. his time, Gus dreamed she was driving down Route 6. In the back of the Volvo, Chris was ramming an action figurine against the buttress of his car seat. Beside him, face obscured by the angle of the rearview mirror, was the baby. "Is she drinking her bottle?" Gus asked Chris, the big brother, the copilot.
But before he could answer, a man knocked on the window. She smiled and rolled it down, ready to give directions.
He waved a gun under her nose. "Get out of the car," he said.
Shaking, Gus turned off the ignition. She stepped out of the car-they always told you to get out of the car-and she threw the keys as far as she could, to the middle of the next lane.
"Bitch!" the man yelled, diving for the keys. Gus knew she had less than thirty seconds. Not enough time to unlatch both car seats, to drag both children out, to get them to safety.
He was coming at her again. She had to make a choice. She scrambled for the rear door latch, sobbing. "Come on, come on," she cried, jiggling the latch on the infant seat and pulling the baby into her arms. She raced to the other side of the car, Chris's side, but the man was already revving up the engine and she watched, hugging one child, while the other was spirited away.
"Gus. Gus!" She came awake sporadically, and tried to focus on her husband's face. "You were whimpering again."
"You know," Gus said breathlessly, "they say that if you whimper in your sleep, you're screaming in your dream."
Gus nodded. "This time it was Chris."
James hugged his arm around Gus and rubbed the skin of her enormous belly, feeling the bumps and ridges that would be knees, would be elbows. "This isn't good for you," he murmured.
"I know." She was soaked in sweat; her heart was going a mile a minute. "Maybe I ... maybe I should see someone."
"A psychiatrist?" James scoffed. "Come on, Gus. It's just a nightmare." He gentled his tone, adding, "Besides, we live in Bainbridge." He pressed his lips against her neck. "No one's going to carjack you. No one's going to steal our kids."
Gus stared up at the ceiling. "How do you know?" she asked quietly. "How can you be so sure that your life is the one that's charmed?" Then she padded down the hall to her son's room. Chris slept sprawled across his bed, his body flung wide as a promise. He slept, Gus thought, with the conviction of someone who knows he is safe.
The SUMMER HAD BEEN unusually hot, something Gus attributed not to El Nino or to global warming but to Murphy's Law, since she happened to be in the middle of her second pregnancy. Every morning for the past two weeks, as the temperature had climbed to eighty-five degrees, Gus and Me-lanie had taken the children to Tally Pond, a town-run swimming hole.
Chris and Emily were at the water's edge, their heads bent together, their bare limbs tangled and brown as cider. Gus watched Emily muddy her hands and hold them tenderly to Chris's face. "You're an Indian," Emily said, the streaks of her fingers leaving war paint on his cheeks.
Chris bent down to the water and scooped up two palmfuls of mud. He slapped his hands onto Emily's bare chest, trailing dirt down over her belly. "You too," he said.
"Uh-oh," Gus murmured. "Guess I ought to break that habit early."
Melanie laughed. "Mauling girls, you mean? With any luck, by the time it matters, his objects of attention will choose to wear their bikini tops."
Emily bounced back from Chris, squealed, and took off at a run down the narrow beach. Melanie watched them disappear behind a promontory. "I ought to go get them," she said.
"Well, you'll certainly get there faster than I would," Gus agreed. She tilted her head back and dozed off until the sand trembled with the pounding of feet, and she blinked up to find Emily and Chris standing in front of her, absolutely naked.
"We want to know why Emily has a giant," Chris announced.
Behind them, Melanie came into view, holding the discarded bathing suits. "A giant?"
Chris pointed to his penis. "Yeah," he said. "I have a penis, and she has a giant."
Melanie smiled benignly. "I brought them back," she said. "You play wise woman."
Gus cleared her throat. "Emily has a vagina," she said, "because Emily's a girl. Girls have vaginas, boys have penises." Emily and Chris looked at each other, speaking volumes.
