Amaryllis stood in the rain, squinting at the little blue dot on her phone that showed her location. The cracked screen was barely readable, and the rain didn't help. It was the correct address all right, and nicer than where most auditions were held. The lobby was very warm and very posh, with doormen, a security desk, and turnstiles that allowed entry only when security pressed a button. She was shooed out almost immediately, directed to the side of the building to an entry in the loading dock. The doorman gestured with his chin to show where she should go; she didn't even merit a point.
The street was dark and heavy with rain, water beading every surface. The corrugated gate of the loading dock was up, revealing an ambulance, its lights flashing blue and red, while a paramedic slammed the back door, hurrying to the passenger-side seat even as the driver was putting the vehicle in gear. She had to step quickly to get out of its way, covering her ears as the siren wailed to life.
A tired-looking security guard remained, the off-brand version of those working in the main lobby. His uniform had seen better days. The lobby crew's uniforms had been crisp and fresh, while his looked faded. His jacket hung shapeless from his shoulders and his pants pockets were stretched, shiny from having his fists balled up inside them one too many times, as they were now. He seemed lost in thought, unaware of her presence, so she cleared her throat.
“I’m here about a role? With Actors Therapy?” She waited, expecting his face to break into a smile, or at least take on some semblance of professional competence, then realized: “Oh, I’m sorry! Do you know the person?”
He looked at her like she was a strange animal.
“The ambulance,” she prompted.
His face smoothed, and he shrugged. “No, not really. Not well. She was new. I try not to get too familiar.”
Amaryllis nodded. “High turnover, huh?” she said. “It’s a tough market, but you gotta be tough if you want to make it, right?”
Tom looked her up and down slowly, trying to gauge her sincerity, then slowly nodded. “Tough all over,” he said, and reached for his desk phone. He punched a few buttons and waited. “Bernice? Yeah, it’s Tom downstairs. Young lady here wants to audition.” He paused, listening, his eyes running over her in a cool assessing way. “Yeah, blonde, about 5’5” or so, can’t tell about her figure but she looks ... yep ... well, the rain has messed her up pretty bad. What?” Tom placed his hand over the phone. “You got pics?”
“Picks?” Amaryllis looked at him blankly.
“Pics! Pictures! Head shots, body shots, they want to see your pictures, maybe do a live audition. They lost their afternoon girl.”
Amaryllis's heart lurched as she passed him her portfolio, glad she’d thought to bring them in a plastic sleeve so they were fresh and dry. “Live audition? Improv? In front of an audience?” She was glad she had worn her best slacks. They were more than five years old but flattering; you could hardly see the hems were worn with use. She hadn’t done an improvisational audition in years. Everyone wanted monologues, or a few drab lines read opposite a bored assistant to the assistant’s assistant or whatever. Her heart started to race, cheeks flushing with excitement.
Tom took the envelope and ran the contents through a large scanner on his desk. He hit a few keys, phone still cradled to his ear. “Yep, that’s her. Yeah, she is ... uh huh ... she seems game.” He looked at her, eyebrows raised, and she nodded in response. “Yep. I’ll send her up.” He tapped a few more keys, hung up the phone and handed her a map with a printed badge that said “Visitor,” then rattled off a dizzying array of instructions the outcome of which would eventually lead her to the 23rd floor. She was lucky she had a sharp memory.
“They’ll fill you in when you get there,” said Tom as she strode quickly away. “Good luck.”
“Thanks!” She was half distracted with excitement, but breathed deeply, taking nice long strides to clear her head as she walked. In the elevator, she jammed her umbrella beneath her arm and did her best to fluff out her damp hair. A few more deep breaths and she was there.
She was surrounded by a team of beauticians as soon as she exited the elevator. They circled her like a murmur of starlings, then led her to a chair. Soon she was lost in the pleasant chaos of expert hands fussing and prodding, applying makeup, drying and teasing and spraying her hair into a chignon, holding up dress after dress until they found an elegant blue one that was just right. While she was being made up, someone handed her a stack of paperwork and helpfully pointed out the spots that needed her signature or initials. She thumbed through the pages, barely reading them as she kept her face tilted toward the makeup artist. Simple gold hoops went in her ears and a heavy necklace around her throat. It felt good to be taken care of like this. Almost like being a star.
