Copyright © 1998 by Barbara Davies.

This story was first published in May 1998 in Issue #4 of the print magazine Lesbian Short Fiction (editor Jinx Beers). LSF has sadly since folded.

"Bright Star" was written to the sound of the Indigo Girls' LP "Swamp Ophelia" and owes its inspiration to their song "Fare Thee Well". Thanks, girls!

BRIGHT STAR

by

Barbara Davies

It was the hottest June for ten years when I first set eyes on Emily. She was standing on the porch watching the taxi pull away down the gravel drive. She turned at the sound of the front door opening, her jaw-length black hair swinging, the mirrored sunglasses giving her a forbidding look.

"Mac booked me a room. I'm Emily Vedette."

The smart skirt and jacket seemed more in keeping with a businesswoman than an actress, and I was immediately conscious of my shabby jeans and T-shirt.

"I've been expecting you," I said. "Come in."

She picked up the smaller items of matching luggage, and shouldered her way past me into the cool of the hall, obviously expecting me to bring the rest. I grudgingly reached for the remaining two bags, hoping she wasn't one of those walking egos I've had the misfortune to meet. Though according to her agent she had every right to be arrogant.

"She's something special, Carol," Mac had said. "MicroCorp chose her from among hundreds of unknowns to pioneer their new technique. 'Method Acting for the 21st Century' they call it." Mac has always had a tendency to oversell his clients.

Emily had removed her sunglasses and was looking curiously around the large hall, inspecting my paintings and the bric-a-brac that comes from ten years of looking after actors and their needs. I dumped the heavy cases beside her, and was surprised when she turned, her pale blue eyes searching my face.

"You must be Carol Murphy. Mac has told me a lot about you." Pearl-like teeth gleamed as she smiled at me, her face suddenly transformed. "Thanks for helping with the luggage."

Whether or not she was the great actress Mac claimed, this young woman had charisma. I stared at her for a long moment before remembering my manners.

"Shall I show you around downstairs first, then take you to your room?" One of my regulars, Brad, had landed a prime West End part, so I'd given Emily his attic room which was directly above mine.

She nodded, then glanced at the paintings again. "Yours?" She ran her fingertips lightly over the impasto ridges of my most recent work, an abstract in shades of red, yellow and orange, titled 'Flames'.

"It's a hobby of mine ... Leave your bags here for a moment, Ms Vedette, and come this way, please."

My big old house is practically next door to the Shakespeare Theatre and has everything an actor might need to survive the season. There's a huge back garden, useful for sunbathing away pre-performance nerves on non matinee days. It's also private, secluded. I gathered this was why Mac wanted Emily to stay here.

"If she's going to be the huge star you say she is," I'd protested, "shouldn't she be staying at the Hilton? MicroCorp can afford it, I'm sure, and they've got en suite bathrooms there."

He patted my bottom in that irritating way of his. He knows men aren't my type, but it doesn't stop him trying. "Your place is fine, Carol. Once Emily gets started on Lady Macbeth, she's going to get a lot of attention. She'll need privacy and quiet."

"Lady Macbeth? A green TV actress has landed that role? How come?"

"MicroCorp are sponsoring the season, so they pulled a few strings. But she deserves it. You wait until you've seen her ... Anyway," his expression became suddenly serious, "that isn't what I wanted to talk about. I want you to keep a close eye on Emily."

My heart sank. "She's not a user is she? You know my rules. No hard drugs on the premises."

Mac shook his head. "Nothing like that. MicroCorp want to know their investment is in safe hands. It's Emily's first theatre season, so mother her, make sure she eats properly and gets enough sleep, protect her from the backbiting. You know the score, Carol."

I sighed. Actors seem to need mothering more than most. At thirty-five, I'm younger than many of my regulars, but sometimes I feel decades older. "Okay, Mac. I'll keep an eye on her."

He gave my behind another pat. "Knew you wouldn't let me down."

Emily was standing just behind me. I half turned towards her and gestured. "This is the TV lounge. There's a TV and radio in your room, but sometimes it's nice to have company ... If you want to borrow any of the books, feel free."

She glanced at the well-stocked shelves which lined the room, the latest issue of The Stage lying on the coffee table, the empty easy chairs. "Where are the others?"

I checked my watch. "Nearly lunchtime. They'll be back soon."

We went through to the dining room. The table was set with clean cutlery and napkins, and empty glasses. A huge bowl of salad graced the centre of the table cloth. "We eat in here, though I can provide meals in your room. Which would you prefer, Ms Vedette?"

