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The Leftovers

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For starters, MJ isn’t on the MOMA field trip when a giant donut suddenly descends from the sky and starts wreaking havoc.

Instead, she’s in the nurse’s office because someone (Ned) found it hilarious that she had never heard of or experienced a wet willy in her life, and deemed it necessary introduce her to the concept while walking up the steps into school. One sprained ankle and Ned almost bursting into guilty tears later, she’s out of the trip, waiting for her dad to pick her up and take her to the clinic. It’s not a huge deal, honestly. It’s not like she hasn’t seen the MOMA before.

Might’ve been nice to get to go with Peter, though. She holds great stock in people’s reactions to artwork, wants to be totally sure of this thing they’re doing, even though she’s pretty much been sure for a few months now.

But anyway, giant donut, general mayhem, and it’s just close enough to the neighborhood that local authorities call for a total lockdown. For general businesses it means get people off the streets and into shelter, lock the doors, hope for the best. For a school it’s more of a severe weather drill than an active shooter threat: all the students are rushed to the lowest and most central part of the building, away from windows, doors locked, no one gets in or out, text your parents goodbye. The nurse unearths a dirty crutch in the lost and found and MJ hobbles to the science department to huddle next to Cindy in the dark. Her heart beats a little faster realizing that whatever’s going on, her dad is in the car on his way to get her instead of somewhere secure. Her hand itches to reach for her phone and call him, see if he’s okay, but in order to contain the threat of mass hysteria everyone is being told to remain quiet.

Cindy grips her hand against the cold linoleum, and she realizes that she’s shaking.

They sit there for an hour, Principal Morita listening intently to his radio for news from local authorities or the school buses bound for the day’s scheduled field trips and sporting events. MJ knows every time there’s news because he rushes down the hall and around a corner, out of earshot from anyone who might scream if they hear what’s happening. MJ tells herself she wouldn’t be that person, tries to muster a prickle of indignity at the idea, but honestly doesn’t know right now.

By the time her butt’s gone totally numb they call a tentative all-clear and everyone’s told to go home. A sea of parents are already waiting outside the school when the students emerge, tender-eyed newborns entering a new world of alien invasions for which the Chitauri could never have prepared them. Dad’s near the front of the crowd by merit of having already been on his way, and he squeezes her in the tightest hug he can muster without making her fall over before ushering her into the car. Fuck the clinic, they’re going home.

Tabby’s in back, in her booster seat, clutching her favorite stuffed bear in a sweaty little fist, chewing on one ear. “Em, there was a bad thing,” she announces tactfully.

“I know, Bug, but it’s gone now,” MJ immediately replies. Tabby’s only three, she doesn’t have to live in the same world of unknowns that the big kids do. Make it black and white, make it curable by True Love’s First Kiss, make it something she can understand and hope like hell that it does go away, reinforces the lie, makes her world a certainty until she’s a little older.

Mom’s already at home when they get there, mad as a caged weasel wondering where they’ve been. Hugs are passed around like hors d’oeuvres. Her parents shed a few tears where Tabby can’t see. It doesn’t feel like a privilege that she’s allowed to witness their fear, clings on tighter.

They have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch, and MJ remembers with a sticky lurch that she hasn’t heard anything from Peter since that morning. He came to see her at the nurse’s office on the way down to the bus, eyes shiny with remorse that she can’t come and tease him for knowing nothing about modern art, apologizing on Ned’s behalf another dozen times, kissing her goodbye when the nurse turns her back. Probably in the thick of whatever happened, finding his way home now that the threat is passed, lost his phone, she’ll get a text tomorrow with his apology and a recap that puts her mind at ease about the non-invasion.

Then Dad turns on the news, and there’s been another attack in Edinburgh.

It’s spreading.

She doesn’t hear from Peter for the rest of the day and tries not to check her phone except for news reports, following the mess. Captain America is spotted on the Avengers base upstate; does this mean he’s not a criminal anymore? The sun sinks and it feels like no time’s passed at all. They have crackers and canned tuna for dinner because no one can focus enough to eat.

Tabby is miserable because everyone is home but no one is paying her enough attention, so MJ takes her up to her room when it seems like the news has started looping the same updates over and over. They play Diplomacy Princess Barbie, solving problems in the kingdom without causing war to break out among the classes of society. She wishes it was always this easy but knows better by now. At least Tabby’s having fun.

It feels like her organs are jumping beneath her skin, waiting for news, waiting for a text, waiting for the house to cave in. Her heart and stomach lurch up and down the length of her sternum, colliding with each other, bouncing off ribs. Her abdominal muscles shiver like she’s bracing either to run or be violently sick. Maybe both.

Night falls. Tabby falls asleep on the floor, but she can’t bring herself to lie down yet. She’s never been one to pace, reverting to stillness and contemplation, but doesn’t really want to think right now, either. Her mind is only going to places she’d rather not visit.

