Farewell to a Cherished Story

My first day of high school scared me senseless. My openness to new experiences has grown by leaps and bounds over the years, but back then, in the middle of a new place, with new faces who were older, smarter, and much more outgoing than me, I wanted to crawl back under my bedsheets and stay there until summer.

But I found a kindred spirit on that first day of high school: a stocky kid who was just as shy as me, and with whom I happened to share most of my classes. He looked out of place, and I felt out of place, so I sat next to him, and I made my first high school friend. His name was Chris.

Chris, as I learned after talking with him, was a Star Wars fan. This alone forged an immediate bond between us, because as a thirteen-year-old, I imbibed everything Star Wars like a wampa imbibes tauntaun meat. But Chris and I also laughed at all the same jokes, agreed on all the same political issues, and reveled in each other’s weirdness. We hit it right off.

Together with our friend Dustin, we became the school’s resident A/V geeks. I documented this story in another blog post, where I wrote about some of the horrible movies we made together. But what I didn’t emphasize in that post was how seriously. fucking. into it. we were.

We loved movies. Especially the big summer tent poles. Chris exposed me to a bunch of great pop sci-fi movies I’d never seen, including the Terminator films. We went to the midnight premieres of the Matrix sequels, the Lord of the Rings movies, and, naturally, the second two Star Wars prequels together. More than anything, we wanted to make something as cool as the big-screen movies we loved.

The horrible amateur movies we made weren’t horrible to us. We thought they rocked, and we put more effort into each successive one, spending more and more time outside of class working on them. Looking back on those movies now—and really, on almost every movie I’ve made—the real treasure wasn’t the movie itself, but the experience of making it with such great friends.

Chris and I attempted shockingly unsafe stunts, including one when Chris chased down a moving car and jumped on top of its trunk. At one point, I ran at full speed across a slippery seawall, submerged just below the water’s surface and no wider than a hand, so it would look like I was running on water. We spray-painted toy guns black and wielded them freely in public places for our films. Some kind and bewildered police officers were called on us more than once.

We didn’t tell our parents about any of this, for fear of being grounded until our forties.

One night, when I was sleeping over at Chris’s house, we were filming outdoors with his parents’ brand new mini-DV camcorder. Chris, being a goof, pointed it at his face and spun around and around, ridiculously fast… then fell right into the lake next to the house, ruining the camera beyond repair.

Our approach to filmmaking was casual. Oftentimes we’d take an hour or two off just to talk about life, school, girls, or the grand future that waited ahead of us. You see, we were gonna be world-class filmmakers one day.

Hey, give us a break. We were fourteen. Fourteen-year-olds are stupid overconfident. In one script, I wrote about an army of clones. When I asked Chris if he could digitally create said army, in the fashion of the massive armies in Lord of the Rings, Chris looked at me like I was crazy and said, “Duh. Of course I can do it.”

But before we could get to that project, another project sidetracked us.

The big one.

While sitting after school one rainy afternoon, waiting for my mom to pick me up, I found myself staring down at my reflection in a puddle. I marveled at how pristine reflections can appear even when viewed through muddy rainwater. An idea struck me. With my face as close to the puddle as it was, what if my reflection suddenly reached up through the puddle, grabbed my face, and pulled me down into the reflected world beneath?

The thought terrified me. I kept thinking about it all afternoon, all night, and through the next day. I started to imagine a dark parallel world full of malevolent beings trying to break through mirrors into our world.

“Chris!” I said frantically, calling him up late at night. “I have an idea. A really good idea. It’s a horror story, and it’s a full-length movie, almost two hours long.” I babbled through my rough story concept, which was obscenely ambitious for two sophomores in high school to attempt. But at the end of my pitch, I asked Chris if there was any way we could make the movie during the upcoming summer.

“Of course we can do it,” Chris said, like it was no big deal. I imagined him dusting off his shoulders and lowering some sunglasses over his eyes.

And so it was that two naïve fifteen-year-olds set out to make a feature-length horror film. We called the film… wait for it…

Reflections.

