Floating in the half-world between sleep and wakefulness, Laurel reached down and slipped her hand into the crack between the mahogany bed rail and the box springs, searching . . . searching for her connection to life. The cool metal of the Razr pricked her nervous system enough to make her freeze; a millisecond later she was fully awake and turning her head slowly on the pillow—
Her husband’s side of the bed was empty. In fact, it looked as though Warren had not come to bed at all. Resisting the compulsion to check the Razr for a text message, she slipped the cell phone back into its hiding place, then rolled out of bed and padded quickly to the bedroom door.
The hall was empty, but she heard sounds from the direction of the den. Not kid sounds . . . something else, a strange thumping. Laurel whisked down the hall and peered into the great room. Across the vast open space she saw Warren standing before a wall of bookshelves in his study. Half a dozen medical textbooks lay at his feet, more on the red leather sofa beside him. As she
watched, Warren stepped forward and with an angry motion began pulling more books off the shelves, six or eight at a time, then piling them haphazardly on the couch. His sandy blond hair spiked upward like bushy antennae, and unless she was mistaken, he was wearing the same clothes he’d worn to work yesterday, which meant that he really hadn’t come to bed last night. On any other day this would have worried Laurel, but today she closed her eyes in gratitude and hurried back to the master suite.
When she entered the bathroom, her throat clenched tight. She had put this decision off for days, praying in vain for deliverance, but now she had no choice. Only now that she was set up to go through with it, something in her rebelled. The mind would do anything to deny certain realities, she thought, or at least to postpone them.
Kneeling before her washbasin, she reached into the cabinet, removed a Walgreens bag, and carried it into the private cubicle that surrounded the commode. Then she latched the slatted door, opened the bag, and took out a large tampon box. From this box she removed the small carton she’d concealed inside it yesterday afternoon. The side of this carton read e.p.t. With shaking fingers she removed a plastic bag, ripped it open, and took out a testing stick not much different from the one that had struck terror into her heart as a nineteen-year-old. Remarkably, she felt more fear in this moment than she had as an unmarried teenager.
Holding the stick between her legs, she tried to pee, but her urine wouldn’t come. Had someone walked into the bathroom? One of the kids? Hearing no breath or footfall, she forced her mind away from the present,
to the parent/teacher conferences she had scheduled today. As she thought of the anxious mothers she would have to deal with later on, a warm rush of fluid splashed her hand. She withdrew the stick from the stream, wiped her hand with tissue, then closed her eyes and counted while she finished.
She wished she’d brought the Razr in with her. It was crazy to leave that phone in the bedroom with Warren home, crazy to have it in the house at all, really. The cell phone Laurel called her “clone” phone was a second Razr identical to the one on their family account, but registered in someone else’s name, so that Warren could never see the bills. It was a perfect system for private communication—unless Warren saw both phones together. Yet despite the danger, Laurel could no longer stand to be apart from her clone phone, even though it hadn’t brought her a single message in the past five weeks.
Realizing that she’d counted past thirty, she opened her eyes. The testing stick was fancier than the ones she remembered from college, with a tiny screen like the ones on cheap pocket calculators. No more trying to judge shades of blue to see if you were knocked up. Before her eyes, written in crisp blue letters on the gray background, were the letters PREGNANT.
Laurel stared, waiting for a NOT to appear before the other word. It was an infantile wish, for part of her had known the truth without even taking the test (her too tender breasts, and the seasick feeling she’d had with her second child); yet still she waited, with the testing company’s new slogan—We call it the Error Proof Test—playing in her mind. She must have heard that slogan twenty times during the past week, chirped
confidently from the television during inane children’s sitcoms and Warren’s overheated cop melodramas, while she waited in agony for her period to begin. When the letters on the stick did not change, she shook it the way her mother had shaken the thermometers of her youth.
PREGNANT! the letters screamed. PREGNANT! PREGNANT! PREGNANT!
Laurel wasn’t breathing. She hadn’t exhaled since the letters first appeared. Had she not been sitting on the toilet, she might have fainted, but as it was, she sagged against the nearby wall, her face cold. The sob that broke from her chest sounded alien, as though a stranger were wailing on the other side of the door.
“Mom?” said Grant, her nine-year-old son. “Was that you?”
Laurel tried to answer, but no words came. As she covered her mouth with shaking fingers, tears streamed down her face.
“Mom?” asked the voice behind the door. “Are you okay?”
She could see Grant’s thin silhouette through the slats. No, I’m not, sweetheart. I’m going insane sitting right here on the toilet.
