What It’s Like Behind the Scenes at a Test Screening

I went up to the concessions stand with my pink VIP ticket in hand. I stood in line like everyone else for a few seconds before glancing left to see a roped off register with signs reading “Reserved Entrance.” I made my way over.

“Hi,” the nice girl behind the counter said. “What can I get for you?”

“Um, what can I have?”

“Anything you want.”

I looked up at the LED menu. It stretched for miles. Popcorn. Hot Dogs. Ice cream. Sodas. Candy. Nachos. Pretzels. Too many to choose from.

“I’ll take one of everything.”

* * *

I’ve been working with Tremendum Pictures for a couple of months now and in that time I’ve learned one very important thing: this is what I should have been dreaming about all along. A couple of times a week someone will come up to me and say, “Man, how great is it you get to live your dream?” And I always say, “Actually, I’m not. I never dreamed this. I never dared.” Thank goodness someone else did. Or, rather, two someone elses.

Most of my time lately is spent working on a TV show I’m co-creating with Tremendum founders Chris Lofing and Travis Cluff, but I’ve also done some work as a production assistant and set designer on Chris and Travis’ movie, The Gallows, coming out July 10 from Blumhouse, New Line, and Warner Bros. I’m in “lucky to be here” mode and that’s not a bad place to be.

Friday evening, myself, Chris, Travis, and Production Associate Nate Healy piled into a car and drove down from Fresno to Long Beach for the final test screening of The Gallows. Unlike past test screenings, Chris and Travis, the writer-directors, weren’t scrambling at the last minute and staying up all night to make changes. Friday night was a night for relaxing, refusing the free drinks the hotel offered us when they found out what we were in town for (all four of us are Mormon), and playing board games until way too late. I don’t think “relax” has been part of Chris and Travis’ vocabulary lately. It was on that Friday night.

Out in front of the Edwards 26 in Long Beach. That's me on the left, then Brandon Jones, Nate Healy, and Travis Cluff.

Out in front of the Edwards 26 in Long Beach. That’s me on the left, then Brandon Jones, Nate Healy, and Travis Cluff. Photo by Chris Lofing.

The next morning, we got up, ate a hotel breakfast we probably should have passed on (I understand I did well in refusing the pancakes), and made our way over to the local Edwards 26 where we watched the movie through once to make sure there weren’t any picture or sound glitches. The movie’s sound designer, Brandon Jones, spent the entire test for the test screening jumping around to different seats in the auditorium to make sure everything sounded right from all angles.

The movie checked out and we had some downtime before the screening, so we busted out the board game BANG! and played in the open air admist the mall shops while waiting for lunch. The six of us (we were joined by another Tremendum associate, Rich Mirelez, just after the test for the test screening) drew some attention from an old man who stopped, hovered, and stared at the game for a little while in bewilderment before moving on.

At lunch we were joined by Dave Neustadter of New Line Cinemas, one of the producers on The Gallows. He picked up the tab. The big perk of these trips is that once we’re there we don’t pay for a thing. Normally, I’d try to refuse such kindness as I prefer to pay my own way, but this is just part of the deal. Besides, I figure New Line probably has more money than me. The Hobbits have been good to them.

After lunch, we walked over to the theater to see a big crowd out front, waiting to get in. The actual test screening is not managed by the studio itself, but by a third party company who recruits, organizes, and runs the whole show. They did a great job stacking the audience with the under 21 crowd, most of them big horror fans.

Soon, the big brass filed in, including studio heads from both Blumhouse and New Line. Dean Schnider, one of the producers on The Gallows and the guy who discovered Chris and Travis in the first place, introduced me to his boss as the writer of Tremendum’s next project. Not gonna lie, that was pretty cool.

As VIPs, we didn’t get wanded going in (they’re lucky I forgot my bomb at home) and we got our pick of goodies from the concessions stand. I asked for “One of everything” as a joke and quickly backed off of that with a laugh. Instead, I got a small popcorn, milk duds, and a Dasani water. Because I am pretentious and oh-so-Hollywood now. Don’t talk to me.

Here’s the thing I’ve learned about actual Hollywood people so far: they’re pretty cool. Rather than the all-black clad, slicked back hair, sunglasses, and blue tooth headset types you might expect, they’re a pretty casual crowd dressed in t-shirts, jeans, and three-day-old scruff for the most part. If they’re feeling really fancy, they might toss on a plain button down shirt, open at the collar. They are excited, thoughtful, and, yeah, they cuss a lot. (Well, a lot for me. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve said the F Word, so my barometer might be a little different than the average person.) This all squares with my memories of the last time Hollywood invaded my life, back when my family was on Rescue 911. As Nate said as we drove back from the trip: “They’re just people.”

* * *

The Gallows synopsis on IMDB:

20 years after a horrific accident during a small town school play, students at the school resurrect the failed show in a misguided attempt to honor the anniversary of the tragedy – but soon discover that some things are better left alone.

* * *

Watching The Gallows with a crowd is the best possible experience. The energy coming off the audience was insane and, even though this was my fourth time seeing it, it was my favorite viewing of the movie without question. People were FREAKED OUT. This movie is intense, suspenseful, funny, emotionally involving, surprising, and just flat out SCARY.

Afterwards, Travis talked to the crew filming the audience with night vision cameras about how it went and was told that they got the best reactions they’d ever seen. Travis asked if this was their first time doing this sort of thing. He was assured it was far, far from the first time.

The theater was dead silent as questionnaires were handed out and the audience put their opinion of the move in writing. This is what were all waiting for. Does the movie work or not? You can’t argue with black and white.

While a bunch of strangers held their fates in their hands, Chris and Travis went from producer to producer, to studio head to studio head, taking in their notes and petitions for last minute changes. In two weeks, The Gallows will be submitted to the MPAA for a rating (going for a PG-13), and that means Chris and Travis only have that long to finalize the picture.

After all the questionnaires were filled out, a select group of people were asked to stick around for a focus group to offer up a more detailed analysis of the movie with questions like “Which scene did you like best?” and “Where would you rate the movie on a 1-to-5 scale?” Chris and Travis were on edge the entire time, just waiting for either worst fears to be realized or to have it confirmed they’d sealed the deal.

When the focus group finished, the numbers on the questionnaires came back. The real test is in the numbers. A movie like this, it’s all about word-of-mouth and if the audience doesn’t go for it, then you’re sunk. If The Gallows could hit a certain benchmark, then it would be in the same league as Blumhouse and New Line’s successful horror films like Paranormal Activity, The Purge, and The Conjuring.

The numbers were read off.

The Gallows doubled the benchmark. The focus group didn’t lie and everyone’s instincts about it were validated. People love this movie.

Everybody went nuts. Dave Neustadter turned around, cocked his arm back, and gave me the single hardest high five I’ve ever received in my life. He did the same with Brandon and Rich. No exaggeration, a full ten minutes later, Brandon turned to me and asked if my hand was still hurting like his. It absolutely was.

Everyone gathered around Chris and Travis to congratulate them. I got a little fanboy thrill as, at one point, I was in a circle of people that included Couper Samuelson, one of the producers on the Oscar-winning Whiplash; the head of Blumhouse, Jason Blum; and the head of New Line (and writer of one of my favorite films, Frequency), Toby Emmerich. I was basically invisible, but it was a pleasure to be there and hear these guys express their excitement for something my friends had created.

