In Leah’s Wake: Excerpt

//In Leah’s Wake: Excerpt
In Leah’s Wake: Excerpt2016-10-26T19:33:30+00:00

Just Do It
Zoe and Will Tyler sat at their dining room table playing poker. The table, a nineteenth century, hand-carved mahogany, faced the bay window overlooking their sprawling front yard. Husband and wife sat facing one another, a bowl of Tostitos and a half-empty bottle of Chablis positioned between them. Their favorite Van Morrison disc—Tupelo Honey—spun on the player, the music drifting out of speakers built into the dining room walls.Dog, their old yellow Lab, lay on a blanket under the window.

Zoe fanned her cards. She was holding a straight. If she laid it down she’d win her third hand in a row, and her husband would quit. If she didn’t, she would be cheating herself.

“Full moon,” she said, glancing out the window. “No wonder I had trouble sleeping last night.”

The full moon made her anxious. For one of her graduate school internships, she’d worked on the psych ward at City Hospital in Boston. When the moon was full the floor erupted, the patients noisy and agitated. Zoe’s superiors had pooh-poohed the lunar effect, chalked it up to irrationality and superstition. Zoe had witnessed the flaring tempers, seen the commotion with her own two eyes, and she’d found the effect impossible to deny—and the nurses concurred.

Will set his empty glass on the table. With his fingers, he drummed an impatient tattoo. “You planning to take your turn any time soon? Be nice if we ended this game before midnight.”

“For Pete’s sake, Will.” Her husband had the attention span of a titmouse. He reminded her of Mick, a six-year-old ADD patient she counseled—sweet kid, when he wasn’t ransacking her office, tossing the sand out of the turtle-shaped box, or tweaking her African violets.

“What’s so funny?” he asked, sulking.

She shook her head—nothing, Mick—and forced a straight face.

“You’re laughing at me.”

“Don’t be silly. Why would I laugh at you?”

He peered at the window. Smirking, he finger-combed his baby-fine hair, graying at the temples, carving a mini-pyramid at his crown.

“Nice ’do. Could use a little more gel,” she said, feeling mean spirited the instant the words slipped out of her mouth. Her husband was exhausted. He’d spent the week in California on business. Though he had yet to fill her in on the details, it was obvious his trip had not gone well. “Sorry,” she said. “Just kidding.” She took another look at her cards, hesitated, and laid down the straight.

“Congratulations.” Scowling, he pushed away from the table. “You win again.”

“Way to go, grumpy. Quit.”

“I’m getting water,” he said, flattening his hair. “Want a glass?”

Dog lifted her head, her gaze following Will to the door. She yawned and settled back down.

Her husband stomped across the kitchen, his footfalls moving toward the family room. The music stopped abruptly and then the opening chords of a Robbie Robertson tune belted out of the speakers. Zoe appreciated the gesture. She loved Robbie Robertson; “Showdown at Big Sky” was one of her favorite songs. That didn’t mean the entire state of Massachusetts wanted to hear it.

From the kitchen, heading his way, she caught his eye. “Turn it down,” she mouthed, gesturing. “You’ll wake Justine.”

He pulled a face and lowered the music.

Exasperated, she returned to the dining room. She bundled the cards, put the deck in the sideboard drawer, and gathered the dishes.

The toilet flushed in the half-bath off the back hall. Then she heard her husband rattling around the kitchen, slamming the cabinet doors. In April, Will had won a major contract for his company, North American Construction. For five months, he’d been flying back and forth to the West Coast, spending two weeks a month on the job site in San Francisco. Zoe hadn’t minded his traveling at first. A glut of office and manufacturing space had tanked construction starts in the northeast; with sales in a slump, his commissions had steadily dwindled. To compensate, they’d initially relied on their savings. In January, they’d remortgaged the house.

