Designer Children Chapter 1

Note: While the genre is horror, this is not a slasher and does not contain gratuitous violence or gore. It is more psychological, mixed with mystery and suspense I hope those of you who shy away from horror will still give it a chance.

Here we go again. I caught the writing bug again. This one is not as long as the Sidereus Prophecy, but it is in the same vein of a very detailed-oriented slow-burn mental transformation. Instead of posting the story in massive chunks, I'll be posting it chapter by chapter. Depending on interest, I will post at the least a new chapter each week. As always, I would like to thank my editor, Robyn Hoode for taking the time to review and make suggestions with regard to my work. Thanks also to my test readers who offered their own suggestions. I know my name doesn't make sense anymore, but it would be more confusing to change it at this point...anyway, enjoy Designer Children!

If you would like to contact me, you can do so at [email protected]

Designer Children by OneShot20XX

"The... folly which sees in the child nothing more than the vivisector sees in a guinea pig: something to experiment on with a view to rearranging the world."

George Bernard Shaw, 1913

Chapter 1
The city of dreams and the city of misery. This is what Los Angeles has become to me. Thousands come here, wide-eyed, brimming with talent, eager to make their mark. The siren song that brought us here, however, provided no support, no understanding of the business, no survival instincts, and most importantly- it didn’t warn us. It failed to mention that we weren’t special, unique or outstanding.

My generation were given trophies just for competing. After all, everyone wins. This city, a living breathing entity, erupted in smog-filled laughter as it trampled on our misplaced idealism. I came to Los Angeles after a tragedy, hoping to start fresh. It also wouldn’t have hurt if I’d struck it rich either. After two and a half years of toil with little success, I was convinced I would become a statistic. I would join the ranks of actors who came to Los Angeles and failed.

I called my agent, telling him that I was thinking about quitting. The pretentious Ivy League acting school graduates could boomerang back to mommy and daddy, but I had nowhere else to go. I had seen it before. Once the money dried up or they got tired of being turned down for parts, they left LA, probably to become a lifelong students on their parents’ dime.

I could try and go back to school, but organized education and I had never really meshed. Being an army brat meant moving from school to school, so I found it hard to stay at the top of the class. I wasn’t stupid, but I was the type of kid where teachers would complain, albeit helplessly, “He’s really very smart, but he doesn’t apply himself.” School was a mind-numbing experience- except when I was acting. I had fallen in love with acting the moment I stepped on stage during the third grade Christmas pageant and announced, to glorious applause, that Santa and his reindeer had arrived. It was a bit part, but my teacher hated me. I am convinced that all my teachers hated me, except for one- my acting teacher.

When I first arrived in Los Angeles, I had enough money to take acting lessons twice a week. I devoured the teaching, absorbing technique and method. Every nuance of the craft was fascinating to me. This was why I was so painfully frustrated. Acting was a childhood dream, and it was slowly being crushed by the weight of this city. My agent listened to my sob story, one I am sure he had heard a million times before and sent me on my way.

Miraculously, a few days later, as I was pathetically rolling up my favourite movie posters, desperately trying to conceal them, knowing I would never reach those heights, I received a phone call. It was clear that my agent had made a few calls on my behalf, but I was even more surprised by the potential part.

***
“Have you ever worked with children, Mr. Sullivan?” The prim woman across the table from me looked at me expectantly. She wove a careful smile around full red lips. I knew her type, driven, professional and immaculately dressed. Not a hair out of place, the blonde woman’s navy blue suit, hugged slight curves and long, shapely legs. She was the prototypical Hollywood suit. I had seen so many of her type that I was beginning to think they were taken from an assembly line. I understood, however, that the expectations on women were greater in Hollywood, remaining thin, manicured and plucked at all times. Women were judged more harshly than men, but if I was a thin, beautiful woman, I likely would have seen more success.

I knew that I had a natural charisma, and a certain fearlessness to my manner, especially around women. Actors had to possess magnetism, an ability to captivate an audience not only through speech, but also through gestures. I slowly crossed my legs, mirroring her own stance, knowing it would put her at ease. By adopting the feminine posture, she would see me as an equal, and someone who was non-threatening, but most importantly, someone who could be trusted.

I smiled and lied through my teeth, “Yes. Absolutely. When I was in high school, I was part of the drama club and we helped an elementary school class put on a play. When I got to Los Angeles, I also helped out a community theatre group and gave free acting lessons to kids.”

The young woman’s smile grew, showing perfectly straight teeth. Everyone I met in Los Angeles had nearly perfect teeth, which usually amounted to perfect smiles. My smile was damaged by an errant elbow during a game of non-sanctioned tackle football in high school. Maybe it was actually a fight. I was concussed, so my memory of the event was foggy at best. The tooth wasn’t gone, but it was dead and it was darkened. My parents sent me to the dentist, but they didn’t have the kind of money required for a cosmetic procedure. I hated to think it was one of the reasons I wasn’t getting parts, but with image so important in the movie business, I wouldn’t be surprised.

I added quickly, just as she was beginning to open her mouth to respond, “Oh. And I babysat my cousins a lot. I guess the other examples were probably better though.” I grinned sheepishly. My addition caused her smile to widen. Clearly, she was warming to me. I knew that by interrupting her train of thought, I could divert her from asking me about where I had given the free acting lessons. This was Los Angeles. With the Holy Grail of Hollywood just 12 miles down the road, I could be forgiven for fibbing. Once I got the part, it wouldn’t matter.

