It was Halloween. “Please,” Sari said into the phone. “Please release me from my promise. You have to. It's worse than I remembered. It's like my boobs are being served up on a platter.”
“That's very poetic,” Lucy said.
“You have to wear it. You promised.”
“I was drunk when I promised. That doesn't count.”
“You swore on your grandmother's grave. And you weren't drunk anymore.”
“Please, Lucy. If I wear this tonight-”
“Stop being such a coward. If not now, when?”
After Sari hung up, she looked at herself in the mirror again. The skirt seemed much shorter with the boots on, and the tight bodice shoved her breasts up so high they looked like refugees from an Edwardian brothel. The only good news was that the kids wouldn't notice-sometimes the fact that kids with autism could be oblivious to so much came in handy.
She rubbed some hair gel between her palms-she had bought it a couple of years ago when the woman who cut her hair had insisted but usually was in too much of a rush out the door to bother with it-and raked her fingers through her hair so it fell into choppy pieces, like Kathleen had told her to. She had to admit it did suit the warrior princess look. And, having committed herself that far, she felt obliged to search through the makeup she almost never wore for a dark pencil to outline her eyes and a bronzer, which she put on her eyelids and cheeks. She looked… defined. Her large blue eyes had become exotic and mysterious with the kohl around them.
She flexed her arm muscles in front of the mirror. “I am Xena,” she said out loud. Didn't Xena have a sound she made? Like a “ki-ki-ki-ki-ki” kind of thing? Sari said, “Ki-ki-ki-ki” and stopped, because she felt like an idiot.
“I’m not Xena,” she told the mirror. “Not even close.”
“Whoa, baby,” Christopher said when she came walking into the clinic's reception area. He was wearing a UCLA football uniform. “Wish you'd wear that around here more often.” He nudged Shayda, who was sitting next to him, sorting candy bars into big bowls, wearing a black pirate's hat. “Hey, Shade-look at Sari.”
“No, don't look at Sari,” Sari said. She hugged her arms over her chest. “Sari's hideously embarrassed. My friends made me wear this.”
Shayda glanced indifferently at Sari, then turned to Christopher. “’Whoa, baby?” she repeated. “That sounded really sexual harassment-y.”
“Sari knew I was joking.”
“I’m just saying you should be more careful. People get sued over stuff like that.”
Christopher rolled his eyes at Sari and tore open a package of M &M’s, which he poured straight into his mouth.
As they all prepared the rooms for the imminent onslaught of kids and families, Sari continued to tell anyone who commented on her costume that she had been forced to wear it and that she found it embarrassing.
When she said that to Ellen, Ellen waved her hand dismissively and said, “You look great. I don't see what the problem is.”
“Don't you think it's inappropriate?” Sari said. “Come on, Ellen, you're the boss here. Don't you think you should send me home to change? Because I could be there and back in ten minutes. Please tell me to go home and change.”
“Actually, I think you should dress like this more often.”
“Why?” Sari said. “You planning to turn this place into a clinic-slash-whorehouse?”
“Hmm,” Ellen said. “That's not a bad idea. We could use the extra money.” She grinned. “Come on, Sari, lighten up. The outfit's really not that bad, you know. I mean, look at Liza-” She pointed. Liza was walking down the hallway in a body-hugging black unitard. She wore a headband with black velvet ears sticking up. “Her outfit's a lot racier than yours, and you don't hear her worrying about it.”
“She's a black cat,” Sari said, shaking her head in disbelief. “I can't believe she went with the obvious choice.”
“The point is, relax. And worry about the kids, not about how you look.” Ellen walked away.
Sari made a face at her retreating back. Of course Ellen would see nothing wrong with Sari's costume-Ellen herself was dressed as a belly dancer with a fringy top that revealed a large expanse of soft white belly and an even larger expanse of mountainous d'ecolletage.
As the kids started arriving, the clinicians all took up their prearranged positions. Every office and playroom in the clinic was set up like its own little “house”-the kids would knock on the room door, the therapist would open it, and whoever was with the kid would prompt him to say, “Trick-or-Treat,” and then the therapist would compliment the kid and give him candy.
Ellen stayed in the main reception area, where she could greet all the families and invite them to come back and socialize when they were done trick-or-treating.
Sari stationed herself in one of the larger playrooms with a big bowl of Snickers bars. The party officially started at six, and, by six-fifteen, she was jumping up every few seconds to open the door and hand out the candy.
