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Kill Your Darlings

By Charles Choi

My favorite TV show when I was a girl was Heart of Gold. The main character, Hilda, was a dragon who accidentally wandered into our world and became stuck in the form of a 12-year-old girl. A wildlife biologist who found Hilda in the mountains adopted her into his family and enrolled her in middle school. Every now and then she displayed a few of her former traits to remind viewers that, yes, she was a dragon, including scales (portrayed using pasty green makeup) and fire-breathing (via badly matted visual effects).

Every week during the show’s three seasons, huddled alone in my room with the TV, I retreated from my life into fantasy, thrilling to adventures usually revolving around Hilda’s misunderstandings of human behavior (“MORTALS!” was one of her catchphrases, cue canned laughter), as well as her greed, which dragged her into all manner of get-rich-quick schemes and treasure hunts. The misunderstanding episodes predictably ended with her finding a bit of inner humanity. (“A man I ate once,” she growled in one episode.) The greed episodes always ended with her discovering how the real treasure was her family and friends all along.

For years, whenever my mind wandered, I found myself singing the last lines of the opening jingle. “She has a heart, of gooooooold, lighting up your life wherever she isssssss!” (As the opening credits ended, Hilda turned and breathed fire toward the camera. Classic.)

(Illustration by Marie Ginga from an image courtesy of ImaArtist at Pixaby.com)

Looking back, Heart of Gold was an intensely stupid show. Many critics dubbed it the worst of all time. But I loved it, L-O-V-E-loved it. I know now that it was garbage, just like most of the other crap shoveled at kids when I was growing up. But for me then, it was magic. It had a dragon and a girl main character about my age. And yeah, looking back at how lonely I felt as a child, I can see now why a show about a weird kid who had a family and friends who actually loved her was something I desperately, achingly yearned for.

During the week of the show’s next-to-last episode, I dreamt about roaming around the set of Heart of Gold. I drifted entranced around the stage while the cast and crew were on break, inspecting everything viewers couldn’t see from the other side of the TV screen. Tiny crosses of gaff tape on the floor labeling marks the actors had to hit. Production assistants grazing at craft services tables. I must have seen it all on a behind-the-scenes segment on some entertainment show or another, but it felt like real life in the dream. Those nitty-gritty details of production, the reality behind the illusion, were what I often told people drew me to Hollywood.

That’s a lie.

The real reason I wanted to work in the industry was that during the dream, I came across Margie Goldstein, the actress who played Hilda, perched in a chair near a few video monitors and reading her script. I was just awestruck, obviously, and teetered back and forth, torn between wanting to go up to her and not wanting to get too close. Then she looked up right into my eyes.

Margie had the saddest face that I’d ever seen, and it jolted me awake. I wanted to work in Hollywood to make anyone that sad happy. I wanted to make Margie happy.

Hollywood proved disappointing when I got here. Too many people who thought they knew what they were doing but didn’t. Too many people who knew they didn’t know what they were doing and did everything they could to hide that fact. Too many assholes.

I was decent enough at my job, was climbing the production ladder at a tepid but definitely upward rate. Things tended to go my way. But my heart just wasn’t in it. I didn’t feel like what I was doing meant anything to anyone, much less myself.

I was griping about the industry with my friend Pearl, a casting associate, talking about the dream that got me into the business in the first place, when it struck me. “I should go find Margie Goldstein,” I said.

“Oh, honey, no,” Pearl said. But my mind was set.

✸✸✸

From IMDB, I knew over the years that Margie stopped acting after Heart of Gold and declined to appear at any cast reunions or “Where Are They Now?” shows. There were all kinds of Internet rumors about what she was up to now — homeless, in rehab, a porn star, joined a cult, dead in the desert, the usual.

I ended up calling Margie’s agency posing as SAG-AFTRA, the union that handles actors’ residual checks from reruns, DVDs and the like. The post office had returned checks sent to her and dozens of other performers, I said, likely because of a computer screwup, a system update, the usual crap. My fictional accounting department wanted to find out where the money she was owed should get sent.

The ploy shouldn’t have worked. Agencies don’t hand out those details to just anyone. They shouldn’t, for safety’s sake. But, as if by magic — or gross incompetence verging on criminal negligence — the agency gave me her address in Temecula, only an hour-and-a-half or so away from where I lived in L.A., in good traffic.

It was a ridiculous decision to go see her, I know. I just had to tell her how much Heart of Gold meant to me. How much she meant to me. I’d run into her “accidentally” and gush about how, even if critics hated the show, even if she likely hated the show, that someone had loved it, that I’d loved it, that it was one of the few things that made me happy as a kid. Maybe that would make her feel happy whenever she needed to.