The project spared them bankruptcy. But his schedule was brutal. Will hated traveling, being away from the family, living out of a suitcase. He missed her and the kids. Now, with soccer season in full tilt, it was especially hard. Last year, when she was only a sophomore, their daughter had been named “Player of the Year” on the Boston Globe All-Scholastic team. The sports reporter from the Cortland Gazette had called Leah the “best soccer player in the state.” Head coaches from the top colleges in the northeast—Harvard, Dartmouth, Boston College—had sent congratulatory letters, expressing their interest.

Since her first day on the field, Will had trained and guided their daughter. He wanted to be here now to meet the prospective coaches and help her sort through her options. Zoe knew how tough this was on him. It didn’t seem to occur to Will that his traveling disrupted her life, too. Last year she’d developed a motivational seminar, called, “Success Skills for Women on the Move.” With the girls practically grown, the workshops were her babies. The extra workload at home added to the demands of her fulltime job at the counseling center, left her no time for marketing or promotion, and the workshops had stagnated. Zoe understood her husband’s frustration. It irked her that he failed to recognize hers.

Will appeared in the doorway a few minutes later, empty-handed. Her husband was tall, a hair shy of six-one. He’d played football in college, and at forty-five still had the broad shoulders and narrow waist of an athlete. Amazing, really: after eighteen years of marriage, she still found him achingly sexy. Crow’s feet creased the corners of his intelligent blue eyes and fine lines etched his cheekbones, giving his boyish features a look of intensity and purpose. Zoe recognized those qualities from the start, but it was only now, as he was aging, they showed on his face.

After work, he’d changed into jeans and a gray sweatshirt with the words “Harvard Soccer Camp” across the chest. He pushed up his sleeves and peered around the room as though looking for something.

“Zoe?” Normally, he called her “Honey” or “Zo.”

“I put the cards away.” She thumbed the sideboard. “You quit, remember?”

“Where’s Leah?”

“She went to the football game with Cissy. They hardly see each other lately. I thought it was nice.”

“She ought to be home by now.”

She glanced at the cuckoo clock on the east-facing wall. Their daughter was a junior in high school. They’d agreed before the start of the school year to extend her weekend curfew to eleven. It was ten minutes past.

“You know Leah. She probably lost track of the time.”

Will nodded and went to the window.

Their driveway, half the length of a soccer field, sloped down from the cul-de-sac, ending in a turnaround at the foot of their three-car garage. In summer, the oak and birch trees bordering the property obscured their view of the street. Now, with the trees nearly bare, they could see the flash of headlights as vehicles entered the circle.

Dog hauled herself to her feet and pressed her nose to the glass.

Will stretched his neck, wincing. His back was bothering him again, residual pain from a football injury he’d suffered in college.

Zoe came up behind him, pushing Dog’s blanket aside with her foot. “You’re tight,” she said, squeezing his shoulders.

He dropped his chin. “That feels good. Thanks. I’ve got to get one of those donut pillows for the plane.”

“Try to relax. You know Leah. She has no sense of time.”

“I can’t see why Hillary won’t set a curfew. All the other coaches have one.”

“You’re blowing this out of proportion, don’t you think?”

A flash of headlights caught their attention. An SUV entered the cul-de-sac and rounded the circle, light sweeping across their lawn.

“She has a game in the morning,” Will said.

“I know.”

Will ruffled Dog’s ears. “Reardon’s coming specifically to see her. She plays like crap when she’s tired.”

The Harvard coach. She should have known. “So she doesn’t go to Harvard,” she said, a tired remark. “She’ll go someplace else.”

“There is no place else.”

No place with such fantastic opportunities, great connections… blah, blah, blah. They’d been over this a million times. If their daughter expressed any interest at all in Harvard, Zoe would do back flips to support her. As far as she could tell, Harvard wasn’t even on Leah’s radar screen. It was a moot point, anyway. Leah’s grades had been slipping. If she did apply for admission, she’d likely be denied.

“Reardon’s got pull. He’s been talking to Hillary about her,” he said. “She can’t afford to blow this opportunity.”

What opportunity? “Face it, Will. She doesn’t want to go to Harvard.”

