The Washington Post
April and Oliverby Tess Callahan
Best friends since childhood, the sexual tension between April and Oliver has always been palpable. Years after being completely inseparable, they become strangers, but the wildly different paths of their lives cross once again with the sudden death of April's brother. Oliver, the responsible, newly engaged law student finds himself drawn more than ever to the reckless, mystifying April - and cracks begin to appear in his carefully constructed life. Even as Oliver attempts to "save" his childhood friend from her grief, her menacing boyfriend and herself, it soon becomes apparent that Oliver has some secrets of his own--secrets he hasn't shared with anyone, even his fiancé. But April knows, and her reappearance in his life derails him. Is it really April's life that is unraveling, or is it his own? The answer awaits at the end of a downward spiral...towards salvation.
The Washington Post
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Troubled April and cautious Oliver, former childhood friends, find themselves reconnecting after the sudden, tragic death of April's teenage brother, Buddy. April, blaming herself for Buddy's death, becomes surrounded by Oliver's family as they lend comfort and support. Oliver, who previously dreamed of a music career, is now a law student engaged to be married and seems the polar opposite of reckless April. They were inseparable as children, always compelled to look after Buddy and each other, and now, as they battle their mutual attraction, life appears quite complicated and confusing. April is aware that she should avoid the many rough, abusive men she allows in her life; Oliver acknowledges that a wonderful future awaits him. The opening chapters of this emotional whirlpool of a debut novel are gripping, owing to Callahan's sharp, savvy storytelling. Callahan spins a dark, gritty tale of love, yearning, and choices while presenting engaging characters and substantial action that packs more than a few punches. Wise beyond words. [See Prepub Alert, LJ2/15/09.]
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April & OliverA Novel
By Callahan, Tess
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2009 Callahan, Tess
All right reserved.
BUDDY HAS BEEN LOST FOR SOME TIME, his wipers whisking the thick Maine snow, when he spots a missed turn in his rearview and brakes. The car fishtails, rocketing into a spin. The faster it pivots, the slower time moves. Buddy is the fixed point, the world careening around him.
He takes a young maple with him into the gully. A few stubborn leaves cling to the branches that protrude through the windshield. Everything is abruptly quiet. He sees bits of sky. A lone heron. The car is resting on its side with Buddy somehow in the passenger seat, his back to the window and his foot beneath the crushed steering wheel. The angle is impossible; it appears to be someone else’s leg. The dead engine ticks; he smells gasoline and sap, freshly split wood, his sister’s griddlecakes.
He remembers being lost in the woods as a child with his sister, April, and their friend, Oliver, the scent of wet leaves and the downy chill of night descending. This is what comes to Buddy now. A brook gurgling and sloshing over scattered rocks. The three of them stepping from stone to stone. His small hands in their big hands. Water funneling down. The beginnings of a question he feels but can’t say. It has the shape of a person bending over him, waiting.
The mangled sapling creaks. Buddy looks into the car and sees a young man with startled eyes wearing his parka. He can’t imagine who it is. He looks down on the smoldering baby-blue Malibu dusted with drifting snow. The scene is oddly tranquil. Strapped to the sideways roof, the deer he shot this morning appears to stand upright, ready to bolt.
Specks of snow travel in. Buddy hears each flake as it touches his hair, the soft down on the buck’s antlers. He remembers putting his hand on its side as it lay in the snow, feeling its heat. Those dark, gentle eyes. His sister’s eyes, worried every time he skinned his knee. “I’m sorry, April,” he used to say.
“It’s okay, Budster,” she replied, dabbing the gash gingerly. “We all fall sometimes.” But her smile was pained; she hated when he got hurt.
He wishes he could let her know that what’s happening now doesn’t hurt at all. He’s fine. A veil of snow shrouds the windshield. Buddy feels a growing pause between each breath, like a stride lengthening, an aperture opening by increments, until at last he slips through.
