By the time Ella Henderson snuck into her two hundred and fifty seventh free movie at the Greensboro AMC, she was almost hoping to get caught. The sneaking wasn’t done out of financial necessity — her paralegal salary was comfortable enough. It was a hobby, the way some people liked to knit, or play racquetball. She had hopes of one day becoming a serious movie critic. The sneaking in would be the perfect story to tell on red carpets, a reminder of rougher, sadder times that she would look back on from her diamond-studded life and laugh. “If only I had known where I’d end up,” she’d say, touching the arm of a handsome young star, “Back when I was your age.” She was thirty-nine.
She had picked up the hobby two years ago, after a telephone conversation with her parents, who were both sixty-eight and somehow much busier than her. The conversation began with Ella telling them about a recurring nightmare she had been having every night for two weeks. In the nightmare, she was lying in a grave while it filled with dirt around her. Her parents, who were retired and spent most of their time in an RV on elaborate road trips, had been entirely unsympathetic.
“It’s not right for a woman to be without a hobby. Especially a childless woman. I’ve always thought so,” her mother said. Her father, who was fixing something on the RV in the background, was not really listening.
Ella sighed in the Walmart aisle. She adjusted her cell phone to put a single apple and a half-pound of chicken in the grocery cart.
“I mean it, Isabella.” said her mother. “You’re thirty-seven. What do you do after work?”
“I don’t know. What does anyone do after work? I cook dinner. Sometimes I watch TV.”
“Did you try that recipe I sent you? The lasagna?” Her father half-shouted. He always talked too loudly on the phone.
“Not yet, Dad.”
“What about racquetball?” Her mother’s voice faded, which meant that Ella had been put on speakerphone.
“Racquetball is for spinsters.”
“Well.” There was an awkward pause. Her mother did not say anything, which was somehow much worse.
“So what else going on in your life?” her father asked. There was a loud crashing sound, presumably from the camper. “Hold that thought, hon. We’ll have to call you back.”
The line went dead in the frozen vegetables aisle. Ella stared at her grocery cart, full of the same items she had bought last week and the week before. It struck her that she couldn’t remember the last time she’d had something interesting or important to say. As a child she had been painfully shy, but she had never seen this separation from other people as a point of concern. After all, she had always had her parents, who loved her, and chalked her oddities up to being ‘an old soul.’ But lately, when they talked on the phone, it seemed like her parents didn’t have much time for her. She heard an edge in their voices that hadn’t been there before, and it had begun to occur to her that she was someone to worry about, that there was a faulty part somewhere inside her that she had not known was malfunctioning and didn’t know how to fix.
The bags of frozen peas seemed to stare at her with unblinking faces. Ella pushed her cart faintly toward the checkout line, grabbing a copy of the Greensboro News & Record on her way. Still preoccupied, she flipped to the Culture section, looking for Miller Harrison’s latest review. Miller Harrison was the movie critic for the News & Record. Ella always got the newspaper at the grocery store, and she always flipped to his review first. That week, he had written a column about movie criticism. An illustrious profession, he had written. Full of truly wonderful stories. She remembered again the recurring nightmare, how un-protesting she had been as dirt filled her lungs. Then she had snapped the newspaper shut, stuffed her groceries in the trunk, and driven straight to the movies, where she jumped the velvet rope and watched a children’s movie about animated bunnies.
By the time Ella made it home, the milk had gone bad and she had missed her parents’ second phone call, which made her feel better. She was too wired to sleep. It felt like there was an electric coil nestled in her stomach, snapping with diamond sparks of light. She couldn’t explain why she had snuck in, except that she knew she wouldn’t tell her parents about it, and it made her feel independent and interesting. After that, sneaking into movies became something of a habit. She kept a red, spiral-bound notebook numbering each movie and her opinion on it, and spent hours in her kitchenette, writing out reviews in a steady hand. Maybe sneaking in was a little gimmicky, she thought, but everyone had a gimmick. It would be her way of standing out in the crowd of aspiring critics. She began casually mentioning current movies at work and noticed that the other paralegals stopped by her desk more often, even inviting her for drinks a few times.
