Horror & Dark Fantasy

Trouble Department

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Fiction

Chanson D’Amour

You wake with a start, your dream cutting off like a break in the film. If you could just remember it, you’d be getting somewhere, but it’s gone, the screen in front of you blinding white, the film spinning on its reel, the trailing end going flip flip flip as it turns.

With a sigh, you shut off the machine, take that trailing bit of film, feed it back through, start rolling the whole thing again, from the bottom. The images on the screen move backward and too fast. Mouths silently chattering like monkeys. Figures doing a backward pantomime walk down hallways—or would that be up them?

You suppose you should be grateful that Victor thinks he’s Tarantino. That he insists on filming on 35mm; on editing the old-fashioned way. “Shot, chopped, and scored,” as he’s fond of saying. It’s how you got the job. Most of the other film school kids don’t know how to cut real film anymore.

Right now, it’s hard to appreciate, though. Your head aches. Your eyes are sandpaper; you can feel them grating in their sockets as they move. You could be hungover, but you’re pretty sure you haven’t had a drink in six months, and there’s an AA chip in your dresser drawer to vouch.

“My dad drank,” is that your voice, telling Sara on the night you finally decided to go to the church basement with its creaky folding chairs and all its sad, rumpled people? “It wasn’t an occasional thing,” or is it when you finally stood up in front of those same people and let the story pour out, the parts of it you could tell, even then?

“I’m not sure I ever knew him sober. But sometimes he drank more, and when he did, it was like a black cloud, you know? There wasn’t any love left in him. Just hunger that never filled up. And sometimes he’d take my mother into the bedroom, where they thought I couldn’t hear . . .”

You slam the film to a stop. On the screen in front of you is a knife, its blade diamond-bright so that it catches the light and throws it back refracted, making a rainbow. The blood on its tip jelly-thick and ruby red.

It’s day number you’ve-completely-lost-track of shooting One Night in Paris. They’ve stopped writing the date on the clapperboard, but you could do the math, if you needed to, because you know how many days over production is, because Noah shouts it five or six times a day. “Thirteen, now,” he shouts in his cute British accent at Victor or Ramon or Cecily or whoever happens to be standing nearby. “We are thirteen goddamn days over right now.”

Is it thirteen, though? You must have nodded off in the booth, slouched in your chair. There’s a crick in your neck to go along with the pain your head and the grit in your eyes. After so many long nights of work, the energy drinks aren’t cutting it anymore. You count the tall, shiny cans in greens and oranges standing empty on the edge of the table. Six, now, in an hour? Two? Four?

You can’t remember falling asleep in the booth. Can’t remember where you were in the film. Can’t remember waking up this morning. When did you come in? How long have you been sitting here?

You had nights like this, when you were still drinking. Black nights like someone had spliced out a chunk of the film. Minutes maybe, maybe hours, maybe longer.

“I swore I’d never touch the stuff,” your memory-voice is telling Sara or the crowd in the folding chairs. “It’s hard, though. The world is full of temptations, and anger is like love, it pulls you back, even when you know better. Makes you want to pick a fight. And when you pick a fight with booze, it wins.”

After one of those nights, you woke up in bed with someone else. His skin was dusky and textured with the salt of a night’s sweat, the way your skin felt when you’d been swimming in the ocean. You hadn’t even bothered with a condom, because you’d been drunk and you guessed he didn’t care.

You went back to the apartment, and you tried to explain it to Sara, but you didn’t have an explanation, not really. Deep down inside, you knew that every explanation was a lie that you told yourself. “A man takes a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes the man,” was the old saw, but you weren’t a man, and you’d watched your dad. There weren’t two people in there, any more than there were two people in you. You did things drunk that you would never have done sober, but you were still doing them. That’s what killed you.

Maybe if Sara had gotten mad, it would have been different. That’s what you wanted her to do. Get mad, throw you out, hit you, cuss you, break something. She just cried. Curled up on the bed, tighter and tighter, like someone had punched her in the stomach, and cried and cried until she was out of tears, until she was wrung dry, and then she just lay there. If you touched her, she’d twitch away, just a twitch, like a horse shaking off a fly, but it hurt so much more than a punch.

“Things were never okay again after that,” your voice, but who are you telling? Who could you possibly be telling? Who can you trust, when you can’t even trust your own reflection?

You push the film back one frame, two, three. The knife dipping down, the mirror in the background coming into view. There’s something written on it in violet lipstick. You can almost see the killer’s reflection. But the shot is preoccupied with the knife, and everything else is out of focus.

The cans rattle off the table edge, into the trash can, off its sides, onto the floor. Your knee is against the table leg, and you’ve been jittering it. Moving it up and down like a pump jack in fast forward.

You get up, pushing the chair back with a screech of its metal feet against the linoleum floor. Press the heels of your palms hard into your eye sockets to try to stop your eyes from moving, from rubbing. Push them deep enough so that maybe you’ll tear up, wash away some of the grit, but you have no tears left, just like Sara.