She closed her eyes and let herself begin to hope, just a little, that maybe this would be her big break. Would she finally gain some traction on her career? She'd heard about the gig third-hand, the practically unthinkable miracle of an actor, still relatively new, who was able to join the union after working at Actors Therapy for only a few months. She hadn't been able to get much more information about the gig beyond that, even after an hour of searching the net – kind of a red flag. There must be something about the job that was a little sketchy – probably nudity, or maybe some sort of fetish scenes? But no, Magda had assured her that her friend said the place was very high-class, very exclusive, and very discreet. Those who worked for Actors Therapy signed a non-disclosure agreement, but if she could earn lots of hours while also getting well paid? Well, she was happy to act in somebody's weird little snuff film if it meant she could actually pay her rent this month without having to donate plasma or beg her parents for help. Being a background actor paid the bills, but at what cost? The long hours and unpredictable nature of the work constantly ate away at any free time she might have, not to mention her peace of mind. She, like most actors she knew, were desperate for reliable, steady work, and she knew that most of them would put up with a lot of nonsense if it was leading toward long-term security and success.
Amaryllis’s makeup was almost complete when the door opened and a woman with a sleek blonde pageboy and a tasteful dove-gray suit entered the room. She was carrying a clipboard and grabbed the stack of documents Amaryllis had just signed, flipping through to make sure everything was complete: “Application, background check, references, injury waiver, tax forms, non-disclosure – Yes, everything seems to be in order.” She looked up, peeking over the rims of her elegant reading glasses.
“Amaryllis?” she said. “Lovely name. I'm Felice, and I'll be guiding you through your session today.” She paged through the paperwork some more. “Great headshots, lots of live theater experience, ooh, you've taken some great classes! Oh yes, you'll be perfect!” She smiled brightly and looked up. “Everything seems to be in order! Let's go to my office for a few minutes, then I'll introduce you to the person you'll be performing with today!”
“Great!” Amaryllis stood and headed for the door, then turned. “Oh, my bag, should I bring it?”
“I can take it to my office for the time being,” Felice said, leaning to pick it up. As she did so, the collar of her white silk blouse slipped, revealing an ugly scar that started where her collarbone met her neck, then veered sharply toward her right breast. She noticed Amaryllis’s gaze and covered her neck briefly, self-consciously, with her hand. “An accident,” she murmured, then proceeded through the door and down the hall, leading the way to her office.
They settled into a pair of elegant leather chairs, Felice perched on the edge of hers like a high diver. “We're so glad you found us, Amaryllis,” she said. “It's a little unusual for us to throw someone in like this, but we were really in a spot this afternoon! We lost the woman who was scheduled to perform.”
“Oh?” Amaryllis said, expecting more, but it was not forthcoming. Felice's gaze was flat, neutral, assessing, and the pause lasted just a beat too long. Then Felice shook her head, smiling brightly.
“Can I get you something to drink? Water?” she said.
“No, thank you.”
“Well, then. Let's begin.” Felice's legs were crossed, clasped hands resting on her lap. “Actors Therapy is a revolutionary new psychotherapeutic treatment approach. We're basically writing the book on this treatment.” Felice nodded her head, as if to punctuate the importance of this statement.
“It can get intense,” she continued, “but we take care of our people. Everyone who chooses to stay is very cognizant of the rewards accompanying the risks –”
Amaryllis's ears perked up at that. “Risks?”
Felice continued smoothly as if she had not heard. The therapy was based on Play Therapy, she explained, which helped children explore and resolve problems through supervised play. “You may have seen it represented on television,” she said, “it's where a child might act out a scenario using puppets? Or maybe they create a piece of art or a dance. Our program is based on the same principles, except our program uses actors!”
Amaryllis’s jaw dropped. Was Felice for real? “So – I'm the puppet?” she asked.
