A Short Story by Ruth Johnson
Edward Markson was sailing down the highway. Well, not sailing, because that would imply he was speeding, which he would never do. Some talk radio host was blaring in the background, but he wasn’t listening; he already had his own opinions. He only listened to feel like he was an authentic conservative. He pushed a button on the dash, turning off the radio. He could only handle so many annoying voices. He looked at the clock. 10:24 AM. Two more hours to go. And another seven hour drive back. He was tempted to never let any of his other kids move as far away as their older sister. But still, it gave him a chance to be out of the house. Not that he didn’t like the house; it was just...nice to get away sometimes. Besides, school had been good for Sam. She was growing up; being responsible...she had even met a nice boy. Admittedly, Edward had never met the boy, but he trusted his daughter’s opinion; she was sensible enough, like he had been when he was her age. According to Sam, who had, at the insistence of her mother, told them everything about the boy, barring his medical history, his name was Arthur. He was a scrawny 5’3”, had short brown hair, and wore glasses that made him like the aardvark of the same name. He was smart, he was interested in computers, and he made Sam happy. So he guessed it was okay. For now.
Arthur wasn’t actually a boy. Or short. Or a brunette, actually. Arthur was smart, though. But she was only interested in computers when doing research or when she was writing or surfing the net. She didn’t want to study computers. And her name was Audrey, not Arthur. “Arthur” was an alias Sam had created so she could discuss her relationship with her parents without the two of them knowing that she was, in fact, going against everything they believed in.
But today was the day Sam had planned to tell them, or, at the very least, her father. She wasn’t sure how he would take it. Her mother would probably collapse in a fit of Jesus, believing that her daughter was going straight to hell. She had always wondered if she should feel slightly insulted by that. Potential damnation by her own mother!
But her mother couldn’t pick her up. She had to stay and look after her younger siblings. It was just her dad. She had figured that they already fought on the way home, why not stop discussing such things in the abstract and make them concrete?
Sam met Audrey for breakfast. Audrey was all smiles and big eyes, ready to charm the pants off Edward. Charming pants off mode was never Audrey’s default, and one Sam had only seen once, so she was already a little skittish. She was still getting used to this wonderful thing they had created, and thus often blindsided by the new sides of Audrey she kept discovering. While she wanted Audrey to meet her father, she wasn’t sure if now was the best time.
“I’ve been thinking. Maybe we should wait until next semester to do this.” Sam then stuffed a bite of egg nervously into her mouth, and just chewed, first slowly, then quickly, then slowly again.
Audrey smirked, while she sprinkled sugar into her oatmeal. “Do what? Eat breakfast together?”
Sam choked on her eggs, and had to take a gulp from her glass of water. “You know that isn’t what I mean.”
“What are you worried about?” Audrey was genuine this time, but her eyes radiated confusion, not concern.
“I...I just....I don’t know how he’ll react.” Sam took a bite of her sausage, and then made a face. They never could get those awful things cooked just right.
“Ah.” She went back to eating her oatmeal.
“Like, what if he refuses to take me home?”
“Mmm?” Audrey was looking up at the ceiling of the dining hall, with its magnificent arches. She was paying attention, but she had long ago mastered thinking and looking.
“He could do that...he could just make me stay here all summer.” At this point, Sam was twitching. Her foot tapped on the ground, and her she played with her fork, tipping it on its side and laying it back down on the table.
Audrey caught her hand, held it for a while, either because she detected distress or because the constant noise was bothering her. “That would cost money. If he’s as stingy as you are, that isn’t going to happen.”
“I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. Just that it’s a thing.” Sam smiled at that. But then, her brow started to furrow. Again. Audrey groaned a little bit inwardly. Sam did not notice this.
“What if he doesn’t let me come back?”
“Sam, if he’s anything like you, I doubt that would happen.”
“Never mind. And besides, he can take it.”
Sam thought about this for a second, then shook her head. “Maybe we should tell your parents!”
Audrey rolled her eyes, but with just a bit of grief. “We did. They didn’t believe it.”
“Tell them again?”
Audrey snorted as she stood up to take her bowl back. Sam followed her.
“Look,” she said while placing the bowl not so gently in the sink, “if you don’t want to do this, I won’t make you.”
“Thank you.” A strange relief settled over Sam. Not a good relief, though.
“I really wanted to meet him, though.”
“Can I at least help you bring your things down to the car?” Audrey gave a smile, which did not quite reach her eyes.
“S...sure.” Sam said. Was this going to end well? She had no idea.
When Edward pulled into the parking lot, the sun was shining. Birds were singing. It was just another spring day. Usually, he had to call Sam to get her attention. But she was waiting for him, with boxes in her arms. Beside her was a tall girl with long, dark hair. Her arms were full of boxes, too. One of her friends, he guessed.
“Dad!” Sam skipped towards her as best she could with her arms full. She was four again, and he was back from a trip. But now, it was the other way around. Except he was fifty-four, and most definitely not a toddler, like she had been, with her short hair and Wishbone plush.