“If she plays her cards right, she can probably get a boat.”

“Please,” Zoe said, set to blast him. He’d received a full football scholarship from Penn State. What did he do? Dropped out of college. Was that what he wanted? For their daughter to burn out and quit? Noting the purple rings under his eyes, she held back. “You’re exhausted.” His plane had barely touched ground at Logan Airport when he was ordered to NAC’s corporate office in Waltham for a marketing meeting. He hadn’t had time to stop at home to change his clothes, never mind take a short nap. “Why don’t you go to bed? I’ll wait up.”

The look he returned implied that she’d lost it.

“Relax, Will. For all we know, they had a flat.”

“She would have called.”

“So call her.” Duh.

“I did. I got voicemail.”

Shoot. “You know Leah. Her battery probably died.” She was grasping at straws. Leah was sixteen. That phone was her lifeline. Still, it could be true. It was possible. Right?


Leah had totally lost track of time. She and Todd had been hanging out at the water tower for hours, perched on the hood of Todd’s jeep drinking vodka and OJ, admiring the beautiful night. This was the most perfect place in the universe, maybe. Big sky, lots of trees. From up here, they could see the whole town. In the valley, lights began to blink out. Leaning on her elbows, Leah gazed at the heavens.

“Look,” she said, mesmerized by the inky black sky, the billions and billions of stars. “The Big Dipper.” As she stared into space, time fell away, the past merging seamlessly with the future.

Todd set the flask on the hood of his truck and put his arm around her, drawing her close. So close she could smell the spicy deodorant under his armpits. Just being with Todd Corbett made her feel dizzy all over. Todd was, by far, the hottest boy she had ever laid eyes on. His hair was long on top, short on the sides. He had full lips, and the most fabulous blue eyes, like…like crystals or something. A Romanesque nose, the exact nose she’d once told Cissy she’d die for, only now that she’d seen it on Todd, she realized that particular nose was meant for a boy. Best of all, he had this incredible aura, all purple and blue, like James Dean or Kurt Cobain.

She curled her legs under her and laid her head on Todd’s chest.

They’d met at a party the Friday before school started. Todd had been on tour for the past two years, working as a roadie for a heavy metal band called Cobra. Leah knew he was back—it was all anybody was talking about—and recognized him instantly from all the descriptions.

She couldn’t believe her luck. Todd Corbett! And alone! She’d heard he was hot. He was even better looking in person. Thinking back, she couldn’t believe she’d been so brazen. She left Cissy in the lurch, sashayed right over to him, and took a seat beside him on the living room floor.

The movie he was watching was stupid. People clopped across a field like zombies with their arms outstretched. They reminded her of herself and Justine when they were little, playing blind. Even the makeup looked phony.

“What are you watching?” she asked.

“Night of the Living Dead. Flick’s a classic. Hey, haven’t I seen you someplace before?”

Maybe, though she couldn’t imagine where. Todd couldn’t possibly have remembered her from high school. She was only a freshman when he dropped out.

“Leah Tyler, right? You’re that soccer chick.”

The wind swished through the trees. Leah shivered. Todd shrugged out of his worn leather bomber and draped it over her shoulders. From the pocket of his jeans, he retrieved a plastic bag of weed and rolled a joint. He licked the edge of the paper, lit it, inhaling deeply, and handed it to her, the smell rich and exotic and sweet.

Leah had never smoked marijuana until she met Todd. She used to be scared, which was dumb: weed was totally harmless. She had to admit, she’d been disappointed the first few times. She pulled, her chest searing, struggling to hold the ice-hot smoke in her lungs.

Suddenly, she was coughing, waving her arms.

“You okay, babe?” Todd rescued the joint. With his free hand, he patted her back.

Once she was breathing easily again, he laughed, a gentle chuckle that made her feel dignified rather than cheesy or stupid. He pinched the joint between his index finger and thumb, took a hit to demonstrate, and brought it to her lips. “That’s it, babe. Good.”