"Can she buy a penis?" Chris asked.
"No," Gus said. "You get what you get. It's like Halloween candy."
"But we want to be the same," Emily whined.
"No, you don't," Gus and Mel said simultaneously. Melanie held out the bottom of Emily's bikini. "Now get dressed," she said. "You too, Chris."
The children dutifully scrambled into their wet suits and wandered down to the sand city they'd built earlier that morning. Melanie looked at Gus. "Halloween candy?"
Gus laughed. "Like you could have done better."
Melanie sat back down. "At the wedding," she said, "we'll look back at this and laugh."
Charlie, James's hunting dog, had been sick for some time. The previous year, Michael had diagnosed an ulcer, and prescribed medicines like Tagamet and Zantac-human medicines that cost a fortune. He had to be fed small amounts of very bland food, and God forbid he should get near a trash can with bacon grease. But the illness ran in cycles-for months at a time, Charlie was fine; then he'd have a flare-up, and Gus would take him over to see Michael. She hid the receipts from James for the veterinary visits, because she knew that James would never have condoned spending five hundred dollars per winter on a dying dog. But Gus refused to see any other option.
That summer, however, Charlie developed a new problem. He drank constantly-from the toilet, from Chris's bathwater, from mud puddles. He urinated on rugs and bed quilts, although he'd been housetrained for six years. Michael had told Gus that it was probably diabetes. It was not common in springer spaniels; it was not fatal. But it was tricky and difficult to control. And every morning, she'd have to give him a shot of insulin.
Saturday afternoons, Gus took Charlie next door to the Golds' and let Michael examine him. Every week they discussed the lack of improvement; the option of putting the dog to sleep. "He's a sick dog," Michael had told her. "I'm not going to think badly of you if you make that decision."
The third Saturday in August, Gus walked the path between her house and the Golds', Charlie circling about her heels. Chris was with her, and Emily-they'd been playing over at the Harte household that morning. They tumbled up the side steps in a tornado of paws and feet, the children rushing into the kitchen and Charlie bulleting between Melanie's legs as she held open the door. "Still peeing?" Gus nodded. "Charlie!" Melanie yelled, "get back here!"
But before the dog could soil a carpet or sprint upstairs, Michael appeared with Charlie heeled at his side. "How do you do that?" Gus laughed. "I can't even get him to sit."
"Years and years of practice," Michael answered, grinning. "You ready?"
Gus turned to Melanie. "Keep an eye on Chris?"
"I think Em's doing that. What time are we supposed to be at your place tonight?"
"Seven," Gus said. "We can get the kids to sleep and then act like we don't have any."
Michael patted Gus's stomach. "Which should be exceptionally easy for you, with your girlish figure."
"If you weren't my dog's vet," Gus said, "I'd sock you for that." They walked off toward the small office Michael had furnished over the garage, laughing and talking, oblivious to the fact that until they were out of sight Melanie watched them and the ease that fit over their shoulders like a weathered old flannel blanket.
JAMES CAME UP BEHIND Gus in the mirror as she fastened her left earring. "How old am I?" he asked, skimming his hand over his hair.
"Thirty-two," she said.
James's eyes widened. "I am not," he insisted. "I'm thirty-one."
Gus smiled. "You were born in 1952. Do the math."
"Oh, my God. I thought I was thirty-one." He watched his wife laugh. "It's a big deal," he said. "You know how sometimes you wake up thinking it's Friday, and it's really only Tuesday? Well, I just lost a whole year."
Downstairs, the doorbell rang. "Daddy," Chris said, bouncing into the bedroom in his Batman pajamas. "Em's here. Em's here."
"Go let her in," Gus said. "Tell Melanie we'll be right down."
James's eyes met hers in the mirror. "Did I tell you how nice you look tonight?" he murmured.
Gus grinned. "That's only because I'm hidden from the waist down in this mirror."
