The Prophet of Heathridge Hills

Jacob M. Appel

 

At first, Laura told herself it was a phase—not a warning that Jimmy was an odd child so much as confirmation that all seven year olds, by their nature, had peculiar tendencies. He asked: Will you get another husband once Daddy goes away? Will you have another baby after I die? Does Mr. Dutton’s wife know that he loves Miss Whitlock? Or maybe he was acting out, responding to the sudden move from their cozy (although tight-fitting and mice-trafficked) apartment on 114th Street and Broadway to this sprawling, antiseptic ranch house in Heathridge Hills, where she felt she might keel over inside the hickorytrimmed kitchen without anyone noticing for weeks. That was nonsense, of course. If nobody met Jimmy’s school bus, surely the driver possessed the good sense to investigate. And had Jimmy sought refuge with a neighbor—not that she’d even met their neighbors yet—Randall would obviously have found her when he returned from the hospital. But she understood the urge to act out, to rebel, so she answered Jimmy’s questions matter-of-factly, with the calculated calm promoted by the parenting guide: Daddy won’t go away. You’re not going to die anytime soon. Mr. Dutton and Miss Whitlock are friends, because they work together, which is a different kind of loving somebody from being married to each other. At least the boy wasn’t wetting his bed, she reassured herself. At least he didn’t maim squirrels. So she was genuinely surprised, albeit also a bit unsettled, when—only three weeks into the school year—Art Dutton summoned her to the Heathridge Place School for an urgent meeting. 

The low-strung structure, a geometric wonder of spruce beams and stained glass, smirked behind a colonnade of perfectly-spaced sophora trees, a tableau pristine as an architect’s brochure from the Eisenhower era. Cars already ringed the traffic circle when Laura arrived, anxious mothers squeezed into cigarette-thin slacks, regal-cheeked nannies decked out in colorful pagnes and bubas. Laura had worn a Vassar sweatshirt and baggy jeans. She debated whether to commandeer a vacant space labeled “STAFF ONLY,” then circled around and parked three blocks away on a side street. Overnight, a steady rain had lacquered the sidewalk with wet leaves: orange sassafras, yellow sugar maples, a stunning burgundy that could have been sourwood. Ever since they’d left Manhattan, Randall had been trying to teach her the classifications of the natural world—and she’d listened, for his benefit. Bird species. Cloud forms. Varieties of soil conditioner. As though the more she knew—the more she understood about grackles and vermiculite—the less she’d miss the rhythms of the city, the madness of their Moldovan doorman barking at his nephews in Gaguaz, which always struck her as a made-up language, or the rumble of the subway under the movie theater near Lincoln Center. She wiped her sneakers on the corrugated mats opposite the auditorium, noting once again—more with wonder than alarm—the absence of security.

A tricolored arrow in the bow of a construction paper owl pointed Laura toward the second grade wing. She found Art Dutton feeding a caged gerbil, shuffling pellets and lab blocks into a porcelain dish. Jimmy’s teacher bore a port wine stain across his forehead that made him resemble a rutabaga. He whistled while he labored, a credible rendition of Gershwin’s “Summertime.”

“Mr. Dutton?” asked Laura, although she knew it was him, hoping a deferential attitude might help undo whatever damage her son had perpetrated. Dutton started, as if caught in an indecent act, and quickly shoved the bowl into the cage.

“Laura Kohlberg,” added Laura. “Jimmy’s mother.”

“Indeed,” agreed Dutton.

Jimmy’s teacher appeared closer to sixty than fifty, and Laura found herself wondering why a man of his generation would choose a career in elementary education. She could only come up with three reasons, of which laziness and lack of talent were the more benign. That was unfair of her, she recognized— but so was summoning her on short notice, without explanation, like a prisoner in an Eastern European novel. Art Dutton settled behind his desk. She seated herself on the steel-backed chair at his left. 

“They’re in the gymnasium,” he said—defensively, as though she’d accused him of misplacing her son. “A healthy way to conclude the afternoon.” 

 “So how is Jimmy doing?” she asked. 

