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Tom, 6:20 a.m.
They wanted to go to the playground. No, Tom told them, it was way too early for that, and besides, he wanted to show them something beautiful. Something they’d never seen before.
Tom’s daughters, standing beside him on the porch, gave him skeptical looks.
Sophie had been up since five. She found him on the couch, where he’d spent the night staring at the TV until he’d finally—seconds ago, it seemed—drifted off to sleep. Jolting awake, Tom had opened his eyes as her soft, damp hand landed on his face.
“Daddy,” she’d said. “Wake up and play.”
Minutes later, Ilona was running down the stairs, asking for paper and overturning a basket of crayons. The girls were three years old and had been up before dawn every day that week. Today, Tom decided, he would make the best of it. While Helen got a chance to recover from her late nights and deadlines, he would take their daughters out for a little adventure. So he made a quick breakfast. Got the girls dressed, crouching down to squeeze twin sets of feet into miniature sneakers. Bundled them in an extra layer, in case there was a breeze coming off the water. Before ushering them out the door, he left a note on the kitchen table: Taking the girls out! Back soon.
And they were off. Next door, at Karl and Jackie’s house, a purple light glowed in the basement, where Jackie’s son, Nick, was probably listening to music and getting stoned. (Lucky Nick.) In the driveway, illuminated by a security light, was the old Chevy Nova that belonged to Nick’s girlfriend. There was a crumpled takeout bag in the passenger seat and a pack of cigarettes on the dashboard.
Tom had once had a ’73 Nova. He’d loved that car.
Of course, that was a lifetime ago. He unlocked the secondhand Ford Taurus wagon he’d bought when they moved out here. The girls climbed into the back. As he buckled them into their car seats, he gave them his brightest, most enthusiastic smile.
“Ready?” he said. “We’d better hurry! We don’t want to miss it.”
His daughters stared out at the dark sky and said nothing.
There would be just enough time for them to get to the creek before they’d have to turn around and come back, so Tom could drop off the girls at home and then catch the 7:13 train to the city. He had to be in the newsroom by nine o’clock and not a minute later.
But he wasn’t going to let that bother him right now. He was glad they were doing this, that he’d motivated himself. When he and Helen had first left the city for Devon, it was the kind of idea they’d talked about all the time. But the special excursions usually got pushed off, as the hours raced by in a blur. Not today. Today he would claim some freedom from all the ticking clocks. Before he dealt with his commute and work—and the anxieties that snuck up on him late at night, his thoughts spiraling until he was too exhausted to go up to the bedroom—he would enjoy this time with his daughters.
Sophie and Ilona chattered away as he started to drive, finally struck by the novelty of being out so early. Up ahead, they could see headlights from commuters heading for the train station. After the morning rush, Tom knew, that avenue would be almost deserted.
Out of habit, as he curved down Crescent Street, he scanned the yard of a rambling old mansion. The house’s former owner, a filmmaker desperate to return to Brooklyn, had struggled to find a buyer before she sold it that May at “a huge fucking loss.” Four months later, the couple who’d bought it still hadn’t moved in and were said to be having second thoughts. A hot summer with lots of rain had left the once-manicured yard overgrown and thick with weeds. Some of the neighbors complained, but Tom couldn’t help admiring the sunflowers that stood fourteen feet high, their bobble heads swaying, and the rosebushes that had grown to the size of small trees.
In the chaos of the filmmaker’s move, her little white dog, Cotton Ball, had run off, and Tom had offered to keep an eye out for it. Even after all these months, he refused to believe it was hopeless.
Ilona shrieked in the back. A stray cat was emerging from the tall grass.
“Daddy!” she said. “That cat has four legs!”
Tom was sure she’d seen four-legged cats before, but for the first time, she’d recognized the difference from their own, a rescue from a vet in Queens that had come with the name Pussyface.
“It’s okay,” Tom said. “Most cats have four legs.” And so did Pussyface, until she fell from their bathroom window days after the move. That weekend, Helen had replaced every screen, even the ones that weren’t old and warped.
