Read The Leftovers Online

Authors: Tom Perrotta

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary

The Leftovers (37 page)

BOOK: The Leftovers
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“What?” she asked, uncomfortable with the scrutiny.

“Nothing.”

She put down the mug, slipped her hands into her coat pockets.

“Gonna be a cold night for softball,” she said.

Kevin shrugged. “The weather’s part of the game, you know? You’re out there under the sky. Cold in the spring, hot in the summer. That’s why I never liked those domed stadiums. You lose all that.”

“I could never get into softball.” She turned her head, distracted by a bluejay flashing by. “I played one season when I was a kid, and I couldn’t believe how boring it was. They used to stick me in the outfield, a million miles away from home plate. All I wanted to do was lie down in the grass, put my glove over my face, and take a nap.” She smiled, amused by the memory. “I did it a couple of times. Nobody even missed me.”

“Too bad,” he said. “I guess I won’t try to recruit you for next season.”

“Recruit me for what?”

“My team. We’re thinking about going coed. We need more players.”

She bit her bottom lip, looking thoughtful.

“I might give it a try,” she told him.

“But you just said—”

“I’ve matured. I have a much higher tolerance for boredom.”

Kevin plucked a peach blossom from the surface of his coffee and flicked it over the railing. He caught the teasing lilt in Aimee’s voice, but also the truth that lay beneath it. She
had
matured. Somehow, in the past couple of months, he’d stopped thinking of her as a high school girl, or his daughter’s cute friend who stayed out too late. She was
his
friend now, his coffee buddy, the sympathetic listener who’d helped him through his breakup with Nora, a young woman who brightened his day every time he saw her.

“I promise I won’t put you in the outfield,” he said.

“Cool.” She gathered her long hair with both hands as if making a ponytail, but then changed her mind, letting it spill back over her shoulders, soft and pretty against the rough twill of her jacket. “Maybe we could play catch sometime. When it’s warmer out. See if I even remember how to throw.”

Kevin looked away, suddenly embarrassed. In the far corner of the yard, two squirrels raced up a tree trunk, their little feet scrabbling frantically on the bark. He couldn’t tell if they were having a good time or trying to kill each other.

“Oh, well,” he said, playing the tabletop like a bongo. “Guess I better get to work.”

*   *   *

TOM WAS
Christine’s alarm clock. It was his job to wake her by nine in the morning. If she slept any later than that, it made her cranky and threw off her whole circadian rhythm. He hated to disturb her, though: She looked so blissful lying there on her back, her breathing slow and shallow, one hand behind her head, the other by her side. Her face was empty and serene, her belly huge beneath the thin blanket, a perfect human igloo. Her due date was just a week away.

“Hey, sleepyhead.” He took her hand, tugging gently on her index finger, then her middle finger, moving methodically toward the pinkie. “Time to get up.”

“Go ’way,” she muttered. “I’m tired.”

“I know. But you need to get up.”

“Leave me alone.”

This went on for another minute or two, Tom coaxing, Christine resisting, hampered by the fact that she could no longer roll onto her side without a massive amount of willpower and logistical calculation. Her preferred evasive maneuver—flopping onto her stomach and burying her face in the pillow—was totally out of the question.

“Come on, sweetie. Let’s go downstairs and have breakfast.”

She must have been hungry, because she finally deigned to open her eyes, blinking against the dim light, squinting at Tom as though he were a distant acquaintance whose name was on the tip of her tongue.

“What time is it?”

“Time to get up.”

“Not yet.” She patted the mattress, inviting him to join her. “Just a few more minutes.”

This was part of the ritual, too, the best part, Tom’s reward for performing an otherwise thankless task. He stretched out beside her on the bed, turning onto his side so he could look at her face, the one part of her body that hadn’t changed dramatically over the past few months. It remained thin and girlish, as if it still hadn’t gotten the news about the pregnancy.

“Ooh!” Wincing with surprise, she took his hand and placed it on her belly, right on top of her popped-out navel. “He’s really busy in there.”

Tom could feel a swirling movement beneath his palm, a hard object pressing against her abdominal wall—a hand or a foot, maybe an elbow. It wasn’t easy to distinguish one fetal extremity from another.

“Somebody wants out,” he said.

