While we’re on summer hiatus, recharging our batteries and coming up with new story ideas, we want to make sure that you have plenty to read. That’s why we’ll be posting excerpts every day from New Jersey books and authors. We’ll be back, rested and ready, after Labor Day. Meanwhile . . .
Montclair native Alden Jones’s “Unaccompanied Minors” is a collection of short stories that mine the darker regions of adolescence. “I love being around teenagers and writing about teenagers,” Jones told the literary website Bloom. “They have so much passion, and so much confidence in their beliefs . . . but the commonsense piece may not be there.” Indeed, Jones’s characters — despite occasional bad choices — have an intensity and voice that can yield surprising empathy. The following is excerpted from the short story “Thirty Seconds.”
The fact that Johnny Kirk is dead has little to do with me. My hours were officially over at six o’clock that day, and the only reason I was at the Country Club with the Kirks at six thirty-five, when it happened, was because I’m nice. And now I am officially not the Kirks’ babysitter anymore, even though I’m sure it’s not because Mr. Kirk thinks I was in any way responsible, because I wasn’t, and anyway he has clearly decided who to blame.
I handled it well, I thought. I took Isabelle to my house after they took Johnny away in the ambulance, and I didn’t expect them to pay me. Isabelle didn’t understand what had happened so I put The Little Mermaid into the VCR and hoped she wouldn’t ask me where her parents and brother were or why they weren’t going to the Blackwells’ for dinner like they were supposed to. All she wanted to know was if I had Sun Chips. No, I told her, my mother doesn’t allow junkfood in the house.
So Johnny is dead and never again will he whip it out and say “This is my penis” with his big proud grin. He did that every day to me, and every day I would say, “I know Jonathan, put it back in your pants.” I told Mrs. Kirk after he began doing this on a regular basis, because I didn’t know if there was something I was supposed to do about it, but all she did was say “That Johnny,” looking, I thought, a little proud with her thin, tight grin.
Mrs. Kirk is unlike most of the ladies I know from the Country Club. I’ve been a Guest there since fourth grade because my friend Stacy is a Member and she’s always brought me along; she’s the one who hooked me up with the babysitting gig with the Kirks. Mrs. Kirk is younger than Mr. Kirk, but I think what makes it harder for her to fit in is her bleach-blond hair and orangey skin, when all the other Country Club ladies have hair that’s supposed to look like it’s a natural color even if it isn’t, and hide their faces from the sun with baseball hats embroidered with the names of their kids’ boarding schools.
Every morning I come over at nine and she goes off in her Lexus SUV to do something called Zumba. She comes back in a great mood, sweaty and jazzed in her exercise clothes. Sometimes she goes directly upstairs and shuts herself in the bedroom suite playing Shakira songs. I think I’m supposed to believe that she’s taking her shower the whole time, but I hear the thuds on the ceiling above where Isabelle and I play and I know Mrs. Kirk is working out her Zumba moves. Sometimes, I fantasize about walking in there without knocking to catch her in the act, but then I picture her horrified O of a mouth and I feel bad for being the kind of person who has fantasies like that.
For the rest of the day her mood droops like the pansies in the front garden when she forgets to water them. When we go to the pool for lunch, her expressions get fake like her hair and the only thing that makes her light up is the sight of Isabelle or Johnny, but only after she hasn’t seen them for a while.
The last time I saw Mrs. Kirk smile was in the locker room at the Country Club, and I doubt she’s smiled since then. I was changing Isabelle out of her bathing suit and into her clothes. This is an elaborate and time-consuming process because Isabelle inevitably needs to tinkle at the point where I get her completely naked, so I have to bring her into a stall, and I let her sit down right on the seat even though I never would myself — even those Country Club people might have crabs — but I know Mrs. Kirk never puts paper down for her either, so. Then she always decides that she’d rather be naked than clothed and I have to chase her all over the locker room, bring her back to where we started, and then try to shove her limbs through the holes in her shorts and shirt. I was at this part, trying to get her arm unbent so I could get her t-shirt on, when Mrs. Kirk came into the locker room.
I was very annoyed at this point. It was already six-thirty and I was supposed to meet Catch at Pizzeria Uno at six fifteen. The Kirks were late for a barbecue at the Blackwells’, too, and Mrs. Kirk gave us one of those smiles as she stuck her head in the door and said “What’s taking you so long darling?”
I looked up at her, trying not to appear irritated, and smiled hopelessly.
“I don’t want to wear a shirt,” Isabelle whined. “I only want the shorts and noooooooo shoes.”
Mrs. Kirk laughed and said “Okay honey, you can wear just your shorts home in the car, but when we go to the Blackwells’ you’re going to have to put on a shirt.”
Isabelle started to cry. Mrs. Kirk gave me a what-can-you-do eyeroll, went out the door, and I gratefully shoved the t-shirt into her bag.
I was thinking about trying to call Catch to see if he was still home so I could tell him I’d be late. But I didn’t have a cell phone and I didn’t like to ask to borrow Mrs. Kirk’s. He was going to be pissed. He probably hadn’t been able to borrow his father’s car and had walked. I was thinking about his red-mad face when Mrs. Kirk ran back into the locker room and asked, all concerned, “Have you seen Johnny? Is Johnny in here?” I told her no. I tried to look concerned too, but Mrs. Kirk got frantic when it came to her kids sometimes and I figured that Johnny had just wandered into the snack bar or the parking lot. I picked up Isabelle, as clothed as she was going to get, slung the pool-bag over my shoulder, and went outside.
Hedges surrounded the pool grounds, and Mrs. Kirk was looking behind them one at a time, her blonde head bobbing all over the place. She kept calling his name. I guess she thought he was hiding, which would have been a typical thing for Jonathan to do. I could picture him crouched behind the very last place his mother would look, little snickers of joy sneaking out past the fist in his mouth.
“Where’s Johnny?” Isabelle asked me.
“He’s around here somewhere,” I said.
Isabelle can be really cute. She looked up at me with her huge brown eyes — a really cute kid, and sweet too, not like Jonathan. Jonathan had already learned, probably from his father now that I think about it, how to be an asshole, and he was only five and a half. He was a hitter. It made me so mad when he hit Isabelle. She would cry and never hit back, and he would look up at me all proud of himself, and then hit her again and she’d cry harder. Sometimes I really wanted to slug him back, but of course babysitters can’t do that, so I’d grab him by the arm and say “Jonathan, it’s not nice to hit your sister. How would you like it if someone bigger than you and stronger than you hit you?” And he’d always look at me like he was all hurt, like how could I do this to him, but I was doing the right thing, wasn’t I? I thought I was doing better than his parents, who sort of said, “Jonathan, bad boy,” like he was a dog. He listened to his father if he ever said anything, but Mr. Kirk was never around much.