Emily Neuberger | Fiction
The night of the invitation, Maddie was on the couch, Lulu nearby in her donut. Maddie struggled not to adjust her, imagining Lulu’s soft head smacking the coffee table corner. Her breasts leaked through her old Northwestern t-shirt, wetting the crusted circles from that morning.
When her husband answered his phone, he sounded so thrilled to speak to whoever it was that resentment boiled in her chest. Ever since he’d gone back to work, Maddie clocked every one of his touchpoints with the outside world.
“Who is it?” Maddie called from the couch.
“Everything’s great here. Lulu’s great, Maddie’s great.” Dan grinned over a sink of soapy dishes. He’d thrown his tie over his shoulder for safekeeping. “Sounds incredible.”
“What sounds incredible?”
He held up a finger.
She seethed. “Daniel.”
He turned the phone to speaker and placed couch between them. “It’s Jake.”
“Jake!” She struggled to sit up. “Hi!”
Jake said “mommy” the same way he’d say “beautiful”, yet it made her feel like she was suddenly twenty years older than him. “Sorry I haven’t been up to see you guys. Filming’s been crazy.”
After years of bartending interrupted by walk-on roles in crime shows, their old roommate Jake booked a featured role on a popular drama. For a week he was the “internet’s boyfriend” and worked steadily since. When he booked an indie movie filming near house in Wisconsin, they’d been thrilled; it was the first time they’d be within a thousand miles of each other since they all left Chicago. But time moved differently to Maddie since Lulu arrived. Some afternoons held entire years, and then she’d look at the laundry basket and find days had passed. Filming would wrap in a week and they still hadn’t seen him.
“When are you coming?” Maddie asked.
“Soon, soon.” He’d lost most of his Texas drawl over the years, but he still took his time approaching the ends of sentences.
“It’s so good to hear your voice.”
“How’s the angel?”
“Exhausting,” she said. Jake’s laugh reminded her of the blizzard the year after college, when the three of them stayed inside their apartment for two days, sampling the foamy egg-white concoctions and hot spiced bourbons Jake was learning to make, listening to music and watching the street lamps illuminate the flakes into orange sparks.
“She sleeps so well, though.” Dan rubbed Lulu’s tummy. “She isn’t even peeping.”
“Whoa that reminds me, I have to ask you guys something.”
Jake, she’d always thought, looked amazing on camera. He could hold his beautiful face so still that the audience would see whatever the director wanted in it. That was different, though, from being a good actor.
“Funny, speaking of babies! The baby we were using for the film, turns out, has impetigo.”
“Yikes.” She moved Dan’s hand away to reach Lulu. She’d developed a habit of rubbing the bottom of her foot. It was softer than a puppy’s ear.
“When she’s awake, she’s screaming,” Jake said. “Plus, the rash. So we’re down a baby.”
Maddie knew where this was going but wasn’t going to help him get there. “Rough.”
“And, you know, babies are hard to come by. Especially outside of LA, where parents aren’t in the industry—”
Dan put a hand over Lulu as if shielding her. “Jake!”
“—we just need one tiny shot of me holding her. Won’t even take an afternoon.”
“Jake, my baby is not going to be in a movie.”
“All Lulu has to do is look adorable, which,” he chuckled, “she already does for free.”
Maddie resisted pulling back Lulu’s clothes to check if there was a rash on her skin.
“I know it sounds crazy,” he said. “But it’s not some big Hollywood movie. I’d be the only person holding her. And I haven’t even had the chance to do that.”
“You could’ve come up anytime.” Maddie regretted speaking. She sounded shrewish.
He sighed. “I know I’m the worst. But I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t urgent.”
Dan picked up the phone, switching off speaker. “Look, I just went back to work, so the whole day would be on Maddie. It’s too much. We can’t do it right now, man. The answer is no.”
“He seriously thought we’d put our baby in a movie,” Dan said over ice cream. “A movie!”
Maddie grunted for the third time, watching the baby monitor instead of the television.
“What does he think we are, stage parents?” He said all this in an aggressive whisper. “Who looks at their newborn and thinks, ‘You know what she needs? A job!’”
“Crazy.” Maddie dug through the ice cream for a peanut butter cup. “Is she breathing?”
Dan used to see the good in everyone, but since Lulu arrived, he said his focus changed “from collective to personal.” It meant he complained a lot about how society abandons parents.