By Movie #257, she was on her third notebook. It started the same as any other job. Ella opened the left door to the theatre, because the right door often jammed, and the last thing one wanted to do when sneaking into a movie was wrestle with the door. The entryway held a single ticket booth. A large plane of plexiglass separated the booth from the rest of the empty room, which made the sixteen-year-old inside look vaguely like a work of art in a strange museum, as though someone had painted a bubble of hot pink gum on the Madonna. On the marquee above her, the showings blinked past in tired neon.
The bubblegum girl, Taylor, spent almost all of her time behind the plexiglass checking her texts and staring mournfully out the tinted windows. Ella had chosen the AMC for all her cons because it was staffed by high schoolers, and high schoolers would rather drop dead than notice anyone else. She created disguises anyway — changed her hairstyle, wore sunglasses now and then — but it never mattered. She seemed to have an eerie and borderline unnatural gift for going unnoticed. Once, on the opening night of a new fantasy movie, she had worn an enormous mustard-yellow ball gown from the Goodwill. Half of the sequins were missing, and she almost got caught, but it was worth it. You couldn’t play racquetball in a ball gown.
Ella pretended to read the movie times, even though she had already decided on a sentimental movie about a dog. She was wearing an oversized pair of sunglasses shaped like hearts and a denim dress that almost brushed the floor. She didn’t have to sneak past Taylor, because plenty of people bought tickets in advance online. She always lingered in the front lobby, just in case Taylor looked up from her phone and decided to talk to her. She hadn’t yet, but that was okay. When Ella was a real critic, she’d come in, and Taylor would recognize her and wave her through. “She’s a critic,” Taylor would say to the other people in the lobby, “Got her start right here,” and when the movie was done, Ella would come out and they’d laugh about the old days of disguises and spiral-bound notebooks. Still, she was hoping Taylor might compliment the glasses.
A sucking noise behind her signaled the front door opening.
“I’m telling you, Space Raiders is terrible. Let’s see the dog movie.”
Ella almost opened her mouth to correct the speaker — she had seen Space Raiders last week, and it was pretty good — but when she saw who it was, she let out an inadvertent gasp.
Miller Harrison had just walked into the Greensboro AMC. He looked much older than his picture in the paper. Ella felt slightly faint. Miller reviewed movies at the (much fancier) Cinebarre on the other side of Greensboro. Ella had tried to sneak in there, once and had narrowly avoided getting caught. She leaned casually against the wall of the lobby and used her sunglasses to look at him without looking like she was looking at him.
Miller Harrison was on a date. He was wearing a sport coat. The woman, who was carrying a plain purse, reminded Ella of a kindly elementary school teacher. She felt very warm towards Miller for having age-appropriate taste in women, especially when he could have had anyone in Greensboro.
The truth was that Ella often daydreamed of going to the News & Record after her three-hundredth movie, just to show off what she knew. Everyone would be impressed — she would be hired as a critic on the spot. Miller Harrison would ask her out before the ink was dry on the contract. On their first date, when he asked how she’d seen so many movies, Ella imagined herself confessing it all. He would find her life of petty crime charming and entirely unforgettable. They would fall in love. Her first column would be about sneaking into movies, when she was just starting out and working hard to make it as a critic. When it came out, she’d announce she was donating her first month’s salary to the AMC. She would tell her parents over the phone, when they were deep in some forest in their rinky-dink RV camper, and their life would look small and uninteresting in comparison to hers.
But that was all in the future! She had forty-three movies to go! She didn’t feel ready yet. Besides, no one wanted to hear about someone who had snuck into two hundred fifty-seven movies. No, it would have to be an even three hundred. Still, to see Miller Harrison, here. In her movie theatre. Even through her panic, it was dreamy. Ella looked at Taylor to see if she had noticed the presence of greatness, the glowing star in their midst. Taylor was on her phone. Ella checked her watch. She wanted to stick around to hear what movie they decided on, but the dog movie began in five minutes, so with a sigh, Ella headed into the rear lobby.
The rear lobby was where the movie theatre really began, with a concession stand against the back wall and a humid concentration of processed butter in the air. The actual theaters extended down two dark tunnels, in between which stood the ticket stubber, like an impervious 16-year-old medieval guard. And the most crucial employee to get past. His name was Brian.
