A mother brings her young son to Hollywood hoping he’ll make it as a child actor. Then she starts to rethink everything. First of two parts. 5,983 words. Illustrations by John Donald Carlucci.
Like so many things in Los Angeles, the rain was fake. That didn’t make it any less wet as it pounded onto the heads of the children, dragging Sam’s curls into his eyes. The director yelled cut and then yelled it again. He wanted scissors.
The make-up girl sprang forward, but only wielded bobby pins to secure Sam’s hair with steady hands and a vacant half-smile…products, no doubt, of the pill bottle Susan had seen nestled between the lipsticks.
Sam’s lips were blue. No one seemed the least concerned about hypothermia. Hell, none of the kids would have eaten lunch if Susan hadn’t reminded the A.D. of work rules. The mothers of the other two boys didn’t like that at all. “You can’t cause trouble,” Fake Blonde warned, while Fake Boobs bobble-headed agreement and added, “You want your son to work again, don’t you?” Better to let their kids starve than take a chance at upsetting the D-list director of a cookie ad. They probably thought Susan was some hopeful Okie – but she knew more about this business than both of them combined. She knew people would take advantage of you only if allowed to. And everyone was out to take advantage.
Susan slipped in behind the make-up lady and caught Sam’s eye. “This is the last take, baby,” she told Sam. “This is ridiculous.” Already twenty-six minutes over schedule.
“But Mom,” he protested through chattering teeth, “this is fun!”
The McGraths did not walk into the situation blind. Before leaving their suburban Edmond driveway, Susan had registered Sam with several reputable online casting websites. His Coogan trust information was stapled to the California work permit, and she’d paid the deposit on a one-bedroom guest house within walking distance to the Disney lot. She and Mark discussed the ground rules as they attached Sam’s credits to the back of full-color headshots that highlighted his round blue eyes and still-round cheeks: Three months. No roles with nudity, swearing or other inappropriate behavior for a seven year-old. They were starting a career, not making a quick buck, not chasing fame. Susan was the last person to be impressed by someone calling her kid talented, but Sam’s resume was filled with local stage productions and regional commercial spots. It was a good time to explore opportunities outside of the Sooner State.
Twenty miles outside of Flagstaff, the car blew a gasket. The tow, the repair, and two nights at the Hampton Inn burned through three weeks of savings before they knocked on the door of the Burbank guest house.
A small woman with a Persian accent peered suspiciously through the door’s beveled glass. “We’re renting the guest house,” Susan said.
The owner frowned deeper and opened the door a crack. “It’s been rented.”
“Yes, to us. I’m Susan McGrath.”
“You didn’t show up.”
“Our car broke down. I called. I left messages.”
“How am I to know it’s not some story?” she demanded. Not once did she look at Sam, pressed up against his mother’s leg. As far as she was concerned, he was part of the con, and she wasn’t about to get taken in.
“Mommy, what are we going to do?” Sam whispered as they waited for the lady to return to the door with their security deposit.
“We’ll find a place,” she assured him. Instead of seeing this as the Universe telling her to Get Out, she chose to see it as a test of faith. “It’s only an obstacle,” she said.
“Bad storm last night,” said Mark. “Oh, and Mrs. Collins got a new dog.”
“A Samoyed. I told her to keep it inside.”
Susan tried to picture their elderly neighbor walking a dog that came above the line of her support stockings. And if the plan was for a “coyote-proof” pet, then why didn’t she choose a German shepherd? Not that anyone bought the claim that coyotes had snatched Mrs. Collins’ previous two dogs from the safety of her Edmond subdivision’s backyard. Their elderly neighbor’s previous two dogs had met with coyotes. That was Mrs. Collins’ claim, though Susan herself had watched the first dog nose its way out of the gate plenty of times. After his body was found in the middle of Acorn Road’s dead end – broken neck, but curiously unmolested for coyote prey – Mark had repaired the fence. When Ruth Brunson’s boys found Buster II floating in the community pool, they thought they were doing Mrs. Collins a favor by bringing back the sopping corpse for a proper burial. Instead, they got hysterical screams and a police officer questioning them. Mrs. Collins was still the only one who believed in coyotes, but now everyone else’s pets – and children – were kept inside at night.
“You sure you can’t wake him up?” asked Mark.
