The Toll of the Snake

Suen Mei-Ko holds the gaze of the casting director in front of her. Minerva Kingsley is a spear clad in pinstriped rayon, sharp-edged from shoulder pads to blonde chignon. Mei-Ko feels Kingsley’s gray eyes pan down every inch of her body, and she hurries to flatten a wrinkle in her shirtwaist. She hopes Kingsley won’t notice its cream fabric used to be white, but it’s the best dress Mei-Ko owns.

“Those’re some doe-eyed peepers that America’ll pay to see,” Kingsley says with a knowing nod. “You know, you’re the eighth screen test today alone! Didn’t think this town even had that many. But none had eyes like yours. Too narrow, too slanted—that just won’t do on film.”

Kingsley reaches into a drawer of her mahogany desk and while her back is turned, Mei-Ko looks around. The airy space is filled with marble busts of the glitterati that Kingsley shaped into stars. One smiling ingenue—Mei-Ko recognizes Kingsley’s star client, Patricia Hamlin— catches the afternoon sun and makes the room glow. Maybe Mei-Ko’s just anxious, or maybe there really is something magic about Hollywood.

Her heart races all over again when Kingsley slides a contract in front of her. The pen she’s handed is golden, too. It’s real gold, isn’t it? She’s never touched real gold before. It feels amazing.

Kingsley frowns and taps her fingers on the desk. “You going to sign or what?”

Mei-Ko hurriedly scrawls her English name and initials on every line that asks for it.

Kingsley takes the papers and scrutinizes Mei-Ko’s signatures before letting out a good-natured laugh. “Well, I won’t even try to pronounce that.”

She writes “Suzy Moon” on the line next to Mei-Ko’s name. “That’s better. Pronounceable, memorable, and just a touch exotic. Everyone loves a bit of mystery.”

“Suzy? But Suen’s my last name.”

“Oh, the audience won’t know that.” Kingsley shrugs. “May-something might’ve worked, but no one will remember a rookie like you when there’s already Mae West.”

Unfortunate as it is, Mei-Ko has to agree. Still, she musters the courage to say, “If you don’t mind my asking, Ms. Kingsley—why call for Chinese girls?”

Kingsley folds her manicured fingers together and smiles like she’s the one on stage. “Because I believe in a brighter future, Miss Moon. Hollywood and all her stars are the shining beacons that lead everyday Americans. What with all our boys coming back from the Pacific, there’ll be demand for faces like yours. Patriotic people want to support the poor, ravaged Chinese, and our best director, Porter Simpkin—he’s one of them, a veritable visionary.”

Kingsley produces another stack of paper. “We’ll need to build sympathy for you. Memorize this before you come to training on Monday.”

Mei-Ko takes the document. “Just what is this?”

“Your backstory, honey! The writing staff dreamed up something real dramatic. We’ll schedule a press conference—you tell them you’re from Hong Kong, a young socialite fresh out of grammar school, which is why your English is so good. When the Japanese invaded, you escaped on a junk boat captained by a kindly old fisherman. What a pity! You had to throw your life away to save it!” Kingsley swoons with the drama of a silent film star.

“But I’m from Sacramento.”

Kingsley laughs again. “Who wants to know that?”

Mei-Ko looks over her new, fabricated life. It’s certainly more glamorous than being a third-generation laundry girl. “How long would I have to pretend?”

“Pretend? It’s acting, darling! Isn’t that why you’re here?” Kingsley laughs, and Mei-Ko finds herself laughing too. Kingsley continues, “Our standard contract starts at seven years.”

Seven years. Mei-Ko didn’t think anything could last seven years these days.

Kingsley interrupted her thought. “Movies aren’t magic, kid. They’re training and money. Sign this, and we’ll take care of you—fifteen dollars a week.”

Mei-Ko wants twenty, but she better not push her luck. In seven years, she could really make something of herself, make a lot more than twenty. And certainly more than at her dad’s laundromat. She keeps on reading. “What’s this part?”

“Ah, nothing to worry about. Just your standard morality clause. All studios have one.”

Mei-Ko read the restrictions to herself. “No swearing … no drugs … no relationships—”

“We’ll handle that for you. Keye Luke—that Kato fella—wouldn’t he be cute? A photo of you two strolling on the beach could get your name in the papers.”

Mei-Ko imagines her name in more than the papers. She imagines Suzy Moon headlining every cinema in America.

“Trust me. Be a good girl, and we’ll make you a star.” Kingsley extends her arm. “Or should I call Patricia Hamlin instead?”

