Two child actors are up for the same film role – much to the dismay of their momagers. But one mother has second thoughts. Last of two parts. 3,610 words. Illustrations by John Donald Carlucci.
The ER doctor lifted Sam’s shirt and looked to Susan for explanation. Raised welts covered Sam’s back, already purpling. “Sam? What happened?”
Sam picked at a loose thread on the sheet and shrugged. One of his curls was caught in the bandage above his left eye.
“Samuel McGrath, answer me.” She heard her voice shaking.
“Why don’t you let me have a minute?” the doctor suggested, guiding her to the door. Susan knew what that meant. He had to question Sam alone. Ask if Mommy hits him and whether she uses her hands or a hairbrush.
She stepped into the hall. Wendy was coming toward her. “How’s Caden?”
“His arm’s broken.” Wendy swallowed and took a shuddering breath. “They’re taking a CT scan to check…for swelling. In his brain.”
Susan folded Wendy her in my arms. “Caden’s going to be okay. They’re both going to be okay.”
The door opened behind them. “Mrs. McGrath?”
“What do you mean he landed on you?”
“He said I should lie on the ground. To jump over.”
“He said I had to or he wouldn’t be my friend anymore. And you like Miss Wendy, so—” Sam’s voice broke and he leaned his head into her arm.
Susan was back in the Ingalls Elementary Principal’s Office again. For the rest of her life, she would regret listening to Mrs. Davidson’s account and then informing Sam he was grounded then and there. She was anxious to show Mrs. Davidson that she was not one of those parents who made excuses for her child’s behavior, even though she knew Cory and Keith had bullied dozens of younger children; it was only a matter of time before one of their victims struck preemptively. She never believed it would be Sam who would punch at words. He cried but didn’t argue. Sam never argued. Never stood up for himself. He accepted his punishment and stayed in his room for an hour without complaining. He threw up quietly in his trashcan. He lay silently while the doctors explained they would keep him in the hospital overnight in case the concussion was more serious than they realized.
Fourteen years of accumulated classroom supplies left behind, purchased with her own money. Sometimes she wondered which colleague was using her board games or blackline masters, if they remembered who it belonged to and how they turned a blind eye when Sam was getting his head knocked against the bricks?
At the same time, she wanted to shake him. Why can’t you stand up for yourself? Even with his mother twenty feet away, he still had to please everyone or risk being shunned. No matter where they went, it was the same. She thought he had learned. She’d hoped, and believed that a door scrape was exactly as he said.
She signed the release forms. Signed the financial form that stated she had no insurance and accepted responsibility for paying the bill. Sam’s safety equipment was in a drawstring plastic bag. She carried it and the skateboard, leading the way out. Behind a half-drawn curtain, Wendy leaned over Caden’s bed. Susan kept walking, pulling Sam by the hand and pretending not to see them.
“Can I talk to you?” Wendy was in the hall.
“Wait over there,” Susan told Sam, and took a few steps in Wendy’s direction. Wendy bridged the rest of the distance, twisting the hem of her T-shirt.
“Susan, I’m just gonna come out with it. Caden says Sam pushed him off the skateboard.”
Susan heard herself laugh. “Really? Did he also tell you that he made Sam lie down so he could jump on him?”
“What? That doesn’t make any sense.”
“He said he wouldn’t be Sam’s friend unless Sam let him use him as a skateboard ramp.”
Wendy’s confusion softened into…was that pity? “Susan,” she said, using that incredulous, condescending tone she had heard enough of for the rest of her life. They never used the opposite when they were proven wrong. She was done being the one to help others feel less bad.
“You must be so proud,” Susan snapped, turning and walking away.
Susan stayed awake long after Sam cried himself to sleep, watching for any sign of internal bleeding. She made herself two cups of coffee to steel herself, certain he would wake up screaming in the night, but when next she opened her eyes Sam was pouring off-brand Cheerios into a bowl. He carried the bowl to the kitchen tap and turned on a thin stream of water.
“What are you doing, baby?” she asked.
“We’re out of milk,” he said, sitting down at the table.
Susan opened the bathroom window above the tub to release the steam from the shower, the rattling exhaust fan ineffective. Wrapping a towel around her midsection, she said, “Try it again, honey.”
“Don’t fucking touch me.” His throat caught on the curse. He grimaced and shifted.
He hadn’t complained, and he said it didn’t hurt to breathe or move, but Susan would never take his word for it again. She again offered to take him to the doctor, knowing the cost of a walk-in at the Walgreens clinic could sink them.
“It’s not my stomach,” he said.
“Then what is it?”