“He has an audition tomorrow.”
“That was fast! What’s it for?”
“Is he nervous?”
The million dollar question. If you asked him directly, Sam would say he wasn’t. But worry was such a constant setting that Susan doubted he knew what the absence of it would feel like. It was a matter of degree. He hadn’t had nightmares yet, not since the dog in the pool.
“How’s the guest house?” he asked.
“Charming.” It was brown. Brown plaid sofa, brown kitchen cabinets, brown carpet…very circa 1992. “The location’s good,” she added, “very close to the highway. We can walk to the library and grocery store.” This was all technically true. If she opened the yellowed curtains, she would see the tops of vehicles zooming along the 101 fifty feet away. Next to the apartments were the BP Station and Food Mart where they’d stopped after a long day of house-hunting frustration. Everything they’d seen, even the studios, were too expensive, and whatever money they would save venturing into Panorama City or beyond put them in gang territory or would have them burning gas and time to get anywhere. The wall-to-wall concrete of the Laurel Place apartments wasn’t aesthetically pleasing, but the unit was a one-bedroom within their price range, and they weren’t going to get mugged by the guy selling oranges at the off-ramp.
She wasn’t in the habit of lying to Mark. But she didn’t want him arriving on the apartment doorstep with a moving van. He’d argued that he could look for electrical work in Los Angeles just as easily as OKC, because didn’t film sets list all those electricians in the credits? Susan didn’t even bother telling him that it didn’t work that way, it was all about the relationships. To move the entire family was too huge of a gamble. Better to keep making the partial payments on the mortgage and hope that Mark continued to come through with a few days of work every so often. Better not to walk away from everything and then have nothing when it didn’t work out.
But in that moment, she wanted nothing more than to have him next to her, telling Sam jokes to keep him from giving in to anxiety. Playing Scrabble or gin with Susan. Making rice and beans taste different five nights a week. Or merely serving as the six foot two reminder to any of the nineteen other households that this woman and child were not to be messed with.
Ted, the on-site landlord of Laurel Place, had unfortunately cast himself in that role. She could hear the Everybody Loves Raymond laugh track from the rear projection television that backed up to their shared wall. On his side of it hung a dozen signed and framed headshots of River Phoenix, an age progression stretching from Stand By Me to The Thing Called Love. Sixty-something Ted had rocked in his peach recliner, sharing vague tidbits from his days “managing River” as Susan filled out the rental agreement on a matching loveseat, Sam pressed to her side. “He was a prodigy,” said Ted, tapping his hands on a round belly. Susan noted with alarm that his legs were clean-shaven despite a thick head of white hair and eyebrows that shot tendrils up from behind his glasses.
“Maybe you’ll be like him, Sam.”
The pen made a mark where Susan flinched.
“You want some orange juice Sam?” Ted pushed himself up from his chair and walked over to the bar across from the television. Backed by a crackled gold mirror, it held several bottles of tequila and mixers. He even had Zima, for Chrissakes. “Can I interest you in a Bahama Mama, Susan?” he asked.
“No thanks,” she said, pulling out her checkbook. She felt sweat winding down her back, though the room was ice-cold from the window unit. “How much for the security deposit?”
“First month’s is fine,” he said, waving at her with a jar of lukewarm orange juice. “I used to work the streets, you know, so I can tell good people when I meet them. You sure I can’t get you something? How about a Se—” he interrupted himself with a glance to Sam, “that thing you do on the beach?”
Susan was already shaking her head when Sam asked, “Building sand castles?”
The innocent question made Ted laugh so hard he actually wheezed, slapping his bare knee. “That’s a good one, Sammy.”
Ted had connections, so he’d get them a refrigerator — cheap. From the depths of a closet he came up with a queen-sized air mattress that he “kept for guests” and which Susan wouldn’t inflate until she spent more precious resources on a bicycle pump and a waterproof mattress pad.
When Susan hung up with Mark, she lay down next to Sam and discovered that the bed had deflated. Nothing between her and the floor but a piece of wrinkled plastic. She ended up on the sofa, falling asleep to muffled male voices that may have been from Ted’s television, and maybe not, but Sam slept through the night.
After the third boy came out from the casting room tugging at the hem of his shirt, Susan pulled aside the casting assistant. “Are they having the boys undress?” she asked.