Original, right? Little geniuses, we were.

We planned to shoot it with my parents’ camcorder over the course of three months. I wrote a script, and Chris gave ample feedback. We talked a few of our classmates into starring in the film, along with yours truly, of course. I was a bit of a diva, but Chris shied away from being on camera. He always preferred the more technical, behind-the-scenes roles, so it took me weeks to talk him into playing one of the characters after we couldn’t find anyone else to play him.

School let out. Filming commenced. We actually shot several hours of footage for Reflections, and I think I still have it deep in a box in a closet somewhere. We didn’t get too far, though, because it soon became apparent that we were out of our depth with one specific scene.

At the end of Reflections, the main character (played by me) got sucked into the reflection world and had to fight his way out. We envisioned the reflection world as a wasteland full of smoke and tornadoes, with the reflections themselves appearing as huge smoke monsters on the other side of the mirror. Chris, naturally, was completely confident he could create this world digitally in his computer.

But aw, shucks, we needed a green screen. A 360º green screen, since we needed to rotate our camera around and over me while I fought the smoke monsters. We estimated a whole month of our summer would be spent filming this one epic scene, so we needed sustained access to this green screen. But where could two fifteen-year-olds find something like that?

“Mom? Dad?” I asked sheepishly one night, approaching them in their bedroom as they read before heading to sleep. “Can Chris and I build a big green-screen room out of plywood in our back yard this summer?”

My parents exchanged a skeptical glance. But after much deliberation, they gave the go-ahead. My dad was even super generous in helping us buy the materials and plan the design of this green-screen room.

Putting filming on hold (much to the relief of our poor actors), Chris and I set to work. First we had to treat all the wood with anti-termite liquid. We bought gallons of the stuff. Certain corners of my parents’ garage still smell like that crap to this day.

Chris would drive over to my place a few nights each week, we’d prop some plywood up on some sawhorses, and we’d paint with anti-termite goop for hours on end. He’d crank up the music, and we’d jam out, talk, and goof off late into the night.

My dad helped us build the green-screen room’s foundation, and we added two walls. Our neighbors who saw the monstrosity coming to life in our back yard cringed as they walked by, but Chris and I could practically see the dark universe we were going to bring to life, could anticipate the terror we’d strike into our audience’s hearts with our masterpiece’s nail-biting finale. Overeager, I bought two cans of bright green paint.

Summer ended.

We’d only shot a few scenes of the film, and all we had to show for our efforts was a ridiculous half-finished plywood room in my back yard. Chris had been stressed in school the previous year, and his grades had suffered, so he chose to drop out of the academic program we belonged to. Suddenly, we weren’t in classes together anymore.

As weeks turned into months, and our teenage bodies aged to the point where we didn’t even look like ourselves in the footage we’d shot as slightly younger teenagers, Chris and I lost interest in Reflections, and we both turned to other pursuits. I started working on a smaller, more manageable feature-length film, and I grew heavily involved in our school’s drama club. Chris became interested in weightlifting and football, both teams of which he joined.

We grew apart. With winter approaching, my parents prompted me to either finish the green-screen room and use it, or to tear it down. With a little reluctance, I asked my dad to help me dismantle it. Soon all that was left of Reflections was a few hours of useless footage, a patch of dead grass on my parents’ lawn, the smell of termite treatment in our garage…

… and a script.

I loved that story. I still do, cheesy as it was. I saved the script in my story archive on my PC, determined to return to it someday and finally create it in all the glory my fourteen-year-old self had intended.

Seventeen-year-old me bumped into Chris one afternoon at school. We’d barely seen each other during our junior year. It was almost hard to recognize him.

Chris had gotten buff. He had muscles! I still had the stick-thin body of an A/V geek, but Chris had lost all the extra weight, and he looked like a bodybuilder. He preached me the benefits of regular weightlifting and tried to talk me into coming to the school’s gym to pump iron with him.

