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Beautiful Childrenby Charles Bock
WELCOME TO FABULOUS LAS VEGAS
The lens zooms in, then draws back. The images are shaky: a celebration, that much is clear; children in bright orange jerseys and matching baseball caps, some worn backward, or with bills to the side. They chatter and jibe, passing pitchers of soda, reaching for slices with favorite toppings. Chins shine with grease. Smiles glow as if smeared with lipstick. One boy sits a bit away from the rest, toward the end of the table. He is pretty much the same size as everyone else—pudgier than some, smaller than others. Hes not wearing a cap, though, and the poor resolution of the camcorder makes it look as if the top of his skull might be consumed in flame. But no. Another second shows nothing more dangerous than a mass of bright red hair. The child leans forward now, his jersey bunching around his shoulders. Attempting to convince the nearest teammate to unscrew the top of a salt shaker, his freckled face is animated, lively. Dude, we can hear him say. Come on. Come on, dude. A punch to the shoulder answers him. He squeals, though not unhappily. Dick.
The camcorders microphone catches the tail end of a reprimand from an unseen adult. It catches the boys protest, It wasnt me! By this time, though, focus is shifting, swinging toward the middle of the table, where coaches and other adults subdue a slap fight. After a few seconds, a semblance of decorum is reached; the presentation of the next trophy begins, and the camera pans down the length of the table, showing children in varying states of interest. And here judicious use of the fast-forward cues a final appearance by the redheaded boy, for just a few seconds, a short sequence—he directs a sneering remark toward the action; when his neighbor does not respond, the boy sinks into his chair. The flesh of his cheeks lengthens, goes slack. Small eyes cloud, turn dark.
This sequence, these scant seconds, are why the Ewings tracked down that videotape. Because recent photos were supposed to work best, were supposed to give a potential witness the best chance at identification. So Lincoln and Lorraine would stand at the front door of a nice couple whose names they had memorized on the ride over. Nodding soberly, the Ewings would thank the couple for all their help. They would try to make small talk. The delighted shrieks of children would interrupt, breaking out from upstairs, bodies tramping, at play. Then designer sunglasses would not be able to hide Lorraines tears. And then Lincoln would take his wife into his arms. Gently he would stroke her hair and gently he would guide her back down the walkway, her face staying buried in his shoulder, her mascara running, just a bit, onto his suits lapel. No words between them, just his arm delicate around her waist, their long, twisted shadow slipping diagonally through the trim, open yard. And yes, that black cassette, it would be Lincolns possession: in his opposite hand, as far from Lorraine as possible.
In a short amount of time that section of videotape would be transformed into a series of stills, frames scanned into a computer. A single frame would be enlarged, then Photoshopped, resulting in the image of a slouching, unexpressive child. This image would be circulated in e-mail attachments, faxes, and flyers; it would be posted in arcades and student unions and youth hostels; in post offices and convenience stores and drop-in centers for the homeless and indigent. And at some point fairly early on in this process, Lincoln Ewing would be reminded of the damndest piece of information. A drop of conventional wisdom that, honestly, Lincoln had no clue where hed picked up. It concerned Native Americans. Supposedly, when photography was invented, they believed each picture from the white mans magic machine removed a piece of the subjects soul.
This was precisely the kind of thing Lincoln didnt need in his head. Yet, just as a tongue cannot resist probing the sensitive area of a cracked tooth, Lincoln would find himself returning to that god-awful piece of information: gnawing on it when a police officer misread his sons birth certificate, causing the boys middle name to fall by the wayside, becoming as forgotten as the great-grandfather who had inspired it. And when mention of the boys twelve years of age was replaced by his date of birth—this distinction small, but especially painful, however pragmatic; done, it was explained, as a matter of protocol, to acknowledge a grim reality: nobody can say how long a child will be missing.
Lincoln would watch the police spokesman squinting in front of a phalanx of floodlights and tripods, stumbling through a prepared statement that asked for the publics help; hed watch the vacuous broadcasters with their melodramatic pronouncements. He would gather up the stuffed-animal bouquets, attend the candlelight vigils. Lincoln would offer rewards and set up 1-800 hotlines. Steps taken for a righteous purpose, in the ostensible hope of solving this tragedy; steps that placed more and more distance between the flesh and blood of Newell Ewing and the cautionary tale his name would come to signify, between the child from that pizza party and the embodiment of every parents worst nightmare.
