The cast and crew of "Growing Passions" were gathered in Brendan's studio for the first reading of the script. He had never had a first reading -- or any kind of rehearsal -- for his films before, but he knew this one required it. This one was going to be his masterpiece. If the fx people held up their end of the bargain. He had sent them an e-mail detailing this rehearsal, and as of yet, no one had shown up from the "Group."

  Brendan itched at his goatee and lit a cigarette. "Okay, boys and girls. Let's act."

  And the reading began. He and Marty had selected three perfect actresses to play the leads. Madelaine the brain was a black-haired beauty, hidden behind thick glasses and bulky clothing. Kara the athlete was a tall blonde, a part-time aerobics instructor with a body fit enough to outrun any man in the room, and limber enough to...do whatever she wanted. Debra the prom queen was a brunette, a rising model, and the highest paid person in the room; this was going to be the last time she had to make an "independent" picture, and she made sure everyone knew it, sitting back in her chair, holding her reconstructed nose up high enough to smell the ceiling plaster.

  But they were perfect for their roles, and that was all that mattered to Brendan. Of course, he had no hired doubles, on the Group's request, but so far, they had left him hanging out to dry. Where were they?

  He lit another cigarette and listened to the reading of his script. It certainly was riveting, in a cheap sort of way. His assistant, Marty, was at the edge of his seat. But Brendan could not stop thinking about...

  Someone entered the room. Nobody noticed, too engulfed in the reading. Nobody, that is, but Brendan. He walked over to N. and they stepped into a corner.

  "Here are your special effects, Mr. Dorsey, as requested." And shehanded him a briefcase, identical to the one she had been carrying last week.

  Brendan rubbed his goatee. "Remind me: is this supposed to be funny?"

  "Not at all." She opened the briefcase. Inside were three oblong velvet boxes. "One for each actress."

  N. opened one of the boxes, revealing a stunning silver necklace. An unusual charm, sort of shaped like an "N," hung from the end of the thin chain.

  "Have them wear these necklaces tonight," N. explained. "And tomorrow, everything will be perfect."

  "Is this some kind of New Age..."

  "No, Mr. Dorsey. Not new. Have them wear these necklaces tonight,and tomorrow, everything will be perfect. That is our guarantee. If for whateverreason, the "effects" do not work, you know how we can be contacted. Have a good day."


  But N. had already turned her back to him, and walked out of the room.

  "This is not good ," Brendan mumbled. He glanced back at his cast. They had not noticed a thing. They were really loving his script. "Yeah, well, too bad it's not going to happen."

  After the reading was finished, and the mutual applause had died down (to which "Debra" had stood and bowed), Brendan slowly walked to the head of the conference table.

  "Brendan, this is genius work," stammered Marty.

  "Thank you. Everyone, thank you. Anyway..." He lit another cigarette. "Anyway, we'll be meeting at the studio at ten o'clock tomorrow morning to begin shooting the lab scenes. All right? Have a nice day, all."

  As everyone was shuffling out, heading for their various yoga sessions, Brendan stopped his three lead actresses.

  "That was wonderful, ladies. And as a token of my appreciation...here." He handed each of them one of N.'s necklaces.

  "This isn't instead of pay, is it?" asked Debra.

  "No. Merely, a bonus."

  Madelaine blushed. Kara shook his hand. "We'll do our best, Brendan."

  "I'm sure you will. Just promise me you'll wear them tonight. As good luck charms."

  And they left.

  "What was that all about, Brendan?" Marty asked.

  "Oh, couldn't you tell? Those were our fx!"

  Marty frowned. Brendan sighed and stared out the window at the evening smog and imagined that somewhere, behind all that gray, was still the setting sun, glowing bright and happy. By the time he saw the sunset again, he thought, his masterpiece will have become his worst disaster.

-     -     -


  After a profound lack of sleep, Brendan showered and dressed for his ten o'clock shoot. They were doing the lab scenes. The shots where Madelaine grew. The fx shots. Brendan went through a pack of cigarettes on the car ride downtown. A ten o'clock shoot meant an eight o'clock set-up. He arrived at eight thirty.

  "Good morning, Brendan!" Marty chirped. "Doughnut? Coffee?"

  The crew was setting up the first shot. "Where are the actors?"