The teacher passed a vinyl apple between his coarse hands; his fingers had the raw sheen of an obsessive’s, and his flesh bulged around his wedding band.

“Academically, your son is performing well,” he said. “That is not the problem . . .”

Dutton’s eyes trailed the apple back and forth as though transfixed by a Newton’s cradle. Tufts of coarse hair protruded from the cuffs of his shirt.

“Okay, then what exactly is the problem?”

Her words sounded more hostile than she’d intended, leaving Jimmy’s teacher to struggle for his own. Laura looked out across the shipwreck of tiny desks, recollecting how awful it had once felt to be a schoolgirl— how powerless, forever at the mercies of sadistic men who resembled root vegetables and spent women who stank of turpentine. She regretted not asking Randall to take the afternoon off from work.

“Jimmy has developed a habit of saying things . . . of speculating about relationships among the faculty . . . To be candid, Mrs. Kohlberg, he’s made a habit of suggesting that I’m having a romantic liaison with several of my female colleagues . . .”

“Any ones in particular?”

Her question flustered Dutton. Jimmy’s teacher dropped the ersatz apple; it bounced dully across the carpet. During the instant that his gaze followed the fruit, Laura glimpsed the infidelity in his broad, cloddy features. He recovered quickly. 

“Several,” he said. “Mrs. Canatuba, for instance . . . and Dr. Bagwell . . . and Miss Whitlock . . .”

Jimmy, who spoke of Miss Whitlock daily, had never mentioned Mrs. Canatuba or Dr. Bagwell.

“I see,” said Laura. “And Miss Whitlock . . .”

Dutton eyed her warily. “It’s awkward.”

“I can imagine.”

“It makes the other students feel uncomfortable . . .” 

Laura stood up. “I’ll have his father talk to him.”

She would do nothing of the sort—she’d talk to him herself—but she sensed that deferring to her husband carried more sway with a man like Art Dutton. And while part of her longed to expose his philandering ass, she also wanted Jimmy’s year to be a fruitful one. He was a great kid, after all—maybe a bit odd, she conceded, but innocent and lovable. She was grateful that she’d had him. When she picked him up outside gym class that afternoon—a treat for them both—he swallowed her in a hug. They strolled the three blocks to the Oldsmobile hand in hand.

“Who are Mrs. Canatuba and Dr. Bagwell?” she asked.

He kicked a branch along the sidewalk. “Dr. Bagwell teaches fifth grade. She’s missing one of her fingers,” he said, holding up his folded pinkie. “I don’t know who that other lady is.”

“I figured . . .”

He didn’t ask why she’d asked. Propelling the branch forward was far more important. But when they reached the lip of the traffic circle, he pointed back at the sweep of sophoras and inquired, “What kind of trees will they plant when these fall down?”

“Those trees look pretty sturdy to me,” replied Laura. “I don’t think we have to worry about them falling.” 

They did look sturdy. Soulless too, she reflected. And she smiled perversely at her next thought: nothing that a solid coat of spray paint couldn’t rectify.

 

She hardly mentioned the matter to Randall. His initial honeymoon with Heathridge Hills had pitched him headfirst against the breakwater of suburban living: soon he was bemoaning the cost of lawn care, grumbling about the commuter train, cold-calling other physicians in the neighborhood for lifts into Manhattan. A woodchuck uprooted his tomatoes. The damper in the chimney needed replacement. And then a late season hurricane, Silvana, churned up the Eastern Seaboard, shattering glass and submerging cellars. Two local firefighters died dousing an electrical blaze at the Heathridge Library. Randall performed six emergent appendectomies and removed three gallbladders during a thirty-six hour shift at the hospital. Her encounter with Jimmy’s womanizing teacher seemed inconsequential.

Laura’s second “urgent” meeting with Art Dutton—two weeks later—did nothing to improve her impression of the man. He referred to her as “my dear lady” and lobbed around incendiary words like “slander” and “defamation.” Did the man have a clue how absurd he sounded, threatening legal action against a seven year old? Did he realize that she’d graduated second in her class at Columbia Law? She gazed past Mr. Rutabaga—nothing more than a glorified turnip, she mused—to where, beyond the stained glass, ravenous mothers were already scooping their children from the pavement. She’d parked on the northern side of the building, adjacent to the delivery entrance, to avoid these women. Who in heaven’s name wore pearl earrings to carpool? Laura was admiring one particular gray-banged mother, a dowdy creature sporting cargo pants and moccasins, thinking, I could be friends with her, when she recognized how the tableau had altered: the sophora trees were gone!

