Mae wakes up naked on Sunday morning, but that's not what she notices first.
What she notices first is blue. She blinks into the deep hue and her eyelashes scrape against plastic. A pool raft. She lies beneath a blue pool raft and the sun shines and her back rests against something cool and smooth. Shock jolts her awake. Something is horribly wrong. She wiggles all ten fingers and toes, to be sure, and since everything works properly she forces her hands up and the raft off, prepared to assess the situation. Peeling skin off stone aches. She seems to be alone in the backyard of the Harrington house, which makes the naked part even more inexplicable. Her lack of clothes suggests a possibility so gruesome that the only way to stand up is to push it out of mind and resolve to find her dress.
Her white dress lies crumpled in a ball on the lawn, stained by grass and smelling like beer, but she slips it on anyway. Her shoes and bag—missing a twenty she's sure she had in her wallet but still containing her phone, thank god, despite its dead battery—are on the other side of the yard, and her cheap yet hefty necklace still dangles around her neck. This must be what it feels like to recover items after a car accident. Her underwear is nowhere to be found, not in any of the solo cups littering the grass or beneath the designer lawn furniture. She finally spots them floating in the middle of the pool, a pink thong skimming the surface of the water, bright and conspicuous as a drop of blood on paper. For a few seconds, she debates the merits of trying to fish them out. Too much effort.
Instead, she steps inside and over a group of unlucky kids who weren't able to claim a couch or chair and lie in a still heap on the floor, limbs tangled with sticky hair and faces. In the bright light of morning, they don't look sexy or bohemian; they look like a pile of lost children in faux suede skirts and ankle boots. She feels like the sole survivor of a large scale disaster.
In the bathroom, she hesitates a glance at herself in the mirror. Hair mats against scalp. Makeup remnants streak down her face. Red marks reach around each arm like tribal tattoos. The only other moving thing in this room (the clock on the wall) chimes lightly to announce six thirty. Mae has never felt more alone in her life. Considering her options, she realizes she can either determine what happened last night, which undoubtedly will set off a series of unimaginably unpleasant encounters, or she can try to make her audition in Chicago.
“There you are, Lady Go-Go.” The sight of her bike's baby blue frame peeking from behind a bush fills her with hope. She'll peddle far from here, up barren Sunday morning streets.
A twenty minute shower follows a twenty minute ride home. If warm water can wash away the gobs of hairspray in her knotted hair, it can wash away anything—this Mae must believe. She wraps a towel tightly. Her mother is still asleep, so it's bare feet on rough carpet. Getting dressed for the audition turns out to be a challenge as, due to an almost random assortment of slight rashes, more skin needs to be covered than she'd prefer. Mae's nose wrinkles at her sensible reflection. At least she looks sexy in her head shot.
At the train station, while buying a one way ticket, Mae pauses to survey the station. Vivid grass pokes through wooden tracks. On the other end of the platform, an elderly woman sits placidly on a bench. She wears purple shoes and a purple hat and silver pants and remains inert as the train pulls away, a still spec shrinking ever smaller.
Mae applies her makeup in motion: primer; concealer; foundation; powder; eyeliner; eyeshadow; lash curler; mascara; eyebrow pencil; lip gloss, but no lipstick because that would look overdone. She watches Pearville shuttle by, bordered by various forms of cement—parking lots, smoke stacks, lifeless warehouses—and then the town north of Pearville, the one with the rival football team. Her nightmare behind her, Mae glides toward a predetermined destiny of fame and success awaiting her, sure to manifest effortlessly once the world recognizes and opens to her special potential, after which she will accept the attention with humility and grace. I just always knew I was meant for something bigger, she will say. Sometimes, you just know.
Mae sees the back of the line first, before realizing that it stretches around an entire block. Chic teenagers, plus a smattering of people too old to pass for teenagers, fiddle with their phones. Mae approaches the last person in line and inquires about the location of 13 Moon Street.
“This is the line for 13 Moon Street,” the girl replies in a voice as smoky as her eyeshadow. “You're here for the audition, right? Yeah, this is the back of the line. Don't look so worried! These usually move pretty fast. You just have to make sure you make the cutoff. Aw, I remember when I was an open call virgin.”
“Nah, you know,” Mae lies, “I go to these things all the time.”
“Obviously.” The girl directs her attention back to her phone but Mae doesn't have a working phone to keep her mind occupied, so it wanders to the previous night.
Disturbingly, all signs point to Ethan, who approached her in the kitchen while she filled a plastic cup with water from the sink. The world was already spinning by then, the water a last ditch effort to delay the inevitable. It took all her concentration to successfully locate a cup, then the tap, so by the time she noticed Ethan next to her, she was too exhausted to form a strong opinion on his presence. “There you are,” he mumbled through heavy lips. “Where've you been hiding all night?” He placed both hands against the sink, allowing her no opportunity to escape, though she didn't have enough energy to try. The water sat untouched on the counter. When he kissed her, he started with her neck and worked his way up. He reached around her back to unsnap her bra, only to find she wasn't wearing one, and his eyes lit up. What's that phrase her mother always says? Caught between a rock and a hard place? That's where she was: her back against the sink, her chest pushed against Ethan's abdomen. Eyes open to avoid falling over, she watched his face lurch toward hers again and again like one of those bobble head dolls but this was real and she was real and he was real and this was a bad idea.