LONG BEFORE DAWN on the morning of the funeral, a rogue wind enters April’s apartment, clattering the shells of her wind chime, causing her to bolt upright in bed. Night air seizes her. Her mind hurtles through darkness, not wanting to remember, but the realization gaining on her. It’s today. Papers fly off her nightstand. The curtains tangle and snap. She finds her way to the window, her long hair flaying, but just as she reaches the sill, the gust dies down. Against reason, her thoughts clamber for a passage back, a chance to say to him, Don’t take this trip. I have a bad feeling. Instead, they said good-bye cheerfully, without the slightest premonition.
An aria rises from the street below. A familiar man with a bedraggled overcoat and unkempt beard wanders the train station across the way. When he has enough to drink, his voice carries clear across Sunrise Highway. The sad timbre of it reverberates inside her, echoing just beneath her sternum. She closes the window.
The stillness of the train station tells her it’s not yet five in the morning. She doesn’t bother to look at the date; she knows. Draped over the back of a chair lies the black dress she set out for herself. Instead, she pulls on some jeans, gets in her car, and drives to the diner. It’s a Sunday, after all.
The usual waitress with milkweed hair and creviced eyes raises her brow. “Aren’t you about three hours early?” she asks, pouring two cups of coffee.
“Busy day,” April says.
“He here yet?” she says, pointing to the second cup.
“I’ll drink both. Thanks.”
“Shoot yourself,” says the waitress over her shoulder.
April shudders. Suit yourself. Of course that’s what she said. Jesus, she thinks.
April draws the second mug over to her side of the table. The booth feels cold with no one else in it. An immense aquarium illuminates the storefront—an improbable place for a fish tank, but she’s never seen an ounce of algae. Vibrant koi glide back and forth. Buddy loved to watch them. April has been taking him here for breakfast most Sundays since he was eight. Ten years already?
People pass by the storefront, heads bowed against the impulsive wind. April gives a start, thinking she sees Buddy dashing to the door—he’s always late—but it’s only a jogger sprinting by. She cups her hands around the coffee, still too hot to touch. Steam furls up in delicate ribbons—not an amorphous cloud, but a rhythmic swirl, a whirling dervish of mist. She feels the warmth on her face. The vapor lifts and circles with excruciating grace, frail and lithe as the beggar’s notes. She cannot bear to watch it, or to stop. Gradually, the rising steam slows and dissipates into shallow wisps of breath. April thinks of many things—tying Buddy’s shoelaces, cleaning gravel from a scraped knee, combing his hair before school, the cowlick that refused to flatten. And at the same time, she sees nothing but vapor.
For an instant she doesn’t know where she is. The coffee is long cold, and the restaurant teems with people. Outside the window, sunlight bleaches the pavement. The deep-eyed waitress waits at the end of the booth, tapping her pen. “Oh, right,” April says. “The check.”
She glances into her purse for her wallet and sees that his is there, too, though she’s not sure when she put it there. The leather is smooth and molded to the shape of his back pocket. He always asked to treat her, and she never let him. Not once. She takes a twenty from his wallet and leaves it on the table.
Back in her apartment, the wind has clustered papers up against the closet door—insurance forms, the accident report, the death notice. She doesn’t pick them up, but leaves her jeans on the floor beside them. The slinky fabric of the dress chills her skin. Rather than wrestle a brush through her windswept hair, she lets it be.
The church doors are locked, so she sits on the cold stone steps and waits. Since the accident she has lost grasp of time. She asked that the hearse meet her here because she couldn’t bear to go back to the funeral parlor. Finally, carloads of people arrive. They are teenagers mostly, with hip-hugging pants and thrice-pierced ears, yet their faces, shocked and raw, give the impression of children.
The funeral mass and the drive to the cemetery pass like someone else’s dream. The only thing vivid is the past, those grimy fingernails April could never get him to scrub. The home run he hit on his ninth birthday.
The priest opens his prayer book and reads, his words falling like leaves into the open grave. April cannot register them, only the dull timbre of his voice and the barest whisk as he turns an onionskin page. She remembers the time she dropped Buddy in the upstairs hallway, near the top of the stairs. She tripped on something—her father’s shoes, maybe; he was always leaving them out in the open—and the baby went flying. She can still hear the thud when he hit the floor, the stunned silence when he did not cry. She was sure she had killed him. When Buddy finally wailed, she was so relieved that she cried, too.
