Cover image for After the fall
Title:
After the fall
Author:
Kelman, Judith.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1999.
Physical Description:
310 pages ; 24 cm
Language:
English
Geographic Term:
ISBN:
9780399145117
Format :
Book

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Central Library X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks
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Julia Boyer Reinstein Library X Adult Fiction Open Shelf
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Summary

Summary

Danny Magill is just about a perfect kid. He has everything going for him -- looks, grades, athletic ability, and a practically guaranteed admission to the college of his choice. Then the police come pounding at his door, arresting Danny for a shocking crime and shattering the perfect world of his family.How could this nightmare be happening to this boy? This family? This town? How will they all survive?Judith Kelman's gripping psychological novel goes beyond the issue of guilt or innocence and skillfully answers the question of what binds a family together.


Author Notes

With more than two million copies of her books in print, Judith Kelman is a master of psychological suspense. Her novels include: Where Shadows Fall (1987), While Angels Sleep (1988), Hush Little Darlings (1989), Someone's Watching (1991), The House on the Hill (1992), If I Should Die (1993), One Last Kiss (1994), Prime Evil (1995), More Than You Know (1996), Fly Away Home (1998) and After the Fall (1999). Judith Kelman lives with her husband in New York City.


Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Author of 12 suspense novels, Kelman has an obvious knack for cranking out page-turners. Her latest, however, is not her best. The happy, clean-cut Magill family is jolted out of their pampered existence when oldest son Danny is accused of rape. The parents agonize over how to help their son, and his two younger siblings try to understand why their family has been shattered. Policeman Joe Tucci is assigned to investigate the case as he struggles with his own daughter's mysterious illness and his partner's guilt over a mistaken shooting. Mother Jess, a psychotherapist whose cozy world has been turned upside down, sees old friends and neighbors turn into enemies. Kelman builds excitement as the case heads toward a trial, but the ending is something of a disappointment. Although this novel is not quite in the same league as the work of Mary Higgins Clark, it should appeal to her fans. --Jenny McLarin


Publisher's Weekly Review

Jess and Charles MagillConnecticut residents, Ivy League, professionally secure physicianshave a happy marriage, three healthy kids, satisfying careers and a lovely home. But when their teenaged honor student/athlete son is arrested and accused of brutally assaulting a female classmate, their comfortable lives are plunged into chaos. Kelman, veteran author of 11 novels (including Fly Away Home), provides a smooth and suspenseful contemporary tale of suburban trauma, setting the scene with harmonious, sweetly domestic tableaux that are succeeded by episodes of a family coming apart. Jess is torn by her younger sons temper tantrums, teenaged daughters hostility, her mothers depressed antagonism and the towns vicious gossip about the family; Charlie emotionally withdraws from the escalating tension; and Jesss psychotherapy practice is stressed by a psychotic patient. A nicely integrated subplot centers around the detective in charge of the case, Sergeant Tucci, Charlies former high school classmate. Tuccis stress level is also high, with a belligerent boss, a 17-year-old daughter whos mysteriously ill and a traumatized, dysfunctional partner. Kelman keeps the action moving swiftly, giving equal time to the accusers, the authorities and the Magill family. Auxiliary characters ring consistently true, from the Magills dog (named Prozac) to Jesss frosty father-in-law, and including neighbors, local psychics and corrupt doctors. In stylish, energetic prose, Kelman reveals surprising new twists whenever the narrative reaches a tense plateau. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


School Library Journal Review

YA-Danny is handsome, athletic, and smart. Nearly everyone likes and respects him. Suddenly, his entire world shatters when a girl with whom he has been friends since childhood, and to whom he gave a ride home, accuses him of a vicious assault and rape. She has the contusions and body-fluids test to implicate him. Danny arrived home late that night, covered in mud, seemingly distracted. He finally admits to consensual sex, but denies any physical abuse. Readers follow the effects of this charge on his family as the criminal justice system slowly grinds the teen through its plodding routine. His mother's counseling practice declines dramatically. His father reacts strongly as the whole episode reminds him of things long hidden in his own past. The family's unraveling accelerates as Danny's younger brother and sister struggle to understand what is happening. Even his parents' once-strong marriage teeters on the edge of collapse. Investigating the crime, and providing a counterpoint to the family's shaky assumption that Danny has to be innocent, is Detective Tucci. He dislikes Danny's father intensely and believes, in "like father, like son" fashion, that the boy must be guilty. The story provides lots of interesting detail as readers follow each character's thoughts and reasoning. The problems lurking under the surface are frankly examined, and should prove interesting to most young adults. The novel provides much food for thought and a conclusion that can generate lots of discussion.-Carol DeAngelo, Kings Park Library, Burke, VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Excerpts

