At Risk

Excerpt

Chapter One

There is a wasp in the kitchen. Drawn by the smell of apricot jam, lazy from the morning’s heat, the wasp hovers above the children. All through town a yellow light is cast over the green lawns and the rhododendrons. By dusk there will be a storm, with raindrops that are surprisingly cold, but of course by then the birds in the backyards and out on the marsh will have taken flight. Where do birds go in the rain? How do they disappear so thoroughly? Already, the sparrows in the chestnut tree are restless. They’re not fooled by the pure yellow light any more than they’re fooled by this last burst of August heat.

“Look at her abdomen,” Charlie says of the wasp. “It’s full of eggs.”

Amanda, who at eleven is older than her brother by three years, puts a dish towel over her head. “Get it out of here!” she says. “Kill it now, and I mean it.”

“No way,” Charlie says. He is a collector of specimens, a lover of anything mildly revolting: frogs, insects in bottles, bats’ wings, centipedes. “I don’t have to take orders from someone who still wears braces,” Charlie informs his sister.

“Mom,” Amanda yells.

The wasp, startled, flees to the ceiling.

“Oh, great,” Charlie moans. He stands up on his chair and lifts the jam jar into the air to tempt the wasp from her hiding place.

“You are really disgusting,” Amanda tells Charlie. “Mom!” she yells.

“Chicken,” Charlie says to his sister.

“Moron,” Amanda counters.

Their mother, Polly Farrell, who is out in the garden, can hear the children arguing. It’s been hard, but she has trained herself to tune out their squabbles; otherwise she’d spend most of her time refereeing. She never pays her garden much attention either, but this year the voles obviously found the small untended patch fascinating. In the hardware section of the corner store, Jack Larson told her to bury sticks of dynamite under her vegetables, and the smell of sulfur would scare away the voles. But the idea of her vegetables resting on explosives made Polly too uncomfortable. Instead, she stuck blue-tipped kitchen matches around each plant. Needless to say, whole stalks of broccoli and all of her carrots and lettuce have disappeared underground. The only thing the voles wouldn’t touch were the zucchini, and they’ve gone berserk. Polly has been putting zucchini into everything, and by now her children can ferret it out no matter how well she disguises it. Last night she deep-fried it and tried to pass it off as onion rings, but Charlie immediately removed the doughy breading and unmasked the zucchini. Amanda has taken a recent vow not to eat anything green.

Polly snaps off two large zucchini and hides them under her white cotton shirt. Tonight she plans to chop the zucchini up and sneak it into the meatloaf. She has to do something. Thin green tendrils are climbing up the chicken-wire fence around the garden, and even her husband, Ivan, who’ll eat just about anything, buttered, burned, or stale, is starting to complain and search through the freezer for packages of French beans and mixed Italian vegetables. Before she opens the screen door, Polly wipes her hands on her faded blue jeans; as soon as she’s inside, she ducks into the pantry and hides the zucchini she’s picked behind a row of cereal boxes.

“Mom, this is really serious,” Amanda calls. “I really mean it.”

Polly straightens her shirt and comes into the kitchen. She pulls the dish towel off Amanda’s head so that her daughter’s blond hair stands straight up from her scalp in pale, spokelike strands. Polly quickly feels Amanda’s forehead. Amanda has been dragging around a summer cold since June and, although she insists her throat no longer hurts, her forehead is still warm.

“I want you to take some Tylenol,” Polly says. “Now.”

“Charlie has a wasp in here,” Amanda says.

Polly looks up at the ceiling. “Charlie!” she says. She pulls Charlie down from the chair.

“I didn’t bring her in the house,” Charlie insists. “She flew in all by herself. And anyway,” he tells his sister, “she has as much right to live here as you do.”

Polly, who’s allergic to bee stings, steps toward the doorway just in case the wasp shoots down toward her.

“Ivan,” she calls. “A wasp!”

“A what?” Ivan calls back.

Amanda and Charlie look at each other and try not to laugh; it’s their mother’s main complaint, their father hears only what he wants to hear.