“What happened to the trees?!”

“What trees?” asked Dutton. “Oh, you mean the ones up front? Storm took them out like a row of Dominos.” He sounded annoyed. “Now if you could focus for a moment, my dear lady, what I’m describing is no laughing matter . . .”

She didn’t register another word that Jimmy’s teacher uttered. All she could think about were the questions the boy had asked over breakfast: What if Grandma Lily doesn’t want to stay at the nursing home? When did Uncle Nate realize he likes boys and not girls? If you have another child after I drown, will you teach him how to swim? That morning, while she’d been insisting that her husband’s brother remained happily married to Aunt Judy, who was very much a girl, a fact punctuated by the woman’s child-bearing hips and a weakness for fuchsia ribbons, those trees had lain guillotined at the roots. And Randall urged her not to engage! “So the boy’s ‘gaydar’ is better than Judy’s,” he’d quipped to her over the phone from the operating room. “It’s harmless.”

When Randall arrived home that evening—Thursday was his late night at the hospital, so Jimmy was already in bed—she pointed out that it hadn’t been so “harmless” for the trees. 

Randall listened as he changed costumes, trading in his necktie and dress slacks for dungarees and a Brooklyn Dodgers T-shirt. “So let me get this straight. Are you saying the boy recognizes the future? Or that he actually causes these events by predicting them?”

“I don’t know.” 

“Then what exactly are you saying?”

Laura sat on the bed, clutching a breakfast pillow to her chest. She knew what she wanted to say, but Randall had a gift for making her fears sound infantile. “He predicted the trees were going to fall down and the trees fell down. He said his teacher’s having an affair—and I swear to God, I’m telling you, the man’s having an affair. I could just sense it.” She squeezed the flange of the pillow. “The blowhard started rambling about defamation, and it took all of my resolve not to say that it can’t be defamation if it’s true . . .” 

Randall grinned. “Thank you, counsellor, for not antagonizing the person responsible for our son’s safety during working hours . . .”

“And now Jimmy’s talking about drowning, and your mother going to a nursing home, and his friend Billy’s father dying in Afghanistan.” She sensed the tears welling behind her eyes. “Dammit, I told you we shouldn’t have moved . . .” 

Randall slid onto the bed alongside her; he wrapped his arm around her shoulders. “The Pujari Effect,” he said matter-of-factly.

“What?”

“It’s a statistical phenomenon. Named for a famous Indian mathematician. If you go to a movie, and the villain’s license plate is the same as your hated stepmother’s license plate, you register the coincidence—you give it meaning, you call it fate. But you never think about the thousands of villains on movies and TV who had license plates that weren’t your stepmother’s, or the thousands of phone numbers and birthdates and street addresses that weren’t hers.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning that your son predicts a lot of things. Statistically, the odds favor a few of them coming true . . . You just don’t register the many more that don’t come true . . .”

“I’m worried,” she said.

“Don’t be.” He kissed her forehead. “I’m going to heat myself a snack,” he said. “If you wait up for me, I’ll make it worth your while.”

She heard his feet on the stairs and she tiptoed into Jimmy’s room. The boy laid awake, eyes open, staring at the ceiling. Nothing about his bedroom—the posters of basketball stars and lizards, the stacks of pre-teen adventure tales— suggested anything abnormal. He asked: “If I catch a snake, can we feed him mice?” He asked: “Why would the people in Afghanistan kill a doctor like Dr. Pozner?”

“So many questions,” Laura said. “How do you think up so many questions?” 

“I don’t know. They just come to me.” 

She brushed the boy’s cheek with the back of her hand. She could order him to stop asking questions, she supposed—but to what end? He’d still think them. And he was too young—or maybe just too odd—to understand her concerns. Persuading him not to mention Arnie Pozner’s hypothetical future death in front of Billy had proven enough of a challenge.

