Victoria Lockhart, like many of those in both the cast and crew of her feature film debut, had heard about their director. His genius. And his…moods. That’s what they were called back then. Moods. And only directors were allowed to have them. She’d been so excited on her first day. Even after she saw him throw a chair at one of the writers. Even after she’d seen him take a swing at the cinematographer. Even after she’d heard him say things to his assistant in front of everyone that made the woman crumple at his feet in tears. Victoria told herself that she would never trigger his ire. She would make him adore her, respect her, and treat her as gently as he treated that favorite suede jacket of his.
When he made minor comments about the ill fit of her costume, or asked that the lights be softened so the camera wouldn’t see the flaws in her complexion, he spoke in such a kind and understanding tone that Victoria truly did not understand that a hole was being bored into her psyche. She didn’t understand that the hand twisting the tool belonged to the person who was supposed to take care of her. Then, one day, something happened to the director’s precious suede jacket.
It was an accident.
Victoria hadn’t meant to do it.
She didn’t even typically drink coffee in the morning. And he didn’t typically keep his jacket draped over a chair.
She expected a tirade. But she admitted to the accident. She wanted to take responsibility. And she didn’t want someone else—some poor assistant—to get yelled at for her mistake.
But he didn’t yell at her. He didn’t say anything to her. Victoria offered to pay for a cleaning. She offered to buy a new jacket, and then she did buy one and have it sent to him.
He never said anything to her about the jacket. And she felt terrible. But that was because she did not know what was still in store for her.
They were halfway through filming.
For the second half, Victoria’s character was meant to be in a constant state of fear and worry, until the last scene, which would be the last one they would film.
The director began to cry “cut” at every single take that Victoria was in, asking her to do it again, and be more afraid. He did that again and again and again. She grew tired, and she truly was afraid. But Victoria did not know how to give him the fear that he wanted.
One evening, she was asleep in one of the unused offices, awaiting the set-up for a night shoot. She was woken from sleep by banging on the walls. She heard voices outside, raucous voices hooting and growling. The windows cracked and broke. She screamed and called for help. She hid in a corner. She watched the door, knowing she should barricade it, but she couldn’t move.
At last, the shaking and the breaking stopped. She didn’t move until a knock at the door made her jerk. Even when she heard the familiar voice of one of the lot guards, she didn’t move or answer. The guard unlocked the door.
Victoria expected that she would be sent home, maybe with someone to look after her. And maybe the next day, the police would come and ask for her statement.
But that wasn’t what happened.
The director put his arm around her, spoke gentle words like he had in the beginning, told her that as an actor, she should use the emotion she felt, the fear.
Victoria was so shaken that he couldn’t speak, until he squeezed her shoulder, drawing from her a whispered, “You’re right.”
He put her to work. And he praised her performances. Her hands trembled all through the night. Her voice cracked. She couldn’t breathe properly, couldn’t manage to draw in enough breath.
When their work was over, and it was time for everyone to go home, the director drew Victoria aside. He prompted her by asking her not to be cross with him. Then he admitted that the attack on the office where she’d been sleeping had been his doing. He’d known that if she’d been sufficiently motivated, she would give a tremendous performance. He knew he would be able to draw it out of her.
Victoria went home in a daze. Her roommate asked her what was wrong. She couldn’t answer.
The next morning she walked into her dressing room.
It was all cleaned up by the end of that work day.
A week passed, and Victoria began to feel herself again. But the better she felt, the worse her performances got, according to her director.
Then, one evening, a studio driver was taking her home. They chatted, and he revealed that he was a stunt driver and that he would prove it to her. He started to go faster and take sharp turns, and at first Victoria laughingly warned him to be careful.
And then she stopped laughing. She started begging, begging for him to slow down, to let her out. But he wouldn’t listen. And this time, Victoria knew. She knew there was someone behind the man behind the wheel. And she knew who that someone was.
She knew that he didn’t mean for her to die.
But he wouldn’t care if she did.
She tried not to be scared. But she was. When they finally arrived, she stumbled out of the car, and again did not answer her roommate’s concerned questions.