She answered, “Oh! I used to babysit my little cousins too. They were such brats! The kids you’ll be working with on the show will be consummate professionals though. I doubt you’ll have any problems.” I hadn’t actually babysat my little cousins, unless tormenting meant the same thing. I never had a younger brother, so my younger cousins were perfect fodder for my boyish antics, which usually involved magical rides in the washing machine and dryer, or a test to see how much hair duct tape would pull out. It was boys will be boys. Harmless and hilarious.

My smile matched her own, “So, what sort of role would I be playing on the show?”
The young woman replied, “Well it would actually be a very big part. One of the lead characters actually. If you are chosen, Mr. Sullivan, we would offer you a twenty four episode deal with a possibility of a lucrative extension. If everything goes well.”
I raised a brow, any words slipping off my tongue. I had never been to an interview before where I felt like I had a legitimate chance at stardom, and while I didn’t relish the idea sharing the stage with prepubescent cast mates, I could always branch out afterward. She responded to my surprise with a gracious smile, “The show will also be broadcast nationally as well as on local affiliates.”

I had to fight to keep my jaw from dropping. It was clear that the show, which hadn’t even aired one episode yet, had serious backing. I was nervous before, trying to hide it with a cocksure attitude, but I knew that this could be my last chance to enter the business seriously. I absolutely knew that I could not screw up this audition. It wasn’t ideal, but compared to the bit parts I managed to get, some not even speaking roles, this opportunity was a lifeline to my floundering career. Sweat dribbled down my brow, slid down the bridge and dangled on my nose until a rapid arm swipe removed it. The young woman leaned forward and placed her hands on the table in a gesture clearly meant to calm my nerves. I was starting to regret lying about the work I had done with children. Beyond the woman’s courteous manner, I could also see a hint of amusement in her eyes- a tiny sparkle, but enough to fill me with a measure of anger.

I cleared my throat, feeling the low rumbling rake over my vocal chords. It was more abrupt and far louder than intended. I did have a volcanic temper, but even if the woman found humour in my discomfort, I knew I couldn’t show any actual anger.

“Uh. Maybe you could tell me more about the show.”

I breathed a sigh of relief, thankful that I was able to stifle any potential outburst. I once yelled at a casting agent for having the gall to say that I should have attended a ‘real’ acting school if I wanted the part. I had nailed the audition, but the asshole decided I wasn’t right for the part. The other agent disagreed, but it was too late by that point. I had burned another bridge.

The woman replied in the same manner as the interview began- polite and amiable. The amusement was gone from her eyes, and she was once again at the height of professionalism.

“Of course. As I’m sure you are aware, there has been a shift in children’s programming over the past ten years, moving away from simple yet important lessons, and focusing more on entertainment. Most children’s shows and especially movies aim to entertain adults as well as children. Hermie the Hippo is a child-centric program. A lot of research has gone into this, and it’s clear that children who are brought up on programming with entertainment as the first goal are not as developed, both in their social skills and those needed for the first years of school.

“Hermie is a role model for children. He will teach lessons, putting an emphasis on sharing, fair play and manners- but do so in a fun way. We know that entertainment is a critical part of children’s programming, but it must have an educational purpose too. We are hoping to find the balance.”

I wasn’t actually aware of the shift, but I listened to the woman intently, trying desperately to look interested. To be honest, the prospect of a heavy moralistic bent didn’t enthuse me. I would have to speak with conviction and act like I actually lived by my words. At the very least, it would definitely allow me to hone my craft. I felt my class clown persona surface. With a father in the military and the frequent moves, it was the perfect outlet for a child who had to make fast friends, although I doubt my teachers understood or appreciated its importance.

“So there won’t be any wisecracking parakeets or a possum who thinks he’s a pirate? Or maybe a pirate who thinks he’s a possum?”

It was the young woman’s turn to clear her throat, but she did so with far more decorum, with a delicate “ahem” and a firm yet gentle gaze in my direction. “No, Mr. Sullivan. Nothing like that.”

I avoided the woman’s gaze, looking downward. However, when my eyes returned to hers, her expression was once again welcoming. I tried my best to look apologetic before asking, “So is there a script I can read? I want to get my head around this and get a feel for my character. Am I going to be doing an audition?”

It was bizarre that I hadn’t been given a script before the interview. I assumed the audition would follow, but my nerves were starting to resurface, forming a tight ball in my stomach as I fretted over my lack of preparation. Still, what was I going to do, act out a scene from Barney the Dinosaur or Sesame Street?

The woman shook her head gently, “Casting for children’s programming works differently than what you might be used to, Mr. Sullivan. There will be a thorough background check before you are allowed near the children. We will also check your references to ensure you are of good, strong moral character. Our actors may be playing a role, but we are a family, and we want the children you will be working with to trust you like they trust their closest friends and parents. I’m sure that the community theatre director will give you a wonderful reference for the work you did with those children in your neighbourhood.”

I tried not to look devastated, or that I had been caught in a lie. Anxiety ripped any former confidence to shreds, as I uncrossed my legs and allowed my eyes to fall to the floor. A second later, I met the smiling face of the young woman with confidence, knowing that she held my fate in her hands. I hoped that she had not seen my silent yet clear failure to maintain my composure. I looked at the reference and my lies as a stumbling block, but nothing insurmountable. I replied with small smile, “Yeah, I’m sure he will.”