“On one condition,” I said. “I’ll work out with you… if you act in a few scenes in my movie.”

We shook on it. Chris had himself a deal.

I only worked out with him once, feeling the piercing lactic-acid burn that comes after an intense workout for the first time. But true to his word, he came to act in a few scenes in the movie I was making. We’d lost some of the connection that two best friends have, but we still had a great time. By pure coincidence, Chris and I applied and were accepted to the same college: the University of Central Florida. We made plans to spend more time together once we were there.

The summer between high school and college, I busied myself writing a sequel to Reflections. It would become a trilogy, I decided.

I knew things were different between Chris and I when he invited me to a few different frat parties during the first week of college. He knew I didn’t like frats or drinking or what I—with an ample roll of my eyes—called “college bro culture,” but he was really into that scene and wanted his good friend from high school to take the journey with him.

One of my most vivid memories of Chris from this period of our lives was when he gave me a ride from our hometown back up to college one Sunday night, speeding well over a hundred miles per hour in a seventy-mile-per-hour zone in his bright red sports car, and me trying to get him to slow down. Later on, during a separate trip when Chris was alone, he wrecked that car, flipping it when he took a highway exit ramp too fast. Fortunately, he walked away from the wreck with barely a scratch.

He wasn’t crazy, or going off the deep end into some berserk drunken spiral, or anything like that. But it became clear that we were going to take two different paths through college.

So the best buddies who’d spent almost all our time together in our mid-teens lost touch completely. I checked Chris’s Facebook wall from time to time to see what he was up to. We’d changed into fairly different people. Chris lost all interest in the film industry, whereas I got accepted into UCF’s film program and chose to major in film. Chris’s politics stayed center-right whereas mine trended steadily leftward. We each dealt with different sets of problems—my main vice, looking back, was a creeping workaholism that would grow and cause major problems for me later.

At one point, Chris took some time off of college to work on a cruise ship. He traveled the world. He looked half drunk in several of the photos that were posted of him, but still, I was jealous, cooped up in my dorm room as I was. Chris’s appetite for adventure and risk taking certainly hadn’t waned. And I missed him. Part of me wanted to be on that cruise ship, catching up, having adventures together.

Years went by with almost no contact between us. But Reflections lingered in the back of my mind. It was a pretty amateur, childish story, I realized. But because I loved it, I thought about it often, and how I could improve it.

Slowly, I grew up a little. I became more aware of the world, and new themes emerged in Reflections and its sequels. The plot grew to be centered around crime and humanity’s eagerness for retribution against people who do bad things. The main character, framed for murder, was forced to take part in a criminal underworld in the sequels, so I began to think of the reflection monsters as a metaphor for criminals: a shadowy force we’re afraid of and eager to destroy but which might sometimes be more easily fixed with a little light and understanding. Maybe prevention would be a more effective approach than punishment… and might save a number of victims before the crimes ever occurred.

I jotted down ideas for Reflections whenever they occurred to me, sometimes scribbling them on scratch paper or recording them on my phone, and I’d eventually transcribe them into a master document I kept on my computer.

During my first semester of grad school (still at UCF), Chris contacted me out of the blue and asked if I wanted to hang out. I accepted the invitation, and we met for dinner in downtown Sarasota.

Chris looked good. He was well-dressed and had kept off all the weight he lost in high school. He still lifted weights, he was drinking less, and he wanted to be a web designer. With his stylish glasses, he looked every bit the future successful tech entrepreneur.

I was a bit embarrassed that I still looked the same as I had in high school, and that I almost never worked out. But Chris didn’t care about our differences, and neither did I. We were both happy to reconnect with an old friend.

“Do you remember Reflections?” I asked him, smirking.

To my surprise, Chris exclaimed, “Yes! I love that movie! I still want in on the visual effects, you know. When are you finally gonna make it?”

As it turned out, the dream of our high school movie had lived on in Chris all those years, too. Enthusiasm welled within me as I remembered all our high school plans. “I’m too poor to finance Reflections now,” I explained to Chris. “And I’m making another movie for grad school, anyway. But someday soon, we’ve got to do Reflections!” Chris was in.

