by Jane Futcher
I’d been home from boarding school only a few days when it happened. I’d forgotten how bad things are around my parents. My mom gets mad at my dad because his business ventures fail, and my dad yells at her because she doesn’t like sex. When things get too tense, Mom disappears on her horse or flies down to Santa Fe where her best friend lives. Life is calmer for a while, but things deteriorate when Dad’s in charge. He tends to space out on his household duties and forgets Johnny’s soccer practice and Nathan’s doctor appointments.
The atmosphere at home wasn’t exactly light when they kicked me out of school. What I did was pretty dumb, since we had only three more days before the term was over. We’d finished exams, and we were waiting around to get our grades and go, to graduation. Smoking a joint didn’t seem like a big deal to me. A lot of other kids were doing it, but only three of us got caught. The school said they couldn’t let us know till. August whether or not we could come back in the fall. That was fine with me because I’d already decided I wasn’t going back. I was going to high school in Turkey Run, where we live. I’d had enough of boarding school. You have to understand, The Billings School is, sort of a dude ranch for rich kids. It’s out in the middle of nowhere, in the mountains, and all anybody does is ride horses. I’m a pretty good rider, but I can’t stand the sight or smell of horses.
My parents were furious with me. They said I had to go back to Billings if they’d take me. My friends were all in the midst of finals, so there wasn’t anyone to talk to except my thirteen-year-old brother Johnny, who is so preppy I think he was born in a Brooks Brothers shirt and Topsiders, and my six-year-old brother Nathaniel, who’s mentally retarded.
Another problem is that where I live there’s nothing to do. It’s this suburb half an hour south of San Francisco. There’s not even a movie theater in Turkey Run, just these big houses and old estates and people with horses, like my folks. Our house is up on a ridge. There are pastures and a lot of oak trees, and from the kitchen, on a clear day, you can see San Francisco Bay and Stanford University. Behind the house is another ridge, and eventually, after you wind through some redwoods, you’ll come to the Pacific Ocean.
My parents live at the far end of the house, which is all on one floor. Johnny’s room is next to mine, and Nathan sleeps in a little room off my parents’. In back, there’s a swimming pool, and just beyond the house, on the far side, is the barn where my mother keeps her horses. These details are necessary so you can picture the place on the day of my big bad deed.
I have to admit, it was without a doubt the worst day in my life. It started with Mom asking me if I wanted some toast for breakfast. I didn’t hear her because I was reading this skateboard magazine of Johnny’s. Next thing I knew, she was yelling at me, telling me l was going to become a bum and a dropout if l didn’t change my attitude, that I’d be lucky to get into the local community college if l didn’t start listening to her and taking responsibility for my. I said the community college was fine with me, that only ass- holes and preppies went to Yale, where my father went. Dad didn’t blink an eye, just kept eating his English muffin and reading the Wall Street Journal, which made Mom madder. She slammed shut the dishwasher and said she was going riding with her friend Eve and needed me to baby-sit for Nathan.
“I just got home from school, Mom,” I yelled. “I’m on vacation. Why isn’t Nathan going to school?” Nathan goes to school most of the summer because special kids like him are too much trouble for families to handle by themselves all day.
“Teachers’ meeting today,” Mom said, pulling the saddle blanket out of the clothes dryer. She turned around. “Please, Simon, don’t be so rude. Can’t you look after him for two hours? It’s not that much to ask. I’ll pay you.”
I looked at Nathan in his high chair, oatmeal dribbling down his face, his eyes crossed, a goony smile on his face, his head cocked to one side as if he were listening to extraterrestrial voices.
“He’s a pig,” I said.
“Simon, don’t talk that way!” Mom shot me a hateful look. She loves Nathan more than any of us, more than Dad and me and Johnny and even her darling horses. She says Nathan taught her how to love, because he’s brain damaged and she had to love him even though he didn’t live up to all her expectations. She still has plenty of expectations for me and Johnny, and at the time, I wasn’t meeting any of them.
“Well?” She was staring at me. Underneath her anger she looked sort of sad and desperate. I know it upsets her to have a kid who’ll never be able to talk or write or even change his own diapers. About the only thing he knows how to do is climb his plastic jungle gym in the living room. You should see him read his books. He sucks on them and turns the pages over and over in his hands until they disintegrate. My mother has to buy super durable books with indestructible bindings, otherwise he destroys them in minutes. If he loses his book, he has a temper tantrum, so she keeps a few stored away for emergencies. It was a long time before Mom knew for certain Nathan was retarded, and it was even longer before she accepted the fact that he would never be normal. Johnny and.Dad and I knew it a lot sooner, but she didn’t seem to get it, kept dragging him to special schools and doctors hoping his brain would somehow be restored.. But he’ll always be a goon. At eighty~ four, he’ll still be wearing Pampers and listening to Wee Sing and Peter Pan tapes on his plastic yellow cassette player. It’s pretty tragic if you think about it too long.
