By Sheridan Cole & Meghan McDonough
A college freshman arrives on campus with her loyal guide dog. Whispers from the trees lead her to question her purpose: will she be an advocate or a bystander?
EXT. COLLEGE CAMPUS – DAY
STEPHANIE (nineteen, quietly observant, dry sense of humor) and HERBERT (sixty-five, grandfatherly, earnest) trail a dog up an expanse of grass towards a dark forest. A crowd of students ambles towards them and the dorm on the other side of the lawn.
Stephanie is blind and accompanied by her guide dog, GLADIOLUS (three, German Shepherd mix, loyal), her eyes to the world.
You look nice in your student ID photo, honey.
Oh! I can’t see it, obviously, but thanks?
Steph, please just humor me.
(tears fill his eyes)
This is the last time I’ll be with you before you’re on your own.
Pops, there are people around.
You’re growing up so fast. I still remember when you were up to my knee…
Herbert continues speaking in the background. It’s a sunny afternoon in late August, but the world looks dusky from the dog’s perspective.
Footsteps approach, fast and loud. Gladi starts getting antsy and begins to bark. The person doesn’t slow down or change direction.
Gladi tugs on the leash to pull Stephanie to a stop. In that moment, a person’s legs brush roughly past, shoving Stephanie back.
Well, that wasn’t very nice. I hope they get nothing but coal for Christmas!
Pops! It’s fine. They’re probably just late to orientation or something.
I hope everyone on campus isn’t like this.
The audacity of some people.
A strong wind sweeps through the forest, which the trio is just entering—getting smaller and smaller as the woods get larger. The rustling of trees overwhelms the scene and carries us into the next day.
MATCH CUT TO:
INT. STEPHANIE’S DORM ROOM – MORNING
Stephanie wakes to the sound of trees rustling through the open window.
Gladi’s paws balance on the windowsill as she stares out the window at the trees. Stephanie slowly rolls over to the worn wooden desk drawer and unravels a bag of dog food.
Gladi, are you ready for breakfast?
Gladi pays Stephanie no mind, her ears perked and body stiff.
Stephanie starts to pour the dog food, waiting for the quick pitter-patter of paws that always follows the ring of food hitting the metal bowl.
She pauses. Nothing.
Stephanie picks up a bottle and tops off the water bowl.
Gladi remains unresponsive. Stephanie furrows her brow and instinctively touches her left-hand fingers to her ear, waiting.
The wind blows one final exhale, and Gladi turns quickly to greet Stephanie with a nudge of her hand before dropping her head to the bowl. Stephanie relaxes, dropping her hand from her ear.
Behind her, a dark green vine pokes through the open window into the room.
EXT. COLLEGE CAMPUS – AFTERNOON
Through the branches of a maple tree, we spy a circle of eight students lounging on the grass. Gladi pants loudly.
(looking up, bored)
The ancient tree.
TIM (eighteen, lanky, pale) wears an oversized sweatshirt and absent-mindedly ruffles the grass.
Hey, what’s your dog’s name?
Gladiolus. I call her Gladi.
Is she working right now? I don’t want to be rude.
GLADI looks over and sighs in his direction.
No. She says go for it.
Tim offers his hand for Gladi to sniff.
The ancient tree is.
Stephanie shivers with a sudden chill. The branches of the MAPLE TREE (132, strong, majestic) wave wildly in the wind above.
The ancient tree is…watching in judgment as you humans ruin my land. Maybe ancient, but still gorgeous. And supreme.
Stephanie’s eyebrows furrow together and her mouth opens in shock. The wind quiets down, and there is deafening silence as the whole group stares at her in confusion.
Hey, Stephanie? You’re up.
Uhhh sorry. The ancient tree is quietly…watching? And gorgeous?
A pregnant pause. Then a few students erupt in laughter, followed by the rest.
Tim looks at Stephanie closely as the icebreaker game continues.
You were gone for a while there. You’re still here, right?
I’d like to believe so.
Gladi nuzzles closer to Stephanie, who touches a hand to her ear below the shifting leaves.
The idea first came to mind after the “Writing Thrillers” workshop in October. The prompt was to write a letter or voicemail to another person from the perspective of the main character using ~suspense~. Naturally, my mind went to murder and intrigue, so in the first scene, the main character wakes up in a forest covered in blood. As the story progresses, she notices a voice is talking to her, telling her to do these horrible crimes. When she tries to get help, everyone just believes that she’s insane. Obviously, we don’t go down this very dark route, but that was the initial spark. For the topic, we drew inspiration from the “Environmental Memoir” workshop in November. We decided to write the first three scenes of a screenplay and did some research on best practices, as well as examples of scripts from films we’d seen on IMDb. We were especially inspired by the portrayal of characters with disabilities in storytelling, specifically in films and television shows. As part of our research, we interviewed Lorri Bernson from “Guide Dogs of America,” who is blind and consults on TV series. People with disabilities are required to experience life in different ways; the ways in which they interact with their environments and process things aren’t the same. We thought this would be a powerful storytelling device, as well as a way to contribute to more accurate representation of disabilities in mass media.
Sheridan Cole is a high school senior on the threshold of her future. The most important thing to her in storytelling is creating stories where characters of a marginalized group have agency in their own lives and decisions. Sheridan loves filmmaking and plans to be an award winning director and screenwriter in the future.
Meghan McDonough is a journalist and filmmaker based in New York. Her work has appeared in NBC, The New Yorker, Quartz, FiveThirtyEight, Scientific American, and Atlas Obscura.