We started spending a lot of time together again. We went to several movies together, just as big of sci-fi geeks as we were as fourteen-year-olds. Chris loved his motorcycle and was eager to show it off, so I’d ride pillion with him back and forth between my place and the movie theater. My new friends from college came along, which made for a fun mixture of past and present.

Maybe Chris can join our larger group of friends, I thought. Chris started visiting my place to teach me his workout routine, plus some tips for healthy eating.

When my grad school dropped a sudden deadline on me for developing a website for my thesis film, Chris was the first phone call I made. “I have like two weeks and no money! Can you help me? Can you build a big website for my movie in only two weeks?”

In his true ambitious fashion, Chris responded, “Duh, of course I can do it.”

Chris, as it turned out, was going to become one of my key collaborators after all. I hadn’t realized I’d missed having him in my life so much, but now that he was back, I wondered how I’d ever done without him.

On Super Bowl Sunday 2010, while my friends were watching the game in the living room, I, being the sports hater I am, was working on a screenplay in my bedroom. My phone rang, and on the other end of the line was my mom, crying.

She told me Chris’s mom had just called her with the news that Chris had died the previous day in a motorcycle accident. Another driver wasn’t looking and pulled out in front of him, and Chris hit the other vehicle going full speed. He died instantly. He was twenty-two years old.

Even though eight years have passed, the above sentences were very difficult for me to write. I’m trying very hard not to break out in tears as I type this.

And wow, did I cry that night. I didn’t believe it at first, asking my mom several times if this was some sort of weird joke before I finally accepted it was true. My roommates were dumbfounded by my sudden weeping and then heartbroken when I told them the news. I called Eich, our TV Production teacher, and Dustin, the third member of our high school trio, and told them, too. In a bizarre twist, I called my girlfriend to tell her that one of my best friends had just died, and she chose that very moment to break up with me. Needless to say, I do not remember that day as a happy one.

Chris’s funeral was huge, with over a hundred people attending. The bike he loved so much was there, barely dented, as if in cruel defiance of the life that was lost. His family invited me, along with some others, back to their place afterward to share memories of Chris. I turned them down.

I still kick myself for this decision, and I’m not quite sure why I made it. It might have been because I was so sad. I remember that part of my choice was due to, idiotically, a major deadline approaching in grad school. I didn’t think my professors would accept my friend dying as an excuse for turning in late work. I should have stayed.

I was already a workaholic before Chris died, but for many years afterward, my workaholism got really bad. If Chris could die without warning, after all, then I could die without warning. I had stories I needed to tell, and I needed to tell them now, because there might not be a tomorrow.

Reflections suddenly became more important than ever. If I hadn’t had several other commitments at the time, I would have dropped everything to make that movie right then and there. I had to make it now that Chris was gone. There was no question. Chris was dead, but I had the power to make him live on through our shared project.

More years passed. I kept adding new ideas to Reflections, my passion for the story more alive than ever. At a certain point in the narrative, the protagonist went through a loved one’s death, and as callous fate had it, I now had firsthand experience with how such a thing felt. I could now write the story that belonged to Chris and me using the pain his abrupt absence had caused.

I grew preoccupied with death. You can see my philosophical interest in death in several of my short stories, and in Thorn. Chris’s passing even influenced my later decision to become a 9-1-1 dispatcher, so I could get help to people like Chris when they needed it most.

I held on to Chris’s and my dream for both our sakes. He would’ve wanted me to. Even after I decided to start writing books instead of making movies, I planned Reflections as a horror trilogy I’d write as a big series someday.

Someday. I’d been saying someday about this story since I was fourteen years old.

Well, in 2018, at age thirty-one, someday came at last.

Last month, I decided to start writing Reflections. I opened my notes file for the story and realized I’d never read it from front to back. At hundreds of pages in length, I had good reason to postpone reading it. But now that I was going to write it for real, I dove into this time machine of a notes file and read every single thought I’d ever written about this story from every stage of my life for the last seventeen years.

