I can barely hear Sal call “Action!” over the wind, brown leaves turning up and scattering downhill. It is the final shot of the day and standing in this mountain field—my back hit with the last rays of sun, red flannel shirt itching my arms—I think: Why was I cast as Andy? What about my online CastCall profile says, Maybe a little out of his mind. Prefers being alone. Willing to risk his life for a snake.
It is dusk, a line of gold light tipped over the Vermont mountains. We have to stop filming for LETHAL INSTINCT every few minutes because Sal brought his retriever on location, and it keeps barking. The snake, which rests on a bed of dead oak leaves, from a certain angle—in silhouette, I’m told— looks real. Everything from the crew, who fight over a fast food lunch, to the cameraman’s broken chair suggests what I told myself I’d never do again: low-budget. But this afternoon, and tonight, I’m Andy Ward, a man bitten to death by one of the exotic snakes he kept as a pet before meeting his untimely death in the Catskills, having inappropriately projected human emotion onto a wild-caught rhinoceros viper. Tonight I am Andy Ward, and my eyes are glazing evocatively over with tears. My legs are the first to go paralyzed, then my hands, and I fall to my knees to avoid facing the lens. I am Andy Ward, and I am alone in my field. I was cast out by society for my love of reptiles and made my home in a cabin flanked by old pines. I own several forgotten vials of antivenom and I don’t have time to call my brother before the pain seizes my arms, fills them with dead weight. I'm not clear on what motivates me to handle the snake improperly, and Sal says he can't tell me. No one really knows, he says. Tonight I am Andy Ward. I am a dead mystery, and I did not have a history of bad decisions. I twitch just once before dying.
“We’re gonna run three takes, just in a row,” Sal yells. His voice wakes the dog, which looks up but stays somehow silent, resting near a mossy log.
“Sure,” I say. It sounds just how I want it to—so over-it, done-before. I’ve been trying to project confidence. Four years ago when I started doing these films I thought it was a way out of something, and now I realize it’s only a way in—to doing more of these films, which could more aptly be called stints, a term my mother has taken to using in place of my preferred jobs.
“Action!” Sal yells.
I walk a few steps down the hill, kneel to the snake, upstaging it so the camera can’t see. I try to move with the kind of nonchalant gait I'd expect from someone like Andy, a sort of whatever in every movement. I pause for a few beats, preparing for the imagined bite. When it strikes, I bring my thumb to my teeth and snip the skin hard—snap back my arm, shake my hand, and bring the bite wound to my lips, a small pool of dark red pooling near the base of my thumb. Andy Ward would have learned to suck out the venom.
After pausing the few beats, I walk back up, trying to forget the actual sting of the bite. I regret having broken the skin. In the wind, my blood feels cool. It’s almost evening, the time Andy actually died, but Sal calls out to say I’ve done a good take, and that they don’t need any more. The crew briefly cheers, announcing that the filming for the series is over. This was it.
But as I shake the stinging numbness from my thumb, I consider that none of this is technically the problem. The problem, technically, I can't forget. Even as I let my neck grow slack minutes ago, that thin orange glow on the horizon in my peripheral vision, I thought about it. As I stand here in the sudden cold, the small lens shooting my small reflection back at me, my boyfriend Cole is laying on an operating table struck with sterile white light, and a man with a green mask over his nose and mouth is holding out his hand and saying “Scalpel.”
I did know what moving in with Cole would look like. Sort of.
And Cole had always been defensive about his work, something I felt I couldn’t, as another aspiring artist, ever invalidate. So I didn’t press the point. But I did not know, not at all when I opened the screen door with that faded duffel at my side, backpack like a lead weight on my shoulders, not at all before climbing those wood steps to the porch, what his life looked like—really. After three years spending nights in each other’s dorm rooms, it was all perfect—or as close to perfect as I could see the word: him with his paint-splattered overalls, his wide-lens camera and rolls of tan film, and me with my scripts, the rehearsals and auditions, replaying single scenes for hours, the whole house alive with color and possibility. That was the expectation. That was the idea.
