The Boy in the Well

This piece was originally written for/commissioned by A Profound Waste of Time.
Spoilers for the original Life is Strange.

 

It was around 8am when I got the call that David died. I remember because 8am used to be early for me. I didn’t know why his mother would call so early. It’s funny to remember the time, but not what she said. Was it “David died”? “David is dead”? I don’t remember. I don’t remember what I said to her either. I remember screaming. I remember falling to my knees. I remember the way the air felt, that the light was so bright - too bright. I couldn’t see. I remember not being able to see.

It was December 20th, 2012. Three days before, David had turned 30 years old.


Life is Strange isn’t like most games. Its protagonist, Max, is a thoughtful, empathetic teenage girl with aspirations of becoming a photographer. Its narrative centres on her relationship with her best friend, Chloe – a defiant and cocksure girl quietly nursing deep emotional trauma. It addresses issues of consent, drug use, suicide, bullying, peer pressure, sexuality. Grief.

I didn’t know any of this when I auditioned, of course.

I’ve been a voice actor for about six years. For roughly three of those years, my calling card was Tiny Tina, a 13-year-old explosives expert who liked murder and stuffed animals, in that order. Before that, I was mostly known for a web series wherein I solicited prostitutes dressed like Professor Layton and threatened to poop in my brother’s bed. That I would play a narratively crucial character in a critically acclaimed, BAFTA-winning videogame is a surprise to me most of all. But then, nothing about the project was as expected.

In July of 2014, my agency sent me audition materials for Life is Strange. I was asked to read for both Max and Chloe. I have a tendency to agonise over auditions, a tendency that was particularly egregious earlier in my career. It’s a product of caring too much and believing in yourself too little. Luckily, I’ve made a lot of progress on the latter over the years.

But while agony was not entirely absent from these auditions, I remember being surprised by how easy it was to find Chloe’s voice. In particular because, of the two characters, I initially related most to Max. Her shyness, her insecurity, her battle for confidence. But her voice was elusive.

Chloe was rebellious, aggressive and uncompromising – traits I used to afford myself infrequently, if at all. And yet, I knew immediately what I wanted to do. She could and would be strong and angry. But I also wanted to make her soft. Quietly resentful. Weary. I didn’t know if it was what the devs would want, but it was what I wanted to do. It felt natural, and flowed easily.

I was cast as Chloe a few weeks later. We made an unlikely pair. She was the girl who screamed at the world in her grief. I was the woman who scarcely made a peep.
 

I met David in 2010 on the set of an independent film called Must Come Down. I was cast as his co-lead. It was very low-budget, its cast composed almost entirely of old friends, banding together to support the director’s dream. A chosen family I was invited into.

I was terrified.

I was so shy and timid back then, constantly self-conscious and self-critical. It was my first film, being shot for weeks in a city I had never been to with people I didn’t know. My anxieties churned, an obsessive loop. They rendered me mute as I headed to a cafe to meet the cast for the first time.

I saw David walk in as I struggled to make conversation with the director. When he caught my gaze, he smiled. Like he was looking for me. Without hesitation, he wrapped me in a hug.

It was warm and familiar, like he was embracing a lost friend. Like I was already part of their family. Like I had always been a part of their family. I remember feeling safe. I remember my chest fluttering. I remember glancing at him too much.

It feels foolish to call it love at first sight, but I struggle to find a more apt description.

In the days, weeks and months that followed, I learned a lot about David. I learned firsthand that he was an incredibly gifted and generous actor. He was never mired down by ego and was always focused on creating space for his scene partner (which was often me, to my delight).

I learned how effortlessly we played. In every break between set ups we would joke, tease, tell stories, make weird voices, draw absurd pictures. His humour was so earnest and unique; witty but never unkind. Rare. Like everything about him.

But more than anything, I discovered that he was deeply, deeply kind. The sort of kind that makes you feel truly seen, that makes you feel comfortable to be just as you are. Part of that comfort came from his ability to listen, to find excitement in your excitements, to show interest in your interests. But really, it was just him. To stand beside him was to feel calm. To talk to him was to feel nurtured.

He felt like home.

I had never felt that before.
 