Seventeen years! For more than half of my life, I’ve lived with Reflections in my head, clawing at the seams of my mind, waiting to be birthed into the world. The notes I read thrilled me, because many of them had been written in reaction to conversations I’d had with Chris. It was like talking with him all over again, eight years after his death.

But then, as I read through a quarter of the notes, and then half, and then three quarters of them, a somber realization dawned on me.

Reflections was bad.

The story just wasn’t any good. It contained numerous clichés and stereotypes and egregious inconsistencies. Rather than the chain of cause and effect that links most stories together, Reflections seemed like a sequence of random events that culminated in an unearned climax, followed by a sequel more interested in how the reflection monsters worked than how the human characters worked. The story oozed with teenage angst that couldn’t be translated to adult storytelling in any meaningful way.

Moreover, most of its elements that were actually good had already been done in other popular stories—especially the Netflix show Stranger Things and the comic book series Postal. When the dust had settled after my initial read-through of the notes, a few good and original ideas remained, but all of them would be better served in a different story, and none would suffer by being removed from Reflections.

The last straw was some research I did into some of the subjects I wanted to tackle in the story: crime and law enforcement, mental illness, sex trafficking. This last item, especially, made me realize that these weren’t my stories to tell. Exploring real-world topics through the lenses of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror—even very serious topics—is a valuable endeavor that I still plan to pursue in other books. But these topics felt shoehorned into this story, like an adult storyteller was trying to add meaning to a story he’d come up with as a fourteen-year-old. They simply didn’t fit, and the story I would have told would have been horribly insensitive.

After realizing all this, my choice was clear. I could not spend two years of my life researching and writing Reflections. I had to abandon it. I’ve written before on this blog about cool stories I’ve abandoned, but Reflections wasn’t just another cool story.

This blog post, sadly, is the bittersweet culmination of seventeen years of hopes and dreams. Sweet because I can shed a story that has weighed heavily on me for many years. Bitter because I feel like I’m not just saying farewell to the story Chris and I wanted to tell together—I feel like I’m also saying farewell to the story of Chris.

Ever since his death, I’ve hoped that I could tell this story so that my friend could still put his mark on the world. Even though he died far too young, maybe, through me, he could reach across time and attach his name to a remarkable work of art.

But at its core, this was a story written by two fourteen-year-olds. I’m not sure why I expected it to be good. Maybe I was blinded by my love for Chris. And I did love Chris, very much. It breaks my heart to have to leave this story behind me.

Or maybe I’m not saying farewell to Chris’s story, after all. Chris will live on in this blog post, at least, and of course in the memories of everyone who knew what a fun, carefree, ambitious, warm-hearted guy he was.

And since Chris and I came of age together, experiencing similar formative experiences and informing each other’s comparable taste in art, maybe a little piece of Chris lives on in all of my work. His life had a much greater effect on me than his death, after all, so why wouldn’t his life affect my art in an even greater way?

More than any other influence Chris had on me, I think his fearless ambition influenced me the most, in the way I approach my writing and my filmmaking. His attitude toward his projects, and his whole life, reminds me of that famous quote by Amy Poehler:

“Great people do things before they’re ready. They do things before they know they can do them. Doing what you’re afraid of, getting out of your comfort zone, taking risks like that—that’s what life is.”

Chris certainly lived a lot of life in the short time he was here. I think he’d be a bit sad about my Reflections decision but that ultimately he’d be eager for me to pursue the next big idea I’m cooking up. I hope he’d have wanted to be a part of that story, too.

And I’m certain that if I asked him now, in my more hesitant and anxious moments, if I can really do something as big, bold, and intimidating as the creative projects to which I’m usually drawn, Chris would give me the same eye roll and the same response he always gave me.

“Duh. Of course you can do it.”

Thanks, Chris, for the encouragement, and for being my friend.

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