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Landlineby Rainbow Rowell
Georgie pulled into the driveway, swerving to miss a bike.
Neal never made Alice put it away.
Apparently bicycles never got stolen back in Nebraska—and people never tried to break in to your house. Neal didnt even lock the front door most nights until after Georgie came home, though shed told him that was like putting a sign in the yard that said PLEASE ROB US AT GUNPOINT. “No,” hed said. “That would be different, I think.”
She hauled the bike up onto the porch and opened the (unlocked) door.
The lights were off in the living room, but the TV was still on. Alice had fallen asleep on the couch watching Pink Panther cartoons. Georgie went to turn it off and stumbled over a bowl of milk sitting on the floor. There was a stack of laundry folded on the coffee table—she grabbed whatever was on the top to wipe it up.
When Neal stepped into the archway between the living room and the dining room, Georgie was crouched on the floor, sopping up milk with a pair of her own underwear.
“Sorry,” he said. “Alice wanted to put milk out for Noomi.”
“Its okay, I wasnt paying attention.” Georgie stood up, wadding the wet underwear in her fist. She nodded at Alice. “Is she feeling okay?”
Neal reached out and took the underwear, then picked up the bowl. “Shes fine. I told her she could wait up for you. It was this whole negotiation over eating her kale and not using the word ‘literally anymore because its literally driving me crazy.” He looked back at Georgie on his way to the kitchen. “You hungry?”
“Yeah,” she said, following him.
Neal was in a good mood tonight. Usually when Georgie got home this late … Well, usually when Georgie got home this late, he wasnt.
She sat at the breakfast bar, clearing a space for her elbows among the bills and library books and second-grade worksheets.
Neal walked to the stove and turned on a burner. He was wearing pajama pants and a white T-shirt, and he looked like hed just gotten a haircut—probably for their trip. If Georgie touched the back of his head now, itd feel like velvet one way and needles the other.
“I wasnt sure what you wanted to pack,” he said. “But I washed everything in your hamper. Dont forget thats its cold there—you always forget that its cold.”
She always ended up stealing Neals sweaters.
He was in such a good mood tonight.…
He smiled as he made up her plate. Stir-fry. Salmon. Kale. Other green things. He crushed a handful of cashews in his fist and sprinkled them on top, then set the plate in front of her.
When Neal smiled, he had dimples like parentheses—stubbly parentheses. Georgie wanted to pull him over the breakfast bar and nose at his cheeks. (That was her standard response to Neal smiling.) (Though Neal probably wouldnt know that.)
“I think I washed all your jeans…,” he said, pouring her a glass of wine.
Georgie took a deep breath. She just had to get this over with. “I got good news today.”
He leaned back against the counter and raised an eyebrow. “Yeah?”
“Yeah. So … Maher Jafari wants our show.”
“Whats a Maher Jafari?”
“Hes the network guy weve been talking to. The one who green-lit The Lobby and that new reality show about tobacco farmers.”
“Right.” Neal nodded. “The network guy. I thought he was giving you the cold shoulder.”
“We thought he was giving us the cold shoulder,” Georgie said. “Apparently he just has cold shoulders.”
“Huh. Wow. That is good news. So—” He cocked his head to the side. “—why dont you seem happy?”
“Im thrilled,” Georgie said. Shrilly. God. She was probably sweating. “He wants a pilot, scripts. Weve got a big meeting to talk casting.…”
“Thats great,” Neal said, waiting. He knew she was burying the lead.
Georgie closed her eyes. “… on the twenty-seventh.”
The kitchen was quiet. She opened them. Ah, there was the Neal she knew and loved. (Truly. On both counts.) The folded arms, the narrowed eyes, the knots of muscle in both corners of his jaw.
“Were going to be in Omaha on the twenty-seventh,” he said.
“I know,” she said. “Neal, I know.”
“So? Are you planning to fly back to L.A. early?”
“No, I … we have to get the scripts ready before then. Seth thought—”
“All weve got done is the pilot,” Georgie said. “Weve got nine days to write four episodes and get ready for the meeting—its really lucky that we have some time off from Jeffd Up this week.”
“You have time off because its Christmas.”