She didn't hesitate. "My room ... and please call me Emily."

"You'd better call me Carol then." I led the way back to the hall, picked up two of her bags and started up the stairs. She grabbed the remaining luggage and followed me.

"Any likes or dislikes?" I asked.

She gave me a speculative look, as though I'd propositioned her, and I felt myself blush. I never pry into my guests' personal proclivities, though sometimes they tell me anyway. Brad, for example, spends most of his free time at the gay bar down the road.

"I meant: Are you a vegetarian? Do you hate cheese? You know the kind of thing?"

Emily laughed easily. "Oh, I see. No."

We started up the second flight of stairs. "I've put you in the attic room. Sorry it's such a long haul. It gets rather hot in the Summer, being under the roof, but there's an electric fan you can use. I think you'll like it." I was already slightly out of breath, but she seemed unaffected by the climb.

I turned the key in the lock, and opened the door. A wave of warm air, carrying the scent of freshly laundered sheets, wafted through the opening as I waited for her to go in first. The slight gasp and the look in her eyes was worth the wait. She was staring up at the skylight which slanted directly over the double bed. Sunlight streamed in through the glass and painted rainbows on the lemon duvet.

I dumped the bags next to the bed, then crossed to the fan and switched it on. Slowly the room temperature began to fall. "If the sun gets too bright, pull the blind." I showed her how it worked. "And you can scrape the decals off if the rainbows bother you. The previous occupant put them up without asking me, so I'm entitled."

"Maybe," said Emily. "I'll see." She glanced round, and for a moment I imagined the bedroom through her eyes. Well worn but comfortable - like the rest of the house, like me. "It's fine," she said, walking over to the sink and trying the taps.

"The bathroom is on the next floor down."

She nodded.

"You'll need this. I'd like it back when you leave, please." I held out a spare front door key, and she took it, her fingers brushing mine and sending a tingle up my arm which startled me. Then she hefted one of her bags onto the bed and began to unbuckle a strap.

"Right. I'll leave you to it then, Emily. If you need anything, I'll be downstairs."

She glanced at me, smiled slightly and nodded, then turned back to her unpacking. I stood there, feeling dismissed yet curiously reluctant to go. After a moment, I left her to it.

 

Three of my guests had turned up for lunch. I dished out plates of ham, tuna, and cheese as requested, and tried not to trip over Sam's large feet.

"Has the Vedette woman arrived yet?" he mumbled through a mouthful of ham. He'd had his eye on Brad's room and was annoyed when I told him it was already taken.

"She's having her meals in her room." I grabbed the salad bowl from him, before he could deposit the entire contents onto his own plate, and passed it to Margaret. She helped herself to a piece of lettuce and a tomato, then proceeded to push her tuna round and round the plate. I sighed. It looked like someone had commented adversely on her weight again; no doubt she'd want diet food for the rest of the week.

Sam wolfed his salad and looked hopefully at me. I pointedly ignored him.

"You're supposed to chew it," said Zoe, wrinkling her nose prettily.

"I'm a growing boy. I need my food." Sam grinned at Zoe, and she sniffed and began to pick daintily at her own meal. He looked round. "Anyone know this Emily Vedette? I've not come across her before."

The others shook their heads. I wasn't surprised they didn't recognize her name. Shakespeare and Ibsen were not exactly Emily's old stamping ground.

"Well, whoever she is," said Sam, "according to the cast list she's playing Lady Macbeth. A complete unknown!" His tone mixed envy with disbelief - it can't have helped that he was playing the minor speaking role of Fabian in Twelfth Night, and 'an attendant' in Macbeth.

A disgruntled murmur about actors who don't pay their dues went round the table. Zoe and Margaret felt little sisterhood with the unknown actress, it seemed, especially as they too only had bit parts in an Ibsen play at the town's other theatre. Professional jealousy can be a poisonous thing. Now I understood why Emily was keeping to her room.

"Mac thinks she can do it," I said.

"She's one of Mac's?" Margaret looked peeved at the mention of her own agent. "He never told me." She helped herself to a piece of celery with one plump hand.

"She probably used the casting couch," said Zoe cattily.

Sam winked at her. "Wouldn't be the first time."

I was tired of their bickering and went through to the kitchen to sort out the Summer Pudding. Usually, the atmosphere in my guest house is reasonably pleasant, give or take the odd outbreak of first night nerves. Emily, or the heat, seemed to be upsetting the balance. I hoped it was only temporary.