Laura sat up with the boy for almost an hour, watching the saccades of his overcurious eyes, the cadence of his tiny lungs. When she returned to her own bed, Randall had already dozed off. She nudged his flank. “Randall? I’m still worried . . .”

“You’re thinking too much,” he answered. “You should read Pujari’s essay.”

 “I don’t want to read Pujari’s essay,” she snapped. “I want you to speak to the Borrellis about fencing in their pond . . .”

Randall fumbled for his glasses on the end table; he rolled over to face her. “What are you talking about?”

“The Borrellis. Two doors down,” she explained. “They have a pond.”

“So?”

“So it’s the kind of pond a seven-year-old could drown in . . .”

Laura had noticed the manmade pond on the drive home from school; later, while Jimmy watched television, she’d ducked out to inspect it. Algae girdled the water, which appeared still and deep and ominous. She’d spotted a pair of koi, a snail. She didn’t need a biology lecture from Randall to identify two koi and a snail. She’d never actually met the Borrellis—but she’d seen them once, unloading their station wagon after a beach trip: an overweight couple, in hisand-hers sun visors, carrying lawn chairs. She knew their surname from the lettering beside the mailbox. 

“Can we talk about this over the weekend?” he asked.

She didn’t answer. He kissed her bare shoulder and turned toward the wall. A few minutes later, she said, “Randall? Are you still awake? Randall, please don’t leave me . . .” But she could tell he was sleeping by his breath.

 

Randall did not speak to the Borrellis about their pond. He did not confront the couple on a nearby block who drew water from a poorly-enclosed well. When Laura suggested they reconsider their planned Gulf Coast vacation— Cormorant Island seemed a would-be drowner’s paradise—he rolled his eyes. Instead of childproofing the neighborhood, her husband threatened to report their realtor for undeclared water wicking in the basement and argued with the contractor over the cost of spray foam insulation. When migratory birds appeared on the patio, what looked to her like yellow pigeons and red-andblack sparrows, Randall made no effort to teach her their proper names. Meanwhile, Laura did her best to adjust to a lifestyle she’d never wanted, to integrate into a community she increasingly grew to despise. She volunteered to chaperone the second grade apple-picking field trip and the school’s Colonial Fair; she joined the PTA committee on Arts & Culture. In short, she endured. But Jimmy continued to ask his inflammatory questions—Will the governor still appear on television after he’s arrested?—and one afternoon in late September, Arnie Pozner’s helicopter crashed north of Kandahar. 

“The man was serving in a war zone,” said Randall, calm as the autumn sky. “Why should we be surprised that he’s dead? Upset, sure. Horrified, even. But surprised?”

They waited outside the ape house at the zoo, at a wrought iron table stippled with pigeon muck and maple samaras. Grandma Lily had escorted Jimmy inside to view the monkeys, sparing his parents the smell. From across the plaza rose the shrieking of toddlers, the periodic trumpet of the African elephants, the stentorian narration of the monorail. A tin of French fries attracted black flies on the tabletop between them. Laura drew her hands into the shell of her sweater for warmth. 

“Tell me you’re not even a little bit fazed by the coincidence.”

“Not even a wee little bit,” replied Randall, measuring the space between his index finger and his thumb.

“You do realize that Art Dutton—the teacher I was telling you about— retired suddenly. A month into the school year. No explanation. And the kindergarten teacher, Miss Whitlock, went out on maternity leave the same week. What does your crazy theory say about that?”

“It says married men should use birth control.”

Laura sensed her rage mounting. “Jesus, Randall. Don’t be an ass.”

“Look, I’m not trying to get you upset. But I thought we’d already agreed they were having an affair. What more does this prove?”

She strove to soothe herself, counting backward from ten inside her head. That’s how her mother had dealt with her father though four decades of sarcasm and cynicism and unwitting cruelty—that was the nature, the essence, of being a wife. It didn’t matter if you were a Columbia-educated ex-attorney raising a seven year old in Heathridge Hills or a high school dropout from Canarsie overseeing a brood of nine.

