She could still hear the teapot whistling somewhere in her memory.

“I love you,” he said. “Do you know that? You are the most wonderful thing I ever experienced in my entire life.”

“Daddy…”

“I know one day you’re going to make me the proudest father alive.”

“Daddy…”

“You are so beautiful.”

“Daddy…”

Their voices fell silent at the return of Him. He slid a kitchen knife from the caddy on the counter and stood over Ben, as he had so many times already.

And then…he turned to Cara. Ben’s gasping halted, and the slow footsteps pounded her eardrums like gongs. The animal approached her.

“Don’t do it,” Ben begged. “I’ll give you anything you want. Just…don’t hurt my daughter. Please…don’t hurt her!”

The man knelt as Cara’s nostrils flared. She picked up his scent, an aroma she couldn’t quite place. Her eyes focused, taking in every still frame.

He put the knife to her throat.

“Don’t do it!” Ben screamed.

The blunt of the blade pressed against her skin, as cold as the handcuffs, sliding from her jaw to her shoulder. She felt it cut…tearing into her nightgown. She felt and heard the cloth ripping, all the way down. The garment fell to the floor beneath her.

Cara lay naked, only her arms still clothed. Her breathing loud and stilted, her brain recorded every second of this living nightmare.

The man removed his gloves. She could sense something from him that repulsed her. Desire…lust. This man hungered for her somehow. He reached out and put his hands on her naked, twelve-year-old body. The sensation of his fingers made her recoil. He pressed them against her and caressed her flesh.

“I’ll kill you!” Ben shouted. “Get your fucking hands off my daughter!”

Cara reacted in a way she didn’t see coming. His fingers touched her, her stomach lurched, and she vomited. It shot out and hit his mask, and he snapped back. Petrified with fear, she knew she shouldn’t have done that.

As the warm pastiness dripped down her skin, he pulled away, replaced his gloves and, brandishing the knife, rose again, moving back to the prime focus of his work. She cried and struggled to cover herself, kicking at the air.

He knelt again and, as he had done to Cara, cut the shirt from her father’s body. The knife swayed back and forth in front of Ben’s eyes, hypnotic. The blade touched his chest and dug into the skin. He screamed with pain again, shaking as the tip cut a line, then a circle, then an X. The intruder made little doodles, like a child with no artistic talent trying to fill a page. Blood dripped from the wounds, collecting in the remnants of his shirt.

“Leave my daddy alone!” Cara screamed.

As her voice rung in the distance, the man stood once more and disappeared into the dark hallways.

-

Ben watched the first whispers of orange beckon through the windows. How many mornings had he watched the sunrise there as a boy? A million memories of that kitchen flooded his mind as sunlight flooded the sky.

“Cara,” he breathed.

She looked up, half awake. “Daddy?”

“It’s dawn. That means your mother’s on her way home. Right now.”

She blinked back to alertness. “She is?”

“Yes.” The lingering pain crippled him so that he struggled to breathe.

“Are we going to be OK?”

Sheila… “I hope so.”

The man emerged after a long absence, this time clasping the gun they hadn’t seen in hours. Ben watched those gloved fingers, wiggling and caressing the barrel and trigger.

The weapon leveled, aimed at him.

“Cara,” he said. “Cara, I love you.”

“Daddy!”

“I promise, everything’s going to be all right. Everything’s—”

-

Cara’s entire body jolted at the sound of the gunshot. She squashed her eyes shut, but it was too late. She already knew. No matter how hard she pressed, she couldn’t black out what she had seen.

The man put the barrel to Ben’s face and pulled the trigger. His body shook as the bullet sliced through his skull and out the back. His head dropped against the refrigerator.

He fired again. And again. And again. Cara’s eyes fluttered open, vision blurring as the rope dug deeper into her ankles.

“Daddy!” she tried to scream, but all she heard was a primal cry. He fell forward, suspended by the ropes, lifeless and limp. Four bullets lodged in the refrigerator behind him, blood tracing lines to the floor. She bellowed, making noises she’d never heard from a human. She wouldn’t stop, couldn’t stop.

Wake up, she begged herself. Wake up! Wake up!

The intruder turned to her. She fell silent, horror gripping her cheeks and jaw, and just stared at him.

And then…he removed his mask.

Every sight, every sound and smell abandoned her, leaving her senseless and honed. There was nothing…nothing but a face she’d never seen before. Nothing but clear, alien blue eyes. Nothing but rusty red hair, much duller than the mask. Nothing but the twitching nostrils of his slender nose.

The intruder was her world.