“Oh no,” the assistant chortled, his manicured eyebrows arching at the ridiculousness of it all. “He’s only having them lift up their shirts.”
“The character of the brother flexes his biceps in a scene.”
“Without a shirt?”
“That’s what he’s deciding,” said the assistant, turning away from her to call the next child inside.
Susan picked up her bag and took Sam’s hand, leading him out of the casting office.
The cream stucco of the house lit up orange where the last rays of sunlight found open spaces within the unchecked purple bougainvillea. Sunset always arrived two hours earlier inside the canyon, so that you had to turn on all the lights before dinner, and never turn them off if the day was cloudy. The price you pay for proximity to Mulholland. And for a professional gardener…which these people obviously had decided to forego even if it meant letting the pyracantha snake inside the built-in firepit.
“This is a long shortcut, Mom,” Sam spoke up from the back.
She put the car into gear and backed away from the barricade of the wrought-iron gate. Neighborhood patrol would definitely want to investigate a ten year-old Buick in one of its driveways. “Guess I made a wrong turn, buddy.” She put them back on the winding road, down this time.
“Why couldn’t I audition?” he asked.
“Because it wasn’t an appropriate role for a boy your age.”
“But all those other boys my age were there. They got to audition.”
“Those other boys don’t have mothers who are watching out for them,” she said, merging back into rush hour traffic on Laurel Canyon.
After a moment with NPR filling the silence, Sam piped up again. “Mom?”
“I love you.”
She flipped the mirror to look at him. “I love you too, buddy.”
“I wish I could go to that school,” Sam said, turning his head to catch a glimpse of Moorpark Elementary down the street. Susan felt conspicuous walking past the playground with Sam on her side of the fence and kids his age inside it, so every morning they detoured around it on their way to the library. “You could get a job there.”
“They won’t let me teach in California,” she said.
“Why not? You’re a teacher.”
“Different states have different rules,” she said. “Besides, I don’t want to teach anyone but you.”
This was her second year homeschooling Sam, and their daily routine carried over into their new life in California. Get up at eight, have a breakfast of oatmeal or cheap cereal, pack peanut butter sandwiches and apples for lunch and a travel mug of Folgers. Walk to the library to start the school day. Sam worked on language arts and social studies at a corner table in sight of Susan as she checked the casting notices, printed sides, and replied to emails for the hour time limit, sometimes two if the young children’s librarian was on duty and no one else was waiting. Then math and science, sometimes at the gazebo in a nearby park where nannies and freelancing dads played with toddlers before walking back to the apartment to prepare for an afternoon in traffic going from audition to audition, often not arriving back until close to nine o’clock. The only parking spot left would be in the back corner against the freeway embankment, and Susan felt conspicuous and exposed walking past the curtained windows with rap music or Spanish telenovelas blaring from within. The curtains stayed closed, but she felt the eyes tracking them from their car to their front unit. Ted claimed that there were two families with young children in the building, yet she never saw or heard them.
It was a particular torture for Sam to spend afternoons in offices lined with boys his age without socializing with them. He’d tried to approach a shaggy blonde kid who was also auditioning for the role of Brother Two for a television pilot, only to have SuperTan Mom chew him out for “interfering with my son’s preparation!” Sam kept to himself after that, and maybe that inhibition explained the recent dry spell. He looked five but had the vocabulary of a thirty year-old. Too young for the Disney Channel line-up, and there weren’t a lot of parts written for that age because you couldn’t always find one like Sam. Every casting director remarked at how “otherworldly” and “mature” Sam was, an “old soul” with the handshake of a CEO. The handshake got mentioned so much she had to train Sam in the exaggerated whole-arm kid method, and that led to a student film where he played a spelling bee contestant, and one-line in an episode of a network medical drama. Two more “daddies” and he could be eligible for SAG…if she could find something worthwhile within all the offers for Sam to play a bully, a spoiled rich kid, or a crime victim. She refused those roles, and walked out of more auditions when the casting director wouldn’t do a substitution for the casual “fag” or “shit” that writers seemed to think was the lingua franca of Kindergartners these days.