Again, she was praised for her performances the next day. And again she recovered.
Until again there was another fright. Maybe something small like a dead rat in her soup. Maybe something big, like a piece of the set falling and almost crushing her.
One day, she dragged herself into her dressing room and looked at her reflection. Her reflection glared back at her. Victoria picked up the mug of coffee that someone had left for her. The surface of the liquid shivered in rhythm with her hand as she checked for a roach floating in there, or maybe a finger. But she wasn’t shivering with fear this time. A flash of heat flared along the back of her neck.
Victoria flung her arm to the side, sending the mug shattering against the wall. Without a sound, she picked up a candle holder, drew back her hand, and threw it. She pulled out the top drawer of her dresser, and it dropped to the floor. She put her fingers underneath and overturned it. She grabbed a pair of scissors and she stabbed her couch cushions. She sliced through the costumes that she was supposed to wear that day. She heard a knock on her door. She didn’t answer it.
By the time Victoria was done and spent, there was one bulb that had somehow managed not to break. It lay a corner. And Victoria used its light to see what she had done.
Shadows and glass, everywhere.
She left her dressing room and coldly told the costume designer that she would need to wear her spare dress that day.
Everyone already knew about her outburst.
She caught her director’s eye as she strolled toward her mark. He looked pleased.
She could never have any power over him. But others…
Those who were weaker. Like that costume designer.
Victoria came to a conclusion.
Anger was her road to strength and power.
Victoria’s first film was a success. While it was mostly the director who was praised, the actors in the film benefited, including her. On the next three films she made, Victoria began to earn a reputation for being sweet to those “above” her, like her directors and producers, and being cruel to those she deemed were “below” her.
On her sixth film, she was playing a young woman who wanted an early nineteenth century themed wedding. She would wear massive hoop skirts, parasols, and all. Many said the role was a fitting one, a bride who was every bit as tyrannical as the woman playing her.
Victoria was in position one day, before the cameras began to roll. Behind her was a bright soft light, the only light in the scene, and it cast a shadow before her on the pavement. She was wearing a veil that fluttered in the slight breeze manufactured by a fan off camera. She looked down, appreciating the beauty of her silhouette in the billowing dress, holding a parasol.
She held her other arm to her side. But as she watched, the shadow’s other arm rose, crooked to her side, and it waved.
Victoria gasped and glanced behind herself. There was no one there. She glanced around. By reflex, she opened her mouth to broadcast a general accusation of a prank to all who were present. But something made her bite her tongue. She glanced down at her shadow, which was shifting nervously, matching her movements. Nothing more happened before they started for the day.
Then came a day when Victoria raged at a new assistant, sending the poor woman running away crying. She was standing on a sound stage, lights behind her, casting a shadow. As Victoria stood still, fuming and glaring, her shadow shook its head.
Victoria again glanced around. She again resisted telling anyone what she’d seen, or thought she’d seen. And she again eventually forgot as the production continued to roll on, and she got yet another new assistant.
On the last day of filming, she was in a good mood. The production wrapped early and she had a date. She was touching up for her date before her mirror when someone knocked on her dressing room door to let her know that her car had arrived. She turned away to respond, and when she turned back to the mirror, she was faced with a rotting corpse. Sallow skin torn all away on one side, so all the decaying teeth and infected gums were visible. Bloodshot eyes, one of them cracked and leaking its humors. A mangled nose, as if something had bit into it. Patches of colorless hair so wispy it floated in still air. Skin blotched with sickly green patches, and a cluster of boils just visible below one ear.
Victoria cried out and jumped out of her chair.
She moved to the door.
She was afraid to look in the mirror again. She was afraid to leave her room without looking in the mirror again.
She backed away and left. When her date’s eyes widened as she approached, she held her breath, expecting the worst.
But then he told her that she looked beautiful.
And Victoria began to wonder.
Victoria eventually confided in her roommate, Lorna, who suggested seeing someone, a therapist. Victoria considered it briefly, but then she refused, thinking she could handle the issue herself, through logic and sheer force of will. She had gotten through worse, after all, than creepy shadows and ugly reflections.
