This story is by Ash Sanborn and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
This one, Quimby thought. This one for sure.
The cool, blown air inside the hangar studio cooled Quimby’s legs as she ran over to Ronald where the cameras were. Quimby held her phone close, very close, to Ronald’s face so he could see her picture of the dog.
Ronald told her to go work on her photography and video on her phone, and she had. Quimby had painstakingly looked through all the filters she had on her phone before choosing hi-fi, which, she thought, brought out the dog’s many-hued dark spots against the irregular swirls of his mostly-ivory-colored fur.
The dog would be credited as Hank, but he didn’t have a name, and he would be returning to the animal shelter after his shoot. Quimby had begged her mother, oh, could they keep him, but dogs were not allowed in their apartment.
“Where is your mother?” Ronald asked. An absurd question, because Quimby’s mother was in makeup, preparing for the next shot.
“Ronald, what do you think?” Quimby asked. “What do you think of the filters I put on Hank?”
Quimby stared at Ronald’s eyes as he studied the photo.
“Q,” Ronald said, “try to observe everything you can about the subject, and make a clear, clean photo. You don’t need all these fixes and filters if you just get what you’ve got. Now go and spend some time on this. I don’t want to see you again until after lunch.”
Quimby sat on the concrete floor, which was covered in dust and bits of dropped pineapple and kiwi from craft services. Quimby’s finger went for the piece of kiwi, but she drew her hand back as an ant crawled over it. The world of this weird space where Quimby had to stay was all in charcoal grey and brown. The floor, the walls, the overhead door, the doors of the various rooms she wasn’t allowed inside, where they were doing hair and makeup, and coaching, where some children were doing homework, but not Quimby, because Quimby wasn’t working.
But she was working. Hard. Quimby was working to be silent. Quimby was working to be invisible. Quimby was working to not be blamed for the fact that she existed, that she was there, that the part time nanny quit and her grandmother didn’t answer her phone and that all she knew of her father was rumors and innuendos in the magazines she wasn’t allowed to read.
Despite the cold concrete, and the bits of hair and dust, and the peeled grape and the hardness of the floor making her behind start to ache as she looked at the set living room with carpet so thick it was a hug and overstuffed chairs you could get lost in, and — there she is — the specter of her mother, who had come on stage to give big hugs and serve milk and cookies to another child, her onscreen child, while having only a vague idea that Quimby must be somewhere in the building, Quimby felt at home on set.
The hug. No matter how many times she tagged along, Quimby never got used to the feeling of being in the darkness where her mother couldn’t find her, as if she was in the vast space surrounding this box which was the set of her mother’s imaginary home, where she loved and doted on her imaginary children, where she kissed her imaginary husband and said witty things someone else’s wit had imagined. The lightbox was the box everyone wanted to be in, the box where unhappiness was only momentary, and mistakes could be cut and re-shot.
There was Hank’s cue. New to acting, and obviously not in the union, Hank duly ran across the concrete, on to the set, and into the arms of Quimby’s real mother and her mother’s imaginary child.
The child was real enough: Dax Hadley, who had modeled for Versace since before he was out of diapers (and he took a while), but had never once spoken a word to Quimby, nor acknowledged the loan of her mother for a show on which he out-earned her. Dax smiled from the covers of teen magazines and the tabloids, too, as he was taking his parents to court to remove them as his managers.
The embrace Quimby’s mother shared with Dax as Chase and Noname as Hank looked so full of love, that Quimby raised her phone to capture it.
From her vantage point well outside the box, a frame of the dark reality outside the set to provide contrast to what was inside, this ideal, problem-free, affluent, soda-pop flavor of love that did not exist.
When Quimby’s mother pulled Dax to her, Quimby realized this was something more than a job to her. Quimby’s mother had been a respected supporting actress for a while, but she never had landed that big audition, the part that would change their lives.
Quimby’s mother never talked to her about work, hoping Quimby could have a normal childhood, but Quimby had a paper cut in the center of her flat chest, marking the spot where shoplifted copies of US Weekly and Star doled out her punishment with a deceptively small wound.
Tim, the director, gave instruction to Ronald, “Stay with it, stay with the kid and the dog and bring mother in, stay with it. Ronald nodded impatiently, causing his red-orange bangs to rhythmically flap. Quimby didn’t know the flash on her phone’s camera was set to high. She’d been paying attention to setting the focus, but after the splash of light entered the professional lights of the set, everything became a blur.
“I had it!” Ronald shouted from behind his camera.
Dax said his first ever words to Quimby. “Now we have to shoot it again, idiot!”
Quimby’s mother looked at her with wide eyes. She was on thin ice with Tim for reasons Quimby didn’t know. This was the most steady work Quimby’s mother had landed in a long time. Her best thing had been when she played the mafia don’s wife in the mob movie with all the sequels, even though she was in a coma in the second and third ones. Or was that the soap opera where she was the loser son’s wife?
Quimby’s mother had amassed many pretend marriages, most of them kicked off by elaborate pretend weddings, but she had not landed even one real husband. Quimby wasn’t sure if she believed she was a donor sperm child or if her father was really Tim. She hoped not. Quimby really wanted Ronald to be her father, but he was at least ten years younger than Quimby’s mother, and though that auburn-haired, A-list starlet had married the cameraman and managed a fairly normal life in New Mexico or somewhere, Quimby’s mother had higher ambitions and fell often in love with directors, whose greatest talent was yelling, “Cut!” and having a vision for the next project distract them from the current one.