“Baby, we have to hurry.” She quick-walked up Hollywood Boulevard, mentally counting down the numbers to their destination. It was still a block away and they only had ten minutes. This was a callback. She needed him centered.
“But it’s your name!” Susan walked back, stepping over the pink stars of Neil Diamond and Sidney Lanfield back to where Sam had his feet planted on either side of “Susan Atwood.”
“How ‘bout that,” she said, taking his hand.
“But that was your name, right? Before you married daddy?”
“There are a lot of Susan Atwoods in the world, honey,” she said. When she looked up, a paparazzi’s flashbulb went off, momentarily blinding her, and suddenly she was in the midst of too many people and it was too loud and she felt like she would have to claw her way through the crowd. No one would notice.
But it was only her and Sam, and the reflection of a car window. She put her hand to her eyes and squeezed her temples, taking deep breaths. Her headache was back.
Karen Shipton waved Susan into an empty room off the waiting area. Susan felt every eye lock on her. “I want to talk to your mom, Sam. You wait here.”
Susan hated that her heart was pounding, the rush of blood and adrenaline temporarily clearing the throbbing behind her eyes. But they only talked to you privately if it was good news.
Karen cocked her head, staring at Susan. “Are you an actress?”
Susan shook her head. A preposterous question. Greying roots, thirty extra pounds around the middle, foundation and mascara and the lightest of lip glosses. “Not at all.”
Karen tapped her index finger against her lips, a giveaway to her forties with the puckering from decades of smoking, then shook her head clear. “Funny. I’m usually good with faces.” She laughed, “It’ll come to me. Look, we’re not bringing Sam back for this one.”
Just like every wannabe, Susan’s heart dropped. She forced her expression to stay neutral and thanked Karen as she moved for the door. But Karen called her back. “There’s another film I’d like him to read for, but it…well, it skews adult.”
“A horror film?” Susan asked, already disappointed.
“No. It’s a drama, very indie.” Karen named a director that called up an image of red carpets and a series of glamorous girlfriends. “It’s his pet project,” said Karen, knowing she’d hit home. “And I think Sam would be perfect.”
“What kind of adult content?” asked Mark.
Wind whipped against Susan’s face, pulling her hair in a line across her mouth and causing the microphone in her cell phone to roar like the seashore. The sun was too bright, searing her eyeballs and intensifying the bright pain of her headache that Ibuprofen and extra coffee could not touch. She blamed the faulty air conditioner, probably teeming with bacteria and mold throughout the night even though Sam said he felt fine. She’d left notes for Ted to please fix it. If she was going to have a headache, at least the air conditioner should blow cold air. She looked down at the sides curled in her hand, hot off the library’s printer. She hadn’t dared leave them at the table with Sam. “There’s a lot of swearing.”
“It’s only words. You don’t think Sam’s old enough to handle that?”
She actually drew back the phone to look at it. “And the kid witnesses his father kill his mother,” she continued.
“But it’s got that director attached, right? He did that kid’s movie… And the lead, doesn’t he have kids?”
“His kids aren’t pretending to dig their mother’s grave.” If an Oscar-nominated actor pretends to beat your child, does that make the abuse less real?
Mark sighed at the other end. She heard the scrape of his hand along his stubble, something he did whenever he was frustrated. “Sorry,” he said reluctantly. “You’ve been gone a month without anything really happening…”
“That’s why I didn’t want you to come here with us,” she reminded him.
“Yeah, but at least I’d be with you,” he said.
Three more weeks, she reminded him. Either Sam would get parts and they could set some money aside for a visit, or they’d be on the road back. Susan couldn’t decide which way she hoped it would go.
Susan headed for the table where she’d left Sam working on his book report within view of the librarians. But someone else was at the table with him — a blonde kid and a short, average-looking brunette woman. In a town of extremes, nondescript was a choice unto itself.
“Hi! We’ve never officially met,” the brunette woman stood and held out her hand. “Wendy Walsh.” Susan had an immediate flash of context, of Wendy chiding an overly-coiffed mother for allowing her child to sing the audition jingle over and over again in the room. Coiffed was a chronic offender, but no one had stood up to her until that moment.
“Mom, Caden invited me for a playdate!”
Caden’s blonde spikes nodded with him, eyes sparkling. “Yeah, we’re gonna skateboard, and play with my Xbox, and he can sleep over!”