Sari was always surprised to see how many families used their clinic. A lot of “graduates” showed up that night, as well as dozens of kids who were currently patients. And many of them came with siblings, friends, and cousins. All of the kids wore costumes, but none of the parents did, except for one mother who had on a long black dress-which, Sari thought, was either meant to be a witch costume or was just a really goth choice.
There were, as always, more moms than dads present, and every one of the moms who came to Sari's door told her how fabulous she looked in her warrior costume. One mother actually screamed in delight when she saw her. “Oh, my God! I didn't even recognize you, Sari! Smile!” And, before Sari knew what was happening, the mom had snapped her photo.
Sari knew any embarrassing shots would be circulating at the clinic for years, and she silently cursed Kathleen and Lucy for all the future ridicule she would have to endure. She had hoped to be remembered as the clinic's most brilliant therapist-not as its resident goofball. Or sexpot. Hard to decide which was worse. Or more likely.
The few dads who came didn't compliment her as much. But they looked. Man, did they look. Lucy and Kathleen would be pleased, Sari thought, as one dad's mouth fell open in surprise when he saw her. He shut it again quickly, but she was careful not to bend over too much when she dropped a Snickers into his kid's plastic pumpkin-the dad was on the older side, and she didn't want to give him a heart attack.
For over an hour, the corridor was alive with kids running and laughing and screaming with excitement and sugar highs, but as time passed, the flood of kids slowed to a trickle. Around seven-thirty, Sari wondered if she should head toward the main room-she could hear voices and music and general party sounds coming from there whenever she stuck her head out the hallway.
She hadn't had a kid knock on the door for over five minutes, and she was getting bored. The whole thing ended at eight anyway.
She thought she should really go join the others.
Instead, she sat back down at the big table in the middle of the room and wondered what she was waiting for.
She knew perfectly well what she was waiting for.
And, at seven-thirty-seven, he came.
When she heard the knock, she just assumed it was another kid trick-or-treating, and opened the door with a big smile on her face to find Jason Smith standing there.
“Hi,” he said. And then took in her costume. “Hi,” he said again, but his eyes widened and he took a step back. “What are you?”
“Some kind of warrior princess-at least according to the woman at the costume store.”
“It's great. One of the all-time great Halloween costumes, I’d say.”
They had turned off half of the hallway lights so it would feel a little more like nighttime in the clinic, and Sari hoped that the dim lighting meant Jason couldn't see her blush. “My friends made me wear it.”
“I like your friends. You make a good warrior goddess, Sari.”
“Warrior princess” she said. “Haven't you forgotten something?”
“Sorry. I’m not the costume type.”
“No, not that. I meant your kid. Where's Zack?”
“Isn't he here?”
“I haven't seen him.”
“Oh, shit,” he said, and looked up and down the empty hallway like he expected Zack suddenly to appear. “Denise was bringing him. They were supposed to have been here a while ago.”
“Maybe they're in the main office,” Sari said. “Not everyone makes it down this way. The real party's back there.”
“I checked,” Jason said. “They're not there.”
“You think you should try calling them?”
“Yeah.” He pulled out a cell phone and pressed a couple of buttons, then made a face. “Battery's dead.” He shook his head in self-disgust. “I forgot to recharge it. That would explain why they haven't called. Do you have a phone I can use?”
He followed her inside the room. “Door open or closed?”
“Closed, I guess. In case some other kids want to come trick-or-treating. We like them to have to knock. So it feels more like the real thing. If we left the door open, it wouldn't feel the same, you know?” She realized she was blithering on, over-explaining because she didn't want him to think she was closing the door to be alone with him. She made herself stop talking and pointed to the desk in the corner of the room. “There's a phone over there. Dial nine to get out.”
