Movies and Kids

by Nick Antosca


            He touched Jean’s forehead.  It was burning up.

            “Please get me some more water,” she said quietly.  Overhead, the fan hummed.  Jean was lying on her side with her face pressed into the pillow.

            Elliot took her glass into the kitchen and filled it with water from the tap.  The afternoon sunlight came through the window and hung in the water.  Elliot carried the glass back into the bedroom and set it on the table where she could reach it.  She was flushed and her thick chestnut hair was tangled and spread out on the pillow.

            “Thank you,” she whispered without opening her eyes.  He kissed her forehead.

            “I’ll stay home,” he said.  “I’ll call and tell them I’m not coming.”

            Jean propped herself on an elbow.  She lifted the glass and took a long drink of water.

            “No,” she said.  “Go.  I’m getting better.  Go without me.”

            “If you think so,” he agreed, relieved.  She lowered the glass and settled her head into the pillow.

            “Don’t worry,” she said, “You’ll make a good impression.”

            “I hope.”

            “Oh, good.  You are going.”

            “Yeah,” he said.  “Unless you want me stay.  Want me to stay?”

            Her breathing was slow and quiet.  “You know, I had this dream before you woke me up.  You sold your book . . . and we had a baby.  He was so perfect I was afraid to touch him . . . like he was made of glass.  He kept laughing and laughing.”

            She closed her eyes and soon was asleep again.  A few strands of hair clung to the sweat on her forehead.  Elliot went in the bathroom to take a shower, and when he came out fifteen minutes later she was half-awake and sitting up, staring blankly.  He started to get dressed and she pulled hair out of her eyes as she looked at him without comprehension.

            “Elliot . . . the baby’s crying.”

            “Go back to sleep,” he said gently, tucking in his shirt.  “I’ll be home by ten or eleven.  I love you.”  Putting his belt on, he leaned down and kissed her.

             The Fitzgeralds lived in Cambridge Hills, a wealthy development outside the suburban enclave of Moss Valley.  Dave Fitzgerald was the owner and executive editor of Vapors, where Elliot had been offered the position of features editor on the basis of a well-received article he had written for BOMB, and they had grown friendly by email in the past weeks.  The dinner, Elliot hoped, would be a casual affair in which their rapport would be cemented, and Elliot would meet Dave’s wife and son.

            The summer air was warm and the sun had only just disappeared when Elliot pulled into the Fitzgeralds’ driveway.  Theirs was a tall, sprawling house perched on several neatly mowed acres, one of many similar outcroppings in the emerald sea of grass that rolled outward in every direction.  The house was a stark contrast to the small, cozy apartment that Elliot shared with Jean, and its size and neatness seemed to Elliot a bit intimidating, a feeling exacerbated by Jean’s absence.  And despite the opulence and expanse of the lawns, Elliot felt a certain claustrophobia, as though the quietness of the air was stifling his mind.  The paranoia of a city dweller in the suburbs, he thought.

            Carrying the bottle of wine he had finally decided to bring, Elliot jogged up the front steps, hesitated, and rang the doorbell.  A dim, melodic chiming resounded from inside, and after a moment, the inner door was opened by a moon-faced boy of about seven who gaped at Elliot through the screen until Dave appeared behind him.  Dave, who owned a small newspaper syndicate as well as several other mid-sized magazines aside from Vapors, was wearing khaki shorts and a flowered shirt that contained his moderate belly.

            “ Hi, Elliot,” Dave said, opening the screen door.  “How’s it going, my man?”  The little boy dashed out, brushing Elliot’s leg and stumbling down the stairs.  He ran down the lawn, directly into the street.  The distant clamor of a group of unseen children floated on the breeze.

            “Hey, Dave,” said Elliot, awkwardly proffering the wine as he entered.  Dave’s casual attire made him acutely conscious of his own tie and buttoned shirt. “Nice place.  Nice kid, too.”