The drive to the river was lined with ranch houses and modest colonials like their own, until it shifted, at Main Street, into a mile-long strip of nineteenth-century storefronts. At first, Tom hadn’t been all that excited about Devon. Helen, nostalgic for the tree-lined streets and quiet roads of her hometown outside of Boston, had brought all the enthusiasm. There was the river to the west, the creek to the east. “You can see mountains,” she’d said. And though parts of the town had a blighted, postindustrial look, she’d encouraged him to see the beauty of the old structures, like the graceful but dilapidated yellow-brick building that he and the girls were passing now.
He stopped at a light. From the backseat came cries of excitement. On the other side of Main Street, between a gas station and the Key Food, a chain-link fence enclosed a small, half-finished playground.
“There!” Ilona twisted in her seat, trying to get a better look. “Go to the playground!”
Sophie didn’t seem so sure. “That where we going?”
They’d never taken the girls to that playground. Helen preferred the one behind the middle school, where there were trees and sprinklers. Though no matter where they took the girls, they often felt out of place, even after two years here. He was forty-two and Helen had just turned forty. In Devon, unlike their old Queens neighborhood, he seldom saw middle-aged men wearing baby carriers or weathered moms chasing after toddlers, calling out for little Caspar and Django, Theo and Cleo, Eero and Oona and Esmé. Here in Devon were the names of Tom’s childhood. His daughters’ preschool had a Mike, a Dave, and two Jessicas. He’d even made the acquaintance of a little Tom and a little Helen.
Ilona gave a soft kick to the back of his seat.
He looked at the playground. It was just a fenced-in lot with a jungle gym and a pair of benches separated by a thin-limbed tree. Not a bad place, really, though it looked so abandoned it was hard to imagine kids playing there.
A woman came out from the gas station next to the playground. She began sweeping the sidewalk, though the breeze was working against her. Her broom made soft brushing sounds against the pavement. At this hour, on this dark stretch of Main, there were no other sounds.
Even on a weekday afternoon, Devon was a town where you could walk down a street and hear only your own footsteps. Sometimes, Helen told him, she saw the same few faces all day long, at the bakery and market and preschool. That didn’t bother her. But nothing in Tom’s childhood, in a working-class neighborhood in Philadelphia, had prepared him for streets so achingly quiet that he would brace himself, on alert for a scraping of shoes or a squealing of tires to break the silence.
Two years ago, they’d celebrated their good luck. Here was a place with potential, where they could afford a home. “That should have told us something,” Helen said later. In the Hudson Valley, but farther out than most commuters were willing to manage—ninety-five minutes to Grand Central. A former mill town, now an exurb, as their real estate agent had put it. Plans were in the works for the vacant warehouses. Some of those buildings were nothing but brick shells with shattered plate-glass windows, open to the sky and shot through with tree branches. But the developers were going to do something with them.
On their first trip out here, he’d browsed in the used bookstore; Helen wandered along the little street of art galleries. There was a dive bar, a nice bar, and a vegetarian restaurant. Even the stores that sold bespoke denim and artisanal fennel products had seemed like a good sign. “There are things to buy,” Helen joked. “People will come!” Many of those businesses were gone now. But we’ll always have the dive bar, Tom would tell Helen, and smile.
Most days, he could believe that their gamble would pay off, that he and Helen hadn’t made a huge mistake. He hoped he was right, because they couldn’t afford to get out. Not now, at least. They’d stretched themselves far too thin for their down payment, buying at the height of the market, right before it tanked. And then came those months when he was out of a job and desperate to find another. Even now that he was at the newswire and Helen was doing contract work for her old boss, they had no room for error. An unexpected bill or a single missed paycheck would send them into a tailspin.
Helen blamed herself, he knew. She’d fallen for the house and the town. But hearing her talk about it—how Devon might look in just a few years, with the way things keep going up, as everyone liked to tell them—he had fallen for it too.
He’d owed her that, at least. And so he would tell her, We had big hopes and bad timing. That’s all.
A horn blared. Two sharp blasts, followed by an outraged, prolonged honk that made Tom jump in his seat.
“Drive, Daddy!” the girls yelled. “Drive!”