 

The guest house was quiet, the other actors at their various evening performances. Emily had left her empty tray outside her room. I collected it, and was turning to go, when the door opened.

"I thought I heard something," she said. "I've got some whisky in my room. Would you like some, Carol?"

I tried not to read too much into the invitation. She was probably feeling lonely, I thought - her first evening in a strange place. And I needed a drink. I had spent all afternoon painting, but absolutely nothing had gone right; I felt like throwing the canvas away and starting again.

"Best offer I've had all day." I went in and put the tray of dirty crockery on her dressing table, while she poured shots of whisky into the two glasses I'd provided for teeth cleaning purposes.

While I waited for the drink, I looked round. The fan hummed hypnotically in one corner, sending out its cool waves. The sun had set a few moments ago, and though the room was still light, the rainbows were now barely visible.

For an actress, her room was remarkably tidy. A box of stage make-up lay open on the dresser, and I could see the garish sticks and smell the familiar scent of greasepaint. There was also an oblong metal box, about the size of a music-cassette, but no sign of a Walkman. The radio was on, playing rock music softly. I turned to take the glass that Emily held out.

"Use the chair," she said, sitting on the edge of the bed.

"Thanks." I sat down and took a gulp of neat spirit, relishing the bite as it worked its way down my throat. "Mmmmm. That's good."

She smiled, and took a sip of her own drink, but said nothing, just looked at me. After a few moments of her silent scrutiny, I began to feel uneasy and cast around for something to say.

"What have you been doing this afternoon? Going over your lines?"

She continued to gaze at me with those disconcerting pale eyes, then took another sip. "Don't need to. I know them already." Her voice was matter of fact, totally confident.

I realized suddenly why the room was so tidy. There was none of the paraphernalia I'm used to seeing in an actor's rooms - none of the critical texts on interpreting Shakespeare, on acting technique, none of the loose sheets of tattered and densely annotated scripts. From a veteran I could perhaps have understood it, but from one as young and inexperienced as Emily ...

I was reminded of my first impression of her, of that faintly repellent air of arrogance. Impulsively I drained my glass and stood up. Her gaze followed me to the dressing table, shadowed by some emotion I couldn't fathom. Disappointment?

"I have to prepare supper," I said awkwardly.

She nodded. "Of course."

"Thanks for the drink."

"You're welcome."

I gathered up the tray and went downstairs to the kitchen.

 

For the next week, I saw little of Emily, though I was constantly aware of her presence, like a magnet tugging at me. She was busy with rehearsals, and remained aloof, only mixing with the other actors at the theatre. Sam's attitude towards her changed almost immediately rehearsals began.

"There's something about her, Carol," he said, raiding my fridge and ignoring the warning that the huge piece of Cheddar would spoil his appetite. "She's got that part down cold. Gives it all she's got, even when we're only blocking out the moves. I don't know how she does it, but it sends shivers down my spine!"

He shook his head thoughtfully, his eyes seeing something far away. "She's really something."

Then he looked at me hopefully. "When's supper ready?"

 

As the days progressed, a feeling of tension began to pervade the guest house - as though a storm were gathering. Wimbledon was on the TV, and for once the weather was hot and sunny, humidity drenching the lean limbed tennis players with sweat. In between shopping, cleaning and cooking, I spent my afternoons and evenings watching tanned figures in white hitting balls across a net, and hearing the commentators burble inanely about cross court volleys and drop shots.

The fridge's icemaking compartment worked overtime as I provided my guests with almost endless cold drinks. They began to snap at each other for no apparent reason, though often Emily's name was mentioned. I was glad when the first night performance of Macbeth arrived.

 

'New Star Is Born' read the review headlines the next morning. According to the critics, Sam was right. There was something special about Emily Vedette. They were calling her Lady Macbeth the best interpretation they'd seen for years. All this adulation for a TV bit part player! 'Superb' and 'transcendent' were just some of the adjectives used. The other actors sat round the breakfast table and gave each other stunned looks, tinged with envy.

"It's a fluke," said Zoe peevishly. "Must be."

But it wasn't a fluke. Night after night, Emily wowed the audiences and critics alike.

Mac rang me after the fourth performance. "How's she doing, Carol? Any problems?"

"None that I know of."

"Good. Let's keep it that way. She's a hot property, that girl. A star."

 

The alarm clock showed 3 am, and I gazed round the bedroom wondering what had woken me. Traffic? The heat? It was another hot and sticky night. The windows were wide open to what little breeze there was, and I had thrown back the sheets and was sleeping naked in a feeble attempt to keep cool. It wasn't working. I got up and crossed to the sink to splash some tap water on my face. Then I heard it, directly above me - the creaking floor boards of Emily's attic room as she paced up and down.