She started to request that all reflective surfaces be removed from her dressing room, and that there be ample lighting, lighting that could only be turned on or off, with no dimming, and no angles. No shadows. Given her reputation, such requests didn’t seem as odd or extreme as expected. And given her growing stature, her requests were met without hesitation.
Then came the film that changed the course of Victoria’s career, and her life altogether. Again.
The director of this film was known to be difficult, just like the director on her first film.
One day the director asked his lead actor to perform a stunt that even his stuntmen said was too dangerous. The stunt coordinator asked for time to make it safe. The director grudgingly agreed, but when their time was up, they said it just couldn’t be done in the way the director wanted it done. It was best to use a special effect, and they’d already talked to the effects team.
The next day, the director summoned his star to come forward.
News and rumor had already spread that the director had fired the stunt coordinator and his entire team. And sure enough, none of them present on set that day.
The director explained to his lead actor that he’d been forced to fire the stunt team, but that he was confident that his star could do the stunt.
The movie’s main lead, Victoria’s leading man, tried to reason with the director. But he didn’t get far.
The director insisted that per contract, the lead actor was required to do whatever stunts the director requested.
The actor entreated everyone else around him. His fellow actors. The crew.
A few people tried to speak, but the director grabbed a microphone. And he simply declared that he knew what he was doing. He expected his cast and crew to trust him. If they didn’t trust him, they didn’t deserve to work with him. He would allow them all five minutes to calm down and be ready to work, or else leave his set. He walked off toward his trailer. And even when he was out of sight, there was silence on the set.
Offending this particular director didn’t just mean getting fired, it meant never working in that town, or any other, in any country, ever again. He had a long reach, this particular director did.
Victoria felt a tight pain in her gut, as ugly memories surfaced. She knew, of course, like everyone else, that expecting her co-star to jump into a tank full of box jellyfish, known to have painful and potentially fatal stings, was madness. It would have made an absurd story, a hilarious one, if it had been prank. Just a tasteless prank. But the director was in earnest. It was almost as if the director knew his main lead would get stung, and didn’t care, and just wanted to capture it on film.
The lead actor trembled as he paced around the tank. Victoria wondered why he didn’t just refuse and walk off. He was more famous than she was. He would be fine, unlike the rest of them, even if he had a contract that he was breaking.
But she remembered what he’d told her when they first met, about how much he’d looked forward to working with his favorite, most respected director. In the first few months, he’d loved it. Even now, she could see that he thought he owed his director.
The tank was transparent, so cameras could film underwater scenes from inside and outside. Victoria wouldn’t have been there if had been a normal water stunt. She wouldn’t have risked seeing her reflection. But it was all she could manage to do for her co-star. She kept her eye on her leading man. And she kept her eye on the medics who were standing by. And she wondered why no one had called the police.
She wondered why she hadn’t called the police.
The lead actor climbed to the top of the tank. Victoria caught sight of her reflection on the curved surface of the tank. The reflection looked like her, young, smooth skin, dark hair. But it still scared her. Because Victoria was standing completely still. But her reflection was shaking its head. It jerked from one side to the other, and clutched its own throat with both hands. Victoria couldn’t make herself look away as her reflection heaved its shoulders as if choking, until it went still and started floating up, turning until it was horizontal. Her reflection’s body began to decay before her eyes, shreds of skin sloughing off.
“Stop! Stop it!”
Victoria cried out against her reflection.
But she had cried out just as the lead actor was about to speak his line and jump into the tank.
Everyone stopped and thought that she was trying to put an end to what everyone knew was an unnecessary gamble with a man’s life. Victoria still had a chance to apologize and take it back. She had cried out in reflex. Or else she could do what she’d been hoping someone—anyone—else would do.
Victoria stepped out before the cameras. She faced the director. His lips were pressed together, and his shoulders were heaving. The lights were behind her, and in them she cast a shadow. Her shadow reached out its arm toward the director. Instead of her shadow mimicking her movements, Victoria mimicked her shadow’s movement. She raised her arm and pointed at her director.