“I don’t like that word,” he said.
“Remember what you know about this person.”
Sam nodded and stared at the script. Susan uncapped the Ibuprofen. She would have to get more. “This boy feels threatened, right? Think of a time when you were scared that something bad was going to happen. Like, when you were really nervous before the Chuck-E-Cheese audition back home and you said you wanted to throw up?”
Sam’s eyes drifted into the distance as he drudged up a thought. “When the police came.”
“No. When you yelled at Mr. Lepton.”
The towel fell from her hands. How could he possibly remember that? He’d been two. Mark said he slept through the whole thing. “Honey, that was just — Mr. Lepton called them because he thought I was a robber.”
“Why did he think that?”
“It was just a mistake he made. He was old. Sometimes old people misunderstand things.”
“Why were you yelling at the policeman?”
She inhaled. “I wasn’t. But I bet it was scary for you, not knowing what was happening. Use that. Can you imagine what it would feel like if you were scared like that every moment of the day?”
Sam stared at her, took a deep breath, and screamed, “Get your fucking hands off me!”
Susan picked up the next line. “Don’t give me no lip now…”
“No! You killed her!”
She was about to congratulate him when the bathroom door burst inward, almost clipping Susan. She heard herself scream as Ted joined them in the small bathroom, face red, panting.
“What the hell’s going on?” he demanded.
Susan clutched the towel to her chest with both hands. “Sam’s rehearsing,” she said.
He looked them both up and down through the swirling steam, then burst out laughing. Again he slapped his knee. “I should have known. I was fixing your air conditioner and heard the commotion.” A beat passed. “Well, you sounded good, kid. Just like someone was trying to kill you.”
Sam beamed. Ted tipped an imaginary hat and left.
Susan stayed frozen for a long moment. Her brain was late to process the implication that Ted was not only inside her apartment, but hadn’t seemed the least bit…ashamed? When she looked around the doorframe into the living room, Ted was there, hunched over the air conditioner dismantled on a pillowcase on her floor. Ted looked up for her, as if it weren’t unusual for him to be working and her wearing only a towel. “I’ll have this fixed up for you in about five minutes.”
She pulled Sam into the bedroom and locked the door.
“What’s wrong, Mama?”
“Nothing, honey,” she said, pulling the suitcases from inside the closet. There wasn’t time to pack everything before the audition, but they could get most of it. “We’ll finish rehearsing in the car. Get all your clothes. It’s laundry day.”
Amir was not used to getting calls from the tenants of his “many properties.” Several times he interrupted her. “You call Ted! Don’t bother me with this!” When Susan threatened to make a police report, he listened to her story.
“You asked him to fix the air conditioning for you,” Amir said.
“He came into the bathroom when I was taking a shower.”
“I don’t know anything about this.”
“We’re not staying there anymore.”
“Fine. Okay. You leave.”
“I want our deposit back. And prorated rent.” There was no way to pay for a new place without it.
“Aaaahh… I have to talk to Ted first.”
“Then I’ll go to the police,” she said.
“Fine. You call police.” He hung up on her.
It had been ten minutes since Sam had entered the casting office. She’d glimpsed two men inside before she could close the door, one whom she recognized from across twenty-five years and a bar on Sunset. Back when he was the nobody with a great smile, hungry for attention, talking up all the ladies and eyeing the boys beyond.
A scream. A crash. Her body moved toward the door on its own, but Susan’s mind kicked in as her hand reached the knob. It was Sam’s scream, she knew it in her marrow. But was it real or part of the act?
The door opened for her. Karen led Sam out. His face was bright red, breath hitching, like he’d been crying, hard. Tears clung to his chin.
“He did great. Really well.” Karen said, hugging him. “We’ll be in touch.” She closed the door between them, leaving Susan to mop up the emotional aftermath.
“Are you all right, baby?” Susan asked, pressing his head to her hip.
Sam offered up a weak smile. “The director said I was convincing.”
They spent two hours at the Laundromat. She quizzed him on math facts and spelling words as she folded, neatly arranging everything in the suitcase and working the options in her head. No money for a motel. Amir wasn’t answering her calls, so she had to assume he wouldn’t be refunding their money. That left urban camping, finding a secluded spot in a parking lot or in a cul-de-sac, but Susan knew she would never be able to sleep soundly. And she desperately needed to sleep.
Her cell phone rang. 310. Susan waited until she was outside to answer.
Karen’s breathless voice filled her ear with details. They would need to go to the studio for paperwork and getting Sam measured for the costume. A table read was scheduled for the day after tomorrow, with production to start in two weeks. She finished with, “Your lives will never be the same. Get ready.”
