Should've Killed Myself in High School
I understand that we're to toe the line and say Sam McVay "died tragically." We have a movie to promote after all. But everybody knows slamming a motorcycle into the side of one's father's trailer home at ninety-five miles per hour is suicide. So who are we kidding?
Except that it was murder, not suicide. Tom Dunne killed Sam, something I'm only now coming to terms with. It's a fact. It's also the case that he led to the accidental overdose of Sarah Leonard, though she has recovered. Also, the botched nose job of Kelly Whitmore, the running away of Andre Levy, the vicious fight between Tim Barnes and Rob Plume that left one with three broken ribs and the other with two cracked teeth, the various drunk driving accidents, the new wave of addictions of every stripe, and the break-up of countless families, longtime friends, and romantic relationships.
All of this is on Tom.
But instead of being ridden out of town on a rail, he's being lauded. His picture's on the front of the New York Times Magazine. He's giving interviews calling for the nation's parents to "take a closer look at the generation they are raising." He's listening carefully as the list of transgressions committed by the cast of his latest movie are reeled off and using it as a springboard for a discussion on today's youth.
Of course, it's all PR, but with every appearance on national television or radio, or in magazines, newspapers, or online, the sound of cash registers ringing up future ticket sales is unmistakable. One week away and there's no doubt of the movie's impending success.
I guess I should stop calling his movie and say ours. I should also back up.
My name is Richard Fordyce. About a year and a half ago, I wrote a screenplay entitled Should've Killed Myself in High School. I had been a screenwriter before this, eking out a fairly solid career by banging out zero-budget monster movies for a small production company that aired the films on cable in America before distributing them worldwide on video. These featured some of the most outlandish posters and DVD cover art you've ever seen, including images so far removed from the content of the film itself, that I thought it criminal.
Still, the work was steady, I was making about $15,000 a pop, and best of all, the movies were getting made. I knew plenty of screenwriters who were better paid for their efforts, but who hadn't seen a single page of theirs up in front of a camera. Over the course of three years, I'd been paid to write ten scripts. Posters for six of these were framed in my family's TV room.
Naturally, someone came along to upset the apple cart.
"You're obviously in your comfort zone with the B-material, but with your talent, you could be writing features." This was the voice of my manager, Patty Schweiger, over the phone to me one Wednesday afternoon. "Why don't you write a spec that really shows off your voice?"
This seemed reasonable. We discussed what kind of script it should be. Sometimes you write a spec to try and sell it. Other times, it's more of a writing sample, a showcase to try and get you hired on existing jobs. Patty suggested the latter.
"Most importantly, make it a page-turner, something no one can put down," she coached. "Give the reader a great experience. Great characters, great story, and a great pay-off. You're angling for comedy work, right? Well, work the humor in the situations, in the dialogue, but most importantly, in the story. Go big. Don't be afraid to stretch yourself."
Twelve weeks later, I handed in a draft of Should've Killed Myself in High School, a new spin on the body-switching high school movie. At first, Patty was put off by the title, as I knew she'd be. But a couple of pages in, she would soon tell me, she couldn't put it down.
Should've Killed Myself in High School concerns a man named Larry Larson who loses his job, his wife, his house, and just about everything else he deems important on the eve of his thirty-fifth birthday. He thinks back and decides that it all started to go wrong his junior year in high school when a guidance counselor, Mrs. Appleby, tells his despairing seventeen year-old self (also on his birthday), that it would "get better." Rather than off himself in dramatic fashion as he had planned, he placed his faith in Mrs. Appleby and waited for things to improve.
They never did.
So now, almost thirty-five-year-old Larry comes to the conclusion that he shouldn't have listened to her. In a cinematic quirk of fate, he's transported back into his seventeen-year-old self a few days before his infamous meeting with Mrs. Appleby. Only this time, given a second chance, he plans to end it all, thereby avoiding a lifetime of disappointments and pain.
But being a movie, of course this isn't how it turns out. Rather, he is quick to discover that these bad experiences were the result of being unable to get out of his own way. The girl he had a crush on? She probably would've liked him back if he hadn't made an ass out of himself every time he got within ten feet of her. The football star he thought was a bully? The fellow actually wanted to be his friend, but had a hard time showing it as he was jealous of Larry's computer science savvy. The teacher from that same computer science class who kept giving failing grades to Larry's every project? He was actually stealing Larry's work and passing it off as his own in a professional context.
So in spite of the challenging title, it becomes a heartwarming, It's a Wonderful Life-type story about second chances. Once he's learned all he's meant to, Larry returns to his old life expecting everything to have changed. But it turns out that the replay of his high school years was more akin to a dream. Everything is as it was. Undeterred, Larry sets about applying the lessons he's learned to his current life and strives forward.
Was it the most revolutionary piece of material in Hollywood? No, but it was tight, it was funny, and it worked. When Patty sent it out, the title got a lot of negative attention, but it also got them to read it. By the end, a good eighty percent were won over. Suddenly, I was getting endless meetings set up and the first of an avalanche of rewrite offers. Soon, I landed on one that paid more than all of my low-budget horror movies combined. I was off and running.
Then something peculiar happened.
"Hello?" I said, answering my cell about ten weeks after the script had gone out.
"Is this Richard Fordyce?"
"What's this regarding?" I asked, expecting a salesperson.
"My name's Tom Dunne. I'm a filmmaker."
I didn't need to be told the second half. Tom Dunne was currently one of the biggest names in Hollywood. He'd been an indie guy for a few years, made some interesting movies, but nothing that had really caught on. But then, he'd directed a big studio romantic comedy that had made a small fortune. After that came a drama, a thriller, and another comedy, all of which were substantial hits both critically and commercially. At this point, he was one of the most sought-after directors in town. I'd heard that after the thriller landed, he'd received seventy offers of go-movies. A "yes" from Dunne and the project would be green lit.
"What can I do for you, Mr. Dunne?" I asked, hoping to sound as if there was a call from someone of his stature every hour or so.
"I've read your script, Richard. I want it to be my next movie."
I thought he was referring to the job I'd just taken. But then I remembered it had a director attached.
"Which one?" I asked, before realizing I sounded like a pretentious ass.
"Should've Killed Myself in High School," he replied. "It's a magnificent piece of work. You really nail a problem I find so prevalent in teenagers these days. Every page, every character, it just sings."
"Oh, well, thank you," I sputtered, now confused.
"Anyway, I have a put project at…," he named one of the studios, "and I gave them the script. I didn't want to call you until they'd read it and signed off. At first, they were wary, but I assured them that this would be a massive success."
Um, because that's how Hollywood works. Or, well, maybe it does for someone like Dunne.
"So, in the end, they said, 'yes,'" he continued. "I don't know how you feel about me as a filmmaker or this studio, but I'd love the opportunity to talk to you about why I'm the right director for the script and how I see it being made. Will you give me that chance?"
It was equal parts heady and strange. Here I was this baby screenwriter with his first shot at the big time and the number one director in town wanted to make a movie out of a script I'd never even considered filmable.
Naturally, I replied in the affirmative.