“Thanks.” He went over and dialed and said, “Hi. It's Jason. Denise isn't there, is she? You're kidding. Put her on, will you?” He waited a little while, tapping one foot impatiently on the floor. Then, “Yeah, hi. It's me. What the hell are you doing still there? I’m at the Halloween thing at the clinic. Where you were supposed to be an hour ago.” He listened for a moment. “So why didn't you call? I’ve been-” Another moment. “Yeah, the battery's out, but you could have left a message here or something.” More listening. “So who's with Zack?” Then, “Do you really trust her to watch him?” After a response: “All I know is that you were supposed to have him for two hours. Just two little hours, which were supposed to include bringing him here to trick-or-treat. And you couldn't even manage that. And you better not be expecting me to go get him over there, because I’m not about to make that trip again. Do you know what the traffic is like on Halloween night? It took me over an hour to get back to this side of the hill.” He looked at his watch as he listened to something else. “Since six? He'll be up all night now.” He grimaced. “Fine, then. Bring him home whenever you want. It's not like he'll be asleep before midnight, anyway.” He listened for a moment. “Shit, Denise, can't you even spend half an hour in a car with him? So who is going to be driving him?” A pause. “Terrific. What is she, sixteen? Does she even have a license?” Then, “Yeah, I know, I know. You really went out of your way to give him a fun time tonight, didn't you? Way to help your son celebrate Halloween.” He slammed the phone back down into its base.
Sari had been studying the table as if the fake wood grain fascinated her, but now she looked up. “Everything okay?”
He shook his head. “She was supposed to take him out to dinner. For once. She said she wanted to, because it was Halloween and she hadn't seen him for days. And then she was supposed to bring him here and trick-or-treat with him and then I was going to meet them and take him home. She wouldn't even have had to spend the night with him.” He exhaled sharply. “I dropped him off at her office at five. They never left, haven't even had dinner. He's just been sitting there watching TV with some intern – or at least he was until he fell asleep an hour ago. She made him miss Halloween.”
“Maybe it's not too late,” Sari said. “I mean, it is for trick-or-treating here, but maybe they could still go to some houses-”
“There's no way-now she's claiming that there's an emergency at work she has to deal with. Which just means some actor's throwing a hissy fit or something. I’d run over and grab him, but he's all the way out in Burbank, and by the time I got there, it would be too late to take him anywhere. Anyway, I wanted him to do this.” He waved his hand at the room. “It would have been perfect. He got scared last year when I tried to take him out for some real trick-or-treating. I wanted him to do something for Halloween that would make him see it can be fun. And this would have been-” He stopped. “Perfect,” he said again. “That's all. And she ruined it.”
“I’m sorry,” Sari said. And realized she really was. For Zack, mostly, and a little bit for Jason. “Is there anything I can do to help? I could send some candy home.”
He looked at her and his face suddenly relaxed into a smile. “I don't suppose you'd be willing to kick Denise's ass? I mean, you look like you could, with those boots and all.”
Sari laughed. “I doubt it-you said she was a real athlete in college and I’m kind of out of shape.”
“She's got some height on you, too. In the interest of full disclosure. But you've got that whole tough leather thing going on. And you don't look like you're out of shape.” He leaned back, resting his hip against the desk. “I’m so bummed about this. Poor Zack. I should never have let her have him on a holiday.”
“Do you guys have a custody arrangement worked out?”
“Not really. But it's never been a problem. We both assume I’ll have him, except for those one-in-a-billion moments when she actually feels some kind of maternal pull. Like tonight. And we both saw how well that worked out.”
“So what happened last Halloween?” Sari said. “You said Zack got scared. Did you go around your neighborhood?”
He sat down with a thump on a chair. “We drove over to my parents’ house, actually. I thought I was being so smart-I figured he'd feel safe because he goes over there all the time.”
“So what happened?” Sari sat down, too, across the table from him.
“Well, he started off already a little freaked out just because it was dark out and he didn't like the jack-o’-lanterns on the front porch. But it would have probably been fine, except my father decided it would be hilarious to open the door wearing a gorilla mask.” He grimaced. “It was unbelievable. I mean, I had called ahead just to warn them not to pull any surprises on Zack and then he goes and does that.”
“Why?” Sari said. “If you specifically asked him not to?”
“I don't know. Maybe he thought it was funny. Or maybe just because I told him not to. He's a sick old bastard.”
Sari tried to remember Jason Smith's father from high school events. She had a vague sense of someone tall with thick gray hair but she wasn't sure she was thinking of the right guy. “That's kind of harsh, isn't, it?”
He shrugged and tipped his chair back. “We've never gotten along very well. I’m this huge disappointment to him. Which he manages to remind me of every chance he gets.” He let the chair fall back into place with a thud. “Actually, now that I think about it, I bet he scared Zack just so he could make him scream and then use that as an example of what a bad parent I am and how I can't control my own kid.”
“He knows Zack has autism, right?”
“I’ve told him, but he doesn't believe it.”