Susan switched off the phone and jammed it into her jeans pocket. She stayed out in the parking lot for another minute. Their lives were already not the same.
Susan was upright before waking, disoriented because the sofa had been shoved to block the front door and had her facing the kitchen instead of the hallway. The green BP light coming through the window revealed the outline of a tiny form wedged into the corner where the refrigerator met the wall, knees to his chest. Not moving.
She approached slowly. As she neared him, she saw that his eyes were open, but unblinking. Mouth slack. “Sammy?” she whispered, reaching for him. Her heart seized at the thousand possibilities that included internal bleeding, a sudden stroke from a tiny blood clot, he’d tried to tell her but—
“Get your fucking hands off me!” he growled in a voice that was too deep and old for a small boy. Suddenly he shot upward, knocking her back against the stove, fists and feet knocking her in the ear, in the eye.
She curled up into a protective ball. “Sam, stop it!”
The assault continued. Finally, she managed to get her fingers into his arm and pull him off balance, then pin him with her body. He kept bucking and snarling.
She slapped him.
His eyes cleared, transforming from murderous into the boy she knew. He looked around wildly. “Mama?”
“It’s okay now. It was a bad dream.”
“Mama, you’re bleeding.”
Susan fingered the wet spot beneath her nose. She pulled the cuff of her shirt over her fingers to staunch it. “It’s okay. We’re okay.” She hugged him close and waited for Ted to bang on their door, but he never did. Only when she was tossing cutlery into a bankers box next to shoes and soup cans, did she notice that there was no laugh track from the other side of the wall at 3:00 AM.
She walked Sam to the car with her. Without Ricky’s customers, the driveway was empty at this hour, silent except for the windy roar of a tractor trailer on the highway above. “Where are we going, Mom?” he asked, fastening the buckles on his car seat.
“To see Daddy,” she said. She parked the car next to the stairs and popped the trunk that still contained their suitcases. She brought down the crate of school books, the four bankers boxes of games and toiletries and dish towels, all the things that had failed to make the apartment more livable. It had taken thirty minutes to gather everything. She thought of doing a final sweep. How would it feel to lay in her bed in Edmond and suddenly remember a sock or a pair of Sam’s Spiderman underwear accidentally forgotten, to be secreted away in someone else’s drawer?
“But Mama, I have to start the movie tomorrow.”
“They rescheduled it,” she said, starting the car again. “Miss Karen called while you were asleep.” She repositioned her mirrors, catching Sam’s skeptical look, but he didn’t ask any more questions.
Amazing how large the highway seemed when clear. She merged onto the 134 with the glittering buildings of Burbank and Glendale, onto the 210 past the Colorado Street Bridge and its antique lamps. The last time she’d seen that bridge, it had been from the topside. Charlie and Eric wanted to watch the Rose Bowl fireworks from a “good place” and it didn’t matter that it was under construction. She would never see it again.
The sun came up as they reached Joshua Tree, and Susan drove directly into its mass instead of pulling over and waiting for it to rise so that she could drive without stretching her neck up to shield her eyes with the visor. Her headache was in full throb despite the two coffees she’d bought when she pulled over for gas. She pulled the Folgers canister into her lap, opened the lid, and poured an inch of grounds into one of the empty cups. Then she put the rim to her lips and tapped in a mouthful of instant bitterness.
At the counter, she ordered two egg and cheese biscuits for Sam and a cup of hot water to use in the car. She stole a sip of Sam’s orange juice to wash down the No Doz. “What’s the first thing you’re going to do when you get home?”
“Play with Daddy!” he crowed, too loud for the small space. “And then see if Jimmy wants to play Angry Birds.”
She sighed. Jimmy. Two black eyes and Sam still lobbied for his attention, because he was a boy, because he was across the street. Maybe losing the house to foreclosure would have a silver lining after all.
Susan took Sam with her into the women’s room because a highway fast food bathroom was no place for a seven year-old. Once they were done, she gave Sam her keys and the hot water cup and told him to strap himself in. Then she turned on her phone for the first time.
The voice mailbox was full. She dialed home.
“Where have you been?” Mark demanded. “Sam’s agent has been calling—”
She cut him off. “We’re coming home.”
“What? Susan, he got the part.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Doesn’t matter? It’s the whole reason you went out there!”
She shook her head, though he couldn’t see it. “He’s seven years old, Mark. It’s not a part for a seven year-old.”