            “That’s Jasper.  Now that it’s summer, he spends every minute outside with his little friends.”  Dave made a show of studying the wine label.  “Oh.  Great.”  He looked up quickly, wisps of thin brown hair drifting loose. “Yeah, we like this place.  Isn’t it great?  Great, great neighborhood.  And the drive’s not bad.  Let’s go out back.”

            Elliot followed Dave down a long, open hallway flanked by arched entrances to cool, spacious living, dining, and leisure rooms.  He began to have the odd, inexplicable feeling that the place was far too clean.  The hallway opened into a wide, white-tiled kitchen.  Two stainless steel pots simmered on the oven coils.

            “That’s dinner,” said Dave, pointing with the wine bottle.  He led Elliot outside, onto a low patio where a painstakingly tanned woman in shorts and a pink t-shirt sat in a deck chair and leafed through a paperback novel, her naked legs propped on a green wrought-iron table.  She closed her book when the men appeared.

            “Hey babe,” said Dave. “Here’s Elliot.”

            “Hey Elliot,” she said, extending herself to shake his hesitant hand.  She was younger than Dave, closer to Elliot’s age, and she was dressed like a high-school girl.  She set her book on the table next to a vase of purple flowers.

            “Hi—Rosanna, right?” he said, as Dave dragged two chairs to the table.

            She brushed hair out of her eyes.  “Yeah.  He said you’re a, um, freelancer?”

            Elliot nodded awkwardly, sitting.  “This is a nice house.  Nice neighborhood.”  He glanced around for effect and saw endless acres of freshly mowed lawns.  Neighboring houses twinkled in the distant twilight.  The mingled voices of children floated across the grass.

            Rosanna nodded with her lips apart, hands perched on her bare knees.  “Uh-huh.  Nice.  Nice.”  When she didn’t say anything else, Elliot smiled in polite agreement.  He thought to himself that if Jean had come, she would not have liked this woman.

            Dave presented the wine to Rosanna, holding it slightly out of reach as though displaying a forbidden toy to a child.  “Look what Elliot brought.”  She stared at it, did not speak for a moment, then looked at Elliot.

            “So . . . what’s the story?” Rosanna said. “Your girlfriend didn’t feel like showing because . . . ?”

            “My wife couldn’t be here because she’s sick.  She was very disappointed.”

            Silence.  Elliot remembered how hot her forehead had been and wondered if he should have stayed home anyway.  On the Fitzgeralds’ patio, no one spoke for a moment.  Elliot tried to discern from the illustration on the cover of Rosana’s paperback whether it was a romance or science-fiction novel, but he couldn’t tell—could it be a science-fiction romance?  Suddenly Dave turned away and looked out across the endless lawns, as if hearing a distant cry.  He made a small, toneless noise.  But trying to follow his stare, Elliot saw nothing.  The odd impression crept over him that Dave and Rosana were made of some weak, brittle material like chalk or graham crackers.  After a moment he became acutely aware that Rosanna was watching him.  He tried to ignore this, failed, then glanced at her and smiled weakly.

            She licked her lips, smearing her bright lipstick a tiny bit.  Elliot shifted in his seat, coughing uncomfortably and silently concocting some question about dinner, but just before he opened his mouth, Dave turned abruptly back and began to talk loudly about the magazine.  Elliot nodded along.

            “ . . . over thirty-five.  The younger, the better.  Everything skews young now, it’s the future.  We promised fresh blood on our pages, fresh . . . ”  Dave was saying, and Elliot suddenly realized he didn’t know Dave Fitzgerald very well.  Somehow he’d fallen under the impression that they had something in common, and now he saw that impression exposed as an odd delusion.  He was sorry he had come; he should have stayed home with Jean.  He shifted in his seat again.  Rosanna kept finding different ways to cross her legs, rubbing them and staring at the vase of purple flowers as Elliot fidgeted. 

