“The Walk,” by Dennis Etchison, is a neat little horror story about the dog eat dog world of Hollywood in which a director and writer have very different ideas of how their collaboration should proceed.
This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by consulting editor Ellen Datlow.
The bridge was not very long, but after a few steps the boards began to jerk unsteadily. The writer stopped.
“Told you not to look down,” he joked without turning around. It was all of six feet to the shallow creek bed. “Hold on and we’ll make it. Promise.”
“We can do this, Chaz!” said his wife in her best cheerleader voice.
He resumed walking, very deliberately. The ropes of the suspension bridge grew taut as the three people behind him followed. Then the boards began to sway and buck again, as if a wind had come up, though not even a breeze strafed the surface of the water.
“Everything okay back there?”
“Damn heels,” the director muttered.
The writer moved to one side. “Amber, why don’t you take the lead? So I can help our friends.”
The writer’s wife, who was wearing tennis shoes, slipped easily around him, rolling her eyes as she passed.
“Sorry,” said the director’s wife, embarrassed. “They keep getting stuck.”
The writer reached back, waving her forward. What was her name? “Chanel. Put your hand on my arm. Can you do that?”
“Not her heels,” said the director miserably.
Now the writer glanced over his shoulder. Chanel was wearing sensible flats, but he hadn’t noticed the director’s cowboy boots. One tapered heel was wedged in the gap between two planks. Well, he thought, what do you expect? Chanel lowered her cell phone and smiled patiently at her husband.
“Give it a little jerk, Gerry,” she told him.
“Lean on me.” The writer grasped the padded shoulder of the director’s sport coat while the man freed himself. “There. You got it.”
Amber stepped onto solid ground and turned to the others with an exaggerated smile. “We did it! Now who’s ready for a drink?”
“Me!” said Chanel. “I mean, if everybody else . . .”
“Hey, no sweat.” The writer led Chanel and Gerry off the end of the short bridge. “I’ve got some cold ones in my office.”
Chanel looked around. “Where?”
“You’ll see,” said Amber, winking privately at her husband.
Chanel scrolled through the images in her phone, stopped on the last one, and compared it to the landscape ahead. The writer caught a glimpse of the frame, a long shot of the path as it entered the dense foliage behind his house. From here it might have been the wildly overgrown fairway of an abandoned golf course; either that or the longest backyard in the world. The ridge was only a few narrow acres, but from this angle, the trees on both sides overhung with a shroud of vines, it resembled an unlighted tunnel. In the distance, at the end of the leafy canopy, the newly painted top of a mansard roof flashed in the setting sun.
“Is that it?” asked Chanel.
“Ah,” said her husband. “I should have known.”
The writer sighed. “It was supposed to be a surprise.”
Chanel squinted at the hillside and a crinkle appeared on her smooth forehead for what might have been the first time. “What is it?”
“Come on,” the writer said. “I’ll show you.”
They followed him carefully into the maze of damp vegetation. Too carefully, he realized. As if they were afraid of stepping on quicksand. There was still a half mile to go, with so many twists and turns it would be easy to lose your bearings if you didn’t know the way. Amber could walk it in her sleep, of course; she had helped with the landscaping, which he had designed to double for a forest, even a jungle, depending on the script; that was his plan. But he hadn’t considered the night scenes. It could be dangerous then. What if somebody from the crew went exploring and broke a leg? Lawsuit city, that’s what. During the shoot he would close off the footpath and put up some tiki lights just to be safe.
“Ger?” he heard Chanel say to her husband. “What’s wrong, babe?”
The writer saw that Gerry had paused beneath a transplanted palm tree, his snakeskin boots sinking into the freshly irrigated mulch. The director curved his fingers to form a tube, as if sighting through an imaginary viewfinder. Between the drooping fronds was a brief glimpse of the hillside ahead, where shadows collected below the truncated gables of an old-fashioned house. It was hard not to imagine a square-shouldered young man standing on the porch, about to descend the rickety steps.
“Not too shabby,” the director said admiringly.
“I know, right?” said Amber. “Chaz built it himself!”
Chaz chuckled. “Well, not with my bare hands. After our house was finished, there was a pallet of wood left over. So I had to do something with it.”
Amber beamed. “Isn’t it amazing?”
“You know how much it would cost to build a set like that?” the director said.
“How much?” said Chanel.
“Half the budget of this whole picture,” Gerry told her.
“Is it a copy?” she asked.
Amber was puzzled. “Of what?”
“The one at Universal.”
“That one’s a copy, too,” Chaz said to the director’s wife. “They reconstructed it for the tour. The original was just a facade.”