Wendy held up a hand at her son. “Whoa, Caden. We need to ask Sam and his mother what their plans are.” She turned back to Susan. “We would love to invite you and Sam over when you’re available.”
Susan could already see the disappointment brewing in Sam as he stared down at his book report. This wasn’t their first invitation, and every one ended the same way.
“We’d love to,” she told Wendy.
They stopped at Walgreens on the way home to pick up another economy-sized bottle of Ibuprofen. She wasn’t sure how Sam had come to know Caden’s entire life story in the short time she’d been on the phone with Mark, but he was determined to share every detail. “Caden goes to classes with sixth graders,” he intoned. “And they have a pool and tennis courts where he lives, and movie nights.” Susan decided not to tell Sam that she knew all about the Oakwood amenities, nor that they couldn’t have afforded it even when Mark was working. Not that Sam gave her enough time to respond, already on to the next factoid. “He likes Ninjago, just like me, but Cole is his favorite character. And Caden lives in Washington. The state, not the city. They have a volcano in Washington, you know. And Caden went there last year for a field trip, and they were studying the rock cycle just like me!”
Finally, as they cut through the gas station, Susan had to put a stop the Caden chronicles. “You’ve used up your talking for today,” she declared as two police cars, sirens blaring, Dopplered past and pulled to a stop in front of Laurel Place, blocking the driveway where an ambulance and a police SUV were already parked.
Ted paced the edge of the activity, wearing a dark blue windbreaker over his omnipresent stretched T-shirt even though it was close to ninety degrees. He saw them and stepped away from the scene, holding up placating hands. “Don’t you worry about a thing, little man. The police are here protecting us.”
Susan got a glimpse of people moving in and out of 12A. Ricky’s place. She never knew Ricky’s last name, and the only reason she knew his first name was hearing it pop up from the never-ending stream of people who stopped by his apartment at all hours, staying only for a few minutes and often blocking the driveway with their idling cars, adding to the cloud of exhaust and forcing Susan to shut off the air conditioner. Too many people to think that Ted didn’t know what was really happening. His expression now was somber but his eyes gleamed with excitement, so maybe the kickbacks for his silence were only in her mind. Or maybe he’d indulged in one when the cops first arrived. “They finally busted him?” she asked.
Ted shook his head. “I didn’t see GSW’s on the body. And I would’ve heard it, if there had been. My best guess is blunt force trauma, based on the mess.”
“They let you in there?” she asked, gesturing to the evidence technicians who even now were wheeling out a body bag.
Ted eyed her. “I’m the one who called. FedEx guy’s been knocking on his door for two days, so I took the envelope.” He shook his head and his eyes settled on a spot next to Susan. “Now don’t you worry, Sammy. The police are here to help us.”
Sam looked away, taking Susan’s admonition not to talk to Ted to heart. Susan put her arm around him. “We have an audition.”
“Oh, don’t worry. I’ll get them to move for you.” Ted jogged up to a Sergeant, gesturing in Susan’s direction. She moved Sam to her other side, to block his view of the crime scene on their way up the stairs.
“What happened, Mama?”
“I don’t know.”
By the time they got home, the complex was empty again. The only clue that anything had happened were the police evidence stickers and tape plastered across 12A.
At 2 AM, the screams began. She stumbled into the bedroom, still half inside the dream of sitting at a hotel bar with Mark, facing a glass backdrop with crackled gold and Jack Daniels bottles, Ted serving up drinks in his blue windbreaker. “It’s a Bahama Mama,” he said, slamming down a tall glass of liquid that sloshed out and covered her in red fluid. She was almost surprised to see that her bare arms were clean as she gathered up Sam’s trembling body.
“He was in the window, staring at me.”
“Mr. Ricky. He was covered in blood, Mama.”
Involuntarily she looked up at the bedroom window that faced out to the walkway. She kept the curtains closed at all times, and had moved the heavy oak dresser in front of it on the first night. Nothing could get through except bad dreams. “It’s okay, Sam. You’re all right—”
A loud banging startled them both. She heard Ted’s voice from outside. “Susan! Susan, is everything okay?”
She carried Sam into the living room and opened the front door a crack, enough to show only her head. “We’re okay, Ted. It was just a nightmare.”