Ella rifled through her purse as though searching for her ticket, using the movement to check her watch. No one could get past Brian without a strategy. Ella’s strategies varied. It helped that the movie theatre was usually busy, and that Brian was deeply apathetic towards his job. She often ‘forgot’ things in the movie theatre or passed as a member of a large family. Once, she had said she was the movie critic for the News & Record — just to see how the daydream would sound out loud. That was one of her favorite sneak-ins.
Ella’s most consistent strategy was a child named Maribelle. Maribelle was ten years old. She ran the concession stand. Her father, who owned the movie theatre, didn’t pay her, but she was allowed to eat as much popcorn as she wanted. She was both unhealthy and reasonably unequipped to handle a concession stand, which meant that she could usually be counted on to create distraction. Something went wrong with Maribelle about every two minutes, which gave Ella a minute and thirty seconds to kill. Thankfully, she had a very large purse.
At two minutes on the dot, just as the ticket-stubber was starting to get impatient, Maribelle fell off the stool that allowed her to see above the counter.
“Brian, help!” she wailed. There came the unpleasant sound of popcorn being squished. “Help, or I’ll tell my dad.”
So Brian had to rush behind the counter, which gave Ella just enough time to squeeze in between the rope and a cardboard cutout of Robert De Niro. She walked through the lobby and into the dark cavern of theaters. Nothing to it, nothing at all. She almost wished it had been more difficult. The whole thing had taken six minutes.
As she waited, comfortably squashed into a pleather seat, Ella saw Miller Harrison and the brunette take the seats just in front of her. She leaned forward to listen to their conversation, pretending to tie one of her Velcro-ed shoes.
“Miller, I’m telling you, I’ll cry,” said the woman.
“You would have cried from boredom at Space Raiders,” said Miller Harrison. “Did I tell you I interviewed the actor in this movie?”
“Of course, that was years ago. He was hilarious. I can’t remember — some joke he told. So funny.” He laughed to himself.
“Hmm.” The brunette shifted in her seat.
Ella’s mouth dropped open. She would have died to hear more about that interview. Miller Harrison had worked for the News & Record for twenty-five years. He had season tickets to the Greensboro Grasshoppers. All this woman could say was Hmm? Ella sat back in her seat, astounded. And her parents thought she was socially inept. This woman was unbelievable. Miller Harrison was a real movie critic. Maybe he hadn’t snuck in, when he was starting out, but still. He was undoubtedly interesting.
An hour into the movie, the dog was getting sick, and Ella had not paid attention to a single scene. When the brunette, who had been crying steadily for seventeen minutes, got up to go to the bathroom, Ella slipped out of her seat and followed her.
In the bathroom, the brunette made a beeline for her own reflection in the mirror.
“Oh, honestly,” she said.
Ella locked herself in a stall and listened curiously. There was a lot of sniffling, and the heavy thumping of a paper towel dispenser. After exactly a minute and thirty seconds, Ella unlocked the stall and dared a peek at the brunette. She was trying to repair her makeup while still crying heavily. The counter around her was littered with paper towels.
Ella kept her head down as she washed her hands. She wished that she had the red sunglasses now, so she could stare at the woman in privacy. The woman didn’t notice her.
“Are you okay?” said Ella.
The woman started, as if she hadn’t known anyone was there. Her eyeliner pencil drew a jagged line across her cheek. “I’m sorry.” She motioned to her face and laughed a little. “I’m seeing that movie about the dog. I don’t know why it made me such a mess.”
Ella nodded as though this was new information. “Me too,” she offered, after a minute. She couldn’t remember the last time someone had bothered to make small talk with her. She hoped she wasn’t messing anything up.
“I like your dress,” the woman said without really looking at Ella’s dress. She wet a paper towel and scrubbed it against her cheek. The eyeliner became a large grey circle.
Marianne scrubbed again at her face. “Come off, come off, come off.” She threw the paper towel onto the sink in a fit of frustration. “I can’t go back in like this. I’m on a date.”