So when he saw me trying to get the door that day, fumbling with the strap on my bag, he turned the handle. I bumped awkwardly in. He kissed me—that unchanged tongue-first kiss. I hit my head against the low doorframe as he pushed me and fell down. The tile floor was hot. And then there he was on top of me when I saw the first warning sign.
It was not hard to discern, at the time, what it was hanging on the wall, or why I didn’t ask about it. But I didn’t see it for long. In fact, at first, I wondered if I saw it at all.
But that didn’t matter to me then. Because in an instant I was back again—to those years before I knew what it felt like to be adrift in the world, to intimately know the phrase cattle call, before those few months when I didn’t have Cole, trying to make it alone. And that place was so warm, so what I wanted, even the room disappeared around us. He pushed off my backpack, and I closed my eyes. I felt ridiculous to be that romantic. The tile lifted beneath me like a cloud.
The hill seems steeper, at least the way I’m going down, stopping every few moments to pause at the reflective eyes of chipmunks. The dark settles in like a grey mist around me. I’m surprised I’m not being walked down by the crew, who decided to stay put to get some cold open footage of the sunset. LETHAL INSTINCT. I can almost see it already flash, tacky, across a screen.
My phone rings, which surprises me—I didn’t think I had service. I lose my footing on a slick boulder trying to fish it out of a loose pocket. For some reason I thought Andy Ward would wear baggy clothes, clothes he could drown in—my own misprojection. As it turns out, Sal showed me a photo of Andy, young Andy, back when he was social and full of promise, and he was handsome, something the description of him hadn’t mentioned and something I hadn’t actually considered a possibility—wearing a jean jacket, his brown hair parted and slicked back. Sal let me wear what I had brought, and it felt like a betrayal of character, but I didn’t want to argue the point and risk seeming high maintenance.
“Hey, buddy.” I have to pause to hear Sal. “We were talking, me and the crew, we were talking," he says. I detect he needs something more from me. A drop of rain hits my nose, and I look up, move nearer to the trunk of a tree. "We were wondering if you wanna shoot that scene again. Right now, soon as you can. Jimmy looked over it and it just looks, well, you know.”
I can hear rain falling over trees in the distance. I consider what I did wrong. People tell you it’s the light or some bullshit about angles. No. If you have to redo a take, you did something wrong.
“It’s something about the light,” Sal says.
“It is pretty dark out,” I say, sure he’s seeing the same night I am. My mind runs back to the question: what I did wrong. I went through Andy’s thinking as best I could beforehand, scribbled in black ink in my notebook back at Cole’s: If I were Andy, I wrote, I'd have gone searching for that snake. I'd have overturned every leaf, looked behind every rock, and just when I thought it futile, called off my search, there it would be: coiling like a garden hose in dense weeds. I’d see it and then the snake would get me. Like that. No explanation. The notes weren’t helpful, but reflected my seriousness in taking the role back at me.
But then I realize: Was Andy being impatient? Maybe that's it, I think. That's the reason he couldn't save that snake from the Vermont forest, the winter, when it would surely die. Maybe he was so happy he finally found it he couldn't think clearly. It was, after all, the moment of rescue. And what else did Andy have?
I tell Sal I’m walking back up, to expect me. With every step, I consider that this acting thing would be a gift, if I could do it either much better or much worse. If someone had told me in middle school as I acted out Macbeth to an audience of ten that I wasn’t cut out for this. Or if I could have signed with an agent during school, fast-tracked past the shit gigs. Just before I see the outline of the dark clearing ahead, a calm wind slanting its tall grass, I notice a voicemail, delivered to my phone sometime these past few minutes when I wasn’t paying attention. The voice is low, and I have to pause again to make it out. I catch—“this does not look good. Please give us a call back when you can. I’m sorry to concern you, but this is truly urgent.”
The word truly feels hard and wrong, too formal.
“Hey!” Sal spots me from the field. He’s waving both his arms, like that’s the only way I’ll notice him, like I don’t get subtlety. I raise a hand as if to say Wait a minute, as if I’m on the phone with someone, but then there is the sharp beep against my ear and I am frozen in place. I move my foot forward but I feel sick. I am sick. I am on the ground, and my eyes are watering, my palms against the fallen wet leaves, a sour taste behind my molars. “You ready?” he yells down to me. My lungs seize. The air is so clean it hurts to breathe. The inky night pitches in and out of focus, and I feel a drop of rain strike the back of my neck, faster. “Just one more,” he adds. And then, louder, “We promise.”
