The four-year-old boy stirs in the backseat of the station wagon, his body little more than a bump beneath the blanket draped over him, his hip sore where the seat belt's buckle presses into it. He sits up, rubbing his eyes in the morning light, and looks around, confused.
The car is pulled to the curb, idling beside a chain-link fence. His father grips the steering wheel, his arms shaking. Sweat tracks down the band of brushed skin at the back of his neck. The boy swallows to wet his parched throat. "Where . . . where's momma?"
His father takes a wheezy breath and half turns, a day's worth of stubble darkening his cheek. "She's not . . . She can't . . . She's not here."
Then he bends his head and begins to cry. It is all jerks and gasps, the way someone cries who isn't used to it. Beyond the fence, kids run on cracked asphalt and line up for their turn on a rusted set of swings. A sign wired to the chain- link proclaims, "It's morning again in America: Ronald Reagan for President."
The boy is hot. He looks down at himself. He is wearing jeans and a long- sleeved T-shirt, not the pajamas he'd gone to bed in. He tries to make sense of his father's words, the unfamiliar street, the blanket bunched in his lap, but can focus on nothing except the hollowness in his gut and the rushing in his ears.
"This is not your fault, champ." His father's voice is high- pitched, uneven. "Do you understand me? If you remember . . . one thing . . . you have to remember that nothing that happened is your fault."
He shifts his grip on the steering wheel, squeezing so hard his hands turn white. His shirt cuff has a black splotch on it. The sound of laughter carries to them; kids are hanging off monkey bars and crawling around the beat- up jungle gym.
"What did I do?" the boy asks.
"Your mother and I, we love you very much. More than any- thing."
His father's hands keep moving on the steering wheel. Shift, squeeze. Shift, squeeze. The shirt cuff moves into direct light, and the boy sees that the splotch isn't black at all.
It is bloodred.
His father hunches forward and his shoulders heave, but he makes no sound. Then, with apparent effort, he straightens back up.
The boy looks out the window at the strange yard with the strange kids running and shrieking. "Where am I?"
"I'll be back in a few hours."
His father still doesn't turn around, but he lifts his eyes to the rearview, meets the boy's stare for the first time. In the reflection his mouth is firm, a straight line, and his pale blue eyes are steady and clear.
"I promise," he says.
The boy just sits there.
His father's breathing gets funny. "Go," he says, "play."
The boy slides over and climbs out. He walks through the gate, and when he pauses to look back, the station wagon is gone. Kids bob on seesaws and whistle down the 6 reman's pole.
They look like they know their way around.
One of the kids runs up and smacks the boy's arm. "You're it!" he brays.
The boy plays chase with the others. He climbs on the jungle gym and crawls in the yellow plastic tunnel, jostled by the bigger kids and doing his best to jostle back. A bell rings from the facing build- ing, and the kids ! y off the equipment and disappear inside.
The boy climbs out of the tunnel and stands on the play- ground, alone. The wind picks up, the dead leaves like fingernails dragging across the asphalt. He doesn't know what to do, so he sits on a bench and waits for his father. A cloud drifts across the sun. He has no jacket. He kicks the leaves piled by the base of the bench.
More clouds cluster overhead. He sits until his rear end hurts.
Finally a woman with graying brown hair emerges through the double doors. She approaches him, puts her hands on her knees.
He looks down at his lap.
"Right," she says. "Okay."
She glances across the abandoned playground, then through the chain- link, eyeing the empty parking spots along the curb.
She says, "Can you tell me who you belong to?"
Mike lay in the darkness, his gaze fixed on the baby monitor on the nightstand. He had to be up in three hours, but sleep wasn't coming any easier than it usually did. A blow! y had been circling the bed- room at irregular intervals as if to ensure his continued alertness. His mother used to say that a blow! y in the house meant that evil was stalking the family --- one of the only things he remembered about her.
He took a moment to catalog some less morbid memories from his early years. The few imprints he'd retained were little more than sensory flashes. The scent of sage incense in a yellow- tiled kitchen. His mother bathing him. How her skin always seemed tan. Her smell, like cinnamon.
The red light bars fanned up on the monitor. A crackle of static. Or was that Kat coughing?
He nudged the volume down so as not to wake Annabel, but she shifted around beneath the sheets, then said hoarsely, "Honey, there's a reason they call it a baby monitor."
"I know. I'm sorry. I thought I heard something."
"She's eight years old. And more mature than either of us. If she needs something, she'll march in here and announce it."
It was an old argument, and Annabel was right, so he muted the volume and lay morosely staring at the damn thing, unable to click it off altogether. A little plastic unit that held a parent's worst fears.
