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Authors: Laura McNeal

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BOOK: Crushed
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Chapter 22

Another Point of View

Clyde had no control over the most important things in his life—the growth of the cancerous nodules within his mother's body, for example, or who Audrey Reed spent her time with—but here, working with the clay and the wheel in Mrs. Arboneaux's room, the results were completely his own doing.

Spending his lunch hours in Mrs. Arboneaux's room had been Clyde's idea, but his mother was the reason behind it. One day, just before school started, she'd been thumbing through a thick-papered catalog and had come upon a blue-and-pink vase with a slight hourglass shape. After staring at it for a full minute, she'd shown it to Clyde and said, “There is the perfect vase for the first lilacs of spring.” Then, with a wry little smile, she'd added, “And it's only one hundred and seventy-nine dollars.”

Clyde regarded the photo. It was nice, he guessed, but a hundred and seventy-nine dollars? “Kinda pricey,” he said. His mother had nodded and continued browsing. A few days later, seeing one of Mrs. Arboneaux's students carrying a vase around, Clyde wondered if he couldn't make one himself, and had paid the art teacher a visit.

“So you want to throw pots?” Mrs. Arboneaux had said. When Clyde had nodded, she'd said, “Any particular kind of pot?”

From his wallet he'd unfolded the page he'd torn from the catalog and had handed it to the teacher.

Mrs. Arboneaux had laughed, but it wasn't a skeptical laugh. It was merely a laugh of pleasant astonishment. “Well,” she'd said, “at least there are no spouts or handles.” She kept smiling as she looked directly at Clyde. “Who's this for?”

Clyde looked down.

“Is this for your mother?”

He kept his eyes lowered.

“Okay,” Mrs. Arboneaux said. “When do you need it?”

“Before the lilacs,” Clyde had said, in such a low voice he had to repeat it.

“Ah,” Mrs. Arboneaux said. “Well, we might have time, then.”

Two months had passed and Clyde was making solid progress—he'd learned how to knead his clay, center it, and throw it into a basic rough cylinder—but he was having a hard time re-creating the curves of the vase (“bellying out,” Mrs. Arboneaux called it). He was supposed to try to let his inner and outer hands pinch the clay lightly, but not too lightly, and the way to do that, Mrs. Arboneaux said, was “to relax and practice, practice, practice.”

And so today Clyde had been sitting at the potter's wheel in Mrs. Arboneaux's room, wet clay running smoothly through his hands while his right foot steadily pumped the wheel. One hand was slipped into the interior of the pot; two fingers of the other hand ran along the outside base of the clay. To pull up the walls of the pot, he began gradually to exert a pinching pressure between his inside and outside hands.

When he'd sat down at the wheel today, he'd noticed one of Audrey Reed's friends—the pale, pretty one with the arctic blue eyes—glance in at him, and he'd immediately wondered what she called him in her mind. “Mummy”? “Freak”? “The Croakster”? Because whatever term she used, Audrey Reed would use. He thought of the word written on the front of Audrey's green notebook:
Hopeless. Hopeless hopeless hopeless.
When he'd had to quit Pop Warner because of his mother's cancer, he'd told his father he wanted to keep playing because he wanted to play high school football, and his father had said, “Sometimes you have to put your hopes in a safe place and come back to them another day”—which had made no sense at all to Clyde, because how could you play football later if you didn't learn how to play football now? It was more or less the same with Audrey Reed. She was rich now and she'd be rich later, so what was the point of stashing hopes in a safe place?

He thought of the way Audrey Reed's face had lit up the day before when she'd seen the new boy in the hallway.

The easy way the new boy talked to her.

Clyde pinched the clay a little tighter, pumped the wheel a little faster.

The way, as Clyde had passed, she hadn't even seen him.

His hands pinched tighter, the clay thinned in his hands and rose and then, suddenly, it collapsed. He dropped his head, took a deep breath, and let the wheel coast to a stop. He sat slumped over with his eyes closed for a few seconds, then—he didn't know why—he pushed the clay together and slammed it to the floor, where it flattened and sat.