She hardly knew what she was saying. It was reckless, and maybe even life-threatening, to threaten this director. And for some strange reason, he let her finish speaking. He sat frozen.
Later she would hear whispers of rumors about the strange menacing shadows cast on her face and all around her, the flickers that made her look towering and forbidding, the sudden cold that descended upon everyone in the grip of these shadows.
Filming was cancelled for the rest of the day.
The rest of the week.
In the air of uncertainty one and only one person came to see Victoria. Her co-star, who thanked her for what it was worth, for standing up for him. Her co-star who asked where she’d gotten the guts to do what she’d done. Her co-star who wished her well even though he knew what she knew. She had just acted in her last film. She was done for.
Victoria felt simultaneously vindicated and terrified and confused, and it all came together in a swirl of nausea. She ignored her agent’s calls. She ignored her mother’s calls. Her roommate brought her bowls of soup that went uneaten.
One morning, Victoria’s agent informed her that she’d been summoned to the set for a meeting with the director. Her agent had accepted the meeting on her behalf. He insisted that Victoria grovel like she’d never groveled before, using all her acting skill if necessary.
Victoria expected she was going to get fired. She somehow convinced herself that it would be quick. After all, this director did not yell and scream. His threats were delivered coldly. And she could handle the chill. She wouldn’t grovel. When she was done with the meeting, she would fire her agent. She wouldn’t need him anymore anyway. And whatever happened after that would be for her to figure out the next day or the day after that. Her dream of acting wasn’t dead. Just her dream of acting in films. She played the scene in her head. The director would direct the same threats he’d made to her co-star toward her now. Even if she could summon up the same rage to defend herself as she had that day on set, it would make no difference.
Her anger could overwhelm many. Those who were weaker. But she could never have any power over him.
Victoria felt weak and wobbly as she walked into the main sound stage for their film. She hadn’t gone alone, but her friend had been asked to stay outside the closed door, where a couple of men stood guard. They didn’t look like the usual lot guards. Something within Victoria told her not to go in. She hesitated.
But one of the men opened the door and waved her in. And Victoria found herself walking in.
She’d already asked her friend to come running in if he heard her call for him.
Victoria felt her shoulders tense as the door closed behind her. All the camera equipment was gone. Dim lights illuminated the elevated platform where the director sat, waiting for her. Around her were mirrors, arrayed as if she were in a funhouse. The dim lights reflected shadows in all directions.
Victoria understood right away what the director was doing. She’d heard of his ways. She’d seen him do the same to the main lead actor. Things that were rumored to be pranks. But it wasn’t a prank to put a drawer full of spiders in the dresser of an arachnophobic. It wasn’t a prank to put a fake severed head under the dome of a dish that was served to a star who’d just lost a loved one in a decapitation accident. This director never raised his hand to anyone. Never put his hand on anyone. He had other ways to harm.
He didn’t know why Victoria was scared of her shadow and her reflection. No one did. That was the only advantage she had. And it was not much of one. Because she didn’t know what she could possibly do with it, if anything.
Victoria’s heartbeat quickened. The last time she’d seen her reflection, it had moved on its own, but it had looked like her. And her shadow had moved on its own, but it had not made her move. It had just shown her what she’d already wanted to do, somewhere deep down. So she turned as she walked forth, to look at her reflection in the row of mirrors to her right.
She could see her reflection in two or three mirrors at a time. As she passed, the reflections behind her matched her movements. But the leading reflection was standing and glaring, but not at her. The leading reflection was turned toward the director. As Victoria got closer to the stage, the leading reflection turned back to her and bowed its head as if to say, “go on.” The mirror’s surface shuddered.
Victoria stopped at a distance, but the director called her onto the platform with him. The stage lights were dim, but aimed in different directions. His shadow reached toward hers. And her shadow toward his. He smiled at her and waved a hand at the tray beside his chair.
“No thank you,” Victoria said.