She glances right, feeling someone’s stare, only to realize it is Buddy’s car, its face turned toward her. She parked it haphazardly, uneven with the others. It is hers now, by default, but it feels wrong for her to inherit it from Buddy, eighteen, barely a driver himself.
From time to time, she feels Oliver look her way, his glance grazing her skin like a swatch of sun between clouds, a warmth so brief she shivers. She is intensely awake, yet cannot shake the sense that she is dreaming. She rubs the worn band of her wristwatch, thinking how time, too, has gone haywire, jumped its tracks, turning like a corkscrew instead of moving ahead, so that the three days since the accident have elapsed in seconds while this moment in the cemetery spans her entire lifetime.
April looks at the line of cars, wondering if T.J. will show, if he has even heard the news. It has been two weeks since the protection order, and the idiocy of missing him enrages her. Beyond the cars the sky is a fierce, crystalline blue, and against it the trees shed vibrant shades of ocher, rust, and red. A group of leaves rise on a current of air, the breeze moving the sleeves of April’s dress so softly she holds a breath. If the brilliance of the day is God’s idea of a joke, she isn’t laughing. She wants thunder and hail. She thinks she can almost will it to happen.
When Buddy was a baby, the gentle smacking of his lips was enough to rouse her from sleep. She knew how to unlatch the crib rail and slide it down quietly so as not to disturb the dog, whose jangling tags in the dead of night could awaken their father, always grouchy when woken. She would give Buddy his bottle even before he cried for it. She remembers the milky scent of his skin, the down of his hair, and the tiny half-moon of his fingernails.
The group blesses themselves, following the priest, and April does the same, drawing a line from head to heart, shoulder to shoulder, father to son. The brakes were soft; April had noticed that. Week after week, she told herself to get them fixed with her next paycheck.
If her parents were alive, they would not survive this, she thinks. She imagines her father here, arms folded across his chest, silken white hair quivering in the breeze. His only son, April thinks, his fishing partner, his shortstop, his free safety. Buddy was the only person to bear their father’s resemblance, with the same thick neck, enormous hat size, and surprisingly high-pitched laugh.
“…and so we pray for the repose of the soul of Bede Simone Junior” the priest reads.
April bites the inside of her mouth. No one called him Bede; Buddy hated the name, short for Obedience. He said Bede is what water does on Scotchgard, or a notch in a rosary, not something you call a human being.
The name suited their father, though. April can’t help but picture him here, and her mother, too. She would have been superbly dressed for the occasion, her coarse wheat-colored hair pulled back in a fancy clip, accentuating the fine lines of her face. April inherited that delicacy. She constantly has to prove to people, men especially, that she is not as fragile as she looks.
Buddy was just the opposite, tough on the outside only. In the winter of third grade, he had a bad case of strep throat. To pass the days home from school, April and Oliver, then sixteen, constructed a tent in his room out of blankets and chairs, and filled it with pillows, a lamp, and a step stool to act as a table. Inside, they took turns reading to Buddy from King of the Wind. When the boy was too tired to keep his eyes open, he asked Oliver to play piano on his back. “Bach,” Buddy said, smiling at his own joke. “Beethoven will keep me awake.” Finally, Oliver lay back on the floor. It had grown dark inside the tent. “He’s out,” he whispered. “What should we do now?”
“My dad’s home by now,” April said. “We could go to your music studio.”
“Let’s hang here for a while,” Oliver said.
April slid over and lay down perpendicular to Oliver, with her head against his chest. It was a daring thing to do, but neither said anything. She heard Buddy’s lengthening breaths, and the solid percussion of Oliver’s heart sounding against his ribs.
April looks at the white of the coffin. She imagines the long screech ending in a crunch of metal. Then, silence. It was Oliver at his piano who taught her about measuring sounds, holding them in memory, but that was ages ago. He lived in California so long, she thought he was done with the East Coast, but two months ago she heard the news that he was back, and engaged. April glances at him, his head bowed, one hand covering his mouth as the priest reads the final blessing, the other gripping his fiancée’s fingers so tightly his knuckles are white. On Bernadette’s small hand, the ring looks big. April thinks she ought to feel something, but doesn’t.