After everybody slapped backs, a few of the producers and the rest of us stuck around for some dinner. Again, New Line paid, but by then I was so full of popcorn and candy that would have been better eaten by a much, much younger version of myself that all I had was a cup of soup.

GallowsFinalTestDinner

Photo by Travis Cluff

This might have been my favorite part of the day. Everyone was in a great mood and just reveled in the fun that comes from seeing years of hard work come to fruition and paying off in spectacular fashion. These people really celebrate success, and that’s just not something I think we do enough of in the 9-to-5 world. I loved it. I loved that even though a lot of these guys have been doing this for a while, they still couldn’t help but be as giddy as those of us for whom this is all new.

Travis teared up a little at the table as he reflected on going from losing everything after being taken advantage of in a bad business deal, to winning on an episode of Wipeout in a desperate attempt to make some money, to meeting Chris, filming The Gallows, and then selling the movie. Theirs is the ultimate underdog story. Chris and Travis are a couple of nobodies from Fresno who have been scraping pennies together and working all hours of the day for the past four years to live this insane dream. If any two guys deserve success, it’s these guys.

I can’t help but be grateful that I get to be a part of any of this. I feel like I’ve been scooped up from the muck of unemployment, set high on the table, and asked to just partake of blessings I’m not totally sure I deserve. The time is coming fast for me to prove my worth in a more substantial way, and that’s great. That’s fantastic. I want that. I’m all in.

And I can’t friggin’ wait for July 10th.

Congrats, Chris and Travis. It’s not much longer now.

Travis and Chris

Travis and Chris. Photo by Nate Healy.

Raised By a Dead Man, Chapter 4 – “M&M’s”

This week, I’m serializing the beginning of my completed, unpublished memoir, Raised by a Dead Man: A Coming-of-Age Story Between Two Shootings. Links to previous chapters can be found at the bottom of this blog.

Actually, this is probably the last entry in this series. A blog is just not the right place for this sort of thing. Blogs are fast-paced and play to the deficit in our attentions. A book is compelling in a different way. I hope one day I can share the full story with you all, but this will have to do for now:

Chapter Four

M&M’s

Mom shook, her forearms and hands vibrating intensely with anxiety and fear. Her mind raced as she paced the floor briefly and hatched a hundred different plans to make what she had to do next possible. She turned the music in the living room off quickly. My brothers and I waited for understanding. Tyler, my youngest brother, was two-years-old. He was the only one who didn’t stop playing.

“What?” I asked. “Mom, what’s going on?”

“It’s your father. Something’s happened and he’s—they’ve taken him to the hospital. I’m going to call my parents and I want you to come with us to the hospital. Your brothers are going to stay here, but I want you with me.”

“Is he all right?”

“I don’t know.”

“But something happened to him?”

“I don’t know.”

My grandparents lived just a few blocks away, so it didn’t take them long to arrive. Even so, the wait was excruciating. Within its space bred a million possibilities. Some of them pretty terrible. Most of them involving a gun.

Mom called a couple of women from church to come over to be with my brothers. She only wanted me with her. Just me. There were times when being the oldest had its perks, and getting to go to the hospital and drinking chocolate milk when something important was going down was certainly one of them.

My four-year-old brother, McKay, was a spoiled brat—an unfortunate and irritating affliction of personality brought on by a defect in his heart that sped it up into a dangerous double rhythm whenever he got too worked up over something. Crying would do it. So would swimming, oddly enough. If you took his teddy bear and he cried, you had to give it back or buy him one that talked or sang or pooped its pants. Anything to make him happy or else he would have an attack. The upside? Anytime McKay had to go to the hospital, I went too and got to pick something out from the vending machines in the cafeteria. I always chose chocolate milk.

It was the closest thing to candy Mom would allow us to have outside of Halloween. Cool, creamy chocolate milk in that little paper carton. As a bonus, and given the hour, I knew I might even get to stay up late that night. There really was a lot to get excited about.

As we made our way downtown in my grandparents’ car, I wondered if there might be something wrong with me. I was supposed to be consumed by the enormity of the situation, not scheming how I could manipulate it into a sugar rush. I tried and tried to look at things objectively and feel the weight of what was happening. But I just couldn’t. I was too excited. If Mom was bringing me along for comfort, she was destined for disappointment.

I was so grateful telepaths existed strictly within the confines of X-Men comic books. A telepath would see through me right away. They’d see that while my father was potentially hurt, shot, suffering and/or dead (no, not dead), all I could think of was the great fun of it all. No way I’d be going to school in the morning. When I eventually did come back in, say, a couple days or even a week (!) later…my dad had been shot. That was cool. And if he was dead or was going to die? Well, he wasn’t, so I was free to do some guilt-free fantasizing about what it would be like if he did. I’d be that kid. That kid whose dad had died. I’d get to play with that for a while and it could only work in my favor when it came time to choose teams for kickball.

It wasn’t that whatever was going on with Dad didn’t feel real. The whole situation actually felt inevitable, which is just about the best, most comforting version of real. Something bad happening to Dad at the Shop was always a possibility. Dad never had any qualms about pointing out that possibility over and over again. He sold guns. That’s a dangerous profession and it was only sensible to think he might be hurt at some point. We didn’t watch the news and think, “Well, at least it’s not happening to us.” Instead, it was “Gee, I wonder when that will happen to us?” And there was no fear in that. Only acceptance. Dad said the bad thing was coming and he didn’t fear it. So why should we?

The other kids in my neighborhood felt like their dads could handle anything, but with my Dad it was actually true. My dad was built like a tank and could probably take one down if it dared to mess with him. He wasn’t going to die from this thing at the hospital… whatever it was.

It was January 17th, 1989, three days before my twelfth birthday. Three days. (A cool part of the eventual story I’d be able to tell.) The worst thing that had happened in my life up until this point was when the family dog, Orf, had run away. Well, I always said he must have run away. Dad was convinced our Hmong neighbors had eaten him “because that’s what they do.” He was tough, not perfect.

When we arrived at the hospital, Grandpa helped my still shaking mother out of the car. Grandpa was tall and lanky, good for leaning on for support, but not at all imposing. Both he and Grandma were good about always being there when we needed them, but also hanging back to allow my mother to do what she needed to do according to how she understood to do it. They gave counsel, not lectures or opinions that were not to be argued with. We all followed Mom’s lead to the emergency room.

I’d never been to an adult ER before. I was expecting something noisier. Where were the people screaming about their severed fingers and the doctors rushing about wildly, arms flailing as they waved off the impossible-to-meet demands of put-upon nurses and bleeding patients? What about the gurney (that’s what it’s called, right?) with the dying man being rushed to an operating room while his frantic wife ran alongside him weeping until the nurses pulled her away? Where this picture of what the emergency room was supposed to look like came from I didn’t know, but the eerily quiet scene in front of me was the last thing I expected.

file4121264630597The voices I did hear were few and hushed, many of them interrupted by coughing. The low-ceilinged room was full, but not to capacity. Most of the people huddled together in groups around campfires of germs and bacteria, seated in chairs that looked like something straight out of Star Trek with their bowl-like shape and many bright colors. No one had any loose appendages or a barely bandaged head. They just looked really sick. Most of them were Hispanic. I knew we were on that side of town, but I wondered why that was.

