So… no Maria?” Sari said, looking around. The Smiths’ house was small, but lovely, on a quiet cul-de-sac in Brentwood. From the little she knew about real estate, she guessed it was worth at least a couple of million dollars, even though it was just your basic cozy Mediterranean.
“No Maria,” Jason said. “I fixed it-she's going to baby-sit Friday nights, instead of during the day. So the good news is I can now go out on Friday nights.”
“Is there bad news?”
“Yeah-I have no one to go out with.”
Sari decided to ignore that. “Did you talk to her about letting Zack cry?”
“Uh-” He looked down, shuffled his feet.
“You really are scared of her, aren't you?”
“I told you.”
“Seriously,” Sari said. “You've got to get her onboard with this, or it's going to hurt Zack's progress.”
“I know. I will.” He took a deep breath. “Sometimes it's all just so hard.”
Sari narrowed her eyes. What did he want from her? Sympathy?
Fortunately, Zack poked his head into the hallway at that moment.
“Hey,” Sari said. “I see you there, mister. We're going to have fun today.”
Zack immediately went running in the opposite direction.
“I’ll get him,” Jason said and took off.
He scooped Zack up and trotted back with Zack tucked sideways under one arm. “He's running for the goal,” Jason said, his free hand held out, running back style. “He's at the thirty-yard line, he's at the twenty, the ten, and he's almost there, and he- Touchdown! Woo-hoo! The crowd goes crazy! Victory dance for the good guys!” He lifted Zack up high in the air and then tossed him a couple more feet up before catching him again. Zack laughed out loud-he had a great laugh, bubbly and unforced and infectious-and as soon as Jason set him down, he tried to climb back up into his arms.
“Oh, so you want me to do it again, do you?” Jason said, picking him up and tossing him high. Zack came back down shrieking with laughter.
“Wow,” Sari said. “He really likes that.”
“Loves it,” Jason said, a little smugly, holding Zack against his chest. “Always has. It's a guaranteed Zack-pleaser.”
“Perfect,” Sari said. “Let's make him ask for it.”
“Ask for it?” Then he realized. “Oh, no. Do we have to?”
Sari shrugged her backpack off her shoulder and tossed it on the floor. “All he's got to say is ‘up.’ But you can't give in until he does. No matter how much he cries.”
He heaved a big theatrical sigh. “All right. You're the boss.”He put Zack on his feet then held out his arms. “You want to go up, Zack? Say ‘up!’”
Zack grabbed at his arms, and Jason raised them out of his reach. “No, pal. You have to say the word. Say ‘up.’” He looked at Sari. “Am I doing this right?”
Zack let out a scream of frustration.
“You're doing it right,” Sari said.
Getting him to say “up” the first time was tricky-the first time always was with a new word-but once Jason had prompted the word about twenty times, pantomiming the action, Zack did finally make an “uhh” sort of noise, and then Jason quickly grabbed him and tossed him. Five minutes after that, Zack was saying “up” with just a reminder or two, and about five minutes after that, he was saying it without one. And about five minutes after that, Jason said, “My back is breaking, Sari. I’ve got to take a break.”
“All right,” Sari said, “I think you've earned one.” Only then Zack said, “Up! Up!” so she said, “Just one more time? Please? He said it so perfectly that time.”
Jason moaned but tossed Zack up. Then he said, “No more.” He set Zack down on the floor and arched his back, digging his fingers into the muscle above his waist.
“Up, up!” Zack said and tugged on Jason's pants.
“I can't, buddy. Daddy's in too much pain.”
“Good job, Zack,” Sari said, squatting down in front of him.
“But there's no more where that came from right now. We'll do more up tomorrow.”
“Up, up!” he said, trying to climb Jason's leg.
“No more up,” Sari said.
“More up?” he said.
Sari lost her balance and had to grab at the wall to steady herself. “What did you just say, Zack?”
“More up? More up?”
“My God,” Sari said. “That's a sentence. You just made a sentence, Zack. He just made a sentence,” she said to Jason.