Cole lived in a three-story home in the middle of New Hampshire in the middle of the woods. It was beautiful, a sort of vacation home, wrapped in porch, with more window than wall. It seemed to have been designed around how much sunlight would enter, and from which angles, and at what times. So when I woke up the next morning, and Cole was still asleep, it felt as if I had been startled awake. It was the keen light shooting in through his blinds—more expensive blinds, I noticed, than I had expected. And the red sheets were so soft. I made a note to ask about thread count over breakfast, whenever he woke.
But a half hour later—like in college, when I came back from the dining hall to find him still asleep in my bed—he wasn’t awake. I stayed near him, watched him turn over, but even at noon he was asleep. So I got up and took a shower. I only used his soap; the shampoo was foreign and looked expensive, not meant for my greasy brown hair. Cole always had this sort of taste, ever since I met him in Introduction to Acting: no dining hall food, packages of imported things from his parents, a cultivated fondness for caviar. After the shower, I dressed and, noticing Cole still asleep, walked to the kitchen.
And there it was.
It was not a photo of just any man—not a photo indulging in the art of the typical man, rounded out with gut, or with a hairy spade on his chest: but a beautiful man, blond, with those chiseled abs I could never get, the sort of brooding face that suggested real thought. The worst part: Cole’s florid signature beneath it, like he had some claim to the man. The photo hung above Cole’s kitchen sink, and I immediately imagined him seeing it—enjoying it—every day, every time he saw it. I looked closer, and the whole thing came into sharp, revolting relief.
None of this would have been a problem, I reminded myself, my stomach burning with fever—not if it hadn’t been for the day senior year I walked in on Cole while I skipped a lecture on Lessac theory, my copy of his key turning in that lock, and those loud and hurried whispers, and the black sheets over his pale chest. The wind striking me as I walked back to my room, shaking. The tears stinging the side of my face. None of this would have been a problem. The photo would not have been a problem.
I heard footsteps and turned around. “Morning,” Cole said, rubbing his eye with a palm. I pointed at the photograph without looking at it again, that stupid body backlit with white light. I mustered in a quick rage some of the best acting advice I had ever received, years before during an audition: If you want to sound serious, speak a question as if it’s a fact.
“Oh,” he said, blinking the sleep out of his eyes.
Outside, the high note of a songbird scratched the air.
“What is this,” I said.
“You look awful.”
This, of course, is Sal, who has everything set up for another shot. But he’s taken the light away. The problem, he says, was it looked artificial. It looked made. I wanted badly to steal away, only for a minute, to call the doctor and learn what was happening with Cole, what they’d found—or worse, I consider, what they had not found. Cole had been sick for years, though we hadn’t known it, and I had always imagined since the months he learned this that not only had I not helped, but I had some weird communication with the tumor, a psychic sense that made him eventually, horribly ill.
But Sal had asked Can it wait? And I had said Yes —something that, unlike projecting confidence, I’m trying not to do. To say yes to everything. I hold my thumb and make a point not to bite it again. I can feel it still, the glow and pulse of pain.
So everything gets reset. The dog shuts up. Sal stops telling the crew to “Find the wind” and to move the snake just so. I have no lines. I just redo the part where I die.
But after Sal calls “Action!” something new in me flicks on like a light, and I start walking with a different step. It feels almost as if I’m possessed, like my body knows all the right things to do. My eyes are mad with fear. I make a false pass at a log, looking for the snake, which I’ve suddenly given a name—Emily—that name is just spinning in my mind, and I’ve lost her, why had I left the lid of her tank open last night, and where could she be, really, and then I see her. And I move my hand down, something I’ve never had to do before—her tank is on the top shelf, above the scorpions—and I don’t have time to kneel. I feel how Andy does: as if the world has dealt me an unfair hand, I think, but not in the way people reference it—like even the cards themselves are meant for another game. I’m on the ground, my forehead slick with sweat, but before I can keep on with the scene, Sal has jumped off his chair. “Holy shit, Shawn!” he says.