Outside the makeshift editing booth, you walk down the hall, to the door at the end, where the taped-up sign says, “SOUND.” At least Edgar—he always says it like “eggar”—gets to use a computer, but from under the door, around it, through the glass, you can hear the Manhattan Transfer whispering their words of love.

Victor had insisted on the song. Not just the song, that version. “It was a big hit in Europe in ’77,” you remember him telling Noah. “It’ll position us in Paris, in that time, in a way that the rest of our budget would never allow.”

“You’re shooting in Toronto,” Noah had shouted, because by that point, Noah only communicated by shouting. “Why not just fucking set the movie in Toronto?”

“What kind of name is One Night in Toronto?” Victor had shot back, as though that was the final word in the argument.

You rap on the door, assuming that Edgar must have his headphones off if you can hear the sound, and when you get no reply you push it open. There’s the computer, blue and green lines dancing against a black background on the monitor, jumping with the notes of the song, ra da da da da. There’s Edgar’s headphone cable, pulled from its plug and lying on the linoleum. There’s Edgar in his chair, which at least has casters so he can roll around.

His headphones are clamped over his ears, even though the music is spilling out of the speakers, not through the wire. His head is lolling to one side, the bulb of his right headphone touching his shoulder.

You know what you’re seeing before you touch him, but not fast enough to pull back your hand. You’ve already crossed the room, your hand is already on his shoulder by the time the information travels from your eyes to your brain, from your brain back out to all the nerves and muscles and tendons in your body.

When you touch him, his head flops back, the wound in his neck yawning wider, the bright red bib of blood all down the front of his shirt. For just a moment, you can see the reflection of the killer on the monitor in front of you, that knife sharp as a diamond.

Stop the film. Roll it back.

• • • •

You wake with a start, your dream cutting off like a break in the film. If you could just remember it, you’d be getting somewhere, but it’s gone in the streaks of rain that wash down the windows of the bus that you’re taking to work because your license is still revoked from the last time, even though you haven’t had a drop in months.

On set, you got into a shouting match with Victor over something, and you remember picking up a bottle of J&B Scotch and chugging straight from the mouth of it, only to find that what met your lips was just colored water that the crew had refilled the bottles with so that the actors could slug back drinks in take after take.

Had you known that, all along? Just taking the bottle as a show of defiance. Or had you truly forgotten, ready to jump back off the wagon you had climbed up onto so painstakingly? You don’t know the answer. Maybe you never did.

What you remember is that it pissed Micah off because he had to refill the bottle to the exact mark. It was one of the visual cues, letting the audience know what moment in time the film currently occupied.

“It’s a timeloop giallo,” Victor had said, his emphasis on the last word that of someone who is proud to know how to correctly pronounce it. “Slasher’s been done. Alien invasion’s been done. But think about it: the crux of the giallo is memory, right? Detective work. The character who saw too much, trying to piece together his or her mind’s contents of one crucial moment. What if we make that literal?”

You’d seen the movies he was talking about, not to mention Groundhog Day and even Dead of Night from way back in ’45. Sara had tried to convince you to watch some show on Netflix about it—named after those dolls that fit one inside the other—but you never had the patience for TV. You’d get one or two episodes in, then burn out.

The problem with Victor is that he was good. The Leather and the Flesh had gotten him noticed, and the timing was right for his kind of ’70s throwback flicks. He had the eye, and the ability to move sideways around actors until they let their guard down and gave him the performance he was looking for. He just wasn’t as smart as he thought he was, and he was too ambitious for his own good.

Even if you had to admit that the timeloop elevator pitch was probably what got the studio to bite.

You roll your head against the bus window and try to remember what day it is, but you can’t. You can’t remember the last time you slept in your own bed, though you think maybe that’s where you’re riding the bus from, because where else would you be coming from, on your way to work?

Most nights, you sleep on the cot in the corner of the makeshift editing booth. You brush your teeth in the bathroom down the hall, squinting at your reflection in the mirror, the red veins in your eyes. You’re trying to bring this movie in under schedule—everyone is—but Victor keeps changing the goddamn script.

“No more fucking writer/directors,” you remember telling Candace, standing outside on the loading dock, watching it rain while she smoked cigarette after cigarette, shotgunning them the way you’ve taken to gulping down energy drinks, replacing one bad habit with another.

“If it wasn’t him, it’d be the studio,” she replies. She does makeup and hair—not the special effects, the gore stuff, that’s Robert, just the everyday bits—and she’s been in the business for a while. Maybe not more years than you’ve been alive, but getting there. She might have worked on one of the films this new one is emulating.

“Trust me,” she says, “the studio is worse.”

The window of the bus is cool from the rain outside. It soothes your headache. You can’t remember when you didn’t have a headache. You can’t remember when you weren’t keeping track of the days by the date scribbled on the canisters that they bring you the dailies in.

There’s a plastic bag in the seat next to you; thin and generic, from some corner store. It says “Thank You and Have a Nice Day” on the side. Your hand is on it, and you can feel the two six-packs sweating inside. You don’t remember buying them, and there’s a moment when your heart skips a beat, but from the feel of the cans—too narrow, too tall—you know that they’re energy drinks, not beer.