“Well, not really a sentence,” he said. “I mean, technically-”
“Okay, fine, it's a phrase, not a sentence. But he put two words together. On his own. That's huge. That's bigger than huge. I’ve never had a kid do that on his own before.” Sari hugged Zack. “You're incredible. Did you know that you're incredible? Because you're incredible.”
He pushed her away. “More up,” he said.
She looked at Jason. “You have to.”
“But it hurts.”
“You have to,” Sari said again. “You've got to reinforce this. Please, Jason. You have no idea how huge this is.”
“All right,” he said. “But you better have a hot towel waiting for me when I’m done.”
“You've got it,” Sari said. She felt giddy. She didn't get a lot of sudden breakthroughs like this. Most of her work was slow and frustrating. But this-this was the kind of thing she dreamed about. “A hot towel and anything else you want. On me.”
“You name it.”
He raised his eyebrows. “You are a dedicated therapist.” He held his arms out. “More up, Zack. Come and get it.”
Sari really did get him a hot towel afterward.
She let Zack take a few minutes to play by himself-he'd certainly earned it-and ran off into the kitchen, returning a short while later with a towel she'd soaked with insta-hot water.
When Jason saw what she held in her hand, he laughed. “All right,” he said and turned so his back was to her. “Put it on. You owe me.” He hitched up his shirt, exposing the area above his narrow waist.
Sari pressed the towel against his back.
He yelped and said, “It's hot!”
“I thought that was the point.”
“Yeah, it was.” And then he relaxed and said, “Aah. Now it feels good.” Then, after a moment: “Can you put it a little higher?”
Sari pushed his shirt up over his shoulders, baring his whole back, and pressed the towel against it. The skin there was smooth and hairless. When he shifted, even slighdy, muscles moved and tightened below his shoulders. Sari tried not to think about how she could, if she wanted to, simply run her hands around his waist and up to his chest.
His eyes were half closed with pleasure. “They should offer this at all the spas.”
And suddenly Sari remembered girls-high school girls, their classmates, giving Jason Smith massages out on the low wall behind the cafeteria, where everyone sat during free periods. He'd be sitting on the wall and they'd stand behind him and rub his shoulders through the light fabric of his shirts- usually the polyester top to some team uniform-and laugh and coyly let their fingers slide in against his neck and up into the curly hair above his collar. And he would wink at his friends and make little grunts of satisfaction like he was doing now.
Sari took an abrupt step back. She gathered up the towel in her fist and jerked his shirt back down into place with her other hand.
Jason turned his head. “You're done?”
“I should get back to Zack.”
“Oh, okay,” he said. “Well, thanks. That felt great.”
“If it's still sore later, you could take some Advil,” Sari said and went back to the kitchen, where she dropped the now cool towel on the counter like it was burning her fingers.
After that day, she would find Jason looking at her in a whole new way.
She'd be running with Zack outside, playing some kind of chasing game, and she'd glimpse Jason standing by the French doors, watching them with this new, curious, eager look on his face. Or, at the clinic, she'd be tickling Zack while they were playing a game and he'd try to tickle her back and she would roll a bit on the floor with him and then realize that Jason wasn't reading a book in the corner of the room like she thought but was just sitting there watching them, his head thrust forward, that look on his face again. And she'd scramble to her feet, suddenly uncomfortable in the room where she spent hours every day.
“I think Jason Smith is interested in me,” Sari said. She and Lucy were sitting on her bed, cross-legged, knitting, homemade Manhattans in lowball glasses on the night table beside them. They were both a little buzzed but not completely blotto. Not yet.
“Of course he is,” Lucy said. “How could he help but be? You're incredibly cute, and you're fixing his kid-”
“Zack Smith isn't broken, Lucy.”
“You know what I mean. Substitute whatever politically correct term for it you want. Hey, do you have a measuring tape?”