***
I left the lot, feeling a clear sense of purpose. I knew what I had to do to salvage my career. Still, one question swirled in my mind. Why had the casting agent not mentioned any of my previous work? While it was true that my agent would have sent over my electronic media kit, a collection of my best work in digital form (most of it in non-speaking roles) and head shots, none of it was mentioned in the interview. I decided to trust the words of the casting agent, in that, auditions for children’s programs worked differently. Still, I thought it was bizarre that they would go to all the trouble of checking references and conducting a background check before even having me audition. Maybe it was the fact that I was thankful the milk in my fridge was still drinkable three days past the expiry, but the process seemed wasteful.

I made my way to the bus stop, noticing a dazzling young woman sitting on the bench inside the bus shelter. Dazzling was, in fact, an understatement. Her face caught me before the rest of her impressive form. It was perfectly symmetrical, oval shaped, and framed with light greyish-blue eyes. Her bottom lip puckered outward, setting a gentle pout. The only slight flaw I could see was a nose with nostrils just a hair too wide.
In a world where nearly every girl I met at auditions was thin and shapely, it wasn’t surprising that I would become a so-called ‘face man’. The body was a given. There was a standard in Hollywood, and if you did not meet it, you would never enter the golden gates. Certainly there were those like Meg Something. Honestly, I couldn’t remember her name, but I knew she was fat, probably clinically obese, but she was a television star. I remember a show with a plus-sized woman as the star. My mom used to watch it. It was called “Less Than Perfect”. That was all most needed to know about the thin culture in Hollywood.

I accepted it because this was my chosen profession, and to be honest, I liked the outdoorsy fitness types. The girls who would go jogging in Lycra pants, showing off perfectly round asses, tight trim waists, and hopefully, if I was lucky, they were seriously stacked up top. One girl in my building jogged every morning, and I knew I wasn’t the only one in the neighbourhood enjoying her movement. A lot of time, however, these types ended up being but-her-faces. They had fantastic bodies, but they would end up in the background of fitness videos. Was this attitude sexist? Bearing in mind where I lived, and the absolute buffet of thin and trim women, this was my taste. It’s not like I ignored the trim girls with the so-so faces- I just didn’t want to date them.

I entered the shelter and smiled at her, and considering I was a good looking guy, I wasn’t surprised when she smiled back. I knew that I was photogenic, although I was more rugged looking than a fresh-faced all-American boy next door. Still, I was tall and athletic, blessed with the hardy genes of my military father and grandfather and their same shock of reddish-brown hair. Other than my darkened tooth, however, I had one other noticeable defect. Below my deep green eyes, nicely shaped aquiline nose and smiling lips was a weak chin. My chin was recessed, proportionately smaller than my nose. It stood out against my other features like a severe fault line beneath a luxury condo. A casting director had actually told me to fix it if I could afford the operation. Since I wasn’t a trust fund kid, and I could barely make my rent, I knew I would have to accept what to some was a glaring fault.

With the return smile from the young woman, I moved in quickly, edging toward her and then cocking my head to the side with a boyish smirk lining my face. “You know you look a lot like Megan Fox.” Before I had a chance to add “but better”, she regarded me with a look of disgust. Her pretty face creased as her jaw twisted to the side, those full plump lips formed an instant scowl.

She replied, “So I look like a talentless slut who slept her way to the top and ruined her natural beauty with plastic surgery?” As I stared at her dumbstruck, she added, “Thanks.” Her voice was saccharine, despite her annoyance.

I threw up my arms in surrender, “Whoa. Hey! OK, so she’s not your favourite. It was just a compliment. No need to bite my head off. I mean I said you looked like her, not that you acted like her. But come on, she’s a legit talent.”

The young woman laughed bitterly, “Sure. So screaming for half a movie and running in heels constitutes acting talent? And bending over cars?” She was, of course, referencing the iconic moment in the first Transformers movie in which Megan’s character stands over the engine of a car clad only in a white crop top.

I sighed deeply, deeply regretting ever coming onto her. I knew her type, and as hot as her body was, and despite the near perfection of her face, it was never worth it. As I turned to leave the shelter, she said, “So I’m right.” I felt my jaw clench as I bit hard onto her line.

I turned back to her and regarded her seriously, “Look. We don’t know what happened with her and directors or whatever, but come on. She sold that movie with that scene alone. She’s never going to do Shakespeare but she sells tickets. That’s all that matters. Uh…can I just slink away now? Let’s just forget we ever spoke.”

She snorted in derision, which like her general personality, was very unattractive. “See this is the problem with Hollywood. Not only is there no creativity but it’s rife with sexism. She sure as hell wouldn’t be selling those tickets if she was thirty pounds heavier. There’s ageism too in Hollywood. As soon as a woman turns forty, she can’t be cast as the attractive lead. No, she has to be Adam Sandler’s wife, playing host to a bunch of man children and being cast as the bitch who ruins their man children fun. You know I’m really glad I got the call back for Hermie because it’s probably the only real wholesome show left on TV.”

I cleared my throat, “Says the girl who looks like her. Look you chose this business, you live with it. That’s how I live. You don’t like something you bail. The industry has worked like this forever. As for Hermie, all that bullshit about family and sharing or whatever. It’s still about making money. And kids don’t act like they did on Barney. I know I didn’t.” I probably should have held off on responding to her rant, especially since she had received a callback (something I had yet to achieve), but her manner just reeked of over confidence. She seemed like a know-it-all who despite her incredible looks was not worth the trouble. She had probably paid the mortgage on her therapist’s house, and half the cost of his/her sailboat.