Behind him, one of the crew members tosses up his hands and says “Sal, come on. You just fucked up the shot.”
The rain is light, and the wind chills my skin. My shirt is weighed down in the humidity. I’m overcome by a sense of pride, the feeling I’ve reached some new height, adrenaline thudding my heartbeat.
“Turn on the lights!” Sal says. He hops back on his chair, pleased with himself. “For fuck’s sake. Give him some light. That was”—he pauses, unaccustomed to thinking before speaking—“excellent.”
I sit up and brush the burrs from my knees. Above, the moon glows yellow, but it instantly disappears when a flash of stark, hot light floods my vision. I can see the rain fall, barely, against it. I cover my eyes with my hand, the scabbed red dot on my thumb uglier than I expected. From this angle it actually looks like a snakebite. The crew flicks on another light behind me.
“Now that?” Sal adds. “That was acting.”
It didn’t take long to rehash the basics: Cole had been doing this since senior year, when he’d photograph models in an unused room in the Engineering building, which was never locked and near his studio, since he realized how well it paid; he was still trying to sell his nature photographs to major magazines; he preferred other art; this was temporary, probably; he loved me—he really did—so, what was the problem?
“The problem,” I said, “is, like, five problems.”
“Start with one.” Cole had the awful habit of getting me to talk by making the discussion seem doable, the problems solvable, even easy.
“Where do you even do this now?”
“Here,” he said, and tried to take my hand. “I’ll show you. But don’t freak out.”
He brought me to the top of a staircase, his hand shaking. I wondered how he thought I’d react once I did find out he was still doing this, because I was going to find out—he had the photo above his sink for God’s sake, and then it occurred to me maybe this was a sign of how desperate he saw me. That he knew I would love him despite it. Even through my anger I knew it was true.
“Shit,” he said. He held the silver door handle and looked at me, his eyes shot with red. The sunlight grew across the living room, reached us and faded. “You’re going to freak out.”
Another one of Cole’s habits: He tended to be right.
The view of basement registered in the same way as a scene I once played in college for an original horror-drama entitled “Please Hold.” All my lines (and the play itself) were bad. I had taken the part out of some ridiculous pity given me by a professor who considered me a department underdog, which was embarrassing. I was a secretary entering middle-age, and every other scene had me answering the phone at my work, several times, and saying those words: “Please hold.” In the final scene, though, I realized my daughter had left her bedroom after curfew, taken off with a handsome, volatile football player with a drug problem and a collection of samurai swords on his bedroom wall. You have to seriously imagine the trouble, the director said. His words held weight and I imagine he could feel them reflected in his own life.
And so I did. I imagined, seriously, the scene’s “emotional turning,” a phrase used to describe the advancing of emotion through a split-second moment. It was one of our college’s things, one central point of teaching throughout the curriculum. The idea was there are moments inside of moments that we can never know but have to try and replicate. My emotional turning for the scene, my hand on my head, jaw gone slack, eyes scanning that room, registered like this: 1. Fear for my daughter-->2. Anger at her having broken her promise to me--> 3. Concern over how I would be perceived by those close to me-->4. Disbelief that it had ever happened, that I had ever lost her, at all-->5. The lockdown of definite loss.
So when I saw the photos, gold-framed and glinting like winks on the wall, I was furious. I turned to Cole, expecting my body to will forward a punch. But when I saw the bed in the center of the room, made cleanly with those same red sheets I had slept in the night before, I collapsed into disbelief. I sighed and sat down on the cold cement stairs. I had expected time to move things forward: for him or for me. For something to have changed and pushed the past behind us.
“Cole,” I said.
“I can explain,” he said.
“Haven’t you already.”
At the end of that play, I returned to that bedroom, and my daughter was still gone, and that was when the lights for the act went down. Cole was in the audience, watching me, though I couldn’t see him. He later told me I had looked directly at him, but I don’t remember that. And before the hot light shut down, it grew intensely, furiously bright, so that when I was left standing near her bookcase, my hand on the small of my back, I appeared as a ghost in the sudden dark.