He shook his head. “He thinks all of Zack's problems come from having a mother who's the wage-earner. It screws a kid up if his dad doesn't wear the pants in the family, you know.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “If that's really the way he sees things-”
He waved his hand dismissively. “I’m used to it. I’ve been a disappointment to the guy since I was born. Why should that change now that I really am the biggest loser in town?”
“What makes you such a big loser?”
“Don't make me give you a list, Sari, please,” he said. “It's bad enough having to live with myself, but if you make me tell the one person I-” He stopped. “Not that you won't figure it out soon enough.”
She didn't say anything. She heard a door slam down the hall and thought, I should get up and say good night and leave this room. But she didn't move.
“I’m sorry,” he said when a moment had gone by and she still hadn't spoken. “I probably sound like a whiny brat. My father doesn't love me and all that. I’m sorry.”
“No, it's okay,” she said. “I wasn't thinking that. It's just… I’m a little confused. You were so different in high school. You were kind of on top of the world back then.”
He gave a short unpleasant laugh. “I so wasn't. Maybe it looked that way from a distance, but all I remember about those days was how my parents were always screaming at me because I had done badly on a test or the coach hadn't played me or I had forgotten to take out the garbage or something like that. I was always being grounded and threatened with military school.”
“But when you were actually at school-” Sari said. “I mean, you owned the place.”
There was the sound of a child either laughing or crying coming from another part of the clinic. Sari looked toward the door and said, “I should probably go help Ellen.”
“Don't go yet,” Jason said. “Please.”
“There's always a big mess to clean up.”
“I bet. How'd you end up working here anyway?”
“I went to college here and then graduate school and it just made sense-”
“But I mean, why an autism clinic? Do you have a relative with autism or something?”
He really didn't know? “My brother,” she said.
She just shook her head.
“I didn't know you had an autistic brother.”
“He went to school with us,” she said. “He was there the whole time you were.”
“Really?” Jason said. “You'd think I’d have remembered that. What class was he in?”
“He wasn't exactly in a class. There was this special needs program-”
“Oh, wait, I remember,” he said. “The Resource Room, right?”
“Yeah. Popularly referred to as the Retard Room.”
“Oh, man,” he said. “I remember that, too, now. God, kids can be mean. It scares me for Zack.”
“He'll be okay.”
“I’m sorry,” he said suddenly, and Sari's stomach clenched. But then he said, “It must have been rough for your family to have to deal with the whole autism thing back then. Everything I read says it was like the Middle Ages, just a generation ago. No behavioral interventions, no real understanding, mothers being blamed… It couldn't have been easy.”She didn't say anything. He was one of the reasons it hadn't been easy.
“What's he like now?” Jason asked. “Your brother? Does he live at home? Does he talk? I’m so insanely curious about adults with autism. I’m desperate to know what Zack will be like when he's all grown up.”
“Zack won't be anything like my brother. He's getting the right kind of help. It makes all the difference.” Zack wouldn't be like Charlie because of her, she thought. It was so unfair it took her breath away.
“Is he in an institution?”
“No. He lives with my parents.”
“Does he talk?”
“Yeah. Mostly demands for food and dialogue from movies.”
Jason reached across the table and she was looking around to see what it was he was reaching for, when he put his hand on hers. “Sounds like it's been tough,” he said.
She pulled her hand away with a movement so fast it was almost violent
“I’m sorry,” he said, quickly withdrawing his hand. “Please don't take offense.”
“I’m not offended.” She pushed her chair back. “But I should go help clean up.”
“Don't go.” He scrambled to his feet as she stood up. “Please, Sari. Please don't go. That was stupid of me. I just felt bad for you. That's all. I’m not some guy making moves. You have to know that.”
“I don't know what you are,” she said and meant it.
“I wish you were willing to find out. We could go have a drink-”
“I can't. I have to go help the others now.” She felt all roughed up on the inside-like someone had done to her guts what she had done to her hair earlier that evening.
“Are you mad at me?”
“Of course not,” she said dully. “Everything's fine. I just really have to go.” She went to the door. He was closer and got there before she did. He put his hand on the doorknob, and she had to stop and wait.
“Sari,” he said.
“Thanks for talking to me.”
She didn't say anything.
He drew nearer. “I’m a pretty lucky guy. Getting some one-on-one time with the cutest warrior goddess in town.”
“Princess,” she said. “I’m supposed to be a princess, not a goddess.”
“I beg to differ,” Jason Smith said, and, leaning forward, kissed her lightly on the lips before she had a chance to stop him. And then he opened the door and gestured her through.