Appeared in Buffalo Spree, Vol. 31, No. 4, Winter 1997 Nominated for the Best American Short Stories and the O’Henry Stories by the editors of Buffalo Spree.
Audrey skated near the edge of her driveway over a rough place in concrete flawed by a builder’s poor mixture of sand and water. She closed her eyes, rolling blind. Listening. Taking comfort in the sound of her skates and the breeze on her face. The driveway’s rough texture was familiar and reassuring, although her knees knew the sudden feel of it. Even with her eyes closed, she knew where she was. Late-afternoon light slipped in under her eyelids. Pumping her legs, she swung her arms for balance and skated faster, away from the heaviness of a late-August Sunday. Tomorrow was her tenth birthday. School started next week and her mother had spent the afternoon baking her favorite chocolate brownie cake. She smelled the warm chocolate as she skated near the house.
The scent from late-summer roses reminded her she was coasting near the garage. Opening one eye slowly, she checked to see how close she was to the stairs near the screened side porch. Tilting her skates inward, she ground to a stop, wiped her face, and sat down to examine an adhesive bandage dangling from her knee. The fresh scrape leaked pale fluid that mixed with dirt and perspiration, leaving a stripe from knee to shin.
She looked up at the sound of a car passing slowly. A black Ford stopped, then backed up with a high-pitched whine as the driver eased the car into the driveway. He leaned out the window. He wore an Army cap pulled low in the middle of his head. It was like the one Bill, her older sister Judy’s fiancé, wore when he left for Korea in January. For a moment she wondered if Bill had come home early as a surprise for her birthday party tomorrow.
The driver squinted even though the sun was behind him. He opened the door, hesitated before walking up the driveway. His crisp tan uniform had wet crescents under the arms. He took off his cap and glanced at the numbers on their house. The six on their house number leaned a bit until it had almost slipped into a nine position. The other man in the passenger seat nodded, and the driver took a deep breath. He smiled, but only with his lips. “We’re looking for the Howell residence. Is your father home?”
Behind Audrey the screen door squeaked as her father opened it, his steps heavy as he crossed the porch. “Hello, I’m Ben Howell. What can I do for you?”
She turned at the sound of her father’s strained, clipped tone. His hands gripped the door; she felt his fear. Her skates wobbled underneath her.
The soldier stepped toward her father. “Sergeant Smith,” he said. The other man got out of the car and walked across the driveway toward them. “And Captain Taylor from Fort Meade. We tried to call earlier. But your phone seems to be out of order.” Grass from the fresh-mowed lawn stuck to their shiny black shoes. Captain Taylor’s flat hat, trimmed in gold braid, had a glossy black visor.
Audrey sat down on the warm pavement of the driveway and took off her skates. Her damp socks left footprints on the concrete, which dried quickly in the heat. The radio crackled and was silenced in the middle of the Sunday Evening Serenade. Her mother had switched off the radio. Sheer white curtains in the dining room moved slightly. Her mother was there, almost out of sight, listening.
“This is not a good day for either of us, Mr. Howell,” the captain said. His mouth drooped slightly and his chin twitched. “I understand your daughter Judy was engaged to Private William R. Thomas. He named you as the person to contact.” The captain blinked. “In the event something happened . . .”
Her father clenched his fists. His eyes searched the surface of the concrete fiercely, as if looking for someone to blame for the flaw in his driveway. He’d had the same expression in January when his mother—Audrey’s grandmother, who had lived with them—died.
An image came back to Audrey of the dark mahogany box that smelled sickeningly of flowers as it was lowered into the ground. She closed her eyes against the thought and held her breath. She still had night terrors of roots and rocks crushing the box.
The captain cleared his throat. “Sir, William wanted you to tell your daughter, Judy. And of course, be there when we talk with his mother.” He hesitated and his fingers nervously traced the outline of his watch. “I understand your older daughter is away at college?”