Mei-Ko takes the hand and they shake. She gazes at the marble bust of Patricia and imagines herself there, too. “I’m ready to shine, Ms. Kingsley.”

Kingsley’s smile is bright as the Hollywood sign. “Welcome, Suzy, to Olympia Pictures.”

Mei-Ko marvels as Porter Simpkin whizzes across Olympia’s largest soundstage. Actors hurry to their marks. Grips push equipment into place. A painter puts the finishing stroke on a sheet of plywood, so on film, it’ll become an alley in Beijing.

Simpkin is a short man in his forties with a dark, unkempt beard. Mei-Ko looks to Kingsley for instructions, but she just shrugs and mutters, “Lord, I wish he’d shave.”

Mei-Ko smirks. “Guess it’s good he’s behind the camera instead of in front of it.”  

Kingsley scoffs. “You’re too clever for your own good, girl. Watch yourself around that one. He’s talented to be sure, but he’s got a tendency to schedule meetings after hours if you know what I mean.”

Simpkin approaches them. He leans forward and kisses the air on either side of Kingsley’s cheeks. She does not return the gesture. “Minerva, darling—how glad I am to see you!”

“Hello, Porter. Kept your tan, I see.”

“The Philippines made me realize just how dashing I look with a deeper tone. Spend a few years there yourself, Minnie. Maybe you’ll finally relax a little.”

Kingsley rolls her eyes. “Here’s the girl you asked for.”

She steps aside, and Suzy takes her cue to glide gracefully forward. All eyes are on Mei-Ko as the bell-sleeved mandarin gown swings around her ankles, bringing the embroidered flowers to life across the white silk.

“How do you do, Mr. Simpkin?” Suzy says in a perfect Mid-Atlantic accent. She bows politely.

“My, she is delightful.” Simpkin nods readily in approval. Minerva has a smug grin on her face. Those acting classes are paying off.

Simpkin takes Suzy’s hand and leads her to her mark on stage. As she waits, he calls out, “Where’s Percy?”

Percy Ryland emerges from a rack of costumes. He sports an ill-fitting army uniform that looks like it came from a history book, but his clothes don’t matter. He’s a classic, all-American dreamboat with a jawline that cuts through girls’ hearts. After tying a bloodless bandage around his forehead, he goes to lie in a hammock stretched across the stage.

Simpkin hops into his director’s chair and grabs the megaphone. His voice shakes the ground. “Okay, Percy—you’re a soldier. You were valiantly defending a Christian mission when—oh, no!—those murderous Boxers cornered you! And they got you bad! But lucky you, you were saved by a beautiful sing-song girl. What’s this? You’re falling in love! Make her love you! Make me love you! Lights … camera … action!”

The slate board claps shut.

Just as the script says, Suzy drifts across the stage and places her hand gently on Percy’s wounded forehead.

“No, no, no, no.” Simpkin gestures for everyone to return to their places. “Suzy, can you do it again? But more dainty, like you’ve got those lotus feet.”

Mei-Ko hesitates, trying to imagine this feature she’s only ever heard of. Something about the request unsettles her, but this is her first shoot. She’s worked so hard to get here and asking one wrong question might label her as difficult. She looks toward Kingsley, who simply reassures her with a curt nod.

The camera rolls again. This time, Mei-Ko takes delicate, mincing steps. Simpkin leans forward in his chair, rapt with glee. She continues the scene, shyly looking away while Percy flirts with her in a language she pretends not to understand. His soliloquy climaxes, and he takes her cheek in his hand and tilts her face toward his. Their eyes lock. His are sky-blue and give her access to his very soul. She senses deep hunger awaken behind his pupils, and she feels so powerful.

He leans forward and kisses her lips.


The scream is shrill and knife-edged. Kingsley, fists balled, storms toward her, wearing a tight-lipped frown in victory red. “You harlot! Are you trying to ruin this picture?”


“You what? I won’t be investigated because some knuckle-headed rookie can’t remember the Hays Code.” She sneers before returning to her usual composure. “I’ve trained you better than that.”

Cold sweat coats Mei-Ko’s palms. “I’m sorry, it won’t happen again.”

Kingsley exhales through gritted teeth. “It’s alright. This time.”

They do a few more takes, but Mei-Ko thinks none of them are as good as the first. Finally, Simpkin yells, “That’s a wrap!”

As the crew strikes the set, he walks up to Percy and Mei-Ko. She bows again because she knows it’s what he wants to see. “Thank you so much. I can’t tell you how lucky I feel to be in such a lovely love story.”