Jake offended Dan last week when, unable to come meet Lulu, he countered with an invite to a bar thirty miles away. Maddie, used to Jake’s friendship hovering between transaction and convenience, wasn’t shocked. Dan said he wouldn’t dream of leaving her, but kept complaining. Finally she told him he wasn’t necessary unless he started lactating and to go if it bothered him so much. He neither went to the bar nor spoke to her all evening. She hoped she hid her relief.
“I can’t believe it!” cried Dan. “How we can be friends if he doesn’t even care?”
Maddie nudged his leg with her socked foot. “Can you check on her?”
He left her the last bite of ice cream. “Mads.”
She watched the monitor. She waited. Tried to stop. When she closed her eyes, she imagined Lulu’s face tinged blue. She got up.
When she returned, Dan’s eyebrows were pulled together. She let him rub her neck.
“She’s fine,” Maddie grumbled.
“I know.” He pressed his thumb into her shoulders. “But this is why Jake’s idea is so ridiculous. You, getting her to a movie set all by yourself. In and out of the car, checking in, feeding and changing her in that chaos. I’d never let you to do all that alone.”
She was lucky to have her husband who, after working full time, came home with armfuls of groceries, folded the laundry, and made nutritious meals followed by large desserts. He often said she’d done the hard work, growing and delivering Lulu, and she didn’t disagree, especially now that she felt a residual pull toward her, both as though Lulu had not quite left her body and as if a part of her own body was somewhere else, a part which she constantly feared would get crushed or put down the wrong way to suffocate. But sometimes she wondered if she wouldn’t be so scared if Dan let her do something herself.
“I took Lulu to the park yesterday.”
“I thought your mom came, too?”
The plan had been for her parents to watch Lulu once Maddie’s maternity leave ended. But being alone with Lulu was too close to her nightmares, when she watched, immobilized, as Lulu turned blue. So she started calling her mother as soon as Dan returned to work. She carefully avoided considering this trend and preferred to think that her mother stopped by for visits.
Maddie frowned. “I’m her mother, Dan,” she said. “I can take care of her.”
“I’m sorry.” Dan put the ice cream bowl on the coffee table and took her hands. “I know you can, Mads. I just want you to be comfortable.”
Annoyed that he ceded so fast, she withdrew her hands. “It can’t be that hard to sit on set.”
“You can’t be considering this? A movie, Maddie!”
She shrugged. She hadn’t been, but Dan’s opposition provoked her. She wished she could rub Lulu’s foot again. “We could use the money.”
Dan frowned. Lately his already fastidious financial planning had taken on an obsessive quality. With all of Lulu’s accouterments, vibrating chairs and baby-safe detergent and diapers, diapers, so many diapers (not counting the ones Maddie’d worn for two weeks after the birth) they were bleeding money. She could practically hear him calculating.
“It can’t pay much,” he finally said.
“It’ll be cool to show her when she’s older.” She paused. “A Les Antler movie, Dan!”
Dan raised his eyebrows. She’d hit a mark. “Black River is my favorite movie of all time.”
“And now Lulu will be a part of his oeuvre.” She’d never pronounced that word out loud before, but if she did it wrong, Dan didn’t react.
“I could try to take a day off…”
“No, no,” she said. “Save those for when we really need them. I can handle it.”
Suddenly, the idea of not taking this opportunity made her wild with grief. It seemed that if she did not join Jake on set, she might never leave the house again. Jake was smooth as poured honey. When they’d been closer, she had been so much less stressed. His steadiness steadied her. Right now, she needed a dose of Jake. She wrapped her arms around her husband. “Please?”
“You want to do this?” He searched her gaze. “Mads, you don’t have to prove anything.”
“It’ll be fun.” She leaned forward and took his earlobe between her teeth.
On the monitor, Lulu slept.
The morning of the shoot, she dressed herself and Lulu with great care. Dan helped them into the car, fastening Lulu’s straps while Maddie put the address into her phone. He leaned through the driver’s seat window. “Text me for anything and I’ll be there.”
She grasped his hand. “We’ll be fine,” she said for both their benefit. “This is good for us.”
He nodded, closing his eyes. “Sorry,” he said.
She squeezed his hand. “Trust me.”
He kissed her knuckles.
Because they all three lived together after college, they always said Jake was “their” friend, but Maddie met him first. Jake was a year above her at Northwestern, but she didn’t meet him until they both worked on a play sophomore year, he acting, she on crew. She already knew of him, of course, due to his angular features and the gossip about his lovemaking.