Ted made a show of clutching his heart. He carried a golf driver in his other hand. “I heard the screaming and thought our killer had come back.” His breath carried the thick smell of Jack and made her recoil. “Remember, Susan. I’m always next door if you need me.”
She thanked him and closed the door. Locked it. And then pushed the sofa in front of it.
“Please, you’re the guest.” Wendy said kindly, taking the plates from Susan and scraping them into the trash can. For one delicious moment Susan pictured herself gathering up the edges of the tablecloth and hoisting the contents of the cheese board, artisan crackers and fruit salad over her shoulder. She and Sam could gorge themselves for another two days on the leftovers. She’d stopped herself to single servings for fear of seeming gluttonous—or being unable to stop—and it killed her that Sam all but ignored his food, too intent on talking non-stop to Caden.
“Are you sure I can’t offer you some wine?” Wendy asked, removing the cheese.
“Tea’s fine,” Susan answered, swirling the ice cubes in her glass. She leaned against the tile-topped peninsula and felt a tightness unwind in her neck. She never wanted to leave the air conditioning again. “How long have you lived here?”
“This season? Three months. I’ve thought about doing a short-term house rental, but they do have so many amenities here.” Wendy stopped, rolled her eyes. “Sorry. That sounded so pretentious.”
Susan waved it off. Outside the door, she could hear Sam’s excited whooping. He and Caden were skateboarding in the rear courtyard. She noted that she did not feel the slightest urge to check on him. “When will you go back to New York?”
“Another month, maybe. It all depends on the lottery, right?” Wendy wiped the table with a dishcloth. “What grade do you teach?”
“I used to teach fifth, but I don’t anymore.”
“No? How come?”
Susan shrugged. “I chose to stay home with Sam.”
“I should pay you to teach Caden,” said Wendy.
“You don’t like the school here?”
“It’s hard to be a good student when the girl next to you says singers don’t need algebra.”
Susan snorted. “As if singing careers last forever.”
“Her mother’s a piece of work, that one. One of those ‘my special snowflake’ types.”
“I hate those.”
“No. You don’t strike me as the type,” Wendy said. She stared at her a moment. Susan braced herself for The Question.
“Were you at that audition for the comedy feature? The one with the—” she mimed pulling up her shirt.
“Where the director was having them take off their shirts? Yeah, I took Sam out.”
“I was there!” she squealed. “I did the same thing.”
They clinked their glasses together and declared the formation of a new group: The Average Snowflake Moms.
Susan vibrated happily all the way home. She didn’t mind hearing Sam tell all the details of their time outside—the way Caden could ride his skateboard off three stair steps and land on the wheels and keep going, the girl who lived upstairs from Caden who was on a TV show and called Sam a baby. “But Caden, he put his finger right in her face and said, ‘You don’t call my friend that’ and she left, Mom!” Sam told her, as if it were the strangest outcome ever. Susan’s heart broke at that. He’d never had anyone his age stand up for him before.
“Why did you change your mind?” Mark asked.
“Well, Wendy was going to let Caden audition because she’s worked with the casting director before, and she won’t take on a production that doesn’t follow the work rules,” said Susan. Wendy had given her a lot of advice during their last three lunches, even putting her in touch with Caden’s agent. Sam had landed a regional ad the next day.
“She’s helping you, even though her son and Sam are up for the same roles?” he asked.
“I know. It sounds weird, but she’s like us, Mark. She’s not an asshole and she believes in karma.” She took a deep breath. “I can’t wait for you to meet her.”
The water in the bathroom shut off. Sam stepped out with a towel around his shoulders and saw Susan on the phone. “Is that Daddy?”
She handed over the phone. “Talk fast. We have to be on the road in twenty minutes.” As he took the cell phone, she saw a red mark encircling his upper arm—like a rug burn. “What’s that?”
“I scraped it on the door.” Sam carried the phone into the bedroom with him. “Hi Daddy. Guess what?”
Susan hummed to herself as she put the containers of beans and rice into the insulated lunch bag. She set it by Sam’s “stuff bag” next to the door when she heard the doorbell chime over the air conditioner. Ted’s head bobbed outside the peephole.
“I have to talk to you,” Ted slurred when she opened the door. The smell of whiskey burned her nose.