She sneered. And then he spoke.

“It wasn’t supposed to be this way.”

The words were gibberish, in sound and in meaning. It wasn’t…what?

“What?”

He looked over her naked body, covered in dried vomit. She felt violated, penetrated. Ravaged by the eyes of her father’s killer.

“It wasn’t supposed to be this way. I’m…your biggest fan.”

-

“Hello?”

Sheila came through the double doors, hanging open, and dropped her bags to the ground. Something smelled off. No one who lived in that house would have left the doors open. “Hello?” she called again.

And then Cara screamed back. “Mommy!”

She raced down the mansion hallways like a sprinter. And when she burst into the kitchen, the sight struck her harder than she’d ever been hit before.

Her daughter, bound to the stove, naked, shivering, and covered in vomit.

And her husband… Her husband splattered all over the refrigerator.

“Mommy!”

She braced herself against the wall as the wind fled her lungs. Her family lay in a mess of vomit and blood. The door to the patio and pool hung open. “Oh my God!” she screamed, unable to process what she found enough to know whether to help Cara first…or face what was left of Ben.

“Mommy!” Cara screamed. “Mommy! He got out the back!”

She couldn’t think beyond what she saw. Someone had done this, and that someone was gone. But she couldn’t pursue, couldn’t leave her daughter. Sheila dropped to her side, pulling the jacket from her back and wrapping it around Cara’s bare chest and waist. “My baby!” she moaned, stretching to cover her. “My baby!”

Cara pressed against her, needing her, and Sheila held her there. She kissed the girl’s sweaty hair again and again.

But as she drew Cara close, shivering with horror, her eyes couldn’t escape what was left of Ben.

Neither could Cara’s.

“Oh my God!” Sheila cried, throat aching from the force. Cara shuddered in her arms. Sheila turned away from her husband’s body, trying to shield him from Cara’s view. It didn’t matter, though. Cara stared, fierce and vibrant, into nothing. Whatever she saw…Sheila couldn’t see.

-

The police combed the house and took Sheila’s statement as Cara rocked back and forth, arms wrapped around her knees. Her eyes were vacant as she shivered, clutching her shirt as if it might fall off.

“Cara?” Sheila said. “Do you think…you can answer a few questions for the policeman?”

She didn’t respond. Sheila knelt beside her. “Cara?” Those fierce, unblinking green eyes glared through her as if she wasn’t there.

“It’s all right, Ma’am. We can come back later.”

Cara moved forward and backward, and Sheila collapsed to the floor beside her, looking away.

“I’m sorry.”

“If you can get her to give you a statement, you can write it down for her. Would that be all right?”

She nodded. “Yes, thank you.”

“Sheila?”

She lifted her swollen eyes at the sound of Hillary’s voice, and her old friend dropped her purse at the door, joining mother and daughter there amidst the bustle of police activity.

“Hill…”

“Oh my God!” she said, and the two women embraced.

Hillary and Sheila spoke in whispers, sinking under the weight of grief, but Cara’s despondency disturbed them just as much. She didn’t acknowledge Hillary’s presence.

“This has got to be so hard for her,” Hillary said.

“I don’t think…she was…” Sheila choked on the word. “…raped. I don’t think she was. But something happened to her that…” She didn’t quite know how to finish that sentence.

Cara listened to them talk about her and didn’t look away…didn’t say a word.

-

By evening, visitors and mourners filled the house and spilled out the gates, comforting Sheila and Cara and paying their respects to the Great One they had lost. The Yorks, the Danielses, the Elvins. The Greens were in the air, headed for LAX. The Loudens. All the Camdens and Westons from the area.

And when Mary Tyler Moore stepped through the door, Sheila lost it.

“I can’t believe he’s gone!” she wept, face buried in Mary’s shoulder. “My Ben is gone! And my baby girl…”

“I know…I know…”

Mary sat beside the despondent Cara. “How’re you doing, Sweetheart?” she asked.

Cara’s eyes narrowed in confused silence.

“Do you remember Mr. Gleason?”

“Sure, your friend.”

“That’s right.”

“What about him?”

“He’s…he’s dead, Honey.”

“I’m sorry, Daddy.”

“It’s all right. He was sick for a long time. At least now…he’s not anymore.”

“But you’ll never forget him, will you?”

“No, I’ll never forget him. When someone dies…he still lives on inside of you. Whenever you think about him…whenever you remember what he would say…you can bring him back. You can make him live again.”

“Then don’t forget him, Daddy.”

“I won’t. I promise.”