“I'm going to go home now.”
“Aw, don't leave now. Let me make you another drink.”
“No, I'm already wasted.”
He seemed pleased by this admission. “There's no saying no. Here, I'll make you something sweet.” Standing was not an option. She ended up on the kitchen floor, holding her head, gazing at the tiles. Ethan sat next to her, one hand around her shoulder like an old friend, and tipped her chin up with one hand. “Here, drink this.” The syrupy vodka and juice mix slid easily down her throat. Beige tiles, covered in footprints. Then they were outside—sitting on wet grass, intertwined, kissing silently. She remembers damp earth soaking through polyester, how she enjoyed the feeling of lips against hers, vaguely aware that they belonged to Ethan. Her hand brushed his thigh and she remembers it going numb, which means it must have gone numb before the rest of her body.
The audition line has moved about a foot. A production assistant wearing all black and what looks to be a tool belt makes her way down the line with bundles of paper under each arm. She takes a few steps back and claps her hands. “Alright! Everybody here is in line to audition for Untitled High School Horror Film, correct?” Two boys look at each other, shrug, and wander away. “That always happens. Everybody else, here are numbers one to two hundred.” She holds numbered cards over her head like a sardonic cheerleader. “We're going up to two hundred and that's it, so if you aren't one of the first two hundred people, we unfortunately cannot see you.” Now she holds up a stack of scripts. “If you're female, you'll read for Alice. If you're male, you'll read for Danny. Make sure your resume is stapled to the back of your head shot.” She glances at her phone. “Also, good luck.”
Two hours later, Mae finds herself shuffled up a narrow staircase, clutching a large number 178 in one hand and the script in the other.
Mae pulls from her bag an 8x10 image of her face, faint horizontal lines visible across her two-dimensional forehead because her mother's printer needs ink. The girl in the picture poses, hands provocatively on hips, in front of a row of skinny trees. From the moment Mae saw the shot in the view screen of Shelby's camera, she loved it the most. She proudly resized it on her mom's dusty desktop, wasting four pieces of photo paper to format it correctly. She thinks the sparse resume stapled to the head shot might be a liability, not the image itself—until she spots the messy pile of photos to the left of the casting assistant. It's immediately apparent that they possess something hers lacks: a crispness and focus on unnaturally bright eyes, framed by highlighted cheekbones and hair. The assistant, who rises slightly to take Mae's head shot, examines it briefly. “Ah, there you are.” With a flick of his wrist, her face joins the pile of other faces.
Seated primly in a metal chair, Mae listens to actors audition in the next room. Panicked voices bleed through the wall. “I don't think we should go in there, Danny, let's just go. Just look at it. It's definitely haunted!” “Come on, sweetheart. Just a quick look.”
The actors acting don't make Mae uneasy; rather, it's the sight of a light-haired girl sitting in the opposite folding chair, one lengthy leg draped over the other, nonchalantly checking her phone. The light from the screen illuminates her already glowing skin, which seems to contain little makeup yet still radiates from within. Short bangs and shapely eyebrows frame wide blue eyes and a pert, upturned nose. This must be what movie stars look like in real life. The difference between the girls, discerned after five minutes of nonstop staring, lies in (visible) effort. With her dramatic makeup and a hair color not found in nature, Mae has never tried to conceal the work that goes into her appearance. In fact, until five minutes ago, she considered effort to be the entire point. There's no difference, she liked to point out, between being beautiful or running a marathon or making the honor role. They all result from many hours of dedication and therefore all contain value.
“Sophia Cooper and Mike Franklin.”
The beauty across from Mae rises gracefully, joined by a lanky boy. Both slip into the next room. Mae longs to be distracted by her phone. Hoping for a miracle, she attempts to power it on. The dark screen peers back at her, lifeless, simply reflecting a dully flattering version of her own face. From the adjacent room, Sophia lets out a short yelp. “I don't think we should go in there, Danny. Let's not go!” The scream is such a good idea. If only Mae had thought of it first. But now she can't scream even if she wants to because Sophia had, and Sophia naturally owned the scream idea as easily as everything else must come to her. “Just look at it, it's definitely haunted.”
When Mae's name is called, she limps hesitantly into the audition room. Her partner, a shorter boy with glasses, takes off his fedora and lets out a thunderous sneeze.
“Bless you!” laughs one of the casting directors. Two spotlights illuminate half the room. Three adults at a long table (gatekeepers) recede into darkness. “Do you have a cold,” checking his head shot, “Martin?”
“Hope not!” Martin replies pleasantly. “I'm definitely not allergic to intelligently written horror films, that's for sure.” More laughter. Mae realizes she's being upstaged by a boy with a fedora.
“Okay, Martin and... Mae. Listen to that alliteration! Ready to read?”