The young woman’s lip curled into a snarl. She looked like she wanted to rip out my intestines and strangle me with them. A little smirk appeared on my face- I had scored a point. Thankfully, before she could reply or disembowel me, the bus arrived. She lifted herself off the bench to see the number but proceeded to sit back down.
As I was leaving the bus shelter, I turned back to her, “Nice chat. Not your bus?”
She narrowed her eyes and addressed me with a scowl that marred her pretty features. She hissed, “No.”

I laughed, feeling the weight of a thousand moons fall from my shoulders, “Thank God, Allah, Buddah and whoever else is listening.” She made a noise akin to cornered feline, and I added with a smile, “Things will never change. Just deal with it.”

With that, I boarded the bus, satisfied that I had seemingly won, although slightly concerned that I had burned a bridge I hadn't even crossed.

Still, there was no way that woman was going to get the part. She would probably argue with the director that the scenery was sexist and that the flowers were mating with the trees.

***
“Ryan, let me understand this. You told them that you worked with kids? Like actual kids? You hate kids. You switch tables every time a family comes in here.”
I frowned, looking at my colleague, both at the Burger Palace and in the acting world, with disappointment, “Greg, I don’t hate kids. We just don’t get along. They are annoying to no end and I have no patience.”

Greg ran his hands through his non-existent hair. The man was bald, not balding- and he hadn’t accepted it yet. He shaved it thinking he would be a cross between Vin Diesel and Jason Statham, but he was neither, looking more like an egg with an unfortunate face painted on it. “Yes, you do. How are you going to get along with the kids on that show? Even if you get the audition, it will be obvious that you don’t like them.”

I smiled, deftly snatching a platter of massive burgers and slipping it under my arm. The Burger Palace was a hamburger joint, but it prided itself on the absolute strangest, yet delicious combinations. To most, jalapeno peppers, sour cream, teriyaki sauce and red licorice bits would be the last thing mashed between hamburger buns, but it was actually a favourite. “I’ll just act like I’m enjoying myself. It will. Be. My greatest role!” I said the last words in a hammy British accent with some William Shatner thrown in for good measure. Actors were chameleons, able to adapt to any scene or role. If, Will Smith gained weight and learned how to box for the Muhammad Ali biopic, I could learn to get along with a couple of tweens.

I returned a minute later for my next order, but Greg blocked my path before I could leave, “Listen man, I don’t like lying. I’m not good at it. Can’t you get someone else to be your reference for the community centre?”

I shook my head, “Think of it like a part. You are Mr. Lionel Ferguson, community theatre director. You have one job, and that is to make me sound like I am 100% in love with the notion of working with kids. Make something up. Use your talents, man. I saw you in that indie flick Sirens, and you were great.”

Greg shrugged and threw a few hamburger patties on the grill, “But I really studied for that role. And I had a script to work off. I don’t do great with adlibbing.”

I smiled and put my hand on Greg’s shoulder. He turned the patties, and I said, “So write a little script then. You always said you wanted to get into writing.” I leaned in close and added, “Look, I’ll sweeten the deal.”

Greg furrowed his brow, “Hmm. How? You're broke.”

I nodded, “Alright, listen- if you do this for me, I will take your shift next Friday night, and every Friday night for a month.”

Greg perked up, a tiny smile lining his face, “Really? So-“

I grinned, “Yup, you can spend those nights with Eve.”

Greg’s girlfriend, Eve, was a nurse, but their schedules never seemed to match up to give them any solid quality time. The steady business at the restaurant and high turnover meant that we were nearly always busy. The hospital Eve worked at had similar turnover issues, not amongst the nursing staff, but fewer cleaning staff and administrative personnel meant a greater burden on the nurses. We got days off and our boss was good with letting us go to auditions, but Eve always seemed to be working when we got a day off. Friday was the only day with absolute certainty that Eve and Greg could ‘enjoy each other’s company’.

Greg nodded his head rapidly, “You’ve got a deal, but you think Vince will go for it? What if there is a whole boatload of pint-sized tourists come to sample what LA has to offer, hmm? You going to serve them with a smile?”

I nodded, “You better believe it. I can turn it on, just like when I’m in front of the cameras and I have to sing some stupid kids song or whatever. And Vince knows who really runs this place.”

Greg looked at me sagely, “Aren’t you worried about being typecast though? What if you have some success with this show, but all you can get are kids’ shows? You’ll never be in that remake of Goodfellas or any movie with a gun for that matter. Ryan. I told you that you can come live with me and then you can be choosier with your parts. I don’t get why you have to be so stubborn with this. You are crazy not having a roommate in this city and working a minimum wage job.”

He added with a sardonic smirk, “You into some weird shit or something? I won’t judge you man, like if you have a bunch of store mannequins in your bedroom. To each his own. You don’t name them do you?”

I shook my head, returning the smirk, “If you think it, you’ve jacked it, man.” I grew more serious, “I just like to be able to leave when I want you know? Like if I have to go I don’t want a bunch of baggage. Plus, you’d probably cry if I left.”

Greg shook his head, “No, I’d be like good riddance and ask Eve to live with me.”
I laughed and slipped the platter with the now prepared hamburgers under my arm, “You coward, it took you three months to ask her out. At this rate, maybe you two can enjoy the same retirement home together.”

Greg replied with a measure of anger, “I’m going to ask her, when I’m ready. I just need to plan out what I’m going to say.”

I shook my head, “Just roll with it, man. If she’s into you, she’ll agree. And don’t go saying that it makes financial sense or something like that. Say that you want to be with her, that you love her.”