He clasped his hands before him and took a deep breath. “Victoria, I have to be honest with you, and so I have to let you know that I was disappointed, frankly hurt, that you’d spoken against me, shown that you don’t trust me. It’s not like you to be insubordinate. It’s not like you at all.” He frowned, as if in confusion or hurt.
Victoria bit her lip and watched him.
“Have I done something to offend you?” he asked, stepping toward her. “Hey, come closer. I can’t even see your face. Here, step into the light. I don’t bite. I promise.” He chuckled.
When Victoria didn’t move, he took another step toward her.
He stopped. “Listen, this production has been challenging, I know. I’ve pushed you all very hard. But I’ve noticed that your performances have been…inconsistent. I should have said something sooner. I thought maybe you were struggling with something—maybe in your personal life. You’ve very independent, Victoria. But everyone needs help sometimes. If you ask me, if you would just come to me, I could help.”
His words sounded reasonable, but the expression lying under his eyes and the tone lying under his voice, they didn’t match those words. Victoria began to step back. That was all it took for him to lunge at her. He caught her forearm and gripped. She screamed for her friend. She twisted her arm, but his grip was iron-tight. He yanked her closer, and raised his other hand, balled in a fist.
Victoria cringed. She raised her own free arm and threw it before her face. All she could hope to do was block his blow. She was much shorter. She never would have reached his raised arm without getting closer to him, close enough for him to enclose her completely, squeeze the breath out of her, squeeze her to death if he wanted.
But his arm and his fist were not outside the reach of her shadow.
The shadow that he himself had created with his array of dim lights.
From under her arm, she saw the shadow of her hand forming a claw, wrapping around the director’s fist.
It would leave her unprotected for her to mimic that action. But she knew she had to. Or else the shadow would have no effect. No power.
Victoria straightened her free arm. She reached out and curled her fingers into a claw.
The director stopped suddenly and gasped. He shivered. A sudden cold. She didn’t feel it herself. But she knew that’s what he felt. A sudden and sharp cold, like a spike of ice piercing his wrist. He let go of her.
Victoria pulled away. She screamed for friend again as she turned. She leapt off the platform and started running. She heard the director drop to the ground behind her. He had already recovered. She ran past the rows of mirrors. From the corner of her vision, she glimpsed her reflection running beside her. She dared a glance. It was the trailing reflections that didn’t match her movements now. The trailing reflection reached back as if reaching for the director. As it did, it shattered the mirror just behind Victoria. The director too was just behind her. She heard him cry out a curse. The next mirror she past shattered. Every mirror she past cracked and burst out behind her.
Victor kept running. When she reached the door, she was afraid it would be closed, locked, bolted. She gripped the handle and yanked. She was lucky, the doors swung open, and she dashed outside toward her friend, who was loitering some distance away.
He was startled to see her running for her life. He hadn’t heard her scream. The two guards that the director had put at the door didn’t know what to do as they heard their boss screaming in pain behind them.
Victoria pulled her friend away and they fled.
Victoria heard about the “freak accident” that left the director of her latest film in the hospital with deep cuts and lacerations. He was lucky he’d survived. His recovery would take several months at least.
“I may still be done for once he recovers,” Victoria told her roommate one evening, as they walked out of the supermarket with dinner supplies. “But for now, they’ve got another director to finish up.”
“I’m sorry I’m not powerful and important, or I’d make sure you never had to worry about that again.”
“Lorna, I appreciate that thought. But I’m just glad to be alive and unharmed.” Victoria caught her reflection in the market window. Her reflection matched her movements and her smile. “And I’m lucky I had my shadow and my reflection with me that day.”
They stopped at a crosswalk.
“Everyone has a shadow and everyone has a reflection,” Victoria said. “But mine are special, and I won’t ever take them for granted again.” She turned to her roommate. “I won’t ever take anyone for granted again.”
Lorna smiled and they juggled their grocery bags so they could elbow each other.
At home, while Lorna got dinner started, since it was her turn to cook, Victoria stepped out into their small back yard. The sun was setting, and it cast her shadow across the yard.
Victoria waved at her shadow.
And her shadow, of course, waved back.
Copyright © 2022 Nila L. Patel