He puffs out his chest. “I daresay, The Toll of the Sea made me quite the romantic.”

Mei-Ko is too young to have ever watched that movie, but she nods enthusiastically to appease him. “If you like romance, you must’ve heard of The Tale of White Snake.”

Simpkin blinks, probably deciding whether he should reveal his knowledge gap. “Ah, please refresh my memory, if you will.”

Mei-Ko seizes the opportunity. She widens her eyes excitedly and adopts the tone Simpkin himself used when telling his story. “Imagine Ancient China, a land of magic and mystery. There is a monster who resembles a white snake who lived in a lake and feasted on those foolish enough to cross the bridge above it—but she longs to be human. It takes a century of devout prayer, but the gods finally grant her wish!”

Simpkin rests his finger on his chin. The picture is already playing in his head. Mei-Ko notices Kingsley and Percy have also begun to listen.

“Her first day as a human, she is caught on a bridge in the cold, wet rain. There, she encounters a young man. He’s a kind man, a handsome man. He invites her to join him under his umbrella, and there it is—love! They marry! It’s beautiful! But marriage between humans and monsters is forbidden. When her animal form is revealed—the young man dies of fright!” 

Even the crew has stopped to listen now.

“So, she challenges the gods. And she wins! They revive her husband, and with his first new breath, he swears to love her. No gods will ever keep them apart.”

Simpkin looks wistful. “Forbidden love! So beautiful! It could certainly be my next picture … or maybe with a few tweaks to this script … we are early enough to re-shoot … cultural references always add such artistic merit …”

Mei-Ko is confident she’s picturing the same thing as Simpkin: an Academy Award. Now that’s gold that she wants.

Kingsley calculates in her notepad, and explains, “I agree it’s certainly a nice tale, but it’s a foreign fantasy, full of expensive set pieces. To recoup the budget, we’d need bankable talent. I’ll have the writers draft you another part, Suzy, then I’ll phone Patricia—”

Mei-Ko turns to Simpkin and clasps her hands together, trying to look every bit the part for the film, and he comes to her rescue. “Now, now, Minnie, don’t flip your wig. What’s the harm in letting the girl read?”

Kingsley sighs and rolls her eyes. “… Only until we find a new lead.”

Mei-Ko forces herself to beam. “Thank you ever so much, Ms. Kingsley!”

Simpkin departs, but Kingsley lingers. She turns to Mei-Ko, expression grim. 

“You know,” she states, “we have a snake myth here in America, too. Medusa was the priestess, but her beauty made her bold. Too bold. The gods had to put her in her place. They turned her hair into snakes, and she became a monster so ugly that one look at her face turned men to stone. So ugly that she hid, ashamed and alone—until a hero cut her head off.”

Then Kingsley leans over and whispers into Mei-Ko’s ear, “You’d do well to remember what your contract says. And who holds that contract.”

She leaves, but the vague threat crawls under Mei-Ko’s skin. Silently, she swears to prove that she, too, can be a leading lady.

But for now, she will go home. When she steps outside, a sudden, damp chill hits her face. It’s actually raining in Los Angeles. She curses inwardly because her contract forbids her from saying such words out loud.

That’s when she hears a familiar, directorial voice. “Hi-de-ho, baby doll! Need a lift?”

A black sedan rolls up and Simpkin leans out the window, cigarette bobbing in his mouth.

“My hero!” she swoons, making Simpkin laugh. “A ride’d be swell.”

He comes out of the car and opens the passenger door with a grand gesture. “After you.”

Mei-Ko senses Simpkin is the kind of man who’s uncomfortable in silent rooms. He fills the car with small talk, “I bounced around in the Pacific during the War, and I really found myself. Something about being far from home, surrounded by exotic customs and people—I felt alive again. I found love. I wrote this script to share with my fellow Americans just how beautiful China can be.”

He parks the car next to Mei-Ko’s trailer, but he keeps tapping his hands against the steering wheel. He’s still thinking. “But this White Snake story, it’s authentic. It’s new. I’m inspired. I wanna make it happen. I’ll call Minnie—”

Here’s Mei-Ko’s chance.

“Call Ms. Kingsley? You’re the director. You’re the one who’s lived abroad, fought for our country. You’d know best how to tell this story, how to send a message people can’t stop talking about … a message like a Chinese lead.” Mei-Ko puts her hand on Simpkin’s thigh and gazes into his eyes.