Greg looks at me incredulously, “Sure, the guy who has never had a real relationship in his life is giving me dating tips. You know Eve’s friend Jessica? She really liked you. Liked as in past tense. You never called her back after our double date.”

I shrugged, “I just wasn’t into her.” I took the burgers, which were quickly cooling and brought them to the table, apologizing for the wait. We were selling gourmet burgers, but the Burger Palace was still a fast food joint, emphasis on fast.

It was nearing the end of my shift, and I was hoping to get out without any additional words about my relationship status, but as I slipped another platter underneath my arm, Greg said flatly, “Ryan, I’m your friend, but you’ve got impossible standards. I hate to say it, but you are shallow. What was wrong with Jessica? Eve figured you two would click perfectly. She’s an aspiring fitness model for god sakes. And she is really smart and funny.”

I sighed heavily. Greg was a good friend, but his interference in my love life was starting to grate on my nerves. His voice was one fingernail on the chalk board and then another, until it was screeching in my ear like some classroom torture session. “You want to know why? Because she just started talking about this shit I didn’t understand. Yeah she’s a fitness model, but most of them don’t have much going on up there. She was talking about physiology and structures and all this shit that went over my head. And she’s just looking at me like she expects this really smart response. And I make a joke about fitness models and cars, and she looked at me all pissed off.”

Greg frowned, “Your joke was sexist. And demeaning.”

I shook my head, “It was hilarious. A contortionist and a fitness model having sex in a car, and they can’t agree on the position. I’ve told it to other girls and they laughed.”
Greg sighed, “It’s just, well Eve didn’t like it either. I don’t like her saying stuff about you, but she made a comment. It’s cool to tell jokes like that back here, but maybe lay off in front of Eve.”

I glared at Greg, angrily lifting the last platter of the night and said, “OK. I’m shallow. Check. I’m sexist. Check. Anything else?” The second Greg opened his mouth, I said, “Fuck you, Greg.” He went back to work, and I punched out a few minutes later with neither of us saying a word.

***
True to his word, and despite the fact that I had told him off, Greg played the role of Lionel Ferguson perfectly. I knew this because Ms. Daniels, the casting director for Hermie the Hippo called me a few days after my argument with Greg, saying that I had landed the audition after an absolutely glowing reference. I had a few second thoughts about the audition and the show in general. Would I be typecast if I won the part, negating any chance that I would be considered for movies or TV with anything more than cartoon violence?

Growing up, I loved watching gangster movies. Even from a young age, I remember sitting down with my dad watching the Godfather trilogy, Scarface and Goodfellas. Since my mother didn’t approve, we had to do it when she wasn’t there. So when she went to play cards or watch TV with one of the other army wives, I’d sit next to my dad in complete silence and stare in awe at what unfolded. It didn’t matter how many times we saw the movies, it was always special. We didn’t even speak about them after, but it was what we did together. My dad also taught me how to shoot, how to fix cars and, how to fight.

He told me when I was six years old, “Ryan, I’m going to teach you how to fight. You can be such a little shit sometimes, it’s probably a good idea you know how to protect yourself.”

I felt a weight crushing down on my skull, a throbbing in my temples and tightening in my chest. While for some it might have indicated a heart attack, I knew better. The memory of my dad’s passing struck hard, and I took a step back. It wasn’t something I liked to discuss, especially since I was aware how much it affected me.
My dad didn’t mince words. He meant everything he said, and he was right- I was a little shit sometimes.

I was preparing for my audition for the part of Mr. Grant, the music store owner. I looked around the room, the only room of my bachelor apartment, searching for the only object I would need to win the part. The place was a pigsty, with empty containers of takeout from Burger Palace lining my coffee table. Dirty dishes filled the sink and half the kitchen counter, while some plates had actually toppled over onto each other. I wasn’t disgusting. I always rinsed all the dishes, removing any remaining food from them, but I hated doing dishes, so once a week was all I could take. Now, if I was bringing a girl home, I would clean the washroom, do the mountain of dishes and if I had time, maybe I would sweep the floor.

The bathroom was key. I knew that any girl was likely to use the bathroom at some point, whether to freshen up or check their hair, or do whatever else girls did in there beyond emptying their bowels and bladders. So, if the bathroom was clean, I was golden.

My couch, which was also my bed, was the likely culprit hiding the object I sought. I reached inside the cushions, digging deep into the confines of the couch. I pulled out all manner of discarded junk food, an empty condom wrapper, an unpaid parking ticket (from when I still had a car), until finally, I pricked my finger on something metallic and my eyes lit up. I pulled out a small golden pin from the couch. It was originally an embroidered green and gold bar worn horizontally on the arm of my father’s uniform, and it represented his first successful combat tour in Afghanistan. During this overseas tour was around the time I raised the most hell, staying out way past curfew, drinking, smoking pot and generally fitting every teenage stereotype you could think of- save getting the girl next door pregnant, although that almost happened. I drove my mother crazy with both rage and worry. I hated her with a passion at times just because she wasn’t my dad.

After he was killed, my mom gave me his army jacket. A stipulation in his will stated that I was supposed to receive it upon his death. I may have been a hell raiser, but I wasn’t disrespectful toward my father’s military tradition. I never wore his jacket (which would have been inappropriate), but I removed the green and gold bar and made a pin out of it. It was from his first and last successful overseas tour in Afghanistan, and while it wasn’t mine, I wore it proudly as his son. It was a reminder of what he had given to his country. As many lines as I would try with girls, I never, ever told anyone that it was mine. Even if Megan Fox had told me she was into military guys who had been in combat zones, I wouldn’t have used it. It was a piece of my dad, his sacrifice and my memory.

