Martha and Derek, worn out by their two young children, host a party for a salesman who boasts a miracle opportunity.
"Bold, huh?" Derek beamed. "You'll be impressed. Trust me. Wait 'til you see the video testimonials."
Martha must have still looked skeptical, because he came closer and kissed her neck. "The house looks great." He put his big hands on her waist. "Like before we had kids."
She pushed him away. "Not in front of the guests, Derek." But she was pleased with the attention and pleased that he'd noticed her work. It had taken hours, scraping ketchup and egg off the hardwood floor, filling plastic trays with Lego pieces, and Windexing smudgy hand and lip-prints off the French windows. The glass was almost invisible now, showing off the dark cedar forest beneath a sky like sequined velvet.
"Where's the guest of honor?"
"Hoping to make a big entrance, I expect," Derek said.
Someone called his name and waved an empty glass.
He grabbed the blender and moved through the crowd, topping up glasses, shaking hands, complimenting the ladies. He was a large man, tall with a deep chest, a booming voice and family-size enthusiasms.
One woman was complaining about the babysitter who'd let her down, and how she'd had to call her mother. Others chimed in with their own stories about babysitters and about the Hundred Acre Wood daycare center. Everyone here has children at the center, Martha realized. That must have been where Derek advertised. The conversation shifted, as it often did, to talk about the children themselves.
"Lucy insists that I read Harry Potter to her. I'm not sure that it's age appropriate, but she loves it so."
"My reading days are done, I'm sad to say. Jonathan insists on reading to himself now."
The doorbell sounded and Martha was glad of an excuse to escape the boasting auction.
The man on her doorstep was different from her other guests, younger, leaner, less anxious. His sun-flecked hair, warm tan and spare, muscular frame suggested an active, outdoor life-style.
"Mrs. Bryson?" he asked, taking in her haircut, her grey silk dress and matching shoes, with deferential appreciation. "I'm Clyde Ryder."
She grasped his hand, met his blue-green gaze, and then reluctantly broke away. "Like me to introduce you to everyone?"
He shook his head and then moved amongst them, introducing himself, asking questions, but mostly listening.
The women made those subtle motions, stepping closer, lifting their chests, parting their lips, that signaled an unconscious attraction. But, perhaps because of his youth and his slight stature, their husbands weren't threatened. Instead they eagerly asked about his product, and hinted that they'd be interested in stock options.
"I can't shake the feeling I've met him somewhere before," Derek said to Martha.
After half an hour, Clyde walked to the fireplace, drew a flute from his jacket pocket and played a simple tune. The chatter stilled and people gathered around him, with no sign that they found the flute pretentious.
"My product, Anobio, will do a number of things for you. It'll keep your home clean." He winked at Derek. "It will give you more time for hobbies, relationships and even," cough, "sex." Here he made eye contact with Helen, who blushed. Jason and Jeremy raised their glasses and made cheerful noises. "It will dramatically increase your bank balance." He turned in the direction of the McGrews, who were behind on their mortgage payments. "But most importantly," and here, oddly, he looked at Martha. "It will give you wisdom, insight, knowledge. All of this for a mere hundred dollars per person."
Some whispering ensued.
"But don't take my word for it," Clyde continued motioning with his hands at Derek, who stepped forward to turn on the television and DVD player.
The presentation was interrupted by a loud wail. Martha turned to see her three year old, Toby, stumbling down the stairs dragging his blanket. People covered their noses and made muffled sounds of disapproval at the stench of vomit that followed him. He stopped in the middle of the living room and said, "Hot!"
Martha moved quickly, knelt and lifted him. "Carry on without me," she muttered as she started up the stairs. She stroked his hair. She didn't care about the smell; she wanted him to feel better.
"Stay," he said, after she'd cleaned him up, changed his PJs and sheets, taken his temperature and given him grape-flavored Children's Tylenol.
She hesitated. She wanted to be downstairs listening to Clyde, but she knew that if she didn't get Toby to sleep he'd interrupt them again.
"Sing to me," he instructed.