"Even so," James whispered, and he kissed her neck.
"And did I tell you," Gus said, "that I love all thirty-one years of you?"
"Oh." Gus frowned. "In that case, forget it." She smiled wide and pushed back, standing splendid in a pumpkin silk caftan. "You coming?" she asked, and when James nodded, she turned off the bedroom light and started down the stairs.
In THE MIDDLE OF the dinner party, the dog got sick.
They had just finished eating. The men had gone upstairs to tuck Chris and Emily into the king-size bed in the master bedroom. James was coming down the stairs when he heard a cough, followed by an unmistakable hawking sound.
He walked down the hallway to find Charlie vomiting on the antique kilim carpet, standing in a spreading puddle of his own urine. "Goddammit," he muttered, hearing the others just footsteps behind him. He grabbed Charlie's collar to yanked him outside.
"It's not his fault," Gus said softly. Melanie was already on her hands and knees, cleaning up with a dishtowel.
"I know it's not," James tersely responded. "But that doesn't make it any easier." He turned to Michael, who was watching from a distance, his hands in his pockets. "You can't do anything?"
"No," Michael said. "Not without putting the dog into insulin shock."
"Marvelous," James said, scuffing his foot on the carpet. "Great."
Gus took the dishtowel from Melanie, who stood up slowly. "Maybe we should go," she said. Michael nodded, and as Gus and James tried to save their antique carpet, the Golds headed upstairs. They found their daughter lost in a sea of sheets with Chris, their hair crisscrossing the same pillow in streaks of gold and copper. Gently disentangling her, Michael lifted Emily into his arms and carried her down the stairs.
Gus was waiting by the front door. "I'll call you," she said.
"Do that," Melanie answered, smiling sadly and holding open the door.
Michael stayed just a moment longer. He shifted the damp, warm weight of his child in his arms. "It may be time, Gus," he said.
She shook her head. "I'm sorry about this."
"No," Michael said. "I am."
THIS TIME THE CARJACKER'S FACE had a canine snout, and black receding gums. "Get out of the car," he said, and Gus scrambled, deliberately thinking as she threw the keys that this time they had to go farther, had to go faster.
She yanked the rear door wide, worked the sadist's latch on the infant seat, grabbed the baby from the car. "Unhook yourself!" she shouted to Chris, who was trying, although his little fingers couldn't manage it. "Unhook yourself!"
She ran to his side of the car. The carjacker slid into the driver's seat, pointing the gun right at her. There was a scratch at Gus's wrist. She looked down in her arms at the baby and realized that all along she'd been holding Charlie.
JAMES GOT OUT OF BED before the sun rose and pulled on jeans and a T-shirt. Amazing, how cool it could be up here before the fog lifted. He
ate a bowl of cereal at the kitchen table, deliberately keeping his mind a wide, blank page, then walked down the basement stairs.
Charlie, who could always sense him before anyone else could, was leaping around in his wire cage. "Hey, buddy," James said, freeing the latch. "You want to go out? You want to go hunting?" The dog's eyes rolled, his pink tongue lolling in delight. He squatted and peed on the cement floor.
James swallowed, then fished in his pocket for the key to the gun case. He took out the .22 he was saving for Chris, when he got old enough to hunt squirrels and rabbits. With a silicone cloth, James rubbed down the smooth wooden shaft, the bright barrel. He took a pair of bullets and buried them in the pocket of his jeans.
The dog sprinted out the front door ahead of James, in his element. Charlie sniffed at the ground, pounced on a fat brown toad. He doubled back in circles, tracing his own scent.
"This way," James said, whistling, leading the dog deeper into the wooded acreage at the rear of the property. He loaded the bullets into the gun and watched Charlie weaving through the thick underbrush, thinking to flush up a pheasant or partridge, as he'd been bred to do. He saw the dog stop, cock his head, look skyward.