Cara turned to Mary with dry eyes and hugged her as tightly as she could.

-

Mourners from all around gathered beyond the gates, holding candles and singing songs, peering inside at the home of one of Hollywood’s brightest stars…now extinguished.

Journalists jockeyed for position among the crowd. A reporter for the local NBC station stood for the camera.

“Tonight’s top story: fans of Hollywood legend Benjamin Weston Camden have gathered to pay their respects to the Great One, who was found dead in his Beverly Hills estate this morning.” She turned the microphone away from the wind. “Shot to death, the controversial celebrity bad boy turned father figure, known to his fans as Weston, was discovered by his wife, world-renowned artist Sheila Camden, moments after her return home from a lecture series at the University of Chicago. Reports are conflicting at this time, but it is believed that Weston and his daughter, Cara, were kidnapped and held in the kitchen of their Beverly Hills home behind me. Young Cara and her father were both tortured, but she did not share Weston’s tragic fate…”

Within, Cara sat with Kambree in soft placidity.

“What do you think happens when people die?” Kambree asked.

“I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter. My daddy’s not dead.”

Kambree searched her for some understanding, but found none. “If you say so, I believe you.”

“He’s not!” she insisted. “He’s not dead. He’s coming back; you’ll see. He’s coming back.”

Kambree kissed her cheek. “Oh Cara…”

Sheila watched them as she sat with Mary.

“I’m so scared for her. I’ve never been so scared!”

“I can’t imagine what she saw,” Mary said.

Sheila wiped away a tear. “All she said was, ‘It’s my fault.’ How could she think it’s her fault?”

Mary watched the empty girl. “Everything’s changed now, Sheila. Ben’s gone, and we’ll never forget him. But Cara’s still here… And everything’s changed.”

Cara leaned against Kambree’s shoulder, and the two girls held each other in silence.

Daddy’s coming back. I know he is. Daddy’s coming back.

Cara closed her eyes.

NOW AVAILABLE

Joe

The Great Ones Part II

Even great ones have humble beginnings.

Sarah Swingle’s father deserted her, leaving questions that will never be answered. The other kids at school whisper behind her back, and her best friend betrays her when Sarah needs her the most.

No one takes Adam Archer seriously. Teachers and fellow students alike see him as a failure, someone who will never amount to anything. But he has a talent that no one else can see, one which the world might never know unless he first comes to see it in himself.

Sarah and Adam forge an awkward friendship through the trials of adolescence. She fights her fear of abandonment as he struggles against believing what people say about him. They plan to leave it all behind and face the future together, she as an actress and he as a writer.

But the world has other plans for them.

A young man and woman will learn the consequences of following their hearts as they struggle to hold onto their dreams – Joe is a coming-of-age tale of love and sacrifice – the second chapter of Gregory Attaway’s The Great Ones.

Available at gregoryattaway.com and many online booksellers.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Many a tale has been told of Gregory Attaway. Some say he was a failed movie producer. That he started a cult in high school. That he was responsible for introducing organized crime into a popular restaurant chain. That he used to suit up with his friends and go out to fight crime. That he twice became a vegetarian, and once a vegan, only to keep reverting back to carnivorism. According to at least one credible source, he once smashed his face through two panes of glass while defending his home from a burglar. Perhaps we will never know the truth, and perhaps that’s a good thing.

But I hear his books are good.

Visit gregoryattaway.com for more and to sign up for e-mail updates.

REVIEWS!

Reviews are the lifeblood of writers. Like the book? Hate it? Either way, if you have time, a quick review would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you!

 


Weston

You wouldn’t be able to pick Los Angeles out on a map if it weren’t for the Camdens. Shaped by war, death, and the weight of a dynasty, Benjamin Camden falls into chaos as he rises in fame. His voice of protest and change becomes one of shock and controversy. Outsiders see a Hollywood icon that can do no wrong, but his struggle for identity submerges him into drugs, scandal, and women. The birth of his daughter changes everything. Unwilling to let the burden of legacy consume her as it did him, Benjamin resolves to overcome his demons so that they, in turn, will not haunt her. She forces him to embrace the one thing he’s been running from his whole life: his name. Both of their lives depend on it. A man on the verge of ruin, a daughter who will inherit an empire, and a world of dreams and hidden nightmares – Weston is an epic family saga spanning three generations, set in the heart of Hollywood – the first chapter of Gregory Attaway’s The Great Ones.

  • ISBN: 9781311924414
  • Author: Gregory Attaway
  • Published: 2016-05-08 09:20:20
  • Words: 98197
Weston Weston