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December 08, 2004

Chapter Fourteen

This much we knew.

Michelle and Miranda arrived at the workshop of Featured Creatures, Inc., one of the special effects houses working on Earth Resurrected, at 3:15. Miranda said that she and Michelle barely talked on the way out to Pomona, or during the brief lunch they had at the El Loco Taco drive-in before heading out. Michelle would answer questions asked her, but that was about it; after about ten minutes of this, Miranda stopped trying to converse and switched the radio on to a light hits station.

They were met at Featured Creatures by Judy Martin, the technician who was going to plaster goo over Michelle's face. Miranda said that Martin looked somewhat dazed right from the beginning. As it turned out, Martin's husband had picked that day to announce to his wife that he was divorcing her, and that he intended to marry her younger sister Helen, who, if she really had to know, was the one he'd always been in love with, anyway. Martin had spent most of the day on the phone with her lawyer, her traitorous sister, her mother, and the Ford dealership at which she and her husband had just jointly purchased an Explorer. She wanted to send it back.

Martin took Michelle and Miranda back through the workshop to a room where the latex was to be applied. The room, fairly small to begin with, was stuffed to the ceiling with monster body parts, motor equipment for creature models, and two gallon cans of latex. In a corner of the room was what looked like a dentist's chair, in which Michelle was to sit as the latex was applied to her face. Michelle sat in the chair and was ready to go, when the workshop intercom paged Judy to the phone. It was the Ford dealership. Martin went to the phone in the room, punched the flashing line button, and immediately began screaming into the receiver. Miranda looked over at Michelle to roll her eyes. Michelle was just staring out, blankly.

Ten minutes later, Martin slammed down the phone, hollered an obscenity at no one in particular, and stalked back over to the chair to prepare Michelle. As she was doing so, she spoke to Miranda.

"You're going to have to leave," she said. "You're going to get in my way."

"I'd rather stay," Miranda said.

"I don't care," Martin said "Get out."

Miranda flushed, a bad sign for whomever it was who caused the reaction. But before she could fully get her dander up, Michelle spoke. "I want her to stay," she said.

"This isn't a committee," Martin said.

"How about we do this," Miranda said. "You stay. We leave. We explain to the producers that we left because of you. The producers fire your company from the film. And then your company fires you."

At this point, Miranda swears, Martin actually snarled. Miranda grabbed a stool from one of the work benches and took a seat. Michelle reached over for Miranda's hand. Miranda gave it.

About five minutes later, as Martin applied the latex, Miranda spoke up again. "How is she going to breathe?" she asked, to Martin.

"What?" Martin said, spackling Michelle with a frosting knife.

"You're about to cover her nose with latex." Miranda said. "Once you do that, Michelle won't be able to breathe. Shouldn't you be thinking about these things?"

"Don't tell me my fucking job," Martin said, but went to find a couple of breathing straws for Michelle. As Martin covered Michelle's nose and eyes with latex, Michelle squeezed hard on Miranda's hand. Miranda squeezed back.

After Martin finished, she stepped back and turned to Miranda. "That's going to take about three hours to dry," she said. "She can't move between now and then."

"Where are you going?" Miranda asked.

"I have to make some phone calls," Martin said.

"You should stay here," Miranda said.

"Why?" Martin said. "You're here, aren't you?" She looked at Michelle again. "You know, she's my husband's favorite actress. He's such an asshole." And she walked out.

Over the next half hour, Miranda slowly aware that the chicken burrito she had at El Loco Taco was doing terrifying things to her digestive tract. At first she ignored it, but near the end of the half-hour, Miranda felt the line between discomfort and peritonitis had become tissue-thin.

"Michelle, I have to find a bathroom," she said.

Michelle's grip on Miranda's hand suddenly became vise-tight.

"I'll go as fast as I can," Miranda said, pried her hand loose, and went to find the bathroom.

It was back near the reception area. On the way there, she saw Martin in an office, screaming into another phone. She thought about asking her to go back and check on Michelle. Then Martin grabbed the phone and hurled it furiously across the room. Miranda decided against it. In the bathroom, Miranda discovered just exactly what the burrito did to her; it was about ten minutes before she was done.

Miranda was walking back to the latex room when she saw Martin standing outside of it, with the door open. As she got closer, Martin heard her steps, turned around and yelled. "It's not my fault!"

