They drove in near-total silence the whole way to his house. Everyone's eyes stayed devoutly on the road, as though the familiar scenes rolling past--the valley as it widened out and spread the fall colors of its vineyards before them, the deep green of the hills riding along above it all--were some new and fascinating nature movie. Once Daisy said in a near-whisper, "Are those pills supposed to knock her out or something?" and Emily shrugged. That was it.
Knock who out? Not Eva, he thought. He imagined her, his ex-wife--small, dark, quick moving, graceful. Her sudden sexy smile. Not Eva.
Above Calistoga, he turned in at the unmarked dirt road to his house. There were sparse, newly planted vineyards on either side of it. He had to swerve and dance the truck to avoid the ruts. He could feel Theo's weight swing against his side. After about a quarter of a mile, he pulled into his driveway and then up onto the cement pad where one day he planned to build a garage.
As soon as he cut the engine, they could hear the dogs barking in the house. The children started to unbuckle their seat belts, and he swung himself out of the truck. He began to gather their possessions from the back. They came and stood behind him--silent, oddly passive, waiting for their things to be put into their hands.
He led the way. When he opened the back door, the dogs shot out and started jumping around, abruptly quieted by their joy in being released. Their heavy tails whacked everyone.
Theo made a little noise of terror and delight and stepped between Mark's legs, gripping his thighs. Mark put his hands on the boy's narrow shoulders, and was instantly startled--and then aware of being startled.
Why? Why did it feel so strange to touch the little boy?
Perhaps because he had anticipated the way the girls felt when they were Theo's size, when he had loved to touch them, to hold them. Theo's body was wiry and tense, utterly unlike theirs at the same age. It felt hot with energy.
"It's okay, big guy," Mark said gently. "They like you. They like kids like you."
Theo looked up at Mark, wide-eyed and alarmed. "They would like to eat me?" he asked. He was lighter-haired, lighter-skinned than the girls, and this difference somehow struck Mark as sad.
"No, no, no," Mark said. "They like to lick you, and play with you. You'll see. They're nice."
He squatted by Theo and held his own hand out to Fanny to be licked. When Theo imitated him after a moment, Fanny's long, rough tongue came out and stroked the boy's hand too. He snatched his arm back and jigged a little in fear and pleasure, a prancey running in place. He wore miniature red high-top sneakers. His striped socks had slid down almost entirely into them. One of his knees was thickly scabbed.
Emily and Daisy had disappeared immediately into the house, to put their things away, Mark assumed. He stood up. Theo grabbed his hand, and walked right next to Mark, into the kitchen, through it, virtually riding his left leg and talking all the while to the dogs: "No bite me! Bad dog! Bad, bad dog! No bite!"
Mark was feeling a rising, irritated frustration, which he didn't want to focus on the little boy. He gestured across the living room, toward the back of the house. "Let's go figure out what everyone's up to, shall we?"
Theo looked up at Mark. "Yah," he answered.
Theo shadowed him to the doorway of the back room. The girls' beds nearly filled its narrow space. It was dark and underwatery in here--the one window faced out into an overgrown evergreen shrub, which Mark kept meaning to prune, and hadn't. The light that filtered through it was weak and greenish. Daisy was carefully spreading her unzipped bag out on her bed, as she always did. This was her strategy to avoid making it, a chore she hated. Emily was already lying down, one arm under her head, staring out the window at nothing. Ignoring him, Mark felt.
Excerpted from Lost in the Forest by Sue Miller Copyright © 2005 by Sue Miller. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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