"Great! I'll have my assistant connect with your reps to set a time. I'd also like to put the studio in touch with them on a preliminary basis. Should things go well, I'd like to hit the ground running."
I said that this was fine, but admitted I had a question.
"What is it?" he asked.
"What's the problem you mentioned? The one I 'nailed?'"
"That 'it gets better' malarkey," he pronounced. "It doesn't really, does it? But because it sounds good, you've now got all these kids out there thinking that if they just wait it out, if they call out their playground bullies for bullying, some magic switch gets flipped and everything's hunky-dory. Human nature isn't, in fact, human nature. What I believe and what I felt your script did well was show that bullying just becomes more sophisticated, more institutionalized, and has greater and more lasting effects than something so easily forgotten. Do you agree?"
"I, well, I…"
"I mean, rather than mollycoddle children, what we need to do is let teenagers know if you want to survive in this world, you've got to be tough as nails, not led through life on a velvet cushion. That's the message I saw on every page of your script. Hats off to you, sir."
We got off a few moments later. As soon as I hung up, I stood there like an idiot going over every page of the script in my head, trying to see if I could find whatever Dunne had discovered there, too.
Though it wasn't a competitive situation, the studio's offer was considerable. I asked my agent to try and double it and, to our surprise, they agreed as long as I accepted within twenty-four hours, cutting off the need for further negotiations. I did so. It was then that I learned that Dunne wanted me to be on set.
"That's crazy," my wife, Jennifer, said when I broke down the financials. "Since when does a director want a screenwriter on set?"
"Eh, that's a cliché with a hundred exceptions," I protested, wondering if it actually was. "And it's really because they're getting underway so quickly. He just wants me there as a resource for the actors. I won't actually be a part of the crew."
One of our primary concerns was Jen being on her own with both kids for so long. The youngest would be barely two when I left, the oldest, not yet four. But the moment she voiced this concern to her mother, "Grandma" offered to come in from Baltimore and help for the duration. It wouldn't be easy, but Jen was relieved. The kids loved their grandmother and she'd shoulder a lot of the load.
As the shoot drew near, I kept my head down and powered through my outstanding assignments. Part of me feared that if I made too many plans around the shoot, it would be that much more of a bummer when it went away. Even green lit movies dropped dead. Even so, little pieces of casting slipped into my purview and it was hard not to get excited. Sure, most of this had to do with the appeal of working with tastemaker Dunne, but it made it real to me. Not only would this movie get made, people might see it.
Whether it would be any good was a different matter.
A week into pre-production, the first curveball appeared. The shoot had been slated for a town just outside Santa Fe, New Mexico. But then Dunne had a change of heart, deeming the locations unsuitable. I spent a couple of nights panicking before Dunne rang me up.
"So, it looks like we'll be going to Nevada," he announced. "To prevent a potentially fatal delay, it was necessary to find a place familiar enough to me to make it work. My family moved to a small town outside Las Vegas just before I started high school, so I thought it made sense to try there. Not only are the locations there as well as a couple of perfect stages, the rebate will work out slightly better in our favor. Instead of being upset, the studio was thrilled."
To my eternal discredit, no alarm bells went off in my head. In fact, all I could think of was how easier it would be for Jen and the kids to visit. Not for a moment did I suspect Dunne was up to anything untoward.
"That's great," I said. "Looking forward to shooting on your old turf?"
"Definitely," he enthused. "We'll even be at my old high school, which is what I pictured as I read the script, and will be using extras from my old community as well as crew people. It's going to be great."
Again, no alarm bells.
"I, well, like…I dunno. I just…I just…"
I waited for the speaker to regain her train of thought.
"I mean, Larry's hot and he's kind of interesting. And he's got those eyes, right? I mean, I don't understand why Tabitha wouldn't just go for him at the beginning."
Becca Baldwin was seventeen and an emerging actress. Her father was a television director. Her mother was nine kinds of stage mom. She'd broken in playing versions of "the quirky daughter" in a couple of star vehicles, but then did three indie films in a row that were little seen, but in which it was agreed that she gave the best performances. She rode this wave of positive notices into a romantic lead in a studio thriller opposite one of the hotter young actors in the business. Though it wouldn't come out for a few more months, the buzz was positive. There was this feeling that she was about to hit, creating an audience thirsty for her next screen appearance. The role of Tabitha Wyatt in our film would fill the void.
When I finally saw her in action during the first table read and later in rehearsals, I was blown away. One minute, she was this stereotypical gawky kid wandering around the Summerlin production offices as if already lost on the first day of classes. The next, a completely self-assured actress delivering exactly the confidence and alacrity the role called for. The transformation was so effortless that I wondered if part of her low-key arrival had been part of an act to create expectations. Whatever the case, it worked.
But it was the former that sat with me now, discussing the ins and outs of her character. She was principally concerned with how the changes Teenager Larry goes through over the course of the film so profoundly alter Tabitha's opinion of him, from general apathy to romantic chemistry.
"I just don't see Tabitha as that superficial," I suggested. "Sure, physical attraction is important and a part of what's to come, but there are a lot of good looking guys at the school. What I think Tabitha is looking for is someone of substance, but also with confidence. Larry has the first part from the beginning. Only, he doesn't know how to express it. The second part is something he gains over the story."
Becca went quiet, her eyes going gray as she chewed this over in her mind. But then she shook her head.
"I get that, but Tom said that it was because her mom was sleeping around."
"Wait, what did he say?"
Becca sighed. Explaining this to a dullard was clearly taxing.
"Tom said that once Tabitha found out her mom's had all these affairs, her opinion of her dad nosedived. She'd always thought he was this great, capable father figure. But her mother's actions emasculated him in her eyes. Part of her reaction to later, more confident Larry is her looking for a replacement alpha male."
I was stunned. Not only was this not a part of my script, this wasn't even an avenue I'd considered. Tabitha's parents weren't roles in the movie and I didn't give them much thought during the writing. But now my director had this whole backstory cooked up that was as intricate as it was impactful to the character.
"That's one way to read it," I offered, not wanting to get in Tom's way. "I guess you could then say, carrying that through, that the teenage Larry at the beginning, the one stumbling over his own feet, could conversely, maybe even subconsciously, remind her of her father's ineffectiveness. If you're having a problem with Tabitha getting past his physical characteristics, then maybe the same incident from her home life that results in an attraction at the end is a repulsion in the beginning."
For a moment, it appeared that Becca was doing a math problem in her head. But then a smile.
"That's really insightful," she said. "I appreciate your help. Thanks!"
She rose and exited the small production office I'd requisitioned on the first day. I sat back in my chair, wondering what else Tom was telling his actors.
It wouldn't be long before I found out.
When accommodations were being made for my stay in Nevada, I was asked if I preferred to stay in the resort hotel and casino where most of the out of town cast and crew were being housed or in one of the timeshare houses in a neighboring gated community. Though the hotel was off the Strip near Red Rock Canyon, I knew the temptation to leave the room and hit a restaurant, the pool, the shops, the casino floor, the clubs, or wherever else would be too great. If I had time away from the production, I wanted to be writing. I had a few ideas for a next script. A couple of months away from Los Angeles, the wife, and the kids might be enough to finish it, so I wanted to take as much advantage of the time as I could.