Once through the Emergency Room, a nurse led us to a secondary waiting room for, I assumed, family members of victims of awesome crimes. Inside the softly lit room were a small couch and a few padded chairs. In the corner between them sat a tiny table with a lamp and a phone. My grandparents and I were ushered in, but a doctor took Mom away immediately. Whatever secret knowledge awaited her, the rest of us weren’t allowed to hear it. My grandparents and I sat and waited quietly and in that silence I thought more about chocolate milk, school and telepaths. I couldn’t wait for my friends to find out what was going on.

When Mom finally came back, she didn’t have much to tell us. She seemed calm, but it was the kind of calm people adopt to convince themselves that they’re all right and that their home isn’t really burning. That it’s not cancer in those X-rays. That the car wasn’t just hit by an oncoming truck. That the dog wasn’t eaten by the neighbors.

That your husband wasn’t just fatally wounded.

The blankness in her eyes was a sign that the calm was just a precursor for what would come next. Whatever she was about to say to us hadn’t hit her yet. At that moment she was hanging on to whatever scraps of the moments before she knew this terrible knowledge she could grab. Once she let those go, there’d be nothing left with which to fight the oncoming emotions. She sat down next to me after closing the door behind her and began to speak, the tremor in her left hand slight but visible as she used it to lean on her chair.

“There was a robbery and… Bill has been shot. Many times. They’ve got him stabilized right now. He’s in critical condition and th-they’ll start working on him soon.”

“How many times?” I asked.

“T-they don’t know yet. It’s too hard to tell. Some of his wounds are where the bullets came…went in…and some of them are where they went out.”

“Can we see him?”

“Not right now. They let me see him for a little bit…I talked to him…but it’s hard for him to say anything right now. They don’t want anyone else to come back just yet. There’s a chance you could see him later…when they’re transporting him to surgery, but we’ll have to wait and see.”

Great! It was almost 8’o’clock and in another hour I normally would have been going to bed. My brothers were probably already getting ready and putting on their PJ’s. Suckers.

“Jill,” Grandpa began to ask. “What’s…”

I found it impossible to focus properly on the conversation between my grandparents and my mother. Some confusing medical terms were thrown around, but I got the gist: Dad was in a bad way and the doctors were going to work on him and it would be a while before they knew when—or if—he’d survive. Probably not something we could count on having answered that night.

“Dad, what about the boys? Can you call home and talk to Sister Vance and Sister Pennington for me? Tell them…”

I knew Mom was concerned about my brothers, but I also knew her well enough to see she was using them as a distraction from what was going on. She would busy herself as best she could until the doctors came back with some (hopefully good) news. Until then: paranoia, worry. That was Mom. Me, I knew Dad was going to be fine. We were in a hospital (at night!), the place-that-makes-everything-better. The only real question, the only one worth asking, was: When? When would Dad be okay? And that’s when it hit me—what about my birthday party?

“Mom?”

She was still talking to Grandpa.

“Mom?”

“W-what? Brock, what?”

“Mom, do you think that we’ll still be able to go to the game?”

“What game?”

“The hockey game. For my birthday.”

Some people think hockey is a sport. It is not a sport. It’s a live stunt show. You can almost always guarantee there will be a fight either on the ice or (preferably) in the stands. The games themselves are barely contained madness and completely unlike anything I’d seen on television or been bored by at school. The players skated so quickly and turned so sharply and stopped so suddenly that the very ground beneath their feet gave way into a quick puff of white. How did they do that? It defied all my understanding of what a person could reasonably do with their bodies without breaking them in half.

And then there was the snack bar. I knew it was a fountain drink and that (supposedly) the same ingredients were used in the back rooms of the Selland Arena as those at my local 7-11, but it was only at hockey games that I got to taste the sweet, sweet nectar that was the best Sprite known to man. One sip after a bite of that other, delicious staple of any hockey watchin’ diet—nachos—and you’d have had a hard time convincing me that Heaven didn’t have its own ice rink. Nachos and Sprite—that’s what was at stake.

“No, Brock. I don’t think your father is going to feel up to that.”

“Oh.” I suspected that might be the answer and I didn’t try to hide my disappointment. I recovered quickly. “Can I call Matt and Nathan and Wes? To tell them what’s going on? They think we’re still going, but if we’re not then I need to tell them. I could call them right now. I mean, there’s a phone here and we’re just waiting anyway…”

“I don’t know…”

“Please? Mom, I’ll make the calls short. I promise. I’ll just tell them what’s going on and then I’ll get off the phone.”

“All right,” she said with a sigh. She was far too tired to do battle with me that night. “Go ahead and call them.”

I grabbed the receiver from the phone on the table excitedly. They were gonna freak. I called Matt first, calming myself down beforehand in order to act appropriately concerned. I didn’t want to be thought cold or uncaring.

 

Me: Hey Matt, I’ve got some bad news.

Matt: Okay, what’s up, bud?

Me: Um, we have to cancel my birthday party on Friday. My dad was shot and he’s in the hospital now.

Matt: You’re kidding.

Me: No, it’s bad. It doesn’t look like he’s gonna be well enough to go to the game, if he comes out of it at all. We don’t know for sure, but it’s probably better to just cancel the party. Maybe we’ll go next week.

Matt: Wow. Uh. Uh…okay?

Me: Yeah.

Matt:

Me: I gotta call the others. See ya.

Matt: Um, see ya.

 

Matt’s reaction was typical. By the time my calls were done I was quite pleased with myself. I knew that immediately after hanging up my friends would dash over to their parents to tell them what had happened and they, in turn, would dash back to the phone to tell everyone they knew. It was a safe bet that within the hour every member of our church who knew my family even in passing would be well aware of the situation at the hospital that night.

It was both the natural consequence and the function of belonging to a church that believes all of humanity is a rather large and very real family—so much so that Latter-Day Saints even refer to themselves as brothers and sisters. If one of their brothers or sisters is hurt, the LDS person offers whatever services they can—be it food or comfort. It’s the responsibility all Mormons share with each other. Cain’s ancient question rendered moot by lasagna and green Jello salad.

Sure enough, within an hour, thirty people had shown up. The hospital was crawling with Mormons and it occurred to me that Mom knew what would happen if I made my calls and probably wanted exactly this.

They were all adults; none of my friends came to comfort me. Okay, yeah, it was late, but how often does your dad get shot and nearly die? (Nearly, mind you.) I was disappointed. I felt robbed. Mostly, I was bothered by all the hugging.

There was no way the little waiting room was going to hold us all. The hospital staff moved us away from Emergency and towards the elevator leading to surgery. Along the wall in the hallway was a long bench upon which my mother sat at one end and I sat at the other. Friends of my mother and mothers of my friends sat and stood by us, wherever they could fit.

A part of me liked the attention, but the greater part wasn’t exactly sure how to behave. I felt small. Awkward. I didn’t know what was expected of me, but I was sure I wasn’t coming through for them. Everyone seemed to be in distress, but no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t feel it. Dad, after all, was gonna be okay.

What if they’re right to be so concerned? What if I’m wrong?

I hadn’t given that possibility enough attention. All these people were worried and seemed to really think something might be not okay at the end of this. What if they were right and I really was just being self-centered and selfish? I couldn’t help it though. I wanted my chocolate milk.

There was one person who got it.