And when that soulless stare had been reproduced hundreds of times; when thousands of Xeroxes had been made off hundreds of copies, most of them done on machines perpetually low on toner; when another copy of a copied copy had created further blurring, new smudges; after all this, Lincoln Ewing would be left to wonder. What was left of his son? What did he have?
This would be later.
A hundred and five outside for the ninety-ninth straight day. That dry desert heat, a wall that hit the moment you stepped outside, then pounded relentlessly. To get local fanboys away from their liquid crystal screens, out of their air-conditioned living rooms, and into their air-conditioned cars, management at Amazin Stories had been importing the biggest names in the fantasy game. Every Saturday afternoon, there were free meet and greets, autographs, happily personalized little doodles, and, sure, loads of stock for sale. So long as nobody went crazy and wheelbarrowed in every comic an artist had done, collectors could even bring their own back issues to be signed. It was a pretty sweet deal, and an effective one, so much so that each weekend, men in their early to middle twenties shuffled self-consciously into the store, half-embarrassed but also nervous, wired, as if the warm spots they possessed for their childhood heroes were stains of gum theyd stepped into and now were unable to free themselves from, the hard and powerful colors pulling, urging them to revisit the ritual of standing inside a store of illustrated books; of reading; of fantasizing and being swept away.
All of twelve years old, Newell was in the bloom of his enchantment. Except for a few times when his parents had made him clip on his tie and go out to brunch with them, hed spent most of his Saturday afternoons in Amazin Stories, squirming through the larger, taller bodies for a better view of the autograph table, hanging on every spoken word from the makeshift lectern, laughing on cue with everyone else. When the iconic septuagenarian had good-naturedly regaled the overflow audience with golden-age reminiscences for a good hour longer than scheduled, Newell had had a primo view. And when the years hottest illustrator had repeatedly checked his watch, deflected most questions as “irrelevant,” and repeatedly referred to his upcoming Vanity Fair photo spread, Newell had been on hand for that, too. After a summer of insider tales and celebrity name- dropping, honestly, it wasnt exactly easy to get jazzed about Bing Beiderbixxe.
From the looks of things, Newell wasnt alone in this opinion. The store was largely empty, just a few underclassman types solemnly wandering the new arrivals racks, and three or four guys standing at a respectful distance from the autograph table, nodding and listening, but seeming unconvinced, reluctant to come in any closer. Newell couldnt blame them. Why the illustrator and creative mind behind Wendy Whitebread, Undercover Slut had been booked, he had no clue. Beiderbixxes comic was this cheapo deal, printed on rough paper, published by some rinky-dink outfit. Word of mouth claimed the bizarre name had been lifted from an obscure porno comic, and if that was true, Newell had to admit, it was pretty fresh. Too bad the rest of Whitebread bit so hard. The ditzy blond policewoman with the badge over her crotch never did anything fresh. Every single panel had been ripped off from some way-better comic. Every pose was a pose of a pose. Newell had complained about it to Kenny, who was older and knew a lot more about this stuff. They must not have been able to get anyone else to come, Newell had said, referring to Bing as Bonerbite. Bonerbite sucks goat balls. The hairs from goat balls get stuck between his teeth and Bonerbite walks around sucking on them, getting all the taste he can. Kenny had listened, and after a few moments, in that halting and unconvinced way of his, had admitted he didnt completely understand, either. Hed taken his time, negotiating and making order of his thoughts, starting over a few times, correcting himself a few more, and finally, Kenny had said the references in Wendy Whitebread were some sort of map, he guessed, and the books were a kind of tribute, he thought, but like a commentary, too. “Its supposed to be funny. But in a serious way. You know, where not giving away the humor is part of the joke?”