When they met, he was sitting on the stoop drinking coffee with the girl playing Blanche. He shielded his eyes while he shook her hand.
“Maddie.” He repeated her name like he was tasting it. “That’s my sister’s name.”
“Oh yeah?” She shivered, hearing his voice. His drawl softened his handsomeness, which only made it more lethal.
He smiled at the thought of the other Maddie. “She’s ten years younger. Happiest day of my life, the day she was born.”
Maddie looked at Elena, the actress, trying to commiserate. She could not believe that there was a man who looked like this, talked like this, and said things like that. Elena was cooler than Maddie, though, and sipped her coffee like she met men like Jake every day.
Nothing ever passed between them (though he did enjoy a sexual relationship with Elena, about which he frequently consulted with Maddie), but he spent the rehearsal process helping her into chairs, driving her home, and pretending to be her boyfriend when they went to his favorite dive bar and the old alcoholics hit on her. Her crush was unrequited but not painful. A relationship with Jake would make her miserable, no matter how much frisson she felt in his presence. He was too handsome, too charming, too easy with other women to make her happy. Soon she met Dan, who liked Jake, and a few years later, the three of them moved to Rogers Park.
At the time, that apartment felt adult, but when she looked back, she knew it held the last molten days of her youth. Soon the fervor cooled and her choices hardened into a life. Somehow, though she had a job back then, she never remembered working when she thought of the place. She remembered planting tomatoes against the backyard fence, dinners with visiting parents, and movie nights snuggled against Dan’s chest with her feet on Jake’s knees. It made it easier for she and Dan to have a roommate. They were “living with friends,” not “living together.” While Jake enjoyed a wild youth filled with dubiously recalled nights and thorny romantic entanglements, Maddie and Dan practiced the domesticity on which they founded their marriage. She cooked, he cleaned. They did laundry together on Sundays. They flossed their teeth and went to bed at a sensible hour. They developed a habit of lightly biting each other’s ears, noses, and fingers when they wanted to deliver affection. In bed, they were usually laughing, even during sex. Only occasionally, she wondered whether Jake could hear them, and how it made him feel.
She considered turning back before she reached the highway. In order to win over Dan, she’d had to put aside of the negative thoughts. But with each passing mile, more worries returned. She had never gone further than her parents’ house with Lulu alone. If Lulu got sick, she did not trust herself to keep her head long enough to find a doctor. She reminded herself that Jake would be there — but what use was he? What on earth was she doing, bringing her baby into the woods with her least reliable friend?
In the rearview, she could only see Lulu’s car seat. She was gripped by an urge to look at her, and pulled over into a Panera parking lot. She got out of the car, careful to grab her keys as she transferred to the backseat. One of her most terrible fears was of locking Lulu in the car. It was a sixty-degree day, and there would surely be a time for a locksmith, but she hoped that by forming a habit of intentionality around her keys, she could prevent such a lapse.
She thought about calling Dan, but knew he would talk her into going home, and she didn’t want that, not really.
A bubble of saliva had formed on the outside of Lulu’s mouth. Maddie popped it with the pad of her finger.
The crew set up in an elementary school parking lot, closed for the winter break. A car would take them half a mile down the road to the trail where they’d film Lulu’s scene. Jake had said it was a small movie, which meant little to her now that she was looking at the many vans and cars. Tents stood in the grass and trailers in the lot. Cords thick as Lulu’s arms crosshatched on the ground. She unclipped Lulu from her car seat, then thought better of it and took the whole contraption out of the car, carrying it over her arm like a heavy and durable purse.
Almost as soon as she took a step, a young woman wearing an earpiece approached her.
“You can’t park here.” She spoke slow like having a baby had obliterated Maddie’s intelligence. “This is for a film.”
“I know.” She held up Lulu. “I brought the baby.”
The woman flicked her eyes over Lulu then said, “Are you Madeline?”
Maddie had expected at least a little performative cooing over her baby. No one had met Lulu without it. It took her a moment to recover. “Yes.”
“I’m Andie. Follow me.”
Andie led them deeper into the film’s camp. Maddie picked over the cords, terrified of dropping Lulu, even in her car seat, which was built to withstand impacts at 45 miles per hour.
“Wait,” she said, remembering. “I need to text my husband.”