"What are you talking about?" Miranda said. Then she looked into the room and saw.

Michelle was out of a chair and sprawled on the floor for the second time that day. This time, however, things were much worse. There was creature debris all over the floor. A can of latex lay on its side, its contents flowing out. Miranda looked up and saw the wreckage of a set of shelves; they had collapsed. Miranda's gaze went back down to the floor and she noticed a glint of red on the bottom of the latex can. Then she noticed the small pool of blood near Michelle's head.

"Oh shit," she said, and pushed Martin out of the way to get to Michelle.

Michelle sprawled face down; Miranda checked quickly to see if she had broken any bones, and then turned her over. That's when she saw that Michelle's breathing straws had fallen out and the latex had closed up over Michelle's nostrils. Michelle was suffocating.

Miranda immediately dug her fingers into the latex and began tearing it off from Michelle's face. Her lips were blue when Miranda ripped the latex away. Miranda got down in the latex and blood, reached a hand underneath Michelle's neck to lift it up, then began mouth-to-mouth.

"She wasn't supposed to move!" Martin said.

"Damn it," Miranda said, and checked for Michelle's pulse. It was there, faint and fast. "Call 911," she said, to Martin.

"Why weren't you watching her?" Martin demanded. "This isn't my fault."

Miranda launched herself at Martin, grabbed her, and slammed her against a wall. "I want you to do two things," she said to the cowering Martin. "First, shut the hell up. Second. I want you to get on the phone, call 911, and get an ambulance here, now. Do it, or I swear to you, I'll rip out your fucking heart. Do it. Now."

She let Martin go. Martin goggled at her for a second, then grabbed the phone and called 911. Miranda got back down on the floor and kept up the mouth-to-mouth for another ten minutes, until the paramedics arrived and pulled her off.


What we didn't know is what happened between the time Miranda left and when she came back. The most logical sequence of events has Michelle, claustrophobic, getting up from the chair in a blind panic, accidentally running into the shelves, being knocked unconscious from the falling debris and then suffocating when the latex covered her nostrils. It was the scenario that the Pomona police, in examining the scene and questioning both Miranda and Judy Martin, latched onto and were going forward with.

There was one small problem. Miranda said that she didn't recall seeing the breathing straws around Michelle when she was giving her mouth-to-mouth. This might mean nothing, of course: when you're busily trying to save someone's life, you're not going to take the time to notice all the minutiae around you. But it might also mean that the breathing straws came out earlier. And that opens up other possibilities.

For Miranda, who had to be physically restrained by the paramedics from killing Judy Martin, the answer was simple: Martin's slipshod preparation had allowed the breathing straws to fall out. Michelle, frantic, reached for them, got up to get help, collided with the shelves, and got brained. I also thought Miranda may have suspected Martin of pulling the straws herself, as misplaced revenge against her estranged husband's favorite actress, but that was a little far-fetched for me.

My own suspicions were also far-fetched, but not nearly enough for my own comfort: I thought that Michelle, in her depressed state, might have pulled the straws herself, in a melodramatic and not-too-well-thought-out suicide attempt. Either she expected Miranda to come back and panicked when Miranda didn't arrive on cue, or she was sincere, and halfway through realized that suffocation was a nasty way to go. Either way, that's when she got up out of the chair.

And that's when I think her autosuggestion kicked in, knocking her out just in time to crash into the shelves. The only good thing I could possibly see out of this scenario was that she was already out of it when she was hit by the can of latex. She would have felt no pain.

No matter how you sliced it, however, Michelle was lying in a hospital bed, respirator down her throat.


I arrived over an hour after Miranda called; when I announced on the set that I had to take Joshua with me, I had to deal with both threats and begging on the part of the crew. I told them if they could do the scene in exactly five minutes, I would wait. In the meantime, I called Carl's office and told Marcella to have him call me as soon as possible. After that, there was no one else to call; Michelle had been an only child, and both her parents were dead. She wasn't married. As far as I knew, I was the person on the planet closest to her. At that moment, that stuck me as the saddest thing I'd ever heard.

Joshua pegged the scene in one take, and immediately bounded towards my Honda; we screeched off without a goodbye and raced to the 210, got to the 10 by way of the 605, and then sat in evening rush hour traffic for 45 minutes. Carl called; I filled him in on the situation, and he said he'd make some phone calls. I had no idea what that meant, but it made me feel better. I eventually got off the 10 and made it to the Pomona Valley Hospital on surface streets, quicker than if I had stayed on the freeway.