I drove to Temecula just as the sun was rising. It all felt like an adventure. For a long time, I felt like I’d faded into the background of my own life. But now I felt like the heroine of my own story. It was the first time I felt alive in a long time.

After loitering in my car for a half-hour in a spot overlooking her apartment block’s parking lot, I saw Margie walk out, dressed in a cheap grey skirt suit, bored look on her face. Tingles of excitement ran all up and down my body. I’d know her anywhere.

She got into a budget compact car much like mine. I tailed her, weaving through the morning traffic with her. I parked across from the café she walked into.

This was it. I’d cross the street, just happen to bump into Margie, and thank her. A simple culmination of years of fandom. That would be enough. We didn’t have to get drinks together, or be best friends, or sacrifice our lives attempting to save the other after some tear-stained, tear-jerking trials and tribulations. Just a simple thank you. The moment might even be disappointing. It didn’t matter. I just wanted to try.

I got out of my car, took a deep breath and stood, a little wobbly but ready to meet her. And that’s when I started to panic. All the second and third and fourth and so on thoughts I probably should’ve had long before this point flooded into my brain.

Long ago, I’d mostly caved into whatever my family wanted, and with the exception of my job in entertainment, I made my life largely as stultifyingly normal as possible. This entire misadventure was the most daring thing I’d done in years, and now it had spiraled out of control.

I know fans do weird shit. I know I was a fan doing weird shit, okay? I know that just because you feel like you get to know the characters on a show doesn’t mean the actors know you back. I think I just wanted to be part of the magic. But what had seemed like a grand gesture suddenly evaporated to become creepy stalking.

Margie walked out the door of the coffee shop, lugging a cardboard tray with four cups in it in one hand, a paper bag in her other. My heart was racing, my breathing was shallow, my hands were clammy, my mouth was dry, my entire body was sweaty. What the hell was I thinking?

I was going to chicken out. Then Margie saw me. Her eyes widened and jaw dropped.

“Unbelievable,” she said.

As I stood frozen in surprise with what I’m sure was a dumb look on my face, Margie strode over. She inspected one side of my face, and then the other.

“After all this time, it’s really you,” she said, stunned. “I’d know you anywhere.”

What did she mean she knew me?

“I, I, I’m sorry,” I stammered. “Have we met?”

Margie’s face flashed shock, and then contorted. “What?” she barked.

My mind now a blank, I went on auto-pilot with the patter I’d rehearsed.

“Saaaaaay, you’re, uh, Margie? From that show, right?” I said, my voice weak. “Hey, you know, growing up, I was a really big fan of–”

“Don’t give me any of that,” Margie snapped. “I’ve had enough of it. More than enough of everything.” She stood eye to eye with me.

I quailed under her glare. “I’m sorry, but I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Look, I don’t know what game you’re playing at,” Margie said. “But I’m sick of it here. I want to go back. Right. Now.” Her voice had risen almost to a shout as she spoke but fell to a whisper once she saw others starting to stare.

She searched my face for something. She then groaned, eyes rolling back in frustration. “You don’t know what I’m talking about. Of course you don’t.”

Margie glanced at the onlookers. “Let’s go someplace private,” she said with a grimace.

She dumped her order from the café into a trashcan and marched toward a park across the street. After a moment, I scrambled after her.

What the hell was going on?

✸✸✸

Margie and I sat quiet for a while on the steps next to a duck pond, a light breeze rippling its surface. I couldn’t stop glancing at the side of her face. It felt unreal now to be sitting next to her, instead of looking at her through a screen. It felt like I was in a show with her, but I didn’t know the script. Seeing her in real life was jarring. And dissatisfying. And thrilling.

She sat there looking lost. After thinking up what she wanted to say, or after working up the nerve, Margie broke the silence with a sigh.

“Okay. I played a dragon who came to Earth from another world. The thing is, I really am a dragon that crossed over from another world.”

I started to laugh, then stopped when I saw her face.

“One minute I’m eating a kid on a mountainside — a young goat,” she hastily clarified. “The next thing I know I’m a tween girl, and I’m sitting in my agent’s office as my showbiz mom is arguing over riders in my contract.

“Much of those early days is a blur. Getting fitted for a wardrobe. Memorizing lines. Learning how to act,” she said, that last bit with a bitter laugh. “Whenever I tried explaining I was actually a dragon, my mother would tell me not to go overboard with the method acting.

“And before I know it, the show gets cancelled. And then I have to start life as a normal kid.” She looked down at her shoes. “Last thing I wanted to do was act,” she said, a little unconvincingly. “Now I’m an accountant who lives by myself with a ‘mom’ I barely see anymore.”