Andie stopped but didn’t smile. Maddie wondered how she must look to this woman. Andie was small and alternative, with a pixie cut and tattoos and large eyes. A gust of wind looked enough to kill her. While giving birth, everyone had told Maddie how well she had done, how her body had been marvelous. She’d expected to unite with her sex in an ancient pain, but her customary competence carried through to one of the most vulnerable moments of her life. She had wanted to be huddled over and protected, not praised like a strapping farm woman. Andie, she imagined, would be terrible in childbirth. She probably called out of work on her period. She probably fainted at the sight of her menstrual blood.
We’re here, she texted her husband.
Dan must have had his phone on the desk next to him. Send pics!
In a minute. Have to check in.
She put her phone in her pocket, then picked up Lulu and followed Andie.
“There’s just some last paperwork. Bathrooms there. Want coffee?” Andie tossed all this over her shoulder as Maddie struggled to keep up. She was embarrassed to be disappointed that Les Antler did not want to meet Lulu.
Soon a man joined, about thirty, with the slow blinks of someone who keeps himself moderately stoned throughout the day. Andie scurried off to more important things without saying goodbye. Maddie missed her as soon as she was gone. This guy seemed less competent.
“Oh good, he’s sleeping.”
“She. This is Lulu,” Maddie said, feeling strange about insisting her infant’s sex, but nevertheless surprised that he got it wrong. “Do you know the schedule?”
“So like, how it’ll work is she’ll go into makeup—”
“Lulu doesn’t need makeup. She’s an infant.”
He looked like she’d woken him out of a nap. “Uh, it’s for the lights, ma’am.”
“Oh.” She looked down at Lulu’s perfect skin. She couldn’t see a single pore. What if she had a lifelong acne problem because her mother put her in movies as a child? “Is it safe?”
“It’s uh, tinted sunscreen type stuff? Not like real, uh, makeup.”
She touched Lulu’s cheek. “I guess that’s all right,” she said. “I have to feed her at ten.”
He looked to the door, toward someone, she presumed, more authoritative. “I’ll have to ask but I’m sure that’s fine.”
“She has to eat!”
He gave a nervous laugh as if hoping she was joking.
Just then, Jake shouldered through the door. She cried out and he embraced her without a word. His smell took her back to that Evanston dive bar, her first whiskey. He squeezed out her breath, holding her face against his heart for a long time, before he bent down to Lulu.
“Oh my god,” he said, his tone reverent. He looked up. “Maddie! She’s just perfect.”
“We think we’ll keep her,” she said, then wished she hadn’t brushed off the moment.
“You really came through for me, you know that?” He grinned. “Les is impressed. Getting a baby at the last minute — it’s a big deal, making him happy.”
“I’m sure,” Maddie said. She felt the old stupid glow that came from pleasing Jake. “Glad we had a baby ready-made.”
“Can I hold her?”
“She’ll wake up soon. She’s going to need to eat.”
At this moment, the male lackey spoke up again. “Let me just ask Mr. Antler about that.”
Jake grinned again. “She’s a baby. She’s gotta eat, dude.”
He looked terrified. “I know. But—”
“Baby eats when she says she eats.” He nodded at Maddie.
She enjoyed watching the man rebuked, even if it rankled her that he listened to Jake, not her, about her own baby. He continued to explain the schedule, but she was focused on Jake and Lulu. It didn’t matter that she’d had to come all the way here to show her to him, it was worth it. She took some photos for Dan, sad that he missed seeing two of his favorite people meet. Jake was so entranced by Lulu, she swelled to see. She was always proud of Lulu but felt it acutely when introducing her to other people. Look, she wanted to scream. Look at her!
Then some of the stoner’s words poked through her reverie.
“—and she’ll take her to the set for you—”
“What?” Maddie looked up.
He looked startled. “I said Stacey’ll be here in a minute, and she’ll take the baby to set.”
Maddie looked at Jake. He was looking at Lulu, but this time there was a stiffness to him that she thought had entirely to do with avoiding her eyes.
She turned back to the stoner. “I’m coming, too.”
“Um, that’s not possible.”
“She’s my baby,” she said. “And who is Stacy?”
“The child wrangler—”
He looked at Jake. So did she. Jake examined Lulu’s fingernails. Seeing this, Maddie missed Dan like a sudden illness.
Maddie picked up Lulu. “I have to call my husband.”