Choking. Illness. Intruders.
Usually the sounds were just interference or crossover noise from other frequencies --- a charge in the air or the neighbor's toddler snuffling from a cold. Sometimes Mike even heard voices in the rush of white noise. He swore there were ghosts in the thing. Murmurs from the past. It was a portal to your half- conscious mind, and you could read into its phantom whisper whatever you wanted.
But what if he turned it off and this proved to be the night Kat did need them? What if she awakened terrified and disoriented from a nightmare, sudden paralysis, the blowfly's evil spell, and lay stricken for hours, trapped alone with her fear? How do you choose the first night to take that risk?
In the early hours, logic and reason seemed to fall asleep be- fore he did. Everything seemed possible in the worst kind of way. He finally started to drift off, but then the blowfly took an- other loop around the night-light, and a moment later the red bars flared again on the muted unit. Kat crying out?
He sat up and rubbed his face.
"She's fine," Annabel groaned.
"I know, I know." But he got up and padded down the hall. Kat was out cold, one slender arm flung across a stuffed polar bear, her mouth ajar. Chestnut hair framed her serious face. She had her mother's wide- set eyes, pert nose, and generous lower lip; given her looks and whip-smart demeanor, it was sometimes hard to tell whether Kat was an eight- year- old version of Annabel or Annabel a thirty- six- year- old version of Kat. The one trait that Kat had received from Mike was at least an obvious one --- one brown eye, one amber. Heterochromia, they called it. As for her curls, who knew where she got those?
Mike leaned over her, listened for the whistle of breath. Then he sat in the glider chair in the corner and watched his daughter. He felt a stab of pride about the childhood he and Annabel had given her, the sense of security that let her sleep so soundly.
"Babe." Annabel stood in the doorway, shoving her lank hair off her forehead. She wore a Gap tank top and his boxers and looked as good in them as she had a de cade before on their honeymoon.
"Come to bed. Tomorrow's a huge day for you."
"Be there in a moment."
She crossed, and they kissed quietly, and then she trudged off to bed again.
The movement of the glider was hypnotic, but his thoughts kept circling back to the unresolved business of the coming day. After a time he realized he wasn't going to be able to sleep, so he went into the kitchen and made a pot of coffee. Back in the chair, sipping con- tentedly from his mug, he soaked in the pale yellow walls, the raft of dolls on the floating shelf, his daughter in angelic repose. The only interruption was the occasional buzz from the blowfly, which had stalked him down the hall.
Kat skidded through the kitchen, her ponytail loose and off center. Annabel paused above the omelet pan and regarded the fount of curls.
"Your father did that, didn't he?"
Kat shoved her stuffed polar bear into her backpack and climbed onto a counter stool next to Mike. Annabel slung the omelet onto Kat's plate, then leaned over and readjusted her daughter's hair tie with a few expert flips and tugs. She dropped the pan into soapy water, mopped the leak beneath the farm house sink with a foot- held paper towel, and moved back to finishing Kat's lunch, cutting the crust off her peanut-butter --- no jelly --- sandwich.
Slurping at his third cup of coffee and watching his wife,
Mike felt like he was moving in slow motion. "I'll fix the sink tonight," he said, and Annabel gave him a thumbs- up. He noted the furry white arm protruding from his daughter's backpack. "May I ask why you packed a polar bear for school?"
"I have a report today."
"Another report? Aren't you in third grade?"
"It's for that enriched- learning thing after class. I'm talking about global warming ---"
Annabel, sarcastic: "No kidding."
"--- and this isn't just any polar bear."
Mike lifted an eyebrow. "No?"
Kat pulled the stuffed animal from her backpack and pre- sented it theatrically. "This is no longer Snowball, Childhood Friend. This . . . this is Snowball, the Last Dying Polar Bear." She removed her eyeglasses from their case and put them on. The round red rims added gravity to her expression. Not that she needed the help. "Did you know," she asked, "that polar bears will probably be extinct by the time I'm a grown- up?"
"Yes," Mike said. "From that Al Gore movie. With the melting icecaps and drowning polar bears. You cried for two days." Annabel said, "Eat your omelet."
Kat picked at the edge. Mike gave the nape of her neck a squeeze. "Want me to walk you to class today?"
"Dad, I'm eight."
"So you keep reminding me." Mike tugged his sturdy cell from his pocket and hit "redial." A few rings, and then the bank manager picked up. "Hi, Mike Wingate again. Did the wire hit?"
"Just a minute, Mr. Wingate." The sound of keyboard typing.
As Kat and Annabel negotiated how many more bites Kat had to eat, Mike waited, drumming his fingers nervously on the counter.