They smoked the joint to its stub and he showed her how to fashion a roach clip from twigs. Afterward, he offered to drive her home. “Don’t want you getting in trouble or nothing.”

“That’s okay,” Leah said dreamily. “I don’t have to go yet.”

Todd hopped off the hood of the jeep, pulled a flannel blanket from the back of the truck, and spread it out on the grass under a giant oak tree.

Leah watched him smooth it out, his hands dancing, the whole world intensely colored, brilliantly alive. She heard the lonely trill of a cricket, calling from deep in the valley, smelled the damp autumn earth, felt the cool blue breeze on her face. Todd glided toward her, floating on air. He scooped her into his arms, lifting her from the hood of his jeep, and laid her on the blanket.

And he kissed her.


At eleven thirty, Zoe dialed Leah’s cell phone again. When Leah didn’t pick up, she tried Cissy, both times reaching voicemail.

“I don’t believe those two,” Zoe said, infuriated. “I’ll bet they changed their ringers. The little devils probably know it’s us.”

“That’s your daughter for you,” Will huffed.

“She’s my daughter now?”

By eleven forty-five, Zoe was chewing her cuticles and Will was pacing.

“This is it,” Will said. “I’m calling the cops.”

“You can’t be serious. What will you tell them?”

He opened his cell phone. “I can’t sit here and do nothing.” He glared at the screen.

“She’s only forty-five minutes late. They’ll think we’re crazy.”

He clicked his cell shut. “Fine,” he said, digging his keys out of his pocket. “Then I’ll find her myself.”

Find her? Where on earth did he plan to look?

“I’ll start at the high school.”

“The game was over hours ago.”

“Then I’ll drive by the Hanson’s.” He headed for the garage, Dog at his heels.

“And do what?” Cissy’s mom, a nurse, worked the early shift at St. John’s. Judy was probably in bed by now. He’d frighten her if he knocked on the door. “Will? Answer me.”

He swiveled to face her. “Look for the car,” he snapped, and ushered Dog out the door.

Zoe stood, at a loss, staring at the door her husband had closed. The house, she realized when she came to, was an icebox.

She rooted through the hall closet, found a fleece jacket of Will’s, pulled it on, and kicked off her shoes, the ceramic tile cool under her bare feet. She crossed the hall to the laundry, tossed a load of clean clothes into the dryer, and wandered back to the kitchen.

To calm herself, she tried to think positive thoughts. Leah’s responsible. She can handle herself. If the girls had been in a car accident, the police would have called. Naturally, by focusing on avoiding negativity, she conjured it. Twenty, even thirty minutes late Zoe could understand. She often lost track of time herself. She would be in her office transcribing her notes, look up, see the clock, and realize she was supposed to have picked up one of the girls—at school, at the mall, at a friend’s—fifteen or twenty minutes earlier. She’d rush around her office, collecting her folders and purse, cursing herself for being neglectful, and drive like a madwoman to her destination. Nearly an hour, though? Something was wrong.

Damn it, Leah. Where are you?

Her stomach knotted. She locked the slider in the breakfast nook of the kitchen and headed to the family room to wait, phone in hand, in case Will or Leah called.

In the arched doorway, she paused, rubbing her neck.

This house held such promise when they bought it, such hope. In the airy rooms, the soaring ceilings, the sweeping light, she’d seen a family home—welcoming, safe, with space to fill, room for the girls to grow, to thrive. Now, this huge house, with its massive stone fireplace and enormous windows that turned into gaping black holes after dark, felt cavernous and lonely.

Zoe stepped down into the family room, her bare feet sinking into the plush carpet. Yawning, she tugged the mohair blanket from the back of the sofa, and curled into the oversized chair by the fireplace, pulling the blanket over her shoulders.

Closing her eyes, Zoe breathed deeply, centering herself, and counted backward from ten. Leah’s face gradually materialized and her body slowly came into focus. Concentrating, directing her energy outward, she enclosed her child in a protective circle of light.

Be safe, she whispered. Please, baby. Be safe.