“Sam,” he said with a smile. “Let me get the trunk open before you drop those.” After the trunk was opened, they tucked the boxes into the car. They hugged for a moment, before Sam broke away.
“Dad, this is Audrey O’Dale. She’s a good friend of mine.”
“Nice to meet you,” he said, shaking hands with the tall girl.
“The same,” she said with a smile.
“Where’s this Arthur I’ve heard so much about?”
The tall girl, Audrey, rolled her eyes heavenward as if that was the most ridiculous thing she had ever heard. Because it was.
“Mr. Markson...I’m Arthur.”
Edward blinked, trying to take that in. She must be joking. He began to laugh. She didn’t. “You’re not serious, are you?” The girl simply smiled. “Elinor? She is joking, right?”
Edward looked heavenward and thanked the Lord he was better at handling stress than his wife. He then leaned against the trunk. He felt oddly faint. Maybe he was wrong. If his head hadn’t been down, he would have seen Audrey give his daughter a look which said, “That’s how you’re just like your father, dear.”
He didn’t like it, Sam could tell. He thought they were joking. Or he thought she was joking. They always thought that. She quietly wondered why she hadn’t continued the lie; but she had always failed miserably telling big lies to her parents. Sam looked at him. She wished her father had been shorter than her, for a moment. Then she realized that that would have made him a Hobbit, which would be no good. So she just tried to look into his eyes and guess what he was thinking. She could never read his mind, and she had always hated that. His face looked more confused than angry, though, with his eyebrows stitched together, and his mouth furrowed in a shape that wasn’t quite a scowl. That was good, she guessed. Then he raised his head to look at the two of them. Sam felt like she was going to throw up.
“We were planning on going to lunch after we packed the car...Audrey, would you like to come with?”
“Of course.” Audrey smiled gracefully. Her near-Pavlovian sense of Southern hospitality had kicked right in. Sam nearly started hyperventilating. She had said yes! She didn’t understand, food was the web in which Sam’s family entangled people’s lives! They went to a small Chinese place in town. The decor was very kitschy, with lots of jade dragons and gold Buddha’s, but the people were nice. And the food was good. Unfortunately, Sam didn’t try much; she felt too sick. She just stared at her soup, thinking about it.
“So...Audrey. What are you studying?” Sam gulped the spoonful of broth from her weak soup she had been contemplating. It burned. When she was nervous, she ate. It was usually a bad idea.
“Creative Writing and Political Science.”
“So, not computers.”
She gave a little laugh. “No. I love computers, but I don’t have the temperament for working on them all day. I hear you do, though.”
“Mmm.” He took a bite of his chicken.
Everything grew quiet after that, other than a few questions. He asked her where she was from. North Carolina, she said. Sam’s family had no relatives there, so it lacked significance. It was mostly small talk until the end of the meal. Edward had never been good at small talk. Neither was Audrey. That’s why Sam, with all of her nervous foibles, got along so well with both of them. Just not when they were together, apparently. Audrey paid her own way. Edward didn’t object. He usually did. They left the restaurant. It was bright outside. Edward and Audrey both put on their sunglasses. Sam just squinted. They stood there for a few minutes, sweating in the heat, until, finally, Audrey took the initiative.
“Well, I guess you both want to get on the road. You don’t have to worry about taking me to campus. I’d like to walk back.” And with that, she leaned down to give Sam a short kiss, said her goodbyes, and began to walk away, confidently shaken.
“See you next semester!” Sam called after her. It was pathetic, she knew. But it was all she could think of to say. Audrey turned around and just nodded. Edward, feeling awkward and angry, started walking towards the car. But Sam just waited, watching her until she went down a hill and vanished. The last thing she saw of Audrey was a few strands of her hair tangling in the wind. Sam’s phone beeped, a funny Star Trek transporter sound which harkened back to the days when Sam and Edward could enjoy something together without an argument. It was a text. A smiley was all the message was. Maybe it meant she was sorry, maybe she thought it had been fun. Sam never asked her. They would never speak of that day. Sam turned and walked towards the car. She looked at Edward as she climbed inside. He didn’t speak.
And so Sam didn’t speak.
Finally, he spoke. “Let’s not tell your mother about this.” That was it. Then he turned on the engine and with it the radio. One of his talk radio hosts was speaking about the evils of gay marriage. Timely, Sam thought.
This could all be seen as a fantastic failure. Sam certainly thought it was. Audrey never hinted to her about her feelings on the matter. Sam wondered if other, similar secrets had been kept. If other secret-keepers who had failed had survived.
But that only made her feel worse.
On the way back home, they didn’t speak. All the way home. All seven hours. Sam checked her phone every now and then. Nothing. Sam decided to assume that Audrey was waiting for her to respond. Sam looked up at the stars. They weren’t her stars. They were almost back home. They were her dad’s stars. But when she looked again, they weren’t stars at all...they were thin, streaky points of light. Sam rubbed at her eyes. She wasn’t going to be the one who broke first. It’s only three months, she considered.
When they got home, her mother asked about Arthur. Sam, unconvincingly, said he was fine. And for the first time in her life, her father nodded and lied with her.
The secret was kept again.