Wow. This was unexpected. Apparently Margie Goldstein was batshit crazy.

I stood up. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s going on here, but I don’t think I can help you.”

“No,” she said. “Wait.”

I turned to leave. “I’m truly sorry. This was a mistake.”

She rose up and grabbed my arm. “Stop! Don’t go!”

I turned back. I couldn’t look her in the face.

“I really was a big fan of your show when I was a kid,” I blurted out, my voice cracking a bit. I didn’t come here expecting her to break my heart.

“Wait. Wait. Okay,” she said, her voice desperate. “I saw you once. In a vision. I think you saw me too. So I think you can help me.”

My guts all of a sudden felt like jelly. “What?”

Margie let go of me, then walked around with uncertain paces. “It happened during shooting on Heart of Gold. I was sitting off to the side trying to drum the words for a script into my brain, and I just couldn’t do it. The words didn’t make sense, and my being on set didn’t make sense, and my being in this world didn’t make sense, and my being human didn’t make sense. And it got to me at that moment, like it had a couple of times previously.”

She fixed me with an eerily piercing gaze, something even the harshest critics of her show gave her credit for.

“And then I look up, and I see this girl,” she said. “She’s my age, and she has a bad haircut, and she’s dressed in teddy-bear pajamas of all things, and she’s this ghostly figure floating in midair completely wreathed in white flame. And she looked shocked that I saw her. I certainly was shocked to see her. I hadn’t seen anything like that since I crossed over into this world. And then she vanished.”

I remembered that dumb haircut. And those pajamas — I wore those all the time when I was that age, even though my mother complained I was getting too old for them. Not something I would have expected to show up in the psychic visions of a dragon. No way she could’ve known I had them.

Margie looked me in the eyes and knew that I knew what she was talking about. “I only really saw you for an instant. It’s been decades. But when I saw you this morning, I knew you were her.”

My life as I knew it felt like it was unraveling. Nothing made sense anymore.

✸✸✸

Margie began walking around the pond, her arms wrapped around herself. I followed her. I was trying to wrap my brain around this all.

“We tried finding you for years,” she said. “But ‘girl with an ugly haircut dressed in teddy-bear pajamas’ wasn’t a very useful description to go on.”

“Who’s ‘we?'”

“Right. Why would you know?” she said. “Well, it turns out I wasn’t the only one who crossed over.”

Bernadette had manifested as a woman in her 60s after getting summoned to Earth. Margie explained Bernadette had been a mechanical owl in the Otherworld, a companion to wizards and witches who’d passed from one magus to another for centuries.

A wild laugh escaped me. “A magical robot bird. Sure.” Reality felt like it was fraying at the edges.

(A mechanical owl. Why did that sound familiar?)

On Earth, Bernadette apparently transmogrified to become a retired insurance adjuster pursuing her lifelong dream of acting on the side. I vaguely remember Bernadette playing a bit part in an episode of Heart of Gold as a math teacher with two lines or so.

“Back then, Bernadette had no idea other Otherworlders were on the show. I didn’t either. Our human identities masked our origins.”

Despite Bernadette’s confusion when she got to Earth, she came to fit in over time. “She even learned to enjoy things here, like having hands,” Margie said with a laugh. “She found a lot of joy in the little things in life — knitting, drinking, backyard gardening, Texas hold ’em. She was a hell of a woman.”

Margie got a faraway look in her eyes. “Before I met Bernadette, I thought I might’ve had some kind of psychotic break when I was a kid because of all the pressure from the show. That I’d forgotten my childhood and imagined this entire life where I was a dragon.”

Margie teared up. “You can’t imagine what it was like to find others that you’d brought over from the Otherworld. To find people who believed me.”

I stood there while she wept silently for a bit. What I wanted to tell her that I could very much imagine what life felt like alone, but I didn’t feel like she’d want to hear it. What I needed to find out was what all of this insanity meant.

Gently, I asked, “Why do you keep saying that I brought you from the Otherworld?”

Wiping her eyes, she pulled herself back together. “Right. That. Back in the Otherworld, Bernadette used to witness her sorcerers cast spells and brew potions and foretell the future and all that. She picked up some arcane lore that way. She performed a ritual to find out if anyone else came from the Otherworld, and found me just after I dropped out of college, during my punk rock phase.”

Margie eyed me. “Bernadette tried looking for you, too. It never worked. She always said she didn’t possess much in the way of arcane power, but she didn’t believe that was her problem when it came to finding you. It was like you were preventing her from locating you. That you had magic. So maybe you were the one who summoned us.”