            Just then Jasper came limping around the side of the house, his face blinking between the slats of the deck railing, and hobbled up the back steps, blubbering.  Elliot turned in his seat and flinched.  Blood was trickling down the kid’s shin.

            “My knee,” Jasper whined, “Unnnghhh, they hit me in my knee . . . ”

            He stood holding his bloody knee and looking at Dave, face a mask of misery.

            “Go inside,” sighed Dave, waving his hand vaguely.  “Get cleaned off.  And go out the front door when you go back out.”

            Jasper staggered into the house, leaving a smudge of blood on the door handle.  Rosanna watched him go and her expression did not change.  Dave grimaced and started talking again, but it seemed that Elliot, startled by Jasper’s sudden appearance, had lost track of the monologue and the topic had shifted.  Dave swiveled in his seat and pointed at neighboring houses, indistinct and half-hidden in the gloaming.

            “ . . . and Michael Metcalf and his wife live there, and you can’t see it, but down in that direction, somewhere over there, is where Jack Camden used to live with his second wife.  You know who Jack Camden is, don’t you?  Oh, doesn’t matter.  Well, in the house next to the one where Camden lived . . . ”

            The neighborhood was full of people.  They were all rich.  Everyone was friends.  Sometimes they vacationed together.  All the kids played together.  All the people knew each other.  It was great.  It was just great.  Elliot nodded and nodded, sitting back in his chair.  He should have stayed home with Jean.  He wished he could be sitting in bed beside her and reading a book right now.  Rosanna tapped her red nails on the table’s edge.

            The low laughter of children was blown back and forth in the air.  There was a group of them out there somewhere; Elliot had heard wisps of their noise before, and again now, but they never came within sight.

            Suddenly Elliot realized Dave was staring at him.  He was saying something that was somehow relevant.  “ . . . I’ll go check on it,” Dave finished, standing.  Elliot nodded, lulled to drowsiness by the darkness, warm air, and boredom.  When Dave was safely inside, Rosanna sat up, putting her hands on her knees, leaning forward.

            “Hey,” she said slowly, “do you like movies?”

            “I guess,” he responded, shaken awake. “Some.  What—why?  Do you?” 

            “Oh yeah,” she said, her eyes lighting up conspiratorially. “What’s your favorite?”

            “Um, I don’t know.  I like, uh, Ozu.  Fassbinder  I haven’t actually been out to see anything new in a long time.”

            She scowled, like Elliot was a little kid who couldn’t understand anything.  Yet her own mannerisms were those of a precocious nine-year-old.  “Not theater movies, stupid.  Not Hollywood movies.”  She studied his face closely, pursing her red lips. “You know what I’m talking about?”

            “I’m . . . not sure,” he said somewhat dishonestly, and just as she opened her mouth to say something that was making her eyes burn with excitement, Dave returned, and her red mouth closed like a trap.

            “It’s ready,” he said from the doorway.  “In here.”  He wiped Jasper’s blood off the door handle with a damp washcloth.  In the darkness nearby, children were laughing, and there was a muffled thudding noise.  A moment later, as Elliot was about to rise, Jasper ran up the back stairs again, both knees bleeding, moon-face shiny with tears.  His hair was wild and matted.

            “They’re hitting me with rocks,” he said. “They’re chasing me and hitting me in the head.  They’re crazy.”

            “Look,” said Dave, puffing out, “toughen up.  I told you—it’s summer now.  I told you to go out there and play with them.  It’s good weather.  It’s good for you.”

            There was a sound in the darkness around the side of the house.  Jasper glanced around wildly, panting, a hint of hysteria in his eyes, and ran off.  From a different direction, an invisible child warbled strangely.  Unfolding her tan legs, Rosanna stood, glanced at Elliot, and went in the house.  Elliot scanned the dark lawns, looking in vain for the children, and then he stood up and followed Dave into the kitchen. 

