TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:
Their trips to the drive-in movie theater were always the same. He would fall asleep and she would quietly leave the vehicle to get popcorn, Milk Duds, and soda. As she walked back with her goodies, the car-side speakers stopped and the screen went black, throwing the entire lot into darkness. She stopped, temporarily blinded. Then, the screen lit back up again, showing…
(Stories need only touch on this topic in some way to qualify.)
“One large popcorn, two medium Cokes. That’ll be $16.90, ma’am.”
The acne-stricken teenager plunks the sodas down next to the popcorn tub, then shoves two straws in my fist. Coke oozes up through the slit in my lid, pooling across the surface. When I was a little girl, I used to delight in slurping it off — the soda “bonus,” we said — but that was a long time ago. Now, I stab the straw home and watch the excess bleed over the edge.
“Can I get you anything else?” the kid asks. I turn without answering to stumble down the gravel path back to the car.
Southern California smog hides the moon and stars, but Disney’s Fantasia on a 60-foot outdoor screen gives me plenty of light to navigate. White gravel dust puffs around my shoes with each crunchy step. The air is so hot and dry, I’m sweating more than the sodas before I reach the back row.
Mickey Mouse dons the sorcerer’s hat up above me, preparing to unleash mischief, and all I can do is wander around in the heat, searching for the world’s saddest Honda Civic. The one with the stupid stick-figure window decal of a perfect family. Husband, wife, baby boy, dog. A decal that won’t come off, no matter how hard I scrape. I didn’t want the damn thing in the first place, but Chad insisted. “Be proud of your family, babe,” he’d said, with that empty surfer-bro grin I used to find charming. Chad, who I left in the Civic’s driver’s seat, snoring through Fantasia.
He does that a lot now. In meetings, after meals, during conversations. Falls asleep.
Hides is probably a better word, though. That’s what he’s really doing. Retreating into his own mind, the one place he doesn’t have to hear Jeremy’s name. I wish I had that luxury but my reaction to pain has always been the exact opposite: brutal, unforgiving insomnia. Every time I hear Chad snore, I hate him a little bit more.
In the screen’s flickering blue-white light, the Honda appears near the end of the row. I readjust the tub and drinks for the final few feet, but just before I reach the passenger door, my body screams at me to keep walking. Go past the door, past the parking lot, keep walking until I hit an ocean. Walk until my shoes disintegrate.
My stupid brain overrules the impulse, though: He’s all you have left.
Before I duck down into the car, I glance up at the screen. It’s been 25 years since I saw this movie for the first time: a six-year-old girl cuddled with a popcorn box half her size, staring at a screen for two hours straight. Not blinking once.
Tonight, I see the same colors, the same frames dancing in the white light, and I expect to feel something. Maybe an echo of the magic, at least. The tiniest shard of residual wonder. But wonder and magic are for children. Well, some children.
So I get in the car.
“Did you get my popcorn, Mommy?” Jeremy says from the back seat. His sing-song voice drips with cloying sweetness. I pass the tub back without looking and his little hands snatch it from mine. Chomping sounds fill the cabin. My stomach turns queasy.
“Do you like the movie?” I ask. Anything to interrupt the chewing.
“It’s okay,” he says. “I like when Mickey chopped up that broom with the axe. He killed it good!”
Of course Jeremy likes that part. Thinks it’s funny. Thinks hurting things is funny.
That’s why he can’t be left alone with animals. Or other children.
He’s quiet for a moment, then an innocent little voice calls to me from the darkness. “Mommy…do you want to know a secret?”
I want to scream No, goddamnit. The last time you had a secret, we had to bury Gizmo in the backyard. It feels like I’m still breathing the thick, oppressive air from outside. “No sweetie. Let’s just watch the movie,” I whisper.
“But it’s a goooood secret,” he teases.
I glance in the rear-view mirror. Tousled brown hair, pale round cheeks, dark eyes. Six-years-old now, but with a voice that sounds younger and somehow older at the same time.
The psychologist says it’s not our fault. Random chance. A particular set of neurons develops wrong — a spot of bad wiring on the circuit board — and my son has a black hole where his empathy should be. “Bad luck,” he says.
Death, I say.
The death of every dream I ever had. Teaching my son. Celebrating him. Leaving this world knowing I left a bright spot in my place, ready to carry on my values.
But Jeremy isn’t a bright spot. He’s a stain. That’s our_ secret. Mine and Chad’s.
On screen, the sorcerer arrives to save Mickey and the castle from the flood, magic coursing through his body. If only it were that easy.
In the distance, city lights wink out in a wave coming our way — another rolling brownout. Fantasia vanishes in front of my eyes and the car goes silent.
“The secret, Mommy…” Jeremy’s voice is a whisper, right beside my ear. “I’ll tell you now.” The words still sound sweet as candy, but I know from experience, they taste like ash.
His wet little hand touches my shoulder.
“Daddy’s not really asleep.”