She once had an eagle eye for film continuity. Now she can’t see the real from unreal. 2,755 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Blake slumped back behind the steering wheel in the dim light of the carport. She needed to gather her strength before unloading the grocery bags. While she rested, a text came in on her phone. She could see it was from Grace whose casita Blake was housesitting in Santa Fe while Grace attended a yoga retreat at an eco resort in Belize.
Blake had hoped to prepare a gourmet meal for the two of them, on this her final night at her friend’s mountain hideaway, before handing over the keys and heading back home to L.A. She had gone grocery shopping to gather all the ingredients for their farewell dinner. Grace’s text said she was delayed. So Blake would dine alone and catch her flight out in the morning without getting a chance to thank her host in person and say goodbye.
The two old friends were weathered beauties, getting on past middle age. They had remained in touch over the years ever since they were both young actresses in Hollywood, going out on casting calls and auditions. Dreaming of stardom. They landed bit parts in movies and occasional guest roles on TV. But neither had succeeded. Grace gave up and moved away to New Mexico.
Blake stuck it out, eventually finding work behind the camera as a script supervisor. Her life consisted of shuttling from set to set on more locations than she cared to remember. She was trained to flag even the most minute continuity flub for the camera. It nagged her when anything at all, however slight, didn’t match up. It could be something in the background or on the edge of the frame. An actor with his sleeves rolled up wrong. Or the way he held a cigarette that didn’t match the action from a previous take. The smallest mistake irked her. Blake’s compulsive attention to detail helped her gain a reputation with some of the top film directors. They said she had an eagle eye. But she had retired years ago. Her days had become solitary. And now she was beginning to question her sanity.
She heard voices. It happened again only fifteen minutes earlier in the Whole Foods parking lot. Blake had just finished shopping for groceries. She had loaded up the car and was getting ready to drive away when she came eye to eye with a mouse. The creature was sitting upright on the dashboard, staring straight at her. He seemed relaxed and unperturbed. He was apparently quite at home sunning himself on the toasty black vinyl. Not about to budge. The doors were shut tight. There was no escape route if she tried to shoo him out of the car. Which posed something of a problem for Blake given her lifelong fear of rodents. She considered reaching over to roll down the passenger window. But to do that she have to lean in even closer and risk physical contact.
Still, he was a cute little fellow, done up in white fur with gray speckles, two pink scallops for ears, a matching nose, and inquisitive whiskers that twitched back and forth.
“Thank you, Blake. It’s always nice to be appreciated even if it’s merely for one’s external appearance.”
She felt the voice, more than heard it.
“I hope you don’t mind. I’m only hitching a ride.”
Blake groped for the driver side door handle. The latch clicked as she slowly cracked open the door.
“I go by Naciketas,” he said. “But you can call me Nacho. Most of my colleagues do, especially out here in the Rio Grande Valley. Do you think we could take a drive somewhere less hectic than this busy parking lot? Maybe up to the ski basin. I hear the aspens are turning.”
She bolted out the door and popped open the trunk. She rooted around for an ice scraper, anything Grace might have stowed in back that could be used as a prod. A shiny 6-iron from Grace’s turquoise bag of Lady Callaways would do the trick. The strategy was simple. Release the passenger door to open an escape route for the mouse. Then coax him out of the car with the golf club.
The standoff had caught the attention of an old man, a retired rancher by the looks of his Resistol brim and creased Wranglers. He cautioned her not to scare the mouse into diving between the vents and windshield where he might get stuck.
“The critter could up and die in there,” he advised. “Then you’d have hell to pay just getting him out. Not to mention the stink.”
That’s all she needed. Turning over the keys to a smelly car was no way to repay Grace’s hospitality.
Nacho was pinned against the glass, cornered. “Blake, take a breath. Rethink this, okay? I’m here to help. Honest.”
Everything she knew told her to disbelieve the voice inside her head. She concentrated on the task at hand. Get the mouse out of the car. In a few minutes she would be safe and comfortable back at the casita. Maybe knock back a shot of Patron while she simmered the curry and waited for Grace to return home from the airport. The two of them would dine together again like old times. All Blake needed to do was take care of this one last thing.
“Mind you don’t get any of him on ya,” the rancher said. “Out here they’re loaded with Hanta Virus. And that’s some nasty-ass shit.”