His mouth drops slowly open and the cigarette falls into his lap. Mei-Ko sees hunger in his pupils. “That’s … quite a fascinating idea,” he stutters. “Would you like to join me tonight? Talk it over at dinner? Not on the lot. Somewhere nicer. I know a great little place on Beverly.”

Mei-Ko smiles wryly and taps him on the arm before opening the car door. “Sounds delightful. I’ll be right back.”

Patricia Hamlin looks up at the casting director. She needs a surefire blockbuster, but she has doubts about this pitch. “I’m afraid I don’t quite understand. Folks want real stories about real Americans. Why’re you making a fantasy picture? “

“I beg to differ, Pattie.” Excitement lightens Minerva’s voice. “We need fantasy now more than ever. The people have just emerged victorious from a great tragedy. They want—no, they need—escapism. Look at The Thief of Bagdad! Sure, it didn’t win an Oscar, but you know what it had? People in seats.”

“I suppose The Wizard of Oz …

“Exactly! And we won’t even need Technicolor to do it. Our women want reassurance that their husbands will come home safe and loyal, so romance will sell like water in the Dust Bowl. The script’s one of Porter’s. You know that man—”

“A self-proclaimed genius who can’t stick to one direction even if you gave him a compass?”

“I might’ve phrased it more courteously, but yes. Thankfully, he threw away his derivative Madame Butterfly slop and the writers made something original for once.” Minerva presents her a copy of the script. “It’s the most romantic premise you could dream of—a man and a monster swear love to each other in defiance of the very gods. Love transcending heaven, Earth, and two World Wars? Well, everyone wants that.”

Patricia scoffs at the dramatic pitch. She’s been around too long to be swayed by theatrics. “Why me, though?”

“I need an ingenue. Someone that can believe so hard in true love that audiences will believe, too.”

It’s been a long time since Patricia felt like the Kansas-born innocent she was told to be. She can’t remember the last time she played a romantic lead. Can’t remember the last time she felt coveted on the red carpet. Patricia knows it and so does everyone else in this entire town, including Minerva Kingsley. Patricia thumbs through the first few pages. “I’ve heard Porter’s got certain … tastes. Would he accept a redhead for this China dame?”

“His name may be on the studio, but I keep it alive and running. He’ll cast who I tell him to and hair and makeup will do the rest. If we want to sell romance, we need a kiss on-screen. You and I both know what Americans will and won’t tolerate. If it worked for Luise Rainer, it’ll work for you.”

Patricia skims the rest of the script. Meanwhile, Minerva stands up and begins to circle her. She pinches Patricia’s arm and nods approvingly. “I’m surprised you’re still thin. Most girls would’ve let themselves go after what happened to you.” She leans down and whispers in Patricia’s ear, “I know you need money, Pattie. I can make that ‘appendectomy’ bill from Dr. Killkare disappear.”

Patricia gulps. That hadn’t been her fault! She thought it was love, but Clark was just drunk. A lot. Even so, look where he was. Then look where she was.

“Ten thousand dollars for one picture,” Minerva offers. “Should even leave you something to send back to your mother.”

No more bit parts. No more insulting articles. No more dropped phone calls. Patricia flips the contract open to the signature line.

But Minerva rips it away. “There’s one condition. One better off not written down. You see, there’s a girl on the lot who’s gotten too big for her britches, and I need to remind her who pulls the strings around here.”

Patricia sighs. No such thing as a free lunch in this biz.

Minerva pulls a camera from her desk drawer. “I want photos,” she explains. “The more scandalous, the better. Do whatever you can to obtain them.”

She slides the machine over to Patricia who analyzes the dials on top. “Leverage, huh?”

Minerva points to a button. “Point it at the target. Press the knob. And presto! But I do have to warn you, this model is special.”


“Can’t tell you how it works. Something akin to magic, far as I know. But once you’ve taken the picture, you must only—and I mean only—look at her through the viewfinder.” 

Patricia narrows her eyes. “I don’t think that’s how cameras work. I should know. I’m an actress.”

“Just trust me, like you always have.”

Patricia looks at the camera. It doesn’t seem to be particularly special, just Kodak like the one Hedda Hopper uses. But still, for a lead role … She meets Minerva’s eyes. “Just always look through the viewfinder. Easy enough.”

“That’s my girl.” Minerva’s lips spread into a self-satisfied grin.

Ten thousand dollars and shot at stardom. For a few measly photos? “Give me that damned contract.” 