I never went anywhere without it, even auditions to lame kids’ shows.

***
“Mr. Sullivan, you will be auditioning with Ms. Perkins. Please go right in and have a seat next to her.”

Ms. Daniels, the casting director, followed in behind me, and I was thankful for this because my face upon entry was hidden from view. The young woman from the bus stop glared at me, her face immediately darkening. My expression was one of disappointment mixed with disgust, my teeth jutting forward, biting down gently on my lip, while my eyes tried their best to vacate my skull. Being professionals, however, we composed ourselves and by the time Ms. Daniels could see our faces, we were pleasantly shaking hands.

I said, while shaking Ms. Perkins’ hand, “Good luck with the audition, Ms. Perkins.”
I didn’t even shake it firmly to cause slight discomfort (which is what I wanted to do). No, I was the perfect gentleman, cordial and polite.

A little smile appeared on her face, one I had seen before. It was the type of smile girls gave me when they knew I wanted something more than they did- usually sex. It usually meant an abundance of foreplay. It was leverage in a relationship, and from the few times I had seen it, it was never good. For the record, I had no issue with foreplay, but I enjoyed the act of sex far more. If I thought a girl was really worth it, then I would put the time in ... otherwise. Was it selfish? It probably was, but I was ready from the moment I was tenting my shorts.

If I was in bed with a perfectly stacked blonde with an incredible ass, and a lean frame, did I want to play with her? No. Most guys know that foreplay is a tease. It’s like the pre-game warmup to the biggest game of the year, the Superbowl. Only the most die-hard fans of either team want to sit down and watch a bunch of guys stretch their quad muscles or groins, but because they are invested in the game and it is part of the experience, they put up with it. That is foreplay to most men. We would fast forward it if we could, and sometimes I tried.

Ms. Perkins said, “Oh, actually I’m just doing a reading with you. I’ve already been cast. I’m Ashley by the way.”

I smiled, but it was pained with the knowledge that this young woman held the fate of my career in her hands. If she purposely bungled her lines, it could seriously throw off my timing. I said, “Nice to meet you, I’m Ryan.”

Ms. Daniels looked at us oddly for a moment, but quickly regained her composure, “OK. So Ryan, you will be playing the role of Mr. Grant. I believe we sent a script. Is that correct?” I nodded quickly. She continued, “And Ms. Perkins is playing the role of Madison.”

Ashley asked, “But isn’t that one of the kid roles on the show? I’d prepared a different scene.”

I liked Ashley less and less the more time I spent with her. She had a whiney lilt to her voice. It screamed “Daddy’s girl not getting her way”. Not only that, but she was complaining when she already had the part. I would have read any part they wanted and done it with a smile.

Ms. Daniels said calmly, “Unfortunately the young actress playing Madison was unavailable today, but since your character is in the scene, we thought it would work if you read with Mr. Sullivan.”

Ms. Daniels was an attractive thirty-something woman. She was a little heavier than I liked, but as she turned around to fetch a script for Ashley, I enjoyed a peek at her round bottom. I was surprised by how well she filled out the skirt, because while her top showed a less than firm stomach, her heart-shaped ass was impressive. It lacked the sag in most women her age, and the red skirt she chose really highlighted not only the shape, but the firmness.

Baby Got Back started playing in my head, however, before I could veer away (I had only peeked), Ashley caught me looking. She glowered and crossed her arms underneath her chest. Ms. Daniels returned with the script a second later, but Ashley still looked like she wanted to scratch my eyes out. I was starting to have second thoughts about working on a set with someone who was clearly a man-hater. I didn’t see my actions as wrong. It was just a little peek.

Ms. Daniels handed the script to Ashley. She said softly, completely ignoring the growing tension in the room. “So in this scene, Mr. Grant has caught Madison stealing a plastic flute from his store. Mr. Sullivan, your line is first.” She handed Ashley a plastic flute.

I looked at Ashley, who still appeared furious with me, and stared straight into her eyes. I tilted my head and a gentle smile formed. The timbre of my voice was deliberate. I was channelling Mr. Rogers without the accent. It was a soft tone, still masculine and firm, but understanding and patient, part teacher and part librarian. I acted as if I was speaking to a child who needed to learn an important lesson. “Madison, I know that you think that because the flute doesn’t cost very much that it was OK to take it, but it’s never OK to take something that doesn’t belong to you.”

Ashley looked at me with a measure of surprise. Her gorgeous greyish-blue eyes widened momentarily, and then she herself got into character, slumping her shoulders and refusing to meet my eyes. Her eyes darted back and forth, but I remained steady, simply looking forward, awaiting my response. She pushed out her bottom lip, and honestly, I thought she was overdoing it. “But I-I…wanted it!” I sighed gently, again thinking she was overacting.

I shook my head, “You can’t have everything you want. I know that you spent your allowance on that little pink tambourine. You worked hard for that money, right?”

Ashley nodded, and I tried to avoid rolling my eyes, as she stuck her lip out further and proceeded to speak in a baby voice, “Pwease, Mr. Grant, don’t tell mommy or daddy.”
She was trying to sabotage me, hoping I would break character. Her character was supposed to be six or seven. She sounded like a three year old, but I didn’t bite.
I replied gently but firmly, “Did you work hard for your money, Madison?”