“Maybe we should tell someone,” suggested Laura. 

“Who, exactly?” Randall pressed his index and middle fingers into his temple, as though mulling a challenging conundrum. “Do you want me to go to the police and say my seven-year-old son predicted the death of his friend’s father?”

“Not the police. I mean a doctor. A psychiatrist. Maybe he should be seeing someone.”

Randall dipped a French fry into ketchup. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that child,” he said decisively. “And for the record, I am a doctor.”

A real doctor, thought Laura. An old-fashioned doctor with a black bag and a stethoscope who listened to people’s problems and solved them with sensible advice. Not a glorified butcher who snipped entrails from the disinfected abdomens of patients under anesthesia. She dared not voice this, of course. She didn’t even think she meant it. Maybe what she really meant was that she should be seeing someone—a therapist, a clairvoyant, anyone who’d listen. She missed having friends in the neighboring apartments, her baby sister two buildings away. But Randall was probably right: did she really want to tell her sister that Jimmy was wreaking havoc on the world? 

“Okay, let’s say I’m totally crazy. Can you still humor me? Please . . .? How long will it take you to speak with those people about the pond and the well?”

“Fine. I’ll speak with them.”

“And Cormorant Island?”

“It’s your vacation, too. If you want to spend it in the Arizona desert, or the Sahara, for that matter, it’s fine by me . . .”

“Really?”

“Just don’t expect me to fence in the Grand Canyon.”

“Thank you,” said Laura.

He drew her hand to his lips and kissed her wrist through her sleeve. “I’m not so unreasonable, am I?” he asked. “But since I’m doing my part, will you please at least read Pujari’s essay? I’ll leave a copy for you on the kitchen table.” He drew her hand to his face and cupped his lovingly over hers. “Honestly, it will make you feel better.”

Laura did not have an opportunity to answer. A high-pitched cry pierced through the clamor of the zoo, following by a series of thuds, and then Randall was on his feet, charging past her toward the ape house. She turned to see her mother-in-law’s body sprawled on the staircase, nearly upside down, one leg contorted to an inhuman posture. Instinctively, she raced to shelter Jimmy from the calamity, clasping his fragile chest to her waist.

“It’s going to be all right, Mama,” soothed Randall. “I promise. It’s going to be all right.”

But she’d suffered a stroke, not merely a fall, and nine days later, Lily Kohlberg was slated for discharge to a long-term nursing facility in Valhalla Heights.

 

Randall visited his mother at the nursing home every evening after work. He’d never suffered a personal catastrophe before: his parents had divorce the year he was born, and his father’s death, after decades of absence, was more a misfortune than a horror. But Lily Kohlberg’s condition could only be described as catastrophic. The woman’s mind remained intact enough for her to realize that her mind was far from intact, so she spent her days sobbing in a dayroom that reeked pungently of lavender, off a corridor that stank faintly of urine, inside a cinderblock facility whose lobby exuded the musty aroma of squalid government offices. Laura couldn’t handle more than one visit each week. The truth was that she couldn’t handle any visits at all, but Jimmy wanted to see his grandmother—his only surviving grandparent—so she stomached them for his sake.

At first, Laura didn’t dare bring up the neighbor’s pond. How could she, during those first nights in the ICU, the telemetry pulsing, monitors bleating like electrified sheep? Or even during those early days at Valhalla Gardens? But once her mother-in-law’s condition appeared stable, if bleak and demoralizing, she revisited the issue. Surely now, with Lily begging to leave the nursing home, Randall must see the correlation between Jimmy’s questions and the series of tragedies that had enveloped them since their move. Yet she’d hardly uttered the name Borrelli when he raised his palm like a shield. “Can’t you see I have other priorities at the moment? Please, Laura. What planet are you living on?” Although Randall didn’t leave Pujari’s essay on the kitchen table as promised, she checked a copy of his Collected Writings out of the county library. I’m doing my part, she assured herself, reading about probabilistic monotonicity and mutually exclusive events. The Indian mathematician had a knack for metaphors, drawing upon his knowledge of train station layouts and radio technology and even bauxite mining, but nothing about Prabodhankar Pujari, a committed Fascist who’d lived much of his adult life in Mussolini’s Italy, struck Laura as particularly comforting or convincing.