“Brock, I saw a vending machine down the hall over there. Is there something I can get for you?”

Brother Willingham was our Home Teacher. Once a month he visited my family, taught us a spiritual lesson and made sure we were doing okay. If we were sick, Brother Willingham was the man Dad would call to come assist him in giving us a blessing. He was a large man. Wide shoulders. He reminded me of Dad, just taller and in a suit.

“Uh, sure!”

That night, the thing that was of the greatest comfort to me was a pack of M&M’s. I couldn’t ever remember having a pack all to myself like that. This was way beyond what I could even hope to have on Halloween Night, the only night—until now—I could reasonably expect chocolate candy of any magnitude. It was better than chocolate milk. Plus, bonus, Dad was in no position to swindle it away from me.

I wondered why Brother Willingham bought them for me. It was his own money he had spent. He had sacrificed for me. The one who wasn’t shot. The one who wasn’t crying. Why buy me M&M’s at a time when there was so much else to worry about?

 

Look here, son. Your father is lying on a table bleeding to death and may die within the next 24 hours. You know what you need?

What’s that, Brother Willingham?

Sugar!

Yeah!

 

This was no solution to our problems, but it was a solution to my problem. I relaxed. I didn’t have to put on a show for anybody or pretend I felt anything other than absolute sureness that my father would make it out of this alive. All I had to do was eat my M&M’s and wait it out. I felt better knowing someone was on my side and not waiting for the full body shudders and the tears in my eyes that would prove just how broken up I was by… my father… dying.

I looked over at Mom. Now, with people to lean on, she fell apart, collapsing into sobs as all her strength left her. Later, her mind would wipe the memory of the night clean.

I watched her in wonder and agony. Seeing Mom that way twisted my insides into knots. How could I be so sure? How could I be so blindly confident that Dad wasn’t in mortal danger when people far more educated and experienced than I had decided it was unknowable?

The answer: Because this was not the end of the world.

I assumed it would feel like the end of the world if Dad was going to actually die. I had been taught in Sunday School to trust my feelings because that’s how God communicates with us. All my hope and confidence in my life continuing from one moment to the next was in my parents. If one of them were truly going to be taken from me, then there would be an indication. I was convinced God would not allow something of such magnificent impact without telling me about it first.

I could see that Mom’s fear was easily overwhelming whatever other feelings might want to enter in. That’s why I was there, wasn’t it? Because she couldn’t help but think of the horribleness of it all and I couldn’t help but think every other way.

I wondered how I might tell her and if she’d believe me. I knew I could convince anyone of anything given enough time and if I spoke persuasively enough, but she didn’t seem able to hear it right then. Sure, there was a lot I didn’t understand about what was going on, but that didn’t mean I was wrong. Would she see it that way? Or would she doubt me?

I moved over and sat beside her. She quickly wrapped her arms around me and buried her head in my shoulder. Softly and quietly, I told her.

“Mom, I think everything’s going to be okay. I think Dad will be all right.”

She held me tighter and cried some more.

That’s it for now! Thanks for reading.

* * *

Raised By a Dead Man Archive:

Book Logline and Prologue – “Ready”

Chapter One – “The Shooting”

Chapter Two – “The Call”

Raised By a Dead Man, Chapter 3 – “Bullets”

This week, I’m serializing the beginning of my completed, unpublished memoir, Raised by a Dead Man: A Coming-of-Age Story Between Two Shootings. Links to previous chapters can be found at the bottom of this blog.

Previously: My father was shot in an armed robbery and left for dead. He called 911 for himself. Convinced he was going to die, he pleaded with the arriving paramedics to call his wife to tell her he loved her.

* * *

Chapter Three

Bullets

Dad usually walked through the door just after dark, but it had been dark for a while. Mom read a magazine at the dining room table and counted the minutes that had passed since the time he should have been home. He was half an hour late. The later it got, the more alone and more nervous she felt. True, she had her four boys. But we were dancing.

They look kind of like lipsticks.

They look kind of like lipsticks.

We twirled, stomped, and leapt off the couch, crashing to the living room floor and popping back up again to do pirouettes until we toppled over and slapped the floor like clumsy sea lions hitting hard rocks. Little attention was paid to the beat of the bubblegum pop music blasting from the stereo. We much preferred our anti-rhythmic lurching to whatever the thumping bass told us to do.

I lay the blame squarely at my own feet. It was my duty as the oldest to lead the way in all things masculine when Dad wasn’t around, but I was horrible at it. I couldn’t figure it out. Nothing about being a man appealed to me. Sports weren’t my thing and my humor was more of the triple syllable words variety than the fart brand. Wrestling? Stupid. Wrestling on television? Stupider. I aspired to something higher. Like not knocking over the lamp on the coffee table as I flew through the air.

The ringing telephone could hardly be heard over all the noise. Because Mom cherished her time to watch us frolic about the house, a call from anyone other than Dad would not be tolerated. She wanted daughters desperately, but never got any. When she finally did hear the phone, she picked it up with both hope and irritation.

In between jumping over my younger brothers and putting dents in the walls, I caught half glimpses of Mom in the chair just below the phone mount in the kitchen. The cord had been tangled so badly from overuse and children under foot that it couldn’t stretch far enough away from the wall to allow her to sit back down comfortably at the table. She spoke in that sing-song voice she reserved only for the phone, but there was an edge to it that served as a clear signal to whoever was on the other end that their conversation would be short. Judging by how irritated she looked, it wasn’t Dad.

 

Mom: Hello?

Woman on Phone: Hi. Is this Jill Heasley?

Mom: Yes. Who is this?

Woman: I’m…a paramedic. I just brought your husband, Bill, to the emergency room at Valley Medical Center.

Mom: Did he have a car accident?

Woman: Oh no, no. Not a car accident.

Mom: W-was he shot?

Woman: Bill wants me to tell you that he loves you and to tell the kids that he loves them too. I have to go now, I’m sorry.

Mom: Wait—wait a minute. Could you please just tell me what happened?

Woman: No, I’m sorry. I can’t. I just needed to tell you that Bill loves you. And the kids. And that they should be good.

Mom: O-oh. All right. Uh…Thank you.

Woman: You’re welcome. Goodbye.

Mom: Bye.

 

The stereo still blared. By the time Mom hung up the phone the edge in her voice was gone. I wandered over to see what was going on. The concern that washed over her face changed the temperature in the room.

* * *

My family’s life navigated and revolved around firearms. Black, shiny, sculpted metal death that feels oh so good in the hands. Three of even my tiny fingers could wrap perfectly around the hilt, with the thumb going around the back and the index finger sliding forward to its place hovering just over the trigger. Holding a gun was like shaking a thick, cold hand that doesn’t crush your fingers, but instead gives them security and comfort, creating a very different kind of warmth. Squeezing the trigger, even when it wasn’t loaded, was immensely satisfying. Even just pretending at the power that could come from such little effort had an accompanying intoxication. They haven’t invented a joystick yet that lets you feel that kind of control.

A lot of my friends had never seen a gun, much less touched one. An undercover cop lived in our neighborhood. He was my best friend’s dad and he had a gun. But my dad had guns. They were cool, powerful and you could kill people with them.

Or yourself.