  "In the dressing room."

  Brendan knocked on Kara's dressing room and entered. Their make-up artist, Sophie, was putting the final touches on Kara's make-up. She was already in her costume: a blue-white-and-yellow field hockey uniform which had also doubled for cheerleader outfits in other F.G.S. productions.

  "How are you doing?"Brendan asked. "Got your lines memorized?"

  Kara smiled.

  "Hey, where's your necklace?"

  She shrugged her shoulders.

  "Hold still!" Sophie grunted.

  "Well, it's not like I'm TOO offended that you're not wearing my gift."

  Kara glanced over at Brendan. Her face had such an oddly placid and withdrawn look on it that Brendan wondered if she had a Prozac subscription. But that was near impossible: Kara's body was her temple, and she did not even pollute it with red meat.

  Brendan checked in on Debra next. She was sitting in her chair, staring forward at her mirrored reflection. Typical, narcissistic Debra.

  "Like what you see?" he asked.

  She blinked.

  "Guess you didn't like my gift either."

  She looked at him. "Your gift?" Her voice had an ethereal quality to it. Had someone spiked the coffee?

  "The necklace."

  She smiled. And returned her gaze to the mirror.

  Brendan moved on to Madelaine. Having worked on four pictures before, she and Brendan had a friendly relationship. Her door was ajar, so he opened it and walked inside.

  "Good morning, sunshine!" he said. She was not there. "Madelaine?"

  He walked back onto the set. "Madelaine? Has anyone seen Madelaine? Has Madelaine arrived yet" Today was HER day. And Madelaine was always punctual.

  Sunlight briefly flooded the studio, as the back door opened and closed.

  "Somebody lock that door!" Brendan cried. The last thing he needed was some curious moron ruining a shot. Then Madelaine began to approach him.

  "Where have you been?"

  She smirked. "Asleep. But I'm awake now."

  "Good to know. Get to make-up."

  She walked away. Or more like floated, as she seemed to drift across the floor as she were a riverboat casually cruising down the Mississippi. Brendan scratched his goatee. Something was rotten in Denmark, and it wasn't the coffee.

  And where was her necklace?

-     -     -


  This was it. The growth scene. The scene everybody had been waiting for. Except Brendan, who was on his fourth pack of cigarettes.

  "Where are the fx people?" Marty asked.

  Brendan shook his head. Madelaine was standing on her mark in their simple school laboratory/doctor's office/morgue set. She looked perfect for her part: bulky gray sweater, jeans, glasses. The actor playing the lecherous janitor, Scott, was ready on his mark, nearby. He was a cousin of the best boy, and looked perfect for his part, too -- poor guy.

  "Brendan, seriously, what are we going to do about the growth sequence?"

  "Just keep rolling," Kara said, standing on the side.

  "Don't stop filming," Debra added.

  Brendan sighed. Scratched his goatee. Opened a fifth pack. It was ten o'clock. "Places!"

  The crew stopped gossiping and readied their equipment.

  Brendan bit his bottom lip. He had not been this nervous since he had asked Judy McCray to the junior prom. Quietly, he gave the order: "Action."

  Madelaine, lying on the floor, climbed to her feet from being knocked down by the explosion. Dazed, she looked around the room.

  "What happened to me?" she recited.

  Then Scott entered. "I heard an explosion." He sounded like Porky Pig.

  "I was working on my science project...I don't know what happened..."

  Brendan took a deep breath. Here it comes...

  "Come here. I'll ease your pain, baby doll," Scott said, and stepped toward her and tripped on his own shoelaces and fell to the floor.


  Scott, chuckling, crawled to his feet.

  Brendan breathed cigarette smoke. "Take it from 'I don't know what happened.'"

  The actors resumed their places.

  Madelaine: "...I don't know what happened..."

  Scott: "Come here. I'll ease your pain, baby doll."

  He approached her. Grabbed her arms.

  "Hey, let me go! Let me go!"

  Brendan covered his eyes. Any minute now, everyone would looking to him with one question on their lips, and it would be a question Brendan could not answer. All these people, all these salaries...he was doomed.

  "What...the...fuck?" he heard Scott stutter.

  Was that line in the script? Brendan opened one eye. Nobody was staring at him. They were all staring at Madelaine.

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