“Perfect for the frat house,” the director said. “I see why Freddie wants to shoot here.”
“Four-fifths scale, I’m afraid. And only two functional rooms—my office and a bathroom. I rigged a water tank and a pipe to the main line.”
“No problem. The interiors can be on a stage. Is there a graveyard yet?”
“Right behind it.”
“Chaz thinks of everything,” said Amber.
“Like the one in Baltimore?” asked the director.
“Who knows?” Chaz said. “Those are all night shots, anyway.”
“What’s in Baltimore?” said Chanel.
“The real one,” Gerry told his wife.
“The real what?”
“You’re supposed to know these things.”
Why? Chaz wondered. What did it matter what she knew about the film? Unless he had gotten her a job as his personal assistant. Well, of course he had. What do you expect?
The director kept his fingers curled and made a short pan between the trees: a patch of dry sage, ready to blow away in the tropical heat, on a hillside wide enough to carve faces, and the top floor of a Gothic folly where shadows grew like goatees under a waning sun.
“We’ll shoot exteriors during the Magic Hour,” he announced.
“Magic?” said Amber.
“The last hour before sunset. Everything looks fantastic, with the right lens. Technovision’s the best.”
“Don’t get your hopes up,” said Chaz. “Freddie likes to use his own equipment.”
“We’ll see about that,” said Gerry. He glanced at Chanel. “Are you getting all this?”
With what? thought Chaz. Her phone? If she’s going to be his assistant she should carry a notebook. A thin one might fit in the back pocket of those skinny jeans. Barely.
Chanel clicked off several more exposures, then balanced gracefully against a tree trunk, slipped off one of her designer flats and knocked out a gob of moist, leafy earth. “What time is it?”
“I know, right?” said Amber. “It gets dark so fast now!” Tiny goose bumps rose like lines of Braille on her perfectly-tanned legs. The writer had picked this outfit for her, white shorts and a loose, scoop-neck blouse over a neon green bikini top. A perfect image for the one-sheet. He hoped the director was paying attention.
“If Gerry doesn’t get a meal every three hours,” said Chanel, “he’s not himself.”
“Four,” said the director. “Don’t worry about it. I brought my meds.”
“We can go back to the real house,” Amber suggested. “I could whip something up. Plus there’s some wine left. Robert Mondavi. It’s awesome.”
“No worries,” the writer told his wife, reaching for the phone in his pocket. “I’ll make reservations at Ernie’s.”
“I can do it,” said Amber quickly, opening her phone. “Ooh, you’re gonna love Ernie’s,” she said to Chanel. “The chicken molé is crazy!”
But Chanel already held a clear-coated fingernail over her own phone’s key pad. “What’s the number?”
“Not yet,” Gerry said to her.
“You have work to do.”
The director turned to Chaz. “I was thinking.”
“After she leaves the party. Cuts through the woods to her car, trips and falls in a hole, blah blah. Starts to claw her way up. Then a sound, crunch crunch. Before she can climb out, someone steps on her fingers. She screams . . .”
The writer nodded. “Scene fifty-eight.”
“Yeah, well,” the director said, “I don’t think so.”
“We’ve seen all that before.”
The writer managed to control himself. “How do you mean?”
“Try this. She hears something, I don’t know, twigs, crack crack. Keeps walking, follow-shot, handheld, till she’s in the clear. She thinks she’s safe . . .”
“That’s not in the script,” said Chanel.
The writer was surprised. She actually read it? Why?
The director shrugged. “So? We change it. She makes it to the cars. Music cue. Peaceful, calm. Starts to call her boyfriend. Then cut to her car. The door’s already open! Her eyes bug out, she backs away—and there he is, right behind her!”
“Who is?” asked Chanel.
“Our boy Eddie. Who else?”
Amber tried a grin. “That’d be cool. I mean—d’you think so, Chaz?”
“I don’t know,” Chaz said in a low voice. Now he’s a writer, too. Sure he is. “It’s a classic set piece. I did a lot of research . . .”
“I have a question,” said Chanel.
“Yes?” said the director impatiently.
“Well, what’s her motivation?”
What’s it to you? the writer wondered.
“To get away,” Amber told her.
“Oh.” Chanel considered. “Then why doesn’t she run? Instead of walking, I mean.”
“She never runs,” the director said with disdain.
“But it’s a horror movie, isn’t it?”
“Either way,” said Amber cheerfully. “I can handle it. Can’t I, Chaz.”
“Where are the cars, exactly?” The director tipped his chin at the thick copse to his left. It trapped what was left of the daylight as the sun winked its last. “What’s beyond those trees?”
“That can be where she parked.”