Unlike Christine and the Falks, Tom refused to refer to the fetus as “he.” There hadn’t been an ultrasound, so nobody knew for sure if it was a boy or a girl. The baby’s supposed maleness was an article of faith, based on Mr. Gilchrest’s certainty that the miracle child was a replacement for the son he’d lost. Tom hoped he was right, because it was sad to imagine the alternative, an infant girl being welcomed into the world with groans of shock and dismay.

“Are they home?” Christine asked.

“Yup. They’re waiting for you.”

“God,” she sighed. “Can’t they go away for the weekend or something?”

They’d been living with the Falks for three and a half months, and by now, even Christine was sick of them. She didn’t dislike Terrence and Marcella the way Tom did, couldn’t afford to resent their generosity, or laugh at their slavish devotion to Mr. Gilchrest. She just felt suffocated by their constant attention. All day long they hovered, trying to anticipate her needs, fulfill her smallest desire, as long as it didn’t involve leaving the house. Tom knew that was the only reason he was still here—because Christine needed him, because she would’ve gone crazy, trapped for so long with just the Falks for company. If it had been up to their hosts, he would’ve been out on his ass a long time ago.

“You kidding?” he said. “They’re not going anywhere, not this close to the big day. They wouldn’t want to miss out on the fun.”

“Yeah.” She nodded with deadpan enthusiasm. “It’s gonna be so great. I can’t wait to go into labor.”

“I hear it’s a blast.”

“That’s what everybody tells me. Especially when it lasts really long and you don’t have any pain medication. That part sounds awesome.”

“I know,” Tom agreed. “I’m totally jealous.”

She patted her stomach. “I just hope the baby’s really big. With one of those gigantic melon heads. That’ll make it even better.”

They joked like this all the time. It was Christine’s way of calming her nerves, preparing herself for the ordeal of natural childbirth. That was how Mr. Gilchrest wanted it—no doctors, no hospital, no drugs. Just a midwife and some ice chips, a little Motown on the iPod, Terrence standing by with the video camera, ready to record the big event for posterity.

“I shouldn’t complain,” she said. “They’ve been really nice to me. I just need a break, you know?”

She’d been restless lately, tired of being pregnant and housebound, especially now that the weather was so nice. Just last week, she’d persuaded the Falks to take her for a drive in the country, but they’d been so nervous about having her in the car—unable to talk about anything except how horrible it would be if they got into an accident—that it hadn’t been any fun for anybody.

“Don’t worry.” He reached for her hand, gave it a reassuring squeeze. “You’re almost there. Just a few days to go.”

“You think Wayne’ll be out by then?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t really understand the legal system.”

For the past several weeks, the Falks had been claiming that Mr. Gilchrest’s lawyers were making real progress on his case. From what they’d heard, a deal was in the works that would allow him to plead guilty to some minor charges and get off without any additional jail time.
Any minute now,
they kept saying.
We should hear some good news any minute.
Tom was skeptical, but the Falks seemed genuinely excited, and their optimism had rubbed off on Christine.

“You should come back to the Ranch with us,” she told him. “You could live in one of the guesthouses.”

Tom appreciated the offer. He’d grown attached to Christine and the baby—at least the
idea
of the baby—and would have liked to stay close to them. But not like that, not if it meant living in Mr. Gilchrest’s shadow.

“You’d be welcome there,” she promised. “I’ll tell Wayne what a good friend you’ve been. He’ll be really grateful.” She waited for a response that didn’t come. “It’s not like you have anywhere else to go.”

That wasn’t exactly true. After the baby came, when Christine didn’t need him anymore, Tom figured he’d head back home to Mapleton, spend a few days with his father and sister—he’d been thinking a lot about them in the past few months, though he hadn’t called or e-mailed—maybe say hi to his mom if he could find her. After that, though, Christine was right—his life was a blank slate.

“Wayne’s a good man,” she said, gazing up at the poster on the ceiling, the one Tom didn’t like to look at. “Pretty soon the whole world’s gonna know it.”

*   *   *

LAURIE AND
Meg arrived early for their nine o’clock meeting, but they weren’t invited into the Director’s office until close to noon. Patti Levin seemed genuinely embarrassed about the delay.

“I didn’t forget about you,” she assured them. “It’s just really hectic this morning. My assistant’s out with the flu, and the whole operation just falls apart without her. I promise it’ll never happen again.”