I understood the power of Carl's phone calls when I saw a man in a suit looking for me in the emergency area.

"Tom Stein?" he said.

"Yes," I said.

"I'm Mike Mizuhara," he said, extending his hand. I shook it. "Chief of staff for Pomona Valley."

"Where is Michelle?" I asked.

"She's in ICU right now; I'll take you to her immediately. But we have to do something with your dog," he pointed to Joshua.

"What? Oh. I'm sorry," I said. "I almost forgot he was with me."

"No problem," Mizuhara said. "Why don't we take him to my office. He can wait there." We headed toward his office.

"Has the press arrived yet?" I asked. I had been surprised not to see any reporters in the emergency room; news of these sorts of things usually got around quickly.

"No press so far," Mizuhara said. "The paramedics didn't know who it was because she had a whole bunch of stuff...latex?....all over her face when she came in. The doctors working on her either didn't recognize her or didn't care who she was when they got all of it off her. Then I got a call from Carl about it. We've got her registered under Jane Doe at the moment. She arrived just after a shift change. The next shift change is at two am. With any luck, we should be able to keep this quiet until morning. By that time, our press folks will be ready. Carl also wanted me to let you know he's on his way himself as soon as he can. He's asked us to clear a space for his helicopter in our parking lot."

"Carl is amazing," I said.

"Sure is," Mizuhara said. "But then, I owe him one. He gave my son a job at Century Pictures just before he left. Now my son is vice-president in charge of development. I never thought he'd ever get a job. Carl can use me any time. Here's the office," he opened the door.

I walked Joshua inside; Joshua gave me a significant look which I knew meant that he had something to say to me. I asked Mizuhara to give me a minute to reassure my dog and then bent down.

"What?" I said.

"Try to get me in to see Michelle at some point," Joshua said. "I can scan her if you want. Find out what really happened, at least."

"Thanks, Joshua," I said, and got up to go.

"Will he be okay in there?" Mizuhara asked.

"Sure," I said. "Don't worry. He's house-trained. Let's go see Michelle."

Michelle was on the third floor, in a private room in ICU. Miranda was waiting in the hallway; she rushed to me when she saw me coming.

"Oh, Tom," she said. "I'm so sorry. This is my fault. I'm sorry."

"Shhh," I said. "It's not anyone's fault. It's all right."

"Actually, Miss Escalon saved her life," Mizuhara said. "From what I understand, her mouth to mouth kept Miss Beck alive until the paramedics got there."

"Hear that?" I said, to Miranda. "You're a lifesaver for sure. I think that deserves another raise, don't you?"

Miranda gave a little laugh and then started crying again. I hugged her.

I spent a few minutes with Miranda, getting her version of events, and then went with Mizuhara to see Michelle. She was the only patient in a semi-private room with three beds. Her head was bandaged; the sounds in the room were of a heart monitor and the sound of a respirator inflating and deflating. It was a terrible thing.

The door opened and a tall man in a lab coat came through.

"Tom, this is Doctor Paul Adams," Mizuhara said. "He's the one that worked on Michelle."

We shook hands. "How is she?" I asked.

"She's not good," Adams said. "We don't know how long she was without oxygen, but we think she went right up to the limit -- five or six minutes. Her heart activity is fine, but we haven't been able to get her to breathe on her own. Her brain activity is very low; I think it's very likely she's probably suffered some permanent brain damage. She's in a comatose state now. I think we can expect her to come out of it at some point, and then we can judge the extent of her brain injuries."

"'At some point,'" I said. "What does that mean?"

"Hard to say," Adams said. "She could come out of it later today, or it could be weeks. It just depends. The concussion she got," he pointed to the bandage, "doesn't help any, although it's actually the least of her problems; it was fairly superficial. In and of itself, it would have knocked her out, but she would have come out of it with nothing more than a bump and maybe some stitches. It was the lack of oxygen to the brain that's the real problem. If you don't mind me asking, what the hell was she doing with latex all over her face?"

"They were making a mask of her face for a movie," I said.

"So that's how they do it," Adams said. "Well, I'm no expert on these things, but I think they might want to find another way to do it from here on out. That mask of hers just about killed her."