I tried to go back to sleep but was now wide awake. The pacing continued. After twenty minutes, I got up, slipped on a dressing gown and slippers, and padded softly up the stairs.

"Emily." I rapped a knuckle twice on her door. Immediately the creaking stopped, and I sensed her listening, imagined her looking at the door. The rest of the house was so quiet I could hear the grandfather clock ticking in the hall below. I tapped again, and the door opened.

Her eyes glittered, and there were dark shadows beneath them. Her hair stuck out in spikes. She gazed vaguely at me for a moment, then awareness seemed to dawn. "Carol?" Her voice was husky.

"Are you all right, Emily? Can't you sleep?"

She ran her hands distractedly through her hair. "Sorry. Have I been disturbing you? It's the adrenalin, I guess."

"Can I get you anything to drink? Something cool, perhaps?"

Emily gazed at me for a moment, and visibly attempted to pull herself together. "No, I'm fine." Then she suddenly yawned widely, showing those even white teeth. "In fact I think I can probably get some sleep now."

I nodded and turned back down the stairs.

 

The rave reviews had made me curious, so I decided to see Emily's performance for myself. Sam pulled a few strings and managed to get me a freebie in the front row - just as well, the price of tickets being what they were. Word of the new star had spread and the house was full; the touts outside the theatre were doing a brisk trade.

When she first appeared on stage, I almost didn't recognize her. Emily Vedette was the ambition obsessed wife of Macbeth. I couldn't take my eyes off her, nor, I sensed, could the rest of the audience. She seemed lit by an inner radiance. Once, her eyes seemed to stare straight at me, and I froze, scarcely daring to breathe, until they moved on.

The play held me enthralled, so much so that I was hardly aware of the annoying coughs and beeping watch alarms. During the final sleepwalking scene, I actually found myself becoming anxious for Emily's sanity. My palms were slick with sweat and I had to wipe them on my jeans. She's only acting, I kept telling myself, yet I was on the edge of my seat with worry. I needn't have concerned myself though. By the final curtain, Emily was herself again, smiling, laughing, and accepting the rapturous applause that greeted her.

I went home, knowing I had witnessed something unique, and sat in the lounge drinking whisky, my mind in a turmoil. Was this the shape of acting to come? MicroCorp's new technique must be really something.

It was midnight when the front door opened and I heard Emily come in. She must have seen the light in the lounge. I heard her footsteps cross the hall tiles, then she was standing in the doorway, looking at me.

"I saw you in the audience, Carol. Did you like it?"

After tonight's performance I would have expected arrogance, complacency even, yet instead Emily seemed curiously vulnerable. There was hunger in those glittering eyes, I thought. But hunger for what? Surely she had all the adulation she could possibly want? I stared at her, almost speechless, then managed to find the words.

"Like it? Of course I bloody liked it!"

She grinned at that, and seemed to relax, the tension leaving her shoulders. "I'm glad."

I began to wonder what it would be like to touch her. Would her skin be as hot as that strange inner fire? I took another gulp of whisky in an attempt to stop myself acting on the impulse, remembering what happens to a moth when it flies too near the flame. Damn it, I thought desperately. Go to bed, Emily, and leave me alone!

But she stood there silently, her head cocked slightly to one side, her eyes fixed on mine. And I knew there was to be no escape.

"So, Carol." She said at last, quietly. "Shall we go to my room?"

 

The skylight above us was full of stars and rainbow decals, the night as black and clear as any I have seen. Then Emily's face blocked out the night, and I felt her breath hot on my cheek, smelt the musky scent of her. I ran my fingers through her hair, and was shocked to feel something hard - at the point where the skull joined the spinal column.

"What's that?" I asked, but she stopped the question with her mouth, her tongue seeking mine, and I forgot all about it as need overcame us both.

Later, as we lay drowsily on the bed, sweat cooling, I remembered the feel of the lump on the back of her head. It had been something alien, grafted on. She was lying on her back, one hand resting on my stomach, her head turned away from me. Carefully I reached over and began to part her hair.

The moon had wheeled into view and now spilled light onto the pillow. The tiny square of pink plastic it revealed didn't quite blend in with Emily's skin tone, and it contrasted sharply with her fine, black hair. She muttered sleepily at my touch. "What?"