Margie told me that, according to Bernadette, whenever magicians warped reality with their power, it often warped the magicians as well. They often destroyed themselves, not to mention a lot of surrounding real estate. “That’s why Bernadette never performed much magic herself,” Margie said. “Each time she cast one of the few spells she did know, she said it took every iota of willpower she had to make the magic do what she actually wanted without her catastrophically losing control.”

But I hadn’t felt dead to Bernadette. So she speculated that when it came to prodigies born with truly godlike amounts of power — enough to intuitively warp entire worlds however they wished — those who didn’t accidentally kill themselves and everyone around them survived by locking that power away deep within themselves.

“I knew you were a child,” Margie said. “And you were obviously powerful, enough to bring us all here. So Bernadette guessed that maybe you’d instinctively suppressed all that power, maybe even forgotten it, that maybe that was the best, safest way to deal with it. Looks like maybe she was right.”

I flashed back to my childhood. How cold and distant my family was. How I was never any good at making friends. How everyone growing up always acted as if I was wrong somehow.

Right before Heart of Gold got cancelled, my parents hauled my TV out of my room, demanding that I focus on the real world. After that, I made a concerted effort to be normal, to fit in, to not be too extreme. My mother was always yelling at me to be normal. “Why can’t you just be normal?” Screaming until she was hoarse.

Maybe I had scared everyone around me. And maybe I conjured an entire show from my imagination because I was lonely.

“Would Bernadette know how I can send you back?” I asked.

Margie shook her head. “Bernadette passed away a few years ago in a hospice,” she said. “I held her hand until the end, her fingers frail like bird bones. She was smiling all the while. She actually asked that I stop looking for you, to just be happy living my life. And I tried. I really tried. But here you are.”

“Is there anyone else who might help? Anyone else with magic?”

Margie sighed. “Bernadette did track down a few others from the Otherworld also summoned as random extras on the show. Hank was a former living broom — he went on to become a car salesman in Peoria. Julie was once a magical shade of blue — now she works finance in Japan.”

This all sounded like something from my wildest dreams. When Heart of Gold wasted episodes on flimsy plots such as smoking or bullying, I’d often fantasized about the realm where Hilda came from and its other magical denizens, idly daydreaming bits and pieces of their backstories.

But something felt off. Where had I heard this before?

“All in all, out of all of us, only Bernadette could summon any magic, and only a tiny bit at that,” Margie said. “You’re the only option I know of.”

“But I don’t know how to do magic,” I pleaded. “I have no idea how to send you back. I have no idea how I even brought you here in the first place.”

“Bernadette thought that for a prodigy like you, it should come easily.”

Could I do it? My world felt like it was coming apart at the seams, but beyond it I felt like I could feel something more. Long ago, I’d buried all the dark parts of my life as I was growing up, as if they weren’t real. Now I thought I sensed there was another part of myself I’d locked away that felt unreal, that felt like what was real and what wasn’t was open to question. Where even something like Heart of Gold might come true.

And for a blink of an eye, Margie was clad in golden scale armor and a bat-winged helm, a leather cape flapping in a sudden gust of wind, and she was holding a giant flaming sword and glowing with rainbow light. She looked surprised, as did a random jogger who passed by us just then. My eyes goggled, and in an instant Margie was back to normal. The jogger craned her head around, glanced at Margie, and then looked away again.

Margie gasped.

“Yes,” she said, triumphant. “Yes.”

✸✸✸

She took a deep shaky breath. “Okay. You can do it. I want you to send me back,” she said. “No matter what.”

Something about her tone didn’t sound right. “What do you mean by that?”

Margie’s eyes darted away. “Nothing. It’s nothing.”

“No. What is it?”

Margie pinched the bridge of her nose with her fingers. “It’s not important,” she said.

“No. I do think it’s important.”

She let out a long groan, and then looked at me with fury. “What if there is no Otherworld?” Margie shouted, scattering the ducks on the pond. “What if there is no other dimension that you summoned me from? What if you just created me out of nothing?”

That struck me like a slap. “Is that even possible?”

Margie looked away and wrung her hands. “I mean, does creating me sound any more or less believable than summoning me?” she asked. “All my memories from the Otherworld are hazy. All I have are a few scraps here and there, like a view of the ground far below me, seen through clouds, or the feeling of exultation as I stretched my wings in the wind.

“At first I thought my transforming into a human may have made my dragon memories fuzzy,” she said, her eyes wild. “Or that I didn’t remember much about being a dragon because dragons didn’t care nearly as much about remembering things the same way humans do. Or that those memories had just faded over time. But what if those memories weren’t real? What if they were your creations as well? Just a rough sketch of what you thought a dragon should think?”