“Baby has to go to makeup—”
The trailer door slammed behind her.
Dan picked up in half a ring. “How’s everything? You okay?”
The story came out in breathless hitches. Dan listened without interrupting.
“All right,” Dan said finally, his own nerves in check now. “We tried, it didn’t work out.”
“I signed paperwork,” Maddie said. Lulu was awake now, holding Maddie’s hair like a bell pull and looking up at her with her unfocused infant gaze.
“What are they going to do, sue us for taking our own baby home?” Dan asked.
“I can’t believe Jake didn’t speak up at all,” she said, though this wasn’t true. She was disappointed in him for being no different than she remembered.
Lulu punctuated this by shitting in Maddie’s arms.
“Oh, I gotta go,” Maddie said. “Diaper change.”
“Are you coming home?”
Lulu hated being dirty. Maddie thought it might even be more than other babies, though she had no way of verifying this. She was already squawking, her prelude to a cry.
“Sorry babe, I really—”
Dan understood. “Call me back.”
But there was nowhere to change the baby. She wouldn’t put her down in the port-o-potties. Shhshing Lulu’s screams, she spread a small blanket on the grass.
“I know,” she said. “One minute and it’ll be much better.”
She tickled Lulu’s belly through her onesie and kissed the bottom of her foot. Lulu gazed up at her. Lulu’s eyes were still gray and cloudy with newness, and Maddie often wondered what passed through them. Blobs of color and light? But sometimes Maddie felt as if Lulu knew not only her mother’s face but her thoughts and feelings as well. She kept her eyes on her task as if this was true; she didn’t want Lulu to know how scared she was. She hoped she never found out.
The trailer door slammed again. It was Jake.
She rounded on him with Lulu in her arms. “‘I’ll be the only one holding her, Maddie’!”
He lifted his hands. “I don’t really know how this works.”
“Then you shouldn’t have asked!”
“Stop yelling at me!” He slouched with his palms up. “Mads, please, I didn’t know.”
Lulu started to squawk again, disturbed by her mother’s rage. Maddie soothed her until her own breath calmed. “Sorry,” she said finally.
He stepped up slow, as if she might run away, and held out his arms. “Friends?”
She was self-conscious of her body. Hers was never as attractive a body as the women Jake slept with, but she felt even worse now, unaccustomed to her new size and leakiness. Dan constantly told her she was beautiful, but she had a theory that it was biologically easier for him to find her attractive since he got her pregnant. She backed up, clutching Lulu over her breasts, which felt more like udders than tits.
He put down his arms. “You’re doing me a huge favor, Mads.”
She looked away. One of the reasons she had delayed getting pregnant was her fear of losing her friends when she became a mother. Jake, she knew, was worse than others, who actually tried to keep in touch. But this only made it more important to hold on. If she didn’t, she knew they’d never see each other again. And if they weren’t friends, what tie did she have to herself before all the big decisions had been made?
“I want to help.” She snuggled Lulu close. “But I can’t leave her, Jake. I just can’t.”
“I understand,” he said, though he didn’t, how could he? “Let me see what I can do.”
In the end, Jake got her invited to the set. Stacy the child wrangler was given the day off. Andie didn’t look pleased, but after some muttering into her earpiece she laid down the rules: no noise, no talking to Les Antler, and most of all, no interrupting the shot.
“Can I go set up the car seat?” Maddie was feeding Lulu and the towel kept slipping, but she couldn’t find a private place to go. The crewmembers gawked like she was a girl gone wild.
Andie, perhaps in order to keep herself from staring at Maddie’s breast, had stopped looking at her entirely. “We’re not leaving yet, it’s okay.”
“It takes me awhile.” She burped Lulu, wiped her mouth.
Andie looked amused. “Whatever you want.” A black Honda’s lights blinked.
Maddie had to push aside a water bottle, sweater, and a sheaf of filming notes, then paused. Dan always hooked her into the car. There were so many straps and buckles. Maddie touched them all, whispering to herself. Somehow there was one left over, no matter how many times she tried. She started over and was near tears by the time Andie and the stoner arrived.
“Um,” Maddie said, trying to keep her voice steady, “just a sec.”
Maddie consulted her phone, googling the car seat + Honda Civic. Her internet was spotty. She watched the wheel spin for a long time before Andie turned around.
“Aren’t most of them fastened?”
Maddie snarled. “They all need to be fastened.”