“Well, yes,” said Felice, “in a manner of speaking. We work primarily with small groups of people, families and couples, mostly. The clients work with a trained facilitator – that's me – and a team of actors specially selected to act as proxy on behalf of each member of the group. That's where you come in!” Felice grabbed an iPad from the side table and tilted it so Amaryllis could view it as well. “All our proxies are actors,” she said, “seasoned professionals who can think fast on their feet and are comfortable with improv.” She swiped through a series of photographs showing what looked very much like a black box theater dressed up like a stage, and an apparent family of three all smiling and holding hands with each other. Other photos showed couples talking intensely, waving their arms in passionate discussion; some were crying. One in particular was striking. It was taken from what looked like a sound booth. In the foreground of the photo were the silhouettes of a couple, facing each other, holding hands, while behind them on the stage, two actors were mirroring the pose, their faces alight with joy.
“So, wait,” Amaryllis said. “We pretend to be these people? How do we know what they're like?”
“That's the beauty of it,” said Felice. “The actors don't necessarily need to know the clients at all. Each actor is fitted with tiny earpieces through which they receive guidance, either from the facilitator or the clients themselves. All the actor has to do is – act!”
“Well, it sure sounds exciting,” said Amaryllis, infusing her voice with enthusiasm. “So are these sessions run by therapists?”
“Oh, no,” said Felice. “They're run by people like me, people with an acting background. People who can keep the scene moving.”
“But – isn't that dangerous?”
“Oh, no. We do have therapists monitoring everything; everything is recorded and reviewed, even the proxies' performances, so they can assess the efficacy of this particular style of therapy. It's very cutting edge!” Felice smiled. Her incisors seemed very long. “They hope to be able to publish their results next year. It's a very exciting program, and one that any actor should be proud to be a part of.”
“Well,” Amaryllis murmured, “that does sound impressive.”
“It is,” Felice agreed. “In fact, we're starting work with a brand-new couple today. All our clients use false names during the sessions, to help retain their anonymity. And of course you understand you're not allowed to discuss any details – no matter how seemingly small – with anyone outside the company.”
“Yes, of course.”
“But in exchange for your skills as well as your discretion, the rewards will be many. As I'm sure you're aware, hours worked at Actors Therapy count toward the Equity Membership Candidate Program, and I think you'll find we pay very generously for your time.” Felice closed the photos and pulled up another folder, outlining the rates each performer could earn, including bonuses.
Amaryllis' eyebrows shot up: they were generous. She might even be able to start paying off her student loans at these rates, but it seemed too good to be true.
Felice smiled as if she knew exactly what she was, thinking. “Well, then! Here are your earpieces. You have a little mic already on the collar of your dress. I'll introduce you to your husband 'Mrs. Jacobsen!'”
“Mrs. – Oh! Yes, of course.” Amaryllis fumbled with the earpieces for a moment until Felice leaned in to help. She looped a nearly invisible wire over each ear and fitted the tiny earpieces in place.
She was ushered quickly to another room where a very handsome young man was sitting on the couch. He stood immediately when they entered and shook her hand. They just had time to exchange quick pleasantries, before Felice led them out of the room and down another long, anonymous hall that ended in two doors. Felice opened one, nearly bumping into a janitor. He was pushing a yellow bucket and mop, moving carefully so as to not slosh the oddly pinkish water over the edge. Felice tossed her head impatiently, then smiled once the janitor had moved out of the way, gesturing them inside and toward the already set stage. Fitting her own set of headphones on, she spoke: “Test, test? Testing one ... two ... three ... can you hear me Mr. Jacobsen? Mrs. Jacobsen?”
Amaryllis and her co-proxy replied in the affirmative.
“Terrific,” Felice said. “Now, the real Mr. and Mrs. Jacobsen are a married couple who are experiencing some difficulties. Mrs. Jacobsen feels that her husband has become distant, while Mr. Jacobsen feels she is not sensitive to the extreme pressures placed upon him by his work. He's an investment banker.”
Amaryllis’s acting partner widened his eyes at her and grinned, rubbing his fingers together. She laughed and nodded, message received: I bet they are loaded, she thought. She felt a little better already. Her partner seemed smart and pleasant, quite handsome, too. She quickly scanned the set, noting where things were located and a small selection of props scattered around. This room was dressed as a kitchen, and she walked toward it, noticing a tiny red smudge on the corner, though the floor beneath the table had been freshly mopped. She looked back at her partner, wondering if they should begin seated or standing? Her mind had barely begun to roll all this information over when, suddenly, Felice's voice was in her ears and her live audition had begun.