Tears slowly running down his face, James stepped behind the dog, so quiet and so familiar that Charlie did not even turn around, and lifting the rifle, he shot the dog in the back of the head.
"Hi," Gus SAID, coming into the kitchen. "You're up early."
James was washing his hands in the sink. He did not glance up. "Look," he said, "the dog died."
Gus paused, halfway across the kitchen. She leaned against the counter, tears immediately in her eyes. "It must have been the insulin. Michael said-"
"It wasn't," James said, still avoiding her gaze. "I took him out this morning. Hunting."
If Gus thought it odd that they would have gone hunting months before any major New England wildlife was in season, she did not say so. "Was it a seizure?" she asked, frowning.
"It wasn't a seizure. It- Gus, I did it."
She brought her hand up to her throat. "You did what," she whispered.
"I killed him, dammit," James said. "All right? I don't feel good about it. And I wasn't angry because of the rug. I wanted to just help him. To get rid of the pain for him."
"So you shot him?"
"What would you have done?"
"I would have taken him to Michael," Gus said, her voice hitching.
"So he could give Charlie a shot? And you could hold him and watch him die? This was more humane," James said. "He was my dog. I was the one who had to take care of it." He crossed the room and looked down at his wife. "What?" he challenged.
Gus shook her head. "I don't know you," she said, and she ran out of the house.
"What KIND OF PERSON," Gus asked, her hands shaking on her coffee mug, "shoots his own dog?"
Melanie stared across her kitchen table. "It wasn't malicious," she said, but her heart wasn't in it. It was not until a few moments before, when her best friend had run through the side door sobbing, that Melanie realized how much she valued her husband's commitment to heal.
"He doesn't kill his patients, does he?" Gus sputtered, as if she had been reading Melanie's mind. "And what am I supposed to say to Chris?"
"Tell him that Charlie died, and that he feels better now."
Gus scrubbed her hands over her face. "I'd be lying," she said.
"You'd be making it hurt less," Melanie answered, and without wanting to, both women thought of what James had done, and why.
Chris WAS WAITING on the porch steps when Gus got home. "Daddy says Charlie's dead," he announced.
"I know," Gus said. "I'm sorry."
"Are we going to put him in a lifeguard?"
"A graveyard?" Gus frowned. What had James done with the dog? "I don't think so, honey. Daddy probably buried Charlie somewhere in the woods."
"Is Charlie an angel now?"
Gus thought about the springer, who had always seemed to have wings on his feet. "Yeah. I think he is."
Chris rubbed his nose. "So when will we see him again?"
"Not till we get to Heaven," Gus said. "Not for a long time."
She looked up at Chris, his cheeks silver with tears. Impulsively, she went into the house, Chris trailing her. There, Gus went into the bathroom and packed up her toothbrush and shampoo, her Bic razors and her apricot perfume. She wrapped these in her cotton nightgown and set them on the bed. Then she haphazardly pulled clothes from drawers and hangers. "How would you like it," she asked Chris, "if we lived with Em for a while?"
Gus AND Chris SLEPT in the Gold guest room, a narrow space beside the veterinary examination quarters with a double bed, a rickety dresser, and a pervasive odor of alcohol. Aware of how awkward this was, and the imposition, Gus went to bed at eight o'clock when she settled Christopher in. She lay in the dark beside him, and she tried not to think about James.
Michael and Melanie had not said a thing. Not that they could have; anything mentioned would have come out wrong, anyway. To his credit, James had phoned four times. Twice, he'd walked all the way over, only to hear Gus shouting from a room within the Gold house that she didn't want to see him.
Gus waited until she could no longer hear water running through the pipes upstairs. She counted Chris's even breathing and then she gently eased herself up off the bed. She walked down the hall to the den, where the pushbuttons of the telephone were glowing in the dark.
James answered on the third ring. "Hello," he said groggily.
"Gus." She could hear him coming awake in starts, sitting up, huddling the phone closer. "I wish you'd come home."