She considered speaking to the Borrellis directly, or of visiting Mrs. Borrelli for a cup of tea during the belly of the afternoon, but she recognized a man’s job when she saw one: if she made her plea alone, she’d be dismissed as an overprotective nuisance. A robust, masculine demand, on the other hand, the ultimatum of a surgeon—now, that couldn’t be flouted so lightly. Yet Randall spent half his time at the hospital, the other half intentionally losing games of Monopoly and Parcheesi to his mother. And Jimmy continued asking questions: What kind of funeral will I have when I drown? Will Daddy write to us when he goes way? The boy penned letters to her siblings, and to Randall’ brother, begging for a net to catch snakes in the backyard.

On the night after Halloween—a clammy, windswept Friday—Randall appeared in the foyer with Uncle Nate in tow. Nathan Kohlberg ran the marketing arm of a cruise ship company; every piece of clothing he owned bore the Arctic Star logo: a rotund walrus wielding a trident. Over the years, he’d grown to resemble the mascot. His galoshes tracked on the linoleum. Jimmy, pajama feet slapping the steps, dashed into his uncle’s ursine arms.

“Look what I’ve got,” announced Randall’s brother. From behind his back, he produced an aluminum-handled fishing net. “It’s amazing what Mama kept in her garage.”

“Can I catch a snake with this?” asked Jimmy.

“You can try,” replied Nate. “Now if you run upstairs so I can talk to your parents for a few minutes, I’ll come up soon to tuck you in.”

Nate’s cheerful expression dissolved with the patter of Jimmy’s feet. “Can I trouble you for a drink?” he asked. “Anything with alcohol.” Laura’s brother-in-law slumped at the kitchen table, rumpled and deflated. While he nursed his Canadian whiskey—a gift from a patient, the only hard liquor in the house—he revealed that his marriage had faltered beyond repair. “I don’t know how it happened,” he lamented. Because you like men, obviously, thought Laura, although she had never once questioned Nate’s orientation until Jimmy’s inquiry. “Mama’s stroke was just the catalyst, not the cause,” he said. “But I wanted to tell you both in person. And if it’s all right with you, Laura, I was hoping to commandeer your sofa for a couple of nights.”

Randall looked toward her, too. “His bag is in the car,” he said. 

“Fine, of course,” she agreed. 

While her brother-in-law bid goodnight to his nephew, she turned down the Murphy bed in the den and retrieved fresh linens from the pantry. “Thank you, Laura,” he said. “Only a couple of nights, I promise. And maybe Jimmy and I can catch a snake.”

“Catch a cold, more likely,” retorted Laura.

She waited until the swinging door to the kitchen had stopped reverberating before she laced into Randall, shouting in her loudest whisper. “He’s gay! For God’s sake, Randall, your brother’s marriage is at death’s door—because, as your son says, Uncle Nate likes boys. Are you hearing me, Randall? Everything that child predicts comes true!” 

“Who says Nate is gay? Nate didn’t.”

“Please, Randall. Listen to yourself. Would it matter to you if he were gay? Wouldn’t you just say it’s another instance of statistical likelihood or some such garbage?” 

“You should read Pujari’s essay.”

“I did read the essay. You should talk to the Borrellis.”

Randall strode to the counter and retrieved a bagel from a brown paper bag. He used a steak knife to lather the interior with cream cheese. “It’s a fourfoot-deep pond,” he said, choosing each word with obvious care. “My mother had a stroke, and Nate’s marriage is collapsing, and you really want me to ask complete strangers to put barbed wire around an oversized puddle?”

She hadn’t said a word about barbed wire. “Your mother had a stroke because Jimmy said she would. Can’t you understand that?”

Randall set down the knife and bit into the bagel.

“Bullshit,” he said, chewing. “If I really thought that, I’d—”

Laura grabbed the knife from the counter. “You’d what?” 