Bernadette wears a hound’s-tooth blazer and matching calf-length skirt, her fair hair neatly French-braided, silk scarf around her neck. April compares this with her own dress—the black brocade, drop waist, and short, flouncy hemline—like something she might wear dancing. She touches the pleats with her fingertips, wondering what possessed her. It doesn’t matter that her mother has been dead seventeen years; she would disapprove.
The priest closes his book, and people turn back to their cars. A group of Buddy’s friends gathers in a spontaneous huddle, arms across one another’s shoulders, foreheads touching. A boy with a shaved head lets out a sob. April pictures her dead parents walking separately toward a limousine, not looking at each other.
April thinks of her living grandmother at home in her kitchen peeling onions. No one has told her. It is too soon after last year’s stroke, they decided. But April suspects they don’t want to tell Nana because that would mean admitting it to themselves. In any event, the decision is made, and it is not the first lie April has conspired in.
She hears car doors open and close, and rummages through her purse for her keys, Buddy’s keys, with the dangling pocketknife he used to gut fish and cut lines. The knife was a gift from their father when Buddy was twelve, and the Swiss Army logo is nearly worn off from his touch. She opens each blade and closes it again, then the can opener, nail file, scissors. He kept it immaculate.
The huddle of Buddy’s friends breaks up. They walk arm in arm. Cars pull away. Small groups linger. Oliver and Bernadette stand close together, speaking softly. Bernadette glances over. April can almost read her lips. Go on, Oliver. Talk to her. Bernadette retreats to the cars as Oliver moves toward April. Her skin heats. She holds the keys tightly, hearing his steps in the grass.
The gravedigger switches a lever, and the mechanized pulley lowers the casket beside her parents’ graves. This is the part you’re not supposed to see, April thinks as the gleaming white hood descends into shadow. She steps closer to the edge, wondering if her parents are watching from wherever they are, if they are anywhere. It’s hard to picture them together, let alone with Buddy. That would not be his paradise. So what would be Buddy’s heaven? Here, she decides, back in his life.
“April,” Oliver calls.
“I don’t want to be buried here,” she says.
“I want to be cremated.”
“Don’t talk like that,” he says.
The coffin, swallowed by shade, makes a small thud as it hits bottom. It’s real now. Her whole family is in this cemetery. She wonders how long before they backfill. The grass is damp—at some point she slipped off her shoes—and she imagines the earthen walls of the grave, cool to the touch. Oliver takes her arm. She feels herself collapsing, yet she is still standing. She draws back from him. The gravedigger pulls up the straps, frowning at April to suggest she is too close.
“Hey,” Oliver says to him. “Can’t you see we’re still here?”
The man raises his arms. He looks only bored. April turns her back to Oliver and blows her nose. He puts his hand on her shoulder. It feels heavy and warm. She moves away, certain that above all she must not fall apart, not with Oliver.
A horn sounds and his brother, Al, beckons from their father’s station wagon, the motor running. Bernadette gathers her skirt and slips into the backseat. Oliver waves them on.
“There’s no room in my car,” April says quickly, her voice thicker than she wants. “Buddy’s shit is everywhere.” But Al is already pulling away.
“We could have picked you up,” Oliver says. “You could have asked.”
“When I go, I don’t want a funeral. God forbid Nana feels she has to pay for it.”
“April,” he says tensely. “Why assume you’ll die before an eighty-year-old woman?”
“I’m just saying that she’s my only blood relative now. If anything were to happen…”
“Anything like what?”
She notices his perfectly pressed suit, the regimental tie. She says nothing.
The gravedigger walks to the backhoe some distance away and leans against one of the giant tires. April wonders what would happen if she waited him out, but Oliver leads her toward the car. “I heard you went to the police,” he says, softening his voice.
“Hm?” she says, glancing back. She thinks of the day her parents brought Buddy home from the hospital, swaddled up like a spring roll, smelling of Desitin and her father’s cigarettes, his pale eyes transfixed on the ceiling fan.
“The protection order,” Oliver says. “My father told me.”
She looks at him, the handsome way he has aged, the chisel of his jaw, those soulful eyes. No wonder he was Nana’s favorite, even if he wasn’t a true grandson. “What was I thinking?” she says. “If I croaked, no one would even tell Nana, would they? They’d say I was on extended vacation. Me, who’s never taken a trip in my life.”
