In a lovely old house near the coast of Massachusetts, the Farrells go through the routines of a typical August morning. Eight-year-old Charlie, a junior biologist and dinosaur expert, tries to collect one of his insect specimens. His sister, Amanda, a talented gymnast who at eleven years old is already saving her money to try out for the Olympics, prepares for her last meet of the summer. Ivan, their absent-minded father, is involved with his work as an astronomer. Out in the garden, his wife, Polly, wonders how she can trick her children into eating more zucchini.
They are a family as unique and ordinary as any other, but their world will soon be shattered when Amanda is diagnosed with the disease that has been making headlines lately: AIDS. The new and still-mysterious ailment scares them—and their friends and neighbors as well. In an instant, everything that gave their lives meaning is ripped away, and the intimacy that once came so naturally vanishes. Too overcome with grief to turn to each other, Ivan and Polly seek solace elsewhere. Charlie is abandoned by his best friend and, for long stretches at a time, forgotten by his parents. Amanda, who holds on to her dreams so tightly, must somehow find a way to let go.
Torn apart by the prospect of their loss, Polly, Ivan, and Charlie must find the courage to come back together again—for Amanda’s sake and for their own. At Risk is an exquisite book about true sorrow and even truer devotion.
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About the Author
Alice Hoffman was born in New York City and grew up on Long Island. She wrote her first novel, Property Of, while studying creative writing at Stanford University, and since then has published more than thirty books for readers of all ages, including the recent New York Times bestsellers The Museum of Extraordinary Things and The Dovekeepers. Two of her novels, Practical Magic and Aquamarine, have been made into films, and Here on Earth was an Oprah’s Book Club choice. All told, Hoffman’s work has been published in more than twenty languages and one hundred foreign editions. She lives outside of Boston.
Date of Birth:March 16, 1952
Place of Birth:New York, New York
Education:B.A., Adelphi University, 1973; M.A., Stanford University, 1974
Read an Excerpt
By Alice Hoffman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1988 Alice Hoffman
All rights reserved.
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 séances 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 irresponsible—track a skunk through the woods or bike through heavy traffic to the mall—which 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.
"You'd rather have Daddy get stung than kill that stupid wasp," Amanda says to Charlie after the wasp has been directed out the window and car keys and backpacks and gym bags have all been collected.
Amanda looks over at Ivan, concerned. It's a look Polly has been noticing a lot more often lately. Suddenly, Amanda is interested in how Ivan feels and what he thinks. When he talks, Amanda listens. When Polly talks, Amanda puts on her Walkman. And, Polly knows, it's only the beginning. By the time Amanda is fourteen, Polly will be lucky if her daughter speaks to her, never mind listens to her. Polly remembers only too well when she cut off her own mother, Claire. In her memory still, it's as if she had two mothers: the warm person she loved to touch and be near and the weak, disappointing creature she realized her mother was as soon as Polly turned thirteen. Of course, circumstances were different. Claire had already disappointed Polly, but Polly has never wavered from her adolescent assessment of Claire, and now that worries her. Amanda was an easy child, the kind who edges onto your lap, who never had to be told to hold hands when crossing the street. Sooner or later, she'll have to hate her mother, and all Polly can hope for is that their break will be temporary, that it won't cause any permanent damage.
While Ivan guides the children out the back door, Polly taps down the broken porch step with the heel of her shoe. The house is white, with black shutters; the porch ceiling is a soft blue, as though a wedge of the noonday sky had been caught inside the wood. With its oval windows on the stair landings and its wide, sloping floorboards, it's the kind of house Polly always dreamed of having as a child. But Charlie and Amanda take it for granted and treat it badly. They slam doors and complain about drafts; their idea of a great house is something modem and sleek, with skylights and lofts and cable TV.
"You really make me sick," Amanda tells her brother.
"Thank you," Charlie says, with a formal bow.
