Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Premiere

Hear the story read by the author.

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm. A few months ago, the church served as the location for a short film shoot. The film, “Old, New, Undead, Blue,” was the story of zombies attacking a wedding. It was written and directed by fifteen-year-old Tabitha Dunkleman. Her best friend, Katie O’Donnell, starred as the bride.

Katie’s father, Henry O’Donnell, happened to be senior pastor of the church, which was how they’d gotten permission to film there. Several other congregants were also involved the production, so Pastor O’Donnell offered to hold the movie’s premiere at the church as well. In truth, he was terribly proud of Katie. Though he might not have been so enthusiastic if he’d actually seen the film.

Tabitha had gotten more than just footage out of the shoot. Ben, a boy from school who made the props and did the zombie make-up, had kissed her after they’d wrapped. Tabitha had never had a boyfriend before, and she wasn’t actually sure if that’s what Ben was. She invited him to help her with the editing, hoping to find out.

Katie came over to help as well, but quickly became bored and spent most of the time texting her boyfriend, Alex. When she wasn’t texting Alex she was talking about how great their relationship was. That made Tabitha a little uncomfortable since she was so unsure of her own relationship status with Ben.

The three of them met every night that first week, Tabitha and Ben editing while Katie fiddled with her phone and talked about her boyfriend. But when Katie found out Tabitha intended to create the film’s score on Friday evening, she moaned and said, “I’m supposed to go bowling with Alex.”

“I’m free,” Ben said.

“You’re always free,” Katie snapped. She didn’t particularly like Ben. “Friday night is date night. You know what they say about all work and no play.”

“Go on your date,” Tabitha said. “Ben and I can do the score by ourselves.” Frankly, she was a little relieved not to have Katie around as a distraction.

Katie called Tabitha Saturday afternoon. Tabitha was in the middle of color timing a shot to make the zombies look more bloodless and was only half listening as Katie told her about her date. Then Katie said, “You know Alex is on the school newspaper. He suggested he could write an article about the film and the premiere.”

That got Tabitha’s attention. “That would be awesome! Tell him I’ll email him some thoughts to make his job easier.” Tabitha was not impressed with Alex’s writing skills and didn’t want to leave the content of the article to chance.

“Cool,” Katie said. “Hey, do you need me tonight?”

“Not at all,” Tabitha replied. “You go out and have fun with Alex.”

Despite not having Katie as a distraction, the pace of the postproduction work did not pick up appreciably. Now that Tabitha and Ben were alone every night, the editing sessions often devolved into make-out sessions. Fortunately, Ben had an 11 p.m. curfew, so Tabitha was able to work uninterrupted after that.

When 10:45 came on the Thursday two nights before the premiere, Tabitha gently suggested maybe Ben should stay home the following night. “I’ve still got a ton of things to do before the premiere and I think I’ll work faster alone.”

Ben smiled as he rubbed lip balm on his chapped lips. “Okay. See you Saturday.”

Tabitha turned her attention to mocking up a poster for the movie that featured Katie screaming as mottled grey arms reached out toward her. A little before midnight Tabitha’s phone buzzed. The caller ID indicated it was Katie. Tabitha let it go to voicemail. She just had too much work to do.

The school newspaper came out every Friday morning, and Tabitha rushed to get a copy as soon as she arrived on campus. She went through it three times looking for Alex’s article but couldn’t find it.

Tabitha found Katie at her locker. “Where’s the article?” Tabitha asked.

“I guess Alex decided not to run it,” Katie said.

“What?!” Tabitha exploded. Her lack of sleep had made her more emotional than normal. “The premiere is tomorrow! This was the last chance to get the word out!”

“Oh who cares,” Katie cried. “It’s just a stupid movie.” She slammed the locker door and stormed off.

Tabitha watched her go, eyes wide and mouth hanging open. A stupid movie? Did Katie not understand what this meant to Tabitha? Perhaps it had started as just a fun hobby, but the more Tabitha worked on it, the more she became convinced that she had found her calling. She was going to be a filmmaker. And this was her big debut. If it went badly, her career might be over before it started.

Tabitha spent the rest of the day fuming over Katie’s betrayal. Except for the fifty minutes of social studies class. She slept through that.

Tabitha was still fuming that night. She had intended to spend the evening redoing the sound effect of a zombie bridesmaid munching on a groomsmen’s leg. It didn’t have the level crunchiness that she wanted. But if Katie thought this was only a “stupid movie,” she didn’t deserve to be the center of the poster. So Tabitha mocked up a new one that featured a four-year-old zombie, played by Sierra Smith, grinning happily in a pew.

Pastor O’Donnell spent Saturday afternoon preparing the social hall for the premiere. He’d rented a digital projector and screen and set out a hundred folding chairs. He’d even created a red carpet out of butcher paper.

If Tabitha had feared nobody would show up for the premiere, she had worried needlessly. Movie premieres were a rare event in Normal, even premieres of short films made by teenagers. And Pastor O’Donnell had encouraged the church’s entire congregation to attend. A huge crowd filled the social hall.