It is night now. I run through the scene again, one last time, and my heart is wild, like I released something I didn’t know was in me to begin with, something that kept the other parts of me lodged in their correct places. I’m on the ground, again, my hair coated with dew, the rain shower now a pervasive mist, like I’m filming in a dream. We just finished three more takes of the same scene, with variations on where I first thought I’d seen the snake: under a log, near my foot, and once—So exciting! Sal had said—behind the lens, from the snake’s point-of-view.
Birds shudder up from trees in the distance, scattering like thrown ash across the deep blue sky. I wait for Sal to finish talking to his assistant, a sad man wearing an awful old earpiece whose main job is to strike the time code clapper.
“So we were thinking,” Sal says again. He walks toward me, a silhouette. “We were just talking and wow—something changed in you.” He stops just short of stepping into where he’d be in the shot, halfway illuminated. I can see his squinted eyes, sense good news.
“How’d you like to do one more scene?” he says. “Just, you know, to try it?”
I had nearly forgotten what had caused my change, so wrapped up in how I’d changed, how I was being recognized for my ability and not my crooked nose or whatever I’d written on my CastCall profile—the headshot Cole had taken and generously edited: How many jobs had that got me?—that had attracted Sal in the first place. I need to call the doctor back. I’m vaguely disgusted I haven’t yet. In fact, I feel disgusting, covered in dirt, my shirt sleeve awkwardly rolled up, the rain giving me an undone, feral look.
“Can I have a minute?” I ask him.
“It’ll only take a minute,” he says.
“What’s the scene,” I say.
He turns around and gives his assistant the thumbs up; the man runs to turn off several lights, around which moths have begun to buzz. He shuts off all but one, as if I already agreed to doing the take. A wind rattles the metal and knocks over a folding chair. It’s freezing, I realize, and the hair on my arm chills up, and I’m reminded of Cole, and how pale he was three weeks ago. How his lips were purple, like how mine must be now, but then, no—they were actually flush with that real color of death as I drove him, speeding, to the hospital. I remember how his skin glowed in the night, and the color of the blood he coughed against the grey seat cushion. The sound of wind through the trees when he asked for fresh air, the client he turned away as he kneeled, first coughing, then breathless—the hard muscle of his chest seizing—into the sink.
“Oh, it’s the same part,” Sal says. “Where you die. Sort of.” He pauses as he settles back into his chair and whispers something to his assistant. “We just want it zoomed in. We want it slowed down.”
The way Cole and I decided to get over it—after I briefly cried out on the porch, a thunderstorm coming, and went back inside, after we ordered pizza and he told me between bites that he loved me, he was doing this for us—was to not talk about it, and to create a code for when a client was coming in. When he said “Looks like bad weather,” I’d know. He was sensitive to my sustained idiot grief jealousy, and I both admired and hated him for it, because that meant nothing would change. I finally unpacked my things in his dresser that night, convinced I could do this, that I could stay.
And then what happened next was a kind of miracle, in the loose way small, typical things are miracles during the worst times. I had forgotten my toothbrush in my car, so after the storm passed, I went out to get it. But when I got to the bottom of the wooden porch stairs, which were freshly wet with rain, I couldn’t move any farther. The ground was covered in red newts, moving slow.
“Cole!” I yelled. “Come see this—and bring your camera!”
He ran to me. He actually ran. I tracked his hard footsteps up the basement stairs, through the carpet of the living room, against the kitchen tile, onto the wood of the porch. His running, racing, actually convinced me he was sorry, or concerned. That he wanted this to work.
Cole got low to the ground and snapped photos of the animals, which barely moved, scarlet against the usual mud and dirt of the woods.
“I wonder if this is an omen,” I said, noting their orange dots, their large and curious eyes. Then, I could breathe warmly, deeply. The air smelled like moss.
“An omen,” Cole said, kneeling for another shot. “Can an omen be a good thing?”
“Then a sign,” I said.