“Dad!” called Grant, staying put. “I think Mom’s sick.”
I’m not sick, baby, I’m watching the goddamn world end. . . . “I’m fine, sweetie,” Laurel choked out. “Perfectly fine. Did you brush your teeth already?”
Silence now, a listening silence. “You sound funny.”
Laurel felt herself gearing down into survival mode. The shock of the positive pregnancy test had caused a violent emotional dislocation; from there it was only
a small step to full-blown dissociation. Suddenly her pregnancy became a matter of academic interest, one small factor to be weighed in the day’s long list of deceptions. Eleven months of adultery had schooled her well in the shameful arts. But the irony was shattering: they had ended the affair five weeks ago, without a single moral lapse since; and now she was pregnant.
She shoved the stick back into the e.p.t carton, carefully fitted the carton back into the tampon box, and stuffed it into the Walgreens bag. After stashing the bag on the floor behind the toilet, she flushed the commode and stood.
Grant was waiting beyond the door. His face would be alert for any sign of anxiety in his mother. Laurel had seen that watchful face many times in the past few months, and every time she did, a blade of guilt sliced through her. Grant knew his mother was in emotional turmoil; he knew it better than his father did, being far more perceptive when it came to such things.
Laurel carefully wiped away her tears with tissue, then gripped the doorknob, willing her hands to stop shaking. Routine, she thought. Routine will save you. Play your usual role, and no one will notice a thing. It’s June Cleaver time again—
She opened the door and smiled broadly. Wearing nothing but a Tony Hawk skateboard T-shirt, Grant stood looking up at her like a nine-year-old interrogation specialist, which he was. He had Laurel’s eyes in his father’s face, but the resemblance grew less marked every day. Lately, Grant seemed to change at the rate of a fast-growing puppy.
“Is Beth awake?” she asked. “You know we need to go over your spelling before we leave.”
Grant nodded irritably, his eyes never leaving her face. “Your cheeks are red,” he noted, his usually musical voice almost flat with suspicion.
“I did some sit-ups when I woke up.”
He pursed his lips, working through this explanation. “Crunches or the real thing?”
“Crunches.” Laurel used his preoccupation to slide past him and head for her closet. She slipped a silk housecoat over her cotton nightie and walked down the hall toward the kitchen. “Can you make sure Beth is up?” she called over her shoulder. “I’m going to start breakfast.”
“Dad’s acting weird,” Grant said in a jarring voice.
Sensing something very like fear, Laurel stopped and turned, focusing on the slim figure framed in the bedroom door. “What do you mean?” she asked, walking back toward her son.
“He’s tearing his study up.”
She remembered Warren pulling books from the shelves. “I think it’s just the tax thing we told you about. That’s very stressful, honey.”
“What’s an audit, anyway?”
“That’s when the government makes sure you’ve paid them all the money you’re supposed to.”
“Why do you have to pay the government money?”
Laurel forced a smile. “To pay for roads and bridges and . . . and the army, and things like that. We talked about that, honey.”
Grant looked skeptical. “Dad says they take your money so lazy people won’t have to work. And so they get free doctor visits, while working people have to pay.”
Laurel hated it when Warren vented his professional frustrations to the children. He didn’t understand how literally they took everything. Or maybe he did.
“Dad told me he’s looking for something,” said Grant.
“Did he say what?”
“A piece of paper.”
Laurel was trying to stay tuned in, but her plight would not let her.
“I told him I’d help,” Grant went on in a hurt voice, “but he yelled at me.”
She squinted in confusion. That didn’t sound like Warren. But neither did staying up all night in yesterday’s clothes. Maybe the audit situation was worse than he’d led her to believe. However bad it was, it was nothing compared to her situation. This was disaster. Unless . . .
No, she thought with desolation, even that would be a disaster. She knelt and kissed Grant on the forehead. “Did you feed Christy?”
“Yep,” he replied with obvious pride. Christy was the children’s increasingly overweight Welsh corgi.
“Then please go make sure your sister is awake, sweetie. I’m going to start breakfast.”
Grant nodded, and Laurel rose. “Egg with a hat on it?”
He gave her a grudging smile. “Two?”
“Two it is.”
• • •
Laurel didn’t want to look Warren in the eye this morning. On any given day, she had about a 70 percent chance of not having to do it. Half the time, he left early to put in between five and fifty miles on his bicycle,
an obsessive hobby that consumed huge chunks of his time. To be fair, it was more than a hobby. During his early twenties, Warren had been classed as a Category One rider, and he’d turned down slots on two prestigious racing teams to enter medical school. He still completed Category Two races, often against men fifteen years his junior. On mornings when he wasn’t training, he sometimes left early to make morning rounds at the hospital while she was getting the kids ready for school. But today, since he obviously hadn’t showered, he was likely to be here until after she left.