I shushed her and continued to examine the thing. It was about half an inch square, and looked remarkably like a removable plug of some kind.

"Emily," I said. "What's this?"

She rolled towards me, trapping my hand beneath her, and giving a squeak of discomfort. "What are you doing?" She tugged my hand free and kept hold of it, then, as though belatedly registering my question, said quietly, "It's a port." She kissed my hand.

"What do you mean? A port?"

"For my acting chip," she explained. It still meant nothing to me.

"I don't understand."

She licked my fingers one by one, then took my thumb in her mouth. My pulse rate was rising and I found it hard to concentrate. "Let's talk about it tomorrow," she said huskily.

My mind objected but my body agreed with her.

She was sleeping peacefully when I rose to get breakfast for my other guests,

 

I was watching Wimbledon on the TV in the lounge when Emily emerged from her room at last.

I felt her hand running lightly through my hair, and turned and smiled at her. "Hi. Sleep well?" I patted the seat next to me.

She grunted and curled up beside me, her gaze on the tennis. Dark shadows still smudged the delicate skin beneath her eyes, but the glitter which had so worried me had gone. I took her hand and stroked it. "Got a matinee?"

"Not today. It's Twelfth Night instead."

"Great. Spend the day with me?"

She looked directly at me for the first time, and smiled. "Okay."

My heart soared like a bird.

We spent most of the afternoon in the shady part of the garden, eating strawberries and drinking lemonade. Sam and the other guests considerately left us alone together. Waves of sweetness drifted over from a nearby honeysuckle, heady, almost cloying in their intensity, and I could hear the soft buzz of the bees swarming frantically over its pale yellow flowers. I was trying to paint a picture of Emily as she lay lazily on a rug when I asked her about the port again.

"How long have you had it?"

She sighed and turned her head to look at me. "About a year. MicroCorp paid for the operation, then there were the tests to make sure it was installed okay."

I frowned and daubed some flesh tones onto the canvas. "Is it dangerous? I've never heard of an acting chip before. Presumably it's still experimental."

Her fingers trawled the springy blades of grass beside the rug. She considered me thoughtfully for a moment, then seemed to make a decision. "It's a prototype. But they assured me it's safe." She reached for her handbag, rummaged inside, and passed me the oblong metal box I had last seen lying on her dressing table.

I put down my paintbrush. "What's this?"

"Open it."

It clicked open without effort. Inside, the plastic foam base contained ten notches, three filled with tiny computer chips. I stared at them, fascinated by the minute metal pins which sprouted from the side of each chip. Nine pins, I counted. Remove Emily's pink plastic plug, and there would no doubt be nine tiny receptors, ready and waiting. I shuddered slightly at the thought.

"And you just slot one of these in before a performance?"

She nodded.

I squinted at the labels beside each chip: 'Lady M', 'Cleo', 'Rosalind'. My mouth was open, but I couldn't seem to close it.

Emily retrieved the box, snapped it shut, and replaced it in her bag. "Satisfied?"

I gathered my scattered wits. "So how does it work exactly?"

"Who knows? I plug in the chip and become the character. That's it as far as I'm concerned."

"What do you mean?" I stared intently at her. Something about that statement worried me. "What happens to Emily Vedette while you 'become the character'?"

She made a frustrated noise in the back of her throat. "It's difficult to describe ... You know when you listen to music on headphones? Although you can hear the music, you can also still hear what's going on around you - traffic, loud voices ...?"

I nodded.

"That's the nearest I can get to it. The character gets layered on top of my own personality. I'm in control, doing what the director wants, but the character provides the lines, the emotion, the ... authenticity, if you like."

It sounded risky to me, and I was damned if I was going to let her get hurt by some corporate experiment. "Are you sure you know what you're doing, Emily?"

She looked puzzled, uncertain whether to be offended by my remark or not. I put down my palette and joined her on the rug. "Look, it's just that I'm worried about you." I brushed her cheek gently with my finger. "You seem to be wearing yourself out. Suppose this chip is bad for you. When did you last get a full night's sleep?"

Emily pressed a finger to my lips. "Shhhh. You worry too much, Carol. I'm feeling fine, honest." She grinned at me, and I found myself smiling in return. "And now we're lovers," she continued, "everything'll be even better. I'll be much more relaxed. You'll see." Then she pulled me down beside her and kissed me.

 

The summer grew even hotter, and my affair with Emily matched the heat. Sam and the others knew what was happening, but apart from the odd raised eyebrow and comment - it was the first time I'd ever slept with one of my guests - they left us alone. As long as I still made their beds and provided their meals, they were content.