* * *
Fifty minutes later, Amaryllis and her partner – his name was actually Neil – were laughing in a dressing room, removing their makeup.
“Oh my God! That was so fun!” she exclaimed.
“Yes, that was a terrific session,” agreed Neil. “A lot of the sessions tend to follow a similar trajectory. It makes it a lot easier to ad lib when you can anticipate what is likely to happen next.”
Amaryllis nodded, that made perfect sense. She was surprised at how closely her first session had followed the rhythm of a one-act play. The facilitator helped guide the married couple through the process. Of course, they were free to direct their proxies as they wished, but whenever they got stuck, Felice was there asking helpful, open-ended questions: How does that make you feel, Mr. Jacobsen? What are you hoping to achieve in this session, Mrs. Jacobsen? What would you like to hear your husband say?
“I'm going to get into my street clothes real quick,” Neil apologized.
“Oh, no. Don't worry about it,” said Amaryllis. “I've done enough community theater to be completely unfazed by people changing in front of me. Don't worry,” she quipped, “I'll still respect you in the morning!”
Neil laughed as he slipped into his jeans, leaving his well-worn button-down untucked, then he held out his hand. “It was really great to meet you, Amaryllis. I hope to work with you again! I mean, it's up to the clients whether they keep the same casting for all their sessions, but I feel like they were happy with our performances today. I bet they'll keep us on!”
“I think they were happy, too!” she said. “In fact – do you think they were making out at the end? It sounded like. I was almost glad when Felice turned off the mikes!”
“Hah! Yeah, that happens sometimes,” he said. “But so long as they're happy, I'm happy!” He grabbed a beat-up messenger bag and slung it over his shoulder. “Well, see ya soon, I hope! Bye!”
“Bye, now!” she said, waving as he left.
She looked back at herself in the mirror as the door closed behind him. Her cheeks were flushed with excitement, and her eyes were sparkling. Even better, the chignon they'd styled for her still looked great. The whole thing had been exhilarating, and the thought of a healthy paycheck coming her way was even more exciting. Amaryllis grabbed her coat, which had seen a few too many winters already, and her umbrella, and headed for home.
* * *
The next morning Amaryllis was going through some casting calls for background work, which had been her (mostly) reliable bread and butter for the past three years. Unlike what some people imagine, the work could be quite boring, a kind of soul-sucking drudgery that she sometimes thought she would gladly exchange for a job waiting tables. But as dry as those jobs were, they were in her field. She had to try. She had promised herself five years to really try. She was gritting her teeth as the colorful little wheel spun jauntily on her ancient laptop, indicating that it had received her command and would get around to performing that function when it was darn good and ready. A hollow bing let her know she had a new email, and when she saw who it was from, she opened it immediately. It was Felice, and a quick scan of the contents sent a little lurch in her stomach. The words great job and talented and sure-to-be-popular stood out on the page. She had to take a few deep breaths to calm herself enough to read the entire email through. Felice was telling her what a great job she had done and was offering a suggested schedule for the next week, and would Amaryllis please approve it, or inform her of any changes that might need to be made? Pleased, Amaryllis opened the attached document.
She sat there for a long moment, staring at the figure at the bottom of the page: her potential salary for a light week's work. It would be nearly enough to cover her rent, her rent! And the hours – she quickly added up how many hours of work she would be doing and did some quick calculations. If every week was like this, it wouldn't take much time at all to get in the union! Amaryllis felt a little lightheaded and pushed away from the second hand (third hand?) desk she had rescued from the curb and put her head between her knees. Her old scuffed, slippers framed an interesting stain on the cracked linoleum. Behind her, the tiny radiator gave a groan, then started clanking like a kid with a hammer was murdering a metal trash can. She took a few slow breaths and centered herself. Feeling a little more collected, she sat back up and hit reply.