Her mind jumped to the Walgreens bag sitting under the commode. The odds were one in a million that Warren would even notice it, much less look inside. And yet . . . their commode sometimes spontaneously began to run water and wouldn’t stop unless you jiggled the handle. Warren was compulsive about things like that. What if he rolled up his sleeves and got down on the floor to fix it? He might move the bag out of his way, or even knock it out of his way in frustration—
It’s the little things that kill you, Danny had told her, enough times for it to stick. And he was speaking from experience, not only of extramarital affairs, but also as a former combat pilot. After a moment of doubt, Laurel went quickly back to the bathroom, opened one of the windows, then took the bag from beneath the toilet and dropped it out the window. She leaned out far enough to watch it fall behind some shrubbery; she’d retrieve it before she left for school, then toss it in a Dumpster at a gas station somewhere.
As she closed the window, she looked across her lawn, a vast dewy expanse of Saint Augustine grass
dotted with pecan trees greening up for spring. There was almost no chance of her little disposal mission being seen; their house stood on a ten-acre lot, with their nearest house on this side—the Elfmans’—almost two hundred yards away, with much foliage between. Now and then Laurel saw the husband cutting grass where the property line ran near her house, but it was early for that.
Before the full psychic weight of the pregnancy could crash back into her thoughts, Laurel pulled on some black cropped pants and a white silk top, then applied her makeup in record time. She was putting on eyeliner when she realized she was avoiding her own gaze as much as she might her husband’s. As she stepped back from the mirror for a final appraising glance, a wave of guilt hit her. She’d put on too much makeup in a vain attempt to hide that she’d been crying. The face looking back at her belonged to what more than a few women privately accused her of being—a trophy wife. Because of her looks, they discounted her education, her work, her energy, her devotion to causes . . . all of it. Most days she didn’t give a damn what people thought, especially the women who gossiped nonstop about her. But today . . . the pregnancy test had confirmed every savage insult those witches had voiced about her. Or it almost certainly had, anyway.
“How the hell did I get here?” she whispered to her reflection.
The reproof in the large green eyes staring back at her was enough. She pulled down a curtain of denial in her mind, then turned and hurried down the hall to face her family.
• • •
The kids had almost finished breakfast before Warren looked out of the study. Laurel had just washed the skillet and was turning back to the granite counter where the kids were eating the last of the biscuits when she caught Warren’s deep-set eyes watching her from the study door. He hadn’t shaved, and the shadow on his chin and jaw gave him a look of unusual intensity. His eyes looked hollow, and his expression gave away nothing, except perhaps a sense of malice, but she wrote that off as hatred of the IRS. She raised her eyebrows, silently asking if he needed her to walk over for some private words, but he shook his head.
“If the earth keeps getting hotter,” asked Beth, her six-year-old, “will the oceans boil like when you boil eggs for tuna fish?”
“No, punkin,” Laurel assured her. “Although it doesn’t take much of a temperature change to melt a lot of ice at the north and south poles. And that can have very serious consequences for people living at the beach.”
“Actually,” Warren said from the study door, his deep voice carrying easily across the great room, “the oceans will eventually boil.”
Beth knit her brow and turned on her barstool.
Warren said, “The sun will eventually heat up and grow into a massive ball of fire, and the oceans will bubble away just like water in a pot on the stove.”
“Seriously?” asked Beth, her voice filled with concern.
“Yes. And then—”
“Daddy’s talking about millions of years from now, punkin,” Laurel cut in, wondering what the hell had got into Warren to be telling Beth that kind
of thing. She would worry about it for days. “Your great-great-great-great-great-great-granddaughters won’t even have been born by then, so it’s nothing to worry about.”
“Supernova!” cried Grant. “That’s what they call that, right? When a star explodes?”
“Right,” said Warren with obvious satisfaction.
“That’s so cool,” Grant said.
“It’s a boy thing,” Laurel explained to Beth. “The end of the world sounds really cool to boys.”
Despite her predicament, Laurel was tempted to give Warren a chiding glance—it’s what she would have done had things been normal—but when she looked up again, he had gone back into the study, and she could no longer see him. More thumping sounds announced that he was still searching for something. On any other day, she would have gone in and asked what he was looking for and probably even helped him. But not today.