Even better, this meant the production offices were only about ten minutes from my front door. I had a rental car and my own parking space, so I often beat the morning shuttles over from the hotel. This meant I could get a cup of coffee and catch up on the gossip with the local teamsters before the day really got started.
"You hear how much they ended up getting the school for?"
"You see the size of Sam McVay's trailer? Heard they negotiated square footage for three days."
"I heard that on Tom's last movie, he came in a week under schedule and a million under budget, but he'd planned that in advance to make himself look good. No way he's that crazy, is he?"
Once the shoot kicked off, I thought this laid back, gossipy attitude would be replaced by a relentless, go-go-go philosophy. Instead, it became more pervasive. It was during pre-production when things were still in flux and being decided that everyone was on their toes. But once the ship had slipped its moorings and was moving out to sea, everyone's duty was the same, keep it afloat and moving forward.
Though I'd thought my job superfluous from the start, it became even more so once things were underway. My name was on the green call sheets each day as the screenwriter. Also, I had some kind of producer credit in the offing. But I had no call time. If I showed up or didn't had no effect on the movie.
All the same, I didn't want to give my profession a black eye, so I dutifully arrived each day, laptop bag slung over my shoulder, and waited for questions. Occasionally, the script had to be changed or cast members wanted help reworking their lines, but when it came time to do actual work on their characters, I discovered that they'd already been over with Tom.
In some cases, the actors took this to mean that what they were looking for was already in the script and Tom just unpacked it for them. Others seemed to view me as a pariah, as if talking to me potentially mangled the work they'd done with the director.
Sam McVay was one of these people. I'd heard through the grapevine that the reason Sam chose to avoid me throughout the pre-production and rehearsal was to insulate himself from my interpretation of the character. He wanted the performance to be his own, using the script as a jumping off point more than anything. I respected that.
But what started as avoidance became antagonism and aggression. At first, he merely didn't speak to me or walked in the opposite direction when I came around. Soon, however, my appearance drew sneers and whispered asides. I was the enemy and Tom his only ally.
I tried not to take it personally, to remind myself that he was a kid and an actor, and that this was how he saw his job. Though I avoided him, I didn't respond in kind. If I caught his gaze, I didn't return it or look away, but merely let my face go blank until he moved on. The strangest part of all of it was that I sometimes couldn't tell if I was looking at Sam or the teenage Larry, straining at the reins and lashing out at the world.
But as I said, there were those who held the opposite view as well.
"Hey, Richie! Was just running my lines for today's big scene. I still can't believe how much you poured into this guy!"
The speaker was Andre Levy, a sixteen-year-old local kid who had been cast only weeks before production started. His was the role of Nolan Fletcher, the film's requisite football hero, who turns out to be envious of Larry's computer science abilities.
The role had originally gone to an up-and-coming teen actor out of Los Angeles, Connor Van Dean, the co-star of a popular cable series aimed at tweens. But as production neared, Van Dean had a few blowouts with the producers and even the studio, resulting in a demand of a drug test for insurance purposes. Connor and his agency balked at this request, saying that such a thing should've been a part of the contract negotiations if this was a requirement. The studio stood its ground, making vague threats about informing the other studios of his activities, which would have effectively blacklisted him. There was also the suggestion that the information might find its way into the press.
But in the eleventh hour, Van Dean strode into the Las Vegas lab the producers had designated for the test and peed into a cup. When informed a day later that he had tested positive for no less than eleven illegal substances, including three narcotics, he offered a smug smile and, without another word, booked himself on a flight back to Los Angeles.
For half a day, everyone panicked. Then, Tom came forward with a solution.
Andre Levy had already been cast in a secondary role, one of Nolan Fletcher's buddies on the football team after impressing everyone during the audition process. Sure, he had an "in" being the son of one Tom's old friends from high school, but he was also really good. So when Tom suggested he step into the role vacated by Van Dean, everyone in the production offices marveled at the idea and signed off. Whether because they actually believed in his talent or simply decided that any solution that kept the film from derailing was a good one was irrelevant.
Tom, Andre, and two of the producers boarded a plane for Los Angeles that afternoon. First thing the following morning, Andre was presented to the studio. To the surprise of more than a few, including myself, the studio approved. The group returned after lunch with the new Nolan, less than twenty-four hours after many thought all was lost.
I probably shouldn't have been surprised. Andre was this gregarious, nice fellow who everyone loved. The girls had crushes on him and the guys envied his confidence and easy-going nature. Sure, he would play the heel for two-thirds of the movie, but the moment the cameras were turned off, he resumed being everyone's friend and a cheerleader for the other actors.
His "big scene" as he called it was a turn towards the end where his envy of Larry is revealed and the two make up. As he approached me now, he wore a big smile on his face that reminded me of an eager-to-please border collie.
"I'm glad you're having a good time with it," I said. "From what I've seen in the dailies, you're hitting it out of the park."
He took my arm, tightening his grip on my bicep like a politician about to ask a favor.
"It's just such a subtle part," Andre enthused. "When I first read the script, I didn't see that. But now that I'm playing it, having to embody the character, say those things, and experience his arc, I really see what you're going for. It's become easy. I'm not doing a character anymore. A part of me simply comes out when I'm in front of the camera."
Though my experience with actors was limited, I knew that this admission required a response of encouragement.
"That's the best you can hope for," I agreed. "The difference between simple words on a page and the marriage of talents required in filmmaking."
Sure, my prose got a little purple, but from the smile on Andre's face, I could see it was what he wanted to hear. But then, his eyes went to his feet and I could see there was more on his mind than this.
"What is it?"
"Do you think, even for a minute, that Larry could've felt that way about him?" he asked quietly.
"What do you mean?" I replied, not getting it. "Envious about his skills as a player?"
By the time the words had left my mouth, I realized this wasn't what he was asking at all.
"Yeah," Andre said, as if relieved that I didn't make him say it.
I hesitated, but then shook my head. "No, I don't," I replied softly.
"You don't?" Andre sighed, almost a scold.
"One of Larry's fundamental problems is that he's self-absorbed while also saddled with a complete lack of self-esteem," I explained. "He doesn't like who he is at all. I think this means that, even on a subconscious level, he doesn't believe he's worthy of being loved by anyone else. As he changes over the course of the film, I think this becomes clearer to him until finally Tabitha emerges as his gateway into self-acceptance. But part of the reason she's not there when he returns to his old life is because it's just not that easy. He has more work to do, a longer journey ahead of him. For our purposes, I don't think there's ever a moment where Larry could feel about Nolan in that way as he wouldn't trust John's feelings any more than he would anyone else's. That's not to say that the person he'll become after the events of the movie are over would not."
It was the best I could come up with on the fly. I had no idea that Tom and Andre had discussed some sort of homoerotic subtext to the character of Nolan Fletcher. But it clearly worked for the actor, so I knew it was best to roll with it. Given the numerous scenes of Fletcher flirting and carousing with girls, it wasn't a conclusion I would've immediately drawn. He seems genuinely interested in the opposite sex. But if this was what Tom needed, it wasn't something I thought outside the realm of possibility.