“The schedule sounds fine, I'll be there tomorrow at ten,” she typed.
Amaryllis closed the open tabs on her browser and shut her computer, but she didn't get up. A slightly goofy smile spread across her lips as she stared at the water-stained whorls on the top of her desk, and for the first time in a long while she was actually excited about going to work tomorrow.
* * *
The next several weeks passed quickly for Amaryllis. She was enjoying her job at Actors Therapy, and the good that she was helping to achieve was truly rewarding. She liked the idea that she could help these people work through the troubles in their lives, giving them an outlet, a safe way to experiment in a controlled environment. She worked with Neil a lot; he had been right in guessing that the Jacobsens had liked having them as their proxies, and it had been a pretty heartwarming experience for Amaryllis, helping the couple reconnect.
She worked with other clients, too, of course, and other actors. Most of the people and the sessions were wonderful. A lot of them got pretty intense, though: punctuated with lots of yelling and tense conversations. It was hard not to lose herself in the parts she played sometimes, and it scared her a little. Still, she felt her craft improving each day. Working for Actors Therapy was like being in the most intense improv bootcamp ever; the fact she was being paid to do it was a bonus. She could get used to being financially secure, she thought. She really loved that aspect of her job. It was such a relief to be able to pay bills on time, without juggling or prioritizing one against the other, or against food expenses. No more living off ramen and eggs and beans for weeks at a time, turning down every invitation to socialize because it meant having a few extra dollars she could put toward food or her MTA pass.
There were a few downsides, she slowly discovered. The intense, angry sessions took their toll. Sometimes she would go home right after work, collapse onto her bed and cry herself to sleep; sometimes people even got hurt.
One afternoon as she and Neil were on their way to a session, they passed a room where a young woman was sitting on a table. A medic was carefully inspecting her arm, running his fingers gently up and down, pressing in certain spots, asking questions: “Does this hurt? Can you wiggle your fingers a little? Make a fist?” She jumped, and a tiny hiss of pain escaped from between her tightly clenched lips when he hit a particularly tender spot.
“How did this happen?” the medic asked.
“My acting partner grabbed me...” The medic looked up sharply. “ ... no! I mean, he didn't mean to hurt me, it was a performance. But, it was a pretty intense scene, and we both went off balance and we fell. We both landed on my arm. Is it OK?”
“Yes,” said the medic. “You're lucky, though. Just a wrenched shoulder and some bad bruises. I'll set you up with a sling – ”
“Amaryllis? Neil?” It was Felice speaking over their earpieces. “Are you on your way? These are new clients; we want to make a good impression!”
“Yes, Felice!” said Neil. “Sorry, we got delayed. We'll be there in a sec.”
They exchanged guilty glances and hurried down the hall. “Man, I hate to see that happen,” Neil said, looking over his shoulder. “It shouldn't, but it does. Sometimes the clients are a little too enthusiastic, wanting you to grab someone by the shoulders and shake them, or turn over a table full of dishes and glassware.”
“Really?” said Amaryllis. “How awful! Do the actors really do it?”
“Yeah, they do – we do. I mean, can you blame them?” He waved his hand at the luxuriously appointed offices they passed.
Amaryllis shook her head. “Yes, I totally get it, but surely they don't expect us to actually hurt each other?”
“Well, we contractually kind of have to,” he said. “Or at least pretend to. I mean, I don't know about you, but I really need this job. My husband and I were really struggling before I landed this gig.” Neil sighed. “He has really severe asthma, sometimes to the point where he needs hospitalization. He has good insurance through his job with the city, but still, those bills add up. And really, this job is about acting! It's all a big show. We might get a little rough, but we're professionals and we know how to take the hits, and give them, so they don't hurt so much.”
“I understand, I really do,” said Amaryllis, touching his shoulder. “I'm sorry. About your husband, I mean. It's hard enough to live in this city when you have good health, I just can't imagine ....” They were almost at the theater.
“Don't worry about it too much Ams,” he said, gently. “We're getting by, and this job makes it possible, thank God!” He was silent for a moment, then took her hand and threaded it into the crook of his elbow. “Come on, let's go in and knock them dead!” She smiled, squeezing his arm in reply, and they went inside.
