Linda Marx Gardner awoke from a dream and felt her husband’s erection against her hip. Not nudging it, not demanding; just there. Earlier in her marriage, or maybe more accurately very early, on predawn mornings like this, the bedroom dim and shadowy, Linda would have taken hold of Scott and started something. Those predawn somethings, their bodies still loose and heavy with sleep, would usually turn out pretty good, sometimes better than that.
Linda got out of bed. In her dream she’d been frantically erasing words from sheets of pink paper, but the words themselves were all forgotten. As she went into the bathroom, Scott made a little sound in his sleep, one of those soft grunts that indicate agreement. She had a funny thought, not like her at all: was he erasing something too?
Then she was in the shower, her appointment book opening up in her mind, time blocks dense with her neat writing. There was going to be an overrun on the Skyway account, most of it from the photography screwup, but not all. Linda tried to figure out where the rest of it came from, letting go of everything but work so completely that she jumped as she caught sight of Scott through the steamy glass, his naked back to her as he stood before the toilet. She called to him: “Can you wake Brandon?”
Scott said something she didn’t catch because of the shower’s noise, almost a roar—when they’d renovated instead of moving up from West Mill to Old Mill, they’d used nothing but the best, in this case the 10-Jet Tower from Kohler’s Body Spa collection—and when she looked again he wasn’t there. The water, hot and pounding, felt so good she could have stayed there all day. Linda turned off the shower at once.
She got out, reaching for a towel with one hand, flushing the toilet with the other. Scott always forgot, or didn’t bother, or something. Her watch, on the granite sink top—black granite streaked with midnight blue, the nicest feature in the whole house—told her she was running two or three minutes late, nothing to be all tense about. She took a deep breath.
“Bran? Bran? Bran? Bran?”
Over and over. The word penetrated Brandon’s dreams, twisted them out of shape, finally woke him.
“Brandon? You awake, buddy? It’s late.”
Brandon came awake enough to know he had the covers pulled way up, know that he was totally warm, totally fuzzy, totally unable to get up or maybe even move at all. He got one eye open, not much, just enough to peer at his father through gummy lashes. His father: towel wrapped around his waist, shaving cream on his face, razor dripping in his hand.
“I’m really not—”
“Forget it, Brandon. You’re going to school.”
“I feel like shit.”
“You’re going. And watch your language.”
Brandon didn’t say anything.
“Show a little life. Sit up or something. Don’t make me come back here.”
“All right, all right,” Brandon said, but the only thing moving was that one eyelid, closing back down.
“And this room is really getting out of hand.”
Brandon, almost asleep, barely caught that last bit. The inner fuzziness repaired itself quickly, knitting up the little hole poked through by his father and then some.
* * *
A cut-glass prism dangled in the window of the bedroom across the hall from Brandon, a window that always caught the first light. As Brandon sank back into deep sleep, the sun blinked up through the bare tree limbs out back, sending a ray through the prism. A tiny rainbow instantly printed itself on the calendar hanging on the opposite wall, and not only that, but precisely on a special square, the one with the birthday cake drawn inside, eleven flame-tipped candles burning on top.
That rainbow, quivering slightly on her upcoming birthday, was the first thing Ruby saw when she opened her eyes. She held her breath. This was proof of God’s existence. That was her first thought. She’d barely begun to deal with it, and its backpack—that’s how some thoughts were, they carried backpacks—that God took a personal interest in her, Aruba Nicole Marx Gardner, before her mind got going with the facts: sun, east window, prism, a rainbow that had to land somewhere, coincidence. That was the way Sherlock Holmes would see it, and she respected Sherlock Holmes more than anyone on earth. Didn’t love him—Dr. Watson was the lovable one—but respected him.
Still, coincidence could be tricky. Take that time she’d been eating a baloney sandwich and reading a story about a frog, she must have been four, when she’d suddenly puked all over the place, including on Brandon beside her in the backseat, frog and baloney getting all mixed up in some way. That was how she saw it, and hadn’t touched baloney since. But she could hear Sherlock Holmes: “A long car trip and a winding road? One could produce the same result with peanut butter and a penguin.” Elementary, my dear Ruby.
The rainbow moved on, sliding off her birthday, off the calendar, ballooning along the wall, warping around the corner of her open closet, vanishing in the shadows within. The spinning earth did that, stuck the rainbow in her closet. There would be lots of backpacks to that thought, but Ruby didn’t get to them. Some commotion kicked up down the hall, only the sharp notes getting though her door, like when one earphone conks out.
“Scott? Didn’t I ask you to get Brandon up?”
“Well he isn’t, as usual, and it’s five after seven. Brandon, get up now.”