Patricia picks up the golden pen and signs her name.

The shoot lasts six grueling weeks. That’s forty-two days where Mei-Ko has had to watch Patricia Hamlin perform her role. She does not like the gray dress she wears. Simpkin bought it for her and assured her she looked gorgeous, but she thinks she looks like a laundry girl.

Simpkin has saved the best for last: the ending scene where the pair declare their everlasting love. But he looks a heartbeat away from an aneurysm. “Where’s Patricia?” he fumes. “We were supposed to start an hour ago! What’d you mean you haven’t seen her? I should have you fired.”

No one has seen Patricia, but Mei-Ko sees opportunity. Despite the whispers amongst the crew, she places her hand on Simpkin’s shoulder and looks him in the eyes. “Cookie,” she coos. “Let me read. I know her lines by heart.”

Porter grinds his teeth, but his gaze softens and his fists unclench. With a resolute nod, he shouts, “Break! Costume change!”

Mei-Ko is stewarded into a dressing room and clothed in Patricia’s white silk gown. As the artists do her makeup, she reads Patricia’s script until she can see every page in her mind. While her hair is brushed and braided, she mouths each line until her lips memorize the feel of every word. She will take this role back.

“You’re ready to go!” The stylist chirps.

Mei-Ko looks at her reflection in the mirror and gives it a dazzling smile. Who’s this girl? This girl’s a star.

The plywood from her first day on set has been reconstructed into a stone bridge. There’s a tarp set up on the floor and a rain bar overhead. She steps excitedly onto her mark, and Percy, in that same army uniform, lies down on his.

Lights … camera … action! Clack!

The rain bar hisses and fat droplets begin to pour. They puddle at Mei-Ko’s feet, drenching her slippers. Water seeps into her dress, making the sheer fabric cling to her body.

Mei-Ko can’t tell if she’s shivering from cold or excitement. She looks into the water collected below, at the face of a girl who wanted to be a star as badly as a snake wanted to be a human. With the help of the Hollywood gods, they both made impossible dreams come true.

A gong reverberates through the air.

Mei-Ko rushes to Percy’s fallen body, a silk flower cupped in her hands. She presses it to his lips. “I may be a monster, but I defied the gods to prove my love is true. They gave me this blessed blossom to save you.”

She quickens her breath and forces herself to cry. Her tears mix with the water falling from above. Percy continues to lie still.

“No, no, no. Please wake up …” She rests her head on his chest.

But when her hair brushes against his neck, he sits up with a gasp, “My love!”

She throws herself into his open arms. He sweeps her off her feet and water flies from her gown. They spin in joyous circles. Mei-Ko’s long, black hair unravels from her braid. Her heart dances in her chest, unable to discern if the joy belongs to her or the character.

The camera lens, coated with hazy Vaseline, trucks in. She imagines the close-up of their faces inviting the audience to share their intimate moment. Percy brushes the wild hair away from her face and their eyes lock.

“No gods will keep us apart,” she whispers.

He leans in further. That familiar hunger reappears in his eyes. Yes. She places her hand on his cheek and presses his forehead to hers. She knows he cannot help himself as he envelopes her lips in a kiss. It tastes like victory red.


The moment is interrupted by a blinding camera flash. Mei-Ko covers her eyes and shoves Percy away with a scream. Something’s wrong. The hissing rain grows louder. It surrounds her. She drops to her knees and, blinking, opens her eyes.

She awakens in a garden of white marble statues, unearthly and beautiful aside from their faces, which are frozen in terror. The cameraman has stopped with his hand on the flash. Simpkin’s mouth hangs open in a terrified scream, megaphone halfway to his face. Percy falls to the floor and shatters, littering the ground with fine, white dust as his cracked head rolls behind the stage.

A redheaded woman stands among the film cameras with a handheld Kodak pressed to her face. Mei-Ko recognizes her immediately.

“Patricia!” she calls, but her voice has become a menacing hiss.

Patricia runs for the door. Mei-Ko gets up to follow, but her legs twist in her wet gown and she falls into the soaked tarp. She stares at her reflection. Her hair is no longer silky and black. Her eyes are no longer wide and brown.

Silvery-white snakes swirl around her face. They bare venomous fangs just like she now has. Their eyes, like hers, are Oscar gold with slitted pupils. A thin membrane flicks across them, and when Mei-Ko opens her mouth to scream, a long, forked tongue slithers out.

The monster has been revealed. Mei-ko snarls, not at the loss of her face, but at the loss of her story. How dare Patricia Hamlin— a woman who was given everything Mei-Ko had to earn—take this from her?