Excerpts

Chapter One Jess Magill was staring down the barrel of a steel-eyed, snub-nosed weapon of lethal force. Her name was Dolores Wainscott, and though she'd been custom-crafted by Dr. Herman Delgado, plastic surgeon to scores of Barbie impersonators and the terminally young, she did not come equipped with a silencer or a safety.     "How was the vacation, Jess? Was France très bien ?" Dolores asked.     "Fine."     "Food must have been fantastique from the look of you, chérie . You must have put on, what? Ten, fifteen pounds?"     "Come in, Dolores. Have a seat."     The pert nose twitched. "Actually, it's not all bad on you--the extra pork. Smooths out some of the jowls and wrinkles."     Dolores strutted across the office, spiked pumps spanking the hardwood floor. Her signature jasmine scent wafted behind like a vapor trail. Flinging aside a teddy bear, she staked her habitual place on the brown leather couch. She braided her liposuctioned legs at the knee and ankle and tossed her raven mane like a bullfighter's cape. "I have to tell you it was damned inconvenient for me to come in this afternoon, Jessica. What's the big emergency? Overdue phone bill?"     "I'll be with you in just a minute, Dolores."     "You want a loan, ask for a loan. You need to fill your time slots, say so. Of all people, you'd think a shrink would know how to say what's on her mind. I'm so sick of your silly evasive games, I swear it."     Jess leafed absently through the case file, waiting for her nerves to stop snapping like rubber bands. After a dozen years as a psychotherapist, she had come to view herself as largely shatterproof and shock-resistant, at least where patients were concerned. Between her practice in downtown Stamford, Connecticut, and her earlier work at Glenhaven, a psychiatric hospital in neighboring Greenwich, she had seen most every kind of case in the clinical book. And having survived, more or less intact, a forty-year stint as the daughter of Pearl Lefferman, she was no stranger to corrosive, erratic behavior. But training and experience were a flimsy shield against this particular client.     Dolores presented a gruesome stew of affective, narcissistic, and obsessive-compulsive disorders, spiced by a generous pinch of substance abuse. She had no limits, no boundaries, and no civilized restraints.     During treatment, she had bragged about lodging false accusations of child abuse against a friend who crossed her and hurling hot oil at a neighbor's mewling cat. Proudly, she'd claimed credit for the fiscal and emotional undoing of two ex-husbands and the functional castration of several disappointing suitors. The woman had a talent for retribution and no tolerance, whatsoever, for disappointment.     Still, despite--or perhaps as part of--her craziness, she maintained a pristine, modish facade. There was never a misplaced hair or a smudge in her masklike makeup. Every item in her considerable wardrobe was expensive, precisely tailored, and accessorized right down to to the bleached, bonded teeth. Despite the sweltering heat, she looked astringent cool in a lime-green silk ensemble with a matching Kelly bag and chunky gold jewelry. Dolores Wainscott was a designer maniac. Think Charles Manson as a lady who lunched.     Jess battled a strong urge to flee. Dealing with Dolores was a thankless proposition in the best of times, and this was anything but. The week of stultifying temperatures since their return from France had her energies lolling in emergency reserve. Her office, a two-room suite on the second floor of a converted Victorian house in downtown Stamford, offered abundant charm but spare comforts. Globs of paint glued the ancient windows to the sills. The insulation had long since fallen around the building's ankles like underpants with stretched-out elastic. An ancient ceiling fan hobbled in listless circles. The air conditioner, fueled by a feeble electrical system, whined and issued a watery sigh.     Perspiration had plastered Jess's cream cotton blouse to her back, and her beige linen skirt had the look of a crumpled lunch bag. Her curly copper hair had been whipped to a wiry froth by the humidity, and her feet, accustomed to the freedom of sandals and lazy sight-seeing strolls along the Seine, throbbed with a deep percussive ache. She didn't need the mirror to tell her the rest of the rotten news. In heat like this, her pallid skin took on a ghastly green cast, and her hazel eyes sank in dusky troughs.     The sooner she got this lousy business over with, the sooner she could go home. She imagined peeling off her sodden clothes and doffing the tourniquet panty hose. She wanted to curl up with a good book and her head in the freezer.     "We need to talk, Dolores," Jess began.     "You mean I need to talk and you need to charge me two bucks a minute for the privilege."     "There is no charge for today. I asked to see you so we could discuss your treatment future."     "Meaning what?"     "I believe it's in your best interest to find another counselor."     "Let me get this straight. You're firing me? You're telling me I flunked therapy ?"     "We haven't been able to work together effectively. You know that."     Sparks of rage lit the flinty eyes. "That's because you hate me, Jess, because you're jealous of what I am and what I have. How professional. Can't wait to tell the folks who hand out the shrink licenses. Bet they'll be fascinated."     "Sometimes the therapeutic relationship simply doesn't work out, Dolores. It's not a personal thing."     "Not personal, my butt. You'd like to see me dead, wouldn't you? Maybe I should suck down some Valium and vodka and make you really happy. I'll be sure to give you full credit in the note."     Jess proffered the list she'd prepared. "You can call any of these referring agencies for a recommendation." She could not bring herself to name specific therapists. That would be akin to slipping a scorpion in a colleague's shoe.     "If that's the way you want it, fine. Frankly, you never were any damned good. Truth is I only kept coming because I felt sorry for you." With a contemptuous sniff, she strutted toward the door. On the way, she shredded the referrals and rained the scraps like confetti over Jess's desk. "You can keep your damned advice."     Dolores slammed out with a jarring concussion and her footfalls faded down the stairs. From below came the creaky whine of the screen door, followed by the roar of a car engine from the lot behind the house. Peering out, Jess spied Dolores's sleek black Mercedes angling toward Summer Street, tires spinning, churning up a grainy haze of dust.     Melting with relief, Jess dumped the Wainscott file in the drawer marked "Inactive." The encounter had gone far better than she'd dared to hope. How many useless hours had she spent rehearsing what she would say, steeling herself against the expected fury of a Dolores scorned? Jess had worried and talked so much about the case, Charlie had accused her of bringing Dolores along on their trip.     From now on, Jess planned to pack far lighter.     She collected the files she needed to review that night and locked the rest in the squat gunmetal cabinet beside the desk. She was eager to get home. Reentering the real world after the long August vacation always gave her a case of the emotional bends. She loved getting away with Charlie and the kids. Shed of school and work and standard obligations and general angst, they had time to get reacquainted. Jess always marveled at how much the children had changed from the previous summer. The shifts in their attitudes and abilities dazzled her, not to mention scaring her to death.     This year, coming back had been harder than ever. Postponing her return to work for a week had not done much to cushion the blow. Family life, as they knew it, was poised to undergo radical change. Danny, their eldest, was starting his last year of high school. His desk was piled with the college catalogues and applications he'd sent for last spring. Jess could feel him pulling away, folding his emotional tents like a stalwart pioneer. This was right. He was ready. Somehow Jess--sane, grounded, self-aware soul that she was--would deal.     The younger kids were growing with horrifying speed as well. Thirteen-year-old Molly had begun to resemble an adolescent, at least in her moods, which pitched and whirled with the dizzying unpredictability of a mechanical bull. Even Max, their little hellion, was developing the visible bones and the odors that presaged an invasion of rampaging hormones. Sooner than Jess could bear to consider, all of them would be grown and gone. But then, that was the inexplicable point. You had kids to let them go.     It was nearing six p.m. when Jess left the deserted building. Oily fumes hovered over the rush hour traffic snaking down Summer Street toward the Turnpike. Ninety-degree-plus temperatures, coupled with drenching humidity and a ponderous shroud of pollution, made it hard to move and impossible to draw a decent breath. Higher reasoning was altogether out of the question. Jess imagined her brain cells lying around like overheated dogs, prostrate and panting in her skull.     As she trudged up the drive to the parking lot, she fished through her cluttered straw tote for the key. Her purse yielded two fat envelopes full of freshly developed pictures, ticket stubs from the Louvre, a wrinkled postcard depicting prehistoric cave paintings at Les Eyzies, and a scatter of sand from the beach at the seaside resort of La Rochelle. Jess ached to be back there, lulled by lapping waves, bone-melting sunshine, and Max's shrilled delight as he buried his bossy big sister to the neck or splashed his know-it-all big brother in the face. Sheer bliss.     The car lock was searing hot. Opening the door unleashed a blast of fiery air. Jess reached in gingerly and turned on the engine. She flipped the temperature to maximum cool. As she stood again, she caught a strong whiff of jasmine and gin.     Wheeling quickly, she faced Dolores Wainscott. The hard eyes were menacing slits, neck arched like a malevolent cobra. Her gleaming black Mercedes idled at the base of the drive, belching exhaust.     Panic squeezed Jess's intestines. "What is it, Dolores?"     "I don't take this kind of crap from anyone, especially not a pudgy frump like you," she hissed.     "I told you, this isn't personal. You'll be better off working with somebody else. That's all."     "You'll be sorrier than you can imagine, lady. Sorry you were born."     Jess evicted the fear from her voice. "I hear that you're angry. But threatening me is not a useful exercise."     "I'll show you what's a useful exercise, you dumb, arrogant twit." The shrink-wrapped face flamed with rage and alcohol. "You're nothing. I'll ruin your goddamned practice and your perfect little family and your stupid little life."     "I need to go now, Dolores. Kindly move your car."     The plumped lips retracted in a vicious smirk. "Don't believe me? I've got everything I need on your precious Charlie and the kids. So cute, aren't they? Nothing I like better than to squash something cute."     Jess faced her down. "That's enough, Dolores."     "You've been warned, Jessie-poo. Now you get the real thing." Turning on her bug-feeler heels, she tottered to the Mercedes. She slammed the door, gunned the engine, and sped off in a choking swirl of dust.     Jess slipped into the cool cab of the Volvo and shifted into reverse. She frowned at her pale, shaken image in the rearview mirror. Silly girl, she chided herself. That tantrum was a small price to pay for a Dolores-free existence.     The taunting threats resounded in her mind. Jess tried to buffer them with soothing reason. It was nothing. Meaningless. Only words.     Her family would be fine. Chapter Two Approaching the Bull's Head strip mall, Jess spotted Ray, the brawny, mustachioed owner of the fish market, loping toward his pickup in the lot. A few sharp raps on the horn caught his attention. Unabashed pleading got him to pluck out his key ring and reopen the store.     Jess planned to make sole beau geste tonight, and she was determined to let nothing interfere, including the fact that the dish was nonexistent. The name had popped into her head this morning as she reluctantly left for the office. Charlie had set out before dawn for an early-morning faculty session at Yale. The kids were still asleep, savoring the final crumbs of their summer break before the start of school the day after tomorrow.     Jess had decided to concoct something quintessentially French, avec beurre, arterial plaque be damned. Anything to extend the vacation mood for a few precious hours. After dinner, they could moon over the latest pictures from the trip that Jess had retrieved from the photo shop that morning. They could laugh at the image of Max staring bug-eyed at the topless bathers, while Danny, flushed scarlet and afflicted with a sudden stammer, feigned nonchalance. They could practice their fledgling French, play their favorite game of opposites. The opposite of mon frère Danny is cool, Molly liked to taunt. To which, Danny would reply, with maddening detachment, that the opposite of confidence is jalousie . When they'd last played on the ferry at Entre Deux Mers, Max had eagerly reported that he'd figured out a really good one: the opposite of sûr must be Grandma Pearl's favorite word, tsuris, which was Yiddish for troubles. Pearl collected those, along with unreasonable grudges and blind biases, as if they might someday be worth a fortune.     "What'll it be, Mrs. Magill?" asked Ray.     Jess eyed the gleaming fillets in their snow-filled cases. Whole trout, mussels, bluepoint oysters, mounds of shrimp. Even dead, they looked perkier than she felt.     Four varieties of sole and a flounder vied for her vote. Sole beau geste called for the slim, nearly transparent slices in the first case, she decided. But before she could get the order out, a wizened little woman with a dahlia poof of yellow hair bustled in, breathless. She cast a hopeful look in Jess's direction. "I'm in a rush, dear. Do you mind?"     "No, fine. Go ahead."     Her fuchsia lips drew into a pensive seam. "How much grey sole do I need for two West Highland white terriers?" she asked Ray.     "Depends," he said evenly. "What are you serving with it?"     "Veggies. A starch. The usual."     "Half a pound, then. Unless they're big eaters." Not a flicker of amusement crossed Ray's face. Like Jess, the man had clearly seen it all.     Jess settled for two pounds of lemon sole at half the cost of the grey sole. Ray packed them with a bag of shaved ice in deference to the heat. At the neighboring market, she trolled the congested aisles for other beau geste ingredients and accompaniments: wild mushrooms, shallots, new potatoes, chicken stock, fresh tarragon, asparagus, a crisp baguette. She chose the shortest checkout line, which naturally placed her behind a woman armed with several untagged items, a balky Visa card, and a fistful of coupons.     By the time Jess slid her parcels into the trunk, it was after seven. The kids would be ravenous. With luck, she could make it home in twenty minutes. But as she peered at the dashboard clock, calculating how long it would take to get dinner on the table, she spied a flaming warning light. The temperature gauge had risen to the danger zone. Steam ghosts levitated from the hood in a clear display of serious overheating.     Jess pulled to the shoulder and dialed the auto club on her cell phone. Dispatch promised to send someone out within the hour.     While she waited, the sky massed with plump charcoal clouds. Soupy darkness descended, and there was a growl of distant thunder. Soon, the first fat drops splattered on the windshield.     