“Simon?” Mom was waiting for an answer. That crazy look in her eyes scared me.
“Okay. I’ll do it. But promise you’ll be back in two hours. He’1l drive me nuts if it’s longer than that.”
“Great. Thank you, sweetheart. I’ll be back in two hours.” Mom smiled and kissed me and seemed to forget how angry shell been a few seconds before. She’s like that. Her moods change really fast. Sometimes she’s ice cold, other times she’s totally up and cheerful.
Nathan and I followed her down to the barn and watched her saddle up her mare and the quarter horse for Eve. Then they rode off down the trail, and I was stuck with Nathan.
Dad had gone to work and Johnny was already at school. The front door was open, the way it always is when it’s hot, and Nathan and I were sitting in the living room watching TV. Or rather, I was watching TV. Nathan was playing on his jungle gym. He was having a great time. Every now and the he’d come over and sit on my lap and drool on me, and l’d yell at him and push him off and he’d laugh hysterically, as if he were having the time of his life. The first couple of times he sits on your lap, it’s okay, but when he keeps doing it, it becomes very irritating. He’s almost untrainable. He’s worse than a dog that way.
With Mom gone, we had a TV-watching orgy. Geraldo had these amnesia victims on the show, which was cool. Then we saw a documentary on Prozac, a yuppie drug millions of Americans are taking for depression. Then this great movie started, All About Eve, with Bette Davis, about this conniving actress who’ll do anything to become a star. I went into the kitchen to make popcorn, so l could really get into the movie, and as I looked into the fridge for something to drink, I noticed how quiet the house was, I closed the ‘fridge door and listened. All I heard was the hum of the swimming pool filter and the birds chirping on the roof. Something was different. Then I figured it out. Nathan wasn’t making any noise, wasn’t laughing or jumping of his jungle gym. I looked in the living room. He wasn’t there, or back in his room, or leaping off Mom’s bed. I went out the front door and searched for him in the garden. Nathan goes outside by himself all the time; he just hovers around the house and comes right back.
“Nathan,” I called.
I walked down to the barn. “Nathan! Where are you?” I was getting a little uptight. No laughter. No goony, string-bean kid lurching down the driveway. The horses stared at me like idiots. I walked across the road to Mrs. Farber’s, where Nathan likes to chase the ducks. He wasn’t there either.
I was starting to get edgy. How long had Nathan been gone? When was the last time I’d pushed him out of my lap? Was it during Geraldo or the documen- tary or All About Eve?
“Nathan!” I yelled at the top of my lungs. What if Nathan had fallen into the swimming pool? Mom would kill me. She would never forgive me. I tore up to the house.
“Nathan?” I stared into the turquoise water. My stomach knotted. One of his sneakers was floating on the surface. “Nathan?” I called softly. I could see something on the bottom. I dove in fast and reached for the blob with my hand. It wasn’t Nathan. It was a towel. At first I was relieved, then worried. Where the hell was he?
I was racing around in the bushes behind the house when I heard the horses clatter across the breezeway in front of the barn. I walked down trying, to look calm and cool.
Mom smiled. She’s very pretty, by the way. She’s got this fantastic body and she looks like a movie actress, like Sophia Loren some people say.
“Have a good ride?”I said.
“Great. Wonderful. Thanks for baby-sitting. How come you’re all wet?”
“What?” I looked down at my clothes, swallowed, and picked up the old fly swatter. ‘
“There’s been a little bit of a problem.”
Mom dismounted. “What’s the problem? Where’s Nathan?”
I coughed. “He’s … I don’t know where he is.”
Mom looked alarmed. “What’s going on?”
“I can’t find him.”
“What do you mean you can’t find him?” She tied her mare to the post and gripped my arm. “What happened?”
“We were watching TV and he disappeared.”
“How long ago? When did he disappear?”
“I’m not sure.”
Mom threw down her crop and charged up to the house.
“He’s not in the pool, Mom!” I yelled, following after her. “I already looked.” She was pacing through the house’ in a trance. She grabbed the phone and started calling all the neighbors, asking if they’d seen Nathan.
“I can’t believe it, Simon. What’s wrong with you? Has marijuana ruined your brain?”
“I’m sorry, Mom.”
“Did anybody come up to the house? The garbage truck? The vet? Did the school bus come after all?”
I shook my head. “I didn’t see anybody”
Her face was pale. “Simon, how could you?” I think she would have strangled me if the phone hadn’t rung.
“Oh, my God,” she kept saying. “Oh, my God. Yes, thank you. I’m on my way.”
She put down the phone and picked up her purse.
“Mrs. Ballard found Nathan walking down Turkey Run Road. He’s cut his face and bruised his arm. The police are there now.” She looked at me with complete disgust.
“Police?” I whispered.
“I’ll discuss this with you later, Simon. Help Eve unsaddle the horses.” She roared down the hill in her big black station wagon.