For a while, Emily seemed fit and happy. Her acting seemed to take less out of her, the shadows beneath her eyes grew no worse. The fuss over her died down, and people even began to take this new star for granted. Then it began to go wrong.

One night, I was woken by the sound of talking. I lay there gazing up at the stars, startled for a moment, thinking someone else had come into the room. Then I realized it was Emily reciting her lines.

"Are you okay?" There was no change, the murmur continued, so I shook her gently by the shoulder. "Emily?"

It was a moment before I saw the head silhouetted against the pillow turn towards me.

"What is it? What's wrong?" she asked sleepily.

"You were talking in your sleep."

"Was I? Sorry."

I gnawed anxiously at my lower lip. "You did take out your chip before the curtain call tonight, didn't you?"

"I think so."

Her vagueness worried me. "Hadn't you better check?"

Emily half sat up in bed and fingered the lump beneath her hair, before lying back down again. "Yeah, it's out. Now go back to sleep."

She rolled over and her breathing slowed almost immediately. But I lay awake for the rest of the night.

Two nights later, I woke to find her washing her hands at the sink, crooning softly to herself. "'Yet here's a spot ... Out, damnéd spot! Out, I say!'"

My blood ran cold as I recognized the scene from Macbeth.

"Emily! What are you doing?" I was out of bed in an instant, and had my arm around her shoulders. "Stop it, you're scaring me." Her skin was burning up.

She shook off my arm and said plaintively, "'Here's the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.'" And once more she began to scrub at her hands. If she went on like this much longer, she'd draw blood.

I struck her lightly across the face with the back of my hand. It had no effect, so I struck her again, making my hand tingle with the blow.

She surfaced at once. "Carol?" She looked round dazedly. "What am I doing here?"

"You were sleepwalking," I soothed. "Nothing to worry about, love. Come back to bed."

And trustingly, she did as I bid her.

 

"Mac. I have to talk to you about Emily."

"Carol? Is that you?"

"She seems to be getting more and more confused." I told him about the latest incident. There was silence from his end of the phone. "Mac? Are you still there?"

He sighed. "I was afraid something like this might happen. It must be the constant repetition of the role."

"You mean the chip's changing her brain permanently?"

I had expressed this very fear to Emily a few days earlier, but she brushed it aside, saying, "Don't be silly." Then she ruined the whole effect by continuing, "Even if it is, it's worth the risk. There's no choice, Carol. Don't you see? Without the chip I'm nothing. Just a bit part TV soap actress. With it, I'm a star."

"We have to stop this before the damage becomes irreversible," continued Mac. "It would cost too much to start all over again ... I'll call MicroCorp and get them to collect her."

The way he said it chilled me, in spite of the boiling heat. It was clearly not Emily's sanity that bothered him, but the expense of a prototype going wrong. I started to protest, but he had already hung up and I was listening to the dialling tone.

Emily was lying on the bed in her attic room, the rainbows giving her skin an unearthly glow, when I told her what I'd done. She stared at me silently, her eyes full of pain and betrayal, until I had to turn my back on her.

Tears welled up inside me. "It's for the best," I tried to say, though the strangled words which emerged were almost unintelligible.

And then I felt her hand grasp mine and squeeze it gently. "It's okay, Carol," she said softly. "I understand." And I knew that somehow she did.

The MicroCorp ambulance came for her within the hour.

 

Later I heard that Emily Vedette had been taken to a rest home somewhere in the Home Counties and was making a slow but steady recovery. According to Mac, MicroCorp had learned a useful lesson from her, and any future acting chips would be used for short term roles only - TV and film work would be ideal, anything longer could induce schizophrenia. I asked him if I could visit Emily in the rest home, but he said it would be unwise. Later still, he told me she'd started a new relationship - with her counsellor.

The scorching Summer turned into a rainy Autumn, providing much needed relief from the heat. Actors came and went at the guest house; Brad returned, heard my news, and treated me like one newly bereaved, which in a sense I was.

A new season opened at the Shakespeare Theatre. For a few days, the papers wondered what had happened to the remarkable actress who had wowed them with her Lady Macbeth, and then, with their usual fickleness, forgot all about her.

I wish I could do the same, but those hot nights spent with Emily are branded deep in my psyche. Perhaps the memories will fade in time, but they will never be completely forgotten. The shooting star that was Emily Vedette blazed so brightly it almost consumed me. It will be many years before I let myself get burned so badly again.

THE END