The storm rose in rapid crescendo. Lightning flared, followed by huge percussive bursts. Pins of rain struck with the sound of raucous applause. The wipers swayed like hula girls on speed, but the pelting downpour and dense condensation shrank visibility to a wish.     Cars all around limped to the shoulder to wait out the worst of the downpour. From the frantic busy-service signal on the phone, many were also trying, as she was, to call ahead and warn of an indeterminate delay.     On the fourth try, she got through. Molly answered with her usual heartwarming enthusiasm. "Oh, it's you."     "Yes, sweetheart. Sorry to disappoint you. I need to speak to Dad."     Max's elephantine stomping up the stairs followed Molly's banshee yell. When Charlie was in his studsy, musing about some deep philosophical conundrum, nothing short of a nuclear strike or Max-quality nagging could divert his attention.     Soon, through a haze of static, Charlie's smooth, earnest voice came on the line. "What's up, honey? You okay?"     "Fine, but I'm stuck down at Bull's Head. The car overheated, and I'm waiting for triple A. The kids should have something to eat in the meantime. Maybe ask Danny to make his world-famous pizza bagels."     "No can do. He went out."     "Where? When? Why? With whom?"     "Somewhere, an hour ago, with a bunch of kids. Something doing at school, I think he said."     "Who drove?"     "Danny did."     Jess tapped a nervous cadence on the dash. Charlie's car was a '65 red Mustang convertible, low mileage, lovingly restored. It also happened to be a cop magnet with an automatic, built-in antisanity device. Given that machine and a stretch of open road, even cautious Jess was prone to stomp the accelerator and entertain range-riding fantasies. "I thought we agreed he was only allowed to drive the Volvo."     "Come on, Jess. I was glad he wanted to take the car. We talked about how he's been acting a little gun-shy about driving lately, remember?"     "I'd rather have him gun-shy than hurt."     "Relax. He'll be fine."     "So will my ulcers."     "I'll have a nice drink waiting when you get here. How's that?"     "Make it Maalox," she grumped. "Here comes Elmer's Exxon. See you soon as they get me straightened out."     The rain had slowed to a mere torrent. A wiry kid in a Yankee cap and navy windbreaker slumped from the cab of the truck. Jess popped the hood, and he poked through the car's oily innards. Moments later, he motioned for her to roll down the window.     "Have to tow you to the shop, ma'am. 'Fraid you got a busted radiator hose."     "Can't you put in some water for now? I can take it in tomorrow."     An emphatic shake of his head sent droplets spraying from the long, stringy hair. "You ride with the hose broke like that, the engine's gonna seize right up on you. Could be she already has."     The gas station perched at the juncture of High Ridge Road and Vine. When the wrecker pulled in, lights flashing, a grizzled old man with grocery bag skin and a cross-bite lumbered out to greet them. "That's Pops," the kid said. "He'll fix you right up."     In a dim bay redolent of axle grease and Old Spice, Pops raised the car on a hydraulic lift and ducked beneath to assess the damage.     "How bad?" Jess asked.     "Have to run some tests before I know for sure. Might as well wait inside where it's cool. We got snacks and a soda machine. Plus, there's Maggie who handles the register. Magpie, we call her. She'll be more than glad to oblige if your ears need bending. If they don't, we sell those wax earplugs. Work like a charm."     In the cramped station, Jess fed her frustrations a York peppermint patty and a Reese's peanut butter cup, while Maggie the Magpie, a scrawny, wall-eyed woman, exercised her loose-hinged jaw. "If there's one thing I can't figure for the life of me, it's men. Older they get, the younger they want their honeys. Last week this really old guy comes in with a little girl, looked about twelve, and he's all over her like ticks on a hound. Smooching her, pinching her butt. 'That's my pretty baby,' he says. 'That's Daddy's little love.' I mean, what the hell is that?"     Given her professional training, Jess could have offered a comprehensive answer, but she sized up Maggie the Magpie as a dedicated talking machine. Most likely, the ears were strictly ornamental.     An hour later the mechanic shuffled in, wiping his knobby hands on a rag. "Seems you're in luck. No serious harm done. Have to send someone for a replacement hose, though. We're fresh out of that size."     "How long will that take?"     "Shouldn't be too bad. Rusty can go soon as he gets back from supper. Lucky thing you caught the problem quick," said Pops. "Way that hose was sliced, the radiator bled nearly bone dry."     "Sliced?"     "Clean through." He slashed the air to illustrate the point. "Probably one of those spoiled brats with too much time and money to burn whose notion of fun is making trouble."     Fuming, Jess thought of Dolores. Of course, she had no proof. Anyway, accusing that beast would give her the attention she craved. The only sensible response was to ignore her.     Jess paced the station, muttering under her breath, ignoring Dolores Wainscott with ferocious intensity. Rusty took his sweet time returning from supper and going out again to pick up the hose. Pops installed the length of rubber tube in creaky slow motion.     It was after ten when Jess finally phoned to tell Charlie she was on the way home. "Is Danny back yet?" she asked.     "No. But I made the kids dinner and read to Max. Power was out for a while, so he and Mol hit the sack early. They're fine."     "What are you trying to tell me, Charlie? Having two out of three kids safe is enough?"     "No. I'm trying to tell you that having one out of two parents crazy is more than enough."     "So you think I'm overreacting horribly."     "Not at all, honey. I think you're do it very, very well."     Jess enjoyed a laugh at her own expense, and a swell of affection for this man who tolerated her absurdity with such good humor and goodwill. She had learned to fret at the doughy knees of Pearl Lefferman, master of the game. Jess's mother could divine the dark cloud in every silver lining. She had predicted twelve of the last two disasters and erected bomb shelters against them all.     Jess would never forget the time when she was nine. She'd been invited to a friend's birthday party down the block. The scheduled start of the event happened to coincide with a partial solar eclipse, and Pearl, certain that her little girl would look at the sun and go blind, forced her to walk to the party with an egg carton over her head. "Twelve dozen Grade A, extra-large," the box read. Pearl had watched with unblinking vigilance until Jess was ensconced in the neighbor's house.     For years after that, Jess had suffered the pointed torments of her peers. They'd dubbed her egghead and extra-large and accused her of being a big fat yolk. That Halloween, a group of boys had pelted her with eggs. "There's your brother, egghead," one hooted. "Here comes your cracked cousin from Detroit."     Having borne Pearl's suffocation, Jess took great pains not to overprotect her own kids. She carried the worries inside, sparking cruel electric pulses in her gut. As she drove north, her thoughts kept skidding to some perilous back road. She pictured Danny losing control on a patch of slick, oily pavement, hurtling headlong toward the precipitous edge.     In this case she had rational cause for concern, and so did Danny. His recent reluctance to take the wheel was more than understandable. In the six months since he got his license, he had been in two accidents. Both had been minor, and neither was technically his fault. But seventeen-year-olds, even sound, grounded ones like this kid, had an uncanny knack for attracting road calamities.     Ryan Harrison loomed as a haunting example. Last summer, Danny's longtime pal and general good kid went out for a pizza one night when his parents were away for the weekend. Half an hour later, a passing motorist spied his mangled Acura in a ravine abutting the North Stamford reservoir.     The paramedics sped to the scene in record time. Everything flowed with flawless timing: expert consults, state-of-the-art diagnostics, rapid Medevac to the trauma center at Yale--New Haven. If only Ryan's spinal cord had not been crushed. If only his brain had not been bumped around in his skull like a squash ball. If only ...     Every time Jess saw him now, skewed in his wheelchair, struggling to remember, to speak, to move about, she couldn't help but think that it could have been her kid. One blip of bad luck or bad judgment could change the course of a life forever, set it irrevocably on a path full of tortuous dips and turns.     She pulled into the drive abutting their sprawling house. Architecturally, the place combined elements of the classic Tudor, Georgian, and Federal styles, with a hefty measure of contemporary White Elephant. The original core of the building had served as the carriage house for a mid-nineteenth-century gentleman's farm, which, as Jess understood it, meant the primary crop was spoiled children. Over the years, a dozen owners had patched on a series of ill-conceived additions. The net effect was long on quirkiness and short on sense, which suited her disturbingly well. There was also a lovely surfeit of space, which they could not have afforded in a saner dwelling. The garage was empty. Danny was not home yet.     Prozac, their golden retriever, was laid out like a furry welcome mat near the door. She cracked a rheumy eye, waved her tail like a listless flag of surrender, and issued a broad, squeaky yawn.     Prozac was the ultimate watchdog. Watching was what she did best. She was the sort of dog a burglar couldn't help but love, welcoming, friendly, and eager to share. She also came equipped with all the perfect pet accessories: large sympathetic ears, huge capacity garbage disposal, and boundless unconditional love. True, she had her little quirks. Laid back, verging on comatose though she was, she'd refused to dine from a standard dog bowl ever since the unfortunate time a dog-sitter had spent a week feeding her from Jess's best china plates. The dog's preferred pattern was the Queen Anne Royal Doulton that Charlie had inherited from his Great-aunt Louise, but Prozac would deign to use the Spode Blue Medallion, an ironstone set that was virtually indestructible, as Jess generally insisted. A cloth napkin helped to sell the deal.     