The abject mass,
Clyde thought, and as he raised his eyes from it, he sensed movement at the classroom door, though when he looked, there was no one there.

Chapter 23

Transported

It was 6:57 that night, and Wickham was due at seven.

Audrey stood before the full-length mirror in her bathroom and wondered where they were going to eat and whether she was too dressed-up. She'd impulsively bought an outfit that afternoon: new shoes, new hose, new earrings, and a thin black spaghetti-strap knit dress. There was something about the cut that made her seem gracefully slender instead of depressingly flat-chested.

6:58.

Audrey turned sideways and studied her reflection. She'd read in a fashion self-help book that thin girls, by dispensing with bras, could get away with “subtle nipple exposure.” She turned to the side to see if she was, indeed, getting away with it. She'd bought a matching beaded cardigan to go with the dress—“the modesty cardigan,” as she thought of it. She put it on, thinking that Oggy would never have approved of this dress.

6:59, and a set of headlights swept into the driveway.

Audrey stared again at the mirror, and for the first time she could remember, she felt fine about what she saw. Besides, Oggy was in Germany. She took off the cardigan.

When the doorbell rang, Audrey grabbed the cardigan, headed downstairs, and opened the door. Wickham Hill had his back to her; he was staring out at the grounds. As he turned around, his eyes slowly ran down to her shoes, and up again.

“My God,” he softly drawled. “I knew you were great-looking, but I didn't know you were ravishing.”

A happy laugh slipped from Audrey. “You're not looking too bad yourself,” she said, and felt herself immediately begin to color, though Wickham Hill did not.

“Let me grab my bag,” she added.

Wickham Hill stepped into the entry and was peering into the library when Audrey reappeared wearing her winter coat. “Great library,” he said, then glanced beyond her. “Should we say something to your dad?”

“Not here. He's working late.” She began pushing buttons on the alarm keypad; then, after punching the last number, she said, “Okay. We've got eight seconds to vaminose.”

Outside, idling under the portico, was a green-and-white taxi.

Wickham held the back door open and slid in after her.

“This is nice,” Audrey said as the taxi pulled slowly away, “but you . . .”

“My mother thinks I drive too fast,” Wickham said, “so she set up an account for me with the cab company.” He didn't look at her when he said this, but turned now and smiled. “I thought I'd hate it, but it's actually not so bad. At least it's all warmed up for you when you get in.”

Wickham Hill settled back into the seat, and Audrey gazed out the window and was glad when he reached forward to take her hand. “Well, that's one mystery solved,” she said, thinking that now she could tell Lea and C.C. that Wickham wasn't the sort of guy who got rides, but the sort who paid for them.

“Which mystery's that?”

“How you found yourself talking to a Nigerian taxi driver about his little boy.”

Wickham leaned forward and whispered, “Didn't know that was a mystery,” and gave her a little kiss, received tinglingly at the earlobe. “Any more mysteries you want solved?”

Actually, there were quite a few, but she wasn't going to ask, so she laughed and said, “Just one. Where're we going?”

The restaurant was called Le Bistro. It was a converted cottage with small rooms, soft lights, and wooden floors. It smelled like rosemary. Audrey and Wickham were shown to a secluded table next to a small fireplace. “My mother suggested I reserve this table,” Wickham said. “I guess she and my father always asked for it.”

Audrey's gaze moved from the fire to Wickham, whose face in the firelight had the same radiant glow she'd seen the first time she'd laid eyes on him as he walked into Mrs. Leacock's classroom.

“Très romantique,”
she said, and Wickham himself seemed pleased. His gaze slid away, though, when she said, “Did your parents come here before or after they were married?”

“Before, mostly,” he said as the waiter arrived with menus.

Audrey had slipped on the modesty cardigan before entering the restaurant, but it was warm next to the fire, so she slipped it off.

In a mock-solemn voice, Wickham Hill said, “I don't know what large sums were paid for that dress, but I just want you to know it was money well spent.”