She picks her baby sister off the floor and thinks about junior prom this weekend. Never would she have committed to such a vapid adolescent ritual until Peter wormed his way into her feelings. He was—is—so excited to have a school dance go right that she couldn’t say no, but did insist on ground rules for the ritual pageantry. He, of course, agreed before even hearing her terms: she will not wear high heels, they will not rent a limo, she will not wear makeup just because it’s expected of her, and she will not wear a ridiculously overpriced dress that can only be worn once, not unless it’s, like, really good.

(And she actually did find a really, really good dress. It was on clearance because it’s leftover from Halloween, black and almost sheer in places, embroidered with enormous patterns of spiderwebs and moth’s wings. A hilarious nod to her date guaranteed to make him go white, with the bonus of making her feel like a sexy Wednesday Addams. She can’t wait to show him.)

“Hey, so, uh.”

Mom and Dad are sitting on adjacent edges of the bed, not quite touching but each looking like they’re trying to muster up the courage to comfort one another. MJ thinks they might’ve gotten up to some end-of-the-world nonsense while she and Tabby were upstairs, but she’s not going to think about that because if they do die today she wants to die not traumatized. They immediately look up and put on their most reassuring Mommy And Daddy Are Fine smiles, which relax back into shell shock as soon as they see that Tabby’s out cold.

She feels even more embarrassed now. They’re expecting her to be a grownup about all this, too. “I think, um,” MJ starts to say, stammers, and the chain reaction starts. A blush rolls up her neck into her face, the tip of her nose is going to turn red any second, her eyes start to sting. Her voice is hoarse as she forces herself to chew on the lie. “I think Tabby might be too scared to sleep on her own. I-I think we should, maybe, all sleep in here tonight, maybe.”

“Oh, baby,” Mom says, and launches herself off the bed to wrap them both up in her arms. Dad’s quick to follow. They hug awkwardly in the middle of the room, a knot of pent-up anxiety surrounding the angelic bliss of a toddler’s rest, until she thinks she can deal enough to talk again.

Dad, Mom, MJ, Tabby, they lay in a row on the bed like the grandparents in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, all nestled in together, too hot to pull the duvet up. Mom rubs small circles on her shoulder and cuddles close, kissing the back of her neck, and it’s familiar.

A long time ago, when Mom and MJ ran away from Dad’s drinking with nothing but a trash bag full of clothes, they had to share a hide-away bed for a month because they didn’t have money to furnish the bedrooms. Every night MJ went to sleep with Mom’s hand on her arm, rubbing those same small circles, trying to reassure a teenager rapidly turning to cynicism for comfort that everything could still be okay.

And it was okay, she thinks furiously, feeling tears roll sideways down her face and soak into the pillow. We’re together again. That has to mean something.

Or maybe she’s used up all of her good karma, and it’s time for some bad.

Her nose is buried in Tabby’s curls, smelling baby shampoo and sweat and peanut butter with every inhale. Her little sister isn’t a rowdy sleeper, she doesn’t kick or thrash, she’s sweet as a doll, she’s happy and curious and doesn’t deserve whatever mess this world is evolving into. She feels her little sister’s heart beating through her back and soaks in the rhythm, trying not to freak out. MJ realizes suddenly that she doesn’t even really care what happens to her, she just wants her baby sister to be okay. It’s all she’s ever wanted, since the moment she held Tabby as a newborn, nothing else ever mattered.

“Shh, shh, shh,” Mom whispers softly, and she feels Dad shifting to hold her closer, trying to wrap them all up in his arms, the family he’s just gotten back after fucking up bad enough to make them run away, the family he can’t protect against what’s coming.

MJ never understood those people who said they turn to the stars and feel reassured by how small they are in the grand scheme of the universe. She doesn’t feel like an ant, and doesn’t want to be crushed under a cosmic boot. She wants her life, her family, her friends and stupid boyfriend, wants them all to go on living their insignificant lives, because even if they are just a blade of grass on the football field of the history of the universe, that doesn’t make them disposable. They’re still alive.

“Shh, shh, shh, baby…”

The room is too quiet besides the shifting of bodies and restless breathing. Tabby is the only one who can actually sleep. After maybe forty-five minutes Mom stops her quiet repetitions and just hugs her arm around MJ’s middle. After two hours Dad farts quietly and they stifle hysterical giggles into the bedclothes. At some point, her human body crumbles under pressure and she drifts off.

There’s no way of knowing how long she’s asleep. No one thought to set an alarm because no one thought to actually sleep, but it must have been a while, because the bed is empty and the first weak hints of sunlight are filtering through the curtains when MJ wakes. Everyone must be in the kitchen already, weirdly quiet for her house, her parents. She reaches up to rub her eyes and feels something gritty on her skin.

The bedspread is covered in a weird, brownish dust she’s never seen before; there’s a perfect gap left behind, the width of her body, when she gets up to inspect further. It doesn’t look like anything she’s ever seen before, spread unevenly on the bed where Tabby had been sleeping; is it some kind of joke? Did they get the all-clear while she was sleeping and now her parents are messing with her?