“It drops off. Plus there’s a fence.”
“So? She climbs over.”
“Then she opens the gate.”
“There isn’t one.”
“How about the other side?” The director turned to his right.
The writer shook his head. “The same. Galvanized chain-link. Another ravine.”
“This used to be a farm,” said Amber proudly. “It was his uncle’s.”
“Really?” said Chanel. “I love farms. What did he grow?”
The director wasn’t listening. He waved a hand, cutting them off. “So we shoot an insert. Some empty lot with a sign that says Parking. We don’t have to see her come out of the trees. As long as it matches.”
“That’ll work,” said Amber.
The director ignored her.
The writer noted this. A nearly subaudible whispering began, as a buried irrigation system released a controlled flow of water through the enclosure. The automatic timer had come on. It was later than he thought.
“Maybe we should call it a day,” he said. “It’s almost dark.”
“Okay by me.” Chanel rubbed her arms, turned up the collar of her silk blouse and started back along a winding path she could no longer see. She hesitated uncertainly. “Babe? Are you coming?”
“You’re not finished yet,” the director said sharply.
“I told you. You need to walk the walk.”
Chaz felt a pulse at his temple as his blood pressure rose. His wife didn’t get it yet. But everything was adding up. He turned to her.
“Amber?” he said with calculated calmness. “Why don’t you give her the grand tour?”
Amber was confused. “Wait. What?”
“Did you bring your key?”
“Here. Use mine.”
The writer stepped over to his wife, whispered something in her ear, reached into his pocket, took her hand and closed her fingers firmly against her empty palm. “You two go ahead, while I walk Gerry back. We have some business to talk about.”
“Yes,” the director said.
“Meet you at Ernie’s. Say seven-thirty? Take the Escalade.”
Amber stared wide-eyed at her husband.
“I know you can handle it,” he told her.
Now there was another sound, a deep, throbbing undercurrent beyond the trees.
“What’s that?” said Gerry.
“What about them?”
“They’re—settling,” said the writer. “Happens every night, when the sun goes down.”
“Then we can’t shoot live sound.”
“No worries. We can cover it in post.”
Amber’s eyes moved between the two men, trying to understand.
Chaz nodded at her solemnly, moving his head only an inch or two at a time, until she finally blinked.
She turned away.
“Let’s go,” she said to Chanel without expression. “I’ll show you the way.”
“Wait,” said the director. He took off his sport coat and tossed it to his wife. “Here.”
Chanel slipped it on, rolled the ends of the sleeves and took a deep breath. “Okay,” she said gamely. “Well, don’t you boys worry about us. We’ll see you at, um—Ernie’s. I guess.”
Then she raised her phone, clicking off another exposure, and followed Amber along the only path through the rest of the forest.
The table wasn’t ready so Chaz led the director to the bar, where a soccer match was in progress on a big-screen TV. Gerry made a quick call to his wife.
“So how is it?”
“Kinda spooky,” said Chanel, “actually.”
“Good,” the director said.
“Babe, you should be here. It’s got a big old staircase and everything.”
“Great. I can get some high shots. What else do you see?”
“Not much,” Chanel said. “We have to find the light switch. You go ahead and order.”
“I can wait.”
“I told you, I’m fine.”
“How’s she doing?” said Chaz as they settled into a booth.
Gerry closed his phone. “She doesn’t know how to turn the lights on.”
“No sweat. Amber does.”
The director leaned back against the leather upholstery. “Some spread you’ve got out there. Your uncle did pretty well, huh?”
“He was lucky.”
“I was wondering where got your money.” Not from writing Corman remakes for the Syfy Channel, the director thought. “What kind of crops was it again?”
“Not crops. Oil.”
“Not that kind.”
“What other kind is there?”
“As in . . . ?”
A waiter appeared, carrying menus from the dining room.
“How are you, Señor Charles?”
“The usual, Pedro.”
“One Patrón Gold, with a Coke back. And your friend?”
The director saw a laminated page behind the granite salsa bowl. It pictured a selection of tequila cocktails, all made with 100 percent blue agave. Whatever that meant. Welcome to California, he thought.
“You have a house red?”
“Of course.” Pedro turned to the writer. “Where is the señora tonight?”
“On her way.”
“Muy bien,” the waiter said, backing off.
Chaz sat forward and steepled his fingers. “When did you talk to Freddie?”
“This morning,” said the director.
“What did he tell you?”
“He wants it wrapped by the end of the month.”
“Ah. For the EuroSales Mart.” The director squinted as the windows darkened. “Anything else?”
“He said I should talk to you.”
Thanks a lot, Freddie, thought the director. He wants me to deliver the horse’s head for him. Either that or Chaz is playing dumb.