He tossed her a Hefty bag and gunned his Silverado out of the parking lot.
Armed with the golf club in one hand and the trash bag in the other, Blake closed in from the passenger side. She would try to blanket the mouse in a swath of black plastic, bunch it up, and toss it out of the car. Similar to the way she used dishtowels to catch and release troublesome spiders, rather than smashing them. It was her small way of practicing ahimsa. Non-harming. It was a spiritual practice she had learned from Grace.
But before she could put her plan into action a cold shiver instantly morphed into a spasm as Blake felt the mouse brush up against her arm. The jerky flailing about, the banging of her head on the roof of the car, her high-pitched screech, the whole embarrassing pantomime, as she tried to shake herself free of the rodent, had all the makings of some mock exorcism. Blake was glad the rancher hadn’t stuck around to see any of that. Even after the panic subsided she patted herself down just to make sure nothing was still clinging to her clothes. She probed the dash with the golf club and peeked back inside. All clear.
The sudden exertion had triggered a familiar pain. She felt it deep inside, as a burning that flared in bursts and threatened to leave her drained for hours. At times too weak to stand. She slammed the door and was on her way.
She turned onto Double Arrow where the paved road changed to dirt. As the car dropped down the dusty arroyo and back up the hill into Grace’s driveway, it occurred to Blake that the encounter with the mouse wasn’t entirely disturbing. Something about the telepathic part had seemed comforting. Of course, that was all in her mind. Nacho wasn’t real. But the calm familiarity of his voice had soothed her in an unexpected way. It reminded her of what it was like to be close to others again, a natural kinship that had once suffused her life with connection. Blake had always taken this connection for granted. Lately, she could see that it had faded as she got older. She had dropped out, spending more and more of her days by herself. The seclusion should have been the tipoff. She couldn’t pinpoint exactly when it had happened. The change was so gradual it seemed like something was stolen from her when she wasn’t paying attention. Strange, she thought, how it took this brief taste of intimacy with her new imaginary friend, to finally see the yawning crater that had become her life.
So it hit her hard when Grace had cancelled. Now, even the hope of a brief social interaction was denied. There was no one to share her meal with, no company except for Grace’s cat, Gort, an ill-tempered and aloof Abyssinian. Blake reached inside the cupboard for his bag of Science Diet. She poured the dried pieces into his dish and set it down on the floor.
No reaction from Gort. Even when she shook the kibble to arouse his interest. He kept his distance on the Churro rug beside the kitchen table. He refused even to glance in her direction. As she sat down for dinner, Blake’s thoughts returned to Nacho.
And then to a distant memory from childhood. Blake was only nine when her family’s housekeeper, Jana, was panicked by a mouse that had invaded the laundry room. She had pleaded with Blake to get rid of it. Call the exterminator. Anything. The little girl was fearful herself, but eager to help. She went to the tool shack and found a thick wood handled rake with a heavy head of green metal teeth. Soon she had tracked the mouse to a corner behind the dryer. The mouse was a baby separated from its nest mates. It stared up at her, petrified and helpless. Blake brought the rake down in one sharp motion. The mouse emitted an ear-piercing shriek. It was a sound so out of proportion to its size that she instantly regretted her action and was trembling. Now she had to finish the job if only to put the little creature out of its misery. Again and again she used the heavy head of the rake to crush the mouse until it rolled over and died. The fact that Jana was overjoyed and praised Blake mitigated some of the horror. But it also felt like something inside her had expired with the killing of that mouse. A flame had flickered and blown out. She never forgot it.
As Blake got up to clear the table she looked over at Gort who was picking through his food. As he felt her gaze, he abruptly stopped eating and ambled over to the stove where he settled down in a sphinx pose, presenting his backside to her. Grace had always insisted she named her feline after an Egyptian deity. She said the cat had descended from an ancient line that went all the way back to the pyramids. But now Blake saw the true origin of his name and had to chuckle. Hanging on the wall above his dish was a framed poster of The Day The Earth Stood Still. Michael Rennie who plays the spaceman Klaatu, the intergalactic goodwill ambassador, was standing beside the flying saucer with his faithful, but deadly bodyguard, the robot Gort. The poster was an original one sheet from the Fifties, pilfered on the sly from Grace’s hometown movie house, the Teatro, in Wilmette. When they were girls at summer camp in Wisconsin, Grace had confessed to the caper. What was that phrase that Rennie instructed Patricia Neal to recite if she ever needed Gort to call off his lethal death ray? When they were roughhousing and Grace had Blake pinned to the ground, Grace always forced her to repeat it twice before letting up.