“Guys?” she calls out, tentative, somehow afraid to be too loud and disturb what she first mistakes as peace.

The living room and kitchen are empty. There’s no note on the fridge saying ‘apocalypse canceled, went to get milk.’ Tabby’s room is empty. Her bedroom is empty. No one is hiding in the bathtub. MJ searches each room methodically, like she’s trying to find a dropped contact lens instead of a family, pulling cushions off the couch and peering under beds, trying to convince herself that if she’s organized about it they’ll appear and explain everything. Her heart starts to beat faster, and faster, with every stone turned to no result. She’s afraid to call out again, uncertain why the idea of breaking this silence terrifies her so badly.

Then she tunes in to the sirens, the car alarms, and the screams outside. Draws back the curtain and watches. People have spilled out of their homes into the street, looking around, searching, lost children in the supermarket. There’s a car crashed at the end of the block, how did she not hear that? A woman runs from her gaping front door, wailing, No, no, no, no! like some bad TV melodrama, and still MJ doesn’t understand. Not until she checks her phone and sees the recent headlines.

There’s a video, sketchy quality because the original was ripped from the air so fast, of a reporter vanishing mid-sentence, her coworkers recoiling in repulsed terror. Only she doesn’t really vanish, does she? She turns into a weird, brownish dust, dissolves, floats away on an errant breeze weaving through the studio. Someone starts to wail offscreen and the video ends.

There are more, new reports from Wakanda and videos from around the world, but MJ doesn’t want to watch. Just puts her phone screen-down on her lap and waits for something, anything, to make sense. Are they gone-gone, or somewhere else? Is the dust some kind of atmospheric disturbance, or…or remains?

The thought makes her stomach churn, and she staggers to the bathroom to be sick.

It’s on her clothes. She didn’t bother changing into pajamas last night, didn’t feel comfortable in the commonality of cuddly cotton when the world was ending, and now it’s on her clothes, it’s on her skin, it’s her parents, it’s her sister, her baby sister, Tabby, no, god, no, Mommy Daddy please don’t leave me here alone I don’t know what to do I promise I’ll be better just please don’t

MJ steps into the tub and runs scalding water over herself, rinsing the dust from her clothes and hair and skin, then feels like she’s somehow blaspheming, like she’s flushing cremated ashes down the toilet, because maybe that dust is all that’s left of them or maybe it’s just the debris left behind in the vacuum of physical departure.

Why didn’t she go, too?

When she clambers out of the shower moments later, towel wrapped around her shoulders and trailing puddles, it’s to find her phone buzzing abandoned on the living room floor. Something in her inflates with a weak kind of hope, like maybe it’s going to be Dad calling, asking if she wants anything from McDonalds while they’re out. Wet fingers scrabble with the smooth case, jabbing the screen until it responds just short of switching over to voicemail.

Oh, MJ, thank god!” May Parker sobs on the other end before she has a chance to speak. “Thank god, thank god, honey, are you okay? Are you hurt? I was so worried when you didn’t answer the first time, with everyone just, just…

She doesn’t know what to say. No, she isn’t hurt, but no, she isn’t okay, either. But already there’s a kind of numbness creeping over her, a tingling creeping over the dome of her scalp, down the back of her neck and into her shoulders, everything draining out of her, soaking into the rug with the water from her shower. “I’m here,” she says, then pulls the phone away from her ear before May can go on. “I have to go…” May’s frantic voice is cut off as she hits the End Call button.

So, May is still alive, but she sounds upset enough that Peter probably isn’t. Her family are gone, all of them, and she can’t stand the idea of saying that out loud yet, which means her mind needs something else to focus on, something to anchor herself. Her hand is steady as she scrolls her short list of contacts to call Ned Leeds. If anyone can figure out whether Peter is really okay or not, it’s him. The line rings, and rings, and rings.

Hi, you’ve reached Ned Leeds! Or, his phone. Anyway, leave a message!

His usual perky voice, the recording clearly rehearsed and then screwed up anyway. She might have smiled if she isn’t making an immediate conclusion about what ringing through to voicemail means. She hangs up and calls again. If his phone is just mistakenly on Do Not Disturb, she’ll get through after a few tries. She’s on his preferred contacts list.

Hi, you’ve reached Ned Leeds! Or, his phone. Anyway, leave a message!

Hi, you’ve reached Ned Leeds! Or, his phone. Anyway, leave a message!

Hi, you’ve reached Ned Leeds! Or, his phone. Anyway, leave a message!

Hi, you’ve reached Ned Leeds! Or, his phone. Anyway, leave a message!

Hi, you’ve reached Ned Leeds! Or, his phone. Anyway, leave a message!

Hi, you’ve reached Ned Leeds! Or, his phone. Anyway, leave a message!

Hi, you’ve reached Ned Leeds! Or, his phone. Anyway, leave a message!

Hi, you’ve reached Ned Leeds! Or, his phone. Anyway, leave a message!