The horn blasted again behind him. He blinked at the green light.
He drove. After he swerved past a trashcan left in the street, he glanced in the mirror at the driver behind him. She was a square-jawed blonde with three kids jostling in the back. When he stopped at the next light, she pulled alongside him, pausing to glare at him before racing away on Commercial Street.
Tom passed a hand over his eyes.
“Daddy’s sleeping,” Sophie said.
“No, honey. I’m awake.” He smiled at her over his shoulder. “Almost there.”
He turned his attention back to the street, focused now and determined to stay that way for the duration of their daybreak mission.
It had become a problem lately.
Not even lately—ever since the girls had been born. And others were beginning to notice. One moment, he would be absorbed in his day, his thoughts clear as he carried out his tasks at home or at work, and an instant later he would find himself distracted by the simplest of things. It could be anything: an old man scratching a lottery ticket. A passenger on the train whistling softly out of tune. A woman sweeping against the wind.
The next thing he knew, he would be zoned out. Hypnotized. And he would slip away. Nothing, none of his problems—not even his failures—could reach him.
It never lasted long. All at once, everything would come rushing back. And he would realize he wasn’t slipping away, exactly. He was sinking. But for those few moments he was outside of time, outside of himself. It was a way he hadn’t felt in many years. Since he was a kid, maybe.
But like a kid, he was losing things. The twenty-dollar bill that Helen’s mom had given him, during her last visit, to buy the girls some drawing paper. His credit card. His wedding ring. (Helen hadn’t noticed yet, and he hadn’t told her.) There were also the small mistakes, the lapses of judgment. Like the ticket he’d gotten earlier that week for parking too close to a fire hydrant. And then losing that ticket on his way home from the train station.
So he was making mistakes and couldn’t afford them. If he’d learned anything these last few years, it was that the slightest misstep could screw up everything. But the more he tried to concentrate, the more he wanted to drift.
Like last night, when he was supposed to be setting up the morning coffee but instead was staring out the window at the neighbors’ backyards. Butch, who lived two doors down, had just come out of his garage. He spent most of his days in there, when he wasn’t working on his meticulously landscaped garden.
Butch was glowering up at the sky in his muscle T-shirt and basketball shorts. But something about the set of his shoulders, the almost-proud look on his face, made Tom think it had been a good day. That Butch was getting somewhere, wherever that was.
Tom wanted to believe that. He was rooting for him, his vaguely hostile, barely civil neighbor.
“Are you okay?” Helen said. “What are you looking at?”
He hadn’t realized she’d come into the kitchen. It must have looked like he was staring at his reflection in the window.
“Nothing,” he said. “I’m fine. Maybe I need more sleep. But I’m fine.”
Farther down Main, they drove past minimarts, a New Age shop, and a former warehouse that had been divided into retail spaces, with signs for imaginary wine bars and upscale clothing stores. So far, only two storefronts had been rented: to a pet-supplies shop and a Laundromat, both Coming Soon!
After a few last blocks, they came to the old railroad station, out of use for decades. Tom pulled over. There was no sidewalk here, just a strip of grass that bordered the street. A few paces away, past the rusted tracks, was the brush- and tree-covered slope that led down to the creek.
“Here we are,” Tom said. He could hear the rushing of the water. “And just in time.”
He got out and released the girls from their car seats, eager to get them to the water before the sunrise. But Sophie bent down to press her hands against the tracks. Ilona stomped in the wood chips and weeds, filling her shoes with dirt. As Tom waited for them, he was struck by how green everything was, even now—the vines and grass and even the water. Though tomorrow was the first day of fall, there wasn’t a hint of leaves changing. The air was soft and damp.
About twenty feet north of where they stood, the creek dropped sharply and came crashing over the rocks.
“That’s a waterfall,” Tom said. “You’ve never seen one before. Want to get a better look?”