“I have a passport, though,” she says. “You never know when you might need to get out of the country.”
“I see you haven’t lost your knack for changing the subject,” he says.
“Well, Oliver,” she says, “I believe you’ve been known to do the same.”
He looks down. “Let’s go,” he says.
“Fine,” she says, turning abruptly. “I’ll drive.”
Oliver ignores this and gets behind the wheel. She wants to argue, but no words come. She clears off the passenger seat, tossing Buddy’s cassette tapes and camping catalogs into the rear. Oliver moves his seat back and adjusts the mirrors.
“My father helped put up the money for this car, even before Buddy had his learner’s permit,” April says. “Can you imagine how he would feel to see me get my hands on it?”
Oliver’s face is still. His Adam’s apple rises and falls. When he doesn’t know what to say, he doesn’t say anything; that’s one thing she admires about him. She notices his profile, the crook in his nose that she has always found attractive. His chin is more angular now, the contour of his face arresting. Yet something is missing. His hair, which in adolescence fell in a lovely, disheveled mass, is neatly slicked back, giving him a gangster look. His eyes alone are the same, the color of Caribbean shallows, so full of sincerity it is hard to look at them squarely. April’s are just the opposite, so dark that the last time she was taken to the emergency room, the paramedic could not distinguish the pupil from the iris.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t here for your father’s funeral last year,” he says.
She hears by the gravel in his voice that he means it. “It was two years ago,” she answers. “And there’s no need to apologize. California isn’t exactly a subway stop.”
“I sent a card, but I’m not sure if I had the right address.”
“I got it. Thank you. You know I’m not much of a letter writer.”
“Right, well, I left a voice mail, too.”
“I’m sorry, Oliver. I wasn’t in a frame of mind to talk. Please don’t take it personally.”
“Of course not,” he says. “I’m sure it wasn’t an easy time for you.”
“It was hard on Buddy. I became his legal guardian, though I’m pretty sure the judge had his doubts. Buddy moved in to my apartment because I couldn’t keep up the taxes on my father’s house.”
“Didn’t you get some inheritance? Your father’s bar must have been worth something.”
Her father’s portion of the bar—co-owned with his partner, Quincy—was willed to his stepbrother, Oliver’s father, not April. Oliver would object, if he knew. “There were liens on the property,” she says. “It wasn’t worth much. Anyway, Buddy eventually got his own place near the university with friends. He was thrilled to start school.” She looks down at her dress, smoothing out the pleats.
They park in the long, semicircular driveway of Oliver’s father’s home, behind the other cars. Oliver cuts the engine and holds the keys in his hand. “How long since we’ve seen each other?” he asks. “Five years?”
“Maybe,” she says. “I’m bad with time.”
Crisp oak leaves fall onto the windshield. It feels strange to be in a car with Oliver again, here in this once familiar driveway. It makes her want to feel like a teenager again, but instead she feels ancient.
“I ought to buy my dad a new plaque,” Oliver says, nodding at the one over the front door. THE NIGHT FAMILY is carved in slightly crooked letters. “I can’t believe he still has that one.”
“It’s beautiful,” April says. “He loves it because you made it for him.”
“Bernadette wants to know what happened to the K. It must have been dropped somewhere along the line, Ellis Island, I suppose. She says it’s not too late to change it back.”
“To Knight with a K? You’re kidding, right?”
“I think the idea of being Bernadette Night creeps her out. Bernadette Day would be fine. Bernadette Sunshine—that would suit her.”
“Oliver Knight, with a K, would be redundant. Forget chivalry. You need your darkness.”
He gives her a wry look; he’s missed that sort of remark. She avoids meeting his eye. In his lap he fingers the keys, noticing Buddy’s pocketknife. “I hear Buddy was driving your car,” he says, handing her the key chain.
“I hope you’re not thinking that makes it your fault, because this car would have been even worse in the snow.”
“You don’t know what I drove.”
“Anything would be better.”
April shifts in her seat, feeling heat behind her eyes. “Let’s eat,” she says. “I’m starved.”