“I know that its Christmas, Neal—Im not skipping Christmas.”
“No. Just skipping … Omaha. I thought we could all skip Omaha.”
“We already have plane tickets.”
“Neal. Its a pilot. A deal. With our dream network.”
Georgie felt like she was reading from a script. Shed already had this entire conversation, almost verbatim, this afternoon with Seth.…
“Its Christmas,” shed argued. They were in their office, and Seth was sitting on Georgies side of the big L-shaped desk they shared. Hed had her cornered.
“Come on, Georgie, well still have Christmas—well have the best Christmas ever after the meeting.”
“Tell that to my kids.”
“I will. Your kids love me.”
“Seth, its Christmas. Cant this meeting wait?”
“Weve already been waiting our whole career. This is happening, Georgie. Now. Its finally happening.”
Seth wouldnt stop saying her name.
Neals nostrils were flaring.
“My moms expecting us,” he said.
“I know,” Georgie whispered.
“And the kids … Alice sent Santa Claus a change-of-address card, so hed know shed be in Omaha.”
Georgie tried to smile. It was a weak effort. “I think hell figure it out.”
“Thats not—” Neal shoved the corkscrew in a drawer, then slammed it shut. His voice dropped. “Thats not the point.”
“I know.” She leaned over her plate. “But we can go see your mom next month.”
“And take Alice out of school?”
“If we have to.”
Neal had both hands on the counter, clenching the muscles in his forearms. Like he was retroactively bracing himself for bad news. His head was hanging down, and his hair fell away from his forehead.
“This might be our shot,” Georgie said. “Our own show.”
Neal nodded without lifting his head. “Right,” he said. His voice was soft and flat.
Sometimes she lost her place when she was arguing with Neal. The argument would shift into something else—into somewhere more dangerous—and Georgie wouldnt even realize it. Sometimes Neal would end the conversation or abandon it while she was still making her point, and shed just go on arguing long after hed checked out.
Georgie wasnt sure whether this even qualified as an argument. Yet.
So she waited.
Neal hung his head.
“What does ‘right mean?” she finally asked.
He pushed off the counter, all bare arms and square shoulders. “It means that youre right. Obviously.” He started clearing the stove. “You have to go to this meeting. Its important.”
He said it almost lightly. Maybe everything was going to be fine, after all. Maybe hed even be excited for her. Eventually.
“So,” she said, testing the air between them. “Well see about visiting your mom next month?”
Neal opened the dishwasher and started gathering up dishes. “No.”
Georgie pressed her lips together and bit them. “You dont want to take Alice out of school?”
He shook his head.
She watched him load the dishwasher. “This summer, then?”
His head jerked slightly, like something had brushed his ear. Neal had lovely ears. A little too big, and they poked out at the top like wings. Georgie liked to hold his head by his ears. When hed let her.
She could imagine his head in her hands now. Could feel her thumbs stroking the tops of his ears, her knuckles brushing against his clippered hair.
“No,” he said again, standing up straight and wiping his palms on his pajama pants. “Weve already got plane tickets.”
“Neal, Im serious. I cant miss this meeting.”
“I know,” he said, turning toward her. His jaw was set. Permanently.
Back in college, Neal had thought about joining the military; he would have been really good at the part where you have to deliver terrible news or execute a heartbreaking order without betraying how much it was costing you. Neals face could fly the Enola Gay.
“I dont understand,” Georgie said.
“You cant miss this meeting,” he said. “And we already have plane tickets. Youll be working all week anyway. So you stay here, focus on your show—and well go see my mom.”
“But its Christmas. The kids—”
“They can have Christmas again with you when we get back. Theyll love that. Two Christmases.”
Georgie wasnt sure how to react. Maybe if Neal had been smiling when he said that last thing …
He motioned at her plate. “Do you want me to heat that back up for you?”
“Its fine,” she said.
He nodded his head, minimally, then brushed past her, leaning over just enough to touch his lips to her cheek. Then he was in the living room, lifting Alice up off the couch. Georgie could hear him shushing her—“Its okay, sweetie, Ive got you”—and climbing the stairs.
Copyright © 2014 by Rainbow Rowell
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