            “Let’s go sit,”  Dave suggested. “She’ll bring the food.”  He led Elliot down the long hallway to a dining room, and they seated themselves at a large oak table.  The light in the dining room was low.  Keeping his eye on the doorway, Dave leaned toward Elliot.

            “I should have said,” he whispered, “but my wife is uncomfortable around guests.  She’s on medication, so she can’t drink the wine.  I have to apologize if she says something . . . inappropriate, though.  Please don’t judge—just try to understand, we all have frustrations.”  He paused.  “That’s why she didn’t say much out there—she has a chemical imbalance.  The doctor’s words, not mine.”

            Elliot nodded, poker-faced.  “I see,” he said. 

            “There are certain topics that are what we call off-limits,” continued Dave without encouragement.  There was a note of pleading in his voice.  “I should have said.  For one thing it’s better not to pay her too many compliments, or she might get the wrong idea.  We’ve had some problems with impulse control.”

“I see,” Elliot said again.  He sat back in the uncomfortable wooden chair, his hands resting on his knees.  He put his napkin in his lap.  It was warm in the house.  The air conditioning was off.  Elliot was quite sure that he would not be taking the editorial position at Vapors.

            “Now this table,” said Dave loudly when Rosanna carried a tray in from the kitchen, “we got it from Harper and Elden’s.  It’s a store we discovered downtown.  The price was, well, I won’t tell you what it was, but . . . ” and he went on and on, and Rosanna left, then returned with more food, again and again.  Elliot sat with his mouth slightly parted, like a drowned man.

            All through dinner it went on, the talking, with a kind of grim determination.  It moved from discussion of the table to the cherry-wood chairs they sat in, to the old man who had built the chairs, to the old man’s niece who was a lesbian, to the lesbian’s lover who was Dave’s stockbroker and who told him about the old man in the first place.  Elliot found his thoughts returning to Jasper, dwelling with sympathy on him, hoping he wouldn’t bear too heavily the weight of this upbringing.

            No one ate much, and the meal was quickly over.  But Dave kept talking.  Elliot’s mind continued to wander, and he wondered if Jean was feeling any better, hoped she might be awake when he got home.  He looked forward to the warmth of her back against his stomach and chest.  He felt as if he hadn’t touched anything the entire evening.

            Jean had a raise coming and they would be all right for a while without the Vapors job, Elliot thought to himself, sighing.  He heard the Fitzgeralds’ front door swing open, and a moment later he looked over to see Jasper’s silhouette in the dining room doorway.  The child stared at the three adults.  His face was pale.  Distant laughter breezed in from outside, like childish music.

            “What are you up to, Jas?” said Dave, but the boy sank slowly to the floor, head on his knees, arms wrapped around his shins.  Grunting, Dave tossed his napkin on the table and stood up.  He walked over and bent down to Jasper, then jerked back abruptly.

            “Oh Christ!  All over the carpet, all over my damn pants.  Christ, Jasper.”  Elliot could see that the cuff of Dave’s pants, and a patch of carpet, was discolored with vomit.  Rosanna watched impassively.

            “The cuts opened up again,” Jasper said. “I got hit.”

            Aggrieved, Dave stomped out of the room.  His footsteps—down the hall, up a flight of stairs—echoed back.  Elliot looked from Rosanna to Jasper.  There was a long, uncomfortable silence.  Rosanna was staring at Elliot, and then she glanced at Jasper.  She walked over and knelt by him, whispered something in his ear.

            “But I don’t want to,” he said. “They’ll hurt me.”

            “Grow up!” she hissed, glanced at Elliot, and then hissed something else in Jasper’s ear.

            “I don’t want to,” he begged, tears brimming, but she stared at him fiercely, and, at long last, he got to his feet and trudged miserably from the room.  The front door slammed.  Rosanna turned to face Elliot.  She was blocking the doorway.

