Sunday, May 17, 2015

A Death in Hollywood v2.0

(Author's note: This is a massive rewrite of a flash fiction story I wrote a couple of years ago. It's far more detailed than the original. No, I'm not picking on a certain former Disney child star. If anything I sort of pictured this as being an alternate universe version of the character of Penny from The Big Bang Theory.)

The text message came in the middle of an office meeting. All it said was, “Come save me” with the name Emma and an address on the other side of Los Angeles right below it. Naturally, at first I thought it was a joke from one of my coworkers, they know my past even though I avoid all attempts to discuss the subject. The only problem though was that I didn't recognize the phone number and I doubted anyone would go to the trouble of getting a new cell phone just to play a trick. Whatever the case it had been years since I heard from her, but it didn't really matter, short of one of my kids getting hurt there was no way my boss would excuse me from his boring lecture.

When the meeting finally ended, I left the office and sat in my car for thirty minutes staring at the little screen on my cell phone wondering if I should head over to the address she sent. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I drove across LA just to satisfy my curiosity. The address turned out to be an old warehouse whose interior had been turned into apartments. From the information on the faded billboard mounted on the roof, I imagined the developers had intended it to be upscale residences for hip, young professionals but shifting neighborhood lines had claimed the area making it more than slightly dangerous.

Walking inside, the lobby was empty except for the smell of piss and the faintest hint that someone had recently smoked a couple of joints before going out to meet the world. As expected, the elevator was out of order but I was impressed with the fact that what passed as building maintenance had a new sign stating it was broken duct taped to the door. For a moment I stood in the eerily vacant lobby wondered if I should turn around and go home, its not like she would have ever gone this far for me.

It was simple morbid curiosity that made me walk up the four flights of stairs and then down the seedy hallway that reminded me more of a scene from a zombie movie than I wanted to admit. When I reached what supposed to be her apartment I knocked causing the door to drift open.

“Emma,” I called out while pushing the door a little further open. “I got your text message, are you okay?” I asked with no response.

Maybe I should have stopped there, plowing through LA traffic and exploring a building on the short list to become an oversized crack house is one thing but walking uninvited into a dark apartment is another entirely. It was me catching a fleeting glimpse of one of her movie posters in an expensive frame hanging on the wall that I finally knew I was in the right place. No one but Emma would have spent so much to frame something now representative of failed expectations.

“Emma,” I cried out, “it's me, Mikey...Mike Stanton; I got your text message. Are you okay?” Still nothing, but with my confidence building I pushed the door open all the way and stepped inside. It was a one bedroom studio apartment with the kitchen, and living area occupying one large room. With the curtains pulled blocking most of the afternoon sun the two windows in the living area only allowed a tiny amount of light inside. Combined with a small bulb mounted above the stove, the available illumination allowed me to navigate the apartment but it left huge shadows big enough to hide a person.

The living area of the apartment was orderly but rather spartan, the movie poster being the one genuine item of decoration I could find. The other pictures and even the furniture itself were all generic that suggested cheap motel surplus. For a moment I began to think that maybe Emma might be okay, that she probably had left the apartment but failed to close the door. But as soon as I stepped into the small kitchen area I was hit with the stench of liquor and death coming from the bedroom.

Standing in the doorway looking into the pitch black room I reached inside and instinctively felt for a light switch and flipped it up. I was instantly rewarded with the sight of the once famous Emma Carter now dead, lying naked on her bed. On the nightstand by her bed was a decorative box containing a collection of multicolored pills and an empty bottle of Jack Daniels on the floor. It didn't take much of an imagination to figure out the combination of the two was how she took her life. 