* * *
It felt different, even before they actually began, but Amaryllis couldn't put her finger on why. She could just barely see the silhouettes of the couple in the control booth; they were just standing there looking at the stage, side by side, not interacting with one another at all.
She could see Felice off to the left, in another, smaller booth. Unlike the clients, she was lit from above, in her hand, the ubiquitous clipboard. Finally, Felice seemed to notice the silence had stretched on longer than usual, and she leaned forward, one hand to her ear, and spoke into the mike.
“Mr. and Mrs. Hemsworth, we're so glad you've trusted us today to help you work through whatever is troubling you. It takes some getting used to, at first. Some clients like to start just by directing the proxies around the stage in a familiar situation, like breakfast.”
Mr. Hemsworth cleared his throat, “Uh, thank you. How do I ... .”
Felice chimed in helpfully, “You could start with something as simple as 'I lean against the door jamb.'”
“I see, so we talk like we're narrating our actions in real time?”
“Precisely.” Felice's voice was bright and encouraging.
“OK, then. Fine. I go get myself a cup of coffee. Black.”
Neil had somehow seemed to grow larger during that short piece of conversation; he was really good at his job, a great actor. It was one of the reasons Amaryllis loved working with him. He strode boldly to the counter, grabbed a mug from the cupboard and poured himself some coffee. He leaned against the counter, one arm across his abdomen while the other lifted the mug to take a sip.
A heavy sigh came over the earpieces: Mrs. Hemsworth. “I guess I want a cup of coffee, too. Cream and sugar.”
Amaryllis crossed the room to Neil. “Excuse me,” she said, and Neil scooched over just enough so she could grab a cup, filling it with hot coffee, cream, and sugar.
Mrs. Hemsworth's voice came again, almost immediately. “Typical.”
“What?” it was Mr. Hemsworth. “What do you mean by that?” Neil parroted the phrase, his voice thin and strained.
“I mean,” said Mrs. Hemsworth, “that you could have at least offered to make me a cup.” She paused a moment. “I want to sit down at the table,” she said. Amaryllis followed her directions, pulling out a chair and lowering herself stiffly.
“Of all the ....” Mr. Hemsworth began; Neil rolled his eyes.
Mrs. Hemsworth spoke again, “Oh, sure. It's all on me. Blame me for my own pain, my own ....” she trailed off. Amaryllis parroted her words, set down the cup, and sank her head into her hands, like her neck was not strong enough to bear the weight.
Both were silent. Amaryllis and Neil vibrated with tension, waiting for direction, but they could not move until they were told what to do. Thankfully, Felice's smooth voice suggested, “Mrs. Hemsworth seems to be very troubled, vulnerable even. She just shared something very private; can you think of anything you'd like to share with your wife?”
The silence stretched out, uncomfortably long, then Mr. Hemsworth took a deep breath: “I fucked my secretary.”
Mrs. Hemsworth gasped, “How dare you? I knew it, I knew!” Amaryllis looked up from the table with this line, shooting Neil a look full of pain and betrayal. “I – I want to stand up, to pace. How could you do this to me?” Amaryllis stood, following the directions, speaking the words.
Mr. Hemsworth sighed heavily. “See, this is why I didn't want to tell you. It doesn't mean anything, Susan. You know that. That's why I did it, to be frank. She means nothing. Fucking her is like – fucking a stranger. She doesn't want anything from me, doesn't need any ....”
“Oh, you think it's like that, do you? That it means nothing?” Mrs. Hemsworth's voice was raw and ragged; Amaryllis did her best to show that feeling, clutching the back of a chair for support. There was another long, uncomfortable silence, and then she said, “I wish ... I throw my mug right at your head.”
Amaryllis hesitated just a moment, locking eyes with Neil, then pulled back her arm with the mug, lukewarm coffee sloshing over her wrist, and threw it at Neil, adding a small twist of her fingers at the last moment that she hoped would change the trajectory enough that she wouldn't actually hit him. It worked, thankfully, but Neil still had to jerk himself to the side to avoid the fan of liquid. The mug shattered against the cabinet.