It was Halloween Night. Dad came home late then, too. My brothers and I dealt with the elongated anticipation as best we could by putting on and patching up our homemade cardboard robot costumes while keeping a collective eye on the driveway. Where, at any minute, Dad would pull up with the candy. We never had to worry about whether or not we would be handing out the good stuff. Dad owned his own store—we called it The Shop. He guaranteed our unadorned, otherwise unremarkable door was the most popular one on the block each and every year.

Halloween was all about the candy. Nothing else mattered. Our costumes and the knocking on the doors were just the currency we used to pay for it. Mom and Dad always inspected the haul first, tossing out any pieces that were obviously housing needles and, therefore, the AIDS virus. Then we were given a choice.

“Okay, boys,” Dad would say by way of ritual. “You can go ahead and eat all that candy if you want to. You dressed up and you earned it and your mother and I won’t stop you. Or, if you’d like, you could sell it to me.”

Each piece had its own value. Miniature candy bars were worth the most and pulled down the big coins. M&M’s and Skittles were up there as well, followed by Tootsie Pops. Tootsie Rolls were common and weren’t worth much at all. Nobody wanted Pixie Stix, but Dad bought them anyway. We were glad to sell it all to him. Mostly because we knew a good portion of the candy would make its way into our mouths eventually.

The value of candy was never undersold in my father’s house, if not my mother’s. He loved it as much as we did. Each November, a big, brown paper bag full of our sold off wares was a prominent fixture on top of the refrigerator. That way, Dad could retrieve his purchases at any moment of the day for his own, personal consumption. At least, that was the idea. More often than not, as we’d sit together entranced by Star Trek: The Next Generation or watching (enduring, in my case) the game on TV, a piece of the candy would come flying and smack my brothers and me in the backs of our heads. After scrambling frantically to scoop it up from wherever it had bounced to, we would quickly shout back an enthusiastic “Thanks, Dad!” and unwrap and munch and wait for the next one to come sailing through the air.

On that Halloween Night, when I saw the familiar, silver Toyota mini-van pull into the driveway, I couldn’t help myself. I burst out of the house and ran as fast as I could to see what potential leftovers would be there for us. Sure, we’d have our own bags full later that night, but an early snack before heading out wasn’t out of the question.

Two of my little brothers, Logan and McKay, were right behind me. From the front door of the house to the side door of the van, they stayed hot on my trail. Only the speed and distance I got from my longer legs prevented them from pushing me into the van as I came to a dead stop and reached for the handle to slide the big door back. With thoughts of darkened streets, grotesque figures and a heavy bag of sugar in my hand commanding me, I was oblivious to all else in the world.

“Brock! Wait, Son! Stop! Don’t open the–”

I threw open the door. I had barely a split-second to register the fact that one of Dad’s .45s was falling out and onto the ground. The L-shaped hunk of metal met the concrete right at the point of the handle.

BAM!

The shot rang out and for a brief moment all other sounds were sucked into it. My mother gasped, afraid of what might happen next. The barrel of the gun finally joined the handle on the concrete with a small, tinny rattle. I fell next, down and backwards.

In the roof of the van was now a bullet-sized hole. A hair dryer that had been inexplicably left on the floor under the backseat had been shot clean through. I was completely unharmed. My brothers standing right behind me stared in amazement. Everyone was fine. We were all rushed inside quickly.

“Son, you need to listen! When I tell you to not open the door–YOU DON’T OPEN THE DOOR. If that gun had landed pointed any other way…”

“Sorry! I’m sorry, Dad! I’m sorry!”

I shook hard with shame and regret. ‘If that gun had landed pointed any other way…’ My parents threw away the hair dryer and made us all promise never to speak of the incident again. We were lucky it was just before sundown and no one with fast fingers and Child Protective Services on speed-dial had been outside to notice what had happened.

Thankfully (for me anyway), I wasn’t the one in trouble. Mom really let Dad have it. Guns were the friends of my father she disapproved of but had to let in the door anyway. So long as they stayed away from the children, she could begrudgingly accept them as the basis for whatever meager fortune we had. Now, Dad was pushing right up against the upper limits of her tolerance.

“I can’t—I’m trying to imagine why you had a loaded gun in the van in the first place, Bill! Why would you need it to be loaded? Or did you just forget that it was? Either way…”

“It slid into the back as I was coming down the off ramp,” Dad explained. “I didn’t—I knew it was loaded but I didn’t mean for Brock to—it’s not going to happen again. The boys know to respect the weapon. This was my fault. It won’t happen again, I promise you.”

Dad’s reassurances meant little. Now there was a new rule—no loaded guns in the house or in the cars. It was a change Dad was reluctant to make. Despite whatever else could happen accidentally with a loaded gun around, he was quite certain that not having one would be far worse should someone decide that our modest home housed things far more valuable than its orange-stuccoed exterior otherwise suggested. He didn’t need my mother to remind him of how dangerous guns were and how dangerous it was to sell them. That was precisely the reason he needed one.

The Shop was under constant threat of burglary and there were many mornings I would wake up to find he had left during the middle of the night because the silent alarm had gone off and someone was helping themselves to the inventory. Whether it happened at bedtime or at three-in-the-morning, Dad had to go secure the store and scare away anyone who might still be there.

But nothing like that had ever happened while he was actually inside.

* * *

“Brock,” Mom said as she searched for her keys. “Get your shoes on. We’re going to the hospital.”

Next: “M&M’s”

_________

Raised By a Dead Man Archive:

Book Logline and Prologue – “Ready”

Chapter One – “The Shooting”

Chapter Two – “The Call”

Raised By a Dead Man, Chapter 2 – “The Call”

This week, I’m serializing the beginning of my completed, unpublished memoir, Raised by a Dead Man: A Coming-of-Age Story Between Two Shootings. Links to previous chapters can be found at the bottom of this blog.

Previously: My father was shot in an armed robbery and left for dead.

* * *

Chapter Two

The Call

The Shop was the last stop going west off the highway. It was a tiny little thing on a dusty piece of land so far outside the city limits I was never very sure if it was even still in Fresno. As he lay barely breathing and bleeding out on the floor, Dad was truly alone. It was early evening. The only other business for miles, the bar next door, hadn’t even opened up for the night yet. He shouted for help anyway.

911No response. He shouted again. Nothing. He could either lay there and die or try to beat the clock and call 911.

The phone may as well have been across the street. Mounting it high on the wall near eye level made sense when both taking calls and servicing customers were the chief concerns, but bullet-ridden legs had shifted priorities downward. It was difficult to tell the full extent of the damage done to his body, but, with the pain settling in, Dad knew movement was going to be a real chore, if not impossible. The newly crimson floor beneath him argued the value of giving too much air to impossibilities.

Relying mostly on his undamaged arms, Dad propped himself up from the floor to a stool to the wall to the phone. He grabbed at it, dialed what he thought was 911 on the keypad at the base, and laid himself back down on the floor with the corded receiver in hand.

 

411 Operator: Information, what city please?

Dad: I’ve been shot. My n-name is Bill Heasley, I’m at—

411 Op: Sir? I’m sorry sir, this is information, not emergency services.

Dad: This… ungh… this isn’t 911?

411 Op: No, sir.

Dad: Can you, unnh…connect me to 911?

411 Op: I’m sorry sir, I can’t do that. I am not able to do that from my station. Now, is there something else I can help you with? Is there another number you’re looking for?

Dad: You can’t connect me? I’ve been shot.