Mei-Ko tastes the air with her tongue. She follows the scent of Chanel No. 5 to a men’s dressing room where Patricia cowers behind a rack of costumes. Mei-Ko lunges at her. She revels in how strong the monster is.

She straddles the cowering girl and rips the camera from her hands. Patricia squeezes her eyes closed and throws her arms in front of her face.

“What have you done to me?” Mei-Ko hisses.

“I-I-I don’t know! I swear!” Words, snot, and saliva blubber out of her mouth. Not so pretty now. “Minerva gave it to me. Please, please—I don’t wanna die.”


Patricia’s shivering. “She promised me. There—there was a scandal, and Minerva, she— she promised to make me a star again. It’s not my fault.”

“Not your fault? I don’t see Minerva around here.”

“She offered money. I had to help my family, I swear! We don’t all come from rich foreigners, okay?”

Oh. Her backstory. Mei-Ko thinks of her father’s laundromat and scoffs. She lowers her face to Patricia’s so the girl can smell the heat of her breath. “That story’s about as true as this movie.”

“Fine! Fuck. Fuck! Can’t you see? It doesn’t matter where we’re from. This town is designed to ruin all of us!”

“Yet you’d still climb over me even if no one can win.” Mei-Ko wraps her scaled hands around Patricia’s head, turning it towards her. “Look at me.”


“Look at me.”


Mei-Ko can feel Patricia’s shuddering breaths under her. She digs her long nails into Patricia’s soft cheeks, and they bleed victory red.

“Please, I’m sorry. I don’t want to become—” Patricia opens her eyes. At the sight, she lets out a sob.

A sob? She’s still human.

Mei-Ko is holding the camera up to her face. She looks at Patricia through the viewfinder and all she sees is a washed-up has-been that has never made her own opportunity before. “You’re right. I don’t want to become you, either.”

Mei-Ko presses the button on the camera. Patricia throws her hands up to block the blinding flash. When Patricia screams, Mei-Ko cackles. It is a monstrous sound.

Then she opens the box, rips the film out, and throws the used camera away before exiting the tiny dressing room.

She returns to survey the set. The rain bar lies bent on its side. Water spills everywhere. The bridge has split in half, revealing the stone is merely plywood. Marble statues posed in terror stand around the room. A silk flower floats in a puddle at Mei-Ko’s feet.

To think, this was what she thought magic looked like.

Only in movies.

She approaches the camera by Simpkin’s statue. With her newfound claws, she tears into its housing until she releases the movie inside. Tucking the precious film under the stolen jacket, she slithers out of the studio.

Minerva Kingsley sits in her casting office admiring the bust of Patricia Hamlin as she imagines the girl holding her first Oscar. The Tale of White Snake should have wrapped by now, and she is eager to view the final cut. She runs figures in her head: how many theaters to send copies to, what films to package with it, who to send a gift basket to during awards season …

The call arrives.

Minerva hurries to the editing room and turns out the lights. She pulls down the projector screen. The film begins to roll.

Her chest swells when she sees her name opening the credits. If this brings in what she estimates, there will finally be six major motion picture studios. That’d show that Louis B. Mayer who’s really leading America.

An exotic tune begins to play, sparkling with bells from the far Orient. The narrator’s voice invites her to witness a tale of mystery and magic in the land of ancient China.

A telltale cigarette burn flashes in the top-right corner. What? She looks for the next reel.

The projector begins to stutter. The frames flicker and scroll.

Minerva tweaks the player, but it doesn’t stop. She smells burning film and a wisp of smoke escapes the projector.

Click … click … click! Click!

The frame stops on a seductive pair of long-lashed golden eyes. Slowly their dark pupils narrow to slits and almost imperceptibly, a third flickering membrane blinks over them. The music screeches to a stop. A low, hiss crackles over the speakers, and Minerva Kingsley turns into a sharp statue of white marble.

  • Grace P. Fong

    Grace P. Fong is a Chinese-American author-illustrator whose writing and artwork have appeared in Uncanny Magazine, Apex Magazine,, Strange Horizons, and others. Her writing has won an award from FIYAH x Levar Burton Reads’s short fiction contest, and her art has been nominated four times for the Best Fan Artist Hugo Award, and won the inaugural Ignyte Award in 2020. In addition, she has worked as a narrative designer in tabletop/trading card games (Magic: the Gathering) and video gaming (Palia). Follow her work at


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