Meanwhile, the cast and crew gathered in the church office. Tabitha sat with Ben on one side of the room, while Katie sat on the other side, focused intently on her phone. When Sierra came in, she immediately ran to Tabitha. “My mommy got a reporter from the newspaper to come,” the four-year-old said excitedly.

“The real newspaper?” Tabitha asked.

“The Normal Chronicle,” Sierra’s father replied. “We’re friends with the movie reviewer.”

“Wow, thanks so much!” Tabitha said. Then added loudly, “It’s nice to have such great support from the cast.” She glanced toward Katie who was texting and gave no sign of having heard.

Pastor O’Donnell stuck his head in. “It’s time.”

The cast and crew walked the makeshift red carpet one at a time to revel in the applause and camera flashes from friends and family. Sierra sent the photographers into a frenzy of delight when she did her zombie face. Finally only Katie and Tabitha were left in the office. They eyed each other with malevolent expectation.

“Go ahead,” Tabitha snapped. “People are waiting.”

“I’m the star,” Katie said. “I should go last.”

“It’s my film,” Tabitha replied. “I’m going last.”

“Fine.” Katie stomped out. Tabitha was startled to see Katie swipe a tear from her eye as she left. Suddenly Tabitha regretted giving Katie such a hard time. After all, her father had done a magnificent job with the premiere.

A huge cheer went up when Tabitha made her entrance. She tried to look dignified and serious, but her mouth insisted on curling into a silly grin. She’d never had a crowd cheer for her before.

The pastor had reserved the front row for the cast and crew. Ben was saving Tabitha a seat in the center. Katie sat on the end by herself. And that was when it occurred to Tabitha that Alex wasn’t present. “Did Alex sit in back?” Tabitha whispered to Ben as she took her seat.

“Katie didn’t tell you?” Ben asked. “It’s been all over school. He dumped her.”

Tabitha was so stunned she simply stared at Ben, speechless. And then the lights went down.

The audience’s mood was boisterous. There were cheers for every name in the opening credits. Laughter of recognition broke out at the sight of the church. And when the first zombie lurched out of a doorway to bite an unsuspecting bridesmaid in the neck, the audience screamed. Tabitha’s grin returned.

As more victims met their fate, however, the audience grew quiet, though the sight of Sierra as the zombie ring bearer chewing on a severed arm did elicit a loud gasp. When the end credits rolled, the audience sat in silence. “They hated it,” Tabitha whispered to Ben as the lights came up.

“They couldn’t have,” Ben said. “It was awesome.”

Pastor O’Donnell stepped to the front of the social hall. He looked pale and nervous. “I’d like to introduce you to the filmmaker behind this, um, film. Tabitha Dunkleman.”

Tabitha swallowed hard, forced herself to smile, and went to the front of the room. As she took the microphone from the pastor, Katie let out a whoop and began clapping enthusiastically. After a moment’s pause, the other cast and crew joined in, and soon the whole room was applauding.

“Thank you,” Tabitha said. “And thanks to Pastor O’Donnell for letting us shoot in the church and for organizing this awesome premiere. I need to thank my cast and crew who worked very hard and did an awesome job. But most of all, I have to thank my star and best friend, Katie. I would not be up here if it weren’t for her. Come up here, Katie.”

Katie stepped shyly forward. Tabitha pulled her to the front of the room and gave her a big hug. “I’m sorry I was such a bitch,” Tabitha whispered as Pastor O’Donnell snapped photos.

“That’s okay,” Katie replied. “You were just being a director.”

The next day Tabitha was up before dawn, waiting anxiously for the paperboy. When the Normal Chronicle finally landed in their driveway, she quickly found the article on page twelve titled, “Local Teen Makes Zombie Film.” Her worst fears were realized. The reviewer clearly hadn’t liked the film, calling it, “disturbing in its heartlessness.” She did say Tabitha showed amazing technical skill for a teenager, but expressed hope that she would apply that skill to more human stories as she got older.

Katie called Tabitha a short time later. “I saw the article,” Katie said. “I’m sorry.”

“That’s all right,” Tabitha replied. “I guess I’m not cut out to be a filmmaker after all.”

“Ah, what do they know? It’s just some cheesy small town paper.”

“Hey, do you want to get some brunch?” Tabitha asked.

An hour later, Katie and Tabitha were devouring eggs and sausage at the diner, and Katie was telling Tabitha all about her breakup with Alex. The film didn’t come up once.

But when Tabitha got home, she found an email from a horror film festival in Pittsburgh. They had seen the article and thought “Old, New, Undead, Blue” sounded like just the kind of edgy material they were looking for. They invited her to submit and even waived the entry fee. Tabitha quickly made a DVD to send, using the original poster of Katie for the box cover.

Ultimately the film got accepted and was runner up for “Best Short Featuring Undead Characters.” But by then Tabitha had already started planning her next film: the story of cannibals who invade a newspaper office.