Andre's eyes had gone glassy with tears at my response. He forced a smile, and then embraced me.
"Thank you," he whispered.
Scenes like this continued. For the first three weeks of production, I watched as performances took shape in front of the camera that would be about as far removed from the character in my head as possible. But time and time again, the actors, to whom the characters fit seamlessly, would credit me.
I was loath to admit it, but I saw a lot of this as revealing deficiencies in my script. I had played with stereotypes to create a funny piece on the page. But when made to stand up and be counted, the characters amounted to very little. Tom really had seen an opportunity to do more and had gone about it without needing to change a single word in the draft.
"So, what do you think so far?" the man himself asked me as we made our way to the parking lot about halfway through the shoot.
"I have to take my hat off to you," I admitted. "You're creating something that will really resonate with audiences."
"We're creating something," he admonished. "It's your script."
"I appreciate that," I said, unsure if I should say anything more. "But there's not an actor in the movie that hasn't come to me with a more personal, more in depth, and more human reading of their character than what I wrote. That's your doing."
"Oh, I don't know," Tom replied nonchalantly. "I think we both had a story to tell. Without the other's work, neither of us would get to the finish line."
"Whatever the case, I'm learning a lot from this process," I concluded.
"Well, I'm glad to hear that because I have something to ask you and I'm not certain what your response will be," he added, turning serious.
"You know we have Stewart Russo on board to play the adult Larry in the present-day bookends, right?"
Of course, I knew this. The actor, hardly an award-winner (except, bizarrely, for an Emmy won after he did a four-episode arc on an insipid sitcom a few years back), was getting paid $4 million for what amounted to six or seven days' work. He alone accounted for over half the above the lines costs.
"Well, I've talked to him a few times about the part and, frankly, he's not right for it," Tom conceded. "I cast him because the studio wants him for a comedy that's supposed to start shooting after our movie. Only, there was a chance he'd take something else at another studio. Our $4 million is basically an expensive holding deal."
I nodded, not surprised.
"The problem is, his character has to ground the movie or it won't work. If he's the weak link, we've got nothing. So, I need somebody else to flesh it out with before he gets here so I can just tell him what I need. I don't want to mess with the processes of any of the other actors, so I was hoping you might be available."
"Jeez, Tom, I don't know," I protested weakly. "I'm not an actor."
"It won't be what you think," Tom assured me. "We'll run the lines, we'll talk, have a couple of beers, and then run the lines again. It may not seem like we're accomplishing anything, but I promise you, it'll help me a great deal. What do you say?"
What could I say?
We decided to do the session on Saturday night, meaning that I spent the rest of the week terrified. The shoot kept moving along and I had a handful more conversations with actors about their parts. Like with Andre, each gave me a window in to their explorations with Andre.
"Do you think my character's parents were physically abusive?"
"I know my character has an addictive personality, but do you think it moves outside of just substance abuse and into emotionally destructive behavior?"
"Do you think my character's sister might've molested me?"
More often though, the questions came in the first person.
"Am I having sex with my teacher?"
"Could I have borderline personality disorder?"
"Did my best friend kill herself and I haven't told anybody?"
"Did my girlfriend have an abortion and I didn't know until after?"
"Am I considering plastic surgery?"
"How many times a day does somebody throw up before it is considered anorexia?"
"I get so angry sometimes and I don't know what to do about it. The dumbest things set me off. And something has to break to snap me out of it. I throw a phone, I bust up a chair, anything that can be written off as clumsy when somebody asks."
"I don't know what's keeping me from killing myself."
It was a lot to take, but I gave the best answers I could. What concerned me the most was that, like with Andre, I could see on their faces the need to know the answers to these questions. I had that same need to say the right and the meaningful thing.
But on Thursday night, things took an even more serious turn.
As much of the movie took place inside classrooms or the students' homes, the interiors were built on sound stages as it was simply easier to control the environment. But there were still a handful of scenes scheduled to shoot on exterior locations around the area, including at the local high school which was closed for the summer. These days felt longer than the ones on the stages as we were always waiting for an airplane to pass by, to get the light, and so on. When the day was over, I tended not to stick around and eat dinner with the crew, choosing instead to just pick something up on the way home.
On Thursday, this meant heading to a large grocery store halfway between the school and my temporary digs.
To be sure, Summerlin, Nevada was a curious area to stay in. Las Vegas was one of the cities most affected by the ongoing economic recession. Thousands of houses in hundreds of planned communities ("A dozen floor plans to choose from!") were built during the housing boom, but now stood empty. Accordingly, many of the businesses that rode the boom into town looking to provide goods and services to the burgeoning population were also going belly up, papering the only recently completed strip malls with "For Lease" signs.
There were exceptions, of course. Generally national chains and franchises, including my neighborhood supermarket. Easily the size of any I patronized back in Los Angeles, the interior of this mega-mart could've housed a football field. The parking lot? A hundred or more buses.
Just whenever I went, the only vehicles in the lot were driven by the employees and the inside was almost apocalyptically empty. Not that the shelves weren't completely stocked with merchandize. Quite the opposite. Every aisle was lined with products all perfectly faced and ready for purchase. It looked like it was the store's grand opening.
Most nights, I didn't even see a cashier and tonight was no different. There was a single check stand illuminated under a glowing number six, but no one was around. Not even the flirtatious checkout girl and equally frisky bag boy who'd so effectively ignored me the first time I came in.
No matter. I was sure they'd see me once I'd arrived in line with a barely full cart.
I was just perambulating down the frozen foods aisle when I finally glimpsed my first fellow human. She was blonde, perhaps in her early forties. She wore jeans, a t-shirt, and the kind of light fleece preferred by the locals to ward off the desert chill. She wore barely any make up, but it would have only obfuscated her very real natural beauty. Also, she was staring right at me with these piercing, ice blue eyes.
At first, I thought she was looking at something behind me. Then it became obvious that I was the sole focus of an uninvited fury.
"You," she shouted. "You're the writer."
It was impossible not to smile. I felt like I'd walked into a cartoon version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. That being "a writer" could cause such offense to this stranger in a grocery store felt ludicrous. Had she wasted an evening on one of my zero-budget sci-fi flicks, say, Wolf-Beast or Backwater Bridge Monster? Having anticipated something in the vein of Antonioni only to be punished for her choice, she now looked to wreak havoc on those who led her astray?
"Can I help you?" I asked, trying to sound nonchalant despite my voice cracking like a teenager.
"You're the writer," she repeated, more of a statement this time rather than a curse.
"I am a writer," I replied, like an ass.
"The movie that's in town. I can't even say the name. You wrote that. That's you. Your name is on it."
"Um, yeah. I'm Richard Fordyce."
"Fuck you, Richard Fordyce," she immediately spat back. "You're a scumbag."
She turned on her heels and walked away. I stood there for a second, unsure what to do. It was such a strange response that I couldn't let it go.