"Where did you bury him?"
"In the woods. Back by the stone wall. I'll take you there if you want."
"I just want to know," Gus said, "so I can tell Chris." She had no intention of telling Chris, really. The reason she wanted to know was that she feared, in ways she could barely articulate to herself, walking in the woods several years from now after a rainstorm and finding a skeleton.
"I didn't do this to hurt him. I don't care about the goddamned carpet. If I could trade that in and get Charlie back healthy, you know I'd do it."
"But you didn't," she said. "Did you?" She gently set the receiver back in its cradle and pressed her knuckles to her mouth. It was a moment before she realized Michael was standing in front of her.
He was wearing sweatpants with a hole in the knee, and a faded Tufts T-shirt. "I heard noises," he explained. "I came down to make sure you were all right."
"All right," Gus said, turning the word over. She thought of Melanie's precision for words, and of what James had said that morning: The dog died. But the dog hadn't really, when you got right down to it. The dog was killed. There was a difference.
"I'm not all right," she said. "I'm not even fifty percent right." She felt Michael's hand on her arm. "He did what he thought was best, Gus. He even took Charlie out hunting beforehand." He knelt down beside Gus. "When Charlie died, he was with the person he loved most. I could have given him a shot, but I couldn't have made him as happy before I did it." He stood up, tugged at her hands. "Got to sleep," he said, and he led her back to the guest room, his hand riding light and warm on the small of her back.
The NEXT DAY, Melanie and Gus took the children to the pond. Chris and Emily rushed toward the water while their mothers were still setting up the towels and beach chairs and coolers. Suddenly, a whistle sounded from the lifeguard's deck. A strong, tanned teenager in a red suit jumped into the pond, stroking quickly toward the rock. Melanie and Gus stilled in their beach chairs, paralyzed by the same sudden realization: They could not see their children.
Then Emily appeared, led by a woman they did not know. In the murky blue water was a slow-turning oval, trapped beneath the surface. The lifeguard dove under and reemerged, swiftly split the water before him and dragged his quarry onto the sand.
Chris lay perfectly still, his face white, his chest flat. Gus shoved her way through the crowd, unable to speak, unable to do anything but fall bone-lessly to the ground a few feet away from her son. The teenager leaned down, sealed Chris's lips with his own, breathed life.
Chris's head turned to the side, and he vomited up water. Gasping, starting to cry, he reached past the lifeguard to the safety of Gus's arms. The teenager stood up. "He should be all right, ma'am," the boy said. "The little girl? His friend? She slipped off the rocks and he jumped in to get her. Problem was, she landed in a spot where she could stand. Your son didn't."
"Mom," Chris said.
Gus turned to the lifeguard, shaking. "I'm sorry. Thank you."
"No problem," the boy said, and walked back to the whitewashed stand.
"Mom," Chris said, and then more insistently, "Mom!" He framed his hands, fish-cold and trembling, on both sides of her face.
"What?" Gus said, her heart so full it was heavy on the baby inside. "What is it?"
"I saw him," Chris said, his eyes shining. "I saw Charlie again."
That AFTERNOON Gus and Chris moved back to the Harte household. They carried their toiletries and clothes up the stairs. With some careful unpacking and casual rearranging, by nightfall-when James came home from the hospital and checked on his sleeping son and saw his wife waiting in bed-it seemed as though they had never left.
This time DURING THE NIGHTMARE Gus managed to hurl the keys farther than she ever had before, under another vehicle that was parked all the way across the street. She unstrapped her seat belt and got to the baby's door, managed to unlatch her and drag her free as she heard the footsteps behind her again.
"You bastard!" Gus yelled, for the first time fighting back in this nightmare. She kicked the tire. She looked into the back seat, expecting to see Chris's face as they squealed away, but instead she saw her husband reach into the rear of the car to set him free. And she wondered why it had taken so long to notice that all this time, James had been sitting in the passenger seat.