She stepped out onto the landing and pulled the door closed behind her. “I put the rent check in your mailbox,” she said. She quickly squashed the little voice that piped up in her brain, It’s the last one too! Wendy believed in karma, but Susan believed in jinxes.
“This isn’t Iowa. Something could happen to a boy out that late.”
There were times they got home after the sun had set, and maybe once or twice Sam had run ahead up the stairs to their apartment from the car, but if Ted were looking—
and he was always looking—he would have seen Susan coming up behind. She never let Sam out of her sight.
“Ted, Sam never leaves the house without me.”
“He stares in my window.”
Susan straightened her spine. “No he doesn’t,” she said firmly, wondering which if any of the residents were watching this altercation and if any would be inclined to give statements to the police. But Ted shook his head like a dog trying to work its way out of a neck cone. “It’s not safe,” he said again, and retreated to his own apartment.
She locked the door behind her and rested her forehead against it. Headache back in full bloom.
“Mr. Ted’s seen Mr. Ricky in his window, too?” Sam asked from behind her.
Susan turned. The cell phone was open in his little hand. She wondered how much Mark had heard. She inhaled. It was time to tell him everything.
“Mark—” she began.
“Not Mark. Karen,” said the casting director on the other end. “I have some good news, Susan.”
Sam ran up to Caden holding his new skateboard aloft. “Look, Caden! Look what I got!” It was the cheapest version the store had, and along with the helmet and safety pads—and peach turnovers from the bakery—represented the single most irresponsible use of the California funds to date. But Susan felt like celebrating for once. It was worth it to see the joy in Sam’s face, and the delight in Wendy’s eyes as she bit into a pastry. She moaned. “I love turnovers.” She leveled her eyes on Susan. “What happened?”
“The pastries looked good.”
Wendy tilted her head and cocked her eyebrow. They’d shared too much for this lie. Susan knew all about Wendy’s failing marriage, her fixation on one day walking into George Clooney’s kitchen. Wendy had heard all about the dark weeks following Sam’s birth, holding Susan’s hand and nodding empathetically.
“He got called back?” Wendy guessed.
Susan nodded, preparing to assume a sympathetically sad expression. But Wendy threw out her arms. “So did Caden!”
Susan cheered and hugged her friend, but inwardly felt a sharp twang of disappointment. Caden had beat out Sam for three roles; Susan had seen them on the resume Wendy had asked her to proofread. Of course, as she told Sam, no one could predict what a producer was looking for, but…well, with Caden busy on the film maybe Sam would start getting more of his bookings?
“They could still both lose out,” Wendy said.
“True.” Susan turned and looked over the rise of the manmade hill, the splash pad on the other side victim of the drought and serving as a skate ramp. Loud thwacks and cracks reverberated in the beams of the gazebo roof.
“And if it’s bad—”
Susan turned back.
“You’d pull him?”
“I don’t know. He directed all those kids films.” Wendy shrugged, but there was doubt. “Karen says they’ll do everything they can to protect the kid.”
“And remember, sight and sound. Nothing will happen to him while you’re watching.”
Wendy nodded. “Right.” She took another bite of the turnover. “Caden wanted to ask Sam if he could sleep over. I thought I’d ask you first, in case you didn’t want that.”
“Why wouldn’t I want that?” In fact, she wanted nothing more than to send Sam over to spend the night with Caden, to eat fruit salad and fruit roll-ups and watch cartoons and sleep without sweating through the sheets or seeing dead guys in the window. Suddenly she was crying. Suddenly she was telling Wendy everything. About Ted and the murder and no air conditioning. The constant headaches, feeling so tired that getting through every day was a chore. Everything she’d been keeping from Mark.
Wendy handed her napkin after napkin and waited for Susan’s breathing to even out. “You’re staying with us tonight,” Wendy said.
“Yes. You need at least one good night of sleep.”
Susan shook her head back and forth, but they both knew she’d do it. “Thank you.”
“It’s completely self-serving. I need to get someone else hooked on my favorite show before season three starts.”
Susan laughed, already feeling better. She couldn’t wait to tell Sam—
Wendy was looking past her. Already getting to her feet.
Susan turned. Sam stood on the top of the hill. Helmet sideways. Blood running down his face.
Where was Caden?