"Wait! Ma'am? Can I talk to you?"
The woman, whose name was soon to be revealed as Annette D'Angelo, initially refused to talk to me. After she saw that me coming after her, she abandoned her cart and walked straight to the exit. It was only when we reached the parking lot that she finally stopped.
"What do you want?" she asked.
"Is an explanation too much?"
It looked like it might be, but then her features softened. She relented and glanced around for a place for us to sit. As there was nowhere readily available outside, we went back in the grocery store and took a table in the empty coffee shop.
After she told me her name, she cut to the chase: "My niece is Sarah Leonard. She's playing Maria."
Do you think my character's parents were physically abusive?
"I know Sarah. She's doing really well. Everyone's happy with her work on the…"
"She thinks her father beat the hell out of her mother while she was in the womb," Annette said, cutting me off. "She says all the signs are there."
"No, no - she thinks Maria's father beat the hell out of her mother while she was in the womb. Not her actual parents."
"No, Richard," Annette reproached, shaking her head. "Tom Dunne told Sarah that he cast her as Maria for a reason. That it was clear in her audition what happened to her in real life, so they added it to the character in order that she might explore her 'emotional reaction' outside of herself."
I now understood Annette's distress.
"Miss D'Angelo, I know this is going to sound strange, but you have to believe me. What she's doing and what she's saying is just for the movie."
Her face went gray and a haunted look troubled her expression.
"Your script really is this empty suit, isn't it?" she said with something resembling alarm. "You didn't do any of it. How much of a patsy are you?"
I didn't reply for fear of providing the answer. Annette sighed and continued.
"I first met Tom over two decades. When he was in high school, he had a thing for my little sister, Amy. She didn't see him that way, but went on a couple of dates with him regardless. Unfortunately, our brothers gave her hell for it, not so much because of Tom, but because she was the baby of the family and a constant target for their pranks. They'd listen in when Tom called her on the home line. They'd show up whenever they went out. They'd interrupt, make remarks, and just heckle the hell out of them. Eventually, Amy gave in and dumped him. Tom flipped out and withdrew. He was already a strange person, but this just made him worse."
I tried to imagine how teenage Tom getting burned by some high school crush had anything to do with the movie we were making, but came up empty.
"What's that have to do with Sarah thinking her parents were abusive?"
"Everything," Annette snapped. "But it's not the what, it's the who that's the troubling part. Do you know who these kids are he's got in the movie? Sure, you brought a few out from Los Angeles, but part of the tax rebate means you have to use local talent. Almost every last one has a connection to Tom's high school experience."
"'Experience?'" I asked. "Not just 'high school?'"
"Yes. They're the offspring, relatives, and friends of the bullies, teachers, and rivals that crossed him thirty years ago. It's a high school reunion, but instead of his classmates, it's those nearest and dearest to them."
I paused. That sense that I'd entered a surreal cartoon filled with the paranoid and the mad returned. I wasn't sure how to answer these charges, much less make sense of them.
"I heard that he knew a lot of these people, but related to his what? Tormentors?" I asked. "All of them? How many slights could a single high school population inflict on an individual?"
"Including the imagined ones?" Annette retorted. "Quite a few, I suppose. But the fact is, he got to these kids and now they believe everything he says. He's turned your shoot into some cultic convention powered by his own psychobabble. They trust him. And he's got them turning against their parents, their friends, and everyone else in their lives as they rip their own psyches apart in search of what Tom's convinced them is the root of some previously undetected trauma. And as much as I hate what's happening now, I can't even imagine what'll emerge once the movie is finished and Tom cuts them loose."
My mind reeled the whole way home. On the one hand, everyone in Hollywood had a story about a Svengali-like director who manipulated his or her way into their actors' heads to get the performance they wanted. I'd just never heard of anything on this scale, to say nothing out of turning a film shoot into a quest for revenge.
But from the beginning, Tom Dunne wasn't your average operator.
He was an extremely polished communicator and excellent at conveying a strong sense of confidence and purpose. He could make you believe he was your best friend and confidant, while retaining his authority and treating you with professional courtesy. What mattered most to the studios, however, was that he delivered a product to which audiences responded. If you can find a way to connect with the masses, every other foible of personality could be forgiven in the Hollywood system. This led me to believe that if Dunne really was up to something like what Annette described, the producers must know and be looking the other way.
Sarah's aunt was right. I really was some kind of patsy.
As I pulled into my subdivision, the stillness of the neighboring houses got to me as it sometimes did when I returned after dark. When I'd first arrived, I hadn't seen a single car on any of the driveways, but I assumed the homeowners parked in their garages. On the first trash day, however, mine was the only house in the cul-de-sac with bags and a recycling bin by the curb. As I drove to the production office that day, I found this to be the case with the entire subdivision. I thought about asking the postman what the deal was, but then I was never around for his or her deliveries. Even on Saturdays, the arrival of the mail eluded me. One moment the box would be empty, the next, full.
I would occasionally see lights on in a couple of the houses at night, but as I never saw accompanying movement, I figured they were on timers. Anti-burglary measures rendered useless if one drove by at the same time they clicked on three days in a row. I occasionally saw pedestrians on the sidewalks or joggers in a nearby park, but I had no sense of where they came from. For all I knew, they lived in Phoenix and drove in to Summerlin for the peace and quiet.
Tonight, what had before been a source of idle curiosity now felt sinister. For the first time, I didn't want to be here. It was as if the very act of crossing my threshold would be the last step towards driving me insane. By the time I reached the driveway, I decided I needed to be among people and turned around.
Unlike any other big city in America, there's always plenty of parking in Las Vegas. It's not that no one drives. Rather, the casinos want to make your arrival at their gambling hall as easy as possible and erect giant lots and structures behind their hotels. Even better, it's free. This may seem like money walking out the door, but the thinking is sound. If you drop your car at Bally's with plans to head to catch a show across the way at Caesar's Colosseum, you have to cross the gaming floor to get there. There's a chance you'll throw a coin into a slot machine.
And if you play one coin, as it goes in Vegas, there's a chance you'll be convinced to play two, whether you win or lose.
I'm not a gambler, but I still love casinos. The people watching opportunities it affords are as ridiculous as they are extreme. For three hours after I arrived on the Strip, I walked from one gaming floor to the next, barely stopping. I stayed off the street as much as possible, keeping indoors. Every casino has its own personality and each face I passed told a different story. This information overload fed an addiction I hadn't realized had grown so acute.
I soon felt so much better, the impact of Annette's words lessening on my mind or maybe even conscience with every step. Around midnight, I decided to call it a night, fully refreshed.
Those feelings were soon to evaporate.
I had just reached the casino where I parked, moving up the long driveway towards the valet station, when a familiar car pulled up. The first time I'd seen Tom's black Porsche Cayenne, I thought it as perfect a stereotypical director ride as the black Prius was for a screenwriter. As it rolled past, I naturally thought it was his before realizing there were probably hundreds in this city. I was just about to alter my course to enter a less-trafficked side door when I saw Tom himself approach the vehicle. I had just raised a heralding hand when I saw who was with him.
