“Hill Valley Cinema – Grand Opening,” proclaimed a banner spread beneath the marquee. Jesse Franklin pushed his black hair out of his face, stepped back, and marvelled at the newly renovated theatre. As a boy, he had frequented the old cinema, seeing all three original Star Wars movies, Indiana Jones, and E.T. Those had been the golden years of the only movie theatre in the county, but then the newspaper headlines claimed: “Rapist and murderer Randall Hines found dead in Appleton Cinema.”
Jesse caught a movement to his left and turned to see Rob Garrison next to him.
“Big day,” Rob said in that over-the-top voice of his. His dark eyes and tan skin glowed. He flashed one of those grins that rumor had it could coax most girls into his bed in less than twenty-four hours.
“Yeah,” Jesse breathed, his head still swimming from the night before of a smoky bar infused with shots.
Rob clapped his buddy on the shoulder. “Well, you did it. Your old man’d be proud.”
“I’d like to hope so,” Jesse murmured, his eyes falling to the keys in his hands. “We saw a lot of movies here over the years. Big, successful guy like him might not think owning a movie theatre’s that huge.”
“Nah, he’s be proud, Jesse.”
Jesse smiled in pain, memories of frequent visits to the nursing home surfacing. Ron Franklin lay staring straight ahead, his eyes vacant. His whole right side hung limp, his mouth drawn. His answer to any question was “twenty-three.”
“Still can’t believe you did it, man.”
Jesse laughed. “Audrey isn’t happy about the second mortgage we had to take out on the house, but she supports my dream…crazy movie-lover that I am.”
“Still, d’you think, you know, people will remember the rumors?”
“It’s been years, you superstitious freak.” Jesse scoffed. “Those were rumors, nothing else. Besides, we were kids. The old folks loved to say ‘a series of unfortunate events,’ like that new book series by that Lemony guy.”
“Yeah, but you can’t deny the past. Look it up, buddy. The articles are real. After old man Hines up and croaked, too many people followed in his footsteps and all in auditorium six.”
“Superstitions. Coincidence. Call it what you want.” Jesse shrugged. “It’s opening day and I have a theatre to run.”
“It was dubbed auditorium 666,” Rob called after him as Jesse approached the building and waved his friend away.
“Don’t you have a girlfriend or something to get back to?” Jesse called, his back to Rob.
“Maybe…one or two. See ya around, pal. Let me know if anyone dies today.”
The heat of June beat down on Jesse’s shoulders as he fumbled with the keys to unlock the door. The humidity was awful that first year of the new millennium in northeastern Ohio.
As he stepped inside, the phantom smell of popcorn assaulted Jesse’s nose. He rubbed his rough chin and studied the lobby. He beamed.
The place was unrecognizable. Jesse had a job in the concession stand in high school, back when the old owner stopped using auditorium six. The lobby now was mostly a new addition, with a closed-in box office. No more complaints about freezing in the wind while waiting to buy tickets. No more cramped lobby with lines out the door for popcorn.
Jesse went to the room behind the concession stand and turned on the lights. Neon signs came to life in the lobby. He stepped into the hallway that led to auditoriums one through nine. A whole other wing held ten through eighteen. Only the first nine had been here back in the day.
Jesse walked down the carpeted hall toward the infamous auditorium six, unsure why except for curiosity. He hovered near the doors, the wood shiny and unblemished. He entered and walked to the front of the auditorium. The seats were stadium-style now. No sticky floors or dark, depressing colors. Jesse chuckled to himself, shook his head, and left. He had work to do.
After the doors closed behind him, the projector turned on and illuminated the screen, but no movie played. The speakers hummed, whispered… “Come to Papa, darling.”