She nodded her head slowly, a hint of irritation displayed in her eyes. They remained half closed and tight, that swirl of blue and grey a seething ocean, but a moment later she relaxed, returning to character, “Yes. I cleaned my room. And I put away my toys. And I helped mommy dry the dishes after supper.”

I smiled and left my chair, proceeding to kneel in front of Ashley. I looked her directly in the eyes and said, “I work hard for my money too. I have to clean the store, order new instruments, fix broken ones and I have to do inventory. That means counting all the items I have in the store. When you steal from me, it hurts me and my store, but I know it hurts you too, Madison. Do you feel bad?”

Ashley nodded glumly and I continued, “There’s a feeling you get when you do bad things. It starts in your feet and it goes all the way up until it gets to your head. Kind of like when you get stuck in a prickly bush, but it’s a feeling in your head. It's called guilt, and it’s normal. You should feel bad when you steal because you hurt me. You make me feel sad because you are my best customer.”

Ashley looked at me with fear in her eyes. She was playing the scene with improved inflection, and she even sounded more like her character’s age. “I-I’m really sorry, Mr. Grant. I don’t like that feeling. And I don’t want you to be mad at me.” She said those words, but she didn’t relinquish the flute.

I stayed kneeling, “You’ve got it. If you don’t do bad things, you will never feel that way. Now what you did was just a mistake. Girls your age will make them. Adults too. We all feel guilty sometimes because of the mistakes we make. The trick is to really think about what you are doing before you do it. Think about how taking that flute would make others around you feel. How would your mommy and daddy feel if they knew it, or your grandma?”

Ashley answered timidly, “T-they would be sad.” At this point, Ashley was cradling the little plastic flute in her hands, bringing it close to her chest.

As the scene continued, I noticed something fascinating unfolding. Once Ashley started playing her part appropriately, we had real chemistry. The misplaced man-hating anger that she had played perfectly into the conflict she displayed throughout the scene. She looked like a little girl who was half angry at being caught and half terrified at the consequences of her actions. I imagined that a real little girl might react in a similar manner, especially if she was as stubborn as Ashley. She held firmly onto the flute, knowing her behaviour was wrong but still desperately wanting what she desired.
I asked, “Can you give me the flute back, please?” I stood up and reached my hands out expectantly. Ashley slowly brought the flute toward my waiting hands. She looked down the entire time, seemingly ashamed of her behaviour, but resolute in her unwillingness to give up.

I said, “That prickly feeling in your brain- your guilt. It won’t go away until you give me the flute, Madison. You want to feel good about yourself, right? That can bring a warm feeling in your tummy. It’s like drinking a big gulp of hot chocolate. And doing the right thing can make those around you feel better too. I know I will be very happy if you do the right thing.”

I was putting on an Emmy award-winning performance because I didn’t believe a word of the (as my father would say), claptrap the scene was attempting to sell to its impressionable audience. I wasn’t a parent, but there’s no way I would dance around the issue so much. A big gulp of hot chocolate? Bullshit. I would tell the kid what they did wrong and tell them I would tell their goddamn parents next time they did. Or I’d call the police and put a real scare into them.

Kids were extremely annoying. Case in point- the bus on my way home from the initial interview. There was a seat available on the side. It was where the strollers go, or people with wheelchairs, but since I didn’t see anyone like that on the bus, I moved toward it and quickly sat down. Immediately upon sitting down, this brat, a long-haired little girl screams, “Mommy, I don’t want that man sitting next to me!” Her mother, an overweight blonde, who might have caught my eye ten years and twenty pounds ago asked me, “W-Would you mind sitting somewhere else? I’m sorry, she’s very particular about who sits next to her.”

I tried to explain that she was indulging her daughter and giving her a sense of entitlement, but the girl’s shrieking high-pitched voice was enough to set many concerned eyes on the scene. I grumbled and switched seats, but not before telling the young mother, “She’s probably going to hate you when she’s a teenager. You know because when she’s trying to sleep around and you tell her no, she won’t like you very much. But it’ll be too late because she’ll already think she can do whatever she wants.”
There was one half-hearted clap from the middle-aged man sitting across from us, but other than that, I received some serious jeers.

“How dare you speak that way in front of a child!?”

“You don’t know anything because you aren’t a parent!”

I wasn’t ashamed of what I said. Kids needed to understand from a young age how the world worked. My dad explained to me about what he did when he went away, and instead of fabricating some childhood fear scenario, I had the truth. He didn’t tell me about any of the gory details, but he explained his life as a soldier. I appreciated it. The more I thought about it, I wasn’t sure I could put up with Hermie the Hippo’s constant moralizing.

As I was thinking this, I felt the little plastic flute as it was gently pushed into my waiting hands.

Ms. Daniels said, “Wonderful! You two were excellent together. Ms. Perkins, you played your part expertly. Mr. Sullivan, I would like to speak to you privately.”

I nodded and Ashley left the room, but not before casting another glare in my direction. For all her feminist spirit, she did have an unbelievable body. I watched her ass, clad in a pair of tight low-rise jeans, wiggle out of the room.

My eyes were still firmly planted on Ashley’s ass, when Ms. Daniels spoke. My eyes jetted back to hers, and oddly, the smile never left her face, “I was very impressed with this scene Mr. Sullivan. I’m going to meet with the other casting agents and discuss your potential casting. I must say-” she crossed her legs seductively, and I couldn’t help but look. As my eyes returned to her face, I noticed the imperfections, and it was like an immediate cold shower. The faint lines around her eyes and mouth, and the very minute drooping jowl that had developed where I expected elfin cheekbones once stuck out prominently. The thick bags underneath her eyes couldn’t be entirely concealed either. Her seductive pose was forgotten. She continued a moment later, “- that my vote will go to you, Mr. Sullivan.”