When they’d come up for the closing on the house, he and Helen had climbed down the three crumbling steps to sit on the concrete platform at the edge of the falls, surrounded by all of that green. They’d gazed across the water at the brick warehouses and graffiti-covered foundry and the peak of Mount Cavan in the distance. Recently Helen had started coming back on her own. Sometimes she would spend an entire weekend afternoon wandering around the empty buildings. Taking photographs, painting watercolors. “Relax,” she told him. “I’m not doing anything crazy.”
They’d never come back together or taken the girls to the creek. But if Sophie and Ilona thought this was something special, they gave no indication. Light was beginning to hit the water, turning its smooth surface before the falls a deep bottle green.
“See the sky?” Tom said. “The pink and yellow? That’s the sunrise.”
He’d imagined doing this all summer long—taking his daughters out to see the sunrise over the water. As he led them closer to the falls, he pointed out the purple and yellow wildflowers and the shallow pool at the creek’s edge that was covered with tiny, lime-green leaves. But they just wanted to stop and pull up weeds. He found a flat patch of grass and swept away rocks and twigs so that the girls could plop down on either side of him. He stretched, his bones creaking, while they sat with the perfect posture of little children. Sophie had blue eyes and sandy hair, like him; Ilona was long and lean, with dark eyes and hair, like her mother. Together they looked down at the bricks and slabs of slate that lined the banks of the creek. They could walk right down there if they wanted to, pick their way through the wet reeds and muddy puddles to the rocks at the water’s edge.
And if he were alone, maybe he would.
The sky brightened. As the water turned from green to gold, Tom was reminded of how lucky he was, and he told himself that it would all work out. He could almost picture a time when at least some parts of his life were simpler, when he didn’t feel pulled in so many directions. If only he could figure out how to get there.
His phone buzzed. Sophie and Ilona scrambled onto his lap, wanting to talk to Mommy.
“It’s only a text.” He reached into his pocket. “Not a call.”
They sank back, disappointed. At three years old, they already knew the difference.
Stop by at lunch? Important.
His daughters were watching him. Until the phone disappeared, nothing else would interest them.
Sure, he texted back. A moment later, he added, Everything OK?
“What Mommy say?” Sophie asked.
“Not Mommy.” He put a hand on her back. “Just work.”
Tom deleted the messages. The girls stared at him, their faces taking on almost identical looks of curiosity. He felt his pulse accelerating under their gaze. He needed to distract them.
“See that?” He pointed south, where the creek passed under East Street. “That bridge goes over the water.”
“Want to see the bridge!”
He had to get them home. But for the first time his daughters looked excited to be there. He was determined to make this a happy memory for them somehow.
“All right.” Tom pulled himself up from the grass. They would have to move fast. “We’ll take a very quick look. Hold my hand.”
He led them back over the tracks and down the strip of grass. At the bridge, they watched the water course over the rocks. They crossed the narrow street to see the southern view, where the creek cut between wooded banks, opening up as it approached the old mills.
Here Sophie and Ilona began to squirm and twist, straining to get closer to the guardrails. Ilona, who was prone to sudden movements, was putting all of her strength into wrestling free from his grasp.
“Time to go,” he said, his anxiety rising.
Sophie turned immediately and tried to tug him down the sidewalk. Ilona made a last protest, a lunge toward the guardrails that sucked the air out of Tom’s chest. She managed to get herself between two of the rails, her head and shoulders suspended over the water. Holding tight, his heart racing, he maneuvered her back beside him.
Ilona never missed a chance to flirt with danger, and it terrified him. It was what he’d seen in Helen lately, with her solitary painting trips in desolate areas. That summer, she’d also started running in the early hours of night, leaving a little later each time. Unlike him, she didn’t read the crime reports in the local paper. “I like running after the sun’s gone down,” she told him. “I’ll be fine.” She’d never been a worrier, but now she seemed immune to fear. At times he wondered whether she was testing her own limits or testing his.
Tom was leading his daughters back up East Street to the car when Ilona came to a halt.
“Potty!” she said.
Before Tom could tighten his grip on her hand, she slipped away and ran through an open gate to an empty lot behind a warehouse. She stopped in a stretch of gravel that served as a parking lot and shimmied back and forth, pushing her pants down to her ankles.