            “Look,” he said, standing.  “I think I’m just going to go.  My wife’s sick, so if you’ll tell Dave goodbye for me, it’s been a really nice evening . . . “

            He trailed away and took two steps forward, hoping she would move out of his way.  She didn’t.

            “Tell me what movies you like,” she said, and he took another step forward, trying to intimidate her into moving so he could leave the room.

            “I like theater movies.  Hollywood movies.  Please get out of the doorway.”

            “Want to know what movies I like?”

            Elliot sighed, betraying his nerves.  “No, I don’t,” he said.

            She started to tell him—but he pushed past her and she reacted to the physical contact with a horribly petulant cry, physically recoiling and attacking at the same time, grabbing for his neck, digging her nails in.

            “Get off me!” he said, knocking her away, his voice breaking.  She stumbled back and grunted as she hit the wall.  Elliot was shaking, his hands fluttery.  To his right was the dark staircase; in the angle of his eye Elliot saw Dave motionless and sad in the shadows at the top of the stairs, watching quietly. 

            Stunned, stomach fluttering, Elliot walked to the front door, opened it with a shaky hand.  He thought he heard Rosanna snarl at his back as he stepped into the suburban night.  He went to his car and got in.  She strode out on the porch.

            “You prude!” she screamed.  “You bastard.  You mama’s boy.”   

            He was burning with humiliation as he started the engine and backed out of the driveway.  Dave’s silhouette appeared behind Rosanna, his hands gently on her shoulders, calming her, whispering in her ear.

            As he drove away from the Fitzgerald’s, Elliot thought of Jean.  He would lie next to her in the bed and fall asleep.  Anger and embarrassment throbbed in his chest as he wondered how to explain the fingernail marks on his neck.  Well, he would tell Jean the whole awful story and she would have to believe him.  Of course she would believe him; there was no lack of trust.  He stared blindly at the black asphalt ahead.  He would be home in less than forty minutes.

            And then up ahead he finally saw them, the children—still out at this hour.  A swirling mob in the half-darkness, visible now that the streetlights revealed them.  They were running quickly, beating their hands in the air.  A little further ahead Elliot saw another child, alone, running alongside the street.  Closer, and he realized it was Jasper.  Closer still, he saw the intention of the group, realized they were giving chase.  They were going to catch him, too.

            Nonplussed, Elliot wondered what he should do.  Obviously, it was more than just child’s play.  For God’s sake, the kid had left blood on the door handle, and Dave sent him right back outside.  He decided to cruise past Jasper, then stop maybe thirty feet ahead, which would give him time to jump out and open the back door so the kid could get in.  After that, Elliot didn’t know what.  Drive him back to Dave’s, he realized with a sinking feeling.

            He accelerated to pass Jasper.  The child’s small white face turned and saw the car approaching.  He glanced over the other shoulder at his pursuers and kept running.  When the car was only ten, five feet behind him, Jasper turned and gave Elliot a brief, doleful look, then threw himself under the front tires.  There was a quick, nightmarish noise.  Thud—Elliot’s car went up, down.

            Elliot screamed.  He hit the brake.  He’d been doing twenty-five, maybe less, preparing to stop, but the kid was certainly dead, no doubt about that.  (Thud.)  He got out and stood there in the darkness, helpless.  The mob of kids came to a loose standstill, laughing and murmuring.  A stone cracked Elliot in the head and blood trickled into his eye.  He wiped it away with the back of his hand, blinking.  In the road just behind the car, caught in the taillights, they were tugging Jasper away.  His broken arms dragged along the asphalt.

            “Dig a hole!” one yelled.  “Dig a hole!”

            “Dig a hole for it!”

            “No, put it in Metcalf’s basement!”

            “No, dig a hole!”

            Jasper’s body slid more easily when they got it on the grass.  The kids disappeared into the night with the body in tow, leaving a red streak in the road and a trail of matted grass.  Their awful chittering drifted back through the darkness, like broken music on the breeze.