Becca Baldwin had on the shortest skirt I'd ever seen, a thin strip of material stretched to the breaking point, wrapped around her bony ass like a bandage. Her legs were those of a crane, pale and stick-thin as they rose from three-inch high black stilettos. Her top, also black, was sheer and strapless, augmenting sharp shoulder blades while revealing her decision to go bra-less.
Tom's hand lay on her dorsal spine, his fingertips disappearing up the back of her top. She had one arm around his waist while her other hand sank into his front pocket. Becca wore the stupid grin of the hopeless inebriate. I couldn't tell if Tom was drunk, but his hair bounced along a little more foppishly than usual as he ushered her to the passenger seat.
I took a step back, not wanting to be seen, and waited for Tom to climb in behind the wheel, gun the engine, and drive off before continuing on my path. It was when I entered the casino that one last face on the evening caught my eye, that of Becca's mother. She was watching me from just inside the lobby, having likely been with Tom and Becca seconds before.
Her features were stony, but her expression was one of harsh judgment. Whether it was aimed at me, her daughter, Tom, or even herself, I couldn't say.
Though I hadn't taken a single drink on my Thursday night ramble, I nonetheless greeted Friday in the fog of a hangover. I wish I could say that I spent my first day with Annette's information tucked under my cap dispelling everything she said. Instead, it was as if someone had gone to great lengths to arrange the pieces on the board so even a simpleton could know the truth of Tom's Machiavellian machinations.
A boy who believed his character suffered from borderline personality disorder was the son of the teacher/faculty sponsor of Tom's high school audio-visual club. This same man told Tom not to bother pursuing his dreams of filmmaking as he simply didn't have the skills.
A girl who thought her character needed extensive plastic surgery was the daughter of a man some believed was not only a drug dealer in high school, but also the one who sold a classmate of Tom's the heroin that led to a fatal overdose.
Another boy who believed his character was dying of some rare and hard to diagnose disease was the grandson of Tom's one-time bishop who had castigated Tom for failing in responsibilities to the church.
For Tom, the arrangements were obviously a big game.
By the time I'd completely sorted it out, I'd grown numb. The movie seemed like a joke that I'd finally been let in on. I didn't give a damn about it anymore and wondered if my union would allow me to take my name off. It occurred to me that a story of this magnitude would surely get out, tainting the film. I didn't know what to do.
We were just back from the afternoon break when I ran into Becca's mom in the parking lot. She appeared at least ten years older than when I'd first shaken her hand at the initial table read. We regarded each other for a quiet moment, but then she spoke.
"I wonder what you think of me," she said.
"I don't know what you mean."
"I know what you've learned today. I knew somebody would find out."
"Find out what, exactly?" I sounded as honest as a mule skinner.
"What Tom was up to with this project."
"But you're not from here," I said. "Of all the people to know, why would you?"
"Tom and my husband came up together as directors, both getting their first breaks around the same time. From the start, I knew he had a thing for me. A few years later and my daughter had decided against her parents' better judgment that she wanted to be an actress. There was a part she was up for, a guest spot on a sitcom, but a big one that would get her noticed. Only, six hundred girls, many of which had much more experience, were up for it. But Becca was perfect for the part. I knew Tom was close with the showrunner and the casting director, so I went and asked for a favor. What he wanted in return was something I was more than willing to give."
She let this hang in the air, but her meaning wasn't ambiguous.
"So, Becca got the part. In doing so, she leapfrogged years of cattle call auditions and inevitable disappointments. Then, a few months ago, Tom came to me asking for a favor. And here we are."
I nodded, pretending I understood. Pretending it all made sense.
When I got home after the shoot, I didn't even bother trying to sleep. I channel surfed late into the night, filed up to bed, couldn't sleep, got up again, then channel surfed some more. Around one in the morning, I gave in, settling on an old Leslie Howard movie followed by a Korean War picture I'd never seen starring Robert Ryan and Aldo Ray. It was five in the morning before I finally passed out on the couch.
On the second floor of my duplex, there was a large window facing east. Every morning, the most glorious sunrises erupted across its panes. They purpled the sky before setting it on fire. It was a sight I looked forward to every day. I had described it in detail to Jen and then made a habit of taking and sending an iPhone photo of it each day to give her something beautiful to wake up to in smoggy (sorry, marine layer-y) Los Angeles.
That Saturday, the day Tom was to come over, was the first time I missed this ritual. In fact, I missed it altogether having slept well into the afternoon. I would probably still be there if my cell phone hadn't roused me around four.
"Richard, it's me!"
Tom's voice was pleasant, caffeinated, and efficient.
"Hey, Tom. What's happening?"
"Spent the morning and early afternoon on the edit with Orlando," Tom replied, referencing Brendan Orlando, our editor. "He's only a few days behind us, so you can start to see the thing take shape. First act's going to be fat, but the performances are there. It's looking like something we can all be proud of."
"That's great," I muttered.
"So, I was wondering if we could bang out our thing a little earlier," Tom continued. "I know I said 'evening,' but it looks like work might interrupt. If I get over there in about forty-five minutes, are you free?"
"I can make myself free."
"Great. Talk to you then."
The line went dead. From what I could tell from the background noise, he was already in his car, so it was probably less than forty-five minutes. It wasn't like I had to prepare; I just had to grab a shower. But it wasn't like I was looking forward to this even before I knew Dunne was a high-functioning sociopath.
I took a hot shower, got dressed, and cleaned up the house a little. The only food in the house was pizza left over in the fridge. I was just considering a quick grocery run when my phone rang again.
"I'm outside what may be your house," Tom announced. "But I can't remember which one it is."
"Be right there," I replied, already hanging up.
It was a beautiful cloudless day, nothing but blue sky as far as the eye could see. And there, in the middle of the ever-empty cul-de-sac, stood Tom Dunne. He had stepped out of his Porsche Cayenne and was looking around the other homes.
"Anybody living in any of these?" he asked.
"I'm not sure," I replied.
"Think they'll mind if I park in the middle of the street then?" he joked.
He snorted and climbed back behind the wheel. As he pulled onto my driveway, I offered the use of my garage with a hand gesture, but he waved it away.
"What would be most useful for me is to have a conversation with Larry," Tom began, settling into the sofa I'd so recently used as a bed. "Think of it like a séance. You're going to sit there and when I say boo, the spirit of your character will settle into your body, take over your brain, consume your thoughts, and respond to my questions by working your jaws. But it won't be an interrogation, as that's useless and I think you'd soon grow tired of that. The questions I ask at the beginning are only meant to kick start the process. What we'll get to is a place where it'll just be me and Larry shooting the shit about nothing at all and that's where the real work will be done. I don't want to know what he thinks about his place in the universe. I want to know what he thinks of that television, what he thinks about this table, what he thinks the shoes I'm wearing say about me as a person. That stuff. Is that cool?"
It felt like he was gearing up to hypnotize me and maybe he was. Regardless, I nodded.
"All right, then. Richard? Time for you to fuck off. Larry? Boo!"
"A lot of things went wrong, huh?" It was a calm voice that asked.
