They were four perfect little children. Alex had taught them well. They helped with the house, set the table for meals, and went straight upstairs after dinner to do their homework. They did as they were told.
Sharon didn’t miss the glances that passed between her husband and the foster children. From the day they arrived, they had looked up to Alex, worshiped him. Why, it even seemed they were beginning to act like Alex—right down to the icy sarcasm, the terrifying smile, and the evil gleam in their eyes when they looked at her.
Oh yes, they’d do anything to please Alex. Anything at all . . .
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Alex opened the car door for her. Neither of them could contain their excitement, but Alex was particularly buoyant. The last time Sharon had seen him look nearly as happy was the time he came home to tell her their investment in the computer company had tripled in value. But then again, from the day she had married him, Sharon couldn't think of any decision that Alex had made that had turned out wrong. Few men had his insight, his patience when it came to studying investments, and his perception when it came to people. She had full faith in everything he did, and although many women might criticize her for doting on him and treating him more like her "savior" than her husband, she couldn't help admiring him and being proud that he was her husband. Some women actually resented her for being so dependent upon him. They thought it was unhealthy. She sometimes felt they avoided her because of it. But that didn't matter. What mattered was that Alex did succeed; they were financially comfortable, and their lives were relatively free from conflict. Those other women were just jealous.
And now they'd be even more jealous because Alex had made a decision that would bring them the one thing they didn't have: children. They were going to take in a foster child.
"I stood out there," he had said one afternoon; "looking out over our grounds and the lake and this big old tourist house, and I said to myself, what is it we need here? What is it this place should have? There should be noise here — the good old-fashioned noise of laughter and activity."
At first she hadn't understood. "You want to start the business again?" she'd asked him.
"Oh no, not that kind of noise." He laughed. "I'm talking about the laughter of children."
"But Alex, the doctor told us ..."
"I'm talking about taking in children, not having them."
"You mean adopting?"
"Not necessarily adopting. What about the foster children program?"
"Oh." She had to smile. It always amazed her how Alex could simply come up with an important new idea, just like that. "Do you really think that we could?"
"Of course. We're qualified. Look at all the room we've got."
Once again, he was right. The next day when Sharon spoke to Mrs. Hoffman, the head of the Child Protection Agency, on the phone, the woman told her she only wished all the potential guardians had what Alex and she had to offer. Sharon was flattered. And she was becoming genuinely excited. The only thing that made her hesitate was the fact that the boy they wanted to place with them was already fourteen years old.
"Fourteen's not old, Sharon," Alex told her. "It's a very impressionable age."
"He's a teenager, Alex. Let's not fool ourselves about that."
"More of a challenge," Alex replied. He had a way of making everything seem simple.
"Well ... if you think it's OK ..."
"I wouldn't get us into anything we couldn't handle," he said, and she believed that.
Now, on the way to the agency to meet the boy for the first time, she couldn't help feeling nervous. If only she could be more like Alex, she thought. He never seemed to worry. There he sat, perfectly straight, shoulders back. His face was so still it looked sculptured. All of the lines were fine, the features in perfect proportion. He was good looking, but not pretty-faced. There was nothing candylike about Alex. He could have been a model, but not a manikin. Sharon always thought he was too handsome for her. It wasn't that she had an inferiority complex or that she was terribly ugly. Alex just looked like he belonged with movie stars or on television. He had television eyes. Whenever he had taken group photographs, people were invariably drawn to his face in the picture.
She looked out her window and down at the highway. The macadam liquefied. It was as though they were skimming over grey water. She did feel as though she were moving in a dream, and when she looked back at Alex, he looked far-off. He had that half-smile on his face that indicated he was well submerged in his own thoughts.
Alex could draw an invisible shell around him, she thought. He could create his own mental cocoon. It was eerie sometimes — as though he had left his body sitting there and gone off somewhere in another body. And when he came back, he would just blink and begin in the middle of some paragraph or some thought. He did it so casually it made her question her own awareness. Maybe she was the one who had drifted off and all the while he had been talking.
She could imagine his thoughts now. His face had that look of determination. Alex has already arrived there, she thought. He moved into the future and he knew the conversations that were about to begin. How else could he anticipate what people would say and think so well? Sometimes, Sharon thought Alex had the power to read people's minds.
"Oh no," she said.
"I forgot to let Dinky out. He's been in all day."
"We're not going to be gone that long. You know," he said, turning to her, "if you treat the foster child as well as you treat that dog, we'll probably be given some kind of an award."
"Oh Alex. I don't treat the dog any different than other people treat their dogs."
"Oh no?" He began to mimic her. "Oh Alex, isn't it too cold out for Dinky? Alex, go see if Dinky wants to come in. Alex, why is Dinky so tired today?"