Audrey smiled. The fire shifted and popped. “I was window-shopping at Veni, Vidi, Emi,” she said. “Or at least I thought I was until I saw this dress.”

“Veni, Vidi, Emi?”

Audrey smiled. “I came, I saw, I purchased.”

Wickham nodded and let his eyes move over her. “You know what's funny? When I imagined coming here with you, I pictured you wearing that exact color.”

“Which either makes you telepathic or me predictable.” He looked up from buttering a roll. “You're not at all predictable.”

“I'm not?”

He shook his head no. “For example, I didn't think you'd have dinner with me, and here you are.”

This was interesting to Audrey, and completely unbelievable. “Why didn't you think I'd have dinner with you?”

“I don't know. When I first saw you, you just seemed so . . . beautiful and contained.” His face, tight with concentration, relaxed. “Now you just seem beautiful.”

Audrey lowered her eyes. “I'm not, though.”

“Argue all you want,” Wickham said, “but my mind's made up.”

They talked easily then, their conversation straying this way and that as men in black suits appeared with food and disappeared with empty dishes. She hardly tasted what she ate—it was all she could do not to just put down her knife and fork and sit listening to Wickham Hill, and looking at him.

After dinner, Audrey had bread pudding (“a guilty pleasure,” she called it, and he said he hoped there were others). Wickham had a glass of vintage port (after discreetly showing a doctored ID indicating his age as twenty-one) before he settled the bill by signing on his father's account.

On the way home, in the cozy privacy of another taxi, Wickham Hill slid his arm around Audrey, who instinctively leaned into his hold. A few seconds passed and then Audrey said, “If ever in my life I'm a little sad, I'm going to think back to that table by the fire.”

His arm tightened slightly, and his hand, moving to the edge of her breast, thrilled her nerves.

“Me too,” he said in a low voice, almost a whisper. As he turned and leaned close to her, Audrey smelled the sugary sweetness and felt her lips tingling even before his touched hers. When his hand lightly slid her dress strap down her shoulder and gently peeled the dress away from one breast, she felt a surge of almost greedy desire move through her—a desire that later would make her feel ashamed but now, as it flooded through her, seemed irresistible, and wonderful.

Chapter 24

Two Brief, Unsettling Conversations

When Audrey returned home, she was surprised to see a light coming from her father's study, and peered in. Her father had his back to her and was standing over one of his cherrywood file cabinets, dropping handfuls of paper into a shopping bag at his feet. He was still wearing his work clothes—gray slacks, a white shirt, burgundy suspenders—but his gray sports coat hung from one of a row of cherrywood pegs on the wall.

“Hi,” Audrey said.

Her father wheeled around quickly, and the startled look that crossed his face was of somebody who'd just been caught at something. But then, seeing her, his face visibly relaxed. “Oh, hi, Polliwog. You gave me a start.”

He gave her dress a quick look, and she was glad she'd slipped the modesty sweater back on. Her father had set a gooseneck lamp on top of the cabinet and adjusted it to crane down and shine on the open files, but its harsh light shone on him, too. He looked old to her, old and worried. “What're you doing?” she said.

“Nothing much. You weren't home, so I decided to clean out some old files.”

Audrey nodded as if this made perfect sense, though it didn't. She glanced down at the shopping bags stuffed with papers. The nearest one read VENI, VIDI, EMI.

“So how was dinner with the new boy?” he asked.

“Good,” Audrey said, trying to sound more or less businesslike, which was the way her father liked her to talk about her personal life. “If I'd known you were still up, I'd have brought him in to meet you. You'd like him. He's pretty impressive.”

“Next time,” her father said, and regarded her. “Presuming there will be a next time.”

Audrey made a point of not lowering her eyes. She hoped she wasn't blushing. “I don't know,” she said. “It seems possible.”

“Ah,” her father said in a tone Audrey recognized as carefully neutral.

They were both quiet then, and it seemed to Audrey that her father was ready to resume his file-cleaning work. She yawned, said, “ 'Night, Dad,” and was nearly out the door when her father said, “Audrey?”