It had taken him thirteen years to work his way from hired hand to carpenter to foreman to contractor. And now he was on the brink of closing out his fi rst deal as a developer. He'd taken some ulcer- inducing risks to get here, leveraging their house and maxing out a handful of loans to buy a section of undeveloped canyon at the edge of town. Lost Hills, a Valley community thirty miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, had a number of advantages, the main one being that real estate was merely expensive, not obscene. Mike had carved the land into forty generous parcels and built a community of ecological houses that he had named, uninventively, Green Valley.
Not that he was a die- hard ecofreak, but Kat had shown an interest in environmental stuff from an early age and he had to admit that those futuristic computer- generated photos of Manhattan flooded due to sea- level rise scared the hell out of him.
The state's offer of green subsidies had helped the houses sell quickly, the cash from the final cluster of sales due to be wired from the title company this morning. This wire would get him out from under the bank --- finally, entirely --- after three and a half years and meant they'd no longer have to eyeball their checking- account balance before deciding to go out to a meal.
The bank manager's breath whistled over the line. The typing stopped. "Still nothing, Mr. Wingate."
Mike thanked him, clicked his cell closed, and ran the sweat off his forehead with the heel of a hand. The little nagging voice returned: What if, after all this work, something did go wrong?
He caught Annabel looking at him, and he said, "I shouldn't have bought that stupid truck yet."
She said, "And what? Duct- taped the transmission together on your beater pickup? We're fi ne. The money's there. You've worked hard. So hard. It's okay to let yourself enjoy it a little."
"And I certainly didn't need to drop eight hundred bucks on a suit."
"You've got a photo shoot with the governor, honey. We can't have you show up in ripped jeans. Besides, you can wear it again at the award ceremony. Which reminds me." She snapped her fingers. "I need to pick it up from the tailor this morning after class. Kat's got that back- to- school checkup this morning. Can you take her on your way in? Meet back here at lunch?"
In the past year, their schedules had gotten more complicated to coordinate. Once it had become clear that Kat and third grade were getting along, Annabel decided it was time to go back to Northridge University for her teaching degree. State-school tuition was manageable, as long as they bent the bud get here and there. Mike flipped his phone open and checked the screen in case he'd missed the bank calling back with good news. He rubbed a knot out of his neck. The stress, still holding on. "I don't know what was wrong with my old sport coat."
Kat said, "I don't think anyone wears plaid jackets anymore, Dad."
"It's not plaid. It's windowpane."
Annabel nodded at Kat and mouthed, Plaid.
Mike had to smile. He took a deep breath. Tried for a full ex- hale. The money was already at the title company. What could go wrong?
Annabel finished at the sink, tugged off her rings, and rubbed lotion into her hands. The engagement ring, a fleck of pale yellow diamond that he'd scraped together two paychecks to afford, gave off a dull sparkle. He loved that ring, like he loved their nice little house. The American dream distilled into two bedrooms and fifteen hundred square feet. Having money come in would be great, sure, but they'd always known to be grateful, to appreciate how fortunate they were.
Annabel reached for his hands. "Come here, I got too much lotion." The light from the window was pouring over her shoulders, bronzing her dark hair at the edges, and her eyes, picking up the frost blue of her shirt, looked translucent. He raised the cell phone, framed her in the built- in camera, and snapped a picture. "What?" she said. "Your hair. Your eyes."
Annabel rolled her hands in his.
"Gawd," Kat said. "Just kiss and get it over with already."
The Ford F-450 gleamed in the garage like a spit-polished tank. The four- ton truck guzzled enough diesel to offset what ever help Green Valley was lending the environment, but Mike couldn't exactly haul gear to a construction site in a Prius. The truck was extravagant --- irresponsible, even --- but he had to confess that when he'd driven it off the lot yesterday, he'd felt more delight than seemed prudent.
Kat hopped into the back and stuck her nose in a book, the usual morning procedure.
Pulling out of the driveway, Mike gestured at the roof- mounted TV/DVD player. "Stop reading. Check out the TV. It's got wireless headphones. Noise-canceling."
He sounded like the brochure, but couldn't help himself; the new-car smell was making him heady.
She put on the headphones, clicked around the channels. "Yes!" she said, too loud since the volume was cranked up. "Hannah Montana." He coasted up the quiet suburban streets, tilting down the sun visor, thinking about how nervous and yet excited he was about today's photo shoot with the governor. They passed a jewelry shop, and he looked at all the glimmering ice in the storefront window and thought that once that wire hit, just maybe he'd stop by and get something to surprise Annabel.
As they neared Dr. Obuchi's, Kat's face darkened, and she tugged off the headphones. "No shots," she said.
