It was strangely ironic that on the second day I stayed with the girls Joanie hauled out the family album again for some reason. She left it on the ottoman in the living-room when she was done with it, where I was sharply aware of its presence every time I went through the room, though I couldn’t bring myself to go near it or pick it up.
That snapshot haunted me; it stayed in my mind no matter what part of the house I was in. I knew it by heart, even though I’d only seen it once; even to the shape of the trees behind us and the double power line draped across one corner of the sky in the background. Mike in the foreground, looking like—well, just Mike, as I’d known him so well; and a little behind him, me, with an uncertain expression that seemed to say that I wasn’t sure about being there, and perhaps wasn’t sure about anything at all, but really just meant that the camera had caught me when I wasn’t expecting it.
I remembered thinking when I had first looked at it, sitting on the edge of Alice’s bed with the album in my lap, how it would have become just an awkward footnote to the family history if Mike had lived through the war, after he’d met some other girl and married her—maybe even removed from the album eventually to make room for more relevant pictures. I’d have been something hard to categorize, a piece of a puzzle that had been cut out but didn’t end up fitting anywhere after all.
All that had changed, of course, when Mike was shot down over Germany. The snapshot wasn’t part of an ongoing story anymore; it came from a closed chapter. Like all the family pictures in the album from before Mrs. Ryland died, which before had been just common everyday do-you-remember snapshots, but were now precious relics haloed with all the happy memories her husband and children had of her. That picture of us would mellow with years and memories, all its associations softened and forgotten until the girl in the picture didn’t really matter anymore. To Alice and Joanie’s children she would merely be an unknown face beside the strangely young-looking uncle they had never known.
But now—what was it now? What would it mean now?
I didn’t know what anything meant now; I didn’t know where I fit or what I would be now. I wanted to get away—a little panicky feeling came over me sometimes when I stepped into the hall alone, in this house where I’d learned to belong and yet couldn’t really belong now.
It was Friday night when the girls were helping me set the table that we heard the front door open and shut. I knew it was Robert, and so did they—both of them dropped what they were doing and rushed into the hall to meet him. I put down the silverware, the knives sliding with a cold little chinking from my hand onto the tablecloth; listening to their muffled squeals and laughter. I followed them slowly, approached the doorway and stopped there, inside, watching. I was only a babysitter, a sometime housekeeper, a sympathetic neighbor. I wasn’t a part of this family, no matter how close to them I’d become.
The girls were each under one of their father’s arms, wrinkling his coat and crushing the bows in their hair, little Joanie half hidden by the raincoat draped over his left arm. I didn’t hear what they said at first; my hearing seemed to have gone blank for that first moment while I was coming from the table.
“But where did you go, anyway, Daddy?” said Alice, trying to straighten her hair-ribbon without letting go of him. “You never told us.”
“Well,” said Robert, “I’ll tell you. I’ve been in Washington.”
He was still in the hall—hadn’t even put his raincoat down yet. I had thought he might wait to tell them a little later, sat them down in the living-room perhaps, in the methodical way he usually did things. But I saw now he wouldn’t. He couldn’t wait with something like this.
“That call I had at the office last week,” he said, “was from the War Department, and that’s what I had to go to Washington about.”
Alice pulled back, the color blanched from her face and her eyes large. “Daddy, you’re not going in the army?”
“No! No, no,” he said. “It’s something entirely different. It’s—”
He paused a minute, searching for the words. And I suddenly had a small, funny ache in my throat, that grew tighter as I tried to fight it. I didn’t have any reason to cry, but the ache came anyway.
“It doesn’t always happen this way,” said Robert. “It—hardly ever happens at all. But it turns out, we were some of the lucky ones.” He smiled, a strange, bright-eyed smile that looked like something he had forgotten how to do.
“What doesn’t happen?” said Alice. She still looked half fearful; Joanie only looked puzzled.
“That a soldier reported missing in action turns out to be alive after all.”
He looked from one of them to the other. “Your brother Mike is alive, and he’s coming home.”
I turned my head and looked down at the dining-room carpet. Somehow I felt I couldn’t look at any of their faces just then; the joy of that moment was too precious for an outsider to see. Or maybe I felt it would hurt me somehow, the way the girls’ first incoherent chorus of cries and exclamations did.
“Dad, are you—sure?” said Alice with a little hysterical sound in her voice. “Absolutely sure? I mean—”
“Absolutely. I saw him in the hospital in Washington, and talked to him—he said to tell you two he loves you and can’t wait to see you again.”
“Why is he in the hospital?” Joanie’s small round face was uncertain, as if her first excitement had received a chill.
“Well, he was hurt, Joanie, when his plane crashed. He—he won’t be able to walk without crutches…probably for a long time. But he’s getting better.”
“When will he be home? Can we see him?” Alice’s words flashed rapidly.
“Not for a few weeks still, but you can write to him, and we can telephone long-distance the day after tomorrow.”
Over the clamor of their next hundred questions, Robert looked over at me for the first time, and smiled; that happy, slightly strained smile—a younger smile than any he had used in the past six months, but it marked more strongly how much older he had grown since the last time he had cause to use it. And I had to smile, too, no matter how lost and strange and knotted-up I felt inside.
“Supper will be ready in a few minutes,” I said.
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