Ella shifted her weight from one foot to the other. She didn’t wear makeup and felt a slight sense of superiority. “You’re on a date? Do you like him?” The question sounded awkward, like the words were too big for her mouth.
Marianne sighed and leaned forward into the mirror, until her nose was almost touching her reflection. “Not really, but hey — not like I have a lot of options.”
Ella didn’t want the date to be going well, but she was still annoyed. “Why don’t you like him?”
Marianne shrugged. “He’s just — not very interesting.”
Ella was beginning to feel very hot. This woman could cry her eyes out over two actors on a screen, and she thought Miller was boring? “You’re on a date with Miller Harrison. The movie critic. He’s very interesting.”
“Only in Greensboro could being a movie critic make you interesting,” said Marianne.
“Don’t you think you’re being a little judgmental?” said Ella, too loudly.
Marianne looked at her reflection in the mirror, incredulous, as though it was a person she could speak to, a person to whom she could say Are you hearing this? Ella uncrossed her arms uncomfortably. She had not meant to speak so loudly. She was beginning to get a familiar feeling, the feeling that a conversation had gotten away from her. Her chest twinged. There was a code that told you what was alright to say, some unspoken thing Marianne understood and she didn’t.
“Sorry.” Ella said, more to the feeling in her chest than to Marianne.
Marianne fastened the clasp of her purse calmly. She still had a large, grey spot on her cheek, spreading like a bruise. “Look, I don’t know who you are or what your problem is, but I’m having a very bad day, and I want to go back to my seat now, so would you move?” She didn’t look so much like an elementary school teacher anymore. Ella stepped aside, and the woman banged through the doorway.
Ella could see her own reflection, standing in the corner, her face flushed, and she felt the electric coil in her stomach grow hot. It all felt so unfair — that you could be an interesting critic for an interesting paper and some woman with a cheap purse and bad taste in movies could just decide that she didn’t like you? That she could decide your small talk was rude, or forward, for no reason at all except that she probably played racquetball, and had friends, and had somehow figured out the system of the world that seemed to slip from Ella’s fingers at every turn. Ella wheeled around and back towards the theatre.
In the movie, the dog was only getting sicker, and the theatre seemed to be filled with sniffles. Ella marched up the aisles, the tiny lights making her a way, straight down the row where Miller Harrison and the brunette were sitting stiffly beside each other.
“She thinks you’re boring, you know,” said Ella.
The woman’s mouth dropped open. Miller Harrison, who had by now taken off his sport coat, looked at her as though she was a mildly interesting scene in the movie.
“Uh — what?” He said.
“She thinks you’re boring.” Ella said, pointing at Marianne. “She told me in the bathroom.”
“This is ridiculous,” said Marianne. In the shadowed theatre, one could just barely make out the smudge of eyeliner on her cheek. “I don’t — you know what? We’re leaving.” And without another word, she grabbed Miller’s sport coat and barreled down the steps.
Miller, who was still sitting in his seat, looked, surprised, at Ella, who looked back. Someone shushed in the back of the theatre. He stood up, looking slightly lost. Ella moved into the aisle. Miller looked forlornly at the movie screen, where the dog was taking its last breath. They walked awkwardly down the steps, trying not to walk with one another.
Outside the theatre, Marianne was tapping her foot in a huff. It was obvious that she had been driven there and wanted very much to leave. When she saw Ella, her eyes bulged.
“What is wrong with you? Would you just leave me alone?”
Ella was suddenly very tired. She would have to count this as only half of a movie, which seemed like a waste. Miller Harrison emerged from the theatre, blinking. Without his sport coat, he looked extremely short, but the light seemed to shake him out of his stupor.
“Do you really think I’m boring?” he asked her.
Marianne looked slightly embarrassed, as if she had been caught. “I just — I don’t think it’s working out —” She mumbled something about different interests.
Miller glanced back at the movie theatre, as though he would have liked very much to go back inside. Ella would have liked to go back inside, too. She could be cocooned in the darkness, watching inane people on a screen, and she would be forty-three movies from somewhere, but not there yet. She could insulate herself with other people’s lives, and everything would be interesting and make believe. She hugged her red notebook to her chest.