Today, while waiting around, in deference to his friend, Newell had given Wendy Whitebread another chance, examining some of the panels, paying attention to the connection each might have with its source material, trying to figure out, as Kenny had suggested, why Bing might have chosen that specific panel for inspiration, what the changes might have meant. Bings logic remained a shelf Newell could not reach, no matter how he strained from the top of his mental tiptoes. Still, the boy had gained enough appreciation for the guys work that, presently, from his vantage point, about halfway in the store, he watched the comic book artist with more than a middling interest: Beiderbixxe, hefty and balding, his face large and fleshy, pale and pinkish. Behind boxy black eyeglasses, he appeared intelligent, welcoming even; busily weaving some sort of tale, trying like hell to appeal to each of his few audience members. “In the fifties,” he was saying, “these two, theyd end up beats or novelists or something. In the sixties, theyd be, what, hippy rock stars, Warhol figures. The seventies they become filmmakers. The eighties they get into rap or maybe indie rock. The nineties, thats easy, theyre hacking the World Banks source code.”
Newell half-listened, but was a step behind the story, unable to follow along, and, truth be told, not all that interested. Bings meaty left hand wasnt helping—it kept making this rolling motion, as if this would spin the guy toward his point more quickly. Newell got distracted by the hand, and then his eyes wandered some more, toward the table, near the artists elbow, where a plastic bottle was mostly empty, a sluice of fluorescent liquid along the bottom.
“Just putting it out there,” Bing said. “Is it at all possible that these bad kids are the latest installment of avant-garde, that two killers just might be nothing less than evolutionary forerunners?”
The boy gave up now, turning away, looking through the glass door and picture window at the shopping plaza, still and dead, the rows of parked cars, nobody coming or going. The day outside was bright and oppressive, and the boys face felt warm. He reached for the vinyl case, which hung from the side belt loop of his jean shorts, and withdrew a small silver device. The tip of his tongue peeked out of the corner of his mouth; his fingers danced a familiar pattern. He listened for three rings but did not leave a message, instead quickly pressing the button in the upper right corner of the pad. More punching now, each digit entered with increasing force. The phone went back to his ear; a longing swelled through him. For a moment he resented the universe for all the things he did not understand. He listened for a time, managed to keep from stomping his foot, and then looked once more to the stores entrance, a longer, harder look this time, one that concentrated and focused his building energies. Impulses pulsed through Newell, telling him to whirl around, throw his phone at Beiderbixxe, mute that stupid droning voice. Instead the boy pressed a control button on his phone, switching modes.
His high score on the phone game was 730 million, and Newell was on his way to clearing the first screen when a stray missile infiltrated his defense system, obliterating his home base. He snorted a vulgarity, swung his leg as if to punt away the small silver box, and corkscrewed in place. Newell had an impulse to scream at some guy who might have been looking at him. Then his shoulders sagged. The boy sulked and fumed and desultorily hit the reset button on his phone. He was about to start the game over when, from the front of the store, the jingle and clank of small metal bells sounded.
Prodding the door with his shoulder came an odd collection of lines and angles. Gangly, wiry, a little weird-looking, even for this place. Hair was spackled to his forehead in darkish streaks. More hair fell over his eyes, covering his ears, winding down in oily tendrils toward his shoulders. Arms white and thin, like limp strands of uncooked spaghetti, stuck out from a used and faded T-shirt, itself damp, clingy. He wore the same jeans he always did, the only person Newell knew who wore jeans in a hundred-and-ten-degree weather.
“FINALLY, NIGGA. Where the fuck you been, Kenny?”
With unteachable comic timing, the odd lines folded upon themselves, collapsing with an uncoordinated ferocity. Kenny did this strange, desperate wingy deal with his other arm, to no avail—the sheets continued their descent, slipping out from beneath the crook of his arm that had held them.
“Whoa . . . Hey—”
Newell arrived in time to grab the diner place mat. “I got it,” he said, easing a crumpled yellow flyer from the inside of Kennys underarm.
“YO, KENNY,” he said. “You made it! My MAN.”
Kennys body unclenched; he exhaled, allowed the boy to take the papers, said “Thanks.” Stepping into the store, he raised his head, let the air-conditioning run over him. Newell saw cheeks flushed to the shade of a ripe plum and sparkling with sweat, the bony surface of Kennys features appearing raw, irritated.
“Dude. I was fuckin bugging. I thought for sure youd wuss out again.”
From the Hardcover edition.
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