Patterns of cold cuts, neatly arranged on doilies, adorn the table in the family room. April ignores the sandwiches and pastries but eats the olives one by one, spearing them with a toothpick until the bowl is empty. Beside her, Oliver spreads mustard on a roll as Bernadette arranges a dainty salad on her plate. April feels Oliver’s eyes on her but doesn’t look up. She’s not afraid of breaking down anymore. Her insides are smooth and hollow as a carved-out canoe. She’s floating. “Hey, Al, got a smoke?” she calls.
Al stands nearby, his back to them, scooping potato chips onto his plate. He is shorter and broader than his brother, Oliver, the lines in his face hard and mischievous. He glances at April over his shoulder. “Sorry,” he says, patting his chest pocket.
“Smoking again?” Oliver asks tentatively.
“No.” Al frowns. “She isn’t.”
April unscrews another container of olives, with pimientos this time, and eats them straight from the jar, licking the juice from her fingers. “Anyone got a cigarette?” she calls.
She gave up smoking years ago. No one answers. She doesn’t really want to smoke, but a dull noise in her head is getting louder, like an insect she cannot swat. She sees the fold in Oliver’s brow, knowing she has put it there. She can be kind to him one minute, cruel the next. She doesn’t know why. It’s more like reflex than choice. She glances at Bernadette. “Your fiancé is about to give me a lecture on smoking,” April says. “Can I see the rock?”
Bernadette glances down at the ring, extending her hand with ballerina grace. “I suppose we ought to announce it,” she says.
“We need good news.”
“The timing.” Oliver shakes his head.
“Anything to dilute this,” April says, glancing around the room.
“April,” Bernadette says. “Oliver’s told me how close you and Buddy were. I want you to know how awful I feel.”
“We fought a lot,” April says. A stupid response, and not true. She shoots Oliver a glance, but he looks away.
“I love that old picture of the three of you,” Bernadette says, “the one where you and Oliver are swinging Buddy by the arms and legs.”
“I don’t remember that one,” she says. When Buddy wanted tips on stealing bases, he asked their father, but when he had trouble with his math homework, he went to Oliver.
“He’ll make a good dad,” April says to Bernadette. Then April glances at Oliver, catching his eye. “He loved you,” she says, her fingers grazing his tie just below the knot. Then she steps back, arms folded, surprised to have touched him.
Oliver lowers his eyes. Bernadette caresses him, and he puts his arm around her in a gesture so natural it appears involuntary.
April backs away, taking the last few olives. She goes upstairs to an out-of-the-way bathroom that once belonged to Oliver and Al. Framed over the light switch hangs Oliver’s Eagle Scout badge, right where she remembers it. In the medicine cabinet mirror April sees that her hair, which a grade school teacher once described as sable black, has turned overnight to dull soot, overly long and unkempt. She bunches it in her fist, a handheld ponytail, and wonders how she would look bald. Shaving it off would be easier than getting a comb through it. Better yet, let a mortician deal with it. They did wonders on Buddy. Except for the subtle waxiness of his skin, April might have thought he was only asleep, and would bolt upright at any moment to laugh at the mistake.
She jolts. Bernadette stands outside the bathroom. For a moment, April sees only the hound’s-tooth, a pattern that plays tricks with her eyes.
“Oh,” April says. “Were you waiting long?”
“No,” Bernadette says.
April gathers her purse, glancing around for her brush. She feels completely scattered. Bernadette, on the other hand, strikes April as the kind of person who rarely misplaces anything. Even her face gives the impression of balance and harmony, no one feature dominating the rest. Her eyes are blue, like Oliver’s, and full of sympathy. It is impossible to dislike her. “Sorry,” April says, leaving the room. “All yours.”
“April,” Bernadette stammers. “Listen, I just want to say that I lost a sibling, too. My sister, I mean, when I was twelve. I don’t mean to say that I know how you feel, just that I’m very sorry.”
“Thank you,” April says. “And I’m sorry about your sister.”
Bernadette’s eyes well up. “Fifteen years ago.” She waves her hand dismissively.
April caresses her shoulder.
“This isn’t what I meant to happen—you consoling me.”
“It’s okay,” April says. “Do you have a picture of her?”