The other cars were pulling away. She was breathing hard now. She was embarrassed to call her husband, unable to handle even a car seat assembly. But Dan answered right away.
“You okay? How are things? You coming home?”
“I’m changing her car seat,” she said. “And—”
“Ah.” He talked her through it. The last buckle, it turned out, was for when they turned her seat forward-facing.
“Thanks,” she muttered to Dan.
“You ok, Mads?”
She couldn’t talk to him in front of Andie. She muttered “fine” and hung up.
Shouldn’t she be able to handle a car seat?
On the drive over, she still wasn’t sure it was right. Dan hadn’t seen the fastenings, only talked her though, and what if she’d missed something? She held tight to Lulu as they drove. But she imagined a crash, and one of her arms smashing into Lulu’s soft face, breaking her nose—
Maddie closed her eyes. She breathed in as slow as possible, then released it in a thin stream. By the time they arrived, she was in tears, and she leapt out of the car to wipe her face before anyone could see.
One look at the path toward the set and she unhooked the car seat again. It was an obstacle course of roots and rocks and opportunities to drop Lulu. The handle cut into her already tired arm. She hadn’t imagined motherhood would include so much heavy lifting. The diaper bag and car seat had her stooping as she struggled to walk steadily so Lulu wouldn’t cry. She hated Dan for not being there, and then felt guilty for pushing him to stay home, and a throb of homesickness for him that shook the tears right back. She blinked them away; they would infringe upon her ability to navigate the forest safely. Her arms burned. She trekked.
At last, she made it. She threw the diaper bag to the ground, then lowered Lulu.
The forest had been outfitted for filming. Black carpet covered the soil to support the tripods, light stands, and chairs, while lights the size of canons blasted one section of forest where Jake would stand with Lulu. Seeing all this, Maddie felt exhausted. The day had already been so hard, and they hadn’t even started filming. She wanted to lay down on the soil and cry.
There wasn’t cell service in this part of the forest. If something happened, she would have to rely on these people. All of them were focused on the film. They tested equipment and set out microphones. Others crowded around Jake, powdering his face and straightening his clothes. Les checked the lights and gave adjustments. He was a short bald man in thick, red-rimmed glasses. Maddie had watched him accept Oscars before, and it was odd to see him in the forest wearing a sweatshirt, as if he were as imaginary as a character from one of his films.
It seemed to Maddie that no one was thinking about Lulu at all, and especially not of the things that could go wrong on a film set in the middle of the woods. The lights were so bright. If Lulu was pointed the wrong way, they’d damage her vision. A spider could bite her. Jake might drop her onto a sharp rock.
Maddie hissed and stepped back, distancing herself from the thought. She closed her eyes tightly, then opened them, but it didn’t go away. She looked down at Lulu, who was asleep now, eyes safely shut away from the lights.
Just like in college, Jake was trying to memorize his lines too quickly before the scene. She watched his mouth move as he mumbled the lines under his breath.
Maddie grabbed the script from him and offered to help.
“Look, baby. This is green.”
“This is the color green,” Maddie corrected. “Will you keep her eyes away from the lights?”
“This is the color green.”
“I’m worried they’ll hurt her eyes.”
“My mother didn’t—my mother never took me to the woods.”
“Jake. The lights.”
Jake squinted at the stands over their heads as if seeing them for the first time. “Sure.”
“Jacob, look at me and promise.”
“Whoa. I’m running lines.” He looked as if she’d slapped him. “Sure.”
She hoisted Lulu closer to her body, her cheeks warming. “Thanks.”
It was a more than an hour before the crew was ready for Lulu. Maddie transferred her into Jake’s arms, remembering the cleaving feeling of the first time they parted, only minutes after Lulu’s birth when the nurse took her for tests. Maddie couldn’t believe that she would miss Lulu’s precious first minutes on earth. Dan stroked her sweaty hair as she struggled to sit up to watch her carried away.
Maddie couldn’t bring herself to speak, but walked out of the shot, nearly tripping over the wires as she kept her eyes on Lulu.
Filming was as tedious as she’d heard. Most of the time, Jake was standing still, or gently moving Lulu up and down while they tested the shot. Jake’s main job, rather than acting, was being ready to act after long stretches of rest. Lulu was interested in Jake’s face and did not cry.