It was the voice he used when there was something he felt he needed to talk to her about, but didn't want to. It took him a moment to speak, and when he did, he was almost apologetic. “Look, when I got these shopping bags out of the pantry, I couldn't help seeing the receipts.”

Audrey was relieved he wasn't talking about her responsibility to herself and her future, all that stuff—but still, his bringing up money was weird enough. He'd never brought up money before. She didn't know what to say, so she said, “Did I spend too much?”

“No, no, it's not that,” her father said quickly. “It's nothing you did.” His gaze floated away from her. “It's just that, right now, temporarily, for just a little while . . .” He didn't finish the sentence.

“I can cut down,” Audrey said quickly. “I don't need new stuff.” She shrugged and smiled. “New stuff is just, you know, new stuff.”

Her father was nodding, but he still kept his eyes averted from hers.

“I can take the new dress and stuff back,” Audrey offered.

Her father shook his head vaguely. “You don't have to do that,” he said, which Audrey understood was different than telling her not to.

“It's no problem,” Audrey said, but the truth was, she had no idea whether it was a problem or not. She'd never returned an article of clothing in her life. Oggy always did that if something didn't fit or turned out to be of poor quality. Returning something because you couldn't afford it seemed a different matter altogether.

Half a mile away, Wickham Hill came home to find his mother sitting at the kitchen table with a magazine and a cup of tea—in theory a comforting scene, but he saw at once that the tea had gone cold and that she wasn't reading the magazine. Crumpled tissues lay nearby.

“What?” Wickham said. His mother glanced up at him, then tugged her earlobe and looked away. Whenever his mother felt fragile, she would begin the earlobe-tugging. Wickham sat down at the table and, more softly now, said, “What?”

His mother was not a plain woman, and when she was happy, she seemed beautiful to Wickham, but tonight she'd been crying, and her washed-out face and runny nose and red eyes gave her a hapless aspect. She dabbed at her nose, took a deep breath, and said, “James called.”

Dr. Yates. His actual but unofficial father.

Wickham waited.

His mother opened her mouth, breathed in, breathed out. “He said he'd been getting our bills.” Another deep breath. “He said he'd keep paying them, up to a thousand dollars a month for the next three months. I told him I didn't care about the money, I just wanted to see him, but it was as if he didn't hear me. He just said that after three months, the amount he'd pay would go down by one hundred dollars a month.” Another pause and earlobe tug. “He called it a one-year weaning period.”

Wickham stared at the tablecloth. It was red-and-white gingham, the kind you saw in reassuring depictions of cheerful American kitchens. “What about the house?” he said. “Can we stay in the house?”

“He said that after nine months, we'd receive a ninety-day notice to vacate.” Pause, earlobe tug. “He was using his business voice. I've heard him use it with other people lots of times. But he'd never used it with me.”

Wickham worked his jaw and with low vehemence said, “And people thought
I
was the bastard.”

Quietly his mother said, “No. This isn't him. This is someone else. This is what his horrible wife and that horrible town have turned him into.”

These words had a softening effect on Wickham, toward his mother if not his father. He never touched his mother, never took her hand or kissed her, and though he wouldn't now, he wanted to. He wanted to lean forward and kiss her on the cheek before he spoke. Instead, he just used his gentlest voice to say, “No, this is him, Mom, and nobody made him him but him.”

Upstairs, Wickham took down his father's boyhood dictionary and skimmed through the “W” section until he found the word he wanted:

wean . . .
v.t.
1 :
To accustom (as a child or other young animal) to loss of mother's milk.
2 :
Hence, to detach the affections of; to reconcile to a severance—as “to wean one from a life of ease.”

Wickham opened the nearest window and, with a quick sidearm toss, sent the dictionary sailing out into the darkness. He heard a dull
thump-shush
as it hit the ground and skidded onto the driveway.

Weaning.

It was just like the bastard to find the one word that fit the circumstance more insultingly than any other in the English language.

BOOK: Crushed
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