Sari fished one out of her knitting bag and handed it to Lucy, who spread her knitting on the bed and measured it. “Shit. It's nowhere near twenty inches yet. This sweaters going to take me the rest of my life.” She rolled the tape back up, concentrating carefully as if the task were a challenging one, which it was, since she was tipsy. “Married guys must come on to you constantly when you're at work.”
“It happens,” Sari said, reaching over to the night table and picking up her glass. “Usually they're just kind of sad and pathetic and I ignore the whole thing and eventually they give up.” She took a sip. “But this is different.” She put the glass back down.
“Because he's cute?”
“No. No.” She almost said “No” a third time, but she stopped herself.
“He's married, right?” Lucy leaned back against the headboard and resumed her knitting.
“Divorced. Or maybe just separated. I’m not sure. His wife was at the evaluation, according to the report. But I haven't seen her since then and he's said stuff about being a single dad.” She poked at her knitting but didn't pick it up.
“What does he do for a living?”
“He told me once he's trying to be a screenwriter but I don't think he's ever sold anything. I know he coaches kids basketball at their local rec center.”
Lucy snorted. “And you say he's not one of the pathetic ones?
“He comes from money. And I assume his wife works. He doesn't have to earn a living.”
“I still say he's kind of a loser. I mean, compared to what he was like in high school.”
“Still good-looking, though. Even better-looking, actually.”
“So why not go for it?” Lucy asked. “I mean, he's good-looking and available and you think he's interested. And he's definitely a huge step up from Jeff.”
“He's an asshole, Lucy. Remember?”
“I didn't say you should marry the guy.”
“Did we decide to stop having standards in our love lives?”
Sari asked, hugging her knees to her chest. “Because I didn't get that memo.”
“It's not about standards,” Lucy said. “It's about having fun. The guy's good-looking, right?”
“What he and his friends did to Charlie-almost on a daily basis-” She couldn't even finish the sentence.
“All right then,” Lucy said after a moment. “So let's remember that. That he was an asshole and worse to Charlie. So here's my super-brilliant idea: you sleep with him and break his heart afterward.”
“Oh, please-” Sari said, but Lucy didn't let her finish.
“I’m serious. You make him fall in love with you and when he's good and overwhelmed and madly in love with you- because I think any guy would be if you gave him half a chance-you tell him you remember everything, and you tear his heart right out of his body and you leave him open and bleeding on the floor.”
“That's a beautiful thought.”
“It is, isn't it?” Lucy said without a trace of sarcasm. She put down her knitting and took a big gulp of her Manhattan, then gestured with the glass. A few drops flew out and onto her quilt. “You get it all then, Sari. You get to sleep with the best-looking guy who ever went to our high school and you get revenge for everything you and Charlie ever suffered. Tell me you wouldn't have dreamed about that ten years ago. Tell me that isn't everything you ever wanted.”
Sari lay in bed that night, thinking about what Lucy had said, wondering if she could really do that-sleep with Jason Smith and then break his heart.
All her life she had tried to make up in some way for everything Charlie had suffered. The struggles he'd had just to communicate. The loneliness he must have felt when kids wouldn't sit next to him on the bus. The times he tried to smile at someone or worked hard just to say hello and only got a “What's your problem, retard?” in response.
Every choice she had made as an adult was about Charlie. And, in a weird way, about Jason Smith and all the Jason Smiths who had ever shoved Charlie or laughed at him or made Sari hate her own brother for letting himself be made fun of.
She once got so angry at him for always letting them humiliate him that she went after him herself-hit him as hard as she could, clawed at him with her fingernails, screamed at him that he had ruined her life by being autistic. She could remember him backing away from her, terrified, even though he was twice her size. All that night, she couldn't sleep, sick with shame and self-loathing. In the end, she had crawled into bed with him, hugging him and crying, hugging him and crying.
Her anger and her guilt-all the fault of Jason Smith and his friends.
She lay in bed now and wondered: would there truly be any comfort in revenge?
And immediately knew the answer. Of course there would. Of course there would.