Our history together was long but lacked any real bond of friendship. It began over twenty years before when we were both cast to star in one of those sickly sweet television sitcoms. The story line had us as brother and sister orphans from the country going to live their rich but cantankerous grandfather. She was going to be the energetic and mischievous older sibling out to convert all the jaded city dwellers to honest country ways and values. I was the shy but intelligent younger brother who more often than not had to brainstorm a way to save his sister from some funny but precarious predicament. Every episode ended with the city folks coming to appreciate the moral life lesson Emma's character wanted to impart even though she created nothing but a chaos storm in the process.

For reasons I can't explain even now the show was a hit and lasted six years. When the series ended whatever fame I had evaporated overnight thrusting me back into the real world. The combined effects of severe teenage acne and a disastrous transition into puberty robbed me of my boyish innocence. I knew the deal even then, in simple numbers there were thousands of better looking boys my age all desperate to have a chance in show business. So I was less than a statistic to those wearing the thousand dollar suits and making the decisions as to who to promote or kick to the side. I reached out to Emma and her agent several times in hope they would put in a good word for me with someone, but I never heard anything back from them.

I didn't have far to fall being from LA, once the decision came down in the space of a month I went from having my every whim being met to learning the complex social rules in a crowded public school full of hormone-ravaged teenagers. I was a small injured fish in an ocean filled with angry sharks. Making matters worse, a less than ethical agent and my parents brutal divorce battle consumed whatever money I earned during the series.

Things went very differently for Emma, the producers loved the fact that she was from Nebraska and every bit the country girl she portrayed. So eager were the producers to keep her in the public consciousness our now canceled series was still in summer reruns when her first CD was released. It only took a month for her to become brightest new star in pop music. Two years later she wins a reoccurring part in an established television drama and stays with the show until it ends. That was about the time entertainment journalists started floating rumors that with Emma's ethereal beauty and devastating acting ability she could be the next Elizabeth Taylor.

Sitting at home nursing a bruised ego and a growing envy of her never ending success I watched the massive promotional campaign on the eve of her first movie hit the media like a tsunami. You would have thought the world had come together and unanimously declared her the empress of all creation. Just six weeks later I actually cringed hearing the same media folks who once praised her awesome talent now talk about how awful her performance was in that same movie.

Three more major flops later and her once golden career is reduced to singing in shopping mall food courts and struggling to win a spot on some reality show. That was her life until seven years ago, it was then I got a call from her new agent that interest was building in a reunion of all the cast members of our sitcom.

“What interest?” I exclaimed to the voice on the other end of the phone. “I haven't seen a rerun of our old show in years. It's been forgotten.”

“That may well be the case Mr. Stanton but you will be paid ten-thousand dollars to attend the reunion event.” The voice then said completely changing my opinion on the matter.

The day of the cast reunion I walked into the rented banquet hall to find only a hand full of disinterested paparazzi hanging around the bar. I didn't care, I was there for the money and didn't mind when I walked right past them without any of them recognizing me as one of the main characters. Even though it was billed as a happy reunion of cast members who thought of each other as family only a fool would have believe it was anything other than a last desperate attempt to revive Emma's comatose career.

The last to arrive was of course Emma. Dressed in a designer western-style shirt and jeans tucked into boots that went up to her calves she stormed into the banquet hall that day acting like the energetic young girl from the series. For a few brief minutes whatever magic her personality possessed back then returned, the scattering of diehard fans that somehow knew about the event started singing the theme song with Emma dancing around shaking hands and giving hugs. Once Emma was on the podium the speeches began, all glorifying her and how wonderful she was, and the energy quickly died.

Of course everyone in the cast posed for pictures in front of an ever dwindling number of bored reporters that for some reason stayed through all the speeches. But even those few stranglers soon started drifting out the door with Emma literally running after them at one point. The whole affair became a total disaster when Emma's agent suddenly left without saying a word becoming the epitome of the rat abandoning a hopelessly sinking ship.

I stayed, not for any sentimental reasons, Emma and I were never close. But I had no where else to go, my wife had kicked me out the house weeks before and my apartment at the time was its own special kind of cheap rat hole. Emma eventually found me at the bar finishing off the last of the liquor.