Her eyes followed his to the blade. As soon as she saw the knife in her grip, the serrated steel only inches from Randall’s throat, she recognized her own madness. An instant later, she’d disposed of the makeshift weapon safely in the sink. “I’m sorry,” she said, her entire body shuddering.

“We’ve all been under a lot of stress,” he said.

Randall continued to eat his bagel. She wanted to hate him for his composure, his unflappable equanimity, but she couldn’t. She might easily have murdered the man—and all he could do was empathize with her stress. Yet for some inexplicable reason, the sight of her husband chewing, a dab of cream cheese caught on his mustache, made her smile.

“Do you remember that last night in the apartment?” she asked. “Do you remember how happy we were?”

He nodded, still chewing. 

They’d already done the hard work the previous afternoon, driving in tandem with the movers’ truck, but they’d returned for one last night on 114th Street. They spread out sleeping bags on the hardwood, roasted marshmallows over a Coleman stove. Randall invited the Moldovan doorman to join them upstairs after his shift for a valedictory cigar. The next morning, Jimmy had phoned his grandmother and informed her he’d “gone camping.” No questions about nursing homes or drowning. That was the last time, Laura realized, that she’d been happy. 

“We could move back,” she said. “We could say fuck you to the woodchuck and the grackles and go back to how things were . . .”

Randall continued chewing, all jaw and teeth. He didn’t answer and he didn’t not answer, but perched for a moment somewhere in between. A flicker of the kitchen drapes distracted her, drawing her attention to the draft.

 “What’s that?” 

“What’s what?” asked Randall.

She stepped around the corner into the dining room; he followed. Sure enough, the patio door stood ajar, filling the house with autumn chill. 

“It’s just the door,” said Randall.

“Where’s Jimmy?”

“Upstairs,” said her husband. “In bed.”

But Laura’s instincts told her otherwise, so she charged down the slick slate steps and across the damp grass. A slash of thorns scored her arms as she wriggled through the hedges into their neighbor’s backyard. Her eyes adjusted to the moonlight; her slippers sank into the mud. Behind her, she heard Randall thrashing, calling her name, but she ignored him. She crossed the yard, burrowed through another thicket. A light went on in the Borrellis’ window. When she finally reached their pond, Jimmy was already deep in the stagnant water. She could make out the contours of his shoulders, the soaked clump of pajama top matted to his back. 

The boy turned to face her, beaming. He held the fishing net toward her.

“Look, Mom,” he cried. “It’s a snake!”

 

The next morning, she waited to rouse Jimmy until Randall had left for the hospital; it was the first Saturday of the month, so he had clinic from nine to one. They’d planned on a family outing at the Colonial Fair, then dinner with Grandma Lily at Valhalla Gardens. “Tell Nate he can come, too,” said Randall, pecking her cheek. Not a word about the garden snake they’d imprisoned in the garage, in a disposable container that the contractors had used to mix paint. Not a word about their son who’d nearly drowned in a four foot deep pond. 

Jimmy woke in bright spirits; he’d dismissed her scolding of the previous night and Randall’s far milder rebuke—more of a wink and a nod, really—and all the boy remembered was his reptilian catch.

“Can we take the snake to the Colonial Fair?” he asked. 

“We cannot take the snake to the fair.”

Laura buttered his toast with a knife identical to the one that had almost stabbed his father. On the television, the governor denied all of the charges against him. 

 “Will you get married again when Daddy goes away?” asked Jimmy.

 “That’s not going to happen,” she said. “I’m not going to let that happen.” She retrieved her suitcase, and the boy’s, from the foyer closet. “Daddy can’t go away if we go away first.”

She would go to her sister’s, she told herself. Back to the city. As far away from Heathridge Hills as she could get.

Jimmy looked from her to the suitcases and back. “What will happen—?”

I don’t know,” she shouted. “Stop asking questions, okay? Because I just don’t know!” 

And she didn’t know. But it had to be better than this.

 

 

JACOB M. APPEL’s most recent publications include a novel, The Biology of Luck, and a story collection, Einstein’s Beach House. He teaches at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop and practices medicine in New York City.