She sat on a nearby log to watch. Several times, threats occurred. Jake stumbled on a root. Another time a crew member came up to adjust Jake’s hair and nearly scraped Lulu with a comb. A wasp hovered in the vicinity for several terrifying minutes. And once, she thought Jake let her head drop while he took a note from Les.
“No!” Maddie cried, running into the shot. “You have to hold her right!”
Everyone stared at her like she had grown an extra pair of arms.
Jake turned to her. His hand, she noticed now, was cupped beneath Lulu’s head. His eyes were very wide. She had embarrassed him.
Les looked at Maddie for the first time. “Quiet on set or you’ll have to leave.”
Legs gummy, she returned to her log. She sat on her hands to stop their shaking.
There was just enough service in the forest for a text to fight its way through, though when she tried to reply, the message sat in the queue until a red exclamation point appeared.
After she had been on set for two hours, Dan sent Please check in when you can.
The actors were on a ten-minute union-engineered break. Jake was sitting on a stump, talking to Andie. Maddie carried a sleeping Lulu over to him. Then she tried to speak but the words clogged in her throat. She coughed and tried again. “Can you watch her for a minute?”
Jake didn’t appear to find this request shocking at all. “Sure, Mads.”
She couldn’t move her feet. “Okay, so,” Maddie gestured behind her, “I’ll be a minute.”
“Take your time,” Jake said.
One minute, she told herself as she walked away. One minute in which Lulu was asleep and strapped into a device meant to keep her safe from impact injuries. She could do this.
She walked back toward the road with her phone in her hand. She willed herself to go on, but Lulu’s presence flexed its hold on her. She felt a sturdy rubber band attaching her to Lulu, and with each step felt she might spring back. But she continued on, one step at a time. She couldn’t go on feeling this anxious. It was not going to work. She took a step further away. Then another. Then more, until her phone was back on the network and she called her husband.
She realized, as soon as he picked up, his voice as anxious as she felt, that he did not know what her last two hours had been like. He didn’t know that she’d sat on her hands and clocked all the ways their daughter could be killed in the forest. Maddie liked that he didn’t know.
“Fine, we’re fine,” Maddie said. She heard echoes of Jake in her voice. Even so, a wave of panic came over her. She paused until it crested, then said, “She’s a real star. We’re on a ‘ten’.”
She caught him up on the day, then said goodbye and breathed in the forest air. From this place, she couldn’t hear anything from the movie set. Waves of panic continued their deluge but she held strong. Lulu was fine, she thought.
She returned slowly, trying to control the rising panic, trying not to sprint back to set.
Jake was still on his stump, still talking to Andie, the car seat still beside them. Everything was fine. She’d left Lulu, and everything was fine.
The car seat was empty.
Maddie’s gaze sharpened, her cheeks heated, the back of her neck, her underarms, her palms, all burned with adrenaline. All the thoughts in her head fell out and were replaced with Lulu.
She was speaking but didn’t hear herself, didn’t choose words, her eyes were elsewhere, scanning the set, her heart leaping as she saw someone carrying something, but no it was just a box, she searched the hands of everyone in sight but they were all empty, empty, empty — no, that person was holding a coffee, but no baby, nowhere in sight.
She became aware that Jake was answering whatever question had fallen out of her head.
“They took her somewhere for a shot.”
Maddie focused all her energy on him. “Where?”
Jake said, “Not sure. Les took her.”
Maddie stared. “And you didn’t ask where.”
Jake grinned sheepishly. “Sorry.”
But she didn’t have time for him. She left him on his log and tore through the set, asking for Les, until someone pointed her toward a knot of people a few yards down a hill. She pushed her way through and saw Lulu in the center, lying on a blanket in a section of soft grass, a camera pointed at her from above. Maddie swooped in and picked her up.
“Cut!” Les yelled.
Maddie checked Lulu everywhere. She seemed fine. She was awake, looking around with her hazy eyes. She smelled normal, good.
Les was advancing on her now. “What the hell, lady!”
“No.” She rounded on him. Jake, she saw, had followed her, and hovered nervously behind the knot of cameramen. “You took my baby without telling me. I’m not the wrong one.”
“We couldn’t find you!” he said. “We just needed a quick shot. I told Jake where to find us.”
Jake, she saw, was trying to retreat.
“Well.” Maddie had never heard her voice this way. “Jake wasn’t listening.”
“C’mon, Mads,” he said, trying his grin again. “Lulu’s fine.”