"How could they not?" It was an equally at ease voice that responded.
"Right, you don't know better at the time. You're just trying to get by. Trying to find that livable scenario."
"But the problem is, what you think is livable is everything. Everything has to work out or it's the worst experience of your life. There's no middle ground."
"That's why it doesn't matter what people say. An adult wades in and is like, 'Just get through it and it'll make sense on the other side.' But these are people in their thirties and forties. High school was this tiny percentage of their life at that point. What's four years?"
"But when you're fifteen or sixteen, that's a major percentage of your life thus far. Even more, every day, you're coming into your own. So, it feels like this is everything. You're living a very different life than the one you led when you were twelve or thirteen."
"You don't want to make mistakes," the first calm voice concluded. "And when you do, and when they pile up, it can feel insurmountable."
"But what made you listen to the adult who told you it would get better?" the second pressed. "What was different?"
"Maybe I was scared to be wrong. And maybe part of growing up made me lose that fear."
"But the subconscious impulse, the one that sent you on this journey, I just don't understand it. Why go back? Is that optimism? Are you looking to lose that fear again?" A pause. "Why not just kill yourself in the present?"
The first voice didn't say anything for a long time. Then: "It's all of those things. Something stopped me when I was a teenager that refused to stop me now. I wanted those thoughts of suicide gone again. I wanted to feel free, but knew I couldn't leave my old life behind unless motivated by something like revenge, in this case the revenge against the person who talked me out of doing it before."
"So, subconsciously you wanted her to talk you out of it again even though a part of you must've hoped to change the person you were and start over," Tom deduced.
"That might be it," I admitted. "If we're going to stay in the realm of the subconscious, maybe there was also a part of me that knew I could fix it. The part that had organized a lifetime of memories and pinpointed a cluster of moments that, if altered, contained the highest probability of changing my future."
"Do you realize that you never once refer to the story as taking place in the past?" Tom said as he made his way back to his car. "In the script I mean."
"I guess it wasn't important to me," I shrugged. "It was clearly meant to be a step back in time, but I wasn't making some kind of statement about the period."
Tom smiled like the cat that'd just got the cream.
"What?" I asked.
"That's the first time you've admitted you even had a statement in mind. This whole time you've said you wrote it as a joke."
He was right, of course. That is what I'd said all along. But now, all of these things I had felt, everything that I'd known but perhaps didn't know how to give voice to, had revealed themselves. And I had Tom to thank for it.
It had only taken four hours.
The following Monday, I informed the producers that I would be returning to Los Angeles that afternoon. They thought I was bored and demanded a return of my fee (prorated, of course) for failure to render services. Having expected to do just that, I was perfectly willing, but Tom talked them out of it. There was a little more grumbling, a couple of phone calls back and forth to the studio, my lawyers, and my agent, but then someone came for the keys to my office and it was finally time to go.
The first thing I did when I got home was inform my wife that I'd figured out about her ongoing affair with Mike Quintero, her old boss, and that I wanted a divorce. She was initially stunned into silence, but didn't deny it. When I said that I wanted joint custody of the kids, she said, in a small voice, that that would be okay.
I then called my manager and told her I was quitting the business.
"Are you actually quitting the business or is this your way of firing me?" she asked, shocked, given the number of offers that continued to roll in.
I assured her that I was serious and we parted ways.
Unlike every other soon-to-be-divorced husband I'd ever heard about, I ended up with the house. It turned out that Jen had considered walking out on me a few months back and had toured a few open houses with Mike. This on a Sunday when she told me she was at the gym and grocery store and, more importantly, before my career had taken off. Mike was in the middle of a messy divorce of his own, but as his net worth was upwards of $200 million, I didn't think seem them suffering.
A friend taught in the film department of a community college in the San Fernando Valley and I went to see him about a job. There weren't any openings, but after I led a couple of writing workshops pro bono, the head of his department said she'd probably be able to find room in the budget the following spring. As I still had plenty of money from the sale of Should've Killed Myself, I spent the rest of the summer and into the fall finishing up my remaining jobs and helping my kids transition into our new reality. Both acted out in their own way, but eventually adjusted faster than I thought they might. I was told it was because they were still relatively young.
When a couple of friends offered to set me up on dates, I found myself completely disinterested. I'd loved Jen. Right now, I just wanted to be alone.
I didn't hear anything from the production for the rest of the shoot. I only found out they'd finished when someone, obviously using an out-of-date e-mail list, sent me invite for the wrap party. I didn't reply.
Though I avoid the tabloids like any thinking person, it was hard not to notice that, soon, the cast of Should've Killed Myself in High School was beginning to make a name for itself. There were romances and trips to rehab, scandalous rumors and drunk driving accidents, outrageous parties and extremely public sexual indiscretions. At first, this didn't feel that unusual, were isolated, the youthful lapses in judgment and occasional gaucherie of any overnight celebrity. But once it became a regular thing, the press began linking them to the film. Part of this was because so many had been unknowns previously, but also by virtue of the buzz on the film being so high. Word was, the movie (now retitled Should've Never Left High School) was something special and would make the careers of all the young actors in it, a 'la Fast Times at Ridgemont High or The Breakfast Club.
As if part of a self-fulfilling prophecy, each of the kids began to line up these high profile next roles in film or on television even before the movie came out.
Sam McVay met his fiery end the second week of February. By then, he'd already played the lead in two more movies that were set to come out after ours. He was nineteen years old.
Overnight, a fully-formed James Dean-style legend popped up around him. The youth generation couldn't embrace their new martyr fast enough. New tidbits about his self-destructive lifestyle and debilitating upbringing appeared daily, some manufactured, some obviously purchased from relatives, neighbors, and his former class and cast mates.
I was quickly contacted by a couple of American and several English tabloids, but after I hung up on them the first few times, they got the message. Regardless, I'd only had the briefest of interactions with him, so it would've been fraudulent to pretend there was anything more. When the date of his funeral was announced, about a week after his death, it wasn't even a question whether I planned to go.
But then, I got a voice mail from Mrs. Baldwin.
"Are we going to see you at this?" was all she asked.
I didn't call her back, but she must've known she was changing my plans for me.
The funeral was a lavish affair. The memorial service took place in a massive auditorium that could hold over 1,000 people. Even so, twice that number were turned away and made to watch on video screens set up outside. Following the service, at which several of Sam's new high-profile friends spoke, there was a procession that followed the coffin to the nearby grave site, about five hundred yards away and up a hill. Throughout all of this, I saw almost every last actor from Should've Killed Myself and half the crew.
The one notable absence? Tom Dunne.
As this was naturally a subject of gossip, there were several rumors. The most pervasive seemed to be that he planned to attend, but in the end was far too distraught and stayed in seclusion. The thought was that he had become truly close with Sam over the course of the shoot and couldn't bear the assemblage.
Someone else mentioned that he was too busy prepping his next film, but was quickly pooh-poohed. Regardless, I found this the most plausible.
"You knew better than to expect him here," said Mrs. Baldwin when she intercepted me as I joined the procession.