Fortunately, there was no one in sight. Beyond the gravel, the lot was overgrown with weeds and brush. Tom hurried after her, towing Sophie behind him.
“Okay,” he said. It was too late to stop her. “Just make it fast.”
He checked the time. If this took any longer, he would miss his train. Lights were coming on in the warehouse windows. On the other side of the lot was an old shack, so neglected it was hard to believe it was still standing. Tom glanced at the heap of scrap metal and junk not far from where they stood, an unsteady pile of broken chairs, an old plastic tub, what looked like a tricycle. Why had he dragged the girls out here? If he weren’t counting the seconds until Ilona pulled up her pants, trying not to let the tension show on his face, he might have laughed at himself for bringing his daughters to this place.
While he was checking his phone again, Sophie darted from his side. She was heading for the shattered glass—it looked like someone had intentionally smashed a large mirror—that was strewn across the gravel a short distance away. In a voice so loud he hardly recognized it as his own, Tom shouted at her.
“No! Don’t touch that!”
He caught her by the arm. Sophie burst into tears and whirled to face him. Had she ever been afraid of him before? But he couldn’t wonder about that, because now Ilona had noticed the junk pile. Sticking out from the splintered wood and jagged metal was an old toy stroller. She ran for it.
Pulling Sophie with him, he raced for Ilona. His phone buzzed with another message. The train! he thought. I am going to miss the train. Around him, the tears were in full force: frightened from Sophie, hot and angry from Ilona as he steered her away from the stroller. Tom looked up. A man in work boots and dust-covered jeans had stopped outside the gate and was watching him. Watching him struggle with his crying daughters in a lot behind a warehouse. With a hard look of appraisal that said he saw Tom for what he was—an interloper from the city who couldn’t control his own kids—the man shook his head and walked on.
Tom led his daughters to the car. If they remembered anything from this morning, he realized, it wouldn’t be the sunrise or the waterfall. It would be these moments: how he’d scared them, how they’d cried as he hauled them to the street. And though he told himself it was a small thing, that there would be so many times to make it up to them, his heart sank.
Sophie’s tears were unstoppable. Ilona managed to belt out a few words between furious sobs.
“Don’t want to be here!” she cried out. “Want to go home!”
He had been sinking for years now, really. One of these days, he would go under.
Helen, 8:30 a.m.
Jab, hook, kick.
This was the best point of the workout, when her muscles were sore but not yet stinging, and energy flowed through her—out of her—each time her fists and feet connected with the heavy bag. Helen breathed hard, no longer bothered by the smell of sweat and disinfectant that hit her as soon as she entered Joe’s gym.
Sick kick. Knee to groin.
Joe was across the room, working with the real fighters: the young guy with cornrows, the older tattooed guy, and the South Asian girl who had massive, built-up shoulders and kept her hair shaved on the sides, the rest tied in a short ponytail. Helen didn’t know their names or what they did when they weren’t training. She’d only crossed paths once with any of them outside the gym—that time she saw the girl at the Key Food, talking on her cell in a soft, airy voice that seemed left over from some previous life. Helen had turned down the produce aisle, slipping away before she could be seen.
She worked on a move Joe had taught her last week—yank the attacker’s head down, then raise your knee in a kick—until her arms burned and her knees ached. She wiped her arm across her forehead and ran through the series again.
Last winter, she’d seen a flyer on Main Street: INTENSE CARDIO, 5:30 A.M., ROOSEVELT GYM. The next morning, she dragged herself out of bed. “Who knows?” she told Tom. “Maybe I’ll meet some people.” She went over to the high school, only to find herself in a class with people she already knew—by sight, at least—from all the usual places: the playground, the school drop-offs, the organic bakery where everyone got their coffee. There was the mom who’d house-trained her chickens, which laid eggs on the couch and in the laundry basket. There was the man who spoke to his two-year-old daughter only in French, and to everyone else in a vaguely European accent, though it turned out he’d been born and raised in Michigan. And there was the pair of earnest young journalists who drove a great distance to their NPR jobs and who’d been introduced to her, more than once, as the town’s “public radio power couple.”