Laurie was puzzled by the apology, which seemed to be based on the assumption that she and Meg were busy people who didn’t like to be kept waiting. In her previous life, Laurie
had
been that sort of person, an overscheduled suburban mom juggling errands and kids, forever racing from one obligation to the next. Back then, when everybody thought the world would last forever, nobody had time for anything. No matter what she was doing—baking cookies, walking around the lake on a beautiful day, making love to her husband—she felt rushed and jittery, as if the last few grains of sand were at that very moment sliding through the narrow waist of an hourglass. Any unforeseen occurrence—road construction, an inexperienced cashier, a missing set of keys—could plunge her into a mood of frantic despair that could poison an entire day. But that was her old self. Her new self had nothing to do but smoke and wait, and she wasn’t all that particular about where she did it. The hallway outside the Director’s office was as good a place as any.

“So how’s it going?” Patti Levin asked with a smile. “How are things at Outpost 17?”

Laurie and Meg traded glances, pleasantly surprised by the Director’s friendly tone. The summons they’d received had been terse and a bit ominous—
Report to HQ, 9
A.M.
tomorrow
—and they’d spent a good part of the previous evening trying to figure out if they might be in some kind of trouble. Laurie thought she might get scolded for her failure to return the divorce petition. Meg toyed with the idea that their house was bugged, that the leadership not only knew how regularly they violated their Vows of Silence, but exactly what they said as well.
You’re being paranoid,
Laurie told her, but she couldn’t help wondering if it might be true, racking her brain to see if she’d said anything over the past couple of months that might come back to haunt her.

“We like it there,” Meg said. “It’s a really nice place.”

“It’s got a great backyard,” Laurie added.

“Doesn’t it?” the Director agreed, touching a match flame to the tip of her cigarette. “I bet it’s lovely this time of year.”

Meg nodded. “It’s so lush. And there’s a little tree with the prettiest pink blossoms. I’m not sure if it’s cherry or—”

“I’m told it’s a redbud,” the Director said. “Fairly unusual in these parts.”

“The only problem is the birds,” Laurie observed. “You wouldn’t believe how loud they are in the morning. It’s like they’re right there in the bedroom. Hundreds of ’em, all chirping at one another.”

“We think it might be nice to plant a vegetable garden,” Meg said. “Green beans, zucchini, tomatoes, stuff like that. Totally organic.”

“It would pay for itself,” Laurie chimed in. “We just need a small investment to get started.”

They were really excited about the garden plan—they had a lot of time on their hands and wanted to do something constructive with it—but the Director blew right past the subject as though she hadn’t even heard them.

“Where do you sleep?” she asked. “Have you moved into the master bedroom?”

Laurie shook her head. “We’re still upstairs.”

“Separate rooms,” Meg added quickly, which was technically true, but a bit misleading, since her own mattress had taken up permanent residence on the floor of Laurie’s bedroom. They both felt better that way, close enough to whisper, especially now that they were alone at the outpost.

Patti Levin squinted in disapproval, exhaling a jet of smoke from the corner of her mouth.

“The master bedroom’s much nicer. Isn’t there a Jacuzzi down there?”

Meg blushed. It was a rare night at the outpost when she didn’t avail herself of the Jacuzzi. Laurie liked it okay, but the novelty had worn off pretty quickly.

“The only reason I bring it up,” the Director went on, “is because your new housemates will be arriving next week. If you want to make a move, this would be a good time to do it.”

“Housemates?” Meg said without a whole lot of enthusiasm.

“Al and Josh,” the Director said. “Really special guys. I think you’ll like them.”

This news wasn’t unexpected—it was one of the first possibilities they’d discussed last night—but Laurie was surprised by the depth of her disappointment. She and Meg were happy on their own. They were like sisters or college roommates, totally relaxed and unself-conscious, familiar with each other’s quirks and moods. She wasn’t looking forward to the intrusion of newcomers, the awkwardness of once again sharing the house with strange men. The whole domestic chemistry would change, especially if one of them got a crush on Meg, or Meg got a crush on one of them. Laurie didn’t even want to think about that, all the sexual tension and twentysomething drama, no peace for anyone.

BOOK: The Leftovers
10.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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