“So,” Gerry began, clearing his throat. “Freddie’s come up with a few changes.”
“What kind of changes?” said the writer, staring him down.
He really is dumb, the director thought. Who else would write a script called Animal House of Edgar Allan Poe? And who but Freddie would buy a piece of old-school shit like that?
“Well, for starters . . .” The phone in the director’s shirt pocket vibrated. He took it out and looked at the screen. His wife again. He pressed the talk button. “Listen, I’ll call you back. Chaz and I are in a meeting.”
“It’s getting so-o-o cold. And . . .”
“This place is creeping me out.”
“I’m not sure.”
“Did you get the lights on?”
“Yeah, no. Amber says the fuse box is toast.”
“Then . . .” Screw it, he thought. It was a bad idea, leaving her there. “You know what? We can come back next week, with the trucks. For now, just get over here to Ernie’s.”
“I don’t even know the way.”
“Stay with Amber. She’ll walk you through it.”
“She’s looking for a flashlight. It’s dark out.”
“Remember your chakra exercise?”
“I think so.”
“Well, call me if you need me. Remember, I’m here for you.”
He tapped the off button.
“Trouble?” said Chaz.
“Not at all,” said the director. “Now, about the picture. I was saying—”
“It matters a lot to you, doesn’t it? Even a B movie like this.”
Gerry felt his blood sugar dropping as he thought, I’ve been waiting to direct since I was ten, when my dad gave me his Bolex. And what are you, an MBA?
“I mean, it’s a start.”
“And Freddie’s your big break,” said the writer.
“He’ll let me shoot anything I want. As long as this one makes money.”
“Is that what he told you?” The writer studied him humorlessly as the windows became black. “And what do you want to shoot? Art movies, right? Excuse me—films. Oh, I know all about art films. Which no one goes to see. The kind where nobody ever runs. The Walking Dead? Forget it. How about Walking Citizen Kane? Or Walking Eight and a Half? See, I know how you think. Don’t I.”
Why not? thought the director. I could do that. With digital it’s easy. All front tracking shots, all the time. I don’t even need Steadicam.
“Those were great pictures,” he said, “in the day.”
“Maybe so,” said the writer. “But I’ve done my research, and let me tell you something. The Poe flicks made Corman a multimillionaire. You know why? Horror never dies. And neither do teen sex comedies. Animal House grossed a hundred and forty mil on two point eight. Freddie knows a brilliant idea when he hears it. That’s why I have a contract.”
Yeah, thought the director. Especially with a freebie location thrown in. “I have a contract, too,” he said.
“I know. Because Herschel Gordon Levitt got sick.”
“Freddie . . .” The director felt his throat go dry. He tried to swallow. “Freddie wanted me to tell you something else.”
The writer gave him an anaconda smile. “Did he?”
“It wasn’t my decision . . .”
“Of course not.”
“But . . .”
The director’s phone buzzed against his chest.
“Go ahead,” the writer told him. “You should answer it.”
“Chanel can take care of herself.”
The director opened his phone and heard frantic breathing, or was it the rustling of trees?
“Ger? Ger, do something!”
“Where are you?”
“I don’t know!”
“Take a breath. In, out . . .”
“We started back, but she dropped her flashlight and—” The rustling grew louder. “Babe, what is that?”
“I told you, stay with Amber.”
“I don’t know where she is!”
The signal crackled with static.
Across from him, Chaz took out his own phone, tapped his wife’s name on the screen and then said, very casually, “Amber? How’s it going?”
“I think they got separated,” the director told him.
The static cleared and Gerry heard Chanel’s voice in his ear again. “There’s something out there!” she whispered fiercely. “I can’t see it but . . .”
On the other side of the table, Chaz shut his eyes, listening to his wife. “Mm-hm . . .”
“Gerry, honey, please . . . !” said Chanel.
“Perfect,” the writer told Amber.
Now Chanel was no longer on Gerry’s line. The connection had been broken.
“Maybe we should go back,” he said to the writer.
“No worries.” Chaz closed his phone. “Amber’s got it covered.”
“Are you sure?” The director’s phone dropped out of his sweating hands. He tried to steady the table as the room began to tilt.
“Sure I’m sure. She doesn’t just talk the talk.”
Pedro reappeared with their drinks and a bowl of tortilla chips and lit the candle on the table.
“You wish to order now?”
“Give us a few more minutes,” the writer said.
The director felt his lips swelling and his throat closing up, his vision as distorted as his face. Where were his pills?
“A-another wine,” he told the waiter.
“You should eat first,” said the writer.