"All right. Scoot over." She arranged herself on the bed beside him, lifted his shirt, stroked his warm back and sang Amazing Grace. The soft skin, the downy curves of his cheek and lips, and his fine hair moved her, and she forgot briefly about the adults in the living room.
When she returned, she sensed a lull in the action. The television presentation was over. Her guests were nibbling on marinated shrimp and stuffed jalapeno peppers. Soon she heard another simple melody and followed the group back to the fireplace.
"Would you mind refilling the glasses, Derek?" Clyde asked. Derek complied.
"All right then, remember the rules. I'll cut the price in half if, but only if, everyone participates."
A murmur went around the group. Husbands and wives exchanged meaningful looks, strong hands gripped shoulders, questions were asked and answered.
"Trust me," Clyde added. His gaze touched on the cross on the wall. "Take a leap of faith."
"What are we talking about?" Martha whispered to Derek.
"We have to take a pill," he replied. "It's only fifty bucks each. One of the guys on the video said he made his money back in two days and the rewards just kept coming."
"Can't we wait and see how it works? See what happens to the others?"
He glared at her. "You don't get it. It's a one-time deal. You cruise you lose. And if we don't all take it, none of us gets the special price."
Other couples were looking at her expectantly.
"All right," she finally said.
He shook his head as if he'd expected more of her than this grudging agreement.
Clyde took a box from his pocket, and then shook a tiny green pill onto each outstretched palm. It was shaped like an apple.
"Ready?" Clyde said. It occurred to Martha that there was a Jonestown quality to this scene. She wanted to escape.
Everyone else popped their pill. She put hers to her lips and then, as Clyde's glance swung past her, she deftly drew it away, took a long swig of red wine and swallowed. There was a rustle of applause. People smiled and congratulated each other.
After Derek and the other men had written checks, the party broke up. Martha surveyed the kitchen and living area, the plates with congealed grease, glasses stained with wine and lipstick, crumbs on the hardwood. She sighed. It'd be nice to have a magically clean house. She was still clutching the pill. How could a pill clean your house, she wondered, as she carefully wrapped it in a paper towel and hid it in a drawer. She'd take it in a few days if Derek and others showed signs of improvement.
Derek was up later than usual in the morning. He had his hand to his head when he entered the kitchen. "Too many Pimms cups," he said ruefully. He surveyed the messy kitchen, Toby banging on the table and Melanie with wet Cheerios plastered on her forehead, and shuddered.
"I'll eat in the dining room, if you don't mind."
After a few minutes he put his head inside the door. "I'm off. Don't wait for me for dinner. I have a squash game at the club."
Martha frowned. Dinner was always the most difficult meal. It helped to have an extra pair of adult hands.
She noticed a group of women in the parking lot after she'd dropped off her kids, and wandered over. They were talking about Clyde. Then one mentioned that she'd planned a mani-pedi for the morning; another talked about an interview and a lunch date.
When Martha arrived to pick up Toby and Melanie, she was the only mother there. Usually, three or four moms would be waiting for their toddlers to finish up, or chatting with the workers.
Derek returned home excited that evening. "I ran into Jason in the driveway. There's a Caribbean cruise that's setting off this weekend for a couple of weeks. They're having trouble filling the cabins. If we sign up right away, we can get a berth for a fraction of the full price."
"Would we take the children?" Martha asked.
Derek sighed heavily. "That's all you ever think about, isn't it? Can't you ever think of us? Think about sun and sand, snorkeling, bikinis, seafood dinners..."
Martha let the reference to bikinis pass. "But what will we do with the children?" she asked meekly.
"Well, that's the other really exciting part of this. That fellow, Clyde?" She nodded. "Well, he's offered to provide babysitting for the full two weeks, at a very low rate."
Martha shook her head. "I can't be away from my children for two weeks. What do we know about these babysitters, anyway? What do we even know about Clyde?"
Derek was annoyed, and made his annoyance evident until Martha half-heartedly agreed.
On Saturday, they drove to the station. They joined a group of adults, dressed in shorts and shades, while Clyde shepherded the children onto a special train, done up like the Hogwarts Express. Some children were laughing and chattering, but others were crying. The parents waved gaily to them, and then found their own places on the real train.