This was not pretend. At all. Out of the professionally lit box came Quimby’s mother and Chase. Dax. Tim sent a glare over the charcoal grey reality to Quimby’s insides, which had turned to cold worms.
It was about 10 seconds of taping. Quimby wasn’t sure what the big deal is. Tim threw his clipboard down and said, “Let’s just cut for today. What’s even the point?”
Ronald came over then and said, “Tim, I can get it again. Get everyone back in places, and I can get it again.” Ronald looked at Quimby and gave her a wink.
Hank hovered near the humans, their angry energy causing them to shake. He nudged his head under Tim’s hand, then Quimby’s mother’s, and wound around Dax’s stubby legs until Dax gave him a halfhearted kick.
Tim was crabbing at Quimby about something, but she barely heard the stray word here and there as she watched Hank stride purposely toward the very edge of the set.
Quimby squealed, “Hey!” and pointed as Hank squatted on the edge of the ecru carpet in the box. The boss and crew said she ruined the shot, but Hank was outdoing her. One, two, three dark deposits landed on the carpet with Quimby trying to get out a warning with each one.
Quimby looked at Tim’s red-faced exasperation and her mother’s wide eyed expression she got whenever a series was cancelled, lifted up her camera and snapped.
“God, what?” Tim said.
“Quimby!” Her mother said, though Quimby knew her anger was more for show, for Tim.
“Hank is using the set as a toilet,” Quimby said quietly. “I thought you’d want to know.”
“Come on!” Tim shouted at the grips, assistants, and interns. “Get with it!”
Craft services and a flurry of young adults in hoodies and chucks scrambled. Hank was fired, loaded up in a van that sped away to return him to the shelter. Spray bottles and fine brushes and everything was brought to remove the mammal waste from the new carpet.
“We can crop it out,” Ronald said. “If they just make it sanitary to go back in there, no one will ever know.”
“I’ll know!” Tim shouted. “All I want is a quality shoot and all I get is crapped on!”
Quimby’s mother leaned down to her. “I know you didn’t mean it. But honey you’ve got to watch it on the set. You can’t do what you want. You can’t be just you. You have to think of all the other people who have jobs here.”
“I know,” Quimby said, tearfully. “I’m the only one who doesn’t work here.”
“It’s just –” Quimby’s mother searched for the right word.
“I want to go home!” Quimby said. “We’re both out in the reality and not in the box! Why can’t we go home!”
Quimby’s mother wrapped her arms around Quimby’s surprised, thin frame. It was a real hug.
“We’ll go home after we reshoot this scene. Don’t take flash pictures while the cameras are running, right?”
“Okay,” Quimby said with a tremble.
Dax held up a fist for Quimby to bump, and she did, awkwardly.
“I hate long days on the set, too,” Dax said.
“Then why do you do it?” Quimby asked.
“Because if I don’t go in there, to that box, then I’m not that kid anymore. I’m not Chase. I’m just some kid who was in a movie and on a show one time.”
Dax walked away.
Quimby called after him, “Hey! Just being Dax isn’t so bad. You can go in there, but just remember you’re going to come out again.”
Dax pivoted to look at Quimby. Snap! Quimby grabbed a photo of Dax. It was a really great portrait. Of all of the pictures of Dax on the Internet, there was not one of an unrehearsed moment.
Tim yelled, “Places!”
Ronald fixed the angle on his camera. The hoodied crowd gathered around with lights and reflectors. Quimby’s mother came in through the back of the box, and Chase ran into her arms. Quimby’s mother was a little off her game. Her arms didn’t wrap as tightly around Chase, and her words were not as syrupy. Hair and makeup hadn’t quite restored her to her former airbrushed glory, and she looked tired. She dropped a line, and they backed it up, and the second time she nailed it. Tim didn’t know if he wanted to shoot it again with a dog, or if it was fine and they’d bring in a dog later.
An assistant in a raspberry colored hood reminded him, “Story continuity. We might have to get another dog.”
The van pulled in to the overhead doorway. They opened the back and Hank jumped out.
“Hank?” Ronald said.
“They don’t have room for him. Someone has to keep him until Friday.”
Quimby put her entire life on a platter with the look she shot her mother. Quimby’s mother let go of Chase and looked pained under the stare of her real child.
“We can get a crate,” Quimby shouted to her mother. “We can tell the landlady it’s just for a few days and Hank will be in a crate!”
“What then?” Quimby’s mother asked.
“We move to a house!”
“Places!” Tim shouted. “We shoot it with the dog!”
This was the first time Quimby’s mother had ever spoken to her from inside the box. Suddenly she didn’t seem so unreachable in there, and out here didn’t seem so grey and unrelenting.
Quimby lifted her camera, which was set to video, and followed Hank with it. Hank executed his run into Chase’s arms with a little too much reality, knocking him over. Chase recovered with a laugh, and Quimby’s mother came around to hug them both. Her smile came back. Her arms hugged tighter.
Tim shouted, “That’s a wrap! We’ll send out scripts for the next episode Monday and pick it up there.”
Ronald came over to Quimby this time, to watch her video of Hank.
“You’re getting good at staying with him,” Ronald said. “Just watch your angles, and the shake.”
Ronald took Hank home, promising Quimby he’d take good care of him. Quimby watched the video of Hank again in the passenger seat of her mother’s SUV on the way home.
“Hank isn’t mine,” Quimby said. “He lives in the box.”