“I was born ready,” Mae blurts.
The casting director silently shuffles papers.
Mae glances at her script. The words have gone blurry. “I don't think we should go in there, Danny.” She sees herself how the adults must see her: an unremarkable teenager with arms by her side, and not just any arms but strange and awkward ones, hanging by her sides instead of being animated and alive. She begins to fidget with her blouse. “Just, uh, just look at it, you know. It's definitely haunted.” Her pronunciation of 'haunted' is odd, with too much emphasis on the D, so she adds an exaggerated arm motion to remedy it.
“Come on, sweetheart.” Martin saddles up next to her and raises one eyebrow three times. Chuckles from the casting table. “Just a quick look?” Mae knows she did not get the part.
Outside, she leans against a concrete barrier. Across her is a shabby mini-mart. The world smells like car exhaust. Sweat pools against her chest. The last thing she wants to do is think, and so she begins to walk. Emerging from a darkened overpass, the road improves and the buildings grow closer together. Mae keeps walking until she reaches the rear side of Union Station.
The station feels familiar. Shuttled to Chicago on school trips and on a few free-spirited Saturdays, she typically views the city from its parking lots and alleys like this, because school buses park on back roads and she rarely wanders far.
Does she want to go back to Pearville?
Mae rubs one palm around a massive stone pillar, then repeats the rotation. Travelers with backpacks and suitcases hustle toward imposing stone. If this were a normal Sunday, she would head home now; her phone is dead, for one, and nobody knows where she is. There's a history paper due Monday and she hasn't progressed past the first paragraph.
She does not go home that night. Lacking direction, she chooses a path at whim and sticks with it. Pausing on a bridge, as decisive people cross around her, she notices more bridges with even more people, all up and down the Chicago River. So many strangers, going so many places. And most of them aren't even a little famous. I was born ready. Why had she said that? If anything, she was born to be a bartender like her mother, or maybe a middling internet personality. The assumed trajectory toward fame and power, of moving forward, had been accepted without question.
Gazing into the water, she spots a bright yellow boat, the type rented to tourists. A pair of rotund parents and teenagers laugh as the father and shorter daughter take turns steering. The sisters wear ill-fitting shorts and clunky sneakers and rolls of fat protrude around their middles—none of which seems to bother them. The mother, wielding a chunky phone, swivels about the steering wheel as she tries to get the perfect shot. All that swiveling causes the boat to sway back and forth, which in turn causes the taller sister to squeal in terrified delight. Mae watches the family silently, enviously, until the boat passes under her feet and out of view.
Mae continues along the same thoroughfare, past hotels and an impressive statue of a globe. Where the road ends an art museum rises, flanked on either side by green lions, flags waving dramatically, air conditioning beckoning. She simply follows the crowd inside, feeling like the latest in a long line of seekers who've stepped through these refined doors on their way to self betterment. So many beautiful things must offer some answers.
Instead, she stumbles upon tiny rooms in a cavernous space, arranged all in a row like so many dollhouses: miniature parlors and opulent bedrooms and a ballroom and something called a boudoir. Chairs seem sturdy enough to sit in. A miniature library, complete with carved books, reminds her of a room in Ethan's house. Mae peers at a mouse-sized four-poster bed. Certainly the girl at the audition, like Ethan, wakes up in a perfectly turned-out room like this, certain of her place in the world. How, Mae wonders, can she compete with wealth, with the assumption that one belongs in a beautiful room, with the ease that accompanies a childhood surrounding it?
“Don't you just expect to see little people inside?”
“I was just thinking that! Wonder what they'd think of us?” replies the tourist's friend. Both are middle-aged women with honey-colored hair, dressed up for their trip to the museum.
“Wouldn't that be freaky? To look up and see giant eyes peering at you through your window?”
The rain starts while Mae is in a drugstore, standing in line. Under bright florescent lights, ballet flats atop linoleum, she holds a phone charger in one hand and a toothbrush in the other, watching water usher in sunset. The whole world grows dark at once.
“Credit or debit?”
From the magazine display, airbrushed celebrities smile back at her. They offer their own answers: ten things men think about women; foods to avoid while losing weight; baby bump selfie tips. Mae always expected that, one day, she would be on a cover like these. In all her plans to become famous, she never doubted her talent or considered the possibility of failure. In fact, she always regarded herself to be an expert on aptitude. When Taylor, for instance, bemoaned her lack of style, Mae was quick to point out that a poorly developed aesthetic sense is no personal failing. Taylor must be good at something. We cannot all be good at everything. But if Mae is truly ungifted, her options in life seem suddenly limited. What else can an academically talented, attractive girl with a competitive streak do for a living?
“Miss? Credit or debit?”
Enveloped in a faux leather booth for four, Mae dabs at pizza slices with her napkin and waits for the rain to subside. And in the old hotel adjoining the pizza parlor, she wordlessly accepts a silk key chain and ascends a narrow staircase. A chandelier hangs above rose-printed carpet. Cream paint obscures thick moldings. The double bed nearly fills the entire room. Mae falls asleep with her clothes on.