Erik Vassiliev is struggling with the screenplay he's started. Its story takes place two years after a horrible, public tragedy, when the outpouring of support for those left in its wake has faded.
It's an ambitious project for a high school junior. He's writing the script, drawing the story boards, plotting the scenes. He thinks about how the typical Hollywood movie ends. Boy gets girl. Hero gets vindication. Mystery gets solved. The curtain falls. But what happens next? What happens after the climax, when the drama has faded?
"I don't think there's many movies about the time after the fact, like when nobody cares," Erik says. "What I want to know is, what happens to the guy after this?"
It's a question the young man from Ellicott City been asking of his own life for more than two years now, ever since his 17-year-old brother Ben was poisoned to death by a high school classmate named Ryan Furlough, in a case that painted the killer as a victim as well. Though Furlough was convicted of murder and is serving a life sentence in the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup, his parents blamed their son's medications and launched a public campaign urging the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to take certain antidepressants off the market.
Erik and his family, meanwhile, were left with a huge hole in their lives: a son and only sibling suddenly gone. Erik, now 16, has been fighting to rebuild his life without Ben, his best friend and confidante. He feels survivor's guilt and pressure to outlive his parents. The movie is an outlet for those emotions and a way to fulfill some part of his brother's movie-making dreams.
The aspiring filmmaker resembles one of those twentysomething actors playing a melodramatic teenager on a WB TV series. He speaks in long, articulate sentences. He's growing into his 6-foot gangly frame, his black hair cropped close, a diamond stud in his left ear.
He calls the fall of 2002 the best time of his life. He and Ben shared a school, Centennial High, and friends. They shared a room in their mother and stepfather's Ellicott City townhouse, a wood-paneled basement room they called their sanctuary. They played video games, watched movies, hung out with their friends. They set up their beds head to head so they could talk.
Erik treasured his brother, admired his ambitions and was entertained by his quizzical musings, such as "What would you do with three shoes?"
Ben wanted to make films. He was rehearsing to perform in Centennial's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream as Oberon, the king of the fairies. He studied martial arts despite suffering from a heart condition that required him to have open heart surgery at 15.
A brother's death
On Jan. 3, 2003, Ben's classmate, Ryan Furlough, invited him over. The two longtime friends had been close, but as their paths diverged in high school, they had begun to grow apart.
Furlough would later tell police, in a videotaped interview played during his trial in May of last year, that he feared that his friend no longer cared for him and he had begun plotting a way to kill Ben and himself.
That night, the two were playing video games when Furlough slipped a fatal dose of cyanide into a soda he gave Ben. After drinking it, Ben fought to breathe and started convulsing, Furlough told police. He would die five days later.
The day Ben died, Erik collapsed in the hospital chapel. He did not want to live without his brother, he said. His father, Walter Vassiliev, remembers cradling him in his arms. He told Erik that it was not his time to die. "Time will pass like the blink of an eye," he told him, "and we will be together with Ben."
Back home, in the bedroom they'd shared, Erik was struck by an overwhelming sense of Ben's absence. That night, he slept in his brother's bed. He's slept in it ever since.
For some time, Erik didn't feel like himself anymore, Angry and sad, his grades plummeted as he tried to make it through the remainder of his freshman year. He tried counseling, but thought he needed to work through his grief himself. He turned to his parents, and to two friends he and Ben had shared, Chris Fabiszak and Kevin Dassing.
With Chris and Kevin, Erik could relax a little. The three friends would talk, walk to the nearby 7-Eleven or just hang out. His buddies would sometimes spend the night, there to talk if he woke up from a nightmare.
Gradually, Erik began to realize that even if he wasn't completely OK, he shouldn't be afraid of feeling that way.
"I feel guilty for being the surviving child. I feel guilty that I am here and he's not," Erik says. "But as more and more time goes by, I realize what my place is, to fulfill his dreams."
He began by redecorating their sanctuary.
"It's hard to say," he says. "But this isn't his room anymore."
He packed away Ben's books, martial arts belts and video game posters, and hung posters reflecting his filmmaking ambitions -- Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, the cast from Garden State and others.
But on a bookcase shelf, he created a sort of shrine to his brother: pictures of Ben, two copies of the Bible, a model of a Porsche that Ben had dreamed of owning and a plaster cast of his hand, made at the hospital when he died.