Her father nodded. “She’s taking extra summer classes to finish early. So they can get married . . .”
The captain shifted his eyes to the roses growing beside the steps. “I understand that his mother is a widow. And as he was her only child, it’s likely to be overwhelming. William wanted you to help make decisions to spare his mother as much as possible.” Captain Taylor coughed. “He left written instructions. Said you were like the father he never knew.”
Audrey’s mother stood at the closed screen door with a tissue clasped in her hand. She moaned softly.
“How?” whispered Audrey’s father. He sat down on the top step outside the screened porch.
“He was driving a truck. Shelling wiped out a stretch of mountain road on a foggy morning run. His truck slipped off the mountain, flipped over, and crushed him. They got him back to base camp and the surgeons did all they could.” The captain folded his hands over his belt buckle and looked away. “His remains should be returned in about two weeks.”
Reddish hair around the captain’s temples stuck to his forehead. Sweat gathered along his closely cut sideburns. Blond hair on his wrist curled around his metal watchband. His military watch looked exactly like the one Bill wore.
In her mind, Audrey could see Bill’s wrists. Even at twenty-one he had no hair on his arms. He had strong hands. She remembered those hands swinging her up in the air. His slender fingers gave her packages of Juicy Fruit gum. He said, “Don’t chew the whole pack of gum at once. You don’t want your mother to get mad at me, do you?” He winked at her as he hugged her sister and they danced around the living room. He laughed now inside her head.
Captain Taylor’s watery eyes bulged slightly under heavy lids. He was a man with a kind of cold sadness that she’d never seen before. He blinked again and Audrey shivered. “We are so very sorry for your loss.”
The sergeant strode to the car and returned carrying a packet of papers tied with flat green string. He handed the packet to the captain.
Audrey’s father gripped the door and unsteadily pulled himself to standing. Her mother, waiting in the shadows, held a white tissue against her lips.
“Sir, I am sorry to do this right now, but we have some papers for you to review, as to the arrangements and so forth.” Captain Taylor said. He glanced past the shadows into the screened porch toward Audrey’s mother. ”Do you have a table where we can spread out these documents?”
“Audrey’s mother turned on a light and held the screen door open. “Come into the kitchen.” As the men filed past her into the house, her father introduced her mother. Audrey slipped in behind them and stood in the doorway.
Audrey’s freshly baked chocolate cake cooled on the sideboard in the kitchen.
Her mother looked in the direction of the cake and seemed to see her for the first time. ”Oh honey, Bill . . .” She pulled Audrey close and hugged her. ”Please go and read or watch television for a while so we can talk.” She turned to look at the captain.
In the darkness of the living room, the scent of furniture polish, chocolate cake, and cedar from the nearby closet left Audrey dizzy. For Valentine’s Day Bill had sent Judy a box of candy filled with light and dark chocolates in the shapes of skaters in a polished mahogany box lined with purple quilted paper.
Audrey sat on the floor in her favorite spot behind the piano and ran her hands over the smooth dark wood. Judy, Bill, and her grandmother sang at this piano last Christmas. Her ears rang with remembered voices. She ran her fingers over the dust along the baseboard behind the piano. Her hands touched a spiderweb. Exhaling slowly, she remembered one of her grandmother’s stories about ancient, magical powers of spiderwebs. In the old days, before modern cures, people put clumps of webs into wounds to stop bleeding.
Audrey drew her knees up close to her chest. Her ribs ached, as though she had fallen while skating and lost her breath. She pressed her arms tight against her stomach and listened to the murmur of voices coming from the nearby room. She extended her arms and stared at her hands, wondering how it felt to die. She touched her knee and pulled the bandage away. Small drops of blood surfaced on the scrape. Collecting strands of sticky web from behind the piano, she pressed it into the soft brown center of the wound on her knee. Rocking slowly, she blocked out the sounds of her mother sobbing in the kitchen. She closed her eyes, and in her mind she skated, blind with the breeze in her face.