“Let’s say that’s it,” he said, stifling a laugh. He turned the lens sideways. “Let’s just say it’s a sign.”
Later that night, after placing my socks in a dresser, I looked up the mass migration: red efts—not newts at all, but aquatic salamanders that, in their adolescence, turn quickly from bright shades to dull green tones when they find suitable water. Nothing about any mythology. Not an omen. Not even a sign.
So when I heard coughing in the bathroom later that night, as I lay under those warm sheets, the sound of phlegm hitting the water in the toilet, I didn’t think anything of it. I closed the door and opened the windows. Because how was I to know.
Sal gave me only a minute to figure out my emotional turning. I decided Andy Ward’s final moment would go something like this: 1. Shock at having mishandled the snake-->2. Shock that the snake I loved, that I had cared for, bit me-->3. A strong surge of purple venom through my neck, seizing all other thought-->4. The knowledge I will die.-->5. Both the lightness of fainting and that final sting of regret for having ever moved out to the mountains, lost all the people of my life, become so completely resigned to begin with.
We run the take, though I don’t move in it. I close my eyes and pace through the emotions as if they are a flipbook, touching each and just as swiftly moving to the next, wincing, letting every minute difference appear barely, even risking its loss on the viewer. Only for a second I consider whether I am trying out any of what Cole is feeling right now, those yellow plastic bands around his arm, a clear IV stuck in his elbow, his head shaved and reflecting, almost greasy. But I can’t tell if anything is shared, or if even trying to draw comparison is offensive. I have no idea, and I shake with the renewed worry I am losing him. That here, filming as Andy Ward, the Vermont mountains like dark teeth jutting up around me, I have already lost him.
“I don’t know what you’re doing these little jobs for,” Sal says. “Tell you what, I’ll be in touch.” He moves forward to shake my hand but sees my thumb.
“How’d that happen?” he asks.
“I fell coming up.” I try to make it sound convincing, and it does. “Wet leaves.”
“So that’s why you looked awful.” He laughs. It offends me and then it doesn’t. There is a distant clap of thunder. Wind races through the trees, trembling the leaves, and finally it hits us and moves away.
“Huh,” Sal’s assistant says. It’s the first I’ve heard his voice, which is mousy and thin, not at all what I had expected. He removes his earpiece and holds a palm up in the air. The lights click off behind him, and my eyes don’t adjust right away: the sky and horizon pitch into a single darkness. The man says, “Better head out. Looks like some pretty bad weather.”
“It’s called Lethal Instinct,” I yelled. It was a warm night, almost a month after I had arrived at Cole’s place. He was downstairs, uploading photos onto the computer. He’d stopped doing the prints at my urging; the profit was better online anyway, and most of his models didn’t mind—better exposure. Not that I ever saw them. I always made a point to hide away or drive to town whenever he had the men over. I avoided my occasional desire to go downstairs, to uncover anything, because I had nowhere else to go.
“This guy,” I said, scrolling down, reading the description. “This guy had over fifty snakes. Cole! In a trailer.”
“He did what?” Cole asked. His voice was muted through the walls.
I briefly considered this, what Andy had done, but I was trying to pare down my point: a freak. This guy must have been a freak to do something like this—however he’d even managed it. Hauling tanks and snakes up a mountain, something I couldn’t even picture. And what kind of guy, the thought distracted, got cast in that role anyway? How does that mind work?
Through the kitchen window I saw a flock of crows settle on the branches of a tree. The moon had begun to peek in from the darkening sky. I sat down at the table again and squinted at Andy’s physical specs, the actor’s desired height and weight and features. It was me right there on the screen, down to the note about a particular kind of nose.
The sun dimmed quickly, like a lamp clicked off, and I felt myself stiffen in my chair as I read on, looking up occasionally to see the birds, to wonder about where they’d come from and why they hadn’t moved. When I went downstairs to check on Cole, he got the story wrong: He thought I’d said Andy bit the snake. His forehead felt hot, and I could see his computer screen in the reflection of a glass cabinet behind him: some man like me, maybe, or not—I could only make out the frame, the way he’d posed them, like that was all you needed to do to get someone right, to say stand like this, I want to see you like this.