"All right, all right."
"That's another reason why we need children around, Sharon."
"I've been thinking though, Alex; I hope you're prepared for the fact that foster children have special problems?" She hoped he was, she thought, because she certainly wasn't.
"All children have special problems. I had special problems," he replied.
"But you were so much younger when your parents adopted you."
"Yes, and I'll never forget what it felt like the first time I was brought up to the Manor and I saw how big it was and what I would have as a home. Can you imagine the excitement this boy will feel? Half the time he didn't have his own room, much less a three-story building to romp in, and a lake with eighty-seven acres."
"I know," she said. How wonderful it was, she thought, that Alex could get so much pleasure from giving someone else pleasure. It warmed her heart to see it, and she was happy she hadn't put up any resistance to the plan, even though she had some real reservations about it. Anyway, she thought, whatever problems they would have, Alex would solve them. She was confident of that.
She sat back again. They drove on through Sandburg and down county road 42, one of the main thoroughfares in this part of the Catskills. It was late September, and the great tourist area had returned to its semiconscious state, a state that Alex preferred even though the area had such a deserted look to it. Billboards were stripped; many stores closed down; summer homes were boarded up; and traffic, not only very light, was practically nonexistent in some places. To her the community looked as though it was being quarantined.
Just recently, however, Alex had told her that the hibernation wasn't as all-pervasive as it appeared. He said that the Catskills were becoming a "second-bedroom" community. "In fact," he'd added, "I invested in a development of town houses. And what do you know — two-thirds of the units have already been sold."
Sharon smiled. Everything Alex touched turned to gold.
"But," Alex had gone on, "the native population of this area is swelling with poor families, menial laborers, and minority groups. There are many more foster children now. They're a real burden to the county's child protection service." And then he added what she thought to be something typical of him. "Which is another reason why we should do this, Sharon. We can't just take out of a community; we've got to make some social contribution, too."
And so they were traveling toward Monticello, the county seat, and their meeting with the clinical-sounding Mrs. Hoffman from the Child Protection Agency. At the end of this interview, assuming all went well, they were to meet with Richard, the fourteen-year-old boy Alex wanted.
"What do they ask you at these interviews?" she asked him. "I don't want to say anything stupid and ruin things."
"It's not a cross-examination. Don't worry, you'll do all right."
"I can't help being nervous. I'll let you do the talking. You always know just what to say."
"Be yourself. That's all."
"I've had so little contact with children; she might hold that against me."
"Why? Children are people, Sharon, just like you and me. You don't have to go through an apprenticeship to deal with them. That's why most adults have trouble with children — they treat them as though they were a different kind of animal."
"I suppose you're right," she said.
"I know I'm right." He reached over and squeezed her hand. She smiled, but she wondered how it was that Alex knew so much about people. Was it because he grew up in a tourist house, with hundreds of guests there every summer? It certainly wasn't from the contact they had had with people during the years of their marriage. She could count on her fingers the number of friends they'd had, she thought. No, there was something special about Alex, something very special.
"We haven't had anyone living in that big house with us since your father died," she said, but she said it so low that perhaps he hadn't heard it.
They rode in silence the rest of the way. When they pulled into the parking lot at the government center, she thought the long, modern stone building looked intimidating. From such a structure would come a child to live in her home. They got out and walked up the wide stone stairway to the front entrance. Alex took her arm at the entrance and directed her quickly to the small stairway on the right. It was apparent to her that he was familiar with the building.
As they walked through the lobby and up the stairs, she felt everyone was looking at them. She blamed this paranoia on her own failure to get out and mix with people more. Once again, she made a resolution to do so. I'm becoming a hermit, she thought. Maybe having a child in the home would help.
Alex was right about the house's being too quiet recently. She wondered if she had gotten too accustomed to the library atmosphere in her home. A young boy's voice and laughter would surely shatter that, but maybe it was something that should be shattered. A home should have a feel of life to it, she thought.
"Hey, take it easy," he said when they reached the door of the Child Protection Agency. "I can feel you trembling."
"Can't help it," she whispered. He shook his head and entered. The secretary looked up from her desk.
"Please tell Mrs. Hoffman that Mr. and Mrs. Gold are here," he said.
Why is it that whenever Alex talks to people he sounds so authoritative, Sharon thought. The secretary moved quickly. She wouldn't have moved more quickly had he been the governor of the state.
"Go right on in," she said.
Sharon was surprised that Mrs. Hoffman was such a thin, fragile-looking woman. Her voice over the telephone had been filled with an official tone of strength and power. She had sounded like a woman fully aware of her responsibility over many young lives. If a woman this diminutive could control teenagers, as well as younger children, why couldn't she?