Then came sounds of movement, and Bran yelled, “Fuck. Don’t fuckin’ do that,” in that deep new voice of his, ragged at the edges, that vibrated the walls, and Ruby knew that Mom had ripped the covers off him, which always worked. The sounds that followed—Bran getting up, banging around in his room, crossing the hall to the bathroom they shared, turning on the shower—faded as Ruby took The Complete Sherlock Holmes off her bedside table and found her place: “The Speckled Band.” Just from the title, she knew she was going to like it.
Speckled. A word she’d never spoken. She tried it out loud for the first time. “Speckled. Speckled.” Her stuffed animals watched in silence from their perches on bookshelves. A strange word, with a kind of power, if that made sense, and maybe not power completely for the good. Freckled was on the good side, heckled a bit nasty, speckled different in some way she didn’t know. The garage door opened under her room and her dad’s old Triumph rumbled out, sounds that were far, far away. I had no keener pleasure than in following Holmes in his professional investigations, and in admiring the rapid deductions, as swift as intuitions, and yet always founded on a logical basis, with which he unravelled the problems which were submitted to him.
Yes, that was it, what was so special about him. As Ruby read, her room went still, began to lose its physical properties, became less solid. The bachelor lodgings at 221-B Baker Street went the other way. Ruby could almost hear the crackle of the fire Mrs. Hudson had had the good sense to light, could almost—
“Ruby! Ruby! Ruby, for God’s sake!”
“I called you six times.” Mom, probably dressed for work, probably standing at the top of the stairs, that impatient look on her face, when the up-and-down line between her eyebrows appeared. “Are you up?”
“Don’t forget tennis after school, sweetheart.” Just from the change of tone, Ruby knew the up-and-down line had smoothed itself out. “See you tonight.” Mom’s voice trailed away as she went down the stairs.
Maybe not loud enough, because there was no reply. Then Mom was backing out of the garage, lurching just a bit as usual, tires squeaking on the cement floor. The garage door closed—a long whine ending in a thump—and the sound of the Jeep Grand Cherokee, smoother than the Triumph and much less interesting, faded and faded to nothing. Sherlock Holmes deduced from seven spatters of mud that the terrified young lady in his sitting room had had a rough ride in a dogcart. A car honked on the street—Brandon’s ride. The terrified young lady was going mad from fear.
Linda was dictating a memo about the Skyway account into her digital organizer when her cell rang. Deborah, her sister-in-law, married to Scott’s brother, Tom—Linda always caught her breath for a moment when Deborah called. She was excited about something. Linda could hear it just in the way she said, “Hi.”
“Are you at work yet?”
“Stuck in traffic.”
“Me too.” Pause, but not a long one. “Did you get Brandon’s results?”
“I thought they weren’t coming till next week.”
“That’s if you wait for the mail,” Deborah said. “There’s a number to call as of seven this morning. You just need a credit card and patience—it took me twenty minutes to get through.” Linda’s dashboard clock read 7:32.
“So you got Sam’s results?” she said. Sam, Brandon’s first cousin, same age.
“Fifteen forty.” The volume of Deborah’s voice went way up, almost an explosion, like some spike caused by a change in atmospheric conditions. Linda held the phone away from her ear.
“Is that good?”
“Have you forgotten? It’s out of sixteen hundred, Linda. Sam’s in the ninety-ninth percentile.” Somehow she had forgotten; now it all came back. “That’s great,” Linda said, stop-and-go on the exit ramp. The homeless guy who worked this spot stared through her window, rattling his Dunkin’ Donuts cup. It all came back, including her own score, and she added, “Wow.”
“Thanks,” said Deborah. “We kind of expected something good because of his PSAT—they track pretty closely—but still. Some kids do get sixteen hundred, of course, but we probably won’t have him retake it. With his tennis and community ser—” She stopped herself. “Anyway, here’s the number. Good luck.”
Linda tried the number. Busy, and it stayed busy until she was about to enter the parking garage under the building, a cellular dead zone. That was when she got through. Linda pulled over to the side, her foot on the brake, the car in gear. Someone honked. Linda followed the automated menu on the other end, her heart suddenly racing. She needed Brandon’s social security number, which she had in her organizer, and a Visa or MasterCard number and expiration date, which she had in her head. It cost thirteen dollars. There was a pause, a long one, during which she found she’d actually broken into a sweat, and then the digital voice uttered Brandon’s numbers: “Verbal—five hundred ten. Math—five hundred eighty.”
Linda clicked off and, as soon as she had done so, began to doubt she’d heard right. Five hundred ten? Five hundred eighty? That would be what—1090 on the SAT? Impossible. Brandon was a good student, almost always got A’s and B’s. Those digital voices were sometimes hard to understand—they tended not to emphasize the syllables a normal human being would. Maybe it had been 610 and 680. That would be 1290, the exact score she’d had years before. She didn’t think of herself as smarter than Brandon. It must have been 1290.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Tutor by Peter Abrahams. Copyright © 2002 by Peter Abrahams. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.