The world seemed to swim before my eyes. “But what about Bernadette? Hank? Julie?”

“What if you created them, too?”

I shook my head. “That… that can’t be,” I said.

But Margie shot me a look. She knew I wasn’t sure. Mechanical owls, animated brooms, living shades of blue — these were the kinds of fantastical creations populating the books and movies I read and saw as a kid. Maybe that’s why Bernadette and Hank and Julie felt familiar.

Did I summon them all from a world where the kinds of magical beings I loved existed? Or did I conjure them solely from my imagination? What else might have I done when I was a kid? What might I have blotted out of my memory, or reality?

“So… so… so what happens if you have me send you back to the Otherworld, but there’s no ‘back’ to send you to?” I asked.

“I mean, there’s a chance there’s an Otherworld,” Margie said. “I think.”

“A chance? You think?” I said, my voice rising. “It might not even be likely? So if I send you away, but there’s no there there, I just, what, wipe you out of existence? Do you really want that?”

Margie looked off in the far distance.

“Yes,” she said, uncertain.

No no no no no no no no no. This was not happening.

“We are not having this conversation,” I said. I strode past her, away from the pond toward the park’s edge. I had to get away. I didn’t come here to kill my childhood heroine.

Margie ran after me, asking me to stop, grabbing onto my arm. I’m not sure when I started crying. “You can’t ask this of me. Not with the risks you’d face.”

“You’re the reason I’m here in the first place! This is all on you. You can’t run away from it.”

“But you might die!”

“I don’t want to keep living if it means I have to live my life as this! If I have to live this life!” Margie yelled, waving her hands up and down at her whole body. “I had scales like shields and fangs like swords! I was a creature of wonder and terror that commanded worship and despair. At least, that’s what I remember. Now I’m just… this! With mediocrity stretching forever into the horizon ahead of me!”

She didn’t look all that different from me. “That’s why you want to risk dying?” I roared. “Well, I’m sorry. Ordinary or average or mundane isn’t good enough for you, but most of us live day to day just with delusions of adequacy! We live with it.”

Her mascara was running. “I hate living my life as a joke, okay? I was a child star on the worst show in the history of television, and that’s the best this life ever got. I don’t want to be this anymore.”

My childhood idol crumpled to the ground. I knelt beside her.

“Hey. Hey now. Hey,” I said. “You meant something to me. And to others. You meant a lot. I know that might not mean a lot to you, but you meant the world to me. And to others, too. I know it.”

“And what about that tray of coffee you had?” I said. “You were bringing those to work. For your work friends. You have friends. You had Bernadette. It might not seem like a lot, but it’s what any of us get.”

“I didn’t ask for this,” she sobbed. “I didn’t ask for any of this.”

I was her Pygmalion, but she didn’t want to be a real girl.

“Nobody asks for what they get,” I said, my voice hoarse from shouting. “It’s what we get.”

She teetered back to her feet, fluttering like a tattered flag in the wind.

“Look,” I said. “Ninety-nine percent of everything is garbage. That doesn’t mean there isn’t good mixed in with the trash that can make it all worthwhile, if you let it. It all might seem like stupid worthless throwaway crap, but it might all still mean something. Heart of Gold taught me that.”

Arguing with her over her life felt like I was arguing with myself over my life.

“I’m not real,” she whispered.

“What does it matter what’s real or not?” I said, not knowing what else to say. “What matters is you matter.”

She had the same hopeless expression on her face that I’d seen when she and I were little.

“Do you really believe all that?”

I wasn’t sure. “I have to.”

She wrapped her arms around her sides. “I don’t know. I just don’t know.”

I thought I could feel the fabric of reality twisting in my hands as I clenched them into fists. I didn’t know what I should do.

Send her away? Even if that might consign her to oblivion?

But what else was there? Make her forget with some kind of magic lobotomy? Try simply to be a friend and hope that’d be enough?

Could I kill her? Could I not?

All I knew was that I wanted to make her happy.

“Maybe I want to stay. Maybe I want to go,” Margie said. She gazed, lost, into my eyes. “What are you going to do?”

I still don’t know if I made the right choice in the end.

This story previously appeared on Charles Q. Choi.
Edited by Marie Ginga

 

Charles Quixote Choi is a science journalist who has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Science, Nature, Scientific American, Popular Science, Inside Science, Wired.com and Space.com, among others. He has also traveled to every continent and holds the rank of yondan in the Toyama-ryu battodo style of Japanese swordsmanship. His first sale, "By the Will of the Gods," appeared in the January-February-2021 issue of Analog.