You close your eyes, and in the dark, you see what feels like a scene from Victor’s movie, your movie, everyone’s movie. A dark bedroom; a dresser with a vanity mirror flanked by round, incandescent bulbs. There’s a message on the mirror, written in purple lipstick, but it says your name. It says your name, then what did I do?

Stop. Reverse.

• • • •

You wake with a start, your dream cutting off like a break in the film. If you could just remember it, you’d be getting somewhere, but it’s gone. The cot is hard beneath you, and you hurt all over. You’ve got that leaden feeling in your arms and legs that you get when you’re getting sick, but your brain hasn’t quite realized it yet. You can’t afford to get sick though. No time for it.

You remember that Micah has those little fizzy vitamin C tablets, so you get some off of him when he’s on break next, pop one, then two, then three into your mouth, let each one fizz and bubble and burn on your tongue. The witches in old stories had it right. The cure won’t work if it doesn’t hurt a little.

Stealing a few precious minutes, you lie back down on the cot and stare up at the ceiling. You’ve tacked a poster to the acoustic tiles. John Travolta and Nancy Allen looking not down at you and not quite at each other, caught in the purple hues of what looks like a folding mirror that duplicates their images.

Victor would have a name for it, something he picked up in film school. Mise en abyme—but that’s not quite right, that’s when a picture has a picture of itself in itself. Like those Russian dolls—a doll inside a doll inside a doll, ad infinitum.

Your head is just full of handy Latin phrases today. What day is it? How many days has it been? Three nights, your vertebrae tell you. Three nights, your shoulders, your hips, your back all say. The cot isn’t comfortable, and your body knows it, misses its bed, with its soft things that cradle you when you sleep.

Why haven’t you gone home in three nights? Work, you tell yourself. Every day they stack canisters next to the table, and every day you edit them. “We don’t have the budget for a long shoot,” Noah says, his calm exterior just starting to crack.

Candace has an umbrella that she lends you as you walk to the corner store for more energy drinks and maybe some Excedrin to chase the pain away. “The caffeine kicks the acetaminophen in the aspirin,” Candace said when she suggested it. “I take it for my migraines.” You also buy a pair of sunglasses, even though it’s been raining for days, because you lost yours somewhere.

The kid behind the counter points to your sleeve as you’re sliding your card into the machine. “Is that from the movie?” he asks. He knows you because you come in at least once a day to stock up on what you jokingly call your “medicine.”

You look down at what he’s pointing at, see the rust-red stain on your sleeve, by your wrist. “We’re making a giallo,” you say.

“What’s a giallo?” the kid asks, and you just make a stabbing motion as you head for the door.

Stop. Reverse.

• • • •

You wake with a start, your dream cutting off like a break in the film. If you could just remember it, you’d be getting somewhere, but it’s gone. The bed is cold, the room so dark that you can’t see the walls. You imagine you’re on the soundstage at work, that the walls have actually been rolled away, and you could get up from the bed, walk off into the darkness, and disappear.

There are only two pools of light in the room. One shines down on you from a bulb in the ceiling with a dimmer switch that has been turned almost all the way to the click. The other is the dressing table at the far side of the room, with its equally-dim incandescent bulbs all the way around. You keep telling Sara to change the bulbs out—“What the hell good is a dressing mirror you can’t see?”—but she says she likes it. “Keeps the room romantic,” she says.

Said. Past tense. Back when you both talked. When breakfasts weren’t cold, hurt silences that you didn’t know how to bridge. Everything you said she replied to in a way that you couldn’t fault, but you could also tell there was no feeling in it. The passion had been blown out not with one massive gust, but with the slowly accumulating breeze of your fuck ups.

Then there were no breakfasts anymore. You just bought something to eat at the corner store before you got on the bus.

“I just want to talk,” you said to her.

“So talk,” she replied, putting her hand on yours, but you didn’t know how. Your mouth was suddenly gummed shut, until finally she turned away, disappeared into the bedroom. Where you are now, waking up, but the bed is cold, which must mean that she’s not beside you, right? It would be easy to turn your head and look, but you don’t. Instead, you stand up almost mechanically from your side of the bed. Swing your legs over, lever yourself upright, then stand.

There’s the darkness where the walls ought to be. If you walk toward it, will it recede, like on the soundstage? Can you walk off the set that way and disappear forever? Too afraid to try, you walk toward the pool of light around the dressing table, instead.

There’s a message on the vanity mirror, written in Sara’s purple lipstick. The message seems familiar, it says your name and then, what did I do?

You’re dressed as if for work, not for sleep, but your clothes are covered with something dark and sticky and stiff.

As you walk toward the mirror, you can almost see the killer’s reflection.

Stop.

• • • •

You wake with a start, your dream cutting off like a break in the film. If you could just remember it, you’d be getting somewhere . . .

Orrin Grey

Orrin Grey is a writer, editor, amateur film scholar, and monster expert who was born on the night before Halloween. His stories of ghosts, monsters, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including The Best Horror of the Year, and been collected in Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings and Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts. He can be found online at orringrey.com.