"Dr. Adams," I said. "This may be offensive, but I hope you won't be going to the press with any of this."

"You're right, it is offensive," Adams said. "But I understand your concern. The staff that worked with me all understand that it's more important for Miss Beck to recover than it is to be shown in the National Enquirer with a tube down her throat."

"Thanks," I said.

"Of course," Adams said, and looked back at Michelle. "Don't expect too much from her over the next couple of days," he said. "But if you can, talk to her. Let her hear familiar voices. That helps as often as not. If she has any family, you should contact them and see if they can come as well."

"I'm afraid she has no family," I said. "Although she has a dog. Would it be okay to bring him in to see her?"

"I'd really rather not," Adams said. "It's a question of hygiene. Also of state law. Unless it's a guide dog, of course." We shook hands again and he departed.

"I have to join Dr. Adams," Mizuhara said. "Carl should be arriving any minute now and we want to be there to meet him." We shook hands as well, and he left.

I stayed in the room, staring at Michelle. Miranda was in the hall, feeling guilty about Michelle's situation, but if anyone had to shoulder the blame, I felt it should be me. If I had gone with her rather than Miranda, this might not have happened. Michelle and I would be on our way to Mondo Chicken, her to sulk in her oriental chicken salad, and me doing my best to cheer her up. It occurred to me that if no one was closer to Michelle than me, than the reverse was also probably true as well. I couldn't think of anyone I was closer to than her. Except possibly Miranda, who I had managed to drag into this mess as well.

I sighed to myself, and rested my head back against the wall. I had really managed to screw this one up.

After a few minutes, there was a knock on the door. Miranda poked her head through. "Carl is here," she said.

I went out to see Carl, Mizuhara and Adams chatting about something or other. Carl turned to me when he saw me. "Tom," he said, shaking my shoulder. "I'm terribly sorry. But you did right to call me. Mike and I go back a ways."

"So I heard," I said. "Los Angeles really is a small town."

"Yes it is," Carl said. "Tom, Mike and I were trying to decide what we should do next. My first inclination is to move Michelle closer, perhaps to Cedars, but Mike and Dr. Adams think she'd best off here."

"If it's a question of the quality of care..." Dr. Adams began.

"No, not at all," Carl said. "But in the next 24 hours you're going to be dealing with things you've never had to deal with before. Photographers posing as maintenance workers and nurses. Fan vigils. Reporters trying to interview everyone down to the cafeteria staff. It's a mess."

"We've managed to keep the lid on it so far," Mizuhara said. "And I think Dr. Adams will agree with me when I say that the best thing for the patient is continuity of care. Additionally, I'm not comfortable with moving her now. She's stable at the moment but she's certainly not out of the woods."

"We'd probably cause more of a commotion moving her than just keeping her here, anyway," Adams said.

"Tom?" Carl said. "What do you want to do?"

"I don't think I'm really qualified to answer that," I said.

All three of them stared at me for a minute. I suddenly became very uncomfortable.

"What?" I asked.

"You don't know, do you?" Carl said.

"Know what?" I said, looking at Carl, then Adams, and then Mizuhara.

"Tom, we had her insurance send over her information," Mizuhara said. "Discreetly, of course; I handled the request myself. Most people have someone listed who has the right to make medical decisions for them if they are unable to make the decisions themselves. Usually it's a relative or spouse or a longtime companion."

"Sure," I said. I'd filled out insurance forms in my own time; if anything ever happened to me, my mother would have to decide whether to unplug me or not.

"Well, Miss Beck doesn't have any of those," Mizuhara said.

"All right," I said. "So?"

"Tom," Carl said. "The person who Michelle authorized to make medical decisions for her is you."

I found a chair and sat down.

"You really didn't know?" Adams asked.

I shook my head. "No. No, I didn't."

"I'm sorry," Adams said. "It's a hard job to have."

"Tom," Carl said, again. "What do you want to do?"

I covered my face with my hands and just sat there for a few minutes, awash in guilt and grief. I felt my actions had put Michelle here to begin with; now I was being asked to make decisions that could affect the rest of her life. I was going to need a really good cry when this was all over.

But not right now. I put my hands down in my lap.

"We'll keep her here," I said.

Now if I could just figure the rest of it out.

Posted by john at December 8, 2004 11:44 PM