Bernadette hesitates, then opens her purse and shows April the only photo in her wallet. A young woman waves at the camera with stubby fingers. She has a wide, flat, freckly face; almond-shaped eyes that are deeply slanted; and almost no neck. Her tongue protrudes slightly from a goofy, affectionate grin. April is aware that Bernadette is studying her reaction.
“She looks very sweet,” April says.
“All sweetness,” says Bernadette.
“How did she die?”
“Congenital heart defect,” Bernadette says, closing her wallet. “But she’d been doing so well. My parents had just found her a job bagging groceries. It happened so fast.”
April gives her hand a squeeze. Bernadette moves into the bathroom, and April takes her leave.
Downstairs, the crowd has thinned. “Looking for a place to sit?” asks Oliver’s father, Hal, patting an empty chair beside him. Oliver leans in the kitchen door frame, sipping a glass of water.
“No,” April says. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome to stay here tonight,” Hal says.
“That’s kind,” she says. “But I’m fine.”
“You’re staying with a friend, then?”
“Right,” April says, though it must be obvious there’s no friend.
“April.” Hal shifts awkwardly. “What about the rifle?”
“What?” she says.
“Buddy’s gun, the one he hunted with.”
“The Bangor police gave me everything that was in his car. It’s still in my trunk, I guess. I haven’t touched it. His duffel bag, too.”
“I’ll take it out for you,” Hal says. “Leave it all here.”
“Thanks.” She looks at him, her father’s stepbrother, with his patient, gentle eyes. He is as different from her father as a man could be. She kisses his cheek, smooth and smelling of soap, and remembers her own father’s face, the texture of sandpaper. Aftershave and nicotine. It’s crazy to miss her father more now with Buddy gone, but since when do things make sense? She steps back. Around her people are talking, laughing, whispering in cahoots, a discordant symphony. The room contracts, the air compressing. She heads for the back door.
Out on the deck, she finds Al lighting up. “Liar,” she says, holding out her hand.
“Believe me,” he says. “You don’t want to start this filthy habit again.”
“I just want to hold it,” April says, hoping that will steady her.
“Mooch off someone else.”
It is a relief to hear Al being himself.
“Where are you staying until this thing with T.J. is settled?” he asks, taking a drag.
“You mean he packed up his things?”
“I brought everything to his friend’s house.”
“It’s not settled.”
“You said you would keep this a secret. How is it that your father found out? And now your brother?”
“You could come down to South Carolina with me,” he says. “I’ve got two more weeks of training camp.”
“Right. Me and the boys.”
“They’d love you.”
“Who would you say I was? A groupie?”
“A woman with legs like yours has no need to explain herself.” He exhales smoke over his shoulder, but the breeze blows it back in her face.
“I’ll pass,” she says. “Besides, you need to concentrate on your work. An entire column last week on Ewing’s legacy? That’s ancient history, Al. What your readers really want to know is what Pat Riley uses on his hair. I know he’s in Miami now, but surely you can still find out.”
He raises an eyebrow. “Thought you didn’t read my stuff.”
“Win or lose, there’s never a strand out of place. I’d like to know his secret.”
“Riley’s long retired. Sorry to disillusion you.” He smiles—not wryly, as usual, but gently, in a way that makes her uncomfortable. “April,” he says. It feels strange to hear him use her real name; normally he calls her Rose, his nickname for her since they were teenagers, when he used it to make fun of the awful dime-store perfume she wore. “What about Charleston?”
When she doesn’t answer, Al drops his cigarette and crushes it.
April folds her arms in front of her, staring down at the lines in the deck. “If I hadn’t gone to the police, none of this would have happened.”
“How do you figure?”
“When Buddy asked to borrow my car, I thought: Perfect, T.J. won’t look for me in Buddy’s car.”
“If Buddy had electrocuted himself shaving, you’d find a way to blame yourself for that, too.”
They stand in silence for a moment, leaning on the rail and staring through the screen door into the house. April sees someone pouring a scotch. She could go for a drink right now, a little Absolut to scorch her throat or a sweet, dark sherry to coat it.
Al sighs heavily. “No one’s accusing you, Rose. If you want to blame yourself, that’s up to you.”