Looking back, who would have expected goofy Gracie, the party girl, to give up her wild ways? She went for training at an ashram in Thailand and soon became a sought-after yoga teacher, the proprietor of her own trendy studio. Certified organic, but still the sci-fi freak.
It was Blake who ended up living the wild life, working late into the night on soundstages and partying on the beaches of Malibu. How strange, then, that after all these years away from that world, Blake was once again feeling the same nagging tingle she used to get on the set. When something was off. Not quite right. A sensation she couldn’t ignore.
She grabbed a flashlight and trotted back in the dusky twilight to the carport. As soon as she opened the car door, Blake’s suspicions were confirmed. She could see the mashed pancake of fur and bone. She had missed it while unloading her groceries. But now it was plain to see. This innocent little mouse who had tried so hard to befriend her, whose thoughts appeared like subtitles in her mind, was real after all. But lifeless. She had killed him. Poor little Nacho. She had crushed him back in the parking lot when she carelessly slammed the car door.
In hindsight she had an explanation. His voice was merely a passing delirium induced by her dreaded meds. She could thank the Ambien and Tramadol for that. But why hadn’t she stopped to think it through? What was there to fear? Why the hurry? Certainly he deserved a more dignified sendoff. Now it was too late for that. Still, Blake tried to conjure up the imaginary voice, calling out for Nacho to magically reanimate. But there was no voice. Only a bleak and empty silence. She used a piece of cardboard to scrape off his remains.
In bed and waiting for sleep, she put aside Grace’s tattered copy of The Katha Upanishad, its text dog-eared by repeated readings in the past few nights. Blake’s tired body felt like the book, brittle and crumbling into powder with each turn of the page. She doused the candle on the nightstand and took inventory. Her parents were both deceased a dozen years ago. There was a distant kid brother in Akron she rarely talked to. There were friends who had filtered back and forth on visits to L.A., lovers who had come and gone, leaving her childless and unmarried. So this was it at last. No supporting players. Just good old Grace. For that Blake resolved to be grateful. Otherwise it was all pure loneliness.
At the first sound of scuffling she was back on her feet. She ran out to the kitchen and snapped on the light. Its harsh glare froze Gort in a hunting crouch. He was poised before the stove, gripping the mouse in his jaws. Nacho, choked with terror, dangled between the predator’s fangs.
“Drop it, Gort. Drop him this instant.”
Blake took a tentative step forward. At this the cat stiffened his crouch and tightened his grip. She could see he was ready to bolt with his catch. The slightest move might provoke him. Nacho went limp. A queasy helplessness descended over Blake. Was he too far gone to rescue? As if from some emergency lobe in her cortex, a memory emerged of tumbling with Grace in a dry hayfield at camp. And the words long dormant from childhood, spilled out.
“Gort. Klaatu barada nikto!”
She said it twice. The jaws slackened and Nacho tumbled to the floor.
As she placed Nacho on a feather pillow, she could feel his breathing fast and shallow. She felt the thwacking of his miniature heart running wild.
He stared up at her with a look that was more amazement than relief.
“You came back,” she said, equally amazed.
“I was always here with you,” she heard him say.
Eli, the caretaker, discovered the body on his morning rounds. Grace was headed north on I-25 near San Felipe pueblo, halfway home from the Albuquerque airport when her cell phone buzzed. Eli noticed that Grace took the sad news as if she had expected it to happen. A half hour later the shuttle dropped her off at the casita and they were standing together looking down at Blake in the bed.
“It was actually her second go-round,” Grace said. “She went into remission when they performed the mastectomy. After the chemo.”
A thunderhead gathered above the peaks overlooking the casita. Grace opened the door to let in cool moist air.
“She called a few weeks ago, just before I left for Belize. The cancer had come back. Moved to her brain and bones.”
“No family?” he said.
“Blake had people. Told me she had no use for them anymore. Or Hollywood. She loved it here on the mountain better than anywhere else.”
“Too bad she was all alone.”
Neither of them saw the fleeting gray-speckled shape on the kitchen counter. It hovered for a moment on the tiles, then was gone.