“You bitch!!” growled Mr. Hemsworth. “You could have hurt me!” Neil's voice was an echo.
“I don't care! I don't care one bit! If you could feel even the slightest amount of the pain I feel – ” Amaryllis’s hands clenched the back of the chair again, her knuckles strained and white.
“Pain?!?” Mr. Hemsworth's voice was cold. “I'll show you pain ... slap her.”
Neil's eyes widened for a split second, but then he took three quick steps, bridging the distance between them. His slap caught her on the left cheek also clipping her nose. He had cupped his hand when he struck, softening the blow as they had been trained, but it was still a terrible shock. Her entire face was on fire. Nobody had ever hit her before. Amaryllis raised her hand to her burning face, touching her nose gently where a tiny trickle of blood had started. Tears blurred her vision; her mind went blank. Frozen, she didn't know what to do.
Mrs. Hemsworth's voice rose in outrage. “How dare you? How dare you, Gregory! You are just like your father, you know. Oh, yes, your mother told me all about it. Last summer, at the Hamptons house. I had a hard time believing her at first, but now –”
“Grab her.” Mr. Hemsworth's voice was frighteningly calm. Amaryllis gasped as she felt Neil's hands clamp on her upper arms. “Push her up against the counter. You have forgotten yourself, Susan, you should know that. Kiss her.” Pain flared in her lower back as Neil twisted her, jerking her off her feet and pushing her back against the counter, his lips pressed against hers. She could feel the teeth behind that kiss.
Nothing came over the earpieces for a moment except the sound of ragged breathing, and a tiny little sob from Mrs. Hemsworth. “She hates you, you know,” she said. Amaryllis had to clear her throat twice, but finally choked out the line. Then, “She's always hated you. It's because of you that they had to get married. She told me that, too. Did you know that? Did you know what a burden you were to her? To me? No wonder you're so desperate for –”
“Pick her up,” Mr. Hemsworth said, and Neil complied. Amaryllis struggled weakly, her mind was still trying to make sense of what was happening. “Take her to the bedroom.”
Amaryllis was suddenly weightless. She felt herself moving, almost floating, cradled gently in Neil's arms, while his legs ate up the floor in a feral stride across the stage and into the adjoining bedroom.
He threw her on the bed and stood looking down at her, chest heaving. The set lights were off in this part of the stage. All Amaryllis could see was his shadow, silhouetted against the light of the door.
But Mr. Hemsworth wasn't finished. “Make her pay – ” Neil froze, unsure what to do, the silence stretched. “Show her, teach her, fuck her – ”
Neil's right hand shot forward, grabbed the front of Amaryllis’s dress and yanked. It tore with an awful rending sound, and the garment fell open. She could see Neil's eyes, full of sorrow and regret. “The bra, too.” Neil grabbed the bra from the bottom and forced it up, toward her neck, baring her breasts. Amaryllis finally unfroze. This was happening, this was really happening. She started to struggle.
Neil grabbed her legs, pulled her toward him, sliding her to the bottom of the bed, he pushed one knee between her own and forced them apart with his body. He was no longer looking at her, his eyes were down, averted, watching his hands as they slowly unzipped his jeans and began to push them down. All they could hear now on their headphones was heavy breathing, from both Hemsworths, but it had changed. It was throatier and strangely rhythmic. Amaryllis heard the woman moan. Suddenly the sound from the booth cut out, and Felice's voice cut through the silence.
“All right, let's cut there for today, proxies! Great job!”
Neil backed up immediately, pulling up his jeans, then grabbed a robe hanging on the bedroom door. Silently he handed it to Amaryllis. She clutched it to her chest, slipping off the bed and wrapping herself in the luxurious terry cloth. She looked toward the sound booth, and in the dim light she saw the outline of a woman's back. Mrs. Hemsworth – whoever she was – was up on the long counter that ran along the wall beneath the glass, her long blonde hair had fallen out of its sleek chignon, and her dress was rucked up to her waist. Amaryllis could see a man's hand clutching her waist, the other on the back of her neck. They were kissing voraciously, their bodies straining against each other as they fucked each others' brains out. Then Felice was in front of her, gently taking her and Neil by the elbows and leading them off stage. “Let's debrief, all right? It's fine. You're fine! You did just great.”