They were all the people from the party, Martha realized, but they weren't talking about babysitters and preschools and boasting about their children. Something was wrong.
"I'll just be a minute. I forgot my cell phone in the car."
"The train won't wait for you," Derek called after her, but she didn't respond. She needed all her breath to run after the toy train that was pulling out of the station. She ran, leaped and grabbed a metal handle and pulled herself aboard. "Mommy!" Toby's voice wailed over the sound of the flute. "I don't want to go on the choo-choo. I want to go with you."
She lifted him onto her hip. He whimpered softly against her shoulder.
"Where are you taking these children?" she asked. "And where are the rest of the babysitters? You need at least four adults for all these children."
He made a motion with his mouth as if mocking her speech. He wasn't the man they'd taken him for; and he no longer felt the need to pretend. The train was moving faster now, away from the developed area, across the fields, towards the hills.
Clyde came and stood close to her, examining her face. "You didn't take the pill, did you?" he asked with narrowed eyes.
"No. I wanted to wait and see what it did."
"It does exactly what I told you it does. It keeps your house clean, and gives you more free time, more money, less pain..."
Martha frowned, struggling to put this together. She looked at the fidgety, wailing passengers, and understood.
"You mean... without our children?"
He nodded. "Don't you remember what it was like before you had kids? How much time you had for adult relationships, hobbies, art, travel, and how much money you had that didn't go on diapers and infant formula and piano lessons and ..."
There was a strand of truth in what he said, twisted into a grotesque knot. "But what was all that talk about wisdom and knowledge?"
"Your husband and neighbors now see their children as they truly are - dirty and smelly, ignorant and selfish. And seeing, they realize that their offspring aren't worth the price. My pill just melted away the biological blinders."
Martha looked at the child in her arms and felt an electric panic in her gut. "What will you do with them?"
"There are other adults, on the other side, who are willing to pay good money for children."
To adopt the children, she wondered, or for more sinister purposes. She shivered. "Why are you doing this?"
He shrugged. "I'm going to have to fix you one way or another. So, I might as well tell you." He was eager to explain himself, she saw.
His parents had died when he was very young, he said; and then he was sent to a foster home. He misbehaved, as any orphan might; and after a few months his foster parents decided that he was too much trouble.
He paused and looked out into the distance, an ugly sneer contorting the face that she'd earlier thought so handsome. "But they didn't reject their biological son, even though he was far worse."
"What was their name?" she asked.
"Bryson," he answered with a small smirk.
"He said you looked familiar."
Clyde laughed. "He didn't recognize me like I recognized him."
"You're getting your revenge by taking his children, just as he, you believe, took your parents?"
He shrugged. "I managed fine without them." He made a vague gesture that took in his own magnificence.
"I'm not going to let you get away with it," Martha said, clutching Toby tighter.
"Yes, you are." He laughed.
The train was climbing into the mountains. The wind whipped through the open sides of the compartment. The children raised impotent fists, their wet faces contorted with misery. He turned in their direction, and let out a short, sharp bark on the flute. The crying stopped for a few seconds and then resumed. "I'll have to give them their medicine soon," he said.
She lifted Melanie onto her left hip and pressed her close, hoping to comfort her with the heat of her own body.
"You know that there's nothing you can do to change the children's fate," Clyde said. "But for yourself, you do have a choice. I can kill you or you can join your husband on the cruise if..." He drew out the box.
"...if I take the pill," she finished for him.
"Where there's life, there's hope, I suppose," she said slowly.
"Clichés are always so comforting," he agreed.
"I will take the pill. Just give me a few moments."
He shrugged and turned away, repelled, she saw, by the love she shared with her children. She stared hard, hoping to remember every square inch of their faces. They were trembling, like pearls in a deep pool, beautiful, vulnerable and unutterably lovable.
The train slowed at the bend in a switchback close to the peak of a hill. In less than a minute, it would start its descent on the other side, speeding up.
She managed to hold Toby and Melanie with one arm, gripped a rail on the side of the train and quickly flipped her legs over the edge. She balanced there for a second.
Clyde noticed and yelled at her.
"You're wrong," she said.
Then she hunched her shoulders like wings around her chicks and leaped.