“I’m fine!” said Gerry, as the windows grew blacker beyond the flickering candlelight. He heard a high neural scream as his blood chemistry dropped dangerously. How many hours had it been since he ate? He had lost track. He fumbled for the medication in his pocket but could not feel it. How could that be? Did he give his jacket to the waiter? Now he remembered. Chanel had it.
“Are you?” said Chaz. “Look at you.”
“Look at you!” Gerry said too loudly, no longer able to contain himself. “Don’t you get it? Amber’s off the picture!”
“Is that what you think?” said the writer casually. “You and Freddie?”
“He doesn’t care about your script! Or your backyard set with your little prop house!”
“Then why am I co–executive producing?”
“Because you married a skateboard girl from Venice Beach! What did she do, blow him under the desk?”
“And you,” said the writer between capped teeth, his voice modulated, “married an airhead model so you could pimp her out to ugly old producers. Like Freddie. Who made his wad off Zombie Man and Zombie Man’s Revenge and Zombie Man Versus the Puppeteer. Don’t you get it? He’d make a movie of dogs licking their balls in space if people would pay to see it.”
“Chan—” In desperation the director gobbled salty chips and struggled to get the words out. He stuffed the chips in his mouth and tried to chew but they fell out in sharp, dry fragments. If he did not get them down the room would start spinning like a broken carousel. “Chanel has the lead now!”
“If she still wants it,” said the writer. “If she’s not too freaked out. Maybe she went for a walk in the dark and—who knows? It’s a jungle out there.”
The director pushed out of the booth and tried to stand.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
“To find her!”
“How?” The writer dangled his silver car keys above the candle. They glinted fire.
The director reeled as his phone vibrated again and skittered across the tabletop. He fumbled for it.
“Gerry, I can’t see anything! Listen! Can you hear it?”
There was a crunching and her feet slapping something wet and then what might have been the hollow beating of drums in the background, fading and returning, moving fast. Before her cell phone crackled and went dead he heard her say,“Oh my God!”
“Chan . . . !”
Now there was a chirp from the other cell. The writer set it on the table between them and touched the speakerphone button.
“Hey, Am,” he said pleasantly, “what’s up?”
“Chaz . . .” Behind her, the same sound the director had heard a moment ago, the rhythmic throbbing and pounding. “They’re coming awfully close. I was just wondering. What if they get through the fence?”
“I built it myself.”
There was a clanging of metal links, or was it only the clink of glasses at the next table, as the drumming grew louder.
“Sorry, honey,” the writer told her. “You’re breaking up.”
He turned his phone off.
“We have to do something!” said the director.
The other customers turned to look at him.
“Not to worry. It’s only their heartbeats.”
“At the end of the day, they like to run back and forth. When my uncle stopped feeding them they went away. I didn’t think they could get up the gully. But I suppose if they’re hungry enough . . .”
“What are you talking about?”
“Know what emus are? Think ostriches. Only really big ones. His own special breed. Six and a half feet, at least. You should see the claws.”
“Hey, relax. They’re only birds.”
“That’s what’s coming? Birds?”
The writer chuckled. “So freakin’ strong. Omega-three, oleic acid, you name it. That’s why their oil was trending at the health-food stores. Till the FDA shut him down . . .”
The director tried to focus his eyes as he stumbled in the direction of the red dining room and the exit. His tapered heel skidded out from under him and he reached for the next table. A blond woman in a green satin dress sipped a martini and looked up without curiosity. He staggered and collapsed back into the booth. Then the waiter was there, holding his elbow.
“Do you feel well, señor?”
“Cab,” the director choked. “Get me—”
“A little too much to drink is all,” said the writer. “Bring him one of those special quesadillas, will you, Pedro? Pronto. Por favor.”
The director struggled to think clearly but could not. He felt his inflated head bob forward until his chin touched his chest. On the TV set, someone scored a goal.
“Take my advice,” said Chaz. “Let it go.” The writer sighed with a tinge of regret, as if thinking of something that was already beginning to fade from his memory, like a favorite car that had finally failed him and would have to be replaced. He forced a crooked smile. “What did you expect? It’ll sort itself out. For now, I guess we just sit here and see who shows up. Either way, no worries, right? We’ve got our contracts.” He opened his menu. “In the meantime, I recommend the chicken molé. It is seriously insane . . .”
The director was not listening. The other man’s voice became one with the soundtrack of the soccer game and the ragged, guttural roar in his skull as he lost consciousness and began to snore. The last thing he heard was the crowd. They were either cheering or booing but he could not be sure which.
“The Walk” copyright © 2014 by Dennis Etchison
Illustration copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey Alan Love