Home Leave: A Novel

Home Leave: A Novel by Brittani Sonnenberg

Book: Home Leave: A Novel by Brittani Sonnenberg Read Free Book Online
Authors: Brittani Sonnenberg
am I to cut myself loose? What have I done to deserve that? Across the lake, light flickers on inside a house. Dinnertime.
    Chris, sitting in 2A of a Northwest flight, removes a James Patterson novel from his briefcase and sips his gin and tonic. His tough-guy act has already faded; he felt it seeping away this morning, and by the time he got to the airport he was spent and nice again; he tipped the driver too much and didn’t cut anyone in line at the ticket counter, didn’t even protest when others cut him. He is lucky, he knows. There is no reason to demand anything from the world beyond that. It could scare the grace away. He pictures Elise and Leah, at the dinner table, Elise spooning mashed peas into Leah’s mouth.
    Elise lies on the beach until the stars come out and she is shivering.
    Leah wails in her crib. Even after Becky comes in to sing her to sleep, Leah is inconsolable: her bear has fallen below the bed.
    *  *  *
    He gets home before she does. The house is silent. He calls out both their names as the taxi drives away, knowing by the empty garage that they’re not there. But where are they? Why can’t she ever leave a note? He feels insecure; he wanted to hug both of them, to swirl Leah around, to hear her giggle. He wanted Elise to milk out all the stories about India from him, so that he could understand his trip better, feel her quiet sympathy. But instead it will be Chinese takeout and college basketball games. It’s the Sweet Sixteen, so it could be worse.
    Elise eases in around ten. She looks caught. “You’re here!” she says to Chris. “I thought you were getting in tomorrow.”
    “Where’s Leah?” Chris asks.
    “Babysitter’s,” Elise says offhandedly.
    “But if you’re here—”
    “Shhh,” Elise says. “You’ve had a long trip.” And she brings him up to bed.
    Her hunger makes him shy and despondent. She’s met someone. He’s sure. But his body reacts, almost against his will, and he finds himself drawn to this new, unfaithful Elise, even as he is gasping, she is gasping, and after he comes he doesn’t feel angry, just small and in need of protection.
    She, too. They curl together like the stuffed animals that Leah arranges in her bed each night.
    “Did you have a good trip?” Elise finally asks.
    “Yes.” It’s hard for Chris to keep his voice from sounding bitter.
    “I did too,” Elise says.
    A pause, as Chris’s mind races. “What do you mean, you did too?”
    Elise’s laugh is high, nervous, the way she used to laugh when she was speaking German. “I’ve been meaning to tell you. I’ve been going on trips as well, when you go away. I don’t know why. Just for the hell of it.”
    “By yourself?”
    “Yes. Not with Leah.” She hesitates and then adds: “But not with anyone else, either.”
    Silence again, and then her voice, horribly kind: “Is that what you were worried about?”
    He doesn’t reply. He wishes the light were on. Isn’t it easier for her to lie in the dark?
    “I need it right now. I don’t know why.” She sounds almost angry.
    “Why?” he asks, stupidly.
    But she responds. “It has to do with being back here, in the States—”
    “I thought you wanted to come back!”
    “I do! These trips, short travels—it’s a good thing. I think it’s a good thing.”
    “What about Leah?”
    “She stays with Becky.”
    “Great,” Chris says, his voice flat, furious.
    They lie in the dark, each pricked by the stony silence of the other, throats tight with resentment and a creeping fear. Chris has the feeling he used to get in games his sophomore year at UGA, their worst season. Inevitably, a moment would arrive in the third or fourth quarter when it was clear their team was going to lose, that they would never make up the ten-point difference. Watching the clock wind down, the shots fall short.
    “I don’t know, lately I just feel like traveling. Exploring. Like you,” Elise says, “with your business trips.”
    “Like me? What

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