Excerpt from Falling Together by Marisa de los Santos Pen would not use the word summoned when

she told Jamie about the email later that night. Additionally, she would not say that the email dropped like a bowling ball into the pit of her stomach, and at the same time fell over her like a shining wave, sending arcs of sea spray up to flash in the sun, even though that is precisely how it felt. Across from Jamie at dinner, forkful of rabbit halfway to her mouth, Pen would cock an eyebrow, cop a dry tone, and say, “Leave it to me to get the email of my life while wedged between Self-Help and True Crime, listening to Eleanor Rex, M.D. recount her career as a paid dominatrix.” The truth is that Pen was not giving Dr. Rex her full attention, even though she should have been. She liked Eleanor. She liked her Louise Brooks bob, her large, smoky laugh, and her impeccable manners. In the nine hours she had spent driving Eleanor around to radio interviews, stock signings, and an appearance at an upscale but vampire-den-looking private club called Marquis, Pen had come to view the dominatrix gig--no sex but a lot of mean talk and costumes--as an utterly valid and even sort of nifty way to put oneself through medical school. Even if she hadn’t, she should have been listening. As a general rule, she listened to all of her authors. It was part of the job. But this evening, Pen was unusually tired. She stood with her head tilted back against the bookstore wall, her ears only half hearing a description of how to single-handedly lace oneself into a leather corset (“There’s an implement involved,” she told Jamie later. “There always is,” he said.), her eyes only half seeing the otherwise lovely store’s horrible ceiling, paste-gray and pocked as the moon, while the weary rest of her began to fold itself up and give into its own weight like a bat at dawn. Yesterday, Pen’s daughter Augusta had come home from school with a late spring cold, and Pen had recognized, her heart sinking, that they were in for a rocky ride. Augusta’s sleep, disordered in the best of circumstances, could be tipped over the edge and into chaos by any little thing. To make matters worse, it was her first illness since Pen had purged their apartment of children’s cold medicine following newly issued, scarily worded warnings that it might be harmful to kids under the age of six. When Jamie got home at 2:00 AM, he had found Augusta cocooned in a quilt on the sofa, wide awake, coughing noisily but decorously into the crook of her arm the way she had been taught to do in school, and a pale, wild-haired Pen staring into the medicine cabinet like a woman staring into the abyss. “I hate the FDA,” Pen had spat viciously. “And don’t tell me I don’t.” “I would never tell you that,” said Jamie, backing up. “Noooo way.” In the bookstore, Eleanor’s voice grew fainter and fainter, and Pen was so completely on the verge of sliding down the wall and curling up on the

hardwood floor that she was planning it—how she would tuck her knees under her skirt, rest her head on a very large paperback book, possibly some sort of manual—when she felt her phone vibrate against her rib cage. Jamie, a sucker for gadgets, had given her the phone just a few days earlier—a “smartphone” he’d called it—and he had since realized what Pen had known the second he’d handed it to her; that it was far, far smarter than she required or deserved. A hummingbird, Pen marveled through her sleep fog, in my purse. A second later, she thought, Augusta, and then, Oh no, and her heart began to do a hummingbird thrum of its own. Generally, Pen’s girl was as healthy as a horse, and her cold had been of the messy but aimless variety. But anything could happen. A couple of months ago, Pen had sent Augusta to her father’s house for the weekend and, apparently seconds after Augusta had stepped over his threshold, her flimsy sore throat had flared like a brush fire into a serious case of strep. “Pustules all over her tonsils,” his wife, Tanya, had hissed. “Pustules. Everywhere! And you never noticed? I’ve got news for you, lady: strep can turn into rheumatic fever. Just. Like. That.” Anything could happen with children. No one had to tell Pen this. Anything could happen with anything. Pen didn’t even bother to check the message before she was punching in her home phone number and snaking her way through the small crowd of people who had gathered at the back of the store to hear Eleanor. In every bookstore audience, there were those who stood on the fringes instead of taking a seat, even when seats were plentiful, folks Pen called “lurkers.” Usually, this label was both unkind and unjust, simple snideness on her part, but in the case of Eleanor’s lurkers, perhaps not so much. One ring and Jamie picked up. “Jamie,” Pen whispered frantically into the phone. “What? Fever? Pustules? What? Just tell me.” “You,” Jamie told her calmly, “are insane.” Pen breathed, and her eyes filled with tears of relief. She swiped at them with her finger. “Well, you called,” she said, clearing her throat. “Naturally, I was worried.” “I called?” There was a brief pause and then Jamie said, “You didn’t check the voicemail, did you? You didn’t even check the number of the person calling, even though it was right there on the screen. Just hauled off and called me in a panic like a crazy person.” All true, but Pen was not going to say that to Jamie, so instead she said, “Not

that many people have this number, Jamie. It’s new, remember? You and Amelie and Patrick and Mom and Augusta’s school. The school is closed; Mom’s in Tibet or wherever the hell; Patrick never calls in the evenings; and I just talked to Amelie twenty minutes ago. That leaves you.” There was a small silence as Jamie considered this, then he said, a sly note sliding into his voice, “Let me ask you this.” “No,” Pen said. “Whatever it is, no.” “Did your phone even ring?” “It didn’t ring,” Pen corrected. “I’m in a bookstore. It whirred.” “Repeatedly? Or once? One long whir?” “Who knows? Could’ve been one whir. Maybe. So what?” She gave her phone an accusatory look. Jamie groaned. “Email.” He enunciated the word as though it were composed of three distinct syllables. “Didn’t we go over this? Check your email, Penelope. We’re fine. Augusta’s fine. No fever and she ate like a champ. We had a long, and I’m talking about crazy-long, dance contest, and then she conked.” Pen swiped at her eyes again. “Oh. Well, thanks. Sorry.” Quietly, Jamie said, “The world doesn’t spin out of control the second you turn your back, Pen.” Oh, yes it does. That’s exactly what it does. You know that as well as I do. Pen thought this, but she didn’t say it. Jamie sighed. “Listen, if she busts out in pustules, I promise you’ll be the first to know.” After she hung up, Pen almost didn’t check her email. She glared at her phone and stuffed it into her handbag. Contrary to what Jamie probably thought, she knew how to check it, but anyone who needed urgently to reach her would call, and the mere thought of pecking out an answer on the phone’s microscopic keyboard made her fingers inflate to the size of baseball bats. Besides, she needed to get back to Eleanor. Pen was walking toward the rows of chairs when she heard someone ask, “So I know you’re, like, retired? But do you ever, you know, make an exception if the guy’s, like, really special? Like really cool or whatever?” The person’s voice had an unfinished, squawking quality: a boy, about twelve years old, thirteen at the outside. He was talking to Eleanor. Pen winced, stopped in her tracks, and there, in the heart of the Animals and Pet Care section, she checked her email. The new one was from Glad2behere, an unfamiliar

moniker but one that struck Pen as cheerful. Good for you, she thought. Dear Pen, I know it’s been forever, but I need you. Please come to the reunion. I’ll find you there. I’m sorry for everything. Love, Cat Pen did not draw a blank or have a moment of confusion or have to read the message twice. She didn’t think, Cat who? There was only one Cat. What she did was sit down on the floor between the shelves of books, shut her eyes, and press the cell phone to her sternum, against her galloping heart. Out of the blue sky and after more than six years of waiting—because no matter how hard she had tried not to wait, that is exactly what she’d been doing— Pen had been summoned. As soon as the merry-go-round inside her head slowed its whirling and jangling enough for her to think anything, she thought, Oh, Cat, followed by, Finally.

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