“I’m serious about Charleston.”
“I know you are.”
“I’ve got a plane to catch.” He frowns. “I’ll see if I can’t scrounge up an extra ticket for the season opener. That is, if you promise to use it.”
April doesn’t feel she can promise anything at the moment, nor imagine herself paying attention to basketball. “See you, Al.”
He kisses her, on the lips as usual. It’s not a sexual thing exactly, more like a provocation. The ash on his breath stirs her craving for a cigarette. “Try not to break too many hearts on the road,” she says. He smirks and trots down the deck stairs.
She can leave, too, she thinks. Just slip away without saying good-bye, Al-style. Through the screen, she sees Oliver standing in the living room, his back to her, his posture tense. It’s true that Buddy loved him, even though they hadn’t seen each other in years. It’s normal for lives to drift apart; April expected it. Even back then, when she and Oliver used to take Buddy down to the creek to catch frogs and let them go, April understood it wouldn’t be forever.
April cannot think of any reason to stay. She goes down the steps. Wind stirs the dormant lilacs. The day has chilled, a swift cloud cover sealing off the sun. Dry leaves scramble across the gravel driveway, circling in eddies and scattering again. April has not worn a jacket.
The car’s interior is cold. As she drives, darkness sets in with a sudden, stark desolation. She longs for the gradual, lingering dusks of summer, and shivers to think of the weeks ahead, days getting shorter, nights falling abruptly.
She parks in the train station lot next to her building. When she enters the apartment, she looks for signs of T.J. Since the protection order, she hasn’t heard from him. Not even a phone call. She knows she should be relieved, but the apartment, though small, is cavernous with no one in it; she herself doesn’t count.
She walks from one room to the other. There is a grating feeling in her stomach; she is being whittled out. The bookshelf is cluttered with remnants of T.J., electronic parts she cannot identify, nails and screws in open jars, drill bits in a coffee can, green rubber bands overflowing from a White Owl cigar box, held together with masking tape. On the floor beside the television is a friend’s disemboweled VCR, dusty and piled with copies of the New York Post. She once made the mistake of throwing some away. Not twice. She considers taking T.J.’s discarded gadgets and tossing them out the window. She might actually do it if she could stay with the thought long enough.
She knows which taxi dispatcher is working downstairs by the volume of his radio. Today it is Henry, half deaf. She closes the kitchen window and goes to the rear of the apartment, out onto the fire escape where she cannot hear the voices. She takes a breath. A cigarette would do the trick. Or bourbon. But she doesn’t really want either. The sky is heavy with rain, though none falls. She hears a distant ambulance, teenagers breaking bottles on the corner, an incessant car alarm, all gradually drowned out by the approach of the 6:42 lumbering into the station, screeching as it comes to a halt. She hears the air brakes release a breath, doors gliding open, and imagines the commuters pouring out.
April has always liked her apartment. She is accustomed to the cups rattling in the cabinets and the furniture inching around. The consistency of the schedule soothes her. While the front of the apartment faces the platform, the back is shrouded by scrawny elms, holdouts against disease. When in leaf, they partially conceal a McDonald’s parking lot beyond.
As the sound of the train grows faint, April hears her wind chime stir in the cool night air. The chime is constructed of shells she and Oliver found on the beach. He made the mobile for her eighteenth birthday—to remind her, he said, of her dream to live by the sea. That was not a dream she thought about anymore. To get through each day was enough. Over the years, she stopped noticing the chime altogether. Until now. There is no room in April’s brain for the fact that Oliver has moved back east. It seems as implausible as Buddy’s death. Surely she will wake up tomorrow and find that no part of this day was real.
Excerpted from April & Oliver by Callahan, Tess Copyright © 2009 by Callahan, Tess. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
A painter, teacher and mother of twins, Tess Callahan has written for Cottonwood, The Stylus Anthology: 1950-2000, The Boston College Magazine, New York Newsday and elsewhere through syndication. When not exploring the complex motivations of intriguing characters (in her personal life and in her work), she finds nourishment and sustenance in periodic travels to wild, austere landscapes around the world. Tess has an MFA in Fiction from Bennington College. April & Oliver is her first novel.
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