"No shots. It's just a checkup. Don't freak out."
"As long as there are no needles, there will be no freaking out."
She extended her hand with a ceremony beyond her years. "Deal?" Mike half turned, and they shook solemnly. "Deal."
"I don't believe you," she said.
"Have I ever broken a promise to you?"
"No," she said. "But you could start."
"Glad to see I've built up trust."
"I'm eight. I'm supposed to be difficult."
Her mouth stayed firm for the rest of the drive and all the way into the examination room, where she shifted back and forth on the table, the paper crinkling beneath her as Dr. Obuchi checked her reflexes.
The doctor finished the physical and eyed Kat's chart. "Oh. She never got her second MMR, since Annabel wanted me to spread out the vaccines." She tugged at a lock of shiny black hair. "We're late on it." She fussed in a drawer for the vial and syringe.
Kat's eyes got big. She stiffened on the table and directed an imploring stare at her father. "Dad, you swore."
"She prefers to get ready for shots," Mike said. "Mentally. A little more notice. Can we come back later in the week?"
"It's September. Back to school. You can guess what my schedule looks like." Dr. Obuchi took note of Kat's glare. Unwavering. "I might have a slot Friday morning."
Mike clicked his teeth together, frustrated. Kat was watching him closely. He put his hands on his daughter's knobby knees. "Honey, I'm wall- to- wall with meetings Friday, and Mom has class. It's my worst day. Let's just do this now and get it over with." Kat's face colored.
Dr. Obuchi said, "It's just a prick. Over before you know it."
Kat tore her gaze from Mike and looked at the wall, her breath quickening, her arm almost as pale as the latex glove gripping it. Dr. Obuchi dabbed some alcohol on Kat's biceps and readied the needle.
Mike watched, his discomfort growing. Kat kept her face turned away.
As the stainless-steel point lowered, Mike reached out and gently stopped the doctor's hand. "I'll make Friday work," he said. Mike drove, chomped Juicy Fruit, and tried to keep from checking in with the bank manager for the fourth time that morning. As they approached Kat's school, he rolled down the window and spit his gum into the wind. "Dad."
"That's not good for the environment."
"Like if a bald ea gle chokes on it?"
"Okay, fine," he said. "I won't spit any more gum out the window."
"Snowball the Last Dying Polar Bear thanks you."
He pulled up to the front of the school, but she just sat there in the backseat, fingering the wireless headphones in her lap. "You're getting some award thing for the green houses, aren't you?" she asked.
"From the governor?"
"I'm being recognized, yeah."
"I know you care about nature and stuff, but you're not, like, really into it, right? So why'd you build all these green houses?"
"You really don't know?" He angled the rearview so he could see her face.
She shook her head.
He said, "For you."
Her mouth came open a little, and then she looked away and smiled privately. She scooted across and climbed out, and even once she was halfway across the playground, he could see that her face was still flushed with joy.
Letting the breeze blow through the rolled- down window, he took in the scene. A few teachers were out supervising the yard. Parents clustered among the parked cars, arranging play dates, coordinating car pools, planning field trips. Kids whooped and ran and tackled one another on the grass.
It was a life he'd always dreamed about but barely dared to believe he could have for himself. And yet here it was.
He dialed, raised the cell phone to his face. The bank manager sounded a touch impatient. "Yes, Mr. Wingate. I was about to call. I'm pleased to tell you that the wire came through just this instant."
For a moment Mike was rendered speechless. The phone sweaty in his grip, he asked for the amount. And then asked the bank manager to repeat it, just to make sure it was real.
"So the loan is paid off now, yeah?" Mike said, though he knew he had just received enough to close out the remaining debt fi ve times over. "Fully paid off?"
A note of amusement in the man's voice. "You are free and clear, Mr. Wingate."
Mike's throat was tightening, so he thanked the manager and hung up. He tipped his face into his hand and just breathed awhile, worried he might lose it here in the middle of the Lost Hills Elementary parking lot. It was the money, sure, but it was so much more than that, too. It was relief and pride, the knowledge that he'd taken a gamble and put nearly four years of nonstop effort behind it, and now his wife and daughter would never have to worry about having a roof over their heads and food in the refrigerator and overdue tuition bills tucked into the desk blotter.
Across the playground, her image split by the cross- hatching of the chain- link fence, Kat climbed to the top of a fireman's pole and dinged the top bar with a fist. The sight of her made his heart ache. Her safe little world, composed of small challenges, open horizons, and boundless affection.
Late for work, he sat and watched her play.
Excerpted from YOU'RE NEXT © Copyright 2011 by Gregg Hurwitz. Reprinted with permission by St. Martin's Press. All rights reserved.