This past winter, Erik visited his brother's grave to see the newly erected tombstone. Etched in the black granite was a sword modeled after a drawing Ben had done, along with some of his nicknames. Inscribed at the bottom were the words: "The world loves Ben."
Seeing the stone, with the dates of Ben's birth and death, Erik felt a sense of finality. Ben was not coming back. Going forward was up to him.
To his mind, that means trying to fulfill Ben's dreams, and to be a comfort to his parents. But he also wants to be himself.
He does not want to do anything stupid -- smoking, drinking alcohol or using illegal drugs, he says. He wants to make his parents proud. "I really just want to live, get old, start a family, get married. I want to outlive my parents ... so they don't have to bury another son," he says.
Still he sometimes struggles in his relationship with his father, who is filled with bitterness and hatred for Furlough, Ben's killer.
In his Columbia kitchen, the elder Vassiliev keeps 12 black notebooks filled with court papers and annotated newspaper clippings about legal proceedings since Ben's murder. He unsuccessfully asked the court to reconsider Furlough's sentence, which allows for the possibility of parole. He is constantly seeking ways to try to ensure that Furlough, now 20, will never be paroled.
"I don't think I should have to face the possibility of the murderer of my son being released from prison, or me having to go to endless parole board meetings," says the 54-year-old Vassiliev, a retired Department of Defense analyst. "I should not be sentenced to that."
A family's anger
Erik shares his dad's anger at Furlough and knows that the duty for attending parole hearings could fall to him some day. He says he is ready for that responsibility. But his father's obsession with the issue scares him. As much as he misses his brother, he is trying to push his grief to the back of his mind.
"I can't constantly hear about [the murder]," Erik says. "It can't be the No. 1 thing on my mind."
Much of Erik's anger, when he feels it, is aimed at Furlough's mother, Susan. He resents her portraying her son as a victim, too, by maintaining that the high doses of Effexor, the anti-depressant drug he was taking during the time of the murder, caused the killing.
But Erik's mother, Karen Dale-Barrett, 47, says she understands Susan Furlough's actions.
"What do you do? What is your choice? Do you say to yourself that my son is a murderer, or do you look for something else?" she says. "I think she has to look for something else, because you can't say that about your own child."
Sometimes, though, Erik can't escape thinking about Furlough. He wonders what life would have been like if he hadn't killed Ben. He thinks about what he'd like to do to him. He wants him to die.
His anger sometimes gets the better of him. Small things -- the temperature of his room, an unvacuumed floor -- cause him stress, stress that feels like a knot in his chest. He releases some of it on a red punching bag in his room. Only a year old, it looks as if he has pounded on it for ages.
But day by day, Erik is finding ways to cope.
He will soon complete his junior year, which he sees as his first real year of high school, and is doing some normal teenage things. He's concentrated on his studies and kept a B average. He's dating, and he got his driver's license.
His friend Dassing, 20, a student at Howard Community College, said he encouraged Erik to become motivated in school, sometimes helping by getting him to class in the morning and doing homework with him at night.
"All his original memories of high school are with his brother," says Dassing. "Now that he's there alone, it's just very hard."
Erik's parents worry that he was robbed of his childhood the night Ben was murdered. He doesn't go to parties or to the prom or try out for school plays. A lot of his friends are Ben's age and in college.
"I don't think he will ever be a typical 16-year-old high school student," Dale-Barrett says.
For his part, Erik says he is trying to focus on all that he has, not what he's lost.
"I have two legs, I have two arms, I have fingers. I have both eyes," he said. "I have all these things that people take for granted, and I really try not to."
As he moves forward, though, it's clear Ben's memory will always be part of him.
He plans to attend the University of Maryland, Baltimore County to study film, as Ben had planned to do. He also wants to finish a novel his brother had started. Erik describes it as a story about good, evil and redemption. The brothers had hoped to make the book into a movie, and Erik wants to see that project through.
But for now he's trying to write his movie, the story of how a teenager is supposed to move on with his life after being robbed of his brother, his best friend. He knows he's going to have a hard time filming it, acting in it and showing it to people because it's so personal. And because Ben is not there to help.
"I think we really could have done some great things together," he says, "if we had the chance."