Sharon's initial impression was reinforced when they shook hands. Mrs. Hoffman's hand was limp in hers. There was barely any pressure in the fingers. Alex looked positively gigantic beside her. He was six feet two inches tall and had wide shoulders. He looked like he had just retired from a professional football team.
"It's so nice to meet you both," Mrs. Hoffman said. "Please, sit down." She gestured at the chairs in front of her desk. Her red knit blouse hung over her shoulders, emphatically outlining her collarbone. Although she was short, she had a long neck that looked as though it had been under continual strain — arteries and veins visible beneath transparent skin.
"Thank you," Sharon said. So far so good, she thought.
"Richard will be with us in a few moments," Mrs. Hoffman said. The sound of his name sent chills through Sharon. Her legs weakened and she was glad to fold her body into the shiny leather seat. When Alex looked at her, he closed and opened his eyes. It was his way of telling her to relax. She clasped her hands in her lap and forced herself to smile. Mrs. Hoffman practically disappeared behind the big desk. The piece of office furniture was so high and so long it was farcical. It was covered with official-looking documents, a very fancy telephone with an attached speaker system for conference calls, some family pictures, and a large book that looked like some kind of daily journal. The walls of the office, done in a light brown pressed board panel, were spotted here and there with plaques and certificates. There were no paintings or portraits.
"Our field rep, Marty Kaplan, was very impressed with your home, Mr. Gold. How long has it been since you and your family ran it as a tourist house?"
"I never did. My parents did. Right after my mother's death, the Echo Lake Manor became a private home. I was never very fond of the resort business, and as you probably know, it's changed considerably, anyway."
"Yes," she said, smiling stupidly. She looked at Sharon, and Sharon widened her false smile. "There's no question you have the room and the facilities. In many cases, the children share rooms. And you have all that land with the lake ... any child should be grateful."
"Has this boy been in many homes?" Sharon asked.
"Unfortunately, too many. He's been in three. As I explained to your husband, Richard's been a difficult case."
"Precisely the sort of boy who needs this opportunity," Alex said quickly.
"Oh, no question, no question. I suppose you two have talked this over considerably. Are there any questions remaining that I might answer for either of you?" She looked from Alex to Sharon, and Sharon looked at Alex. He shook his head gently.
"Well," Sharon said, "we've gone over his needs, the arrangements for school, the rules. I think we feel confident. We'll certainly do the best we can."
"I'm sure you will. I don't have to tell you how difficult it is to find good couples who have the room and the willingness to take in these poor, unfortunate youngsters. Why just last week we had a terrible situation finally exposed."
"Oh," Alex said, his face alive with interest, "what was that?"
"A foster parent never informed us that her husband left her. The children were practically alone all night. She worked. You can just imagine what problems that led to."
"Yes," Alex said.
"One of us is always at home," Sharon said quickly. "That won't happen with us."
"Good. Well then, why don't I go get Richard. I like to be present during the first meeting."
"Of course," Alex said. "You see," he said as soon as she left, "I told you this was going to be easy."
"I thought she'd have more questions for us."
"They need us," he said. "It's as simple as that." Sharon nodded.
"I wish you had thought of this ten years ago, Alex. Not that I'm an old lady at thirty-four, and you certainly don't look like a forty-three-year-old man, but we might have started with a younger child and eventually adopted him or her."
"Well it's not too late."
"Did they give you a choice of children, Alex? I mean, someone who was younger and hasn't been in so much trouble?"
"Children are children," he said. "I don't like the idea of writing one off because he's fourteen."
"I know. I just thought the first time we did this we should make it as easy as possible."
"It'll be easy; it'll be easy," he said. It sounded like the beginning of a chant. She sat back in the seat and continued to study the office. A few moments later, the door was opened.
Sharon wasn't prepared at all for the boy who walked in behind Mrs. Hoffman. She had been working on bracing and hardening herself to confront a stereotypical juvenile delinquent: disheveled appearance, an angry and mean face, a sullen disposition. She'd thought their main work would involve rehabilitation.
Instead, Mrs. Hoffman brought in a neatly dressed and pleasant-looking fourteen-year-old, with styled, blown-dry wavy brown hair. He wore a pressed light blue short-sleeved shirt and a pair of new designer jeans. If anything, he looked like a young model who had paused on his way to do a television commercial.
Although Sharon could detect a bright and inquisitive look in his hazel-brown eyes, the boy also appeared frightened and vulnerable. She softened in sympathy. For the first time, she considered the situation from the child's point of view. After all, he was the one who was being bounced around and placed into the hands of strangers.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Child's Play"
Copyright © 1985 Andrew Neiderman.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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