Did she want me to sleep with her for the part, so she could entice the others? I suppose I could, but it would have to be doggy style. Missionary would require seeing her face. She uncrossed her legs, and whatever sexual tension we had vanished in an instant. We might as well have been at a church picnic.
“Thank you for coming, Mr. Sullivan. We will be in touch.”

***
“Oh. Hell. No.”
I looked up, in the middle of texting Greg the good news about the audition, and there was Ashley, sitting on the bench in the same spot where I met her after my initial interview. She dangled her right foot over her left while sitting cross-legged. The girl’s body language said she was exhausted, slumped shoulders and sagging head. The moment she heard my voice, however, her head shot up and her body followed suit. Her jaw shifted forward and her eyes pierced into me like white-hot flame through a steel girder.

If I hadn’t met her there, I likely wouldn’t have engaged her at a later meeting, but I was still upset about how she started the reading. “What the hell was your problem in there? You were trying to screw up my audition.”

Ashley played coy, “Me? Really. It wasn’t my intention. Like I said at the beginning. I wasn’t ready for that scene. I had to figure it out as it went along.”

I shook my head and entered the bus shelter. I adopted an aggressive stance, my legs shoulder-width apart and arms stretched out, holding onto the sides of the shelter, effectively blocking her path. “Like hell you didn’t. You’re just a man-hating bitch. Admit it. Well despite your stunt, Ms. Daniels said that I’m a front-runner. So you might have to just suck it up because we could be working together.”

Ashley looked diminutive with my height and her sitting position, she might as well have been that same frightened child who stole a little plastic flute. I could see, however, the courage rising in her. I saw it first in her eyes as the flames returned. Seconds later, she strode past me, snatched the phone from my hand and started playing on it.

She turned back to me. Her eyes flashed with new found bravado as I looked at her agape. “I’m not a man-hater. I just hate assholes, and you- are a colossal one. You are the male archetype. You are everything wrong with your gender. I mean I saw you staring at Ms. Daniels’ ass. Then you made this little grossed out face when you saw her front. You practically undressed me with your eyes when we first met. And I bet you ogled me when I left the room, right? Admit it.”

I shouted, “You’re crazy! I’m- I’m not doing that.”

She said matter-of-factly, “Then you aren’t getting your phone back.”

I threw up my hands, knowing that she held the cards. She could yell and then things would end badly for me. Either way I looked at it, we were in a public space, and if I got near her, I was sure to draw attention- negative attention. As brash as I could be, I wasn’t brain dead.

I approached her, keeping a good five feet between us and held out my hand expectantly, “Yeah. Alright, I did. But every guy does it. Married ones, ones with girlfriends, it doesn’t matter. It’s the way we are wired. I mean you can’t tell me that girls don’t dress that way so they get attention. I mean you chose those jeans instead of a pair of sweats. A part of you must like the attention.”

Ashley made a buzzer noise, “Wrong answer, asshole! Do you think maybe Ms. Daniels wore that skirt because she was proud of her body? And she wanted to show it off? Do you really think the only reason I wore these jeans is so you could picture them being peeled off my body? Wow. You are so clueless. I was wrong. You are King of the Assholes. Destined for a partial comb over trying to date girls half your age.”

She started playing on my phone. I drew closer, enough to see that she was looking through my contacts. “Next test. These girls on your phone. Did you date any of them longer than three months? Brittany, Sarah, Monique, Trisha, Kimberly. Any of them? What about this one Jessica?”

I sighed, “No. None of them. They just weren’t right. Jessica, well she was different. We went on one date, but it just didn’t work out. I was actually going to call her again soon though.”

Ashley hissed, “Bullshit. What was wrong with her?”

My anger was growing. I could feel it within the pit of my stomach and on the balls of my feet. I was nearly shaking. I was the firework from the 4th of July that never wanted to light at first. Ashley had lit the fuse and it was gradually shortening. “I’m not telling you! I don’t owe you anything. You don’t know who I am, what I’ve been through.”

Ashley shook her head, “Let me guess. Your high school sweetheart dumped you at the prom, now you lash out at these women because you haven’t grown up. Am I right? I am, aren’t I?”

I glared at her, “I could say the same about you. But no, you were probably such a bitch in high school all the guys called you the ice queen. Probably turned your first boyfriend’s dick into a popsicle.”

Ashley said, “Nice joke. Maybe you could retell it to Jessica? Maybe too we’ll have a little chat about you. A little warning to help a sister out. Something about you and the fact you have the emotional maturity of a seventh grader.” She looked down and hit the call button.

“Hello?”

Before Ashley could answer, I propelled myself forward, throwing my arm out to snatch the phone. I was successful in recapturing the phone, but my action unfortunately thrust my body into her much lighter frame. In the process of regaining my phone, I also knocked her over. The girl flew into the side of the bus shelter, hitting her shoulder hard against the plastic glass. I immediately moved to help her up, hoping she would at least appreciate my gentlemanly gesture.

Her hand was nearly burning to the touch. The girl seemed to be running a seriously high fever. Before I could ask her what was wrong, however, I noticed the bus coming, and a busload of people seeing a fallen young woman next to a man, it screamed potential assault charges, so I started rapidly walking away from the scene, hoping no one had seen me knock Ashley over.

Now I was certain, more than ever, that Ashley would do everything in her power to make sure I would never get the part.



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