411 Op: Sir, I have no way to do that from my station. You’re going to have to hang up and try calling 911 again.

Dad: Please, ungh…

411 Op: Sir.

Dad: Do you—could you go somewhere where you can make a call for me?

411 Op: Sir, I’m sorry sir, but we’re not allowed to leave our stations. I could get into trouble with my supervisor. You’re going to need to redial.

Dad: Please…

 

With no small degree of added agony, Dad got back up off the floor to go to the stool and then to the wall again to hang up the phone on the 411 Employee of the Month. He picked the receiver up again and punched the numbers on the keypad one more time, being sure to now do it with accuracy. Finally, as the phone rang the correct number, he carefully laid himself back down onto the floor.

 

911 Operator: 911, what is the emergency?

Dad: I’ve been shot. This is Bill’s Bait and Tackle, my name is Bill Heasley I’m at 40—

911 Op: Ok, sir, wait, wait, wait. Shh shh shh. I know where you are, sir. Now, you’ve been shot by a robber or what?

Dad: Multiple times. Five or Six times.

911 Op: Okay. Now Bill, where are you hit?

Dad: In the lower… in… in the stomach and in the legs. Quickly.

911 Op: Okay, sir. We are going to get the ambulance and paramedics out there. We are sending them out there as I am talking to you. I need to know if you know of the suspects?

Dad: No, they wore masks. Hurry.

911 Op: Okay, how many of them were there?

Dad: Oh, I don’t know. Two, I think.

911 Op: Are you the only one that’s there, Bill?

Dad: Yes.

911 Op: Okay. Now, we’re gonna get officers there right away. Okay? Okay, now you rest. Is there anybody there with you?

Dad: No.

911 Op: Okay, Bill, now how are you feeling?

Dad: Bad. Wintery.

911 Op: O-okay. Now, we-we’ve got paramedics on the way also. Is there anybody you can get to be with you before we get there?

Dad: No, I’m all alone.

911 Op: Okay, Bill, we’re gonna get right there, okay? Go ahead and just set the phone down. Set the phone down, please.

Dad: [Heavy breathing.]

911 Op: Now, I’m gonna sit on the phone with you. You don’t have to talk if you don’t feel like it, okay?

Dad: [Heavy breathing.]

911 Op: Just try to take it real easy, okay?

Dad: I’m not gonna make it.

911 Op: Yes you are, sir. You are going to make it.

Dad: [Grunting.] I’ve been shot about 6 times.

911 Op: Okay.

Dad: One badly, I think my kidney’s bleedin’.

911 Op: Okay. Now, do you have anything around you? Do you have a blanket or coat you could stick on you?

Dad: No.

911 Op: Okay.

Dad: Oh…[Heavy breathing.] In my stomach. It went clean through, I think.

911 Op: Okay, now that’s a good sign. That’s a good sign.

Dad: [Heavy sigh.]

911 Op: Now I’m just gonna transfer you to the paramedics as I’m talking to you, so hang on the line with me, sir.

 

Another phone rang on the line and another woman picked up the call. The 911 Operator and the woman shared a brief bit of confusion as at first neither one was sure the other one could hear them. Dad fell silent.

 

911 Op: This is the FSO, I’ve got a man who’s been shot. He’s been shot in his stomach and in several other places. I want you to talk to him.

Emergency Service: Okay. Sir? …Sir?

911 Op: Bill?

Emergency Service: Bill?

Dad: Yes.

Emergency Service: Okay. I want you to stay on the line with me, okay? Okay, what I’m gonna do is switch you over to EMS, but I’m gonna stay on the line with you, okay?

 

There was a click and then static as the line switched once again, this time to a man in a busy sounding room full of whirring machinery.

 

Paramedic Dispatch: EMS Dispatch.

Emergency Service: Go ahead, sir.

Dad: Yeah?

Emergency Service: Bill, talk to him.

PD: Okay sir, you’re at forty twelve west Whitesbridge?

Emergency Service: Yeah, he’s the shooting victim. I’m sending medical right now.

PD: Okay, all right. And this is Bill’s Bait & Tackle?

Dad: I’m on—

Emergency Service: Yes. That’s him. You need to talk to him.

Dad: I can’t hardly talk.

PD: Sir? Sir, what is your name?

Dad: Bill Heasley.

PD: Ok, Bill. You’re from Bill’s Bait & Tackle?

Dad: Yes.

PD: You’re the one—where is your gunshot wound at?

Dad: In the… in the stomach.

PD: In the stomach?

Dad: Lower right side. About five or six times in the legs.

PD: Okay, are you laying down right now?

Dad: Yeah.

PD: Is anybody there with you?

Dad: Nobody came in. I called for help.

PD: Okay, that’s right. You need to—you need to lay down. Lay down and you need to calm down. We’ve got ambulances that are just a few minutes out, all right? So you’re shot in the abdomen, in the stomach area?

Dad: Yeah, and a bunch of times in the legs.

PD: Okay. How many shots are—do you have?

Dad: Probably six times, I don’t know. [Heavy breathing.]

PD: I just want you to rest, try to slow your breathing down. I’ll stay on the phone with you, all right?

Dad: You have to hurry.

PD: Okay, we’re on our way. Are you laying down?

Dad: Yes.

PD: Okay, flat on your back.

Dad: No, on the side.

PD: I want you to lay flat on your back.

Dad: Oh… unh….

PD: It’ll help with the—

Dad: Unh…

PD: –the blood, okay?

Dad: Aah… You’ve gotta hurry, mister.

PD: Okay, put your legs up. Put your legs up in the air.

Dad: Unh…

PD: Put something under your legs.

Dad: Aah… the left leg I can hardly move, that’s the one that’s shot.

PD: Okay, put something under your legs.

Dad: I can’t.

PD: Okay. We’re on our way so—

Dad: It’s hard for me to breathe on my back.

PD: Okay, then, get comfortable on your side.

Dad: Okay.

PD: Okay, no one’s there, right? That guy left, with the gun? Did the guy leave with the gun?

Dad: There was a couple…

PD: Okay, they’re gone, right?

Dad: Yeah.

PD (to someone else in the room): They’re gone. The scene’s secure. I’m talkin’ to the guy on the phone. (Back to Dad:) All right, they’re right outside your door. They’re coming in. All right, sir?

Dad: What?

PD: They’re right outside the door. They’re on their way in.

Dad: Who is?

PD: The paramedics.

Dad: [Heavy sigh.] Aah, man. My legs hurt. [Long Heavy Breathing] I’m starting to feel cold.

PD: Okay.

Dad: [Long, heavy breathing.]

PD (to someone else in the room): I am talking to the gentleman on the phone. The scene is secure. Call North Central and tell them to stick it up their butt. (Back to Dad:) Sir, they’re right outside the door. They’re coming in, all right?

Dad: [Heavy Breathing]

PD: Bill, can you hear me?

Dad: Yeah, I can hear you.

 

Dad’s breathing continued to get louder and heavier, almost overwhelming what the tiny speakers on his phone could handle.

 

PD: Slow your breathing down a little bit.

Dad: I can’t.

 

The heavy breathing got faster. The call started with Dad sounding like an out-of-shape thirtysomething who’d just run a few laps, but now an eighty-year-old emphysema patient took his place. His breaths were desperate, never quite giving his lungs all the air they needed.

