Charlie leans between her knees, cracking up.
“I keep reading the script and thinking, ‘Wow, Sam wrote this.’ ” I draw a circle in the soil with a scraggly twig. “The terrible person I built up in my head wrote this beautiful thing. That has to mean something, right? That he understands women, or that he’s good enough inside to have done this? Or maybe it’s that Ellen”—I shake my head and correct myself—“Roberta was just that great? I think of everything she went through: pregnant at sixteen, put her husband through law school only to have him leave her and their son and run off with someone else. Her dad is sick. She falls in love with a man the whole town is against and yet she still puts the work in to build up their community and help the very same people who would have turned her away. She didn’t close herself off. She didn’t move from one pointless, meaningless relationship to another. She’s just this wonderful person who made mistakes and learned from them and kept going.”
Charlie appraises me with a small tilt of her head. “You’re pretty great yourself, you know.”
I try to laugh but it sounds hollow and cynical. “Do you remember those art projects we helped the kids with at YMCA camp? You fill in the entire paper with different colors, and then go over it with black crayon? You think it’s just a black picture, but when you scratch at the surface there’s all this . . . stuff underneath. That’s a terrible analogy, but it’s sort of how I feel about my love life right now. I thought it would be one thing, but it’s just been covered up with this boring black crayon and I don’t have the tools to scratch it.”
Charlie gives me a sad smile and reaches over to squeeze my hand. “But what’s under there is still all bright and rainbow colored. I know it’s scary to learn how to scrape all of it off, but I think what’s under there could be pretty great too.”
We look up as Devon stomps through the tall grass. His blue button-down Patagonia shirt seems to glow in the fading sunlight. “What are you two up to?”
“Discussing why my love life is a mess,” I tell him, laughing.
Devon pauses, surprised, and then gives us a knee-buckling smile. “Well, okay then.”
Apparently we aren’t in a huge hurry, because he settles down on the grass at my side. “We’re getting ready to roll, Tate. How’re you feeling about tonight’s shoot?”
I weigh my response. Admittedly, the most stressful part of the filming has come toward the end of our time here: the barn fire and the love scenes. I know why we had to put them later on the schedule—the barn fire shouldn’t be destructive, but in case it does cause some damage to the landscape, we needed to be done with all the other outdoor shots first, and the love scenes, well, Gwen is smart enough to know that those require a real depth of comfort between co-stars. But while I’m apprehensive about the love scenes, I’m downright afraid of the barn fire tonight. We’ve rehearsed it over and over again, but like—we are going to set the barn set on fire. It’s not being done with special effects; it’s a controlled burn and they’ll be shooting with a long lens to compress the distance between the actors and the flames, but it’s still being done with a newly constructed barn set, some fancy chemicals, and a lighter.
“I’m nervous,” I admit.
“I know you’ve been told this, but I want to reassure you,” Devon says. “We have—”
“Over a hundred firefighters on location to put it out,” I finish for him. “Infrared viewers to find hot spots. I am never actually going to be in danger. I know.”
He smiles again. Devon is so perfectly sweet, I experience a beat of disappointment that I’m not nearly as attracted to him as I should to be. The Sam Brandis Proximity effect.
“All set, then?” Devon tilts his head up the hill, making his meaning clear.
Up the hill, that is, where nearly everyone who has ever been involved in this movie has gathered to watch this enormously important scene being shot. Even Plastic Jonathan has returned and will be seated a safe distance from the barn, in a posh area of executive seating.
Sam, as usual, hovers on the edge of the action. Dad and Marissa are sipping cocktails in the executive galley. Nick stands with Gwen, at a set built to resemble the entryway of the cabin, poring over our marks, our path of movement. I join them, and when he meets my eyes, I swear I can hear his heartbeat.
The barn, which has slowly been built since we first got here, looks suddenly enormous. I wonder whether it’ll be thrilling or devastating to the set designers to watch it burn down.
Everyone gets into position; Nick looks at me and then takes my hand. “You good?”
He shrugs and only then do I notice that his hand is shaking in mine. I lean forward, kissing his cheek, and then Gwen calls for quiet on the set.
The fire crew gives the okay, the pyrotechnic specialists hits the trigger, and we’re rolling.
I swear my heart has never beat like this. Not just fast, but thundering. We burst from the farmhouse in our pajamas, racing together across the lawn. Nick has to duck into the barn for buckets; he scrambles through a safe zone and back out, completing the shot. But the fire hasn’t stopped, and we’re still rolling.
It’s such a tightly choreographed scene; the stunt coordinators having organized everything between the principal actors, the stunt doubles, the extras and the crew, down to the most meticulous detail. Extras as townsfolk come in, in staggered waves, and we’re all throwing bucket after ineffectual bucket on the roaring flames. I know it’s all a set, that we’re safe—it isn’t real—but panic fills me like a rising tide. The fire isn’t just hot, it’s loud. It pops, whines, and cracks; the first wall of the barn screams before it collapses, right on cue, and the sound is deafening; the dust is real. So, too, is the feeling that we are battling this thing that we are never going to beat.