Grant slid off his stool and opened his backpack. Now Laurel felt some satisfaction. Without a word from her, he had begun reviewing his spelling words for the day. Beth went to a chair at the kitchen table and started putting on her shoes, which always had to be tied with equal tightness, a ritual that occasionally caused paroxysms of obsessive-compulsive panic, but on most days went fine.
Laurel sometimes felt guilty when other mothers complained what a nightmare it was to get their kids off to school in the mornings. Her kids pretty much did their preparations on autopilot, running in the groove of a routine so well established that Laurel wondered if she and Warren had some sublimated fascist tendencies.
But the truth was, for someone who spent her days teaching special-needs students, handling two normal children was a no-brainer.
Should I go into the study? she wondered again. Isn’t that what a good wife would do? Express concern? Offer to help? But Warren didn’t want help with things like this. His medical practice was his business, and his business was his own. He was obviously preoccupied with the audit. And yet that prolonged stare from the door had disturbed her on a deep level. It seemed months since Warren had given her even a long look. It was as though he were intentionally giving her the space she had silently requested. He never looked too deeply, because she didn’t want to be seen, and he didn’t want to see. It was a conspiracy of silence, a mutual denial of reality, and they had become expert at it.
“We’re going to be late,” Grant said.
“You’re right,” Laurel agreed without looking at the clock. “Let’s move.”
She helped Beth get her backpack on, then picked up her own computer case and purse and walked toward the door to the garage. With her hand on the knob—almost out!—she glanced back over her shoulder, half expecting to find Warren gazing at her, but all she saw was his lower legs. He had climbed a small ladder to search the top shelves of his custom bookcases, ten feet up the wall. She breathed a sigh of relief and led the kids out to her Acura. Grant called shotgun—Beth never thought of it in time—but Laurel motioned for him to get in back, which earned a smile from her daughter and an angry grunt from her son.
After they were belted in, Laurel mock-slapped the
side of her head and said, “I think I forgot to turn off the sprinkler last night.”
“I’ll check it!” cried Grant, unbuckling his seat belt.
“No, I’ll get it,” Laurel said firmly, and quickly got out of the car.
She hit the button on the wall and ducked under the rising garage door as soon as it was four feet off the concrete, then trotted around to the back of the house. She would retrieve the Walgreens bag, crush it into a ball, then slip it into her trunk and dispose of it sometime during the school day, at a gas station or convenience store. (She’d done the same with a valentine card and roses and a few actual letters during the past year.) She was making for a gap in the shrubbery when a woman’s voice called out, “Laurel? Over here!”
Laurel froze and looked toward the sound. Just twenty-five yards away, almost obscured by some boxwoods, knelt a woman wearing a straw hat and bright yellow gloves. Bonnie Elfman was about seventy, but she moved like a woman of forty, and for some reason she had chosen this morning to beautify the western boundary of her considerable property.
“I’m just adding some nasturtiums to this bed!” Bonnie called. “What’re you up to?”
Retrieving a positive pregnancy test so my husband won’t find it. “I thought I left the sprinkler on,” she called back.
“That’ll sure kill your water bill,” Bonnie said, standing and walking toward Laurel.
Laurel felt a flutter of panic. To compound her troubles, Christy came tearing around the corner of the house, desperate for someone to play with her. If
Laurel picked up the bag from behind the shrubs, the corgi might just leap up and rip it out of her hands. She gazed along her own line of shrubs with exaggerated concern, then waved broadly to Mrs. Elfman. “I guess I got it after all! I’ve got to run, Bonnie. The kids are waiting in the car.”
“I’ll find your sprinkler and make sure,” Bonnie promised.
Laurel’s heart thumped like a bass drum. “Don’t trouble yourself! Really. I thought I’d left it out here, but I took it back to the storeroom. I remember now. Don’t you get too hot, either. It’s been really warm for April.”
“Don’t worry about that, it’s going to rain,” Bonnie said with the confidence of an oracle. “It’s going to cool off, too. By the time you get back from school, you’ll need a jacket.”
Laurel looked up at the sun, clear and bright in the sky. “If you say so. See you later.”
Bonnie looked miffed over Laurel’s escape. She would have much preferred to stand around gossiping for a half hour. Laurel knew from past experience that like most gossips, Bonnie Elfman was as quick to repeat stories about her as she was to confide in Laurel about others.
“Shit, shit, shit,” Laurel cursed, as she hurried back around to the garage. The Walgreens bag would have to wait until after school. Christy was trotting at her heels, so the dog was no problem. But Mrs. Elfman wasn’t going anywhere soon. Laurel prayed that the old busybody would stay on her own property until school was out.