 

Dad: Listen…

PD: Yes?

Dad: My home phone is 226-7036.

PD: Okay, they’ll get hold of—the sheriff’s office will get hold of them right away, cuz they’re right outside too.

Dad: Okay, listen to me.

PD: Okay.

Dad: I don’t know if I’m gonna make it.

PD: Yes, you will.

Dad: Okay, okay, okay—

PD: Go ahead.

Dad: –okay.

PD: All right.

Dad: Tell my wife that I love her.

PD: 226?

Dad: Yes. 7036.

PD: Okay.

Dad: Tell my… my boys I love them too.

PD: All right.

Dad: [Heavy breathing.] And that… to be good.

PD: Okay.

Dad: [Heavy breathing.] Oh…

PD: Okay, Bill, just take it easy. Keep your breathing down a little bit.

Dad: [Heavy breathing.]

PD: Okay, we’re—they’re right outside your door. They should be comin’. I’ll stay on the phone with you, okay?

Dad: Also…call my wife.

PD: Uh huh?

Dad: Tell her to get the El–

 

And the line went dead.

With the pain getting worse, there was no way Dad was going to get back up and call again. The message had been delivered and help would be there soon. Any minute now. His job was to not pass out from the blood loss and the shock before it got there. Any fall into the dark that would almost certainly be fatal.

A big soda drinker, Dad always kept one of the flat boxes they came in on the floor underneath the phone to toss the empty cans into for recycling later. To keep his mind off the pain and to keep himself awake, he grabbed the cans and crushed them in his hands, letting the cold metal dig into his palm to cause sensation somewhere, anywhere else on his body. He had gone through a fair amount of the cans by the time a police officer finally came through the door, gun drawn.

After making sure the shooters had indeed taken off and that Dad was in fact still alive, the cop waved the paramedics over and they entered the building. With Dad alive but barely breathing, their job was to get him in good enough shape to make the trip to the hospital.

They started by cutting off his clothes to access the wounds. Dad’s pants and shirt were shredded, along with his undergarments. To the more dramatic wounds the paramedics applied a staple gun to close them up fast. The rest they bandaged. Anything to stop the blood from running out.

In a matter of minutes Dad was on the stretcher and into the ambulance. Certain of his fate that night, he had only one thing on his mind as they made the fifteen minute trip to Valley Medical Center. He pleaded with one of the paramedics to call my mom and tell her he loved her. He was dead already, but she had to know. He said it over and over and over again, like a mantra: “Tell my wife that I love her. Please, tell her. Tell my wife I love her.”

Finally, the paramedic agreed. Dad knew all the efforts to save him were pointless. They were welcome to try, but it wasn’t going to happen. Not with the amount of blood he’d lost and at his age. Not on that night. With the message safely delivered, he was okay with that. He calmed down and stayed that way, willing to let what needed to happen, happen.

Next: “Bullets”

* * *

Raised by a Dead Man Archive:

Book Logline and Prologue – “Ready”

Chapter One – “The Shooting”

Update on the New Job (Plus, “The Shooting”)

Things have a been a little crazy lately.

Now that I’m all in at Tremendum, I’m seeing what it is to fully dedicate myself to those things I enjoy and I’m best at. And I love it.

Last week, we headed down to Hollywood for a small screening of The Gallows and to work on sound design. I was more in tagalong mode as I learn more about the process, but I was able to offer some input here and there. I’ve never been to a test screening and I found the entire process completely fascinating, especially the conversation afterwards with the focus group and the studio heads. There’s far, far more that goes into the creation of every single second of a movie than you could even guess at.

After the test screening. From L-R: 'Gallows' Writer-Directors Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing, Sound Designer Brandon Jones, Production Associate Nate Healy, and me.

After the test screening. From L-R: ‘Gallows’ Writer-Directors Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing, Sound Designer Brandon Jones, Production Associate Nate Healy, and me.

Most of my work at the moment for Tremendum is in developing and writing a post-Gallows project. More on that when I can share it, but I hit a real milestone this week by finishing a first draft. I didn’t expect to get it done as quickly as I have, but I guess I’ve got the fire in me right now.

In an odd way, moving so completely forward and quickly on a new project has caused me to reflect on old projects, particularly one I put away years ago.

Raised by a Dead Man: A Coming of Age Story Between Two Shootings is the first memoir I wrote and the one that allowed me to form a relationship with my literary agent, Bonnie Solow. For a variety of reasons, few having to do with the quality of the story or even the way I wrote it, it didn’t sell. But it’s still a book and a story I feel passionate about. I’ve already posted the prologue on this site, but, just for kicks, this week I’m going to serialize the first few chapters of RBDM.

I welcome your feedback. If response is good, maybe I’ll post more than a few chapters. In any case, I hope you enjoy it.

Here we go. The following is a true story:

* * *

Chapter One

Shooting

No one makes a living retailing junk food. Not one good enough to support a wife and four sons, anyway. The guns were what fed us. The bullets and the barrels sold right alongside the soda bottles and the Slim Jims put food on the table and gave us a home. Us, and Dad’s employees—both of whom had gone home early that night from the dirty little shop on the outskirts of Fresno. Bill’s Bait and Tackle closed at 5:00pm. Dad was alone for everything that happened afterwards.

A small business owner never clocks out. Not really. Once home, Dad could look forward to adding receipts and counting money long into the night. Might take even longer if his sons bristled once again at helping him or, even better, tempted him into a rubber band war. Closing time wasn’t particularly restful, but it didn’t require him to be a husband or a handy man or a father or a disciplinarian. All he had to do between the flipping of the “CLOSED” sign and the pulling of the car into his driveway—which probably needed to be cleared of bikes and toys—was to perform the routine.

Close out the register. Lock the freezer. Put away the inventory. Shut off the lights and secure the store with deadbolt and lock on the way out.

It took Dad a good fifteen minutes to pack up the dozens guns by himself. They were housed in two display cases doubling as the store’s front counters; Now and Laters and trucker hats making a pit stop on top of the .45’s and Thirty Ought Sixes on their way out the door. Dangling yellow tags attached to the guns on tiny, white strings shouted the sale price from behind the clean, always clear glass.

Dad removed the guns quickly, one by one, and placed them with great care into two long, black, clam shell cases for storage during the night. This was the puzzle to which only he had the picture. Without markers or leftover impressions on the foam pad lining the inside, he still knew the precise placement of each handgun and rifle inside their carriages. Once packed, he would transport the guns into the iron safe in the storage room just behind the freezers.

It was something Dad did night after night with little incident—with the exception of that night. On that night, he never made it to the safe.

Neither did the guns.

The two men kicked in the front door with a shout.

“YOU’RE DEAD, SUCKER!”

Their semi-automatics lit up only fifteen feet away from the fat man behind the counter, ejecting bullet after bullet directly at him. The first bullet rocketed towards Dad’s chest, but missed. The next went straight into his stomach, forcing him to double over from the impact. Not from the pain. That hadn’t registered yet.

Dad made a grab for his own gun stuck between the waistband of his pants and his hip. He got the weapon up and out, but didn’t have enough time to do anything productive with it as more bullets tore with great speed through his muscle and flesh, his body jerking with the impact of each one as it burst into him. His gun fell to the floor as he did, with a thud behind the open, sliding wooden doors of the display cases still filled with all the firearms he hadn’t had a chance to pack up yet.