She led them to a small conference room and settled them into two comfortable chairs. She took Amaryllis's face gently in one hand, turning it to the light. “Right. I'll send in makeup to touch that up.” She grabbed a tissue, wet it with her tongue like a mother would, tenderly dabbing at the blood beneath Amaryllis's nose. “Can I get you anything? Water? Tea?” she asked. Tea suddenly seemed like an excellent idea.
“Yes, please. Tea.” said Amaryllis.
“I'll be right back.”
As soon as the door closed behind Felice, Neil turned, reaching for her hands. Amaryllis flinched for a moment, then allowed him to hold her hands between his own. “Ams, I am so sorry. I hope I – did I hurt you? That was a rough scene, right? We're professionals, but we're friends, too. I didn't want to – ”
Amaryllis straightened her spine immediately, squeezing his hands back, smiling brightly, professionally. “It's all right, Neil. I'm fine. It's part of the job, right? It was just – a surprise.”
They looked at each other, hands clasped. An hour ago it would have given her comfort. Felice entered carrying a tray with a teapot, sugar, creamer, and a plate with a few cookies scattered across a white, lace doily. Amaryllis stared at the doily; it reminded her of her grandmother's, where every table was doilied and every piece of furniture covered in plastic. She snorted and smiled a little, but it didn't stay. Once everyone had been served, Felice cleared her throat and said, “Thank you both for your hard work here, today. Your dedication and professionalism are greatly appreciated.” She took a sip of her tea. “Things like this don't happen very often, but...” she shook her head, “there are a few clients whose sessions get a little...extreme. We do try to accommodate them however we can, though. They pay well for our services here, very well.” She took another sip. “Of course, both of you will receive bonuses for this session.” She handed them each a check. “In appreciation.”
Neil and Amaryllis nodded at her, barely reacting to the numbers. Amaryllis stared at her delicate teacup. Its tiny handle was something a fairy would use. The soft scrape of china seemed very loud in the otherwise silent room. Finally, Felice stood up and clapped her hands, businesslike again. “Well, then! That's all settled! Let's get you two get tidied up! Next session is in an hour.”
Amaryllis and Neil stood up automatically and followed. Felice's office was in the same direction as their dressing room, but she soon pulled away, peering at her phone and typing as she walked. She disappeared around a corner, the fading clicks of her heels finally punctuated by the tiny clap of a shutting door.
They entered the dressing room and found fresh costumes hung from a hook behind the door. Their eyes met in the mirror.
Neil spoke, “Um, I'm going to run to the restroom, give you some privacy.” She nodded, and he stepped out.
Amaryllis stood up and took off the robe. She looked at herself in the mirror. Her cheeks were pale and the skin beneath her nose looked red and chapped. The front of her dress was destroyed, the huge strip of fabric hanging down made her look peeled. Her hair was, surprisingly, still in its chignon. The hairdresser knew her stuff; she tapped the well-shellacked updo with a small smile. She undid the belt on her dress and the garment collapsed in a pool around her ankles. As she bent to pick it up, her eyes fell on her own street clothes. They were much nicer clothes than she had been wearing a few months ago. Name brands. Nothing second hand. She took a step toward the closet and touched the soft cashmere of her sweater. Her first. It would be so easy to get dressed, to put on her jeans, sweater and boots, slip down the hall to the elevator, and then outside. She could do it. Nobody would stop her leaving. Amaryllis looked over her shoulder, staring at herself in the mirror, the red marks on the small of her back. She would have to do it soon, though. She turned and looked at herself more deeply, her mascara had run a little, and there was a red mark on her cheek as well, but her eyes were blue, bright and clear. She was young, healthy; she was making it in one of the most difficult places in the world to live. She was making it.
She turned and grabbed the hanger holding her new costume, unbuttoning the top button and sliding the garment free. She was still wearing her shoes. Amaryllis fastened the tasteful pearl buttons at the wrists, but knew she'd have to ask Neil to zip her up when he came back. She only had a few more months to go.