“Susan, what happened?” He sounded exasperated. How could she answer? Wasn’t it obvious? He needed a normal life with sleepovers and cutting through yards and Little League, a first kiss hidden, not on screen for the world to see.
“Can I explain when we get there?”
“What do you mean? Where are you?”
“Jesus, Susan.” That scratching sound again. “Are you okay? Do you want me to come meet you?”
“No. We’ll be home later tonight.” She felt a different kind of pressure behind her eyes and wiped away her tears. “I made a mistake.”
“What do you mean?”
“Coming out here. It was the wrong decision.”
“Baby, what happened?”
“I’ll tell you later, okay? I have to get going.” She hung up the phone and wiped her eyes.
When she opened the driver’s side door, Sam had moved his backpack up to the seat next to him and unpacked several books to read. He also had another surprise. “I made your coffee, Mama!” he said proudly, gesturing to the steaming cup in the console.
She saw the tractor trailer coming up on the left but moved into the lane anyway, too late to override. The blast of the truck’s air horn jolted her reflexes free. She swerved to the side of the road and braked near the sign that said Flagstaff –10 miles.
“Are you okay, Mama?” Sam asked.
“I’m okay, buddy. Let me take a real quick nap and we’ll be on our way again.”
“Mama?” he asked.
“I’m right here,” she breathed, giving in to darkness. “S’okay.”
White sheets. A shadow standing at the window, backlit by streetlamps in the parking lot beyond.
Mark turned from the window. Haggard. Grim. Susan tried to sit up, but found her wrists tied to the bedrails.
“Sam? Where’s Sam?!”
“He’s all right,” Mark said, and the way he said it indicated it shouldn’t be a foregone conclusion. “You’re in Flagstaff.”
The headaches. Something must have happened. From the look on Mark’s face, it was bad. A brain tumor? A stroke? Her head was throbbing even now. It was nighttime outside—was it the same day they’d stopped on the road trip? But if Mark was here…
“Sam couldn’t wake you up. He called me. I called 911.”
Susan imagined the terror he’d felt getting that phone call, and Sam’s having to make it. She hadn’t been able to protect him from that. “What’s wrong with me?” she asked. “Please tell me.”
“You tell me, Susan!”
Mark always got mad when he was scared. She kept her voice calm. “I’ve had a headache for weeks now. I couldn’t stay awake.” And she’d left Sam alone. “Is it a tumor?” she whispered.
“Are you kidding, Susan? You still think you can bullshit me?!”
“I’m not bullshitting you.”
Mark stared at her for a long moment, then gathered himself, inhaling with his eyes closed. “There’s a treatment facility here in Flagstaff that can take you.”
“Treatment facility? Mark, I’m not—”
“You think they didn’t do blood tests, Susan?” he yelled. He ticked off his fingers. “Alcohol. Heroin. Cocaine.”
It couldn’t be. She hadn’t. Not for years. “I am not using drugs. You think I would get into a car with our son—”
“You’ve done it before.”
“But that was — I got better.”
He covered his face again, spoke from the depths of his palms. “The studio is offering to have you transferred to Malibu so that you can be closer to Sam. I haven’t given them an answer yet.”
The studio. “Mark, you can’t let him do that role.”
“I have to get back to Sam.”
“Mark!” She yanked against the restraints, lifting her shoulders off the bed. “Those people — they’re not going to protect him! I’ll protect him.”
The look he gave her was withering. She’d never seen that look before, not even when the police had come to their door in response to Mr. Lepton’s complaint that a drunk woman was breaking in to his house, thinking it was her own.
The blinds covering the window out to the hallway were open. Mark crossed to the nurse’s station. Susan maneuvered her hand to reach for the call button that was within fingertips’ reach and pushed it. Pushed it again, over and over. There had been a mistake. They would have to listen.
A nurse came to the door. “Yes?”
“Bring my husband back in, please. I need to talk to him.” She was crying now.
Sam barreled his way into the room, almost knocking the nurse over as he flew onto Susan’s bed.
“Mommy!” he sobbed, climbing onto the bed.
“It’s okay, baby. There’s been a mistake.”
He held onto her neck despite the nurse pulling, and finally she had to dash out into the hall for reinforcements.
Sam tilted his head back to look into Susan’s eyes. He smiled. “Do you want some coffee, Mama? I know how much you like your coffee.”
Susan went cold staring into his eyes. Empty, as if he were sleepwalking. But he wasn’t. He was awake and in control of his actions. Had always been.
She watched the smile contort into a convincing mask of grief as Mark and two nurses grabbed him from behind. “No! Mommy! I want my Mommy!”
Even Susan would admit it was a masterful performance.