Originally, Polly and Ivan moved up to Cape Ann from Boston for the children. But, as it turns out, they're the ones who have become most attached. It's not only the house they fell in love with but the town. Morrow has a wicked history, one the children have no interest in, a history prettily disguised by the large white sea captains' houses, and the town common ringed with shops, and the day-trippers up from Boston all summer, here for the wide, smooth beaches. Whether or not two witches were drowned in the pond in the center of the common is uncertain, but many towns in Massachusetts could claim that heritage. What nearly turned Morrow into a ghost town was the influenza epidemic after World War I. Whole families perished in single rooms. Children were lost one after another, wives locked themselves in attics so they would not infect their husbands. For years afterward no one was interested in the sea captains' houses or the summer cottages, even though the reason they were abandoned was long forgotten. In the sixties newcomers from Boston who knew nothing of the epidemic began to buy up houses, cheap, and some of the vegetarian restaurants and craft shops they opened are still in operation, though their prices are much higher now. The school superintendent began to hire Harvard graduates, who, in a later era, might have gone on to business or law school, but who, in 1965, were drawn to a small town where their dogs could run free and summers could be spent digging clams and getting suntans. By the time Polly and Ivan were looking for a house, Morrow's school district had been rated among the top ten in the Commonwealth. That alone was reason to move.
Of course, the children tell them often enough how they plan to leave town as soon as they turn eighteen. Amanda wants to live in Manhattan. Charlie alternates between Alaska and California.
"Good. Go. I'll pay for your plane fare," Ivan tells them during arguments when they taunt him with how much distance they intend to put between themselves and their parents once they're free to do as they please. But when the children are in bed, and Polly and Ivan sit out on the porch and watch lightning bugs drift through the bushes, they find themselves wishing they could stop time and keep Amanda and Charlie children forever.
Impossible, and yet they hope.
"No Laurel Smith today?" Ivan teases Polly as she gets the kids into the Blazer.
"Don't make fun of Laurel," Polly tells Ivan. She leans on the open door of the Blazer, only now remembering she has an appointment to take it in for new shocks this afternoon.
"I knew it!" Ivan says. "You're falling for her garbage. You're so suggestible."
"I am not," Polly says.
This summer, Polly had her long, dark hair cut into short layers with the idea of facing up to her thirty-sixth birthday, but instead of making her look her age, the new haircut has her looking as young as a graduate student.
"I suggest we send them off in a cab and go back to bed," Ivan whispers.
Polly grins at him, not taking his proposal seriously.
"You make time for Laurel Smith," Ivan complains.
"That's work," Polly says, annoyed.
"Mom," Amanda calls from the backseat, "I don't want to be the last one there."
"She doesn't want to be the last one there," Polly tells Ivan, grateful for a way out of a conversation which, she knows, will end with Ivan accusing her of what he himself is guilty of: too many hours spent working.
"A fate worse than death," Ivan says. He kisses Polly and Polly kisses him back. Before Ivan moves away, she quickly bites his lip.
"That's for being mean about my job," Polly says as she gets into the car.
"I was not mean," Ivan insists. He leans in the window and kisses Amanda, walks around the Blazer toward the ancient Karmann-Ghia he refuses to give up, then leans into Charlie's window. "It's just that I'm medium cool about Laurel Smith," he puns, and the children both let out a groan.
"Dad, that was pathetic," Charlie says.
"Let me out of here," Ivan says. "I'm going where I'm appreciated."
"Oh, yeah?" Polly grins, knowing how unappreciated Ivan has been feeling lately. "Where's that?"
"Mother, do you have to argue?" Amanda says from the backseat.
Ivan and Polly stare at each other. One of them is amused; the other isn't.
"Don't gloat," Polly tells Ivan. "You'll be the one they turn on next."
Ivan grins and gets into his car. He waves as he backs out of the driveway, and after he's gone Polly reaches for her sunglasses and heads for the Cheshire School. Charlie sits glumly beside her; as always, he is going with them against his will. As far as he's concerned, anyone who isn't his best friend, Sevrin, is just a pain in the neck. As she's backing down the driveway, Polly gets a glimpse of Amanda's thoughtful, unreadable face in the rearview mirror. Amanda is always distant before a meet; her nervousness takes the form of an unearthly calm so that Polly has to say everything to her twice before Amanda hears her.
Excerpted from At Risk by Alice Hoffman. Copyright © 1988 Alice Hoffman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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