"Jennifer Kitses slowly and artfully turns up the flames in her debut novel until Small Hours reaches a raging boil. Tom's and Helen's disparate twenty-four hours, wracked and ruined by a jumble of anxieties and miscues, unravel with the tension of a thriller and the gimlet-eyed observations of a novel of manners."
—Teddy Wayne, Whiting Award-winning author of The Love Song of Jonny Valentine and Loner
- "Jennifer Kitses's taut debut, SMALL HOURS, is like a time bomb whose ticking you don't notice until it's too late. I was riveted, shaken, and deeply moved by this insightful story of a marriage on the brink."—Will Allison, New York Times bestselling author of Long Drive Home
- "A brave, brilliant debut, written in prose like the edge of a razor blade, about how little it takes for any of our lives to spin out of control--and how we can struggle to put back the pieces. Gripping, haunting--and dare I say it? Life changing."—Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You, This Is Tomorrow, and Cruel Beautiful World
- "The big secrets that haunt Small Hours will keep you on high alert, wondering what you don't know about your friends and neighbors."—Mira Jacob, author of The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing
"In her page-turner of a debut, Jennifer Kitses has captured the spirit of Tom Perrotta and Richard Russo, painting a dramatic portrait of a suburban marriage on the rocks. She shows all too well the emotional pitfalls of working parenthood and the precipice that so many of us navigate every day. A rich, searing, and unforgettable novel."
—Julia Fierro, author of Cutting Teeth and The Gypsy Moth Summer
- "The heart of this taut novel is a tinderbox waiting to explode. Kitses's surprisingly suspenseful plot finds intrigue in unexpected corners, as a married couple faces existential crises in a hothouse environment of suburban ennui, with shades of Homes's Music for Torching. A damning portrait of unexamined privilege and a radically persuasive argument for the need for communication in relationships."—Matthew Thomas, New York Times bestselling author of We Are Not Ourselves
- Over 24 increasingly suspenseful hours, a family's suburban life unravels.A tense domestic drama, Kitses' first novel alternates between the points of view of a husband and wife torn apart by what they don't tell each other...Leavened with occasional humor...the novel gradually and inexorably ratchets up its suspense...The novel succeeds as both a disquieting tale of ordinary horror and a portrait of a marriage at a tipping point.—Kirkus
- "Well paced, offering heart-pounding tension...Fans of Matthew Norman, Sarah Dunn, and Emma Straub will enjoy this cautiously optimistic domestic drama full of small kindnesses and deep betrayals."—Booklist
- "An intriguing tale about... the choices people make, and what happens when plans go bad... Kitses skillfully builds the tension as our protagonists slide from one crisis to the next. As in a thriller, the reader wants to yell, 'No! Don't do that!' as the hero and heroine proceed to do just that... Kitses brings the story home with a haunting question: When times get tough, do you stay or do you go?"—Minneapolis Star Tribune
- "The novel equivalent of a ticking time bomb."—New York Post, Hot Summer Reads
- "Realistic and compelling... there's no easy way out for these characters."—Publisher's Weekly
- "Suspenseful, beautifully-written debut."—Refinery29, Best Reads of June
- "This intelligent debut explores a young couple's relationship with time, stress, and their own toxic secrets... The single day that unfolds in Jennifer Kitses' debut novel, SMALL HOURS is packed with harrowing, edge-of-your-seat drama, high-stakes decisions, and constant physical and psychological danger."—Washington Independent Review of Books
- "Jennifer Kitses really illustrates very well the palpable sense of constant stress that this couple is feeling. It's like a runaway train...It brought up a lot of questions...What do we owe the people we love, in terms of honesty and truth? ...Can you decide that honesty in a relationship is not necessarily telling everything?"—The New York Public Library's podcast, The Librarian Is In
- "Jennifer Kitses' Small Hours is an engrossing novel of a single day in the life of a young couple whose suburban life is far less perfect than it seems...As their lives unravel, the tensions and secrets between the two come to a full boil. I found myself reading the book while holding my breath!"—Nancy Bilyeau
- On Sale
- Jun 13, 2017
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Grand Central Publishing