“Very funny,” Polly says to the children. “A wasp,” she shouts.

“A female,” Charlie yells. “She’s got about a zillion eggs in her abdomen.” Charlie then looks at his mother apologetically. “That ought to get him in here,” he explains.

Ivan comes into the kitchen and shoos them all out. He’s tall, with that posture reserved for tall men; he resembles a stork when he runs. To Polly, Ivan still looks as young as he did when they met, though he was thirty-eight last March. No matter how annoyed she is with him, and she’s often annoyed, particularly because Ivan has grown more forgetful and in some odd way less involved with her, Polly still loves the way he looks, more so because she knows Ivan never gives his appearance a second thought. He’s happiest wearing frayed sweaters and unwashed chinos; he’d never have his hair cut if Polly didn’t remind him.

“Your hero approaches the wasp,” Ivan says.

“Oh, yeah!” the children shout gleefully from the hallway.

“Right above you!” Polly says.

The children peer into the kitchen and giggle as their father grabs a colander from the counter and puts it over his head.

“Protective measures,” Ivan calls through the holes in the colander.

After he opens the windows and the back door, Ivan rolls up a newspaper then gets onto a chair. He waves the newspaper at the wasp, but Polly can tell he’s not really aiming at the damned thing. He doesn’t want to hurt it.

“Ivan,” Polly says coldly. At this moment he is hardly her hero. “Just kill it.”

Ivan removes the colander from his head so he can look at her. He has to crouch so he won’t hit the ceiling.

“You want to try?” he suggests.

“Do it your way,” Polly says, and she leaves the children there to watch Ivan gently coax the wasp out an open window while she goes off to hunt for her car keys.

It’s a good thing August is almost over. They have had all summer together and are long past the point of getting on each other’s nerves. There’s been a mood of dissatisfaction in the house; the days have been too hot and too long, there’s been too much time left open for arguments. Ivan, who’s an astronomer, usually divides his time between his own research and teaching a graduate seminar at the institute he helped to found. This summer he’s had no classes and has been working on a paper he will present at a conference in Florida in a few weeks. Ivan is not pleased with the paper, which he’s been aimlessly rewriting, or with the fact that he has been scheduled as one of the last speakers, at an hour so late that most of the other astronomers will have already left the state. Polly is no happier with her work. She feels vaguely embarrassed by it and has kept it a secret from people like her parents, who she knows would disapprove. She’s involved in what the children have dubbed the Casper Project: photographing the seances of a local medium, working with Betsy Stafford, an author whose books her photographs have illustrated twice before. But Charlie is the most discontented of all. He’s spent the past two months perfecting his obnoxious behavior with too much TV and with collecting a basementful of specimens, including some field mice Polly can hear squeaking at night. Charlie complains that his parents favor Amanda and treat him like a baby; the only person he can stand to be with is his best friend, Sevrin, Betsy Stafford’s son. But whenever the boys are together, and they’re together night and day, they do something irresponsibleótrack a skunk through the woods or bike through heavy traffic to the mallówhich only proves Ivan and Polly right when they refuse Charlie privileges.

Amanda is the only one with any real purpose this summer. She has dedicated herself to gymnastics and has gone from the self-conscious beginner she was last year to one of the best students in the gymnastics camp the elementary school has been running this summer. Amanda cannot walk through a parking lot without balancing on the raised yellow dividers; the swing hanging from the willow tree in the yard has been replaced by a wooden bar. It still amazes Polly that this girl who can throw herself onto the uneven parallel bars with a grace that is almost like flight is her daughter. Somehow, while Polly wasn’t looking, Amanda became her own person. When she watches her daughter compete, Polly feels what Laurel Smith, the medium she has been photographing, calls the “cold hand,” a piercing physical reaction to something extraordinary. At those times Amanda is not the child Polly covers at night with an extra quilt, the girl who leaves her leotards on the floor, who has to be cajoled into going to the orthodontist. She is a creature Polly cannot name, one made up not of flesh but of points of brilliant light.