Piper wasn't sure why she was thinking of the worms, except that Tom was an experienced boater and maybe she was searching for what could have possibly gone wrong. But she quickly dismissed the thought, because speculation wasn't going to get her anywhere, not to mention it ran counter to the only thing BobDan said that she wanted to believe—that everything was going to be fine.
"I believe I might join the search effort, if you want to tag along," he said. "Shirlene is gonna man the marina, in case anyone calls with news."
Piper considered this offer, but decided she wanted to be there, on the dock, when Tom's boat came chugging into the harbor, his mouth bursting to tell the wild story of his day's adventure on the sea. And so she waited, on the bench, not noticing the growl of her stomach when suppertime came and went, and trying not to notice the other watermen that came in to dock one by one, their hats in their hands like BobDan's, their heads bent toward the ground, their eyes avoiding Piper's at all costs.
Four days later, the boat was recovered by a diver at the bottom of the sea.
Tom's body was not.
While the rest of the town knew the worst had happened, Piper held out hope. Maybe Tom got disoriented and swam in the wrong direction, washed up on a deserted island, and was currently eating coconuts and writing messages in palm fronds for passing airplanes. Or maybe a ship of Somali pirates picked him up and he was being held against his will, unable to negotiate his release due to the language barrier. Or a whale swallowed him whole and he was contemplating his escape from the depths of its belly. Each of her theories was more outlandish than the next, but to Piper, none were as ridiculous as what the rest of the town believed—that Tom was gone. That she would never lay eyes on him again.
In the days following the Coast Guard's announcement that they were calling off the search for Tom, Piper found herself growing increasingly intolerant. And not just with the rescue teams who were, in her view, prematurely giving up. She couldn't stand the way people started looking at her, their eyes filled with pity. She couldn't abide the way they began referring to Tom in past tense. But the final straw was when the members of the island's Methodist (and only) church— where the Parrish family had been attending for as long as the church had been on the island, and where Tom and Piper had exchanged vows and thin gold bands—started planning a memorial service for Tom. Upon receiving that news, Piper locked herself in her one-bedroom carriage house behind the Oleckis' bed-and-breakfast. She didn't answer the phone, or the door, not even when Lady Judy stopped by with enough smoked ham and beaten biscuits and peach cobbler to feed half the island. She left the food on Piper's stoop and it sat there all afternoon until the sun set. Until Mrs. Olecki retrieved it and set it out in the main house's toile-covered living room for her current boarders to enjoy for supper.
Piper missed the memorial service altogether, where Tom's mother, glassy-eyed and catatonic, stood propped up by her brother Frank on one side and her nephew Steve on the other and the Valium that had been pumping through her veins daily since her husband's aptly named heart attack—the Widow Maker—had made good on its promise. Where Tom's cousin Steve's newborn interrupted the reverend with her insistent squalls, eyes screwed shut tight, giving voice to the pain the watermen were too stoic to show. Everyone asked after Piper, murmuring their condolences to every Parrish in attendance. Poor girl, they said, shaking their heads, offering various superlatives: too young, most in love, the worst.
But Piper couldn't hear them. She was in her bedroom, staring at the dent Tom's head had left on his pillow when his alarm clock prompted him to get up at 4:30 a.m. two weeks earlier. Piper didn't dare touch it—not even to try to inhale his scent that surely remained on the floral cover. Nor did she touch Tom's near-empty mug of coffee sitting in the sink, a film of mold growing on the top layer of liquid still left in the cup. Or the book—Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides— splayed open, pages facedown, on top of the two wooden crates they stacked in the corner to use as a side table in their tiny den. It was as if all of these things, Tom's things, suddenly sprouted magical properties, transformed into talismans beckoning Tom back to where he belonged—to his bed to sleep, to the kitchen to wash out his coffee mug and hang it on the hook next to the sink, to the threadbare easy chair in the den to find out what happens to the characters of his current novel. They weren't just reminders of Tom, they were promises. He was going to come home. Of that one thing, Piper was sure.
And then one morning, just like that, he did.