“You didn’t know that.”
“Les needed her. He’s the director.”
“I’m her mother.”
She turned to Les, expecting anger, but he looked abashed. “I’m sorry. That’s inexcusable.”
The crew was staring, a fact she’d missed while her panic had clouded her faculties.
“Well.” Her voice trembled as it came down to normal. “Would you like to finish?”
“Please,” Les said.
Maddie set Lulu back on the blanket and moved out of the shot.
Jake came up beside her.
“What the hell, Mads?” he whispered. “What is wrong with you? I’m sorry, but did you have to yell at me in front of—”
“I asked you to watch my baby. You were too busy with Andie to notice.”
“I knew she was fine.”
“No you didn’t. You assumed,” she said. “I left you to take care of her.”
“It was two minutes!” He paused. “You need to get this under control.”
But Maddie had nothing else to say. Jake, she saw now, could only maintain his relaxed demeanor because he didn’t care about things. She could not go back to not caring. She’d taken on the burden of another life and, for the past few weeks, had been carrying it out in front of her, afraid to touch it. She needed to drape the load across her back, where she could bear its weight for the coming years.
The cameras hovered above Lulu, who wriggled on the blanket, unaware of the glass eyes watching her, or all the crew members, or her mother, standing by.
At last, the day was over. Les took a moment to peer through the blanket, smile at Lulu, and declare her adorable, like a politician securing her vote.
“Sorry about before,” he said again.
Jake was seated on the log, reading his script for the afternoon’s scene.
“We’re heading out,” she said.
“Oh man, already?”
She wished, then, that he would acknowledge what he’d done. But even that seemed beyond him. He looked up at her like he was sad to see her go, even as she knew Jake would move on, eager to forget his mistakes.
Behind them, Andie jingled the keys. Jake grinned at her. “Drive safe now. You have precious cargo.”
For the first time all day, Andie smiled. “I think I can manage.”
Maddie strapped Lulu into her car seat as they talked over her head.
“Well,” she said to Jake, who was still grinning at Andie, “bye.”
He gave her one of his great hugs. “See you soon, darlin, okay?”
“Okay,” she said, though she knew she wouldn’t. This did not bother her like it had that morning.
In the car, Maddie felt like a child being driven home after a playdate.
“So how long have you known Jake?” Andie asked. She was much perkier now.
“Since college,” she said, watching the trees flash outside her window. She looked in the rearview mirror but couldn’t see Lulu with her car seat turned around. “I helped him run a lot of lines.”
“He’s such a great guy,” Andie said. “You did him a serious favor. Impressing Les is a big deal. He’ll probably get another film out of this. Though, honestly, I wish you hadn’t yelled at him. Now Les is upset. But Jake is so talented, so I hope it’s okay. He’s such a great guy.”
Maddie didn’t respond.
In the parking lot, her phone began to vibrate for thirty seconds straight as the rest of Dan’s texts and voicemails flooded in. She thanked Andie and transferred Lulu to her own car. There, she sent Dan pictures from the set. He called at once.
“It went really well,” she said. “Lulu was amazing. A real star.” Her voice thickened by the end of the sentence. “Everything’s fine,” she said as the tears spilled over. “I’m just…”
“Hey,” Dan said as she cried. “You’re okay. She’s okay. You did a great job.”
Keys in hand, Maddie got out of the car and climbed into the backseat, where she sat beside Lulu and took her foot in her hand.
“I was so scared,” she confessed. “No one there understood.”
“It was so hard.”
“But she was fine.”
“I watched out for her.”
“You’re a good mom, Mads.”
Dan waited a long time while she cried. “Do you want me to pick you up?”
She shook her head, then said out loud. “No. We’re okay. We’ll be home soon.”
She waited another few minutes, stroking the bottom of Lulu’s foot, until her breathing came even once more and the tears had stopped. Then went into the front seat, carefully keeping her keys in her hand as she made the transfer. Then she pulled out of the lot and drove home, to her life, which didn’t look anything like it used to but, she reasoned, would only be like this for a short while.
Emily Neuberger is the author of the novel A Tender Thing (Putnam, 2020). Her writing has appeared in Bennington Review, The Common, Joyland, The Sun, Solar Journal, Electric Literature, and more. In 2019, she received her MFA in Fiction from Brooklyn College. She currently teaches writing and lives in Brooklyn, and is working on her second novel.