“Aren't we a pair,” I said as she sat down on the stool next me.

“Where did it all go Mikey,” she asked, “they said I would be a star. That before I was thirty I would have won an Oscar and become one of the legends of Hollywood.”

While I was never that smart, I knew it would be rude to answer a rhetorical question. So we just sat in silence drinking while the staff starting cleaning and clearing everything out. Sitting there next her you couldn't ignore the fact Emma was still a beautiful woman, as long as you avoided the look of haunted disappointment in her eyes. I wanted to tell how utterly ridiculous she was being, that her ride had lasted far longer than mine. But the one thing anyone realized about Emma if they watched her for longer than five minutes was that she was totally self-absorbed. That as far as she was concerned the sun, stars, and every galaxy in the universe revolved around her.

“You were always a good friend to me Mikey.” She suddenly said out of the blue.

Frankly, I was dumbfounded by her statement, but I didn't make an issue of it. Several hours passed with her crying on my shoulder and complaining about how everyone had given up on her. Right before we parted we did the perfunctory but empty promise of getting together which meant exchanging email addresses and phone numbers. As she drove off in her car it went without saying I knew I would never see her again. So it was quite the shock to receive her text begging that I come save her.

While the living area of her apartment was almost devoid of anything personal, her bedroom was filled with mementos of her television and movie career. In fact, I'd have to call it a shrine since the stuff filled a couple of large bookcases and most of the available wall space. Looking at her body I began to wonder why she called me, all I could think of was that she had somehow confused the characters in our series with real life. My character of the younger brother dearly loved his impish and idealistic sister and would do anything for her. Maybe in her last desperate moments that delusion was all she had left after the world had finally tossed her away.

With nothing left to do I called the police and told them what I had happened. They told me head back out towards the entrance of the apartment and wait. For a couple of seconds I almost did just that, then on a whim I pulled out my cell phone and started taking pictures of Emma's body and her bedroom. The tabloids would pay a bundle for the pictures of the fallen child star and I have child support I have to pay.

The cops took my statement and eventually allowed me to leave. It was dark outside by that time and the flashing red and blue lights reminded me of the opening of Emma's first movie. I watched it on television and Emma, wearing a golden gown, walked up the red carpet on top of the world. There was even a crowd outside the converted warehouse not to different from all the adoring fans that threatened to engulf the new Hollywood idol. This time however Emma was exiting under quite different circumstances inside a black body bag covered with a blanket. It was then that part of me wondered if this was all some elaborate prank just to reclaim what she thought was her rightful place in the spotlight.


Pixel Peeper said...

I remember this story from a few years ago.

I love your description as Mike Stanton went into the building and into her apartment - it felt like I was right there.

And what a cynical, greedy character he turns out to be, taking pictures of the scene!

Beach Bum said...

Pixel: This was supposed to be a rewrite that stayed under 1500 words so I could possibly send it off to a flash fiction contest. As you can tell it didn't work out, I blast straight through to the 2500 word level and kept going.

Part of the problem was I got to thinking about my character of Mike and of course,Emma. Mikey's sudden return to the real world after their series was canceled would have been traumatic to say the least. Where as Emma who spent many more years being "worshiped" lost the ability to discern reality from the fantasy world her handlers and agents built around her.

Long story short, while I admit I may have thought way too much about this, I came to feel Emma's suicide was not caused by despair and a lack of hope but in part was just a last desperate attempt to return to the spotlight. Remember, in this version Emma's apartment door was actually open.

Not sure which was worse, Mikey taking the pictures, which the tabloids would love, or the fractures thought processes of a former child-star who would do anything to become famous again.

Whatever the case I'm probably going to rewrite the shorter flash fiction version returning Mikey to his bad guy status.

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

Well, shame on Mikey for stooping to take pictures of the naked dead gal...

Good story, dude. Good luck with the editing.

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