Creative Direction by Junzhe Tang

Written by Ethan Richmond

Photography by Junzhe Tang and Duc Tran

Model: Joseph Plitt

(THE MAN sits in his studio apartment, smoking a cigarette. Film strips are scattered on his spare furniture.) 

(He picks up one of the strips. If he stares at it for long enough, maybe he’ll have some idea of what to do with it.) 

(He sets it back down. Staring didn’t help. The blank strips are nothing but reminders of his lack of ideas. Mementos to his creative emptiness.) 

(Without warmth, his room shifts. Expands. The walls are pulled back. Given a different color than gray. On them, family photos appear. The windows bulge, growing from little slits until they take up half the wall. It’s dark out, but the warm light of the overhead bulb could fool you into thinking it’s day. The dust that hangs in the air glows. 

(On a couch, in the center of the room, sits THE MAN’S MOTHER.) 

(On her lap, the man sees himself.) 

(He knows instinctively that it is him. Instant recognition. He wants to reach out and say something. Especially to his mother. She’s been gone for… anyway, he can’t. He doesn’t even try. He knows it won’t work.)

(THE CHILD awakes. He looks up at his mother briefly, then puts his head back down on her lap. THE MOTHER taps him gently.) 

MOTHER: You should go to your room. 

(THE CHILD murmurs something.) 


THE CHILD: Why can’t I just stay here? 

(THE MOTHER smiles.) 

(The room shifts again. Now THE MAN is somewhere else. It doesn’t look exactly like how he remembers it – some of the toys are in different places, his bedsheets are a different color. But despite the incongruities, THE MAN instantly knows where he is. His childhood bedroom.) 

(THE CHILD sits on the bed. The lights are still on. He looks ahead  and sees THE MAN.) 

THE CHILD: We haven’t met yet. 

(THE MAN startles.) 

THE MAN: What—what do you mean? 

THE CHILD: There’s Theo, Papo, and Gimbo. We play every day. But you’ve never played with us. 

(Instantly, he remembers. Theo, his stuffed teddy bear. Papo, a lanky, humanoid rabbit. Gimbo—what the hell was he supposed to be, an alien? THE MAN’s menagerie of imaginary friends. THE MAN is at a loss for words.) 

THE CHILD: You look like Daddy. 

(THE MAN doesn’t even want to think about that.) 

THE MAN: I’m… I’m neither of those things. 

THE CHILD: Then what? 

(THE MAN turns the idea of telling the truth over in his head. This is probably a dream. He couldn’t really be here. In this room.) 

THE MAN: I’m you. 

(THE CHILD doesn’t seem surprised.) 

THE MAN: A few years from now, anyway. Well… (he looks around the room) not a few years. A lot—a lot of years. 

THE CHILD: What would I know? 

THE MAN: I’m not really sure what you mean. 

THE CHILD (as if all in one breath): I read this book where a man travels from the future and tries to tell his friend stuff, and his friend made him prove it by asking him a thing about him that only he would know.
(It takes a second for THE MAN to follow his younger self’s sentence. Also, he can’t seem to remember this book. When he was younger, he thought he’d remember every book he read.) 

THE MAN: Okay. (He racks his brain.) Can I show you something? 

(THE CHILD looks skeptical for a moment, then quickly nods his head.) 

(THE MAN pulls up his left pant leg. On his ankle, two parallel scars. Once great, now faded.) 

THE MAN: I opened—we opened the back door too quickly. Wanted to play outside. It sliced open our ankle. It really hurt. Then Dad came out and… (THE MAN remembers his father ridiculing him for crying, mocking him for asking for mother, leaving him, bleeding, alone outside.) Anyway, that should have happened to you by now. 

(THE CHILD grimaces, then pulls up his pant leg. Two much longer lines. A little faded, but still very deep.) 

THE CHILD: Okay. (Suddenly, a burst of energy.) Can we play Twenty Questions? You know Twenty Questions? 

THE MAN: Sure. (He looks around.) Can I sit down? 

THE CHILD: Yeah. Just sit on the bed. But take off your shoes. 

(THE MAN complies.) 

THE CHILD: What am I when I grow up? Am I an astronaut? Am I a firefighter? Am I a police officer? 

THE MAN: You’re a photographer. (He pulls out a film reel from his breast pocket.) And a writer. So, really—you’re all of them. 

THE CHILD: Is Craig still my best friend? 

(THE MAN resists the urge to ask who Craig is. He stands there for a moment, trying to seem like he knows, but is just trying to think of the perfect phrasing. He reaches into every corner of his brain, trying to summon Craig. Finally, he manages to scrape out a foggy recollection. Walking home from school together. Sleepovers on Sunday. Play fighting. Different middle schools. A promise they’d stay in touch. A few Facebook messages a couple years back. Nothing else.) 

THE MAN: You make a lot of friends. A lot of different people, wherever you go. But you’ll always know Craig. 

THE CHILD: Do I still see Theo? And Papo? And Gimbo? Mrs. Wormwood says that they’re gonna go away when I get older. I know they’re not going to. I know she’s wrong. She’s wrong, right? 

THE MAN: Yeah. Of course you do. Especially Theo. He sticks around. Always been more reliable than the other two. 

(THE CHILD mouths out the word “reliable.”) 

THE MAN: It’s—it’s when you can count on somebody. You know they’re going to show up. Because they’re reliable. 

(THE CHILD nods. He was always eager to learn new things. THE MAN remembers his phases of learning, about dinosaurs, sharks, space – rushing home and telling his mother all the knowledge he’d gained, tripping over his own words.) 

THE CHILD: Does Mrs. Wormwood get nicer? 

(This answer comes with no hesitation.) 

THE MAN: I’m sorry, but if anything, she gets worse. How many times has she put you in time out? 

THE CHILD: Five. No, four. 

THE MAN: I think she put everyone there at least nine times. So get ready for five more. Reasons were all bullsh – it’s never for a real reason. She’s just one of those teachers. 

THE CHILD: Am I gonna have more of those teachers? 

THE MAN: Yeah. There’s a lot of jerks out there. But you get some good ones too. (Mrs. Wormwood, that was third grade. Yeah, third grade. Fourth grade, that was a good year. Schuman. THE MAN remembered loving Schuman.) Next year, that’s gonna be fun. High school, you get a lot of good teachers too. 

THE MAN: What else? Any other questions? 

THE CHILD: Does Daddy start coming here more? Does he get more reliable? 

(THE MAN wishes THE CHILD would ask about teachers again. He knew how to answer that. How does he answer this? That day in the car. Mom driving. Dad gone, as per usual. The truck hit the front seat from the side. Not the backseat. It didn’t touch the backseat. Dad making him move away—he didn’t want to leave the house. He was in third grade. So two years from now. Two more years of Mom. Two more years before living with Dad.) 

THE MAN: Yes. You see a lot more of him. 

(THE CHILD pauses. He thinks hard about his next question.) 

(After further consideration, he asks.) 

THE CHILD: Do I do something great?

(THE MAN thinks back to his apartment. Scattered film negatives. A few published photos here and there. Not much to show for his work. For his passion, that Dad berated him for following. That he blew so much money to major in—it would take years to pay all those loans off. No one else in the apartment. No time for a social life. Gotta focus on getting out there, getting exposure. That’s all that matters.) 

THE MAN: We’re going to do great things. 

(Instantly, the dimensions of the room shift again. THE MAN returns to his empty studio apartment.) 

(He picks up a film reel, not wanting to process what just happened.) 

(He knows what his next project is.)