It is hot, unlike anything I’ve ever felt before. Even beneath the protective gel, my face feels dry and crackling. I know we’re acting, but with Nick—Richard—at my side, doing everything he can to save our barn, I feel for the first time how genuinely terrifying it would be to have someone you know and see around town, who smiles to your face, try to burn down your home. I can’t fathom what it had to have been like for Luther, or the bond that must have existed between the two of them to press on, continue to fight against such bigotry and evil, and in the end truly live such vibrant, optimistic lives.
After, Nick and I sit in the grass, staring at the hissing steam that rises from the wreckage as the firefighters ensure that every ember is gone. I think we’re both a little out of words, lost in our thoughts about our lives now set against the backdrop of what Richard and Ellen’s lives were then.
“You okay?” I ask finally. Our faces are sooty, our limbs shaking from exertion.
He lets out a low, quiet whistle. “That was intense.”
“That wasn’t even fiction, is the thing.” He wipes a trembling hand down his face. “It blows my fucking mind that someone would have burned down that barn—someone’s livelihood—just because some white folks didn’t agree with what kind of love was going on behind closed doors. It’s a miracle they both made it.” He pauses. “So many don’t.”
I bend, resting my forehead on my arms. With the acrid smell of smoke still lingering on my skin I’m reminded all over again that this is bigger than a movie and the people who inspired it, and how the color of my skin means that I can empathize, but I’ll never truly understand. “I’m sorry,” I say, but the words feel insignificant. “It’s sickening.”
When I look up, he points at the smoldering remains of the replica barn. “You asked me why I wanted this role? It’s amazing, okay, but I feel like people forget: shit like that happened and, honestly, still does. I want them to remember.”
“They will.” I lean my head against his shoulder. I truly adore this man. “This fire, in particular, actually did happen,” I tell him. “The screenplay is about Sam’s grandparents.”
He turns to look at me. “For real?”
I nod. “I put it together a few days ago. His grandfather mentioned something about a barn fire when we first met. When we were shooting the scene with the men at the restaurant, I just felt this weird wave of déjà vu. I confronted him and, yeah, it’s based on real events.”
“You met his grandfather?”
An uneasy wiggle takes up in my stomach, but I want him to know. Keep it simple, Tate. “Yeah. His name was Luther and he was pretty great. You’re a lot like him, you know. Both constantly up to no good.”
He laughs and wraps an arm around my shoulders. “See? I knew there was something bigger there. You knew his family.”
“I didn’t, really.” I insist. “Just while we were in London.”
Nick absorbs this, and then gives me a sly grin. “How old did you say you were?”
I think he’s making the connection, or maybe I’m just being paranoid. “I didn’t say.”
A shadow looms over us both, and then I feel the warm presence of Sam settling into the grass at my side. “How’s everyone doing?”
It’s the first time he’s approached me and Nick together, the first time he’s approached me at all as a friend. The realization makes me glow inside.
“I’m hot,” I groan, and lay back in the grass. In a breath, I realize what I’ve done: laying down beside Sam in the grass, looking up at the sky. For a few tense beats, I’m begging him to not lay down beside me.
Thankfully, he doesn’t.
“Man, I didn’t know this story was a biography,” Nick says.
“Loose,” Sam says, “but yeah.”
“They raised me,” Sam explains, “but I left all that out.”
“So this all happened before you came along?” Nick asks, and I assume he’s gesturing to the site of the barn fire, but my eyes are closed now as I half listen to the two of them talk. Their conversation wanders from Luther and Roberta, to growing up on a farm, to Nick growing up in Houston, to how cold the night is turning.
“You think she’s asleep?” Nick asks after a while.
I feel the heat of Sam’s body as he leans over me, getting a better look. “Maybe.”
I am, but I’m not. I’m drifting, half-aware, comfortably buffeted from the wind by Sam’s body. It’s a return to childhood and listening to adults I trust talk in those meandering, easy ways while I can dip in and out of consciousness. On top of it, the sensation of grass at my back and the night sky on my face pulls me back years to that easy sensation of being absolutely blissed out in love with Sam, and feeling safe and known. I want to live in that space just a little longer.
“I can carry her,” Sam says.
An ache slices through my sternum, and I sit up. “I’m awake. I’m good.”
We stand up with quiet groans: sore joints from sitting on the ground too long out in the cold after an intense amount of physical exertion. Nick wraps his arms around my shoulders, kissing the top of my head. “You were good today, Tates.”