Jess found Charlie asleep on the leather couch in his study under an avalanche of journals and position papers. How adorable he looked, her darling boy amid his playthings. Last June, he was recruited as a consultant to the Manhattan-based Hutchings Institute for Bioethics. Added to his research and teaching load at Yale, the work left almost no time for frivolities like breathing. Jess missed the precious little leisure they used to have, but Charlie loved dissecting the mess that often arose when science raced mindlessly ahead of morality and the law. His cogent, practical side was custom-made for dealing with the most daunting questions. What were the civil rights of a frozen embryo? Did the ovum donor or the surrogate mother have primary claim to a child? If a person eliminated an unwanted clone, would the usual homicide statutes apply? Who knew best: Uncle Sam or Mother Nature?     Charlie mumbled in his sleep and sipped the air. The reading lamp spotlighted his aristocratic profile. A rumpled shirt and salted-whisker stubble gave him that ever-so-chic urban vagrant look. Riding a wave of affection, Jess smoothed back an errant pewter wave and kissed his brow.     They had been together since freshman year at Cornell, and after twenty years, Jess could describe herself as a highly satisfied customer. True, he had his fair share of annoying little traits. He left the toilet seat up with maddening irregularity, so once in a while, in the middle of the night, she found herself immersed like a tea bag in the bowl. He had the money sense of an adolescent and a tin ear for the subtle harmonies of family politics. But he was smart, funny, wise, constant, supportive, and sexy as hell. Jess adored his absentminded-professor side and his not-so-inner child. He remained an irresistible amalgam of tenth-generation WASP stoical reserve and passionate sixties social-liberal dove, sort of a Mayflower child.     "Mm belumbin," he dithered. "Verum dur."     "Honey? Did Danny call?"     Slowly, he creaked awake like an engine in need of oil. "Nope. Haven't heard from him."     "God. I hope he's all right."     Charlie gawked as if Jess were speaking in tongues. "What time is it?"     "Ten-thirty."     "I thought he's not due in until midnight."     "You try holding your breath for an hour and a half. I want that kid here now ."     "What you need, my love, is a distraction." He drew Jess over him like a quilt. She melted against his muzzy warmth and the press of his rising erection. His deep, probing kiss reduced her to a puddle of goo.     "For your pleasure this evening, madame, we're offering several succulent additions to the usual menu." He whispered several impertinent suggestions in her ear. Jess's body stood in full agreement, but her brain kept bouncing back to Danny and the car. She stroked his fuzzy cheek, then drew away. "Sorry, honey. I'd like to, but I'm too worried right now."     "That's okay, sweetheart. Go be neurotic. Enjoy yourself."     "I'll be back."     With a shrug, Charlie snuggled between the Journal of Contemporary Social Philosophy and a two-pound treatise on anonymity in sperm banking. He was snoring lightly before Jess hit the door.     She stole down the hall to check on the younger kids. Max, their eight-year-old, slept on his back in plaid boxer shorts, nothing on top. The child had spiky buff-colored hair and squash-blossom features lifted from a Peanuts cartoon. His nose was stuffed, and through his gaping lips, Jess could predict continued prosperity for Dr. Luft, the family orthodontist. Killer, a rare, ferocious breed of teddy bear, nestled in the crook of a bare, skinny arm.     Next door, Molly was burrowed beneath a hill of pillows and a white ruffled sheet. Her lithe form barely raised a bump in the bedclothes. Poor Mol was the sole surviving tomboy in a sea of curvy seventh-grade nymphets. That she was smart, cute, and blessed with a quirky, creative mind offered slim comfort. At that age, conformity was all. No bust, no glory.     Danny's room was at the end of the hall. Jess paused to marvel at the pristine space, a monument to her son's natural sense of order. His tennis trophies stood in metered rows, every racket-wielding arm pointed in the identical direction. His bookshelves were lined with actual books, unlike Jess's, which tended to sprout odd paper scraps and knickknacks and assorted unmentionable debris.     Her mind kept swerving back to Dolores Wainscott's threats. Jess flashed to a terrifying image of Dolores in her Mercedes, driving Danny off the road.     Please, don't let anything happen to that kid.     Pearl had schooled Jess in the fine art of protective superstition. If you failed to fret about a potential disaster, it was far more likely to happen. If you spoke of good fortune above a prudent whisper, some malevolent spirit was bound to hear and wrench the luck away. In Yiddish this was known as giving oneself a kineahora, an act almost as rash as leaving the house with a wet head. As an educated woman, Jess knew far better than to believe such nonsense. But what if it was true?     Downstairs, she poured an iced herbal tea and stared out the kitchen window. The air hung limp and heavy. Wispy clouds veiled a gibbous moon. Its hazy reflection rode the ebony surface of the pond. Through the glass came the woolly hum of tree locusts. Only that, and a ponderous hush.     The clock ticked relentlessly toward midnight. Danny often argued against the curfew, but he accepted Jess's honest explanation that it was for her sake, not his. From birth, their firstborn had been a paint-by-the-numbers kid: healthy, smart, rational, the kind you couldn't foul up without a concerted effort.     So where was he?     