“Ashly, go ahead and take a second to read the next few pages,” Phil said. Our goofy and lighthearted director seemed uncharacteristically sombre. “So you know where we’re headed.”

It was the record for the fourth episode of Life is Strange. I had spent a lot of time with Chloe by this point and had learned a lot about her. She lost her father when she was young. Her mother got remarried to an authoritarian veteran that she hated. Her best friend left town and didn’t stay in touch. And in that place of anger and vulnerability, feeling abandoned and alone, Chloe met someone. A girl named Rachel. Someone warm, supportive, beautiful – someone Chloe looked up to and adored.

Someone she loved.

But then, one day, Rachel vanished. No one knew how or why. Most people stopped looking. But Chloe was determined to find her. She knew the rarity of an unencumbered love.

I flipped forward in the script as instructed and started to read. Immediately, I realised why Phil wanted me to know what was coming. My chest tightened. My stomach clenched. Tears brimmed in my eyes and choked in my throat. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this.

Rachel was dead. Chloe was the one to find her body.


About a year into our relationship, I found out that David was addicted to percocet. Percocet is a prescription opioid David was using to manage severe, chronic back pain – pain he’d struggled with since I’d known him. Although opioids are extremely addictive (heroin is an opioid), they are readily prescribed to patients dealing with chronic pain. According to the CDC, one in four people who take prescription opioids will become addicted to them. As many as 91 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose.

Not great odds anyway, but David always had the worst luck.

When it comes to addiction, we trade in very specific cultural images. The destitute. Dangerous men lurking in alleyways. Strung out celebrities. Washed up good-for-nothings who were never going to amount to anything anyway. You don’t picture someone like David. Sweet, sensitive, driven, funny. Loving. It doesn’t fit with the narrative you tell yourself. That it could never be anyone you love. That it could never be you.

As a result, I found it hard to talk about him after he died. The cause cast a long shadow. People that didn’t know him in life freely dispensed judgment in his death. I was tired of having to take care of others as they processed their anger about my partner, about my grief. I was tired of seeing the person I love erased and replaced with whatever monstrous silhouette the listener envisioned.

So after the first few months, I tucked the grief away and visited it infrequently. Spoke of it rarely. I was proficient at hiding it and feigning stability. I would be twice as happy, twice as friendly, twice as accommodating. Anything I could use as a smokescreen. To distract myself from the emotional toll, I would bury myself in work or short-lived romances. It felt easier to hide. So that’s what I did.

Until the recording of the fourth episode of Life is Strange.

In performing the scene of Chloe discovering Rachel, all the grief that had accrued, haphazardly tucked away, suddenly had a channel. It was given volume. It poured without obstruction. I shuddered and wept in a release I hadn’t permitted myself for months. I wept as Chloe, for Chloe. For David.

For myself.

That bold, defiant teen that felt so divorced from my nature at the beginning became my vessel. The only person who could fully share my grief.

Being Chloe became an act of self care.

As we finished the scene, I felt raw. We went through it a few more times, and I allowed the space for that feeling each readthrough. Phil, and the devs Michel, Luc and Raoul were gentle and appreciative. I drove home feeling different than I had felt in many months.
I felt lighter.

I knew it wouldn’t last. I knew it was going to take more time to be able to stare into that inky black loss. But for a moment, I felt lighter. And for that moment, that was enough.
 

As I write this, it’s been five years to the day since David died. I spent most of that time running from him in a dead sprint. It’s only within the last few months that I have earnestly forced myself to slow down, to sit in the grief. I’m pulling out old photos, listening to old voicemails. I’m starting to let myself remember. I’m permitting the pain. I’m making room for gratefulness.

It’s also been a little over two years since the release of the last episode of Life is Strange. I think of the game often. I feel gratitude for the openness and support of the team. I feel humbled by the opportunity to do such deep character work, to explore so many challenging and emotional places.

And I think of Chloe.

It feels foolish, having such affection for a character I voiced. But I can't help but feel gratitude for the tattooed punk who wrenched opened my grief. My blue-haired reflection, who opened the door to David.

Who let me feel like I was home again.
 

Learn more about David and the foundation created in his memory, The David Ross Fetzer Foundation for Emerging Artists
Learn more about the opioid epidemic