"I suppose so," I replied, glancing around for Becca.
"She's up by the coffin. The three studios behind his next three movies tripped over each other trying to pay for this thing. Ours won, so our girl gets in all the pictures.
"How is she?"
"Conflicted. She didn't like Sam, but he was completely and madly in love with her, at least he thought he was."
"What do you mean?"
"It started on set. He'd let the romantic scenes linger, especially those with physical intimacy. A real kiss, not a stage kiss. Then, there'd be some kind of comment or reference that might've been Sam, but might've been Sam in character. It was impossible to tell. After the shoot, it got worse. He sent gifts and handwritten letters. He would show up to her events and even to other sets. The more Becca tried to dissuade him, the harder he pushed. It became an obsession, not a romantic interest."
"Was Becca ever into him?"
"Not at all. She was in love with Tom until the bitter end."
"I didn't know they broke up."
"Happened at the wrap party in the scummiest way possible," Mrs. Baldwin scowled. "He arrived with Becca only to go home that night with the girlfriend of one of the electricians. At first, Becca thought it was a joke. He never called, texted, emailed, nothing. When she went in for ADR sessions a couple of months later, Tom was cold and distant and wouldn't engage. It was as if they were strangers."
"I thought he was married. Some actress?"
"He was, twice even, but that's been over for a while now," she explained. "I'd sure love to have a conversation with those two. There was some kind of tragedy with one of them, but I don't remember the details. Judging by what happened to Sam, you just can't operate like Tom does and not expect disaster to follow."
I nodded absently, then glanced to the procession. Andre Levy walked past, holding hands with an ordinary-looking man about twenty years his senior.
"Who's Andre with?"
"Henry. We like Henry. He's a truly sweet man. After the shoot, Andre came out to his parents. Naturally, they went all twentieth century on him and kicked him out of the house. The only other person Andre knew to be gay was Henry, who worked at a luggage store in the mall. Henry was a little reluctant at first, but eventually took Andre in. They moved to Los Angeles together so Andre could pursue acting. Now, the kid's starting to pop off the footage people are seeing of Should've Never Left High Scho…oh, sorry."
"It's okay. They could never have released it with my title anyway."
"Good attitude. Anyway, Andre and Henry are taking it slow, but they're pretty great together. Becca and I have hung out with them a few times now."
"At least one of Tom's little mindfuck manipulations paid off then."
That stopped Mrs. Baldwin in her tracks.
"What?" I asked.
"Is that what you think happened?" she asked, incredulous.
I waited for her to continue, unwilling to - apparently - put my foot in my mouth again.
"Are you happier or, at least more at peace, with whom you are now rather than who you were before the film?"
"Well, so is Andre Levy. So are a lot of the kids. When she's honest about it, so is Becca. It feels cruel to even speculate about, but a part of me believes even Sam has found a peace that would've remained elusive to him his whole life. Did you see his mother at the memorial service?"
"How many pills do you think she took just to get here this morning?" Mrs. Baldwin sneered. "Twice her usual daily intake? Three times? As for the dad, he didn't show his face because he knows how pissed off everyone is for telling the press his son was 'an ungrateful bastard,' while selling every baby picture the kid ever had taken to the tabloids."
I could feel my face reddening with anger.
"If I'm hearing you right, you're saying that in all this self-actualization Tom helped his actors through, he was correct in his diagnosis that Sam was beyond help? That the best and only path for him was to be driven to suicide, possibly by seducing your daughter, the sole object of Sam's affection?"
Mrs. Baldwin glared icily at me for a long moment, then reached into her pocket and withdrew a folded piece of paper.
"I planned to place this in Sam's coffin, but the opportunity never presented itself. You keep it."
Leaving the note in my pocket, she turned on her heel and walked away.
I stepped aside and let the procession go on without me. Once they were all up at the grave site, I walked back down the little road to the memorial auditorium and found a seat inside. Workers carried the numerous floral displays and wreaths delivered for the service to a loading dock where they'd be driven up to the grave in vans. I watched them for a moment, then unfolded the letter and began to read.
It was from Sam to Becca.
I will refrain from disclosing the contents in detail, but know that if it was published, the legacy of Sam McVay would gain an unwelcome dimension. Addressed to "my girl Tabby," the note beseeched her to kill herself or allow Sam to do the job for her. He explained, in no uncertain terms, that she had to die, it had to be soon, and that she knew, in her heart of hearts, why it had to be that way. He went on to say that it was this knowledge that bound them as they were the only ones who understood and wasn't-that-beautiful?
If the letter had been typed out or was from an email, I wondered if it might've been easier to write off as a prank or some over-dramatic teenager caught up in a role. But as it was handwritten in red ink, each pen stroke stabbed into the paper with such force that it almost tore the page, it was clear they were the words, attitude, and beliefs of a madman. I had never read anything so disturbing in all of my life. To make things worse, the handwriting became more frenzied, more insistent, and more deranged by the sentence. The letters became more pronounced, some traced and retraced as if their writer feared the reader would miss salient points. He was pleading with her to reach out to him, to let him know that there was someone else who saw what he did.
It was then that I remembered what Tom told me at the beginning, that he saw this project as an opportunity to send a message to those teenagers who were told that bullying was this awful thing that had to be defeated. Or, to Tom's way of thinking, could be defeated. Becca's mom was right. This wasn't about revenge at all. In fact, it was the complete opposite.
Tom saw himself as defined by his ambition, his confidence, and his dominating personality that allowed such a long list of achievements. But somewhere along the line, he'd obviously wondered how this had come to him. Like the character of Larry, he came to the conclusion that it happened in high school. However, unlike Larry who took a look back and found himself lacking, Tom discovered that it was his reaction to the very bullies, oppressors, and persecutors who tried to pull him down that eventually turned him into the man he'd become.
This was how he thanked them. By delivering soul-crushing experiences to their nearest and dearest at a time when he saw them being coddled and favored, spoiled and indulged, he forced them to bounce back and learn resilience. He clearly believed that enduring these invented traumas and revelations, they'd be stronger and more self-reliant on the other side, just as he'd had to be when facing real ones. This would make them far more successful adults than they'd be otherwise.
Sam, I then had to believe, was an unexpected side effect. When Tom cracked him open, he found a volcano waiting to erupt. But rather than wait and allow him to possibly take any number of friends, enablers, or bystanders with him, Tom figured out a way to guide him towards a swifter end.
I got up to leave. I moved towards the door, surrounded by cast off funeral programs, all featuring the same picture of Sam smiling back at me. Rather than a headshot, it was just a candid snap of the young man grinning at the photographer. A moment later, I recognized his clothing as the costume he wore as Larry in our movie.
So who was actually looking back at me?
Deciding it didn't matter in the slightest, I headed to the parking lot. By the time I reached my car, I felt a lightness of spirit. I drove out of the lot, took a side road than ran behind one of the largest of the standing studio backlots, and made my way into the city. I had an irresistible urge to tell my own kids that their father loved them and to look into their eyes and see that they knew this to be true.
About the Author
Mark Wheaton had a perfectly ordinary high school experience.