The kitchen was a mess. Jess cleaned and straightened when she was aggravated, and the past few months had been strikingly crisis-free. Now, she attacked the disorder, putting away, throwing out, sorting and stacking.     Eleven-thirty. Eleven forty-five . There was still no reassuring sound of tires on the driveway. True, he was not due home until twelve, but her neurosis had a time clock of its own. Jess pictured Danny sprawled behind the wheel in a ravine, bleeding and unconscious, spine snapped like a desiccated twig. She imagined speeding ambulances, sirens, shocked faces, and screams.     Midnight. Ten past. Quarter after ...     She nested the pots according to size, type, age, and composition. With military precision, she aligned the dishes, glasses, and flatware. The drawers were freed of coins, matchbooks, paper clips, old lottery tickets, and expired coupons. Green, fuzzy things and all objects of unknown age or provenance were banished from the refrigerator. Nothing left to do but alphabetize the spice rack, lower than she had been known to sink in the worst of times.     Basil, bay leaf, cinnamon, coriander, cumin ...     Nearing one, panic goaded her to call the police. The officer who answered assured her there had been no reported incidents involving a red Mustang or a teenage boy.     "Thanks."     "Listen, ma'am. If you're afraid your boy's in some kind of trouble, I'd be glad to put out the word."     "No. Nothing like that. I'm sure he'll be here any minute."     "You sure? Kids today."     "Absolutely. Forget I called. Please."     Jess hung up more worried than before. The last thing she wanted was some hotheaded cop tracking her son, maybe spooking him into a dangerous maneuver on the rain-slicked roads.     Come on, Danny . Jess wanted him home, right then--immediately. She needed to see him safe and unhurt, so she could wring his inconsiderate neck.     Rosemary, saffron, sage, tarragon, thyme ...     Finally, misty lights pierced the darkness. Outside, a door smacked. Rapid footsteps struck the walk.     Jess's neck went hot as she strode to the foyer to meet him, stepping over Prozac on the way. "Do you have any idea how late it is, young man? I've been worried sick."     She was revving up for a really satisfying fit of righteous indignation, but the sight of her son, pale and vague-eyed, cooled her pique. A bloody abrasion poked through a rip at the knee of his jeans, and a seeping scratch flared at his hairline.     "What happened, honey? Are you all right?"     "I slipped on some muck. No big deal."     "Come. I'll clean it up."     He perched on the battered cane stool beside the breakfast bar, designated treatment site for boo-boos of the spirit or flesh. Jess flashed back to the countless times she or Charlie had stood like this, ministering to one of the kids. She pictured Danny at three, plump little legs dangling in midair, when he broke his wrist falling off the jungle gym in nursery school. No swelling and the joint moved well, but he'd reported solemnly that it felt like a really mean monster was biting his arm.     How small and vulnerable he'd seemed then. How Jessica had ached to shield him from life's ugly bumps and vicissitudes, but she understood only too well how kids could grow warped and stunted in the shade of parents who hovered too close.     Danny twined his muscled calves around the uprights. His size 11 cross-trainers were planted on the floor like bridge stanchions. Jess doused his wounds with disinfectant and dressed them with sterile gauze. He exuded a dark, ripe smell that made her oddly uneasy. "Where exactly was this muck you slipped on?"     "School. They had a welcome thing for the incoming freshmen."     "How was it?"     "Blueglass and McWilliams spoke for about nine hours each, and then Nyborg the Cyborg played a full set of elevator music. Afterward, the choristers sang a rousing medley of songs to snore by, and last, but definitely least, the boosters served stale brownies and green, I kid you not, green bug juice. Plus, it was hot as hell in the gym. I bet you right now prospective freshmen all over town are begging their parents to send them anywhere but Stamford High. Including Sing Sing."     "And afterward?"     He shrugged and averted his gaze. It was a gesture Jess had dubbed the teenage two-step. "Hung out with some kids. Usual stuff."     "You forgot the part about giving your mother an ulcer."     "I had to drop Ryan off way on the other side of town, Mom. Plus, I had to break down his manual chair and take the wheels off to fit it in the Mustang's trunk. Was I supposed to risk my neck speeding for a stupid curfew?"     "No, you were supposed to use better judgment and come directly home from school when you saw it was getting late. And you were supposed to call if you were going to be late for the stupid curfew."     "You're right. I'm sorry."     Jess bit back the smile. "Stop being so damned reasonable, Danny Magill. I have a right to stew for a while without that kind of interference."     "Sure, Mom. Go for it. Stew."     Her smile dissolved. Her son still had a clammy look of shock. "Sure you're feeling all right? Not nauseous?"     "No."     "Stomach, head? Anything hurt? You're sure?"     "Positive, Mom. I'm fine."     He was better than fine, but Jess resisted the urge to say so. No point asking for trouble. Copyright © 1999 Judith Kelman. All rights reserved.

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