“I guess — I guess I can take you home?” Miller said.
The woman scowled. “Just forget it. I’m calling an Uber. You —” she looked at Ella. “You—” and as if she couldn’t think of anything terrible enough to say, she shook her head, turned on her heel, and left.
Miller Harrison looked very tired. Now that they were alone, Ella felt nervous and unprepared. The electric coil in her stomach gave a small fizz. She clutched her notebook more tightly. “Y-You look a lot older than your picture in the paper,” she said.
“I’m sorry, do I know you?” Miller said.
“Oh — no.”
the woman’s back. “What happened?”
Ella shifted back and forth. “She — she said you were boring. I don’t think you’re boring. I read all your reviews.”
Miller Harrison wasn’t really listening to her. He was watching Maribelle and Brian, who were far away and seemed to be fighting about the popcorn machine.
Ella kept pushing. “I’d like to work for the News & Record one day, you know.”
Miller snorted. “You shouldn’t. It’s terrible. They’re cutting our health insurance in half.”
“You must like something about it.”
She should have stopped then, sensed the conversation tilting towards disaster. But she felt reckless, and brave. She had a good story to tell, and she had driven Marianne off, and she could see the faintest possibility of her interesting life just beyond her, like light shining around a corner. “You know, I’ve seen two hundred and fifty-six movies here. Well, two hundred fifty-six and a half.”
Miller started. “Goodness. That’s a lot.”
“I’m going to be a critic. One day.” She felt like a baby bird stepping towards the edge of its nest. All she had to do was close the deal. She put a hand on his arm and tried her best to bat her eyelashes. “I’ve never even paid for a ticket. I sneak in. Isn’t that terrible?”
Miller Harrison looked at her as though she were a kernel of popcorn on the sticky theatre floor. “Huh?”
Her smile faded a bit. “It’s funny. My schtick. You know? Like, when I was starting out, I snuck into movies?”
He backed away. “I’m sorry, are you homeless or something?”
“What? No, I —”
“You want money?”
“Look,” he said. “It’s nice that you’re a fan —”
“No, that’s not it at all,” Ella felt very out of breath. “It’s —”
“No cash,” Miller said, holding up his wallet. “Sorry.”
Ella stopped batting her eyelashes. She felt the electric coil in her stomach growing big and then exploding until stars popped behind her eyes. He was backing away from her now, his shoulders slumped, his suit coat swung limply over his shoulder.
She didn’t have the words to make him understand that everything had gone wrong, all of it, right from the start, since the day she began having her nightmare, since the conversation with her parents, since the frozen vegetable aisle. She felt as though she was falling down a long tunnel, like she had jumped for the sky and ended up underground.
Suddenly, before she could stop herself, she ran past Miller Harrison, past the popcorn machines, past Maribelle, past all the ticketed people with their happy ticketed lives. She ran all the way to Taylor, sitting like a trophy in her glass booth, set apart from the world. Taylor, who had never talked to her, and had probably never even thought about. All at once, Ella was ripping pages out of her notebook in sections of two, then five, ten. Taylor stared at her with an open mouth, her gum a pink and squishy lump on her tongue.
In the space under the plexiglass she shoved pages into Taylor’s hands, five or six reviews, just like always, it was not enough but it was all she had. She threw the rest in the air, and they flurried like chunks of flattened snow all around them, crumpling and dirtying under her feet. Taylor looked scared, and Ella wanted to ask her if it was because the sun had set, and the tinted windows were filled with heavy darkness, but she couldn’t make her voice heard over all the shouting. Someone was shouting so loudly that the lobby echoed with the heaviness of it, Ella wished they would stop, her hands stung so badly, and she realized she was smacking and smacking them against the plexiglass ticket booth; it was buckling and shaking under her palms, and someone somewhere was yelling — wailing — Look at me, look at me, look at me.
Kayla Rutledge is a graduate student in the MFA program at NC State University. She is the recipient of the 2019 James Hurst Prize for Fiction from NC State and the 2020 Louis D. Rubin, Jr. Prize in Creative Writing from UNC-Chapel Hill. Her work is published and forthcoming in 3Elements Review, Gone Lawn, and Peatsmoke.