The glass on the front of the cases exploded into twinkling, falling stars as the two men fired into them. Quickly, one of them collected the store’s most valuable merchandise into a bag while the other shooter fired even more bullets, this time at point-blank range, up and down my father’s body as he lay on the floor. Satisfied the store’s owner could not survive such a barrage, the men worked together to gather up the rest of their spoils as quickly as possible. When they were done, the only thing left on the carpeted shelves lining the now-broken cases was broken glass.

Dad, his pants and shirt already soaked red, had just enough of his wits remaining to grab his gun up off the floor to fight back. On his back and without much mobility, his mind ignored the swell of intense pain in his lower body while his hand searched, doing its best to find his metal piece before the shooters saw what he was doing. Frantic and fading, he grabbed one of the display guns that had fallen out of the cases instead. The yellow tag dangled.

click.

Display guns are never loaded.

The shooters gave Dad’s body one last sweep of bullets. His body jerked up and down on the hard, uncaring floor of the store. More blood exited from fresh wounds to make room for their hot new guests. Some bullets exited just as quickly as they entered. Others dug into Dad’s flesh and took residence.

Finally, the shooting stopped. Dad went still.

The two men, with bags full of black treasures, turned around and left in a hurry, slamming the door behind them.

* * *

Next: “The Call”

My Wife and I Lost Our Jobs. Six Months Later, We Discover the Next Step.

Towards the lightI couldn’t figure out how to title this post, so I decided to go with the stupidest one possible.

But, yes, it’s true, after six months and many, many more blog posts, my wife and I finally know what to do next. And, for us, it’s kind of insane.

First, a little background:

The day I was let go from my job just 24 hours after Erin lost hers has got to be one of worst–and best–days of my life. “Worst” for the obvious reasons, and “best” because even in the midst of being completely, utterly freaked out, I couldn’t help but be at least a little excited about whatever potential new opportunities lie ahead. It’s rare an epoch of our lives ends so definitively that we can recognize it in the moment. Usually, it’s only by looking back we see accurately just when one phase ended and the next one began.

And yet, looking back, there is more that I can see clearly now that I couldn’t even then. I believe life, if we are in tune with the curve of it, is always preparing us for the next thing. God is in the machine.

One of the difficult things about blogging every day during the first half of our unemployment was that sometimes I would have thoughts and feelings that I didn’t know what to do with, and, consequently, didn’t know how or if I should express them to the public. How could I express to you what I could barely understand myself?

The one consistent thought and emotion I’ve had since this all began is this: everything is going to be okay. The one constant inconsistency has been this: the how. For a long while we both assumed we were to walk the paths we and so many others had before: apply for jobs, then interview, then get a job.

Only that last part never happened. Time and again we’d both have these amazing interviews and then, for one reason or another, the job would not materialize. Worse, often the potential employers would just vanish (once, literally).

The longer it all went on, the more a thought kept coming back to me that I dared not express. If I did, then how could anyone do anything but conclude that I was a lazy bum? This thought was not a reasonable thought, and it would make what was an already tense situation even worse because behind the thought was nothing. It was a vaporous idea, signifying much and meaning nothing because it begged all sorts of questions for which I had no answers.

But the thought was there. And it was this: That the 9-to-5 is no longer for me.

For a time, I imagined the thought might mean that the book I was working on was the beginning of a new career for me. But I knew that was stupid. Unless you’re writing trilogies about starving kids killing each other* or the weird sex escapades of a woman who bites her lip a lot, it’s tough to make a living as a writer. I believe in both of the books I’ve written and I know one day they’ll find their audience, but it will likely be a niche audience.

Nothing wrong with that, but it’s not a living.

Alongside this thought was this nagging idea–a feeling, really–that I needed to patient. I felt like the answers would present themselves and that I need not worry. This is a great, comforting feeling to have unless you have a wife and kids who are used to things like money to pay for food and housing. But I trust such feelings to put me in tune with the curve, and I couldn’t just ignore it. I could only not share it.

So, I didn’t.

Which brings us to the decision. When Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing at Tremendum Pictures first asked to meet with me back in December, they told me straight up they were interested in me coming on board as a creative talent to help them with their various endeavors: feature films, marketing videos, viral videos, commercials, etc. Their first movie, The Gallows, comes out July 10 from New Line Cinema. Worldwide release, and it was made right here in Fresno. That’s a big deal. And they see Tremendum Pictures being an even bigger deal in the future, but for that they need talented people at their side. It was a flattering offer.

Two months later, and after much prayer and fasting and deliberation and barraging Travis and Chris with a million questions, Erin and I have decided to go all in with Tremendum. All in. This will be my every day.

But what does that mean?

Well, for right now, that means our financial situation doesn’t change very much. The entertainment business is a very different thing from what we’re used to and, for now, the money we receive is going to depend on what jobs come in and what deals can be made. We’re taking a true leap of faith here, confident that the money will come because that’s the promise we’ve received. Not from Travis and Chris, but from Someone a little higher up.

Make no mistake, for us, this is insane.

When we first got married, Erin and I had the mutual philosophy of not caring about making big money so long as we had stability. We valued that above all. As such, we’ve never had credit card debt and each time we’ve bought a home we’ve purposely gotten something that was way, way under what we could afford.  This is just who we are.We’re not big spenders. We’re not risk-takers.

But even more than being frugal people, we are people who consult the Lord on our decisions and don’t make big moves until we know it’s right. Signing on with Tremendum reminds me a lot of the decision we made to have our first child. At the time, we were in college, had no health insurance, and jobs that paid barely above minimum wage. And no prospects. After not being able to get rid of the idea that it was time to start our family and praying incessantly about it, it became clear to us that we were being asked to make a leap of faith. Only then would reap the blessing of being able to actually afford the child we were being prompted to bring into the world.

We found out Erin was pregnant the day before I started the job from which I was let go six months ago.

So, here we are again, on the precipice of something new and great. How great, we don’t yet know. For me, it’s going to mean working on lots of local projects and developing a TV Show that has already sparked some serious interest. I feel uniquely prepared for this. All my talents and skills will be poured into this job, and, though I have a lot to learn, I know I can do it. I simply, unequivocally, know it.

For Erin, this means going back to school. If she works now as well then I won’t have the flexibility in my schedule to pull this off, so she’s applied to get a Masters in Communication. She wants to teach at the college level and anyone who knows her knows exactly how flat out incredible she’ll bet at it. I’m thrilled for her.

How are we going to pull all this off? I don’t honestly know yet. I only know that we will. And that’s crazy.

Thank you, everyone, for following along with us through this journey. Thank you for your encouragement and words of wisdom. Thank you to those who supported us with gifts and babysitting and other assistance. We’re not quite out of the woods yet, but we’ve gotten this far in large part thanks to you.

This blog isn’t going away, but the focus will be shifting a bit. I’ll try to let you in as much as I can on the frankly awesome things I’ll be doing in the future. I’ll also be continuing my work on my books, and I might even serialize a few chapters or so in this space. I’d love to share more of what I’ve been doing the past few years.

Thanks again. See you soon.

*Yes, I know that’s not what the Hunger Games books are about. I’ve read them. They’re about vampires in love in a world where everyone is put into one of five factions based on their talents and forced to run in a maze to get to Hogwarts, the space school orbiting the Earth.