She shivered as she walked through the swinging doors. She could feel it: passing into the land of the pleading. Every available space was covered with people sprawled across the strategically uncomfortable furniture. In the back of her mind, Kitty noted film people probably spent a lot of time in airports, which had the same awful uncomfortable metal and vinyl chairs bolted to the floor in rows. At least the airport had carpeting and hope—not in an emergency room. In an emergency room people negotiated with the divine. Apparently, the hospital’s decorator wanted to reflect Puritan ideals: the more uncomfortable the surroundings, the more effective people would believe their prayers.
Kitty noticed some people were huddled in prayer; two women were silently crying. The bank of pay phones on the wall were filled with people frantically calling out updates, waving their credit cards as they gesticulated into the phones.
Kitty scanned the room to figure out where to start. She had a job to do, a story to get. In the midst of tragedy, her job was to assemble an explanation and transmit it to the world. It was power. It was responsibility. Finally, her eyes rested on Hank, Jeffrey Chen’s stunt double and childhood friend.
“Hey Hank…” she dropped her voice to a coaxing tone and sat down next him. As a film-beat reporter, she had been by the set almost everyday. They all knew her.
“Hi Kitty,” he heaved a deep sigh. “You heard? Do you know anything we don’t know?”
“All I know is there was an accident on the set and Jeffrey was rushed into surgery here.”
The PR guy for the hospital had given her specific times for the ambulance’s arrival and commencement of surgery, doctor’s names, things she would need for her story. Hank didn’t want to be bothered with that. “Were you there? What happened?”
“Were you filming a scene?” She tried a different tack.
Hank looked across the room at Stan who was staring at his hands.
“We were filming the rape scene, when he walks in to find the thugs raping her and they kill him. Something happened and he didn’t get up. I don’t know if it was the squib or the gun? We tested the gun and we can’t figure it out.”
“Something went wrong with the squib maybe?” She tried prompting.
Hank just stared at Stan. The idea of squibs always made Kitty uncomfortable—the idea of a blood pack detonating on a body just seemed wrong on every level.
Hank still wasn’t looking at her. He was staring at Stan. Stan wasn’t making eye contact with anyone. The sound of someone moaning quietly faded in and out of the background.
“Do they know if Jeffrey is going to be OK? What have the doctors said?” she asked.
Hank shook his head. “Nothing much, just they’re working on it. Oh, fuck!” He buried his face in his hands. Kitty could just hear a muffled,
“Jeffrey, why did this happen?”
She took a deep breath to try to calm her nerves. Sometimes focusing on someone else makes it not so much about you—but the smell of the waiting room was making her gag. Her body seemed to think she was back in the waiting room from the night her mother was killed.
“So you two grew up together, right?”
Hank nodded slowly.
“Yeah, after he came back from Asia, he came to school with us. You have to understand it wasn’t a big school. I mean…
“But Jeffrey stood out from the first. He was shiny? I guess is what I’m trying to say. All the bullies were attracted to him. Hell, everyone was attracted to him. It didn’t help he was Lee Chen’s son, you know? Like it became a badge of honor to pick a fight with him. And they didn’t get that he was just in grief over his dad—like what the fuck do you do when you are 8 years old and your father has an open-casket funeral on international television? Jesus Christ, man.”
“So was he super angry as a teenager?” she pressed.
“No, more … morbid. Really obsessed with his dad’s death and his own.”
He cracked a grim half-smile and asked, “Do you know what his first car was?”
Kitty shook her head.
“Right, movie star’s kid—plenty of money in the family, right. We went to school with lots of Hollywood kids. You would expect a sports car, right?”
Kitty nodded encouragingly and smiled. “Sure, what 16-year-old boy wouldn’t want a sports car? Hell, I want a sports car.”
“Right.” Hank nodded. “Jeff asked for, begged for, and finally talked his mom into a hearse. A hearse. It’s like fuckin’ ‘Harold and Maude’ time, right? I mean the kid was goth before there was goth.”
“So how did the kids at school react?”
“Man, there was no pleasing anybody at that school. But, you know, by that time he had become such a show-off. He drove it in reverse when everyone was leaving at the end of the day—like in reverse through the pick-up line In front of the school.”
“Yeah, he got suspended for that one—again,” he said over his shoulder while walking to the soda machine.
Kitty followed, not wanting to lose him or the story.
“He was crazy and so much fun.”
“You said he got suspended a lot?”
“I told you, man: He was Lee Chen’s kid, right? So, like, everyday someone wanted to fight him. Yeah, he got suspended a lot.”
“Why did they want to fight him? I don’t get it.”
“It’s a young, dumb, testosterone thing. It was bragging rights to beat up the world’s most famous martial arts star’s son. And, come on, he was probably going to go into movies, too. I mean, he couldn’t stop showing off, we all knew he wanted to be an actor before he knew he wanted to be an actor.”
“So bragging rights?”
“Yeah, call it that. Bragging rights.”
“OK, so he got suspended for fighting a lot? What about the other guys in the fights?”
Hank shrugged. “It was worth it for them, I suppose. A lot depended upon who threw the first punch as to how the punishment got doled out.
Jeff was suspended so many times he finally—well, let’s say he escaped from school. He finished up at home.”
“He dropped out?”
“He escaped.” Hank smiled. “Let’s call it that … right?”
“So how did you two meet?”
“Well, we were at school together and I started hanging out at the dojo, taking classes, training. I don’t know.” He shrugged. “We were just always around, you know?”
“Well, you are his stunt double: How did you learn to fight like him? Did you train together?”
Hank noded, “Yeah, we did. It took him a while to come back to the dojo after his dad died. I heard stories the first time they brought him to the dojo, when they came back to the states—like, you walk in and there were these life-size pictures of Lee Chen lining the walls, all action shots—and apparently Jeffrey … I mean, the kid was what 8 years old, right? He walks in and sees these huge portraits of his dead father staring down at him; he just bursts into tears and ran out the door. Can you blame him?”
She shook her head slowly. “I don’t think I could manage that now—let alone at 8. Jesus.”
“So, yeah, he eventually came back to the dojo and I started there. I guess, if I’m honest, it was Lee Chen’s last movie that got me interested in martial arts. And when I learned there was a dojo teaching his methods, that’s where I wanted to go. I honestly didn’t connect Jeffrey with it at first—like I was surprised to see him there the first time I walked in, right? Like aren’t you in my science class? Like, weird man.”
He looked up at the ceiling. “Then I guess we were just both there all the time and had the same interest and now—fuck, man. Why this?”
“Why do you keep talking to Stan and not me?” Kitty finally exploded.
Hank shook his head. “I didn’t realize I was. It’s just—I can’t stop seeing him.”
“Yeah, you’re staring at him.”
“No I mean seeing him pull the trigger. He was holding the gun. He … shot Jeffrey.”
“I didn’t know, man!” Stan was on his feet, screaming at Hank. “I didn’t know! I didn’t mean … I didn’t …”
Out of words, he turned his head left and right. “I didn’t know!” He said again to the room then ran toward the parking-lot doors.
No one spoke. Even the people at the pay phones stopped. It was the heaviest silence Kitty had ever experienced.
“I think, I will … ah … go check on him.” Kitty finally volunteered as she pushed herself out of the uncomfortable metal chair. All the eyes in the room watched her walk to the exit. No one offered to come with her.
Gwenyfar Rohler is the fact-or-fiction writer for 2018. Her serial story, “Singing in the Dead of Night,” follows the death of a young movie star and the emotional aftermath that follows, as local media try to uncover the events leading up to the high-profile “murder,” which takes place while filming in Wilmington, NC. You can read other chapters here.